Yoga teachers are given a much credence and authority in the west. Yet, according to internationally respected teacher David Muesham, a teacher's true role is as facilitator and guide. In an exclusive interview with Yoga Abode, David gives his view on the role of the yoga teacher.
In the west, we often give yoga teachers a great deal of credence and authority. In your view, what is the 'right and proper' role of the yoga teacher?
My understanding is that the teacher is there to help, to facilitate the student's deepening relationship with yoga. I remember a conversation with Pattabhi Jois one day in Mysore in which he said that the ‘practice is much more important than the teacher.'
In the context of the conversation that day, I understood him to say that the most important thing is for the student to develop this relationship themselves; the teacher must be able to guide the student but also to stand aside and allow this natural process to occur.
I feel that Pattabhi was gifted this way; he knew how to give students enough time and space to explore their practice.
Most of the great teachers I've known seem to understand this intuitively - that the depth and blessings of yoga flow from a source that is larger than all of us, and that the role of the teacher is to help students to access that source.
What is your advice for a student seeking a good teacher?
The teacher/student relationship is a very special one, and it's really important to find a teacher with whom one can have a comfortable, trusting relationship, and whose knowledge one respects.
Unless one is very fortunate to find such a teacher right away, the student will usually need to go to a few teachers, and a few different styles of yoga, before it becomes more clear which is the right way to go.
The student should ask enough questions of the teacher so that they understand the teacher's background and point of view. I think it's also good to remember that as the relationship with yoga grows, one's needs can change, so a natural step in the journey may to study with more than one teacher.
In dynamic yoga styles such as ashtanga, teachers can often give strong adjustments. Unfortunately, injuries can occur as a result. Would you advise a student to disregard a teacher's advice, if he or she is not happy with the teacher's guidance?
Often, in my experience, students are unwilling to do this, perhaps because the teacher is seen as all-knowing and all-powerful.
Even the most well-meaning and experienced teacher cannot know everything about the student's physical or emotional state, so the ultimate authority must lie in the student's hands, not the teacher's.
Students should always take responsibility for their bodies and this will probably mean saying ‘no, thank you' to an adjustment from time to time, or even to ask their teacher please not to give physical adjustments. The teacher can learn to appreciate this as part of the teaching dialogue.
How should the discipline of adjusting students be approached? Do you think teachers have a tendency to 'over adjust'? And what is your personal approach to adjusting?
It's become quite common in recent years for teachers to move through a yoga class giving many physical adjustments, and the students can come to expect and enjoy being touched. So, it's possible that teachers sometimes feel obligated to make sure everyone gets plenty of adjustment.
This opens the door to ‘over adjusting,' - ie adjusting at times when it's not really necessary. Many years of experience with students of differing experience, ability and body type is needed to understand adjusting, and especially when not to adjust.
My approach is to adjust only when I think it's necessary. There are times when adjustment can help a student to discover a new aspect or depth of a posture, but at the end of the day, I feel that my role is to help the students learn to practice on their own.
Of course, adjusting does not always mean pushing people deeper into yoga postures; it may be done verbally, or with very gentle physical corrections or directions.
Do you think a teacher is generally more rounded, and has more knowledge, if they have studied a wide range of yoga styles, and under lots of different teachers?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. On the one hand, each of the different yoga schools has unique strengths, and it makes sense to gain as much knowledge as possible.
But on the other hand, it is very easy to take a workshop here and a training there, and develop a broad yet superficial knowledge. If we want to find water, we've got to dig the well deep enough, and this is a lifelong task.
In your opinion, what are the hallmarks of a good teacher?
Well, being a good teacher is very different from being a good practitioner, so one must really want to be of service to others. Teachers should have a solid relationship with their own practice, so that they understand why they are teaching yoga and what they have to offer.
And there is always more to learn, so one should be humble in one's knowledge, and always keep learning , studying with other teachers.
Also, there's been so much written on what makes a good teacher, and we have many amazing role models, such as Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa, to inspire us. So, there is plenty of information and inspiration available for us to drawn upon.
David Muesham first practised yoga in 1982, and was introduced to iyengar in 1987. In 1993 he began practising ashtanga vinyasa yoga, and has been influenced by the meditative and breathing methods of the tradition of Satyananda Saraswati. David holds a Yoga Alliance 500 Hour certification and has received written authorization from K. Pattabhi Jois to teach ashtanga. He has also completed teacher training with Richard Freeman. He now teaches internationally, including regular trainings and retreats at Burren Yoga and Meditation Centre in Ireland.
Images used with kind permission of Burren Yoga and Meditation Centre.