How to Grow a Yoga Practice

Last week, a student asked me: How do I take my practice to the next level?

The answer was easy:  find a teacher.

Now, I don’t profess to be anyone’s actual teacher – more like a coach.  After all, my gigs are only once a week.  Still, for the most part, I do enjoy the same people coming Saturday after Saturday – which I love!  Why?  Because I have a chance to get to know them.

In a practice that is so intimate at times and asks a student to be so vulnerable – trust and understanding is one of the greatest gifts within the relationship.  And this can only be developed over time.

Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing new faces and welcoming new students to my class.  But what I love even more when the newness fades and familiarity takes over.  That’s when we can really start to work together.

My primary Ashtanga teacher will be here next week and I couldn’t be more excited.  I’ll never forget my first experience with him …

I had only ever practiced the half primary sequence. I still really enjoyed lots of other yoga styles and wasn’t so sure I was ready to settle on what seemed like a stodgy way of practicing – so half primary was really plenty for me.  But I was encouraged by some friends to come to his Mysore week and so I did.

On day three of that Mysore week, he offered me more toys postures to play work with.   He knew I practiced other styles yet chose not to “chastise” me or hold me back.  Instead, he recognized an earnestness about me and decided to feed it instead.

So when he introduced me to a transition on day four that brought me into handstand from a floor posture.  I had all but drank the kool-aid!  Ashtanga wasn’t stodgy at all – this shit was FUN!  And I wanted more …

My next level? A consistent morning practice.  Check!

Disclaimer:  there is no posture where handstand is the official transition in the primary series. And he never did it with me again.  However, it only took once to get my attention.

Since then, I consider time with my teacher pretty sacred as we cover some serious ground.  From facing a fear of drop backs and working past injuries, to forever challenging me by always giving me a little more than I think I can handle and then giving me the time to work on my own in between.

When I’m confused – I can ask.  When I’m in doubt – he encourages.  When I’m scared – he holds my hand.  And when I’m almost there – he lets go.

The last time he was here, I was really struggling to make the bind in pasasana.  And he was totally pissing me off because instead of putting me in the damn pose as had been done for the past few years, he would just call out from across the room, “That’s it Peg, you’re almost there.”

Two weeks later, after he’d already left – I could bind on my own. (Bastard – tricked again!)

OK – so note that most of the obstacles I’ve mentioned are NOT physical ones. Most of the physical stuff can be solved over time with consistent practice.  If you want to run better, run more.  If you want to swim faster, swim more.  And if you want to have a better backbend, do backbends every day.

No.  It’s the other stuff – the psychological and emotional baggage that is far more daunting.  And that’s why you NEED a teacher you can trust – not just someone who can call out poses.  

I won’t deny that this relationship can be developed more easily in the Mysore room, especially in the beginning.  Because where else can you expect to find the same teacher, consistently, day after day, with that kind of skill, devotion and dedication? 

But I won’t be so bold (or arrogant) to suggest this is the only place.  Because good teachers are not confined to a room and certainly, not a style.  The fact remains that if you want to learn – forget 200 hour programs and just find a teacher.  If you want to grow – forget adding new poses and add a good teacher.  And if you ARE a teacher – then for God’s sake, FIND A TEACHER.  Find one who …

  1. Motivates you.  Find someone who inspires you to be the best you can be … even if that means using the occasional trick.
  2. Connects with you.  Funny, but this is the single best predictor to a student’s success in any kind of learning situation – having a teacher who you believe cares about you enough to make that connection.
  3. Respects you.  A good teacher does not use humiliation to teach or reprimands to motivate.  A good teacher understands that this relationship is a partnership and carefully listens without judgment.
  4. Supports you.  New territory is a little scary.   It’s nice to know you don’t have to go there alone.  A good teacher makes exploration safe.
  5. Challenges you.  And yet, there is a time the teacher must back away and let you do the final bit of work.

P.S.  I’d love you to comment on your own experience either as a teacher or as a student.  And if you have recommendations, feel free to name some names!  

Want to read more about what makes a good teacher?  Read Kino’s recent blog on the responsibility of being a good teacher.

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