If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you’ve probably heard at least one of the following statements:

  • "Leave your ego off the mat."
  • "It’s Karma Yoga - think selfless service.”
  • "Release your expectations. Release your judgements."
  • "Just stay present."
  • "Yoga is not a competition."
  • "Yoga is a competition."

These words echo through the best and the worst of yoga classes, but for many of their attendees they mean very little. I try to give every teacher the benefit of the doubt. After all, I don’t know a single person who teaches yoga just because it “pays the bills”, without any passion or love for the practice.

Hunting for a new yoga teacher is analogous to the process of online dating. You can read a teacher’s bio online, but to find out if you like them you have to go to their class in real life. Heated Bikram yoga or Baptiste power yoga work for yogis, like a strip club to a single person. You know what you’re going to get, even though it might seem to be more like a Power Pump class than a yoga class. These classes are often taught just like a Power Pump class, and people walk away satisfied with a good work out.

Many yoga students come to think of yoga teachers more like a personal trainer. The yoga teacher is playing the role of expert (guru) so we defer to their opinion. If you think of a yoga teacher like a personal trainer, you might replace that word “opinion” with the word “fact.” This is an unfair expectation to put on a yoga teacher. Once a teacher came over to me in a Vinyasa class and told me that I, personally, that I need drop my ego. I didn’t know this woman and was fairly new to Vinyasa so my thoughts immediately turned defensive, as though she were a doctor who just told me my diet sucks, when I’m doing best to eat healthy. A similar situation was recounted in this article, by Recovering Yogi. It’s a great article, a fun read, but check it yogis and yoginis - 

A typical US yoga teacher will probably offer yoga poses, breathing techniques, and maybe even some nuggets of wisdom. Crystal clear, right? No, and especially no when they offer a sequence that your mind directly translates into, “Yeah, gettin’ tired aren’t ya’ fatty?”

To relieve confusion and better clarify the job role, the title of “yoga teacher” should be officially changed to “yoga teaching offerer.” 

You may choose to defer to what your teacher tells you to do because they are the guru, but you don’t have to. You must make your choices based on what works best for you. To put that responsibility on the yoga teacher is unfair because it’s not their job, it’s yours. Someone could take a piss on your yoga mat and call it an offering. Most Bikram studios smell like a litter box, but they’re still packed full of students because the smell is just one part of an “offering” that those students see as net positive.

Personally, I’m not looking to just get a great workout. I can do yoga alone at home and get a great workout. There’s more to this yoga thing than just getting a great workout. Even a Bikram class can offer this, if only in the locker room, and that is community.

In the words of my yoga teacher, Mandy Eubanks, "You can’t learn this alone, but you have to do it yourself."

We need other people, i.e. community, to learn yoga for the same reason you can’t learn self-awareness in a bubble. Much of what I’ve learned about myself I learned from my friends, but that doesn’t mean they just told me who I was. I had to learn it myself. Yoga can be a lot like church, and the priest is the teacher or the guru. A strong community needs a strong leader. If you’re new to yoga, and you’re not yet part of yoga community finding one can be a difficult but worthwhile endeavor.

So say you went looking for a new yoga teacher or guru, but were burned like myself or the guys in Recovering Yogi’s article. I urge you to keep looking, and keep trying. Join a studios where you’ll run into the same students in the locker room or while waiting for class. Arm yourself with the desire to follow the path of yoga. And next time you’re in a yoga class and your teacher says something that makes you want to do things to them that are far from karmic, I offer you to take the following action:

  • Continue to follow the teacher’s instruction.
  • Do not focus your gaze on any one or anything in the room.
  • Acknowledge the sound of the teacher’s voice in your head.
  • Tap into the deepest channels of your imagination, and breathe…
  • Picture this teacher in your mind as a Barbie doll. (If male, sub. Ken.)
  • Pluck off her little rubber head.
  • Acknowledge the sound of her voice in your head.
  • Acknowledge your disbelief that a headless Barbie doll is trying to teach you yoga.
  • Go deeper into the depths of your imagination, and breathe…
  • Imagine that this person is not speaking, but rather, that God is speaking through them, in their voice.
  • If God’s not your thing, no worries - you already have a decapitated Barbie doll talking to you. 
  • Now, go just a little bit deeper into the depths of your imagination…
  • With all your heart, imagine the words of your yoga teacher as a divine offering, spoken through an imperfect person. 

You may find an orphaned child or baby Jesus to be a more acceptable stand-in-orator than decapitated Barbie. 

Sometimes I find a glimpse of empathy, or the slightest sound of innocence in the teacher’s voice. But honestly, the action of focusing on the instructors voice in the present instead what she said to me 3 minutes ago is transformative in and of itself. I have given my body a chance to naturally and meditatively flow through some warrior poses. That, my friends, is what we call “real yoga.”

If, in this action, you can accept being in this wretched person’s class for just one moment, then you may even find some gratitude towards your torturer for giving you a little taste of what it means to “be present.” Yoga is a practice. The more you practice, the more you learn, the more you realize it’s benefits.

If you live in America and read blogs on tumblr, chances are you don’t know how to “just stay present.” Chances are, if you’ve ever been on a yoga mat, your “ego” is what got you there. Ego be damned or not and whether or not yoga is a competition, reaping the greatest benefits yoga requires a community. Rocking your P90X alone in your living room ain’t gunna cut it.

You need a yoga community to truly learn yoga. Yoga teachers can scare you away from this, but you can pick your yoga teacher, same as you can pick your nose. So, GO grasshopper!! Do not fear the wicked, headless barbie biatch, for even she may teach you “real yoga.” And after class, you may politely take her name and avoid her class like the plague. Amen.

For more on the quest for a yoga teacher, check it yogis and yoginis: