These days in America, yoga instruction is easy to come by. Walk down the street in any major city, and there’s a different yoga studio every couple blocks, there’s yoga in gyms, there’s yoga on YouTube, there’s even yoga in conference rooms. There are more new types of yoga than one can count, and for each new studio there are dozens more teachers. For many, whose life passion is not yoga, there tends to be an assumption that “yoga is yoga,” and that a teacher just tells us what to do. Of course it’s much more complex than that. It’s not just that there are subtle differences in the language a teacher uses, or that some classes are more meditative than others; rather, each teacher carries with her the collective knowledge from her life and the lives of her teachers.
Mediocre teachers tell you to reach your heels to the ground in downward-facing dog. Great teachers tap into their lineage with each breath and each word. These days, it’s actually quite hard to find true teachers. But when we find them, we know. We know by their wisdom, their strength; we can feel their intention and their presence just by looking at them. Finding a teacher who you can follow and learn from is one of the greatest gifts of a devoted yoga practice.
Unfortunately, there is no neon sign that reads, “Here are all the answers!” It took me 15 years to find my yoga teacher. I started yoga when I was 11 years old. I remember seeing my dad in handstand, meditating, and wanting to be just like him. Later, when he thought I was ready, my father introduced me to his teacher: Wai Lana, TV yogi extraordinaire. Over the years, I’ve gone on to find other teachers and communities, but I regularly return to early memories of my father’s guidance and love. And from the example he set, I’ve found teachers in my adult life who help me become my fullest self.
The importance of a teacher has, of course, many layers. At the most basic level, all beginners need guidance with alignment. There are whole schools of yoga dedicated to proper alignment, full-day workshops devoted to a single muscle—all so students can learn how to engage their body with a sweet balance between effort and surrender. The incessant imagery of challenging yoga postures all over social media have created a current of false idolatry, whereby practitioners latch on to images and achievements of teachers and try to learn from them without proper foundation.
We need teachers who are familiar with our physical and emotional state to help lead us into advanced postures, for the poses can deeply affect both the body and the mind. And by advanced, I don’t mean only deep twists or crazy inversions; I mean tapping into your inner power, standing with strength and confidence. The practice takes consistent work and close guidance. With time, body consciousness strengthens, but even the most seasoned practitioners need their teachers to help lift a mirror up to that which they alone cannot see.
People who are attracted to yoga are often seekers. They’re willing to delve deep into all of life’s experiences. But we need guides to lead us, especially when we don’t even know what we’re searching for. Teachers are our facilitators, they are the light that we follow and take comfort in on our path. Teachers help us to keep our egos in check, to push us to take risks, and to catch us when we fall.
Yoga guru T.K.V. Desikachar once said, “The goal of yoga is to encourage us to be a little better than we were before… We must actively seize every opportunity that helps us to progress.” Open your ears and open your hearts to your teacher. Find a teacher who supports you and challenges you. Allow yourself to listen, even when you feel you already know. As you transition from one life phase to the next, you may find new teachers, but always honor the place you came from as you carry on the lessons of your first teachers.
It’s important to remember that everyone’s journey is different. Even if you do not seek a true teacher to serve as a compass for your practice, in choosing yoga at all, in any of its forms, you are choosing to accept and revere your own inner teacher. Use the teacher within to guide you on your quest toward continued learning. Provided you have clear intention and dedication to the practice, joyful liberation and transformation become possible.