Look Within

Rather than relying on your teacher for answers, empower your practice by learning to find the answers within. By Sue White

Look within

As a long-time yoga student and former yoga teacher, I’ve had many important instructors guiding me along my yogic path. Some come and some go, but one thing remains the same: when you lose a much-loved teacher, the transition can be hard.

About two years ago, I was in yogic heaven. My mentor, Emma Taylor from Sydney’s Essence of Yoga, was it. She was kind, compassionate, skilled, funny and deeply committed to yoga—all the elements that I appreciated beyond the two or three hours a week I spent in her classes. Then, whammo. She had a baby and I didn’t see her for almost a year.

Was I excited for her? Of course. As for my practice, that’s another story—what would it be without my teacher? I soon realised her leaving (albeit, temporarily) was a chance to reflect on one of the less explored aspects of a long-term commitment to yoga. History and modern practice appear to encourage us to follow a teacher, but the skill of letting go can be a yogic practice in itself.

Loosen the Ties

Kamala Angel is a long-time practitioner, teacher and student of the Sivananda Yoga tradition. She values the teacher-student relationship, but her connection is also guided by a deep understanding of yogic philosophy. “If we want to learn anything, we go to a teacher… but in essence, the role of the teacher (or guru or master) is to continually turn the mind of the student within,” she says. “For students, this is a process of gradual detachment and deepening bliss, as they come closer to the experience of the Self. Emotional attachment to the teacher runs counter to that.”

She adds: “A true teacher needs to be vigilant, and gently but firmly discourage all emotional attachment to themselves. Eventually the student will experience the teacher and Self as one.”

My teacher certainly wasn’t encouraging attachment, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t feeling attached. And there’s the rub. In the West, we tend to look for a teacher we admire, but to really develop our experience of yoga (the yoga that is union, rather than simply the ability to stand on our head), we need to see the teacher as the same as our infinitely flawed selves. “The difficulty is people see themselves as separate and the teacher as separate. The teacher is actually the Self who is within,” Angel says.

In a nutshell, according to yoga, you and your wise, inspiring, compassionate teacher are the same. The teacher is a guide who can help you, but their role is to push the learning back inside. “We think we learn yoga through our intellect, but we can’t,” continues Angel. “Yoga is beyond intellect; it’s through self-enquiry and the process of [asking] ‘who am I?’ that we go into silence.”

Finding “The One”

With this food for thought, I ’fess up to Taylor about my own attachment. I know that her relationship with her own teachers is an important part of her life and wonder how she made the transition to being more self-sufficient. “After several years of practising yoga, I still had a strong sense that I was on a journey searching for my teacher, but I also felt that when that meeting happened it would be profound and life-changing,” she reveals.

It was. When Taylor found Iyengar yoga teachers Margaret and Glenn Ceresoli, she knew the encounter would be transformational for her spiritual practice and personal life. “A number of synchronistic events suggested that I was being strongly guided on the right path,” recalls Taylor.

“I immediately resonated with my teachers’ words and felt incredibly happy, relieved and grateful that this pivotal encounter had taken place. It was like coming home. I had read that everyone will meet a teacher who acts as a signpost pointing them in the right direction, and that’s what it felt like for me—there was an instant heart-to-heart connection.”

What attracted Taylor to her teachers went well beyond the physical practice. “While my teachers had incredible technical knowledge, what really left an impression was how, despite all the media and hype around yoga, they quietly conducted their lives, and authentically lived and breathed the teachings,” she says.

For Taylor, new motherhood meant a long break from the regular classes, workshops and retreats she’d undertaken with her valued teachers. “When I reflected on the classes I had attended, my teachers’ words were always suggesting that the solutions lay within. Everything was pointing back to the inner teacher. I was being given the tools to trust this innate knowledge and reconnect with myself, rather than look outside for the answers,” she says.

Back to the Self

Having just the right level of attachment is important—as both Taylor and I found on our individual journeys—but the teacher still plays an important role. “The teacher [must not want] to ‘gather’ students… If the teacher is interested in having students attached to them, the student should run a mile,” Angel says.

It’s a perspective with which another experienced teacher, Sindar Kaur, head of the Nature Care School of Yoga in Sydney, would likely concur. But explaining the connection between student and teacher isn’t always easy to pinpoint. “It can be a positive bond, a deep connection that allows blossoming of knowledge. But if the bond doesn’t create freedom or inner seeing, it becomes a bondage—an unhealthy attachment,” she says.

“The relationship between a student and teacher opens a pathway for learning. The teacher is not there to convince the student of a view. It must come back to the student to self-examine and see how they feel inside themselves,” Kaur adds.

All of this doesn’t mean, of course, that the role of the teacher is redundant. Far from it; a true teacher can inspire and point a student onto a life-changing path, as long as the intention is pure. “Attachment could be there in the first place because the teacher is mirroring the qualities the student wishes to have. The guru [or teacher] is a reflection of who we are,” Kaur suggests.

“The teacher is there to break down the potentially closed mind of the student and to destroy preconceptions,” she adds. “Initially, the teacher is very important for all these reasons. You have to become vulnerable and receptive, and the teacher is there to provide guidance for that.”

Learn and Grow

While many dedicated students would find it hard to imagine life beyond a teacher, that’s where the yogic practice is heading. “Ultimately, yoga is a journey of consciousness that goes beyond the form,” reminds Kaur.

Although Taylor’s commitment to and heartfelt connection with her teachers remains unwavering, she found maternity leave gave her an important reminder of where else learning comes from.

“Everything that comes into our life and every moment is a teacher, and offers us the potential to learn and grow, but it isn’t always easy to surrender and trust that we are in the right place at the right time for the lesson we need to learn,” she says.

“We tend to look outside for our inner transformation, rather than insource it,” says Kaur. “There’s an inherent laziness in us—‘insourcing’ is not so in fashion!” she laughs.

My own practice wasn’t easier without the regular presence of my teacher, but the experience revealed to me that I’d become a little lazy about looking within for the answers. And it seems I’m not alone. “We tend to look outside for our inner transformation, rather than insource it,” says Kaur. “There’s an inherent laziness in us—‘insourcing’ is not so in fashion!” she laughs.

While my teacher came back, the experience of being without her was a valuable lesson: love thy teacher, but always look inside. While I feel grateful, it’s a principle my teacher lives and breathes herself, I also find comfort in the fact that she too is guided by the knowledge of those before her. “When I went on maternity leave, the raw emotion was ‘Will I be okay? Surely, I need my teachers more than ever!’ ” Taylor says.

“But I remembered what my teachers said: the separation was just part of the journey, part of growing up, and in my new role as a mother I have to learn to stand on my own two feet. When you sit quietly and connect with that inner wisdom, the Divine source of love, light and guidance that connects us all, you realise the answers are there.”

Sue White is a freelance writer and hatha yoga practitioner based in Sydney.