I’ve hugged Amma. I’ve walked around Mt. Arunuchula under the full moon. I’ve laid my forehead at the sandals of Krishnamacharya, and I survived high school chemistry class only because of the humor and joy of a one Ramzi Farran.
I’ve even opened the hornet’s nest of teaching myself, which makes me a very critical student.
With the explosion of worldwide interest in Eastern traditions, and a never-before-seen access to information authentic and, well…improvised, it’s never been easier to find a yoga teacher. And yet, many students find themselves longing for a deeper, more traditional connection. So how do you choose?
Studying the craft for a few decades now has given me a solid litmus test for when I’m in the presence of a great teacher:
A good teacher is attractive
I don’t mean rugged good looks or a firm bottom in Lululemons. I mean magnetic. With every significant teacher in my life, I remember the moment of attraction. I remember when Eddie Modestini adjusted me in utkatasana, I remember when I saw TKV Desikachar ask his student if he “had any tips” for reaching enlightenment, and I remember when a meditation with Rod Stryker made me question if I was hallucinating.
In each of these moments, I knew I was in the presence of greatness. It wasn’t an intellectual experience; it was a feeling.
In other words, trust your gut. Are you drawn to this person, or do they repel you?
A good teacher is challenging
“Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly
…And wants to…
Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.” - Hafiz
I’m lucky enough to have a couple of people in my life who support me, no matter what. These folks have my back: whenever, wherever.
It’s good to have people like that in life. But in a teacher, I want something else. I don’t want someone who thinks I’m perfect; I want someone who believes in my evolution. Someone who sees the path that I’m on, and sees that I could be on a different one, if I made some difficult decisions.
Someone who will call me on my bullshit.
In a way, every student has to decide if they want a teacher who will always make them feel good, or a teacher who will help them grow.
Ironically, once many of us feel the sting of a challenging teacher, our instinct is to withdraw, or look for a feel-good teacher to replace them. If you head for the door once things get difficult, you may miss the opportunity to practice with a master.
Every good teacher has a teacher
Everyone needs a mentor. In the fields of medicine and psychotherapy, regulations are in place to ensure that every figure of authority has an authority of their own to report to.
If a teacher doesn’t have a guru of her own, where is the information coming from? Her imagination?
It doesn’t matter whether your field is yoga or gluten-free cupcakes. If the teacher doesn’t have someone they look up to, they’re likely to get themselves into trouble. They can become headstrong, self-centered, hubristic, or even predatory.
Which brings me to my next point:
A good teacher will say, “I don’t know.”
“He knows most who knows what he knows not.” - Socrates
Knowing where your expertise ends is actually a mark of mastery. While on some level, we like the idea of someone who has all the answers, what we truly need is someone who knows when he is out of his depth, and readily admits it. This is the mark of a teacher who is forever a student.
Or would you rather have a teacher who doesn’t know the answer to a question, and then makes up an answer to protect their image?
Personally, I’m comforted when I’m with a teacher who says, “I don’t know.” To me, that says, “I don’t have all the answers. But I won’t lie in order to bolster my position.”
Finding a great teacher doesn’t need to be difficult. It’s said in the East, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
But if you don’t feel like waiting for magic to happen, go and look. Watch and listen. There might be a great teacher in your neighborhood, online, or at an upcoming event. Ultimately, as the student doing the choosing, you are the one in control of the relationship with your mentor. You are the one who empowers the teacher with the authority to lead you…so choose wisely.