Why Modern Yogis Need Mentors

A great yoga teacher will hold you accountable to your practice, and yourself.

Molly O'Neill is a teacher at Wanderlust Hollywood. Come practice, listen, taste, learn, and gather with us at our new center.
It’s hard to imagine showing up at the Iyengar Institute in Pune with a Groupon. Or making a ClassPass reservation to practice second series in Mysore. But in the struggle to remain competitive in an ever-growing market, studios and gyms have found creative ways to attract new students. And in some ways, that’s a great thing: People in underserved populations have an easier time than ever finding an affordable class. But with the merry-go-round approach, newer yogis tend to experience breadth, rather than depth, in the practice. When you’re constantly looking for the next great deal, you risk missing out on one of the most fulfilling relationships of a yogi’s life: the one between teacher and student. In Light on Yoga B.K.S. Iyengar wrote, “The relationship between a Guru and a sisya [disciple] is a very special one, transcending that between parent and child, husband and wife, or friends. A Guru … inspires confidence, devotion, discipline, deep understanding, and illumination through love.”
When you’re constantly looking for the next great deal, you risk missing out on one of the most fulfilling relationships of a yogi’s life: the one between teacher and student.
Every great teacher pays homage to their gurus. But why is it still important for the casual, modern yogi to find a mentor? Experienced teachers connect us to the lineage of the practice. They transmit to us the love and knowledge received from their mentors, who received enlightenment from the masters before them. Regardless of how modern yoga may look different from the ancient spiritual practices that birthed it, studying regularly with a guide well-versed in yogic history helps us understand the greater context of our work on the mat. Our teachers hold us accountable. Over time, your mentor will recognize your samskaras, or patterns, and help to expose them. Whether it’s constantly arriving late, favoring one shoulder in downward dog, or fidgeting during Savasana, a teacher who sees you regularly will notice this and find a loving way to call it to your attention. This process helps us to cultivate self-awareness, and uncover bigger patterns keeping us from achieving our full potential off the mat. And, conversely, when something goes awry in your life—loss of a loved one, trauma at home or at work, addiction taking hold—your mentor will see that manifested on your mat. And even in a group setting, a teacher who knows you and cares for you will find a way of offering some support or guidance. Maybe it’ll just be a sweet child’s pose adjustment, or a mantra or intention that resonates with you. Without becoming your therapist, a good teacher will create a safe space for you to work through your troubles.
Without becoming your therapist, a good teacher will create a safe space for you to work through your troubles.
I met my teacher, Joan Hyman, when I was living in Philadelphia. Joan came there each year to teach workshops. She talked about the body in terms I’d never heard before, showed us how to use props to deepen and strengthen inversions and backbends, and wove in pranayama and philosophy in a truly organic manner. I remember walking out of my first workshop with her feeling like my whole being was vibrating. I knew I needed to learn more from her. So I signed up for her 200-hour teacher training. The month I spent studying with my teacher every day changed my life in ways I never expected. I quit smoking, left a toxic relationship, and started teaching yoga. Two years later, I moved to Los Angeles to complete my 300-hour training with her. My first year in LA was rocky. While completing my 300-hour certification, I was working like crazy to get established as a teacher in a huge city, and trying to build a community of friends and peers. My partner and I struggled to stay afloat financially and emotionally. I turned 30. My father passed away after a long illness. But Joan had stressed to me the importance of prioritizing my practice, so I structured my weeks around attending her class. That schedule gave me stability in a time of upheaval, and it made me aware of my progress on the mat—which helped build my confidence. It gave me something to look forward to. I told a friend recently that I appreciated the discipline of having to show up for my teacher rested and ready for class every week. She responded, “Yes, but what she’s really doing is getting you to show up for yourself.”
You can have many teachers over a lifetime of practice. But when you find someone who sparks your soul, slow down and spend some time in their presence.
By all means, go and ride the merry-go-round. Check out studios in your neighborhood, across town, and online. When you travel, take the time beforehand to seek out the best teachers in that area. But when you feel moved by an instructor’s words or touch or way of sequencing, introduce yourself and tell him or her so. Then come back for a second serving, and a third, and a fiftieth. Invest in that relationship as you would any education. Show up, be present, and take nourishment from those teachings. If he or she offers additional workshops, trainings, or retreats, consider attending, or even booking a few private sessions. The smaller the group, the more personalized feedback you’ll receive. You can have many teachers over a lifetime of practice. But when you find someone who sparks your soul, slow down and spend some time in their presence. As with any relationship, you get what you give. — molly-bioMolly O’Neill studied English and creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. When she’s not teaching yoga at Wanderlust’s flagship studio in Hollywood, she’s hiking and camping her way around California, eating tacos, or hanging out with her two rescued pit bulls. Check out her full schedule at mollyoneillyoga.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.