by Caitlin Rose Kenney
published by Elephant Journal on May 16th, 2012
There can be a lot of pressure in the yoga world to make a name for yourself and to study with renowned teachers. As if the teacher’s you studied with will open up a network of people and opportunities, similar to the ivy league mentality of our nation. As several of my mentors have shared with me, getting a teaching position often depends on whom you have studied with. My experience in the dance world reflected a similar phenomenon: attending prestigious academies often gave you more street cred than your technique or passion for the art form.
When I was 15 years old I was accepted into the San Francisco Ballet School’s summer intensive. I was nervous and excited, I even felt special having been “recognized” by one of the top ballet schools in the country. Arriving at SFB I was surrounded by adolescent girls who were incredibly self-conscious of their body image and highly competitive. The atmosphere immediately jarred me, having come from a dance environment that focused more on foundation and technique than on contorting and denying your body. Mentally coaching myself, I reminded myself that I was here to learn and to be myself. Then, the meet and greet with the director of the company rolled around, I only remember one thing he said: you are here to look like everyone else, if you are good enough, you might be in the corps de ballet one day.
So what does my San Francisco Ballet experience have to do with yoga culture? Number one, what appears to be reality is not ultimate Truth. Number two, taking to heart what your “superiors” say can sometimes slow your progress to the realization of your personal success.
What appears to be reality is not ultimate Truth. That’s a bit esoteric, here’s where I am going. A piece of advice that gaining yoga teaching positions depends on who you have studied with is not advice at all, but an observation that appears to be true. Perhaps, it is true some of the time; a studio may hire you because you studied with someone famous. The assumption that an individual is a good yoga teacher simply because they studied with a reknowned name is an illusion. The intrinsic gifts and external cultivation of a skill, such as teaching yoga, are not obtained by a single pathway. Studying with a well-known teacher may enhance your ability to be a good yoga teacher, but what is more important is the inner teacher and ability to synthesize the lessons you have learned from living. Similarly, to be a good ballet dancer I did not need to look like everyone else, I needed to practice my art form and feel inspired from within, to feel and emote movement and creative energy.
I know that my yoga teachers did not intend to discourage me, but instead were offering a sobering observation of a common perception in the yoga world. If I choose to take this “fact” to heart, than I am limiting my pathways to “success”. I may not notice the divine teacher that exists in a friend, stranger, child, or in nature. Taken to the extreme, I may not even listen to myself, to my own wisdom that discerns what is right/wrong for my body, mind, and spirit. The collapse of several guru/cult yoga schools suggests that obsessing over your teachers is not sustainable, and in many ways has been destructive. The primordial wisdom of yoga and how it was traditionally passed from teacher to student has evolved; it is this evolution that makes yoga potent. We must look to the past to create a better future, not to replicate what was. Imitating the ancient systems is futile, life and living is impermanent, we as yogis should know this.
So the question remains, how do I earn street cred in the yoga world? Studying with a famous teacher? Practicing for 50 years? Walking away from society for a decade and returning enlightened? Do I have to make a pilgrimage to India? Should I practice alone or take public classes? Do I need a spiritual name? The questions tumble and fall forever.
To assuage the self-doubt and overwhelming task of becoming a great yoga teacher I have chosen two questions that serve me:
- Do I feel like I am on MY path? More often than not, am I organically growing and finding inspiration from within and without? Is there a sense of “rightness” and things “falling into place”?
- Is what I am doing stimulating positive self-evolution and having a positive impact on my community?
If I can regularly check-in and examine the answers to these questions, then does it really matter whom I studied with? Like so many things in yoga, the answer is both yes and no. YES it does matter whom I study with because how I relate to my teachers and the knowledge I have gained from them profoundly impacts my practice and my teaching. What does NOT matter is whether my teachers are famous, where they are from, how long they have been teaching, or whether they are “in” the yoga community. Important teachers can embody diverse traits, countless forms of wisdom, and appear as many incarnates.
Some of my yoga teachers are under the radar, so to speak, and others are internationally recognized. I am inspired by colleagues have completed one official teacher training and others that are training junkies. I know practitioners that almost exclusively practice by themselves and others that attend public classes to maintain their practice. Some of my teachers are not “yoga” teachers at all, but people with incredible amounts of compassion and drive to improve the lives of others. Age is irrelevant; I know many people who articulate wisdom well beyond the years of their current lifetime.
Gaining street cred as a yoga instructor isn’t defined by “who you studied with.” There are infinite formulas for success. Yoga has never had a single pathway. It is inherently diverse, just like the civilization it was born from. The Indus Valley Civilization at it’s peak had a population of over 5 million people and was created by the synthesis of two major (and many minor) cultures, and it’s prosperity was largely dependent on trade. Over time, yoga has been refined and redefined within the mosaic country of India. Today, yoga has permeated Western society. To pigeon hole yourself, as one kind of practitioner or instructor, is antithetical to yoga. Earning respect from the yoga community begins with embracing your unique dharma, taking actions that feed your inner Truth, and practicing your yoga to reach understanding and union with the greater spirit of humanity and nature.