I feel blessed that I have been to classes where I really haven’t felt myself responding to the teaching style or teaching, often this was the case with various styles of yoga that require the teacher to teach in a particular way. I wanted to use this post to explore what I think makes a good Yoga Teacher.
I have at times left these classes feeling red hot anger and frustration that I was not good enough, embarrassed or humiliated all of these emotions can be a perfect combination for injury or perhaps worse, to never return to a yoga class again. I believe it to be very dangerous to build a yoga practice on premise of not being good enough or in an environment built on fear or ego. I am not alone, several of my friends have had similar experiences and no nagging from me will get them back on the mat. But thankfully I have also had some teachers that have inspired me, challenged me and changed me in some way. While I believe it to be a privilege to be taught by these wonderful teachers, it also feels that they feel it is a privilege to be teaching yoga.
I believe that the very most important quality of a teacher is a teacher who lives their yoga; we are after all yoga teachers and not just asana teachers. Understanding the philosophy, history, lineage and that yoga is a devotional practice. I believe it is important that teachers are aware of and follow their interpretation of the Yamas and Niayamas as I believe these restraints and observances make up certain qualities I think are important in a yoga teacher.
For example the first two yamas- ahimsa, satya are very important qualities in a teacher. A teacher practicing ahimsa or non-violence is at the same time practicing compassion, for example in an introductory level class you would not ask students to practice sirsasana (headstand), you are potentially setting the student up for injury, instead you show compassion and slowly and safely build up the strength and flexibility through practice so that one day maybe the student may be able to practice this wonderful inversion.
The risk of injury in a yoga class can be high, especially with newer students who may still be working on alignment by practicing and teaching ahimsa by teaching asana in a safe way ensuring the risk of injury is minimal and asking a student to stop doing something you feel is unsafe or a an injury risk for themselves or anyone else. I believe creating a supported and safe environment for all is a fundamental role of a yoga teacher. By creating a positive environment- disparaging, offensive or inappropriate comments should not be allowed or accepted in the yoga space.
On a more subtle level you practice ahimsa my making adjustments on students safely and to a level they are comfortable with and respecting students who may wish to not be touched. We can teach students about ahimsa how it relates to their yoga practice, being compassionate to themselves and listening to their own bodies.
Satya or truth/honesty is also very important when teaching yoga, being honest when you may be injured or feeling unwell, teachers are not there to be put on a pedestal and honesty builds trust. Being honest that every body is different, mastering a pose is mastering the pose for your body, it’s not always about getting your head to the floor in Prasarita Padottanasana!
Being honest that the path of yoga is a lifelong journey and as teachers we are still on this path. Encouraging your students to be honest with themselves, their own limitations and bodies and to not practice things not appropriate for their body, but also encouraging students to challenge themselves rather than getting stuck and doing a pose ‘well enough’ and being dishonest when it could be done better.
Niyama, Tapas or self-discipline is also important, you can be a positive role-model and play a positive role in your students life, even if it is only one 90 minute class, once, so standing with good posture when teaching, demonstrating with alignment and good technique.
One of the qualities from the Niyamas that I think is one of the most important qualities of a yoga teacher is Svadhyaya or self-study. Including; asana, pranayama and meditation you must spend time in your own body, continually learning, growing and developing. How can you talk about the benefits of a yoga practice if you don’t have a complete one?
I think that living your yoga is living with authenticity and awareness and yoga gives me a more open, softer heart, and helps me in every facet of my health and well-being and I think that this is a very good place to be teaching yoga from. It is also respect for the science of yoga and the history of yoga.
Anatomy and Ayurveda
Yoga is a devotional practice and I believe it is very important to remember this, but I think it is also fair to assume that most students seek yoga to improve their health and wellbeing in someway and so a sound understanding of anatomy and the musculoskeletal system is a very important quality. Understanding how to sequence asana, for example; where twists and forward bends come in a class, what are appropriate warm up sequences for specific asana etc.
It becomes extremely important when working with different groups eg. prenatal yoga, yoga for older people, kids yoga etc. that we can share how yoga can be of great benefit for different stages of life and having sound knowledge of the body’s systems and inner workings is important when it comes to this, especially if the student is in a more fragile physical/emotional condition due to something such as pregnancy. Some of these life stages can be so joyous and some so confronting and yoga is such a wonderful tool to assist in not only helping the body but also celebrating the body and life stages.
I also personally think it is also very important to have a basic understanding of common injuries, illnesses or anatomical problems students may come with eg. a disc bulge, scoliosis or depression and having understanding which asana can help with the ailment or perhaps pranayama and meditation techniques which could be of assistance. As yoga teachers we are not in the business of diagnosis, but we can make suggestions asana that may help tight shoulders or flat feet, for example and understanding the anatomical and kinetic body helps this.
On a more general level for the safety of your students it is extremely important to understand contraindications and cautions of specific asana is fundamental.
Ayurveda is Yoga’s sister science and I believe ultimately they have a very distinct and important bond, ayurveda deals more with the health of the body and digestion, while yoga purifies the mind they compliment and embrace each other. Like, I have stated people seeking yoga are generally seeking to improve their health and well-being and ayurveda can transform people’s health so I think that an understanding the basics of ayurveda is a great quality in a teacher.
Communication and compassion
BKS Iyengar says “Confidence, clarity and compassion are essential qualities for a teacher.”
I agree with BKS 100 percent, confidence and clarity are all about communication and having good clear, concise instruction is very important and I think this comes with experience and fine-tuning over time to be able to communicate the best way that you can.
The way you communicate can be an indication of your confidence and a teacher that comes across as less confident through their communication, could be translated by students as having a lack of knowledge. Same goes for not just instruction, but demonstration and adjustments must be done with clarity and confidence.
I think that the use of Sanskrit language when naming the asana in class is very important and I don’t think it is appropriate to teach yoga using only English terms. I would not feel comfortable taking yoga classes from someone who didn’t use Sanskrit. Sanskrit as a student has helped me in ‘moving meditation’ hearing the foreign unfamiliar sounds triggered a relaxation and meditative response in me. This is also about respecting the history and lineage of the ancient science of yoga.
Being a good teacher is about being equipped with the right knowledge and learning from a good teacher yourself, having an open heart, compassion and to be without judgments.
I think part of being a good teacher is understanding and embracing that we never stop learning, there is always more to know, more to see and more to feel and this means that the practice and yogic journey never ends, it evolves. Hunumasana never stops being difficult to do, it just gets easier to do it.