Whether you are taking your first yoga class or rolling out your mat for your hundredth one, you may deliberately choose a class because of the teacher or simply walk in without any expectation. Let me explain.
When I took my first class 20-odd years ago, I was mesmerized by my teacher. She was in her late 50s, with long silky, white hair, sweet-scented with incense and spoke ever so softly. She embodied calm and radiated an ethereal aura. She flooded the room with her presence. I remember leaving the class in awe. Over time I practiced diligently, feeling a sense of calm whenever she was near. She always sat in the lotus position, hardly demonstrated postures and rarely made adjustments. She was all about feeling the yoga in your body, rather than doing. One day after class, I had the opportunity to spend time with her. As we chatted, she opened up about her deeply fractured life. She had been through three divorces, lost her eldest son to drug addiction, was a recovering addict herself and was estranged from her daughter. I remember leaving confused, with a knot in my stomach. How was I to digest this? How could this angelic form be the antithesis of my idea of yogic? How could I square my perception of her with the truth, and also with the principles of non-harm, truthfulness and cleanliness we learn as we get deeper into the study and practice of yoga?
I would learn, over years of practice and training, to discover that my best teachers were the ones who were just like her, who were real, raw and authentic. They didn’t put on a show and weren’t afraid to reveal who they really were – being susceptible to frailty and being at times flawed. Along the way I have had many bad experiences with other teachers, too. There was was the one who preached kindness during class only to walk out and scream abusively at someone over the phone; another who talked behind her students’ backs; one who commented on other teachers, bad-mouthed their practice and criticized their body shape. Situations can bring out the worst in us, and the yoga world is not immune to the urge for wealth, attention and popularity – the same ingredients that fuel bullies in high school and other workplaces.
What I’ve realized over the years reduces to a simple truth: yoga teachers are as imperfect and as flawed as those who seek them as teachers. The title brings no guarantee of perfection, although there will never be a shortage of candidates who try to project that image. Instagram takes it to another level, presenting us with colorful backdrops, surreally lithe bodies and pristine faces, not to mention a lot of advice and quite a bit of preaching. That can leave us feeling inadequate, not good enough and not popular enough. I have been lucky enough to meet some of these Insta-famous yogis, and yes they are beautiful. But they are also human. As each opened up (as yogis are inclined to do), about their frailties and imperfections, their doubts and demons revealed themselves, and those include eating disorders, emotional issues and relationship challenges – all the same problems faced by their students.
If yoga is the journey to the self, then there is no possible way any of us can be the best versions of ourselves at all times. Teachers and students alike must work to shed our layers of emotions and insecurities and sit with our feelings, even the ugly and painful ones. What we are aspiring to achieve through yoga is not only strong, supple bodies and minds, but integrity and a sense of doing service to the world around us, the best way we can.
Any yoga student can remind themselves that the path to enlightenment, the one that leads from darkness to light, is potholed with imperfection. The teacher never ceases to be a student.
And when you are choosing your teacher, remind yourself that they are human and look for qualities indicative of a “good” – never perfect – yogi. These include a positive vibe, an ego kept in check, substance over surface, words that move and motivate and gentle indications that they’ve built strength from weakness.