The recent passing of luminary Sri K. Pattabhi Jois sent waves of reverence, gratitude, and humility around the world. Even those who align with traditions other than Ashtanga vinyasa have felt called to pay their respects. John Friend sent out a note on Twitter asking Anusara Yoga teachers to do 11 Sun Salutations and studios everywhere held memorial classes.
Such a monumental event sheds light on yoga’s future: How do we honor our legacies amid rapid innovations? We must return to the relationship between teachers and students. While the dynamics of these duos may differ across cultures and centuries, the key to balancing change with tradition rests in preserving these magical bonds.
Glimpse three relationships between leading yoga teachers and their top students to glean how friendships grow, stars are born, and legacies are left.
Every Teacher Has a Teacher
“When I started practicing, I had an imprint of the importance of a teacher-student relationship,” remembers Sharon Gannon, author and cocreator of the Jivamukti Yoga method.
“Rarely do I see this type of attitude today, even among serious practitioners,” she adds. “I still recommend that one find a great teacher, not just a good one.”
In an era of quick fixes and stark independence, a teacher can serve an invaluable role in a student’s life. She (or he) is willing to take you under her wing, give you advice and suggestions to help you improve your skills, show you how she did something that helped her succeed, and assist you in reaching your goals.
Just ask the yoga teachers whom you most revere, and chances are strong that he or she had at least one lasting role model.
Prana Flow Yoga teacher Shiva Rea agrees. “I absolutely did, on multiple levels,” she says. Her mentors ranged from K. Pattabhi Jois and Chuck Miller to Ammaji, the hugging saint. “The continuity between these has to do with nonverbal communication, or transmission that’s on an energetic level.” Despite the fact that each of her teachers verbally and physically may have taught different things, they all translated to Rea an essence of unconditional love through their very way of being—communicated through touch or even a glance.
Likewise, Ana Forrest found her teachers in diverse forms: wind, water, storm, lightning, earth, sky, stars, fire, wild animals, and her own suffering and emancipation from it. Healing mentors and therapists, past and present, have also guided her.
The Perfect Student
Rea and Forrest share a willingness to feel beyond themselves and to receive wisdom, love, and support from their teachers. They realized that the teacher/student relationship only works when students devote themselves to the process.
“Before I accept someone as a student, I want to know that they really want to learn what I have to teach,” Gannon says. “I am not interested in convincing someone of anything; they must already have the inclination to want to know.”
Of course this drive must be tempered. Rea appreciates students who are not overly eager to lead workshops or teacher trainings on their own.
“A lot of people put the cart before the horse, and that’s not going to work in becoming a teacher,” she warns. “You really have to be rooted in the flow of yoga in your heart to be able to carry that energy.”
When the Student Is Ready, the Teacher Appears
In many ways, it is up to today’s students to preserve the transmission of a legacy through honoring and honing their relationships to their teachers.
Leading students of Gannon, Rea, and Forrest all describe a deep intuition, followed by fierce commitment in their relationships.
Fourteen years ago, as an undergrad at UCLA, Simon Park became Rea’s student. She had just finished her master’s degree in the World Arts and Cultures department and was teaching her first university-level course, Yoga for Dancers.
On the advice of a neighbor, Park enrolled in the course to help rehabilitate his knee after an injury.
“I had no real concept of yoga, and during the first day of class Shiva demonstrated a part of the third series of ashtanga. I was in awe.”
While he first found the practice challenging and disorienting, he stuck with it. When the course ended, Rea invited Park to continue taking classes with her at Yoga Works.
“At that point, I found myself asking why people who had discovered the practice didn’t do it every day!” laughs Park, who today travels around the world leading his own workshops and teacher trainings in Rea’s Prana Vinyasa Flow method.
Regina Zwillig first learned of her future teacher, Ana Forrest, while watching one of her yoga demonstrations. While Zwellig had never heard of her before, she was captivated by Forrest’s beauty, grace, control, and strength. Within minutes she knew that she had found her teacher. Today the two are dear friends.
“By studying with Ana, I have been able to achieve things I never would have thought possible five years ago,” says Zwillig.
Alanna Kaivalya, who teaches in New York City, first devoted herself to teachers Sharon Gannon and David Life in their 2003 teacher training sessions. She then went on to mentor in teacher trainings, attain advanced certification, and assist the Jivamukti founders both nationally and internationally.
“The constant travel with them started to result in opportunities for me to teach in various places, and they also began to encourage studio owners and conference coordinators to invite me to teach,” Kaivalya explains.
While these may sound like fairy tales brimming with luck and good fortune, obstacles riddle any path.
Zwillig confesses that her challenge has been in staying steady, even when she most wanted to run from the truths that Forrest had helped her to see about herself.
“It takes a high level of commitment and determination to evolve and grow, and sometimes it seems like it would be so much easier to just sit back and get lazy,” she admits. “It’s at these moments, the low points, that we have the most opportunity to grow if we can just be humble enough to go back where we started and sit on the mat in front of our teachers once again.”
On Leaving a Legacy
True teachers hold this vision: that their students will surpass them in wisdom and skill. Such care and vision are neither common nor effortless.
“To be a mentor is challenging, rewarding, and heartening,” Forrest admits. “I teach people how to wake up and cultivate a taste for breakthroughs without being stopped by their own fear.”
Such transformational work has its challenges, as when students hit the next layer within themselves that needs healing. It’s in these moments, Forrest finds, that students can regress to their worst selves, needing coaching to continue to move forward into their own brilliance.
“Yet this challenge is one of the benefits,” she says. “In order to walk through a person’s healing with them, I also have to travel that road through my own difficulties. I also have breakthroughs and epiphanies, discovering new parts of myself that are precious.”
Honoring the sacredness of another comes through being able to listen and see well.
“My teachers taught me that the only real job a teacher has is to see the student as divine,” says Gannon. She has also found that the relationship is a practice of listening and being receptive.
Rea offers another dimension to mentoring: that of authenticity. She has learned that real connection happens through friendship, rather than allowing her students to put her on a pedestal.
“I’ve noticed that when I’m authentic,” says Rea, “it puts my student friends at ease and makes them more comfortable with the reality of their own experience, including passion and joy and love.”
Carrying the Torch
This wise humility allows for legacies to live—and evolve—through students. For example, Kaivalya honors Gannon’s teachings whenever she takes the seat of a teacher.
“From referencing them when I teach to [taking on] big things like traveling and teaching Jivamukti Yoga to making the teachings accessible through podcasts, I remember that the teachings are bigger than Sharon or David or me, and that whenever yoga is taught with love, everyone benefits,” she explains.
At the same time, she does not feel limited to teaching exactly as her teachers do but liberated to be herself. Once she learned to play by the rules of Jivamukti Yoga, they actually set her free.
“The more the teachings took hold,” she says, “the more my own authenticity started to shine through.”
Zwillig agrees. “Being my most authentic Spirit is honoring Ana’s message and legacy.”
How to Preserve the Bond
Whether you formally ask a respected teacher if he or she will be your mentor or whether this relationship develops organically, review the following to be sure to get the most out of your relationship:
Be receptive. “Be receptive to the teachers that you’ve chosen,” says Kaivalya. “We grow so much when we truly embody their teachings because we trust them to guide our way, and that receptivity leaves us open to let the transformation of yoga take hold.”
Be persistent. “Never give up on deepening your relationship with the teacher that you really admire,” says Kaivalya. “Go to their classes, read their books, ask if you can help them. When you make yourself invaluable to them, then you will undoubtedly be given opportunities to work more closely with them, and this can take your teaching to the next level.”
Be willing to deepen together. “There needs to be a willingness on both sides to explore the challenging situations in our lives as opportunities to expand beyond our usual boundaries,” says Zwillig. “There needs to be a deep love and respect, and a tremendous trust in each other, for this process to be successful.”
Remember the Golden Rule. “It might be wise for a student to remember that how they treat their teacher will be how their students will treat them,” says Gannon. “Whatever we want in life we can have, if we are willing first to provide it for someone else.”
While faced so many opportunities to set out on your own, don’t miss the precious opportunity to learn in depth from someone more knowledgeable than you, or to share your own wisdom.
“The relationships we have with our teachers and those who consider us their teachers are the most important relationships we will ever have, because in them we are able to find our real purpose,” Gannon says.
“Through the teacher/student relationship, we discover what holiness is.”