For yoga teacher Jennifer Morrice, finding a mentor teacher was like falling in love.
"It's like when you find that person you want to marry," Morrice says. "Everything about it was just right."
Just as falling in love changes your outlook on life, finding a mentor teacher often changes a new yoga teacher's outlook on the practice.
Morrice was on the road to becoming an active asana teacher when she met Judith Hanson Lasater. "When I found Judith and restorative [yoga], it bulldozed everything else out of the way," Morrice says.
That was almost seven years ago, and she's been teaching restorative classes near her home in San Francisco ever since.
Enhance Your Teaching
It's no secret that yoga class assistants benefit from assisting seasoned, knowledgeable yoga teachers. But mentors often find that the relationship fosters their growth as teachers as well.
Tony Briggs, an Iyengar teacher who has been mentoring for 15 years, sees the relationship as positive for everyone. He gets help in his class, the assistants get experience and guidance, and his students get extra attention and more personalized instruction.
Being a mentor forces teachers to hone their observational and communication skills because the focus is not just on the pose itself, but on how to help the students with the pose. "You see where your teaching goes wrong, and where you need to be clearer," says Briggs.
The process encourages mentors to rethink their teaching methods, because they get valuable feedback from experienced yoga practitioners who understand the message they're trying to relay.
Defining the Relationship
Having an apprentice or assistant also cultivates meaningful, long-lasting relationships with others who share an interest in teaching yoga. And unlike a strictly student-teacher relationship, the mentor-apprentice scenario allows for a closer, more intimate friendship.
The trick is to juggle the roles of friend and teacher in a way that doesn't hinder anyone from doing his or her job in the classroom—or blur the boundaries outside the classroom. The mentor-apprentice relationship has to take precedence over any tendency toward competition, business, or any other possible association.
The California Yoga Teachers Association spells it out in its Code of Professional Standards: "We make every effort to avoid dual relationships with [assistants] that could impair our judgment or increase the risk of personal and/or financial exploitation."
"It takes a lot of skill," says Briggs. "It's not always easy, and a lot of us learn the hard way. But your judgment gets better with experience."
Anusara Yoga founder John Friend hoped to help his teachers remain professional and clear about their relationships when he structured the Anusara mentorship program. In Anusara, a student must seek the guidance of a mentor of his or her choice in order to become a certified teacher. The relationship is solidified by a formal, written agreement so that there are no questions about what is expected from either party.
The agreement specifically details how much time the mentor is to spend with the student and in what capacity.
"It's very organized, but it's driven by the art of it," Friend says. "Mentors do it for the delight and enjoyment and beauty of it. The heart's got to go first, and the mental and physical parameters are to serve the heart."
To Mentor or Not to Mentor
Anusara mentors must be certified Anusara teachers who display humility, dedication, compassion, fluidity, passion, and intellectual capacity. Friend assesses potential mentors' skills as teachers and their passion for yoga before he appoints them in the role.
Since he personally assesses each candidate, John Friend must have contact with every certified Anusara teacher. He will have had extensive contact with someone before he appoints him or her a mentor.
But since most schools of yoga take an informal approach to mentorship, it is often left up to the teacher to decide when the time is right to take on a protégé. How do you know if you're ready to be a mentor?
The timing is different for every teacher. Ideally, when the teacher is experienced enough to lead with conviction and confidence, and has the time and energy to devote to training an apprentice, he or she is ready to take on the mentorship role.
It's important to realize that experience, confidence, and even the desire to mentor aren't always enough. Although Natasha Rizopoulos is a distinguished Ashtanga teacher, she chooses not to have classroom assistants, because she doesn't have time in her busy schedule.
"It's a relationship you need to invest in and cultivate," says Rizopoulos. "I feel like the assistants would do better to be with someone who had the time."
The way you treat multiple assistants, if you have them, is also important. Matt (not his real name), a San Francisco-based teacher, says he began to feel slighted by his mentor when he noticed that the teacher seemed to give more attention and direction to those assistants who had studied with him the longest, creating a political hierarchy and tension among the assistants.
A good rule of thumb, says Briggs, is to make sure you're not spreading yourself too thin by taking on more assistants than you have time to train, and to do your best to provide your assistants equal attention. He suggests that new mentors work with only one assistant at a time to ensure a quality training experience.
And although mentoring can be invigorating, don't take on an apprentice when you feel your teaching has gone flat, cautions Briggs. "When your teaching is stale, you need to go back into your practice," he says. A lackluster attitude is not a quality you want to pass on to the next generation of teachers.
It's also true that the best mentor is not necessarily someone who has all the answers. Instead, it's the teacher who has a passion for yoga, and a desire to share that passion, who makes the most effective role model. You don't have to consider yourself an expert teacher to take someone under your wing and pass along what you know.
"It's humbling and takes more bravery to not have an answer," says Morrice, who respects Lasater for engaging her students in conversations on topics that don't have clear conclusions.
Ultimately, the best mentors tend to be those who see the role as a service to the yoga community, rather than as a chance to feel important or disperse their workload. Morrice now has assistants of her own, and she sums up the experience this way: "I was given a gift. I'm just happy to pass that gift along."
Erica Rodefer is Yoga Journal's Web Editorial Assistant.