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The myth of the teacher-less teacher

The myth of the teacher-less teacher

by Robert Birnberg robert birnberg
Be Spiritual | Philosophy - Wisdom

flowers in the sky

Yoga is an elegant spiritual psychology extracted from the ancient Indian Vedas. Its foundation text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offers profound insights and practical strategies for reducing discomfort and sustaining joy in daily life. Yoga philosophy describes the unchanging essence (cit) and ever changing conditioned mind (citta). The formless cit is the source of consciousness, wisdom and joy. The material citta perpetuates suffering by clinging to fixed patterns (samskaras), habits and beliefs, continually misperceiving the nature of things, and substituting its own projections for intimate relationships with the world.  

Both Sides Now
Yoga’s central paradox, therefore, is that although the answers to life’s questions exist within each individual, when left to ourselves, we often lean toward our imbalance, creating more sorrow for ourselves and those around us. Thus, the self-destructive person makes injurious choices (even in their yoga practice), and the overachiever tries too hard to overcome their tendency to stop trying so hard.  

Because of our capacity for self-delusion, the prerequisite, context and foundation for yoga technology has always been a committed relationship between a student and a teacher. Traditionally, each teacher had a teacher who also had a teacher. This lineage of shared experience extends back to the first teacher, constituting what yoga master TKV Desikachar calls “the heart of Yoga.”

Old School
Modern students, educated in factory schools offering little individualized attention, have been taught to learn in group-class settings from teachers viewed as expendable service providers. As a result, contemporary yoga education consists of students going from class to class to study with teachers who learn from workshop to workshop. Classical yoga, on the other hand, is a mentor-based system of personal refinement and growth developed in an ancient wisdom culture. This sophisticated science of self-care stresses the need for long-term, dedicated, one-to-one tutelage with highly regarded teachers to whom students had to prove their intention and merit before being allowed to study.

Mirror Ball
One of yoga’s primary components for transformation is svadhaya, or guided reflection. Over time, the attentive teacher can help the student observe, identify and reflect on their deepest, subtlest patterns. These unconscious samskaras, whether neuromuscular, respiratory, relational, perceptual, behavioral or emotional are, according to yoga, the source of suffering in the student’s life.  

A yoga teacher also offers an alternative viewpoint (pratipaksa bhavana), an added perspective to the habit-hobbled student. A reliable external reference, the teacher is instrumental in creating the new practices (abhyasa) and contrary actions (tapas), which lead to reduced suffering and sustained joy. Inasmuch as finding the right teacher can be as daunting as it is important, there are several things to consider before making a choice.

The Giant’s Shoulders
Because of the emphasis on personal experience, the best yoga teacher is an acharya rather than a guru. A guru, defined as “one who takes us from darkness to light,” is often a person born in an elevated state or suddenly struck wise. The yoga acharya, on the other hand, has learned his or her own lessons over time, with effort and at personal expense. The acharya has triumphed over what we are still struggling with, and is a true authority; one who has had the experience, and now knows, embodies and models the means to overcome any obstacle.

Also, we need to be sure that we really want a teacher, for there is a vast difference between shopping to choose, and shopping to avoid making a choice. Endless seeking is not uncommon, as the notion of committing to a teacher arouses uncomfortable feelings for many, many students.  

Mistreatment at the hands of well-meaning authority figures, combined with the lonesome hero-martyr mythology, has led to the rise of “defiant dependence,” a syndrome in which the student desperately craves guidance and approval, but fears letting someone come close enough to give it. This unsatisfying situation is often accompanied by romantic rationalizations such as, “I learn from the rocks and the wind,” or “Patanjali is my teacher,” or “We’re all teachers to each other.” Perhaps. But in yoga’s 5,000-year history, a dedicated relationship with one actual person, available to teach us, answer our questions, call us on our stuff and cheer us on, has proven to be profoundly practical, highly effective and absolutely essential.   

The Right Stuff
Once the student decides they want to study, they should scout prospective candidates. The classical texts describe the essential qualities of a good yoga teacher. 

Sthitadhi/mauni: mentally and emotionally stable, quiet. Someone reflective and responsible. The teacher shouldn’t leak or complain to the students about their own problems (often the mark of a teacher-less teacher). A good teacher has the ability to listen with complete attention, empathize and give appropriate, non-reactive advice, remaining detached from the results.

Jnani/sampraya sevaka: authoritative, yet knows their limits, and has a teacher of their own. A teacher should be knowledgeable, yet truthful about what they don’t know. They should demonstrate a deep understanding of the Yoga Sutras, and a comfortable command of yoga’s various tools, their applications, adaptations, modifications and effects. While no one is expected to know everything, a teacher connected to a teacher connected to a teacher has access to the entire lineage’s body of knowledge and experience, and is constantly having their knowledge and skills reshaped, refined and tested for accuracy. 

Teacher-less teachers, devoid of the external reference, are at the top of their own heap, limited in knowledge and resources, and accountable to no one. Such teachers, even the most well intentioned, are far more likely to err, and less likely to admit or even notice their own mistakes and limitations. The more popular these teacher-less teachers become, the more revered and unchallenged, and the greater potential for misjudgment and delusionality. 

Sraddhavan/abhyasakari: The teacher must have faith in the system, and practice regularly. Yoga teaches that consistent, guided practice is the path to lasting change. The teacher committed to their practice (and the teacher who designed it) models devotion, and is a true inspiration to their students. However knowledgeable or articulate, the teacher must walk the walk and, literally, practice what they preach.

Dharmadikari/jitatmavan: a teacher that’s honest and ethical, one that creates an atmosphere of safety. Students generally come to yoga already hurt and fearful, often holding issues with authority figures or the opposite sex. A safe teacher, impeccable in word and deed, willing to apologize if they do make a mistake, has the greatest potential to help students heal, build confidence and create new patterns of self-care in relationship. Conversely, unethical teachers leave students far more confused and troubled than when they started. Thus, it is said, “When looking for a teacher, keep both eyes open. Once you’ve found one, keep one eye open.”

Ahhh Charya
There are many more qualities of a good teacher: kindness, good sense of humor, generous with their time, etc. Ultimately, however, the best teacher is someone with whom you experience an easy affinity, and a natural affection. “Someone,” as my teacher says, “around whom you breathe easier.” 

So, breathe easy, my friend, have a little faith; and if you’re lucky, your teacher will find you.

Robert Birnberg offers teacher-training programs inspired by the teachings of T.Krishnamacarya. He mentors, teachers, and conducts Yoga Sutras classes and teaches private, therapeutic yoga. He is a regular contributor to Yogi Times and the Yogi Times blog on yoga and spirituality. Contact Robert at, [email protected] or 323.661.1500.