It is wisdom to know others; it is enlightenment to know oneself. ~ Lao Tzu
I’ve been fortunate to learn from so many knowledgeable yoga teachers over the past 30 years. My first teachers, Olivia Cita Mason and David Riley, as a physical therapist and doctor, planted a seed of curiosity about anatomy in me, and introduced me to the Iyengar system. The late Mary Dunn inspired through her knowledge and enthusiasm. Judith Hanson Lasater has, among many other things, shown me how to be a teacher. From Donna Farhi, I learned how to uncover the Self through the process of discovering the underlying physical patterns that express themselves in my every movement.
From my mentors, Pujari and Abhilasha, I learned the most direct way to know myself—through fearless mindfulness in 25 years of extended meditation retreats. All these teachers, and several others, have shared different avenues that lead to the core of who I am, and by extension, who we all are.
What Makes a Good Teacher?
If I was ever asked to pick one quality that makes a good teacher, I’d say, unequivocally, “a teacher who knows herself completely.” Of course it’s important for a teacher to know her subject. For a yoga teacher, these are essential: understanding of yoga’s underlying philosophy and intention, knowledge of anatomy and physiology, knowledge of asana and pranayama and their effects on the physical/mental/emotional bodies, and knowledge of how to sequence poses in order to create the desired result. All these things are relatively easy to learn, and don’t necessarily require a whole lot of self-reflection. But to teach spontaneously and compassionately, with the wisdom to see each student as a multifaceted, already complete individual, you must know yourself.
How to Know Yourself
Knowing ourselves sounds easy. But to know yourself requires that you see and accept all aspects of yourself, those qualities we like and those we don’t like. We must accept all our limiting beliefs, skewed perceptions, prejudices, judgments, healthy and unhealthy desires, and—something that’s equally difficult for many of us—our infinite beauty and capacity for love. If we do not at least begin this process of understanding who we are, and who we are not, we will project our limiting beliefs, perceptions, desires and prejudices onto our students.
How do we get to know ourselves? Delving deeply into our bodies and minds in Hatha Yoga practice is one way. Spending time with an impartial mentor, teacher or counselor who is willing to reflect ourselves back to us is another way. These two things, along with mindfulness practice under the guidance of my teachers, have been my way.
Angarika Munindra said, “If you want to know about something, look at it.” I love the directness and simplicity of this—no bells and whistles, nothing you need to remember or believe.
Once, on a mindfulness retreat many years ago, it suddenly occurred to me that in my practice I was doing no less than being relentlessly, fearlessly, with Truth. Riding the ever-changing moment, simply being with whatever was occurring at the time, while it seemed way too simple to be so profound, anchored me in all that is verifiably true. It did not matter if what was happening in the moment was a life-changing insight; overwhelming sadness, anger, fear or love; or four measures of a Strauss polka endlessly running through my head. No matter what is present, it is what is true.
Mindfulness and the Power of Choice
To know the nature of the ever-shifting mind—all of it, the pleasant and unpleasant—is to know ourselves. To know what motivates us, what we crave and what we avoid, and to accept these patterns and recognize when they are arising, gives us the power of choice. We can operate automatically from these motivations, or we can choose a different way of seeing and behaving in the world. As teachers, we can recognize when we are seeing our students through the filters of our own preferences, or we can choose to drop these filters and see them for who they are—but only if we know ourselves well enough to know there is a choice.
To know yourself is a lifelong process. Our deepest, most powerful motivators do not live at the surface of our being. Uncovering them takes time. But the good news is that while the process is humbling and challenging, over time we take our deeply held misperceptions less and less personally. Recognizing them becomes a joy, because we know that with recognition, comes the beginning of choice, and the painstaking but enlightening work of rewiring ourselves.
If you teach, find a teacher who can truly see you. Look around until you find the teacher that can be your perfect mirror. Most of all, whatever you practice—Hatha Yoga, Pilates, meditation, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, hiking in nature—practice with presence and patience. To know yourself takes a lifetime.