Why a Great Yoga Teacher is Sometimes Crucial to Progress Your Practice

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series How to find your guru
See all articles in the How to find your guru series here.

Peter working with a student in backbends

Peter working with a student in backbends

by Kara-Leah Grant, Musings from the Mat

Six weeks or so into regular Mysore-style classes with Peter Sanson and I’ve having some serious insights and openings – not just on the physical level, but also on the emotional, mental and energetic level.

But of course – how could it be any other way? These things are all intertwined and I’ve known this for a very long time.

Before I found Peter, I’d been searching for a yoga teacher for a decade or so, while doing a home practice and sporadically making it to class when I could.

When I say searching… I mean I would try all the teachers in my home town and go to out-of-towners when they came in to deliver workshops. I never hit the road trying every yoga teacher in NZ looking for the right one.

I’d given up finding a teacher before Peter showed up. I mean, a decade and no teacher? That’s crazy! But now, six weeks into practice with him, it’s beginning to all make sense.

See, because I didn’t have a teacher, I developed a home yoga practice. Because I developed a home practice, I learned all about sticking to your practice no matter what. This knowing eventually become my book Forty Days of Yoga. If I’d found a teacher early on in the process, I likely would never have developed such a strong home practice and I wouldn’t have had the background necessary to write that book.

Plus, when I first started yoga, I was extremely tight, extremely rigid in personality, and living in extreme fear -although I had no clue about the last two.

It’s difficult to know what it would have been like if I’d started working with Peter straight away. It might have been too confronting and too frightening for me. After all, I spent years crying on the yoga mat – often in Bikram classes and mostly at home by myself. There were a lot of tears to burn through (seems there’s more to go too).

Now that I’m working with Peter, insights about my practice are becoming apparent.

The first is that because I started yoga with a messed up back, I’ve been super-afraid of damaging it, and this fear has created tension in my body. Extra tension. All my rigidness has been about protecting myself, looking after myself, supporting myself, holding myself against the world. It’s the armour I used before I found yoga, and it was the armour that I perpetrated during my decade or so of practicing without a teacher.

In essence, as a child and teenager, I didn’t feel supported in life, and so that was the reality I created with my yoga practice – one of not being supported. Is that why I couldn’t find a techer for so long?

Since moving to Napier – a move I made after doing three classes with Peter – I’ve felt profoundly supported.

First, I stopped at my Dad and step-mum’s house in Blenheim for six weeks and felt deeply supported by them over that time period.

Then, when I arrived in Napier, I stayed with an uncle, before effortlessly finding an amazing house with another single parent. She’s really supportive of my yoga practice, and with the help of her and her sixteen year old son, I’ve always got someone to take care of Samuel so I can get off to class three or four times a week. That’s been unheard of for me over the last four years!

Within two weeks of being here, I’d met a local studio owner and she’d invited me to teach at her studio, and she’s been supportive and encouraging of my teaching. She’s built up a beautiful community around her studio, and I also feel welcomed and supported by them.

I’ve discovered I already know people in town, like Ingrid and Helen at the EcoYogaStore, and my friend Trudi who teaches at Breathe in Havelock North, plus I’m effortlessly making new friends.

Seeing a common theme here? Support, support, support.

In the wake of this support, I’ve been showing up and doing my yoga and letting go of decades of accumulated tension in my spine.

I no longer have to artificially support myself – I can let go and trust that life will support me. I can trust that my spine will support me. I was only 15 when I was told I needed a spinal fusion. You could say it was the physical manifestation of the lack of support I was feeling in other areas of my life at the time. It’s pretty scary for a teenager to find out her own body can’t support her.

In the wake of this, I’m feeling my back move in new and different ways as new muscles fire up and the rigidity that I was using to hold myself up and separate from life starts to melt and dissolve.

Mostly, this has all happened because I feel both seen and supported in the yoga room.

Peter has been right here, since day one, gently admonishing me for the tension I held, plus giving me the support and confidence I need to let it go.

Recently, he adjusted me in Mariychasana D, and with his assistance I was able to bind my hands and almost hold the posture by myself – on the left side.

Doing the same thing on the right side, I found that there was fear coming up and that fear was creating holding in the right hip which felt like pain. The sequence of events intrigued me – first the fear, then the holding, then the pain. As soon as I noticed, I brought full awareness to my breath and coached myself into the pose, attempting to let go of the fear. I didn’t make it all the way, but bringing that awareness was enough.

It’s a reminder of the way that our bodies and minds work. If we feel afraid, it affects our bodies. That affects the way we move, or don’t move. As we start to unwind those tensions, we need to feel safe, we need to feel held, we need to feel supported.

I couldn’t do this work I’m doing right now on my spine without Peter.

I needed a great teacher to work with – someone who could clearly see me and in doing so, help me to clearly see myself, beyond being the woman with the messed-up spine.

The only reason I’m able to do this with Peter is because I trust him. I trust what he can see, and I trust where he’s taking me.

It’s no small thing that he’s a male teacher either. I’ve never trusted men – I’ve always been wary and perhaps even frightened of them. Working with a male teacher, and trusting him as I do that work, is also about learning to trust men.

Now, outside of class, I notice how often I tense up through my right hip. I’m constantly reminding myself to let go… and as I do that, I notice I’m not grounding down through my big toe mounds, so I connect to the earth there.

Once that happens, there’s a sense of opening and freedom through the pelvis which changes how my upper back moves. My entire body shifts in response to bringing awareness to releasing this one small area of tension.

It will take time to rewire my body and psyche – these are decades old patterns at play. But everything is in place.

Psychologically I trust life and feel supported by life. That sense of trust and support is showing up in my life in all kinds of ways, which then makes me open even more as I feel supported.

Of course, emotionally this process is not easy. There’s all kind of grief and fear coming up as I learn to soften and release. Even after the decade of facing into intense emotions, I still have days when it feels like too much. When I dread going to yoga, when I feel myself retreating from my practice even as I’m on my mat.

This is hard work, and it takes courage. I couldn’t have done this work a decade ago – I hadn’t built up my courage muscles enough, I didn’t have enough awareness, I didn’t have a strong sense of equanimity.

All through the years when I was searching for a teacher, people would remind me;

When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

Yeah right, I thought. I’m bloody ready! Now where is my damn teacher?

It’s only now, deep in the process of working with a teacher, that I’m able to see that I wasn’t ready.

I needed a decade of yoga under my own steam, I needed to find my own deep connection to the practice,  I needed to write a book about that practice.

This seems to be the nature of life. Things show up when we’re ready. Sometimes before we believe we are, sometimes well after we thought we were. All we can ever do is keep meeting the moment as it is – keep making the most of what we’ve got, even if it’s not what we want.

That’s what I did all those years when I couldn’t find a teacher. I practiced regardless. Out of it, I cultivated courage and equanimity, and I wrote a book.

Now, I have the teacher too :-)

Read more: How to find your guruDude, I May Have Found a Yoga Teacher! Maybe!

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