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.
Images: Pavanamukhtasana, zakiyoga.blogspot.ca; ascent magazine; Yoga Journal
I totally agree with you Luci! There is mastery at all levels of teaching, and it’s good for students to grow by working with other teachers and staying open minded. That helps new teachers develop their skills too by giving them a chance. For me it’s nice to be taught by people who have been trained by Louie, and to see their good training put to work. It’s very inspiring.
I’m looking into doing yoga teacher training and have recently become obsessed with the ‘who’s who.’ A teacher who can recognize when something is off or tight is actually quite rare, especially with so many people becomming teachers. It really is about more than just ‘good feelings.’
“Just because a teacher is popular, accomplished, senior, or even
indisputably brilliant doesn’t guarantee that he/she is ideal for you.”
Exactly. There are plenty of good enough for you teachers out there, but finding the ones best for you is more challenging but magical when you can do it.
Thanks for the comments, Laura, MK, and Michael. The ideal teacher-student relationship is indeed magical, which to me means that it’s hard to define and unique to each case. My first teacher now has two decades of teaching experience; when I met her, it was much earlier in her teaching career, but she was just the right person to lead me into yoga. She had a following and her own studio, but at the time her Sunday morning class was small enough for much individualized attention. With her I did my first shoulderstand, headstand, handstand, and other inversions. She had a strong practice and her repertoire of asana was diverse (today almost no pose is totally unfamiliar to me due to my study with her). I moved away and do not regularly study with her anymore, but I still recall her teaching, both in my practice and in my own teaching.
You are spot on. I had the luck to be Sandy Blaine’s apprentice for almost a year… I am writing a book about many of the teachers you referenced. I had no idea Donald smuggled yoga into Canada too. They should give him a mounty uniform.
… Mary Lou Weprin is indeed amazing.
Like you, I lucked upon Sandy’s class on the upstairs basketball courts at Berkeley’s RSF around 1997. I’m not sure if I’d still be doing yoga fifteen odd years later if I hadn’t stumbled upon such a wonderfully gifted teacher. She taught me a lot about yoga and how my body works (and doesn’t), and how to put the pieces together to sustain a practice. One of the hardest things about leaving the Bay area, initially for Sacramento and now in DC, was moving away from her regular classes.
But part of what she helped me learn was how to understand/recognize good teaching and good teachers. To me, a lot of it is being able to read and relate to your class; coming into the class with a sense of what you want to do but being able to connect with the energy and experience in the room; being able to see where someone is struggling and offer a modification or ready to do more and offer a modification in the other direction; to work with a mixed level class and have it work for everyone.
No one can do that all the time, but because Sandy was able to do that so often, she taught me how to carry that into class on my own. I’ve been able to find good teachers as I’ve moved around, but one advantage of having worked under such a good teacher for so long is being able to take some of that teaching with you as you move on to other good teachers.
We were classmates in Sandy’s Sunday morning class at her studio, Alameda Yoga Station! You might not know that YogaSpy is among my other personas. Yes, we were lucky. By 2000 yoga was a full-blown fad and the sheer number of teachers might have reduced our probability of chancing upon a good one.
Warmly from Vancouver,
Hi Luci! I figured I had to know ‘yogaspy’ given the overlap, but wasn’t sure just who it was – I didn’t find a name associated with the site and didn’t remember that it was Vancouver you’d moved off to. Good to reconnect.
fun! I love blog reconnections!!!
also- i agree wholeheartedly, it’s part of what I love about the canadian yoga scene- that we are much less “famous” centric.
That said- once you live in a city for long enough, you start hearing things about yoga instructors, and it’s nice to just walk into a class and practice, without having all that background noise.
PS- i just totally asked you (my Iyengar blogger peep) a question on my blog tonight! 😀
Wow, I don’t know what to say… very much feeling the love from my longtime students with this post and the comments. I actually have tears in my eyes reading this. Thank you so very much for the appreciation and the amazing trip down memory lane!
Those UC Berkeley classes were some of my first, and I remember both how challenging the conditions were for creating a real practice in that freezing cold basketball court, and how wonderful — eager, enthusiastic, dedicated, appreciative — the students were in spite of that. I’m so happy to still be connected with many of you almost two decades later, even though everyone’s lives have moved on and I don’t see most of you regularly.
It is so deeply meaningful to me to know that I was able to bring yoga to you guys in a way that connected so positively, and that you’re still practicing with such dedication and sincerity. Much metta to all of you.
fabulous commentary… I just go to yoga. I love trying new people, know I am fortunate to study with Donald and Marylou regularly, and just love “new” teachers… I just try to follow the instructions, results are miraculous! leighann
“Who has the guts to go rebel and question the status quo?”
I was blacklisted from teaching at the new yoga studio in my town because the owner did not like what I wrote about acro yoga, i.e., I questioned “what has yoga become?”
guess she did not like the status quo being questioned.
I’ve noticed that people in general are not to keen on being questioned.
Even those who are blogging!
Relationship means respecting others, and listening. Formulating a way to receive SOMETHING from relationships — even in the face of pushing someone away, or reeling in horror, lol!!