What to Look for in a Yoga Teacher | Mark Whitwell

“The basic religious notion that truth needs to be found, that it is higher, deeper, but not here in this ordinariness, has denied us our own power, which is life. Life has its own perfect intelligence. The underlying cause of humanity’s dysfunction-whether physical violence, war, sexual abuse, or mental despair-is the presumption of separation encoded in the patriarchal thought structures of civilization. | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

This article is part of a series in which Mark Whitwell tackles humanity’s dysfunction around intimate relationship and the root cause of sexual abuse in societal patterns of separateness, conflict, fear of commitment, and co-dependency. He explains how the real pleasure of intimacy that Yoga gives is the social solution that vanishes the duplication of limiting beliefs and transforms life into intimate participation in Life as it actually as, for everyOne.

“I never call my student, student. I alway say he is my friend. This called mittra, loving care. I want to offer loving-care and that makes a huge difference” — T.K.V. Desikachar

This unassuming statement from my teacher Desikachar contains an essential principle of wisdom culture: the absolute recognition that the teacher is not a seniority, not a ‘knower,’ not a person who is above, regarding someone who is beneath them. Real spiritual transmission happens only in a relationship of mutual affection between two equals, no more than friends, no less.

Why? Because true spiritual realisation is the simple understanding that every person is already the Truth of life happening, every person is the Radiance, and that life itself does not come in the form of a chain of being. Nobody has anything that you don’t already have yourself. Such a recognition is modeled in the guru-sirsya relationship.

With my dear friend Domagoj Orlic. It is written, The heart is the seat of mind. | Mark Whitwell

The great Siddha tradition of North India had this beautiful statement, “The Self is already attained.” God is given, in other words, the eternal nurturing power of the cosmos is arising as you and me. End of story. Likewise, my friend U.G. would say, “Nobody need give this to you and nobody can take it away.”

If that loving friendship between equals is not there, then what is transmitted is the problem itself: the social dynamic of disempowerment; the positioning of the knower and the one who does not know; the one who ‘has it’ and the one who is trying to get it. If we find ourselves in this paradigm then sooner or later we will have to rebel against it or simply walk away.

So rarely in our world is the principle of equality between teacher and student observed — in Yoga as in any other area of society. Many teachers pay lip service to the principle of no hierarchy whilst all the while maintaining a social position of authority: wearing special clothes, sitting on a special chair, receiving money, and the likes.

The Pyramid of Disempowerment in Yoga Business charts how sexual abuse, predatory behaviour, and physical assault are built upon a wide spectrum of neglect | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

And sadly, some of the 20th century’s most well-known teachers only deepened the patterning of patriarchal mold. Krishnamacharya, for example, was dismayed to hear of the aggression and bullying behaviour that his brother-in-law B.K.S Iyengar dished out to his students. Many teachers have been brought to their knees as allegations of psychological manipulation to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse have surfaced. Pattabhi Jois and Bikram Choudhury are just the latest in a long line of sexual abuse stories arising from unequal, seeking relationships.

‘The actual practice of yoga takes each person in a different direction.’ TKV Desikachar. The end of patriarchy is happening every in the world. The teacher’s job is to empower the student with their breath and to recognise them as the unique force of life that they are.

In the Bhakti cultures of India, we find a different model of the teacher. In these cultures it’s inherently understood that just to be a follower is everything. The teacher is a follower within the guru parampara. Yoga knowledge is not to be used as a power mechanism. Similarly, my teacher Desikachar would describe the teacher as a messenger passing on what they had received.

Desikachar also taught that it was the teacher’s responsibility to actively dismantle the presumption of hierarchy that will be brought to the relationship by the student. The teacher must attain ordinariness. He would advise his students to “always hold the teacher at arms length” so you can determine if there is any self-serving agenda going on.

With my dear friend and teacher TKV Desikachar. The world work that Desikachar and his father have done for humanity has the most profound relevance to our relational lives. Sex is where we are stuck. And everywhere we look we see pain, violence, sexual abuse, and hostility. Yoga reprograms the nervous system to receive, the whole body becomes soft and strong, giving and receiving in relationship of mutual affection and support. | Mark Whitwell

For those in the world looking for a teacher, know that they are rare but they do exist. They will possess three main qualifications: 1) They practice themselves, and so are linked to the fact of unity, the fact of the inherent equality of all in the all; 2) They have a good teacher; they have experienced what a non-hierarchical, teacher-student relationship is and so can enact them themselves with others; and 3) They care about others; they are a decent person.

If you find a person who meets these requirements, then you have stumbled across pure gold. A few years ago I published an important blog post titled, ‘The Urgent Need for Standards in Yoga Teaching.’ As the patriarchal model collapses all around us, a new model of relating is emerging: one of ordinary humanity, mutual affection, and nurturing support in local community. Thank you to all the dear hearts around the world who are bringing this world into existence as we speak.

  • Join Mark and his friends in the heart of yoga online studio for live classes, conversation and courses on how you can practice your own yoga at home.

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Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell has worked as a Yoga teacher around the world for the last 45 years and is the author of 4 books on Yoga. He lives in Fiji with his wife Rosalind.