yoga · yoga in Mexico · yoga teaching

Finding a good yoga teacher and being a good yoga student

There was recently a post on Elephant Journal on how to find a good yoga teacher. Some highlights were:

  • Trust your instincts
  • Look for someone with clear thinking and a depth of knowledge
  • … who continues on the path of studying (they have a teacher, self-practice, etc.)
  • … who is balanced, contented, patient
  • … who is well-grounded
  • … who does not call themselves a ‘guru’
  • … who encourages and allows you to keep your heart open
  • … who has clear boundaries
  • … who listens
This article got me thinking about the qualities I look for in a yoga student. When I started to write down these qualities, it occurred to me that ‘listing’ what I look for could have both positive and negative repercussions. In defense of my proclivity towards ‘Listing’ (and I don’t mean to port, starboard or otherwise…) let me tell you about the students I have met along the way…
  • They have ranged in age from 5 to 91. They have been predominantly female, although the ratio of males to females has definitely shifted since I began to teach in Mexico.
  • They have been mostly white, suburban-dwellers, from a wide array of economic means, religious backgrounds and political leanings.
  • There have been the ‘noodles’ and the ones who couldn’t touch their toes. Some came for strengthening, others for stretching, and most stayed for savasana.
  • To some, I was their first and only yoga teacher; to others, I was another dish on the table of the local yoga smorgasboard.
  • Some people loved me from the get-go; others… not so much. Some brought family or friends along for support, and it was the mom or the sister or child who ended up staying.
  • For both teacher and (potential) student, it can be mutual love at first sight. It can be a long courtship, with periods for ‘taking a break’. Occasionally- and thankfully very rarely- there can be a bad break-up.
  • I have encountered many women working with issues of infertility, body image, and eating disorders. I have met people coming to yoga post-surgery or after receiving a challenging medical diagnosis (most often cancer). I have watched hope, then babies, grow in bellies; loose-limbs grow strong, and stiff-jointed movers grow more supple. I have encountered a few miscarriages, engagements, marriages, divorces, and deaths. My long-time students saw me through as much, too, and their support and understanding during my hard times (even when they didn’t know I was having a hard time) has been invaluable and I am, truly, forever grateful.
Given all that, what are some of the qualities I look for in a student?
  • Physical self-awareness, or the potential to develop it. This is especially important when the asanas become more challenging, or their practice is deepening.
  • Emotional self-awareness. Can they take care of themselves in class when there are things happening in their lives that are affecting them, possibly without them even seeing it.
  • Ego. When it is weak, or the student has the tendency to aggrandize, they can over-identify with the teacher. The more one wants to become their teacher, or the higher the pedestal they place them on, the more likely one is to experience hurt and betrayal when that teacher is revealed as being all too human (usually inadvertently). When the ego is very strong, class time can feel like a battle of wills. Chances are, that ego element is precisely the aspect the student needs most to work on, on the mat. The question then becomes, is the teacher strong enough in their own center to assist the student in holding theirs while they dialogue with their demons and tricksters. This is so much harder than teaching a proper headstand.
  • Do they ask questions. Has their yoga practice sparked some idea, revelation, problem that they are curious to pursue? Can they accept that I don’t have all the answers?
  • Can they pay attention to the small things. Get to class on time, stay home when sick, see to personal hygiene, etc.
  • Can they see the big picture. Teachers have bad or off days, too. Giving us a chance can mean going back for a second try. Or the first time they get to class, a particularly challenging student has also showed up. (This occurred more often than I would have liked, and I have a great story about a felon-in-training who broke into my studio and ended up taking a class because he couldn’t figure out how to leave unobtrusively*). Seeing the big picture also means being able to imagine that your practice will grow over the course of months and years, not weeks.

Writing about finding a good yoga teacher, and becoming a good yoga student, opens a whole host of other topics. Part Two of this series is about the cr*p that can arise in that process, and how we- as both students and teachers- can work with it in a ‘yogic’ way. THAT post is going to take some deeper self-reflection on my part, but in the meantime I’ll also write about “The Day We Had an Unexpected Visitor to Class”*.


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