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Who’s Your Guru? How to Find a Yoga Instructor

By asking the right questions, you'll find a match that's right for you.

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Once you’ve familiarized yourself with all the different types of yoga, you’ll have to find a place to study and a teacher to study with. There are several ways to find the right yoga teacher for you. Your local Yellow Pages will list teachers and schools in your area. Call up the schools or individuals who are listed and ask them to mail you a schedule of classes, and any other information they have that might be useful to a new student.

Ask your friends or associates at work to recommend a teacher or school. You’d be surprised at who practices yoga. You may want to start with a beginners class, even if you consider yourself to be in “good shape.” Don’t let the stereotype of the skinny little yogi sitting in Pretzel Pose fool you—some classes can be a real workout and will have you begging for mercy. Most beginning classes are ongoing, which means you will be joining a more experienced group of students. If this looks intimidating, or if you have concerns about looking “foolish,” try to remember that just about everyone in the room, including the teacher, once stood in your shoes—or your bare feet—and that they’re all fixed on their own practice and (though there are exceptions) not interested in judging yours.

Once you’ve gathered all of your information, talk to someone at each school or, if possible, the teachers of the classes you’re interested in. Be sure to first find out something about the school’s approach: some classes (like Ashtanga vinyasa) are notoriously vigorous, while others (like Kripalu) are much milder. Be sure you have some idea of what you’re getting into before you go, to avoid any unpleasant surprises. You’ll also want to know: the average size of the class (more experienced and popular teachers usually have large classes, and thus less time to work with individuals, while novice teachers who might be a little rough around the edges usually have small classes but more opportunities to give you personal attention); the length of the class (most run between 60 to 90 minutes); the cost of the class; what kind of dress is recommended; and whether the school provides you with an exercise mat or blanket, or if you need to bring your own.

If you have any physical problems or limitations, briefly describe them and see if the teacher feels comfortable working with you. You might ask about his or her training, certifications, and teaching experience. Next, if you’re able to sample a few different teachers, try one or more classes with each one. Don’t expect miracles. If nothing seems to “happen” after the first class, don’t be discouraged. Try again, or try another teacher or another school, until you find the right situation for you. Give yoga a fair chance.

Once you’ve settled on a teacher, it’s best to study with that person as much as possible, especially if you’re working with a particular problem. This gives the teacher time to get to know you so that she or he can tailor postures and instructions to suit your special needs.

There are a few things to be on the lookout for. Never perform any position in class that generates “bad” pain, especially in the knees, lower back, and neck. Naturally at the outset you’ll be feeling some pain—or what I like to call “heightened awareness”—in places like the back of your legs, groin, or shoulders; and while it may be necessary, even honorable, at certain times and in certain places to suffer in silence, you’re asking for trouble if you ignore or grit your teeth with “bad” pain in a yoga class. Either tell the teacher what you’re experiencing and ask for an alternative position, or stop altogether and assume a rest position until the class is ready to move on.

Also, while many teachers make manual adjustments in class—pressing on your back to help you twist, for example—always be certain that you’re comfortable with the contact. And if the adjustment is too extreme or harsh, let your teacher know immediately.

Contributing editor Richard Rosen teaches yoga in Berkeley and Oakland, California.