This was our first written assignment in yoga teacher training – so I thought I would share mine with you.
What qualities do you feel make a good yoga teacher? What do you look for in a teacher? What do you hope to offer your students?
These are interesting, and certainly interlocking, questions for me, because I’ve gradually learned to embrace or enjoy different qualities in teachers (others and myself, in yoga and in other domains). But, within these variations, it seems there are two overarching qualities that I believe make a good teacher (that I look for and hope to give): high level of knowledge and good attitude.
A yoga teacher should be well versed in knowledge about the history, philosophy, and practice of yoga, as well as having a solid understanding of basic anatomy and physiology. I’ve been fairly lucky in my experiences with teachers concerning their level of knowledge, but I have heard a couple of comments (not at YW) that very much concerned me with regard to safety and accuracy. Truth is malleable, and there are certainly differences in beliefs that are not cases of right and wrong. In yoga, that is no less the case as different traditions or types of yoga carry different understandings about the practice and philosophy. However, when information is presented that flies in the face of conventional reality, and presents possible dangers, I do get concerned. So, for example, an instructor stated in class that if you do yoga regularly, starting when you are relatively young and in good health, you won’t ever need to take prescription medication. As someone with a hereditary auto-immune disease, I quibble with the accuracy of this claim. But, also worry about the level of knowledge the instructor had that made him believe it was appropriate to state this in a class. The image of a type I diabetic or someone with bipolar disease ceasing medication because he/she believed that regular yoga would solve the problem bothered me. And, I also couldn’t help but think about the parent that was probably in the room with a child on medication for some condition – what did that say to him or her? This, to me, seems likely directly related to the kind of training a teacher received. Learning asana and pranayama is good, but I can’t help but think there should be more.
Knowledge is one thing, but an excellent teacher also needs good attitude. For me, good attitude encompasses a number of things. I believe that enthusiasm about yoga and about teaching are very important attitude factors for excellent instructors. If students don’t sense that the instructor wants to be there and is excited about the practice, how will they become excited? This interest and enthusiasm can take a variety of forms. Not every instructor needs to be bubbly or funny (though I do like funny). Not every instructor needs to verbally enthuse about what yoga has brought to his/her life. But, within the context of his/her own personality, something should indicate that dedication to and love of yoga. A good yoga instructor also needs to be responsive to his/her students. Planning a class out to the letter is great, but if it turns out that the students in a particular session are struggling or confused or just need more time in a particular series, the good instructor will be flexible and respond to those needs. This responsiveness also pertains to really listening to and watching students – hearing what they say and what they don’t say. A student may not mention an injury or a fear, but his/her nonverbals (vocal tone, posture, facial expressions, etc.) may clearly express it. Instructors need to be able to truly see/hear students in order to respond well to them. An attitude of respect is also important. I attended a yoga class (only once) where the instructor was (not so kindly) mocking students who couldn’t keep up. To me, this spoke volumes about his lack of respect for his students and belief in his own superiority to them. I didn’t go back. Providing corrections and adjustments is not only a part of teaching students about yoga but also preventing them from injury. However this can be done with kindness and respect. Likewise, people of many religions and many different belief structures attend yoga classes. While it’s certainly appropriate for yoga teachers to present yoga history and perspective (which may well involve Buddhist or Hindu philosophy), this can be done with care to not offend or deride those whose beliefs are otherwise.
So, all in all, I guess I would say that these two (huge) categories of high level of knowledge and good attitude are what I believe characterize a good yoga instructor. When I have an instructor who exhibits these qualities, I feel like I get the most out of my classes and I hope to bring that experience to my students in the future.