In search of the perfect teacher

By Annabel Simms

I was 30 when I went to my first yoga class in Hampstead, on the advice of my GP. I wanted to come off the tranquillisers she had prescribed to help me cope with the ending of a long-term relationship. The class was taught by a calm young woman with a musical voice, which I can still hear whenever I practise the relaxation exercise she taught us. I continued to go for a year, long after I had stopped taking the tranquillisers.

But when she was replaced, I stopped going. Her successor taught exactly the same exercises but neither radiated nor induced the serenity that I had come to associate with yoga. Several years later I tried two more classes in London, but neither of the teachers seemed to be particularly inspiring, and eventually I gave up.

Years later, in Paris, I tried yoga again. I was mortified to find the same postures much more difficult. I was out of practice and it took many more attempts, with different teachers, for me to clearly identify what I was looking for: the perfect teacher, rather than the perfect method, class size or location. I wanted exercises that induced a sense of physical, mental and spiritual well-being, which I could practise on my own, and a teacher who embodied the harmony that I felt was the underlying philosophy of yoga.

But very few yoga teachers seemed to me to be teachers at all, let alone spiritually advanced. Most were instructors, struggling to orchestrate large classes of mixed ages and abilities. I found some of the postures ridiculous and painful, and the “eastern” touches laughable: the sudden outbursts of chanting in Sanskrit, candles, music, statues of the Buddha – you name it.

I concluded that I hated yoga. The feeling of physical ineptitude was humiliating enough, but even more frustrating was the sense that there was something worth grasping, and that it was eluding me.

All the teachers I spoke to agreed that the teacher was more important than the method. One, to her credit, advised me to keep trying as many classes as it took until I found a teacher who was right for me. Then I came across a leaflet for a yoga class. “Calming, relaxing with stretching, breathwork and meditation,” it said. That was more or less what I was looking for, even though it was on the other side of Paris, so I decided to give it one more try.

This teacher was Californian and took a maximum of three people in a group. I was lucky – the other two had cancelled so I ended up having a private lesson. She began by asking me to read a handout on breathing before we started. It was the first time I had been given a reason for breathing through my nose during yoga (slows everything down, including the mind) and I immediately felt some of my resistance melting.

The exercises we did were unlike anything I had done before. She explained that the aim was to adapt the yoga to the person, not the other way around, and kept placing strategic cushions under me and limiting the movements to what I could accomplish comfortably. But the biggest difference was the focus on synchronising my breathing with the physical and meditation exercises. It was extraordinarily difficult – not physically, but mentally – and reminded me of my first driving lessons. “That’s it,” she would murmur encouragingly and my body responded, so that the tones of her voice became part of the movement and the breathing. I was internalising her voice in the same way as I had done with my first teacher.

At the end of the lesson she gave me handouts and a brochure. At last I had a clear rationale for the exercises I had been doing sporadically over 25 years, and it was as if someone had shone a torch into a darkened room.

Since that lesson, I have practised the slowed-down breathing she taught me every night. A lifelong insomniac, I am glad to have found a relaxation technique that works. And a yoga teacher who is right for me.

Annabel Simms is the author of ‘An Hour From Paris’ (Pallas Athene, £12.95)