Yoga is a practice that works best under the direction of a competent mentor. A teacher or mentor plays a vital role — especially with the ashtanga practice which can be a very transformative journey. In the yoga tradition the teacher role is called anusasana sastra, meaning a practice that is followed under the direction of a teacher. This is done for several reasons;
First ashtanga yoga was designed with a scientific approach in mind — it is not difficult, but it must be learned. This method has stood the test of time. It is important to me to learn the method in its original form, and to learn how to take the method and teach it appropriately and individually to a myriad of different body types and personalities. Nancy has learned this method from Pattabhi Jois 40 years ago, and has been teaching around 35 years to many different people all over the world — many experiences which I can learn from.
- This past trip to maui I heard nancy explaining to someone about why right leg always first in lotus (she was being questioned about why it was not “balanced”. She said ashtanga yoga is not really about the physical body, its about the energy inside and the breathing system. Energy moves in one pattern in the body and you want to encourage that flow. Right leg first in lotus is for the liver and spleen –nancy knows someone who used to do lotus left leg first and he had to have his spleen removed . . . she also had another friend who like to meditate left leg first in lotus – he died of liver disease . . . she said there might not be a connection . . . The reason the buddhists are L leg first is because after enlightenment the energy reverses in the body — the monks are taught right leg first in lotus until enlightenment.
Having a teacher keeps me grounded in the practice . . . we tend to avoid the most challenging postures for us — which are usually the ones we need the most! Having a competent mentor will help you through these postures and understand them. And sometimes we like to play and change things . . . then the method begins to lose its tradition and some of its benefits, here is where a teacher keeps you grounded in the practice.
- For example, the first couple years I practiced I skipped Janu Sirsasana C, I just didn’t like the posture, now I have learned that Janu Sirsasana C is especially beneficial for women and even if I could not do the full posture I would have received benefit by doing it the best my body would allow.
A teacher or mentor is not some ‘way up there’ guru, they are not going to zap you with shakti-put! A good teacher is your friend (not your guru), someone you like and respect. Yoga teachers are real people dealing with real life stuff, just like everyone else 🙂
Shop Around then Settle Down
It is important to find a teacher that you like and trust — and then to stick with that one teacher. Too many teachers, or just taking any workshop that comes through town leaves you very confused. Mixing styles and approaches increases the risk of injury as well, for example mixing the Iyengar alignments with the ashtanga practice leads to hip problems, back pain, and strained hamstrings! If you stick with one teacher and one style you will get much deeper in the practice than if you blend styles or learn from different teachers.
A teacher vs a teaching
This is not to say that we can not learn some tips from someone other than “our” teacher, this is the difference between a teacher and a teaching. Although it is best to stay within the tradition/style. For example I still like to learn from Manju as well, he and Nancy have similar views on the practice, although there are few things Manju does differently than Nancy, so since Nancy is my teacher I practice and teach it as I learned it from her. I also like to take workshops from Mark Whitwell and even though he is not “ashtanga” his teacher is Krishnamacharya who was Pattabhi Jois’s teacher, he uses the same breath and vinyasa work as we do in ashtanga, but just in a therapeutic/ individualized approach (vini yoga). Mark’s workshops are very focused on the breathing system and I learned a lot from him on using my breath in the ashtanga practice.
Find a teacher you like and trust and take the practice deep 😉