Timing is everything.
Our drum studio is finally finished. Not only is it a great space to drum in, it’s a great space to practice yoga in as well. So when this perennial January through March window of time presented itself this year, I wanted to do something personally enriching. And I was fortunate because the exact right thing came along: yoga teacher training (“Yoga of Patanjali”) through The Shala, the yoga studio I have been practicing at since this summer. It’s a perfect fit. This training course is Ashtanga focused, a stream of yoga which is physically demanding, breath-centred and heat-generating. It aligns beautifully with the intensity of playing taiko.
Our first written assignment, to describe what we think makes a good yoga teacher, did not immediately flood my mind with responses to this question. It served only to remind me that I have spent a lot of time with all kinds of teachers in the course of my life: singing teachers, voice teachers, acting teachers, dance teachers, taiko teachers, and of course all of the academic teachers I have had the pleasure of learning from in classrooms and lecture halls. I am so grateful to all of them and especially to the teacher of this course, Melissa Wasserfall. The idea of now being a teacher myself is both exciting and intimidating because of the great respect I have for their expertise. What makes a good yoga teacher? This is a huge question. All I can do is start with what I know to be true for me.
My experience with yoga this past summer was a quick, strong (and seemingly miraculous) infusion of exactly what I needed and what had been eluding me despite my best efforts. I can’t help but have a reverence for it and the potential it has to transform a person’s life. As I move forward as a teacher, the temptation is to be very vocal about this, effectively proselytizing to the practitioners in the room with every ounce of conviction that I have. But, this is not necessarily what the practitioners in the room need or want from the person leading the class.
I believe that yoga is similar to taiko drumming in that it has a very physical component that is good for the body and also, for many, has a spiritual or soul-enriching component. In both disciplines, the latter may or may not be of interest to the students who walk through your door. It may become more important as they practice more, or they may not ever become interested in that aspect of the practice. As the teacher, you need to be okay with either of these outcomes.
All this being said, I do believe that a yoga teacher is both an ambassador and facilitator. I believe it works a lot like the actor-director relationship. One of the great things that happens in the theatrical process is getting a perfect note from a director. For me, a perfect note doesn’t tell me the truth of a moment, but rather sets me in a direction where I discover the truth of it. Discovery leads to a deep personal understanding. Your senses and your being take in what’s happening around you, the mind processes it and you experience kind of knowing that is in your bones. It has deep truth attached to it. I don’t believe I could ever experience this if the same knowledge was simply told to me, rather than my having to take steps to discover it for myself. I believe that the act of discovery plays a big part in a personal yoga practice. As a teacher I would never want to sabotage the process of discovery, and I hope to be able ‘give the perfect note’ when students need it.
Facilitating discovery is no small feat. Not only do you have to have tons of practical knowledge that you can draw from, it requires a moment-to-moment awareness of what’s happening both in the room and within a student’s body. It requires economy of language, clear speaking and clear instructions. One needs to be simple, not flashy. One needs to be specific and possess a considerable understanding of the asanas and how each vinyasa flows into the next. One needs to keep drawing focus to breath and it’s integral role in practice. One needs to understand anatomy and offer meaningful adjustments when appropriate to do so. One needs to connect, to make sure that everyone gets a bit of your attention, not just the keenest or most vocal student in the room. And, while all of these aspects are being highlighted and juggled, one needs to keep their own ego and insecurities out of the equation. Despite your best efforts, your suggestions or adjustments may not land in exactly the way you envision.
Detachment from ego is not necessarily easy when you are standing at the front of the room. This forum can so easily build or diminish a sense of personal validation. You want students to like your class. You want to inspire them to come regularly, because the more they work with you the more you know their personal practice and can help them. The reasons that students walk through one’s door for the first time are varied. But the reason that students will come back has a lot to do with how you teach. If your explanations speak to them, if what you focus on resonates with what’s going on for them on their mats, if they see themselves progressing, they will come back. If they like the atmosphere and environment that you create, they will want to experience it again. If they feel good about coming to class and enjoy the experience of practicing, they will want to continue. I believe that even if one focusses on neutrality, personality cannot help but reveal itself, even in the most disciplined of teachers. You will draw people to your classes who are, at least in part, drawn to your teaching personality. The altruistic goal is to have them come because of the teaching alone, not the personality at the front of the room is admirable, but it may not be realistic. Following that, while the effectiveness of an adjustment is not to be used as a means of keeping score or grading one’s own innovative approach to teaching, it is something that students vividly remember, something that, if helpful, will make them want to work with you again and again. In my experience, the ego loves to monitor things like this, but sadly it can lack the emotional distance required to critically examine how these things can be improved upon or deepened. Anything one can do to remain open but humble, neutralizing any defensive or protective feelings, is a good idea.
Egoic thinking can also cause problems for students in your class. They can be overly critical of themselves, compare themselves to others in the room and end up pushing themselves too hard and possibly getting injured. You can’t stop people from doing this, but you can make a point of reminding the room to be kind to themselves, to remember that everyone is different and not foster this kind of competitive, goal-oriented thinking. Share one’s own challenges with the practice, past and present, to highlight that it is a journey. It is very helpful to understand that all time spent on the mat is good: ‘status quo’ days, ‘slight improvement’ days and the very rare ‘great breakthrough’ days.
Once a practice is established, the practice works. As a teacher I believe my job is to be the clearest transmitter of how to practice safely and effectively that I can be, because it will impact everyone, regardless of level and commitment. A teacher serves as an anchor or a touchpoint on a student’s journey, however long or short. Ideally one should strive to be inclusive and welcoming to all. I never want anyone to feel like their effort on the mat is not as impactful, authentic or meaningful as the 20-year vegan practitioner who is next to them.
It’s a lot to remember and a lot to think about. I’ve tried to encapsulate these ideas by making a list of things that will hopefully inform my decisions when I begin leading classes.
- Allow the class to be what it needs to be for each student.
- Facilitate discovery rather than define meaning. But do so without being passive or vague.
- Speak clearly, give clear instructions. Be confident so that you serve as an anchor, or a touchstone as they move through the class.
- Engage students, watch students, and interact authentically with them based on what’s happening in the room and the bodies in attendance (not just a script).
- Recognize that all bodies and (body histories) are different and that life demands vary from student to student, while also recognizing the common threads.
- Validate their work. Acknowledge their breakthroughs as their own achievement. (not yours).
- Hold safe, neutral space for your students. You don’t know what people are bringing into class or why they chose to come through the door.
- Be kind, be neutral. As people work through the sequence things like frustration will come up and the teacher is the obvious landing spot for these feelings. You have to approach this with neutrality and recognize that it’s not about you. Don’t allow yourself to be caught up in it or to become defensive.
- Don’t assume that they believe everything that you believe about the practice and the philosophy of yoga. Be respectful of their beliefs, their space and their skepticism (if they have any). Let the practice do its work. Remember that students can feel alienated when a teacher is being too dogmatic.
- Be humble, keep learning as the teacher. The students will teach you too. You also should keep track of your own progress on your personal yoga journey, so that you remember how involved and challenging it can be. Continuous learning makes you a better teacher.
- Remember what worked for you and what kind of environment or instructive approach was the most helpful to you in your learning.
Yoga is a wonderful, transformative activity. It creates strong, flexible and integrated bodies. It harnesses the power of breath. It clears the mind and also provides it with some resonant philosophical terrain to explore. It makes way for rich meditative experiences. I believe that if I teach with joy and keep these aspects in mind, hopefully students will enjoy their practice too, which is, after all, the most important thing. And, of course, my teaching will evolve and change as my experience grows and I continue to learn.
So, what makes a good yoga teacher? I suspect my answers to this question will change as time goes by, but continuing to ponder this question is likely a big part of the answer.