What does it mean to be a “yoga teacher”?
First and foremost, to be a yoga teacher is a call to serve. To be a yoga teacher is to have faith in the soul of each and every individual that walks into the yoga studio and believe that each person has the ability to self heal, to believe that each person has the capability to transcend any fixed beliefs in “I-ness.” These established beliefs inevitably cause suffering, the human need to grip onto people, places, things, expectations, and to create a “reality” that is, at its core, an illusion constructed by our mind.
From when I took my first teacher training twenty-one years ago, I’ve watched the evolution, the explosion, of yoga in the West, and while there are many who still, respectfully, hold true to yogic traditions, there are exceedingly more who are not quite clear on what’s what. What I’m sharing below are clarifications in a few areas that seem to have lost clarity and understanding, hence having been “watered down”, including clarifications of the responsibilities of teaching yoga. This understanding comes directly from my teachers, who I am very fortunate to say are some of the greatest teachers of our time, including Erich Schiffmann, Shiva Rea, Maty Ezraty, TKV Desikachar and Danielle Tarantola. It is my honor and service to share this with you.
- Training: What it Means and What it Doesn’t Mean: A two-hundred-hour teacher training is foundational; it barely scratches the surface of yogic philosophy and will prepare you to teach a basic, however dynamic, asana class, nothing beyond that. Yoga Alliance, (this is not an endorsement for YA; it’s only mentioned for the purpose of knowledge), formulated the outline of credentials for the two-hundred-hour training with the intention of covering the basics in a broad overview of yoga. Consider it Cliff’s Notes version of yoga, and quite frankly, barely even that! It is essential to find your passion and subsequent specialization in this vast science and philosophy. Resist the urge to know it all right away.
- Mentorships: Yoga is a teacher-student tradition. I highly recommend finding a mentor who can not only help navigate this thing we call life through yoga practices, but also offer support and feedback in class planning. Keep in mind, one must stay humble and grounded within the arena of service.
- A few words about “pranayama.” Let us begin with a working definition so that as I move forward in discourse you can have a clear understanding. Pranayama is a long, disciplined breath, in a specific way, for the purpose of clearing blockages in our energetic system. Consider our prana (energy) as “the fountain of youth”. Asana is a prerequisite to pranayama practice for the purpose of building strength and flexibility, steadiness and ease, discipline, attention, awareness and so much more. While in asana, we breathe in a specific and intentional way, but to be abundantly clear, this type of controlled breath is not pranayama. Pranayama is the scalpel of yoga practice. When we engage in pranayama we essentially make direct cuts to knots in our pranic system, for the purpose of energy blockage removal, so that energy can run abundantly, efficiently and freely. It is a practice toward mastery of moving and containing energy, prana, within ourselves. Every thought, even the briefest like the attention to an itch on our nose, is an expenditure of prana. Hence, pranayama practice is a sequenced practice similar to asana in that it also has an intentional goal. It is practiced with one’s mind completely and steadily focused while in stillness, a straight spine, as straight as your skeletal structure allows, and all three primary bandhas engaged. While most yoga instructors teach “Ujjayi,” warrior breath, in asana class, it is not the same as a practice in pranayama.
- Physical Limitations: Let’s move into individual and physical limitations of the human body for certain people. Here is one question you may be tempted to ask before starting class: “Does anyone have any limitations or injuries?” If a student says, “Yes,” what are you going to do? This is a real question; one you must be prepared to answer. Let us dive in: unless you are a doctor or have trained and studied for many years as a yoga therapist, one who is comfortable teaching the required therapeutic application throughout an entire class, asking about someone’s medical status is misleading. Even yoga therapists know that they need an actual diagnosis before prescribing a customized, healing practice. While it is certainly true that yoga is therapeutic, unless you have the aforementioned qualifications I suggest abandoning the medical questions to those who are qualified to answer. If approached by a student, It is appropriate to say, “I don’t know, but I can help you with modifications if you find that some postures are not working for you.” If basic therapeutic applications are something about which you are passionate, you should pursue the area of study. Additionally, I recommend working in tandem with a physical therapist if the need should arise for a referral.
- Time for a quote: “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind” (Yoga Sutra 1.2 in the most absolute basic translation). I highly encourage you to find a yoga sutra teacher and study! At the very least, you should know the Eight Limbs from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The sutras are an extraordinary work of brilliance that runs far deeper than one can imagine. A true appreciation and comprehension of every word, every syllable, is necessary if one is to bring to life each one of the statements which both define yoga and describe in detail and how to do it. A study of the sutras must be done in totality, entirety, wholly; for one can’t truly know or understand one of the sutras without knowing and understanding the sutra before and the sutra that follows.
I implore every potential yoga teacher to open his or her mind to the truth: that what we know when we learn to teach yoga barely scratches the surface of wisdom and knowledge in this life-long exploration of the Self. As Patanjali teaches us that yoga is meditation; it is determination and discipline; that a prerequisite to practicing yoga is faith. Yoga is a relationship with yourself, and henceforth with others as a reflection of your relationship with yourself. Yoga is science, philosophy, and psychology; the Yoga Sutras are an instructional manual for living. Should the sutras not be something of interest to you, that’s alright, but then I must encourage you to start specifying that what you teach is “yoga asana” not yoga. I’ve heard great teachers make this distinction and must tell you that it was received not only by the student but throughout the yoga community with respect.
- Teach what you know. Yoga is a universe of knowledge. There are as many variations of practice as there are human beings walking our Earth; therefore this affords the yoga teacher many options for specialization, such as strong-power flows, yin yoga, pre & postnatal, restorative, chair yoga, yoga for seniors, yoga for children, yoga for runners and athletes, meditation and pranayama work. Answering the following questions will help you to better understand your niche: What’s your passion and area of knowledge? Where has yoga helped you in your life? What specifically, about yoga, made you fall in love with the practice and want to teach? Dig into your why…..
Teaching from a place of experience will create a more valuable teacher to the students, especially to students who share common needs. The idiom “jack of all trades, master of none” said by Robert Greene is applicable to being yoga teachers. Let’s explore how: if you have never experienced breast cancer, been closely linked to someone who has, or worked with an oncologist or breast cancer support group, please reconsider teaching yoga specifically to this demographic. People come to yoga for healing, healing on a soulful level. It’s appropriate to acknowledge limitations and say, “I don’t know;” this form of humility shows great wisdom. Find your field of passion and master it. You can and will change over time as your practice evolves. For now, focus, study, create a network of teachers who specialize in specific areas of healing to refer students when their needs fall outside of your wheelhouse. Let us always remember, our first priority is our students.
- Cease ownership: The practice of collecting and taking ownership of students must stop. These behaviors are ego and fear motivated which are the polar opposite of what we practice and teach. Our primary purpose behind what we do is to help students, from our own practice and experience, to find freedom from their fixed states of mind which causes suffering. It is our service as a yoga teacher to guide students in the exploration of flexibility, strength, and health, in both body and mind, which often means referring the students to a teacher who is better suited for them. At the very least, not encouraging or supporting a dependency. Yes, yoga is a teacher-student tradition, but there is always freedom within that relationship. Yoga has a very interesting way of supporting narcissistic tendencies; be very careful in becoming an ego-driven teacher who thrives on codependency. The way to establish a following of students is to establish trust. When a student trusts that you have their well-being at heart, your relationship will bloom.
- Language barriers and how to overcome them: When I participated in my first teacher training at The White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara some twenty years ago, my teacher, Ganga White, was presenting our group with an introductory discourse on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In my New York accent, I asked a question about “Pentangeli.” Mr. White giggled and gently corrected my pronunciation with the clarification that the class was not discussing the stout, bald man from The Godfather movies. He further explained that the origin of yoga is an oral tradition known as “shruthi,” which means “that which is heard;” therefore, it is essential that teachers of yoga learn, pronounce and enunciate accurately. Lately, I’ve heard pose names like chaturanga dandasana spoken with rolling “r’s” like in Latin languages. The Sanskrit language does not have long rolling “r’s;” it has a lingual “r” which means that you tap your tongue on the palate of your mouth just once as opposed to the “rolling” multiple times. This may come across to you like a nitpick, but if your name is Sherry, would you be okay with people calling you Cherry? If your name is Tim, would you answer to Jim? There are many online resources for the pronunciation of yoga poses; take time to learn them or simply say the names in English.
- Unraveling misconceptions: Have you ever looked at a yoga posture, restorative excluded, and thought, “That looks comfy”? Not only is yoga not intended to be comfortable, but it should be uncomfortable. I want to be specific here and clarify what I mean: yoga should trigger sensation not pain, make this important distinction. As stated, the purpose of yoga is to break patterns and habits in both our mind and body and to release our grip on deeply seated beliefs. It is a wide misunderstanding that these practices bring us to a nirvanic experience. Part of the practice is to understand that life is hard and sometimes blindingly painful, but it is an extraordinary journey, and when one uses one’s time, even for a moment, in reflection and analysis, one can see that the passing periods of dis-comfort are rooted in deep love. Yoga practice teaches us to recognize and stay firmly grounded in love even in the most trying times of our life. It teaches us to be fluid in both body and mind so that our pure spirit can lead the way.
While it’s wonderful and exciting to learn to do a handstand, it is our service to our students to guide them to see and understand why they need to do this pose. We must guide them into the process productively. If the student has a deep fear of being upside down, then handstand is perfect! If the person has a prominent ego and wants to learn handstand as a means of praise, so they can peacock it all over Instagram, then teaching them the pose will reinforce their arrogance. Now you, as the teacher, have an opportunity in this example to give the student a true yoga practice by providing the student with the instruction of a plank pose to incremental chaturanga; this flow still works in the direction of handstand; although in a more humbling process. The goal is never the pose; the goal is the transcendence of the delusions in our mind and the knots and limitations in our body that form as a result. Hold space, with courage, for your students to be uncomfortable. This is a demonstration of your absolute faith in your students’ ability to self-heal. Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, The Dalai Lama, the list goes on, all experienced life with great challenges, profound pain, suffering, and yet, walked with grace through the eyes of love. Never did any say that life was easy and comfortable.
- Finally, and essentially, BE YOU! This happens when we become yoga teachers, when we step into a room full of students, and when we put aside the airs of an ethereal oracle. Here’s the point, we are not oracles and do not live a life of ecstatic bliss. We are human beings seeking transformation, perhaps a few steps ahead of our students in the process. Remember that we too try and fail repeatedly. I believe without any doubt that our humanity is our greatest vehicle for connection. Be you. Speak in your voice. Own all of your clumsy efforts and your failures. Failure is the birthplace of wisdom. Reciting Rumi and Hafiz is beautiful and certainly has its place, but when you’re asking your students to do the work, to really do the work, you must show up as your flesh, blood and bone self. The best way to teach, in my most humble opinion, is as a student!
I hope that you find this article helpful in offering some clarifications of what yoga is and is not, and even more so, the permission to be yourself. If there are some ideas in this piece that have pushed your buttons, I hope that you are willing to receive the ideologies as an opportunity to practice Svadhyaya “self-study” and hold space as a student. That said, if you feel that any of these topics are incorrect or off-base, I certainly do not consider my perspectives and opinions to be gospel and always welcome a conversation with an open mind. These are simply my observations and are intended to support you in your growth. My wish is that your journey brings you to a relationship with the most beautiful, true love. A positive relationship with your-self.
May all beings be safe. May all beings be healthy. May all beings have freedom. May all beings feel love.