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)

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

11 thoughts on “What makes a good yoga teacher?”

  1. Again, the KPJAYI gives a pretty succinct summary of what defines a good teacher in the Ashtanga tradition (yes! The T-word): http://kpjayi.org/the-practice/parampara . Their summary does not, however, mention any certificates or the like as the characteristic of a good teacher. This maybe worth mentioning, because your post, to me, implies otherwise. Her is what they have to say about authorization: “Teachers that are listed… are experienced practitioners and dedicated students who have shown a considerable degree of proficiency and appreciation of ashtanga yoga in its traditional form and who continue to study regularly at the KPJAYI…are required to teach the method as it is taught by Shri K. Pattabhi Jois and R. Sharath at the KPJAYI in Mysore, India.” That’s quite modest in this age of Yoga(R), no?

    1. I didn’t particularly intend this to be about Mysore (although I know I mentioned it), but I do have to say that this description does not seem, to me at least, to define “good.” It describes an authorized teacher — and, yes, I have found that just being authorized doesn’t mean a teacher is “good.” And, as I wrote, I don’t think that just being an “experienced practitioner” makes for a good teacher. I suppose the “proficiency” may be addressing this point, but I’m not sure it does.

      And I certainly don’t agree that there can’t be “good” teachers who don’t study regularly in Mysore.

      But this is probably a separate topic, one we all know is fraught with a lot of other issues. I suppose I’ll end by noting I wondered about what makes a good “yoga” teacher, not specifically Ashtanga. (Although Ashtanga is, of course, our default method.)


  2. oh my gosh – LOVE LOVE LOVE!!! (though at first when i read, i was slightly nervous … haha!) but YES: a practice/experience/knowledge, enthusiasm, the ability to impart idea (stories, metaphors), and compassion.

    and not just what makes a good yoga teacher – but a good teacher, period. this post is just full of AWESOME! thanks!

  3. I agree. I happily recommend the place I did my teacher training, but that doesn’t mean I think every teacher who comes out of there is brilliant. I think every lineage has its good and bad graduates, and like you say, paper is no proof of excellence, no matter where it’s from.

    And yes – proficiency/experience are not at all the same thing as being a good teacher. In any discipline. It makes me mad when there’s the assumption that just because someone’s been doing something for decades, then they also have an innate ability to impart that experience to someone else. It’s a completely different skill-set.

  4. Not knowing anything about the Ashtanga certification process, I imagine that there isn’t much teaching preparations at all other than the person issuing the certification being acutely aware of the then students habits, discipline, knowledge through their questions, general conduct, and finally their practice. I am not sure if there is an anatomy quiz, talks on per-natal or therapeutics and dare I say alternative poses to provide to the student whom the pose and the student’s students body may need. I may be completely wrong on this. I do remember something said by Iyengar is that his teacher, never taught him many poses, yet he turned out to be quite a teacher.

    I remember many years ago, when my teacher from the Sivananda tradition told me that I had to be practicing for at least 10 years before I even started thing of teaching. It seemed daunting, maybe teacher influx control on her part 16 years ago. How many great teachers of today would be eliminated if that was a basis for testing a teachers efficacy.

    What I can say, after heading that teachers advice, that I don’t see here is the subject of what is imparted to the student energetically from the teacher to the student, perhaps even unknowingly from the teacher. This unknown phenomena or perhaps as they would say in India, the initiation into a process such as a kria carries a lot of, well, unknown.

    A teacher of mine says regularly that even the worst teacher has something valuable to teach, resulting in hopefully a practitioner learning. Sometimes, its up to the student to be receptive to what that is. It may be what not to do, perhaps. I do advise however that teachers with followings or crowds, while being charasmatic and entertaining, may just be just that. Oftentimes, word of mouth recommendations of other students you trust is probably the best guide before you attend a class and how you end up feeling after the class the best guide of one with whom you have practiced with.

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