Finding a Teacher

Finding a Teacher:
Shopping, Dating or Long-Term Relationship?


Rosemary Jeanes Antze

There is a saying in Indian tradition that when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Can this really happen today or is it just another obsolete formula? I remember a time when selecting a pair of running shoes or a box of cereal was a simple matter. Now there are so many variations, so much hype, with old products repackaged and reinterpreted to appeal to every consumer. How does yoga fit into our consumer world of so-called free choice?

In recent years the occasional student has come to me saying, “I’ve been looking for the one teacher, and I believe it’s you!” How flattering for the moment, but curious to hear when we’ve barely met. What is even more interesting, however, is that these students tend disappear almost as quickly as they appear. On the other hand, many others begin classes tentatively at first, not even sure if yoga is for them. Then gradually, as practice becomes a helpful support in their lives, they become deeply committed to yoga.

One of the central meanings of yoga is indeed “relationship,” a linking of one thing with another — mind with body, an individual with the deeper self, each of us with something higher. The teacher-student relationship can be understood as an analogue to more personal and internal links. Over time, cultivating openness and trust between teacher and student influences the quality of other more metaphysical relationships, as well as that essential core of our relationship with the world — our relationship with our selves.

So here lies the dilemma which strode boldly into the spotlight with the recent yoga show in Toronto. Can one “shop” for such a relationship? Does “tasting” different styles and teachers really help us along the path? I wonder if the consumer market can provide the means for entering into a study and discipline which is more about the student than the teacher, where the techniques of yoga are not possessions but tools for transformation. How do we find the teacher who makes this possible? I’m not sure we can get there by savvy shopping or “playing the field.”

One effect of yoga’s popularity is that many people try to “get it” by sampling every possible approach, taking classes here and there. In this regard, it is helpful to remember that Patanjali’s first definition of yoga: to focus the mind in a chosen direction and to sustain that focus. So my inclination is to counsel students to stay with their chosen teacher, to complete one program fully before seeking another, in order to avoid confusion. This is also a sound reason to encourage students to sign up for a term of classes rather than opting for drop-in classes.

Another conundrum occurs when people seeking a particular type of yoga assume that each teacher in that tradition will be the same. It has been interesting to watch my teacher, TKV Desikachar, directing people to study with different teachers in his lineage depending on personality and interest. Here the medium is not the method, but a relationship that brings the appropriate teaching.

So what are the essentials of a “good” teacher? Desikachar has suggested these include accessibility, availability and acceptance.

This idea of acceptance is key. Of course there are so many technical aspects of yoga that a well-trained teacher needs to know and transmit accurately. Yet these are not sufficient. Behind the physical postures and breathing practices lies the intention, why we practice. With my students I try to convey that the key to practice lies not in the perfection of pose, but in the quality of attention and the discoveries it brings.

At first students can be caught up in doing everything correctly, asking, “What should I feel when I do this pose? Where will I feel the stretch? Will this help me strengthen my back? Can you tell me what this pose will do for me?”
“Try it and see what you observe,” I suggest. It is often quite a journey to bring them to a place where they can simply carry out a movement and notice its effects. The incorporation of reflection and observation into the act of doing becomes a milestone. When yoga practice becomes a teaching itself the issue is no longer, “Is this right, is that right?” Rather it shifts to “Am I paying attention?”

Yoga leads us to a place where we recognize and honour our own experience. Acceptance and trust then become the cornerstones of right-effort. Recently a new student experiencing considerable tension around her shoulders found it hard to believe she would ever make progress without trying so hard. Her first desire was to move into a more “advanced” class. Yet her challenge was not to do more, rather to “do” less. Gradually, over several weeks, she began to let go of tension and negative habits in order to find new, more beneficial patterns in the body — to shed the non-essential in order to find new possibilities of ease. As she became more accepting, her body also began to change and her scepticism turned to trust.

Often experiencing suffering and perceiving its manifestations are the crucial first steps on a path of positive change. Yet none of this happens instantly. Only with time and perseverance do the teachings of yoga have an impact. A good teacher-student relationship can help us to grow in patience and persistence.

Another special feature of yoga as relationship is that it is a two-way exchange. I often experience extraordinary moments of learning in teaching — about my students, about myself, about human nature. At those times when teaching feels a weighty responsibility, I recall and am buoyed up by the remarks of one of my students: “Rosemary, I feel it’s my job to make you the best possible teacher!” This kind of mutual support is so encouraging: the drawing out of knowledge according to interest and need is a real joy. Open and willing students certainly hold the balance in any teaching-learning relationship.

We often travel far and wide searching for something that is right under our noses, within ourselves. Yet this is what yoga is leading us towards: accepting and being present in the here and now. Perhaps all the external trappings of the consumer world that are now attaching themselves to yoga are more obstacles than aids to cultivating this presence. My own journey has taken me both far and near. Travelling can certainly be fun and expand our horizons. Yet as time goes by I become convinced that the most important elements of practice, study and reflection are those we do close to home. So perhaps the best approach is to look next-door, in your own community, for someone you can see regularly rather than just at special events.

Today there are so many choices in yoga available close at hand. Looking carefully still helps us to find a teacher who is sufficiently well versed and mature enough to be able to teach authentically from her own experience. But this is only a first step. The next is allowing the relationship to develop so that the benefits of yoga gradually appear. Then our shopping days are over and we begin to cultivate acceptance in order to move forward with grace and ease.

© Rosemary Jeanes Antze
First published in Kawartha Yoga Views & News, winter 2003