Yoga teachers step into a profession that comes with a lifelong trajectory of learning, inquiry, and continued education. The first few years—or decades—of a new teacher’s career are vital in planting the seeds for long-term success. While a yoga teacher training program or certification course may offer a starting point for leading classes, the true depth of understanding of the nuances of practice and how to teach only come with time. Having a mentor to guide and refine one’s skills is imperative to the growth process post-teacher training. It is also a recognition that to be a good teacher means making a commitment to being a lifelong student. This feels especially important in the yoga community today. After all, now more people are practicing yoga than ever before, teacher training programs are expanding, and ethical issues are at the forefront of the conversation.
The relationship between mentor/teacher and student is one that can be both intimate and profoundly transformative. For most of yoga’s history, this has been the primary mode in which people have studied to become a teacher. With the proliferation of more structured teacher training programs and classes that count hours, this has shifted. There is an importance to the mentorship model that is being recognized by senior teachers in different traditions.
Many teachers who offer 200, 300, 500 hour, and even longer teacher training programs emphasize or have added a mentorship or practicum aspects of their training. Teachers may also enter into one-on-one mentor/mentee agreements with students who are seeking the level of attention available through mentorship. There are even a growing number of training programs specifically geared toward graduate teachers who offer the opportunity to receive ongoing attention and mentorship. This comes with the benefit of greater opportunities for empowerment for teachers at all stages of their practice.
One example of a program geared toward graduate teachers is the mentorship program at Yoga Daya in Culver City. They have begun offering programs designed for teachers who are looking for what’s next beyond workshops and continuing education. According to Yoga Daya owner, founder, and mentor Tulsi Laher, “Two hundred and three hundred yoga teacher training programs provide the foundation. In order to be a successful yoga teacher, expanding one’s knowledge of the ancient science of yoga and the nuances of teaching is essential. Demonstrating patience, a mentor shares his or her experience as well personal secrets of the trade learned over the years to aid aspiring teachers to refine their skills for long-term growth and success and to expand their own knowledge to help others.”
Tulsi’s descriptions reveal something of the benefit of this interaction. Another description of the benefit of this relationship comes from my own teacher and mentor, Annie Carpenter. Annie has participated in a slew of scenarios within the mentorship dynamic. She says, “When I lived in Los Angeles and taught ten to eleven classes a week, I had traditional mentorships wherein folks would assist me once a week. We would have biweekly meetings which included assignments, reviewing hands-on adjustments, answering anything about their own practice, topical readings where they had to write essays on some of the great texts. I’ve had some people do just six months. Some do a year, and I’ve had at least two people do a year-and-a-half."
The benefit of mentoring under a teacher like Annie is that a student is exposed to the language around asana, the nuances of working with deeply varied bodies, and the psychology of holding space for people through every event and stage of their lives. Annie describes her perspective on the relationship, “As we all know, five hundred hours is really introductory level teacher training. Beyond that is where I get to know the teachers more personally, and I can guide them in the direction of what I feel they need to work on, including their own practice and their ability to be interactive with students.”
Linda Lack holds space for an expanded understanding and practice of serving as a mentor. The quintessential seasoned teacher, Linda has an advanced degree combined with forty years of dedicated practice and teaching in the movement arts and has developed and integrative modality called The Thinking Body-The Feeling Mind. Linda teaches her brick-and-mortar space (Two Snakes Studios on La Cienega in Los Angeles), at the Yoga Therapy RX Program at Loyola Marymount University, and in workshops worldwide. While she mentors newbies and seasoned teachers alike, her perspective on mentorship is broad and inclusive.
Everyone who walks through the door receives the benefits of her individualized attention. “I actually go in with an intention to mentor anybody who comes to see me,” says Linda. “I mentor people to live in the body and find possibility. I see people from a 10-year-old who cracked a lower limb doing soccer to 98-year-old people who are still able to get down on the mat.”
Linda supports people across generations, backgrounds, professions, and body politic, from those who are trying to avoid surgery to those who have had surgery and are in the process of healing, to those in wheelchairs to high performance athletes. Beyond the “who” of who is in the room, Linda says, “I’m interested in people creating a contemplative self-inquiry, whether you’re somebody who’s never done yoga before or you’re like many of the teachers who study with me and have been teaching for 30 years.” This could describe the work of many a dedicated yoga and movement therapist, and it is indeed this experience that draws even experienced teachers to seek out Linda as a mentor. One of Linda’s mentees says of her, “You tell the truth fast.” The trained eye of a body reader takes time to develop and it takes time and connections to share that knowledge with those eager to learn the skill.
Choosing a mentor comes with a sense of responsibility as well as discernment. The student who admires Linda’s ability to hone in with laser-sharp focus on the truth also comments on her mentor’s ability to lead by example and to create safe space in the practice room as well as in the relationship itself. There is also an acknowledgement of the seriousness of this level of inquiry.
After all, as Annie Carpenter points out, “The difference between what could be defined as a typical student-teacher relationship and that of a mentorship is the level of commitment and the depth of the intimacy.” When it comes to choosing a mentor, Annie says, “Frankly, one should be invited! The level of commitment that a student shows creates the condition for mentor/mentee relationship. But there is no harm in asking your teacher.” The chemistry is important. Tulsi Laher’s advice is to “Choose a mentor that you can connect with, and one whom is willing to give their time to help you.”
Willingness is part of the mentorship program at Yoga Daya for teachers who have already completed 200 or 300 hour certifications. People who are interested can enroll in a three-month mentorship program with Yoga Daya’s senior teachers. In this model, the mentees refine their teaching skills while being observed and supported by teachers in sequencing, knowledge of the asana, confidence in delivery, and ability to hold space. “For me, carrying on the tradition and the integrity of that learning was the inception of the mentorship group. Our slogan is ‘refine your skills for success’ because a lot of the time, when you go to teach, you’re thinking about how you really want to shine at your audition or you’re thinking about how you can build on your teaching to get more opportunities. The program is benefits students the way an internship provides benefit prior to going out there teaching. With the mentorship, we provide that avenue through coaching and feedback on your skills so you have the best opportunity in teaching.” Tulsi believes deeply in the power of building relationship with someone who you can ask questions and help navigate a career in teaching.
Even though each senior teacher’s methodology varies, the consensus is that mentorship is about relationship. “There is an intimacy that we need to have with students and that is not something you can really do in a large group setting,” says Annie. “Part of it is me knowing the teacher as a practitioner and as a teacher, and that just takes time.” Annie guides her students to look at the triggers, the areas they cannot see and those they are avoiding, and, in doing so, invites her mentees to develop a contemplative practice. She encouraged them to cultivate an ever-growing awareness that becomes vital when holding space for others.
Linda reflects the same necessity of relationship between a young teacher and a trusted advisor. “When you have somebody who can be a truth-teller, there’s a sense of where are the places we can deceive ourselves in a process of self-inquiry and where is the place where we get stuck,” says Linda. “Once you’re qualified and trained to do what it is you do to teach yoga, even yoga therapy, part of talk time is a support system. There are issues and things that happen in classes, and people need support. They need more experienced people like me to say, ‘This is what happened, here’s what I see’.”
While the 200, 300, and even 1000 hour teacher trainings build a strong foundation for the current and subsequent generations within our yoga community, the opportunity to be in relationship with a senior teacher is a profound experience. Yoga is not static, so it is important for any teacher’s education, maturation, and inquiry to be dynamic. To walk that path of scary, illuminating, and honest work with a trusted teacher who truly sees you and is patient and kind in the process is one of the greatest gifts we can give our futures. The trajectory of a teacher includes coming back to the source to refine a practice, receive answers to questions, and then leave with even more questions to grapple with for years to come. Whether someone is a first-year teacher or a person decades in, this is the process of yoga, and, as Annie so aptly states, “It cannot be rushed.”