Isn’t it great that there is a kind of yoga class for just about everyone? Astanga, Bikram, Chair, Hot, Iyengar, Kripalu, Kundalini, Broga, Doga, Star Wars Yoga… I really believe if you don’t like yoga you’re probably trying the wrong kind, because it varies so incredibly much.
And within each of these subcategories, you have the opportunity to learn from a tremendous variety of teachers as well. The number of teacher training programs in this country continues to grow and there is certainly no lack of talent available. You’re bound to hit upon a teacher that you really like, eventually.
While I believe that you can learn something in any class (even if it’s only, “I’m not coming back here again,”) I think it’s only fair that students be picky with their yoga teacher. Don’t settle- find someone that really works for you. Just as you would choose your doctor, your counselor, your massage therapist, your yoga teacher should be someone who “speaks” to you. This is highly personal and not in any sense a one-size-fits-all sort of thing.
What do I like in a teacher? So glad you asked! This is one of my favorite topics, and it grows and changes periodically. I’m sure if I wrote this list a year ago it would be different- and next year it’ll be different still. While in this post I’m going to refer to “my favorite yoga teacher,” please know that it’s actually a combination of many of my favorite teachers stitched together into one persona for dramatic license.
So, here you have it. Your mileage will vary, but this is where I stand today.
My Favorite Yoga Teacher…
- Has a sense of humor and a sense of warmth. There are tons of amazing teachers out there, but I really need to like my teacher on a personal level. I want to know she cares about me as her student. I also need her to be kind of entertaining. 90 minutes can be REALLY long, people.
- Is willing to get off her mat. Many teachers spend the entire class on their mat, while doing the practice along with the class. This works really well for lots of folks. My own favorite teachers are those who can guide the class without having to perform each and every posture along with the students. Listen, I know this is not easy. Especially in a faster-paced sequence, in order to cue the next posture, there are times that I literally need to feel the posture in my own body in order to describe it to the class, or to remember what comes next. However, not doing each and every posture allows the teacher the freedom to monitor the class- to look for puzzled faces (or exhausted ones)- to offer assists, adjustments, and modifications. She can gauge the mood of the room and change the direction of the class as needed. Additionally, I respect the art of the well-placed verbal cue tremendously. Visual aids are great, but I love to hear that one phrase that will help me to move just so, opening into the posture more completely.
- Corrects me in order to support and help me to grow. I love, love, love to be given feedback about my practice. My favorite teachers observe the class and help them to not only practice safely, but to experience more openness and joy in the practice. Verbal corrections are good, but I find hands-on assists and adjustments especially great- the more the better. That “a-ha!” sense of really getting it is not only freeing, but illuminating- now my body knows what to do.
- Offers modifications “up” and “down” as needed, and cultivates a positive sense of compassion rather than competition. Sometimes you need a stronger practice. Other times you need to back off. A good teacher will offer ways to challenge yourself safely, and will also give you the freedom to chill out in child’s pose. The language that the teacher uses is important, too. I took a class with a teacher a few months ago who referred to certain poses as “advanced,” suggesting that “more experienced yogis” would enjoy them. That particular class was full of yogis with decades of experience who, due to physical limitations, would not be able to perform these “advanced” asana. My favorite teacher? Well, she leaves every student feeling really good about their own efforts. Challenged, not defeated.
- Keeps her own practice fresh so she can offer more to her students. There was a time not too long ago when I was teaching so often that I didn’t have time to take any classes of my own. I felt stale and robotic as a teacher- I was depleted. A good teacher knows she needs to fill her own tank of inspiration and rejuvenation so she has more to give to her students.
- Is always knowledgable and prepared… but isn’t afraid to wing it. My favorite teacher spends a lot of time researching, gathering notes, putting together a theme with music, quotes, poetry or an inspirational reading. She might even bring her own candles and incense to create just the right mood. But if she forgets her notes- or the class isn’t physically able to do what she planned- she throws it out the window and teaches from her heart. On her worst day, this person’s knowledge and compassion still allow her to be the best teacher I have.
- Is authentic, and lives her yoga off the mat. The yoga path asks a lot of us. Because it is much more than a “workout” to me, I expect my teacher to at least try to live her life in accordance with the Yamas- (Nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, moderation, nonhoarding) and the Niyamas- (Purity, contentment, zeal, self-study, devotion to higher power). I don’t expect my teachers to be perfect. I really don’t (in fact, I believe that hero worship leads to the sort of scandal we read about on elephantjournal or YogaDork). My favorite teacher is completely human, and I understand that she is practicing in the same way I am. However, I do expect her to behave with fairness and integrity as much as possible, and to acknowledge her own missteps when they happen.
Beyond these seven qualities- some of which I know are just personal taste- my favorite teacher has an ineffable gift of opening her heart to share with others. I don’t know that this is something you can learn. Or perhaps everyone’s experience of this is different. I attended a Teacher’s Class with Saul David Raye last week that spoke to this quality. It’s hard to express in my own words, but I think his might serve better:
“The deeper you go into your heart, the more that energy comes through to your students. Even when you think it was the worst class of your life, someone will get what they need. Know that you are imperfect. Do your best. Be present, and feel all of your teachers with you. Share what you know.The yoga is inside you. When you go to teach, you shift into cellular memory. When you teach from ego, you block that energetic flow of the yoga. Let it flow through you and your heart won’t doubt you, your spirit won’t doubt you, the universe won’t doubt you.”
Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear from you. What does your list include? What do you admire in your favorite yoga teachers? What can you live without?