Is your Teacher more advanced than you?

By on Jul 31, 2015 in The Unruly Ascetic

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“What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches.” – Karl A Menninger


A fellow practitioner asked me this morning if I felt that a teacher needed to be more advanced than their students.  This is a complex question and without more specifics about the situation that provoked the query, I gave her a simple answer: Yes.

The answer of ‘Yes, you need to be more advanced than your students’ is every bit as complex as the question itself, and while I may not be able to speak directly to my friend’s question, I can go on at length about my answer…

Teaching Yoga is a really difficult job, not least because we are incredibly eager to share our own experience, often before our awareness of it is refined enough to be worth sharing.  This is NOT to say that our experience is not valid or worth sharing when still in beginning stages, but more to say that our awareness of our experience and ability to communicate about it functionally takes considerably longer to develop than the practice itself.

I know many people who I think are premature in their presentation of themselves as the Teacher (look at me, judging away).  I am particularly adept at recognizing this hubris because I was (and likely sometimes still am) guilty of it.  When I first started doing Yoga I got the kind of standard American advice to participate in a teacher training program for the sake of learning more.  While this can be a great way to establish one’s own relationship to a Yoga practice, there are some serious (and consistent) pitfalls. The intention behind enrolling in a YTT might be toward personal growth, but the actual work is in playing the role of the Teacher, sharing information and asserting oneself as a leader. By the time the program is complete participants feel the desire to teach as well as an obligation placed on them by their own Teachers (and by friends and family who now offer recognition as an authority) despite the potential to still be very much in the learning stages of ones own practice.

Ashtanga Yoga is somewhat unique in that the lineage, at this time, does not offer a direct training for teachers.  There is not a program that you can enroll in and come out the other end an authority.  Sharath requires us first to practice, only acknowledging our potential as teachers once the practice is reasonably establish in the body and in our daily lives. This discouragement from teaching when young to the practice is little deterrent, though, and many practitioners take encouragement from friends and home teachers to establish themselves as leaders in their community, sometimes before the practice has matured to a level where it is worth teaching from.

I know what this is like.  I was something of a leader in the Vinyasa community I was a part of when I started practicing Ashtanga. I was constantly in conflict over the fact that I was a Teacher but felt presumptuous in thinking I could teach Ashtanga without having been to Mysore or received anyone’s blessing to do so.  The advice I was given by my awesome and helpful western teachers was to start a practice group.  No one had to be the Teacher, we could all just work together and share what we “knew” and dialogue about what we suspected. I think this is awesome advice.

I have seen quite often, in myself and others, the drive to teach out of a desire to be acknowledged.  The most powerful way to have one’s practice acknowledged is to be accepted as a teacher. This is ego and a misguided motivator. Many excellent and mature teachers I know have admitted that the power of authority that comes from teaching is intoxicating.  I personally think this is a standard part of learning that comes with teaching Yoga, a phase that many have to pass through in order to come out on the other side humble and compassionate.  It is also entirely possible though that a Teacher will NOT pass through this power-high stage but rather stay in it for the duration of their career.  Those teachers are often quite powerful and influential… and scary.

So, since this has apparently become a diatribe about what is necessary (in my judgey and unyielding opinion) to be a Teacher…

Step 1: get your Teacher’s blessing to teach and try not to get drunk on power.

Step 2: be where you are.  I recently read an article about a senior practitioner of Ashtanga who injured herself (quite badly) in her asana practice because she felt obliged to be more physically advanced than her students.  She felt that she had to stay ten steps ahead and tried to push her body beyond its reasonable limit. She blamed the practice and the community for this choice and I lost most of the sympathy I had had for her plight.  As the Teacher, we must maintain a personal practice.  Our experience of the practice is largely what we teach from, so it cannot be neglected or the advice we offer ends up being hearsay (or dogmatic). This does not mean, however, that we should hold ourselves to a standard any different from our students.  Some things take time and we can not learn or understand them as quickly as we may hope, but it is never necessary (or appropriate) to force some aspect of knowledge for the sake of staying ahead of our students.  It won’t work and it sets a bad example.

Step 3: Be Honest.  My long answer to my friend was that Yes, in an ideal world the teacher would be more advanced than their students, but this is often not realistic. To be a true Teacher, we must be able to be present and honest with our students about our experience.  It will not serve to feign confidence in something we don’t understand or to hide our own limitations and struggles.

The drive to be more advanced than one’s students has potential to hurt the community in a few ways, the first being the possibility that the teacher will injure themselves in the push to stay ahead.  Another outcome that I have seen is that the Teacher may find themselves inclined to hold a student back for fear of being bypassed. While it can be difficult to admit that a student needs to seek out a more advance teacher than oneself, it is not appropriate to presume to teach a student something that we have no experience of. I teach, with my Teacher’s blessing, but I am not advanced.  I have an intermediate practice that is ahead of most of my students, but not everyone who practices in my Mysore room. I also fill the opposing role of practicing in a Mysore room where my asana practice is more advanced than the Teacher. I see this coin from both sides most days.

Here’s how I handle it.

As the Teacher, I look at the part of the practice I can teach.  I try and determine if there is anything I can offer assistance with that I have a personal experience of.  I don’t have any students who I personally taught who practice further than me, so I can spend some time getting to know them and the work they do by focusing on the areas where I can legitimately claim some authority as the Teacher in the room.  This is not often a big project, because their earlier asanas are probably strong if they are carrying on, but it does allow me the opportunity to build rapport and see how interested the student is in advice, criticism, or encouragement from someone who is not senior to them.

Next (as the Teacher and the Student), I check myself.  I am often discouraged that I do not have a more advanced practice and I see in myself the pouty child that wants to cut down anyone better than me.  I try to be honest with myself about what I actually know (from what I’ve been taught and my own experience of the practice) that the student might not be working with, big and small picture ideas that have been useful from me.  These are often things that are not incredibly important, but rather interesting or helpful (or maybe not useful or necessary for every body).  When I am the student in this situation I strive to consider the advice or criticism I am being offered without letting my ego flare up.  I have had many gracious advanced practitioners teach me really amazing things because I gave them well intended, misguided advice.  This is an awesome learning opportunity for both parties if we can all keep our ego or need to be an authority in check.

Lastly, I surrender to the necessity for the Teacher to hold space.  If I am the Teacher, I will establish a blanket offer of assistance.  While I may not know how to help or what they should be doing differently, most advanced students are quite capable of instructing me through assisting them.  I learn a lot and it’s rad.  I resist the urge to criticize anything I suspect is incorrect and try to maintain an open line of communication for the tidbits of info I have learned but haven’t yet put into practice. If it is not useful or contrary to their ‘real’ teacher’s advice, I try to accept it without feeling insulted or devalued. The same thing frequently happens when I am practicing in my friend’s Mysore room.  I leave the space open for her to question my choices and am prepared to communicate the work I am trying to do and my need (or lack of need) for assistance in anything she does not practice.  The dialogue is useful and encouraging for both of us.

To my mind, there is always a play of balance in “advancemnt” in the practice.  I know human bodies that can make the shapes beautifully, but without the right engagement, breath, or attitude. I know practitioners who are very advanced in their energetic an emotional work but have some limitation of mobility that is not related to their effort or intention. As the Teacher, I strive to be more advanced than my students in communication.  I work every day on cultivating communication skills, not only in language, but in social and emotional interaction. Feeling comfortable telling my students that “I don’t know” and that I’ll have to investigate and/or ask someone more advanced is one of my best skills.  I am recently finding much comfort and strength in the work of truly believing that what is right for me is not right for everyone.

We can learn something worth knowing from everyone we meet, whether it’s advice in asana or just a good example of being humble, dedicated, and honest. In this age of 23 year old Ashtanga machines, most of us can not hope to always be more physically advanced than our students, but we can hope to be a leader for them with our work toward being present, being honest, and being helpful in our communication.