Many American yogis dream of finding a master yoga teacher in India so they can learn about the practice in the place where it began—perhaps in some sweet ashram tucked away in quiet mountains. That idea has spun its way through my own mind over the years, and this summer I decided to try it out.
Over the past month, I’ve been traveling across Northern India, taking yoga classes and talking with fellow yogis who have spent months in various ashrams and classes. I’ve learned a lot about the reality of yoga here—some of which I wish I had known before I left home.
It’s true that the Indian subcontinent has a wealth of yoga teachers. Still, setting out simply to “study yoga in India” is a lot like trying to find a baseball coach in the United States. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of teachers spread out over many miles, and there’s no single guidebook to tell you who’s who. The good news is that if you know exactly what you’re looking for, you may be able to set up your classes from home. If your yoga goals are less targeted, you can still find a credible teacher—you just need to give yourself much more time on the road.
Choose Your Path
Generally, there are two ways foreign yogis try to connect with a teacher in India. Some plan focused yoga trips, and others are wanderers.
For anyone, but especially for those who have specific goals and/or limited time, it’s important to do your research long before booking your plane ticket. Suppose, for example, that you’d like to study at the B.K.S. Iyengar Institute in Pune, where you could work with some of the top teachers in the form. You should know that classes at the school are often filled two or three years in advance, and foreigners must meet a set of strict requirements in order to participate. And while there are dozens of ashrams across the country that do have spaces available for drop-in students, many fill up early during the high season (which varies from place to place, depending on the weather, but is generally between November and March).
If you’re not sure about your yoga goals, give yourself a lot of time, both to settle into the experience of traveling and also to test out different teachers. Luckily, some towns are known for hosting dozens of yoga teachers, many of whom have good reputations. But there are challenges inherent in this kind of trip, and it takes patience and a lot of letting go of expectations—including any ideas you may have about what a “real” Indian guru or ashram is supposed to be like-to make it work.
Whether you want to zero in or to wander, you might focus first on some of the towns that boast many yoga teachers. In the north, for example, these include Varanasi, Dharmsala, and Rishikesh (the latter holds a yoga festival each winter in February). But in any of these places, you’ll find hundreds of other tourists competing for space. This might be perfect if you want to meet a lot of other travelers. If you’re looking for a calm yoga vacation, however, roaming through such loud and chaotic towns could prove challenging. Still, you will probably need to brave that part of the travel experience for at least a while in order to find a teacher you love. Many travelers find that it takes two or three weeks of disconcerting searching before they find a comfortable ashram with a teacher whom they trust.
Ask for Advice
Ultimately, one of the most reliable ways to find the right teacher is to talk to fellow travelers, just as you would talk to fellow yoga practitioners back home in order to find the best studio. Though I knew little about the yoga scene before I got here, within just two days of my arrival in Dharmsala, other yogis gave me valuable tips about the best Iyengar, Sivananda, and Ashtanga teachers in the area. Learning from other people’s experiences and mistakes is a great way to gather good information efficiently, especially on a wander-journey.
A few precautionary notes are also in order. First, many of the yoga teachers I have worked with in India (even in Iyengar classes) have a far looser sense of precision in alignment than I am used to in my American yoga classes. They have a different understanding of what is safe and healthy. Bridging the cultural gulf is sometimes also a matter of translation when you work with teachers whose first language isn’t English. That’s another reason it takes time to find the right person—you need to learn a bit of the local language (it differs with each region, but Hindi dominates) and then learn to decipher your teacher’s particular take on English.
Another important piece of advice: there are always a few people who will take advantage of the reputation India has as a spiritual haven, making their money off of foreigners looking for the ultimate yoga experience. Sometimes this just means you’ll have a lame class with a teacher who doesn’t really know yoga. Occasionally things can get more sinister, so it’s important, particularly for women traveling alone, to use extra caution. I’ve already had a few questionable experiences during my short travels, including one teacher who wanted to turn a yoga class into a massage session. And I have heard other stories, including tales of some generally harmless but nevertheless unwelcomed and overly intimate, post-yoga hugs.
Looked-for Benefits, and Surprises
Warnings aside, it is eminently worth the time it takes to find a good teacher in India. For me, meeting teachers from different yoga lineages has been fascinating, and I’m learning a tremendous amount from seeing how different Indian yogis view the practice. Meanwhile, outside of the classroom, the experience of traveling can itself be a great way to work with your yoga-inspired life goals: patience and compassion are often tested and expanded on an international trip. Finally, the struggle to find the “ultimate” teacher has strengthened the lessons that some of my teachers back at home repeated over and over again. In the end, the most important guru I have may be me—and learning to trust myself more, as I gather input from teachers across the world, is perhaps the clearest path toward growth that I will find. Sometimes you have to travel halfway around the world to learn you have everything you need right where you are.