When I took my first yoga class in 1997, I had no idea who the “major” teachers were. I didn’t know what “Iyengar” meant and had to ask my first teacher, Sandy Blaine, to spell it. I met Sandy fortuitously since she then taught at UC Berkeley’s rec center (free classes for members!). But I got lucky. Sandy was an excellent teacher. Despite my total ignorance about yoga, that much was clear.
Now, 15 years in, I recognize many names in the Iyengar world and beyond. Most teachers/studios have attractive websites with detailed bios elaborating training, mentors, level of certification, years of experience. In a few clicks, I can know “who” someone is. But, as with Sandy, I initially found teachers on my own, somewhat by happenstance—without knowing much about their histories or reputations.
Early on, I enrolled in one of Mary Lou Weprin’s classes. I knew that she was then co-director of The Yoga Room, but nothing else. On day one, I recall doing Pavanamukhtasana. It felt easy, but Mary Lou immediately recognized that my left hip flexors were tighter and more congested. How did she know?! (I must have been rolling slightly to the left.) I was impressed. Over time I realized that this was just a hint of Mary Lou’s knowledge of alignment and sequencing in asana.
Often, I didn’t grasp the full extent of a teacher’s renown. For example, when I told Donald Moyer, founding director of The Yoga Room (whom I’ve written about here), that I was moving to Vancouver a few years ago, I suddenly discovered his long history here. He introduced Vancouver teachers to Iyengar yoga in 1974, after he had studied the method in London. Today Donald remains a big draw when he returns, an almost legendary figure (with monomymous status) and forever tied to Canada’s yoga history. Little did I know.
When visiting teachers offered workshops at The Yoga Room, I signed up without little, if any, research. Dona Holleman? I attended and absorbed. Joan White? I attended and absorbed. I was a sponge, without context or hierarchy. While such teachers were obviously well-known, I regarded them no differently than I did local or less-famous teachers.
One teacher, Ramanand Patel, I met initially as a journalist. In 2002, while researching an article, “questionable conduct,” for ascent magazine on ethical teacher-student relationships, I called him to arrange an interview. When he agreed, my first thought was “Score!” We journalists rely on articulate sources and I imagined that he’d produce quotable quotes. Ramanand generously invited me to his home and, yes, I got some great quotes. From that conversation I decided to attend his next series in Berkeley. Only later did I realize his vast influence among Iyengar yogis worldwide.
In Vancouver, while no longer a clueless beginner, I was a blank slate in terms of Canadian yoga teachers (another example of USA-centrism). I dropped into a class with Louie Ettling at her studio, The Yoga Space. By then I could tell almost immediately whether a particular teacher was a good fit—and I knew that I could learn from Louie. I discovered only later her reputation as a gifted teacher’s teacher, both of her trainees and of her peers.
Nowadays, it’s hard to resist checking out people/places/things beforehand. Before trying an unknown cafe or untested hairstylist, I skim reviews on Yelp. Before buying something, I search online for raves or rants about it. And who can deny the influence of “critics” and more-underground arbiters of taste? If you hear about some awesome new band, artist, or show, suddenly you think, “This must be good.” Do you really think it’s good? Or are you simply adopting the latest critics’ choice or indie darling?
Likewise a yoga teacher’s established high reputation cannot help but sway your judgment. Who has the guts to go rebel and question the status quo? But should majority opinion hold that much clout? Just because a teacher is popular, accomplished, senior, or even indisputably brilliant doesn’t guarantee that he/she is ideal for you.
Sometimes I miss being a clean slate and not knowing “who’s who” among yoga teachers. It was pure and simple to experience people merely as people. But I did find some outstanding teachers without knowing much more than their names. I found them through firsthand observation and intuition, which to me is the best way.