Ashtanga Blog

Why is the teacher-student relationship so important in Ashtanga yoga

Thoughts on the role of the teacher in Ashtanga Yoga and why it is so crucial and valuable.

Tania Kemou practicing Ashtanga Yoga in Serifos, Greece.

Mysore style Ashtanga yoga, more than any other style, has the teacher-student relationship as key. 

Your teacher knows your practice by heart, they know where you need help, your struggles, your strengths and limitations. More than that, over time they get to know you as a person. You can learn and see many things by just observing someone practice. Your behavioral patterns unfold right before the eyes of an experienced and sensitive enough teacher. This is when the real teaching starts taking place. This is where transformation begins.

A good teacher that has learnt to know you will encourage you to go beyond your perceived limitations on days that you can surpass yourself. They will hold space for you to take it easy on days that you need to retreat and gather forces. They will celebrate your victories with genuine enthusiasm as if they were their own. They will teach you not to give up whenever things get difficult and uncomfortable. They will sit with you through discomfort, reminding you to breathe.

They will always remind you to breathe.

And one day, when you don’t need them anymore they will let you go gracefully, observing you from a distance, proud and happy to have known someone like you.

What many yoga practitioners do not see is that for wonders like this to happen two things are needed. The first one is time.

The Yoga Sutra 1.14 says: “Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.” In the same way, for a teacher to be able to not just mechanically instruct you but really see you and be of service, time is needed. 

The second thing is what many students who don’t have a teacher struggle with: devotion.

There is a difference between hoping in and out of classes, practicing with this or the other teacher as might seem convenient and building a long term relationship with a particular teacher. The first does not require anything on the part of the student apart from participating in the class and paying the price. The students only take in that case, they don't give anything of themselves.

In a Mysore setting, the relationship between teacher and student is not one sided. For it to work, the student also needs to give, not just their time in a consistent way but also trust and devotion. Resisting the urge dictated by modern society to always have choices, never commit to anything and anyone and be flexible and “free”.

What students must give in order for the teachings to be of value is the chance to the teacher to show them that real freedom does not come from multitude of choices but by making wise ones. If you treat your teacher like an easily substitutable service provider, you miss out on the rich and deep experience yoga teaching can be. If what you want to experience is yoga beyond mere entertainment/workout/accumulation of technical skills, you must open up and let yourself be seen by someone you trust and who is inspiring to you. Because in order for the teacher to really be able to guide and help you, they need to see you, they need to know you.

Like all meaningful relationships that survive and flourish throughout the years, that of a teacher-student needs care, time and devotion from both sides.

In that case, wonders happen that can change lives.