How to choose a yoga teacher?

Smell. At least, in the Kaula Tantra tradition, that’s what you do: you get right up to them, and if she smells right, that’s your teacher.

In practice, the process is rarely so clean. We get stuck with whomever we end up with. The yoga teacher on the corner or the internet. Perhaps a famous guru.  

But does it matter?

Since you can learn from anyone, does it matter who you choose?

I think so.  

Separate charisma from effectiveness

In my own choices for teachers, I have let myself be led by this question: what is the level of attainment of THEIR students? 

In my opinion, that would separate the charisma of the teacher from his effectiveness. I was slow to realize, however, is that what looks like a high level of student can also be illusory. 

Their caliber might not matter at all.

See, you can’t judge somebodies’ karma when you look at them. And you can’t judge the karmic knot that a student is trying to cut by being with a specific teacher, from the outside.

You can’t tell why certain students and teachers are with each other. Not until you have observed them for years and understand how their histories drive them together. 

It occurs to me that often when the teacher still has much karma to conquer, the relationship is sometimes more oriented on solving this history than on the more generally accepted goal of liberation.

That’s why many people are looking for a Master, but what they need is a Mother. 

Problem is, before you enter into a relationship with a teacher, you can’t be sure. 

Can you learn from a fallible teacher?

Kundalini Yoga teachers are fallible. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so. But unfortunately, that’s the case.

One of my teachers once told me something that has helped me tremendously as a student. But you will see why it can also be highly problematic. 

One day I called him out on his behavior. He said that it would be good to realize that 99% of the problem was my stuff. It did not behoove me to consider that his human fallibility also had a part in it. 

From the teaching standpoint, that is 100% correct because you can only get the student to take responsibility for their process if you present matters in this way.

By this same token, the teacher can inoculate himself against all and any kind of criticism, which is dangerous. It’s how cults of personality come into being. And if the teacher is unreliable, that’s very problematic.  

Sometimes the mirroring situation of the Guru-Chela (Teacher-Student) relationship is used to defend the indefensible. 

And when you look at it charitably, you could say that even the student who has been abused by the teacher, at least learns to be unexploitable. 

But we should ask more from the teaching situation than this. 

‘Irritable Seva Hand’ Syndrome

I have seen it so many times:

Charismatic teacher, students hanging on lips. Projection 50% spiritual, 50% sexual. Comes time to do stuff. Karma yoga, also called seva sometimes.

“Who is willing to do X (clean toilet, do administration, get groceries)?” asks teacher.

A phenomenon I call ‘Irritable Seva Hand’ occurs. All the ladies put their hands up, eager to please the teacher.

That happens so often that these ladies end up on the floor, exhausted. They accepted too many jobs and couldn’t keep up. 

One teacher of mine used to work like this. Unfortunately, he never exhausted anyone to enlightenment. But he did get a lot of work done. For free. 

Eventually, everyone left. 

Who wants to be exploited? 

What is a student to believe?

One problem is the teacher projecting an immaculate image, I have spoken about this elsewhere at length. The other problem is the student believing it.

The student does not believe their teacher is corrupt. They can’t. They are so invested in their image of the teacher that the mirror can’t crack.

For who am I, if I call my teacher corrupt?

 It’s the same dynamic why Donald Trump can say he can shoot someone on 5th avenue and get away with it. Same thing.

My advice: if a teacher implores you not to trust them, for God’s sake, believe them. 

But we refuse to believe it because we are not close enough. 

A lot of it has to do with distance.

The Tibetans have a saying.

From afar, the Yak looks handsome and healthy. When you come closer, it looks like a sickly sheep. And when you inspect them under the fleece, they are infected with lice and scabies.

With teachers, it’s the same thing.

That’s why corrupt teachers still have students, but the students are remote. Many people like to point at this mythical bearded figure and say, “That is my teacher.” 

It’s easy to admire from afar

But they are keeping their distance because it’s too dangerous to come close. 

They will need to look at their shit. And who wants to look at their shit?

From a distance, it’s safe. It’s like being a fan of a pop star. 

But up close? You are in for a very confusing journey.

Pema Chödrön once said: Get as close to the teacher as you possibly can. 

Even though her teacher was Trungpa. 

If you don’t know who Trungpa was, he was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five of Tibetan Buddhism all rolled into one. He was the epitome of the crazy teacher, who taught many of his classes completely drunk and was a total womanizer. At the same time, he was one of the most lucid human beings that ever lived.

Today Tibetan teachers of lesser stature than Trungpa, like his son, are falling like dominoes in the throes of #metoo. Pema Chodron herself has taken the extraordinary step of leaving Shambala, the community that Trungpa set up, in protest over appointing sexual predators like him to positions of authority.

I wonder if Chödrön would still say today: get as close to the teacher as you possibly can.

Enlightened? Check!

It should probably go along with a qualification: check the teachers’ level of liberation! As the Dalai Lama has said: crazy wisdom behavior is only accepted in totally enlightened beings. And they are probably living in a cave.

How do you know if you can trust a teacher?

Here are some things to try and find out:

  • What is s/he spending the money on that he is earning from her teachings?
  • Is s/he having sex with his or her students?
  • Does s/he love all sentient beings as much as her family?
  • When s/he gets angry, is it because s/he is triggered, or is it out of genuine concern for the student’s spirit?
  • Does s/he keep their word, or claiming something else every other day?
  • Are they generally kind or generally violent? 

These are just some things that you could try to find out. It’s a start. 

Do you really need a teacher?

The question, of course, remains if you really need a teacher.

If you ask the teacher, the answer is always yes. They have a vested interest. 

I think many ways lead to Rome. There is a lot of information available these days. Instead of a Guru-Chela relationship, you can quite plausibly have a Google-Chela relationship. Much progress can be made through the internet. 

But then who confronts you? Well, either you find someone or you take a good hard long look in the mirror. But, likely, you won’t be able to see what you need. Our blind spots are too hard-wired. 

For Kundalini Yoga, moreso than for any other kind of yoga, it is said that you do need a teacher. The practice releases so much turbulent emotion that it just gets confusing like hell if you don’t have someone that can help you cut through the crap. 

It is useful if that is someone who has gained some stability themselves. But you do not need to hand over your spiritual destiny to such a person.

I did, and after a long, long journey found out that in the end, it’s still me. Still me, that needs to cross the threshold. Finally, all a teacher can do is show you the door, but you have to step through it. 

Your spiritual destiny

You gotta take your spiritual destiny in hand from the very beginning. 

Many people profess to be spiritual but instead are using it as an escape from the world. The mother complex makes them want to suck at the mothers teet instead of taking full responsibility for their lives. Or they are looking for the father that they never had.  

For me, it was both. Goddammit did it take me a long time to get over that. 

Self-reliance is paramount from the beginning. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” as Emerson said. 

In the end, the dance with a teacher is not unlike getting infected with a virus. First, you don’t know that you got the bug and think hardly anything of it. Next stage, you get violently ill and realize that perhaps you bit off more than you could chew. Finally, you recover and settle into peace. Next time a teacher comes round, you have built up antibodies and can’t be infected anymore.

For me, the moment when I knew I could leave my teacher was when he was screaming, yelling, pushing and pulling at me, and I remained untouched, it did not touch anything in me, inside nothing could be transformed anymore. 

Trungpa confirms this.

4 stages of the student – teacher relationship

According to him, the relationship with the teacher goes through these stages:

First, you meet him. It’s like going to the supermarket, you dream of all the things that you will be able to buy. You are excited.

The second stage with the teacher is like being in court. You always have to defend your actions and never able to meet his demands. You begin to feel self-conscious and realize that he knows as much about you as you do, and its starting to become embarrassing.

In the third stage, you start seeing your teacher as a restful being, like a cow happily grazing in the meadow. You admire its peacefulness, and you walk on. 

The fourth and last stage with the teacher is like passing a rock in the road. You don’t even pay attention to it as you pass by. 

If you are interested in this, by all means, go ahead. There is a saying in spiritual teaching: “Better not begin. Once you begin, better to finish it.”

If you step on the spiritual path, it is like this.

Are you aware of that?