Classically, the yoga practice (physical asana yoga as well as the meditation and other practices) were passed down from a master to a student. Here in the West, yoga has come to mean something you 'drop in' to: you show up, sometimes knowing who the teacher is going to be, and move through your practice, taking what you can out of it.
Some lament the loss of the private teachers. In a way, I do wish I could find a teacher. It's much like finding true love: the One true teacher who will take me where I'm truly destined to go. Drop-in classes, especially when they are big, create more risk for injury since there is less personal attention, and especially because I am a yoga teacher, I am less likely to be adjusted in a class. I do think there's value to sticking to a couple of teachers you really trust so that you do get those adjustments sometimes and don't plateau in your practice physically or mentally. In that sense, anyway, my 'teachers' are Clara Roberts-Oss and Coco Finaldi. They are not my one-and-onlies, but I do ultimately trust them.
Having the freedom to choose my teachers, and switch them up every now and then, I think is a healthy way of growing and figuring out your own path. I love learning in communities, I love learning from my peers, my students, my friends, and yes, the occasional master celebri-yogi teacher. Like Shiva Rea and Ana Forrest, two teachers I'll meet next week at the San Fancisco Yoga Journal Conference. I have a yoga crush on both of them: Shiva Rea, the beautiful, blonde dancer who balances her sacrum between heaven and earth and rocks my body with her creative and flowing sequencing, and Ana Forrest, the witch doctor who I am terrified will look into my soul and see it in all its cankered glory.
Normally, I try not to get too tied up in the whole celebri-yogi thing. My dad taught me that anything too popular was not to be trusted, and I took this seriously when my beloved high school teacher (who I, alone among my peers, refused to be alone in a room with) was suspended for sexually assaulting a student. I'm always a bit wary of anyone universally beloved: if EVERYONE loves you, you've gotta be lying about something. I don't need a Guru keeping too close of an eye on my Down Dog.
Spirituality and Health Magazine's Soul-Body supplement has a lovely article by John Kain on the student/teacher relationship that explains some of the pitfalls of looking to another human to teach spirituality. Zen master John Daido Loori says, for example, that a great spiritual teacher
awakens in the student what is inherently there. That's why we call it the wisdom that has no teacher. It comes from within. At best a teacher is a facilitator rather than a conveyor of knowledge. This is important, because it protects the dharma from individual personality flaws.
Perhaps part of the reason I appreciate Ana Forrest is because she had her own experience with the cult of personality when she met famous teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, who, she says, "accomplished his 'active correction' through hitting, spitting, and screaming." She writes:
Whatever wisdom he had, he wasn't willing to give it to me because I hadn't agreed to his demand for subservience. At the end of the month-long training, we all lined up during the celebratory dinner to kneel before Iyengar and touch his feet. As I approached, he said, "Oh, so, expert, you have no need ever to come back here." And I replied, "Oh, I know that, Mr. Iyengar." I'd learned what I most needed to know: that I couldn't look to others for the wisdom that lay inside me.
Just because a teacher is super successful and popular doesn't mean you should trust them, and them alone. But that doesn't mean they have nothing to teach: A friend of mine (Meghan Goodman) is an amazing Iyengar-trained teacher who I would trust with the grisliest of injuries. I want to know Shiva's Rea's secrets of sequencing and how she creates such captivating and gorgeous ways of doing core work that make you feel beautiful even as you are working up a sweat. And I want to meet Ana Forrest, who claims not to subscribe to the classical yoga principle of Ahimsa, or non-violence, because sometimes things have to die or break or get ugly before they can really, truly heal. I won't touch these teachers' feet, but I sure will listen to them.
In my humble modern-yogi opinion, yoga has this built-in function (which I like to call the bullshit detector) which is developed through a practice of paying attention and thinking for yourself. This way, I can look to very different teachers and learn from both. It's up to me, in the end, what to keep with me and what to throw away so I can find my own path.
There are ways in which I wish I had a true teacher. Just the one, who could really show me the way. But yoga teaches me again and again that I am my own true teacher. We have new ways of learning now, through communities of teachers and students in which those roles switch and shift all the time. If we keep our hearts open and our bullshit detectors on high, there is so much we can learn. I just want to soak it all up (just maybe not swallow it all).
And I'll keep these wise words from Kabir in my mind as I go: