Teacher as Student: An Open Letter to all Students of Yoga

Here is a question I have been asking myself lately:

What, precisely, makes someone a student of yoga and not simply a consumer, a client or someone who “does” yoga?

For those of us who spend considerable time and resources doing this practice, and even teaching it, I think it worthwhile to discern where one stands on the spectrum of studentship.

The tradition itself recognizes that there are different degrees of commitment to practicing yoga.  Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras elucidate a continuum of intensity of commitment to yoga practice and how we apply ourselves to it. It links this degree of intensity to how successful we will be in experiencing the fruits of what yoga has to offer us.

We can use yoga in the way that suits us, according to what we are looking to get out of it.  We can practice yoga as a way to be with ourselves, as a time to set aside our usual roles and responsibilities, or as a way to move and feel good in our bodies. Yoga can also be our path to learn about and explore who we are beyond the roles we play, and to inquire into what all this life is all about anyway. All of these modes of practice are valid and worthwhile. I applaud them all. However, are we students of yoga regardless of why or how we approach the practice?

A student is someone who is interested in learning. Learning is defined as the process of acquiring knowledge.  To be a student of yoga, I think, requires a certain degree of intensity and commitment to actually learning the subject. The knowledge we acquire in yoga is vast, multi-layered and nuanced. Actually, “learning” in the yogic sense is as much about letting go as it is about acquiring. If you are interested in being a student of yoga, and certainly if you teach this practice, here are some questions to consider:

      Are you willing to aside a bit of your limited sense of yourself for the sake of growth - both the proud part that thinks you are accomplished and also the part that thinks yourself unworthy or unable to progress?

      Will you allow yourself to be in the space of not knowing? Are you able to linger in un-clarity, without a definitive answer for the sake of being in the space of inquiry and discovery?

      Once you find a teacher you trust, are you able to listen and hold the teacher’s instruction even when you don’t understand it fully? Are you able to listen even when you resist what you are being asked to do, have an emotional reaction to it, or find it difficult to actually implement? Are you willing to ask for clarification when an instruction does not make sense to you or does not feel right in your body?

      Can you remember what you have learned and apply your knowledge to go deeper in your practice and to troubleshoot when something doesn’t feel right or there is injury?

      Do you make space in your life for personal practice?

When we can answer yes to these questions is when studentship can begin, and when we can start to extract the real juice from this practice. In this space we are students not only of the subject of yoga, but of the deepest part of ourselves.  

It seems to me that when we are simply in the practice for the doing, and not the learning, huge opportunities are missed. And, yet, being in the position of learning yoga takes commitment, dedication, and most of all, the courage to be in the space of inquiry. Easy? No. Important? Yes. This is a practice for a lifetime.