Last week, I was lucky enough to catch up with one of the people who has inspired me in my own yoga practice over the years. The conversation, naturally, turned to yoga. We sat outside in the cold London winter, tea in hands, and talked about yoga practice, and yoga teachers, and what it actually means to "be your own teacher".
The idea of being your own teacher is currently at the forefront of wider, global conversations within the realm of yoga. A growing number of previously respected teachers have recently been found to have been systematically abusing their students.
This abuse is entirely the fault of the abusers, not the abused. It’s vital that we don’t engage in victim blaming as we look for answers as to why this happens.
But breaking down the guru culture that crops up again and again in yoga can help us to tap into our innate mindfulness, and to make our practice our own. It’s personal; it’s emotional; it’s spiritual; and we don’t need anyone else’s approval to practice yoga.
Can following one teacher or ‘guru’ be healthy, really?
Well…in my opinion, no. It’s not healthy. There’s a tradition in yoga — and in other spiritual practices — to put our teachers up on a pedestal and assume that they can do no wrong. It’s been proven, again and again, that this is dangerous. It inflates egos, creates a ‘guru’ complex, and is a hothouse for power imbalances which sadly often lead to exploitation and abuse. More and more cases of this in the yoga community are coming to light.
It’s important to understand and respect the history of our practice. For sure. But it’s my view that there’s no need for this kind of teacher-worshipping. We’re moving on from it.
So what is a teacher for?
Rather than being some kind of all-knowing guru figure, it’s more useful to think of our teachers as guides, or facilitators. They have a depth of experience in yoga practice, and training and study to add layers of knowledge to their experience, which can be of benefit to us.
But they don’t know everything. And they don’t necessarily know what we need from our practice, physically or emotionally.
They can help us figure it out by encouraging us, teaching us how to explore postures and practices in a way that feels beneficial to us, and by holding space for us to discover yoga for ourselves. A good teacher will teach us how to teach ourselves.
What does that mean, though? To be your own teacher?
One of the most valuable things we learn through yoga practice is how to observe. We develop the capacity to be our own witness.
This ability to become consciously aware of what’s happening within us is a crucial step on the way to becoming your own teacher. You learn to notice what’s going on without immediately judging it — or judging yourself. And this allows you to see your physical, emotional and mental patterns more clearly.
With clarity comes the potential for change.
As our self-awareness grows, we’re able to adapt our yoga practice to suit our needs on any given day. We learn how our bodies work — we learn to feel our edges, and to recognise when and where we can push a little further to go deeper. And more importantly, we learn about our physical limits.
If you move through your physical practice with a sense that you are your own teacher, you’ll be more inclined to listen to the signals your body gives you, and to back off or rest when you need to. In contrast, if you move through your physical practice with the intention of blindly following whatever your yoga teacher tells you to do, you’re much more likely to do something you’re not ready to do, and pick up an injury.
It’s not all about the physical practice. This understanding that you are your teacher allows you to take responsibility for your meditation practice. For tuning in with the subtle bodies; for noticing and nurturing your energy. And for integrating your yoga into every part of your life.
Is there an easy way to learn how to be your own teacher?
Perhaps there isn’t an easy way, exactly. But it isn’t hard either. It just takes time. The fact is that your ability to teach yourself is already in you — in your body’s signals and sensations. The key is to learn to listen to all of those signals.
Try to spend most of your time during a yoga class listening to the teacher and trying to keep up with what they’re telling you, then have a go at practising at home. Even if it’s only for ten minutes. Find a free stretch of time, and move mindfully:
• Start with no agenda and no specific postures in mind.
• Get yourself into Child’s Pose, or another posture that feels safe and comfortable to you.
• Notice how the body feels in this posture. Begin to bring the awareness to any sensations you’re feeling.
• And then from here, allow yourself to move. Don’t overthink it; if you want to stretch something out, stretch it out. If you want to move into a challenging posture, do it. If you want to be still, be still.
Do this regularly. Use it as a kind of exploration; a way to see what happens when you allow yourself to move any way that feels good, or to be still in any position that feels right. You’ll find that you start to take this experience into taught yoga classes with you — you’ll be more in tune with your body and your practice, and you’ll feel more confident in making choices that are appropriate for you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
zzy Arcoleo is a yoga and meditation teacher and a writer, currently based in London. She specializes in the relationship between yoga and creativity, using her background in social anthropology to explore how movement and meditation practices can support creative practices, by developing confidence as well as practical methods for working through obstacles.