Twenty-five years ago, I had a math teacher whose voice never seemed to move along the scale. His monotonous descriptions of geometry would gently lull each and every student in the room to various levels of inertia. Then the bell would ring, and the whole room would be startled back, sleepy-eyed, into the hallways.
Next period was chemistry class, a subject guaranteed to push a room full of teenagers off the edge of boredom. But our chemistry guru had skills. He was passionate. He gesticulated. He told stories about amoebas and compounds that had us laughing and cheering.
Care to guess which one of these teachers had a more profound impact on my life? (Yes, Mr. Farran. It's you.)
The yoga and spirituality world is similar in that teachers are everywhere, but quality ones are hard to find. If you have a great chemistry teacher, you're bound to understand molecules and elements better. But if you have a great yoga teacher, your whole life can change.
The more time we spend in this practice, the more we see that it's not just our hamstrings that the tradition can affect. Yoga can change how we walk, how we talk, and how we act. It might even change how we think. At this level, a quality teacher you can trust is crucial.
As a longtime student and an amateur teacher myself, I've spent a lot of time searching for quality mentors. I've hugged Amma. I sat with a guru who hasn't spoken for 45 years. I took every yoga workshop available in a major city for 12 months straight. I've laid my forehead at the sandals of Krishnamacharya.
Studying the craft for a few decades now has given me a solid litmus test for when I'm in the presence of a great teacher:
1. A good teacher is attractive.
I don't mean rugged good looks; I mean they are magnetic. I experienced a moment of attraction to every significant teacher in my life. I remember when Eddie Modestini adjusted me in utkatasana; I remember when I saw TKV Desikachar ask his student if he "had any tips" for reaching enlightenment, and I remember when a meditation with Rod Stryker made me question if I was hallucinating.
In each of these moments, I knew I was in the presence of greatness. It wasn't an intellectual experience; it was a feeling. In other words, trust your gut. Are you drawn to this person?
2. A good teacher is challenging.
I'm lucky enough to have a couple of people in my life who support me no matter what. These folks have my back whenever, wherever.
It's good to have people like that in life. But in a teacher, I want something else. I don't want someone who thinks I'm flawless; I want someone who believes in my evolution. Someone who sees the path that I'm on and sees that I could be on a better one if I made some difficult decisions. Someone who will call me on my bullsh*t.
In a way, every student has to decide if they want a teacher who will give him or her a practice that feels good or one that promotes growth. Ironically, once many of us feel the sting of a challenging teacher, our instinct is to withdraw. But by heading for the door once things get difficult, you may miss the opportunity to practice with a master.
3. Every good teacher has a teacher.
If a teacher doesn't have a guru of his or her own, where is the information coming from? Everyone needs a mentor. It doesn't matter whether your field is yoga or another spiritual practice. If the teacher doesn't have someone they look up to, they're likely to get themselves into trouble. They can become headstrong, self-centered, hubristic, or even predatory.
4. A good teacher will say, "I don't know."
Knowing where your expertise ends is actually a mark of mastery. While we like the idea of someone who has all the answers on some level, what we truly need is someone who knows to admit the unknown. Personally, I'm comforted when I'm with a teacher who says, "I don't know." To me, that says, "I don't have all the answers. But I won't lie in order to bolster my position."
Finding a great teacher doesn't need to be difficult. It's said in the East, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."
But if you don't feel like waiting for magic to happen, go and look. Watch and listen. There might be a great teacher in your neighborhood, online, or at an upcoming event. Ultimately, as the student doing the choosing, you are the one in control of the relationship with your mentor. You are the one who empowers the teacher with the authority to lead you.
You are the student, and therefore you are the boss, leader, and guru of your own path.