What makes a good yoga teacher?
I’ll admit I really like the following phrase from Peg Mulqueen* in a post she had this week over at elephant journal: “I know I’m going to get creamed by the masses of self-righteous, enlightened ashtangis for bringing this up…”
I’m honestly not sure that leaves anyone out.
Peg’s post is worth a read, if you haven’t seen it already. And not just because she seems to call us all @$$holes.
What it made me think about, timed with our readings for our coming trip to India, is the nature of teacher. And just what, exactly, makes a good one.
In honor of Peg’s take-no-prisoners style in her post, I’ll come right out and say it: A piece of paper does not make a good teacher. And that includes pieces of paper from Mysore. I’ve heard plenty of stories in the past year of authorized Ashtanga teachers who left a lot to be desired (and run across some myself); plus, we all know terrific teachers who don’t have a particular set of approvals from whatever yoga outfit you choose.
A great practice — both physical and whatever “deeper” level you want to consider — also doesn’t assure that someone will be any good at imparting their knowledge. We know the old cliche about those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach. But that fails to acknowledge that those who can can’t necessarily teach.
As with almost anything, I think there’s a alchemical blend that either comes together and produces gold or just leaves what it touches unchanged. But unlike the formula for turning lead into gold, the teaching alchemy isn’t always made up of the same stuff in the same amounts.
It does have to have a vast store of knowledge, though. But that knowledge might vary — one teacher might have more teaching knowledge, for instance, while another knows anatomy like the… er… back of his or her hand.
Hand-in-hand with that is experience. That deepens and expands knowledge. It might bring some wisdom. But experience alone does not make for a good teacher. And experience can come in many forms, both in the yoga shala and outside it.
Enthusiasm helps. If a teacher doesn’t appear engaged, there’s not much reason for students to be, either. The stories told at this year’s Confluence about Guruji’s closing down his shala for a couple of weeks, but then Western students would arrive and he’d cut the closing to a week and then to just a few days and, perhaps, eventually tell them to come the next morning demonstrate his enthusiasm for Ashtanga.
Perhaps the most critical element is simply the ability to impart ideas to students. Richard Freeman is known for his mind-blowing use of metaphor in this regard. Tim Miller has a storehouse of stories to help make his points clear. Often, what separates a good teacher from a not-so-good-one is being able to make difficult points simple. (In Guruji’s case, with his Western students, perhaps his enthusiasm overrode any hurdle there was in making his points clear. Although he still managed to do it in a sparse and compact way.) In my experience, this attribute is the one most often missing in the bad yoga teachers I’ve encountered. They can’t even describe how you get into a pose very well.
Finally, comes compassion. I may emphasize this one more than others would because I need my teachers to feel for me when my heels don’t touch the ground in down dog. But I think that if a teacher can’t empathize and understand what a student is experiencing, then all kinds of trouble are coming. This may be of especial import for Ashtanga, where — let’s face it — injuries seem to be a part of the package. A compassionate, empathetic teacher might just help avoid them or at least put them off for a bit.
A piece of paper won’t provide these traits. Years practicing or even teaching won’t provide them. Probably what, ultimately, separates good yoga teachers from bad ones is something there from the beginning, inside the good ones and not inside the bad ones. A philosopher’s stone, of sorts. And not something that can be packaged up and re-sold.
Posted by Steve
* A FOTCC (friend of the Confluence Countdown)