The qualities that one desires of a yoga teacher are very personal and subjective. This is as it should be because everyone needs a yoga practice that fits his or her unique situation in life. It is ironic that we have taken a practice that is very personal into a group setting. Yet this is the evolution of the practice of yoga in the west particularly the practice of asana. Great Yoga teachers have evolved with the changing landscape of yoga offering the science of yoga in a manner that is still transcendent yet accessible to those who seek yoga’s transformational power.
When we think of a Yoga teacher in the west we are usually picturing someone leading us through a series of postures and perhaps breathing exercises. They inspire us to move, sweat, stretch and relax. Most people approach yoga from this hatha yoga based asana class yet this is only a small subset of the spiritual science of Yoga. Even this exercise oriented yoga has been shown to have profound impact on the lives of practitioners so it is extremely important to consider factors and qualifications that go beyond those of the normal exercise instructor. There is an abundance of teacher trainings and workshops designed to help aspiring teachers learn the anatomical and mechanical needs of a yoga asana class while expanding their awareness of yoga’s rich philosophical history and traditions. Yet the certificates these courses produce don’t teach, people teach! So how do we recognize a great Yoga teacher? First we must understand what yoga is and what we want from Yoga.
Yoga is a centuries-old tradition, science, and art that proceeds from the knowledge that all life is interconnected. When we perceive ourselves to be cut off, alone, or separate from life, we suffer. As a consequence of our false perception, our actions in the world may be ignorantly misguided, causing unnecessary pain to ourselves and sometimes others. Yoga tells us that we can disentangle ourselves from this morass of suffering and also prevent suffering for others by recognizing that there is no “one’ and no “thing” that is separate from us. We achieve this state of unity not through blind faith or mechanical observance of rituals but through a no-nonsense practice of the eight limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga Yoga). The eight limbs consist of moral codes for living ethically such as non-harming, truthfulness, discipline and non-attachment to sense objects (yamas and niyamas). The eight limbs also consist of physical practices (asana) that bring us into the truth of our embodiment, and breath awareness practices (pranayama) designed to balance our nervous systems and begin to still our minds. Through consistent practice over a lifetime, we learn to recognize what is really important and to let go of impermanent objects and transient thoughts and emotions associated with them (pratyahara). Through this recognition of what really matters, we learn to concentrate our mind and life (dharana) on those things that are of lasting value. With the practice of meditation we learn to maintain our equanimity in the most difficult of circumstances (dhyana) and thereby liberate ourselves to reach our highest potential (samadhi). As wonderful as all this may sound, Yoga is not a spiritual tradition suited to theorists or those who are inclined to reclining positions. Yoga is for those who have discipline, tenacity, and devotion. It is a pragmatic science where everything is tested and verified through direct personal experience.
Direct experience is the foundation of progress in Yoga whether it is a Hatha Yoga class at a gym, a TM group meditation, a pranayama workshop or a bunch of jubilant yogis chanting kirtan at bhaktifest. It would follow that a great yoga teacher would have a significant amount of direct experience with whatever type of Yoga she is teaching. This is important because no matter how much you intellectualize the subject matter in Yoga you can’t explain it well until you’ve experienced it as a practitioner. From this perspective a Yoga teacher is more of a leader or mentor than an instructor. To comprehend the special dynamics that occur between a Yoga teacher and a Yoga student, it is crucial to understand the unique nature of the subject being taught. Yoga is not simply information that the teacher carries and disseminates separate from herself, to be left in the classroom or studio at the end of the workday. What is being taught is a state of being, a way of living, which by necessity is intrinsic to the character of the teacher. In the study of Yoga, the teacher can lead the student only as far as she has gone herself. She can point a light only into places that she herself has been willing to go. She can empathize with the student’s personal quest, and the issues that may arise during that quest, only because she herself has embarked on such a journey. For this reason, it is difficult to separate the professional life from the personal life of a Yoga teacher. How can a way of life and a state of being be turned on and off at whim or divested when it is convenient to do so? To truly embody the essence of the teachings of Yoga they must, as Patanjali suggest in the Yoga Sutras, be practiced as “universal moral principles, unrestricted by conditions of birth, place, time, or circumstance.” (Yoga Sutras 2.31) So first and formost a great Yoga teacher is an example of how Yoga should be lived regardless of the style, school or tradition from which it originated.
It is said that the universe will provide a teacher when the student is ready. This is true whether you are looking to have flexible hamstrings or a flexible mind. It is also said that a Yoga teacher must meet their students where they are. So a great yoga teacher must have enough teaching experience and scholarly learning to be able to help a wide variety of individuals with their personal needs. This can be quite challenging in a large class where the instructor must “read” the bodies, energy, and mental predispositions of a large number of students simultaneously. A great teacher can respond to this without compromising their class theme or focus. She can go with more flow, alignment, or spirituality depending on whatever their students might need. At the same time a great teacher can connect individually with everyone in the room as if they were the only person in the room.
Whether it is called presence, charisma, or magnetism it is about connecting. This is one of those indescribable qualities that you can feel when a great yogi walks into the room. Their presence commands attention. Their energy can pick you up, it can make you feel at ease, it can make you feel welcome, and it can make you want to practice yoga even when you’re not feeling like it. They’ll help you leave whatever baggage you might have right at the door. Great Yoga teachers can work the room and make every person feel special. It’s as if they can effortlessly feel their way around a room. Whether it’s a subtle touch, a name call-out, or even just a glance that lasts a second, connecting with students makes a group class a personal class. When a teacher teaches from where they are, from their own true nature then their ego and its ulterior motives don’t enter the room. They teach from a place of unity and harmony. In a sense they are in a state of “Yoga” while they are teaching. These attractive charismatic qualities arise when we sense that the teacher is one with us and she has our own interests at heart. If a teacher isn’t steeped in the moral practices of Yoga this state of being will be hard to cultivate. It is from this place of unity that a teacher develops the vibrational energy that can be perceived by students and connects them to their teacher.
The quality of the teacher’s energy is a major factor in teaching yoga. It needs to be focused, calm, centered, and enthusiastic. When any one of these vital ingredients is missing, The class just won’t be great no matter what level of technical expertise the teacher has. Also, if the teacher is not having fun or radiating joy when teaching, then their teaching will be perceived as on the level of just another job. This is when teachers experience “yoga teacher burnout,” It is indicative that the inner joy of their personal practice has disappeared. If a teacher’s own interest in yoga is just on a physical level, her enthusiasm will not last that long. It is the inner sacredness and power of these ancient techniques that enables students to change their lives — and also moves teachers to teach with joy.
Sometimes we can get too serious about yoga and get caught up in the competitive aspect of our own practice and miss the part that’s pretty important — the fun. If a teacher is not teaching from their source then their ego will likely be reflected in the class. For competitive natured students it may be fun being pushed to try something challenging, for others it may be a traumatic experience. Ultimately Yoga is not as much about pushing (competing) as it is about feeling (being). When students push without awareness they get hurt. A teacher must check her ego at the door if she expects her students to do the same. Then everyone in the room will be able to work from a place of pure intention. Otherwise the class may become a place to showcase the ego of the instructor or individual students which is the exact opposite of the purpose of Yoga. Yogas citta vritti nirodha (Yoga Sutras 1.2) Yoga is mastering the mind (ego). This is why great teachers limit the poses they demonstrate to those necessary to convey the basic shape of the pose to their students. Demonstrating poses takes a student out of their own practice and into that of the teacher. It gives the student a false image, a “should” of how the pose is supposed to look. It creates another egoic impression of which the student must let go. Seasoned teachers use vocal or physical adjustments to achieve the same benefits as demonstrating does with less of the pitfalls. A subtle intuitive touch or an aggressive “get in there and move the kitchen sink” adjustment can be applied to aid the student in sensing their own internal alignment or resistance. There are always opportunities, even with flexible students, to help them to have deeper experiences. Adjusting students is a great way to inspire them to open, expand and release tension. This is why great teachers combine vocal cues with physical touch to make a yoga class a truly personal and effective experience.
Finally, a yoga teacher lives large in many a student’s mind often playing a significant role in their yoga experience. Someone who is barely noticed in a class may regard their teacher as a lifeline. So the impact of a teacher’s words and actions should never be underestimated. It is unlikely, for instance, that someone would assume that an engineer would be an ideal source for medical advice, or that a plumber might also pass as a marriage counselor. At any given time, however, a Yoga teacher may act in a capacity similar to a teacher, doctor, psychotherapist, physical therapist, priest, life coach, or parent. What all these roles share is an implicit imbalance of power based on the trust invested in the teacher. It is always safe to assume that a teacher lives in the student’s mind in a larger way than we can imagine. Following on this assumption there is an even greater responsibility to hold the integrity of the teacher-student relationship. There is an ultimate universal longing for deep intimacy and belonging. It includes the desire to cherish and to be cherished, to see and be seen. This desire on the part of a student to reconnect with her higher self and to feel whole within that self can often be confused with a desire for an intimate encounter with her teacher. This makes the student vulnerable to exploitive teachers which is apparent from recent sexual scandals surrounding yoga personalities. All of these teachers were considered great teachers, but were they really. For these reasons integrity of the teacher-student relationship and the impact it will have on individuals must be respected by teachers if they are to be considered really great.
Regardless of the particular style or tradition of Yoga that is being taught, all Yoga traditions share some common precepts: That the essential nature of each individual in intrinsically whole, good, and free. The yoga guidelines for ethical living, the yamas and niyamas, are emphatic declarations of this inherent goodness, which is apparent whenever the egoic illusion of separateness falls away. A great teacher wraps her technical and physical skills in these precepts and lives her teaching in a way that will inspire her students to find their own paths to personal growth and freedom of spirit.