Recently I’ve studied Transformational Fluids with Amy Matthews; the Bhagavad Gita with Nikki Costello; and the power of Mantras with Prem Sadasivananda. I’m a card carrying yoga geek but that doesn’t mean I’m an asana expert. After studying yoga every day for 16 years I still need two blankets when I sit in Badha Konasana and tell that to my students so they shouldn’t feel bad if they need support.
Cynthia Kling, YogaCity NYC’s editor, figured that this geekishness made me the perfect writer to give you tips on choosing a good teacher. That’s a tall order these days. So many people “graduate” from Teacher Training programs and hang important looking diplomas. How do you find one right for you?
Look for a teacher who has their own language and way of explaining things. It sounds obvious, but a lot of beginning instructors start out teaching from scripts and never put the work they are extolling in their own bodies. Others run around so much to make ends meet that they never get on their own mat to fully examine the asanas themselves. Alison West calls her constant experimentation with props “Sandbox Yoga” and her practice shows in every class she leads. A good teacher might not be able to take a posture…padmasana isn’t coming to my hips in this lifetime…but they have tried enough times to know what safe instructions for a variety of body types might sound like. Seek out teachers like Yogasana's Kristen Davis and Witold Fitz-Simonwho have been practicing together once a week for years now in a process of continuous questioning of themselves and each other.
Find a teacher who has a teacher or teachers. Every good teacher has one - alive or dead - who has inspired them to think about yoga deeply. I find the best teachers, like Genny Kapuler, quote their teachers and influences and make it easy for their students to know who they have studied with. For the most part good teachers are also good students. One of my great joys was watching 72 year old Senior Iyengar teacher Bobby Clennell in a workshop. The joy she takes in learning is contagious.
Try a teacher who knows that one size does not fit all. That might be easy to locate in an Iyengar or alignment focused class but not as easy in a flow class. The raucous and irreverent Dana “Trixie” Flynn will call some physically demanding sequences but if you can’t do the poses she calls, do what I’ve done plenty of times, make up your own versions. A good teacher is fine with this – a bad teacher doesn’t let you own your own body. Red flag!
Locate one who doesn’t need to be put on a pedestal. It’s sometimes difficult for teachers to quell the all- powerful ego. For many years now Elizabeth Rossa has been teaching to a loyal and sold-out audience in a Tribeca loft. You sign yourself in and put money in an envelope. Mel Russo does that too at her Saturday ABC Sanctuary class in the East Village. Red flag: a teacher waltzing in late in expensive Lulu togs and explaining how difficult or busy their life has been just won't work.
Discover a teacher who really looks at you; knows your name and remembers your injuries and conditions. And, keep going back to them because they are surprisingly rare. You’ll find Susan Malcolm’s Saturday morning class at Equinox is packed. Why? Because she knows every single one of the 60 students who jam into the room. She knows their aches, pains, strengths and weaknesses. As a result she knows how to keep them both safe and curious.
What to forget about…don’t buy into an endorsement (who knows how it really came about); don’t pick a teacher because they look good on an Instagram photo; and don’t pick a teacher just because they are on some Top 10 list. Pick a teacher who exhibits the characteristics I've identified in this blog.
Remember you are picking a guide to the most amazing adventure you’ll ever take (I really am a geek, glasses and all.) Find one who is knowledgeable, humble and completely interested in you getting the most out of your journey. Be ready to make some mistakes. I did and have left mid-workshop with several big names. It took a lot of effort to find the right ones for me. Kissing frogs, finding teachers, the journey can be fun. Most important, don’t hurry.