Why We Need More Than One Teacher

ashtanga parampara teacher Dec 07, 2018

Modern Ashtanga tradition holds that students should only have one teacher. In my experience this has been a generally accepted rule and even a bit of a taboo subject.

Ashtanga culture emphasizes the student-teacher relationship The Sanskrit word paramparā, which denotes a lineage between student and teacher, is widely understood amongst practitioners. Who you practice with has become a badge of honor.

I asked Richard Freeman about this on a recent retreat and he pointed out to me that the very first words of the opening mantra, “vande gurunam” denotes plurality that is more than one guru. It loosely translate to “I bow to the two lotus feet of the Gurus,” suggesting that historically multiple gurus were common.

The word lineage denotes a narrow line, but true cultural heritage looks more like a family tree with many branches. If we look down the line, we might only see one teacher, but behind that teacher stands many others.

For the majority of my Ashtanga practice, I have had more than one teacher. There’s been my primary teacher, who I consider to be the most influential person in my practice and teaching. But, there have been many other teachers lighting up the way for me.

For years I was eager to have time with those more experienced than me and attended local workshops and intensives. Over time, I became more selective, and I began to truly key in on those whose messages I felt aligned with. Beyond asana, I began to look for more fundamental wisdom and guidance in the practice and teaching of yoga.

After studying with many senior teachers I found more similarities than differences in their teachings. In addition, the teachings complemented each other, negating the necessity of focusing exclusively on one teacher.

Tim has been my primary teacher. More than guiding my practice and my teaching, he’s overseen the transformative effects that this practice has had on me. However, he’s not been my only teacher.

Having multiple teachers has been critical to my development as both a student and a teacher. I’ve learned to filter through the information that has been presented. I use immediately what resonates in my own practice and I store the information that doesn’t serve me right now. Due to my trust in my teachers, if something doesn’t make sense to me right now, I don’t assume that my teacher is wrong, it might instead be that it simply doesn’t match my experience to date. I don’t dismiss what I don’t understand, instead I try to reevaluate it in the future. Because I am selective with who I choose to study with and I have never felt that my teachers undermined or conflicted with each other.

I am certain that we all need the right guidance to make our way down the spiritual path. Progress and practice ebb and flow and doubts are ever present.

To think that one teacher can guide you through a lifetime of practice is a limiting belief and it places an undue burden on the teacher.

Ashtanga yoga is still an experimental practice. I’m not sure of the long term effects of the practice. Nor am I sure of where it all leads or where I am going. But I do have an idea of where the previous generation got to. Now the question is, how do we, the next generation of practitioners go beyond there? 

One of the ways that we do that is by learning from the people who have gone before us. As students we can benefit from the lessons of multiple teachers. We are in a unique position right now when there is a lot of good information available and there are many people who have been there before.

But for this to work, teachers have to truly love the subject matter and be confident enough to let go of their students.

As a teacher, I want my students to outgrow me that should be my goal. I stand on the shoulders of my teachers and my students stand on mine. If they develop to the point that they seek more knowledge than I can give them, well then, my job is done. I opened the door. I initiated them into the practice and I helped them cultivate a love for yoga. And then I send them off to keep growing and learning. And this creates a ripple effect, where more people can be reached and more people can benefit from the practice.

The student-teacher relationship can be a paradox. As students seek a teacher more experienced than ourselves, someone ahead of us on the spiritual path. Yet the student and teacher should see eye to eye, their relationship that of two equal humans, with one of them having more experience in yoga, but still a reciprocal relationship. Such a dynamic supports further learning for student and teacher alike - challenging questions and critical thought can ensue.

But, this can’t happen when a student gives their power away - or if a teacher takes it. Some students want to place their teacher on a pedestal. And to be honest, as a teacher it’s kind of nice to be up there. But, there is a huge difference between valuing a teacher and worshipping one. Less worshipping and more discernment means that we can begin to think for ourselves.

I taught in DC every day for thirteen years, allowing me the tremendous honor of tracking students through transformation. As a teacher, you can be in the selfie industry or the service industry. And service to others takes place over years - because, well, yoga takes a while to really work.

As a student, having more than one teacher has been critical to my development. It does not mean that I ask around to the different teachers until I get the answer I want, but it does mean that I feel supported by more than one person. My practice is not now, nor has it ever been, contingent on any one person or teacher - other than myself.

What is being taught in the study of yoga is not something that can be learned in an instant. Yoga cannot be taught through words but has to be experienced. We have to realize our truth for ourselves through continuous inquiry. Have your own experience under the guidance of people you trust and ignore the rest.

The world needs more honest yoga teachers. And having more than one honest teacher in your life will only help light up the way for you.


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