Until the 20th century, yoga—the whole system—was always taught one on one. An aspiring yogi studied with their yoga mentor often for decades. Over the years, the teacher learned the student’s special talents and their blind spots. The yoga mentor then tailored the teaching to the student’s individual needs. Some students went on to become teachers when their mentor felt they were ready. Others remained lifelong practitioners, but never taught yoga.
That’s not what the teacher-student relationship looks like these days. It’s not quite so easy for a teacher to know their students in the context of group classes and large, short-term trainings. Still, the opportunity exists. While it’s not common, there are teachers out there who want to teach to small groups. I am fortunate to have found teachers, back in 1986, whose calling it is to create space for small groups to dive deep.
You’ve probably never heard of the place. The retreat center is called The Last Resort, and is nestled in the mountains east of Cedar City, Utah. If you haven’t heard of it, it has nothing to do with the quality of the retreats. It has everything to do with the teachers—Pujari and Abhilasha Keays—and their intention to keep things small so that they could get to know each person along the way.
Because I’ve practiced yoga for so long, I’ve had the good fortune to get to study with a plethora of great teachers, most of whom I met at a time when a “big” workshop consisted of 20-30 students. I’ve gotten not only to learn from, but to know teachers such as Donna Farhi (with whom I’ve co-taught and hosted in my city probably 18-20 times) and Judith Hanson Lasater (whom I met in 1986 and have studied with probably a dozen times). While I’ve taken workshops with many more senior teachers over the decades—and learned something from all of them—it’s the teachers who I’ve gotten to know through many workshops, retreats and conversations that I consider to be my yoga mentors.
Pujari and Abhilasha knew me in my 20s, when I was a very different person. They were different then too. I’ve been truly privileged to have witnessed the metamorphoses of my main asana teachers, Donna Farhi and Judith Hanson Lasater, as well. That kind of continuity and longevity is rare and really has no substitute. A teacher who knows your history—where you started and who you are now—is like having a personal guide as you travel along your path.
How to Find a Yoga Mentor
These days, with huge workshops and retreat centers that house hundreds, it is much more difficult to cultivate this kind of personal relationship. Given that this is yoga’s current reality, how can you develop a deeper relationship with a yoga mentor?
- Look locally. There are more people than ever teaching yoga these days. Look around your own area. Local teachers may not seem to have the pizzazz of a traveling workshop teacher, but a healthy percentage of them are just as knowledgeable and committed. Free from the demands of cultivating a national or international presence, local teachers are likely to have more time and energy to deepen their practice, and to give time to their students.
- Find out which teachers have been around for a while. People who have taught for more than 10 years are probably in it for the long haul, and their knowledge and practice will likely be more mature. When I think of where I started, I often feel that I should have paid my students to take my classes in my first 10 years. It’s not that my intentions weren’t good; they were. We all have to start somewhere. There are some very competent younger, newer teachers out there. Fresh, new teachers can lead energetic and inspiring asana classes. But if you’re seeking a mentoring-type relationship, a person with more life experience and a few decades of practice to develop perspective might be a better choice.
- Take classes from a wide variety of teachers. If you like vinyasa, visit vinyasa teachers in your area. But also look into slower, more meditative classes. If a teacher tells you that you shouldn’t practice anything other than their style of yoga, be wary. This often has more to do with the teacher’s insecurities than a concern for your wellbeing. Look for a person who can rejoice in your evolution, no matter how closely it follows their prescriptions.
- Try out smaller classes. The teachers with huge classes are usually much less accessible. It’s very difficult to keep track of 50 students, and in a class where students are mat to mat, the teacher can often barely move around the class. A teacher with 5, 10 or 20 students can much more easily get to know her students.
- Find a teacher who’s willing to tell the truth—with kindness and compassion. Pujari offers phone counseling. I’ve taken advantage of this countless times, and it has always helped shed light on problems that seemed unsolvable. Still, there were times when I knew he’d see through illusions I desperately wanted to hold on to. At those times I’d avoid calling him, even though I knew it would be helpful. A mentor will help you see through your blind spots, but in a way that is kind and respectful.
- What’s important to you? I felt an immediate connection to all four of my most influential teachers: Pujari, Abhilasha, Donna and Judith. While I didn’t necessarily assume they would become mentors early on, I immediately recognized and respected their commitment and integrity. These qualities are extremely important to me. My trust in their integrity and commitment to keep learning caused me to return to them again and again. What qualities are important to you in a teacher? Spend some time identifying what’s most important to you and as you try out different teachers.
- Finding a yoga mentor—or mentors—doesn’t mean you can’t learn from a wide variety of teachers. But a finding a mentor who gets to know you over the years of your own evolution, through all your ups and downs, can lead to a profound friendship that will help you negotiate not only your yoga practice but also your life practice.