To Teach or Not to Teach: 3 Essential Qualities of Great Yoga Teachers

I became a teacher last year after 2 months and $10,900 dollars worth of intensive, immersive training in Los Angeles, California.  I told myself I did it because I loved yoga so much the next logical step was to become a teacher and share it with others.  I was wrong.

Not all men or women are meant to be teachers.  I see that now.  Perhaps I always did, and it begs the question: How do you know if you are a teacher?  I’ll talk more about that in a moment, but first let me tell you why my decision to attend teacher training was a misstep.

photo credit: kevin dooley

Quick Disclaimer: The two months I spent in LA in what came to be affectionately known as the “yoga bubble,” were two of the best months of my life. I would do it again.  No doubt.

I started practicing yoga about 3 years ago, and from the first month people were telling me that I should go to training.  I resisted the idea at first, of course.  It seemed silly to me to become a teacher of something so complex and detailed after only a few weeks, even months.  A couple of years later, I still resisted the idea.

Somewhere in my third year, however, I yielded.  I figured if other people were doing it and I was no better or worse than they were, then why the hell not.  So I packed my bags and headed off to LA to become a teacher.

I did well in the “yoga bubble,” and when I began to practice my new profession, I did well enough there too—externally, at least.  Internally, I felt like a phony.  I was no more a yoga teacher than a monkey banging away at a piano is Chopin.   The reason I felt this way, I would later discover, was because my passion for teaching yoga did not match my passion for practicing it.  The grueling hours, the businesslike atmosphere, and a jaw-droppingly incompetent co-worker, among other factors, violated my expectations.  No one’s fault but my own—expectations strangle life. In the end, I simply had to admit that my love for Yoga did not translate into a strong enough passion to teach it.

photo credit: sfjalar

The great teachers I have had, no matter the subject, have shared three essential qualities:

  1. Experience. My best teachers have had years of it, years of practice under a qualified teacher, and years of training learning to be a qualified teacher.  I am not suggesting that years of experience automatically translate into good teaching, but it certainly helps.  While it is possible that the 18-year old instructor is the Doogie Howser of yoga teachers, it is more likely he is not.
  2. Uncompromising devotion to students.  This one may be hard to separate in the course of the business of yoga, as concern for the business may mask itself as concern for the student.  The concern has to be genuine. But that is a loaded term, one that space does not permit me to go into.  I’ll just say that we all have an innate ability (in varying degrees) to determine when someone is genuine and when they are not — trust it.
  3. Passion not just for teaching, but also for what is being taught.  There has to be  a desire to teach so intense, that the idea of doing anything other than the beloved profession—save for absolute necessity — is anathema.  Teaching isn’t something you do on the side; teaching is who you are.  Anything less and you are a dilettante.  You can have another job, of course, but the other job is the side job, not teaching.

photo credit: andriux-uk

A good yoga teacher, of course, has many other necessary characteristics; I once conducted a job analysis that turned up close to 30. However, the above three form the triangular foundation upon which the others are built—a Teaching Trinity if you will.  This is where you start; the rest you learn along the way…perhaps.   I lacked all three in varying proportions.

I also believe that one has to have an aptitude for teaching.  This aptitude has little to do with how well the teacher performs asana, or their shape, age, race, gender or intelligence.  It has even less to do with a desire to “share yoga with the world.”  It does have quite a bit to do with a natural inclination to teach, and that is something that is rare indeed.

The current glut of poorly trained teachers is a result of an industry (yes, industry) that, due to its unchecked growth, needs bodies more than it needs qualified bodies.  Therein lies a great part of the “dangers” of yoga referred to in the recent New York Times article, “How Yoga Wrecks your Body.”  You can’t throw a dog into the ocean and tell it to fish simply because there is a shortage of fishermen on the wharf.


Creative Commons License photo credit: snuzzy

In the end, a teacher must understand that the moment a student enters his class, a tacit agreement is formed.  This agreement states that for the next 30 to 90 minutes, I am entrusting my body to you and your instruction.  I do this believing that you are knowledgeable, well trained, and understand the complexities of the human body: it mechanics, possibilities, and limitations.  You further agree that you will do everything within reason (I have some responsibility too), to ensure that my body leaves this room in much the same way or better than when it came in.

If a teacher is not willing or able to make such an oath, then he or she has no business teaching yoga.  It is as simple as that.

 

Do you agree?  Do you disagree?  Whichever it is, leave a comment and tell me your position.

Posted by:

- who has written 6 posts on Yoga Modern.

Ifeoluwa (Ife) Togun is a freelance writer whose articles have been featured on Yoga Modern, Yahoo, Yahoo Finance, and Intentblog.com. He also maintains a blog dedicated to his adventures raising his newborn daughter, Skye Lily, at theskyechronicles.wordpress.com. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from Grambling State University, a Master's degree in Clinical/Counseling Psychology from Southern Methodist University, and a Doctorate in Experimental Psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington.

32 Responses

  • Raini says:

    An excellent article that can be applied to teaching in general. It's a commitment like no other. To teach is first to practice and know with confidence. I teach college writing and business communication. I'm just beginning to teach yoga and feel I need to know SO much more, but also feel I can teach what I DO know now and begin from here. I will grow as a teacher, after all, we are all simply beginners at different stages of beginning.

  • Mary says:

    and an excellent writer you are! My best to you.

  • vanessa says:

    Great article, and i have to agree with you completely. What we forget that yoga teacher training isn't always about teaching, it is about taking our practice deeper.
    Also the lack of management in Yoga Alliance who basically gives training certificates to any person who qualifies to set up shop is insanely crazy. I had a horrible experience on my teacher training where the teachers had little experience, had bodies riddled with injuries from yoga, and didn't practice what they preach. There expectations where even higher, and somehow they thought they could read my mind, but they obviously had no way of knowing what was going on inside my head.
    I say you need to know the teachers you decide to train with, and know them well. These quick 2 month programs are nothing compared to countries like Ireland who run 4 year training series.
    We definitely are all not teachers but at least we have a choice.

  • When my students have asked me to train them to become teachers I ask them why they want to teach. Inevitably the answer is; because I love yoga. I tell them if you love yoga do yoga. You do not teach yoga because you love doing it. You teach yoga because you can't help but translate it to others because it excites you, because it informs you and you know it makes you a better part of the world and you want everyone to be a better part of the world, and because you know how to impart that in body, metaphor and example..

    • IfeTogun says:

      I see that now. I even think it branches beyond teaching yoga. I think we should only do whatever we do because every little thing within us says that there is nothing else. There's gotta be passion, hot and uncompromising. Thanks for your comment, Hilary. Much appreciated.

      • Jenifer says:

        This is such my experience.

        I was already 5 years into an apprenticeship to teach before I realized this to be true. At the time, I was in law school, and outside of law school, I was doing yoga and apprenticing with my teachers (which I did for the remaining 3 years I was in law school).

        In my second year of law school, the idea of doing anything BUT teaching yoga was horrifying. And I did give it the "old college try." I did try to be a lawyer. It didn't last very long outside of law school (i think a year or less).

        What did last? Teaching yoga. I've been teaching yoga for 15 years, and 10 of those I've been doing it "full time, professional."

        I absolutely *love* it. And, like Hilary says, it excites me. That keeps me going. Watching students owning their practice, living their lives well and authentically (and often in beautiful and surprising ways) — what a rush!

  • I studied yoga for ten years before I became a Shaman (after 25 years); eight years later I was drafted into teaching yoga. I wouldn't dare teach unless I was stoned, so that I wouldn't miss any of the subtleties in my students. I taught in my bedroom, because my Shamanic energies were too much for other venues. All went well, until my Allies dumped me in Yakima, where I'm way too advanced for the people here. That will change soon, however, as the Medicine is growing day by day. I love to teach, and good yoga is one of the necessary foundations for sincere, full spectrum spiritual growth. Yoga and knowledge of Spirit are the new essentials for survival in these times. Good luck with the writing! I broke through into Spirit as a poet… Love Dagaji

  • jewelinthelotus says:

    Love this. I am in a yoga teacher training and as it progresses the more I realize there is no way I can stand up in front of a group of newbies and teach yoga. It fascinates me that teaching Level 1 is left to new teachers. Are you kidding me? The more I learn of the complexities of the body, the more nervous I get about trying to encourage some one who may not be able to touch their toes. I am bendy, my students will not be. Will I know enough of body mechanics to ensure their safety. After a whirlwind few weekends of Anatomy, I can confidently say NO! In all honesty, I signed up for teacher training to really learn the foundation of Yoga. To get what I was not getting from a studio setting and well, I love yoga so it was a way to immerse myself. Anyway, on I ramble! Great article!

    • yogatrail2 says:

      Quite right, excellent comment, the beginners are the ones who benefit the most from having a good teacher. People who know what they're doing can handle a teacher who doesn't.

    • IfeTogun says:

      Thanks, Jewelinthelotus, much appreciated. I will say that I think some on the job training is inevitable in any profession. However, in this situation where a mistake can be grave, I think the bulk of learning should occur before signing on to the job.

      Thanks again,

      Ife

      • jewelinthelotus says:

        :) And to add – and acknowledge this could be my fear- not thrilled being pushed to teach a level 1 during the training. I really am in it to deepen my practice. If I could spend a class just teaching folks how to connect with their body and breath using basic basic poses that I could do and that IS something I hope to do as a volunteer.

  • yogatrail2 says:

    Nice article, I agree with it. I don't get the picture of the kid, but love the dog-trying-to-fish analogy and picture

    • IfeTogun says:

      Good catch, Yogatrail2. Truth is I had a very specific image in mind that would play off the dilettante line, but I couldn't find it. It was a stretch, but the idea was that a "on-the-side" yoga teacher, would be like a babe in the woods. Like I said, a big stretch.

      I'm glad you like the dog and the analogy.

      Ife

  • L.Shefa says:

    Ife! Thank you so much for sharing your heartfelt insights regarding your dance with teaching yoga. It has been nearly a year since we left the "yoga bubble" and I must say teaching yoga is truely an honor and responsibility. I love teaching, and I feel as though I have barely begun as a teacher. I agree with you, in regards to the trinity of essential qualities and the plethora of teachers! Again, thank you for posting such a thoughtful, article. Wishing you all the best in Life's Journey. With Endearment, Leesann

  • IfeTogun says:

    Thanks, Leesann, I'm glad you like it, and its great that things are going well for you. Keep in touch.

    Ife

  • Mike Huber says:

    Ife, thanks for the article, helped me understand where you’re at, and also look at my own thoughts on teaching. Your introspection and thorough evaluation are to be commended, but I think I have to disagree with your decision.

    I look at your three essential qualities of a great teacher, and the reasons you give for not teaching, and truly it doesn’t fit for what I am reading (a little between the lines) and what I know about you. I see that you most definitely have “passion” for teaching; otherwise you wouldn’t be practicing so extensively, and writing so much about yoga, or have gone to yoga training. Because you have what I see as a deep passion for the yoga, I automatically believe you must have an uncompromising devotion to students. Finally, you had only just begun teaching, so the experience was coming along, but with your many years of practice, you were way ahead of many teachers, including myself already.

    So I started looking elsewhere in your article, and what really stands out to me is your mention of a “businesslike atmosphere”, and an “incompetent co-worker” that frustrated you at the studio you were at. I have now been at over six studios teaching in the U.S and Europe, and will say there was some I liked, and some that really frustrated me. I am currently at a studio that is allowing me to develop as a teacher, is straight forward to the students, and really gives them a first class experience from the hello at the door, to the variety of fantastic teachers, even the tea, fruit, and conversation after class.

    I want to offer a little more on passion. For years I was always convinced that I needed to “follow my passion” and all would be well in life; I would be happy, spiritually I would be content, and physically all would be well. I think passion has a part in our lives, but truly don’t think this is the right question. I recently read an article by Greg Darly who wrote “Passion is not Enough” who talked about doing something that you believe the world needs, and then you will find contentment, I realized this is what I have been working towards and I was oftentimes asking the wrong question. Finally I suggest reading an article posted by Alanna Kaivalya on the three qualifications of a yoga teacher, again I feel you have all of these qualifications.

    So maybe not now, but sometime, I do hope you teach again, the world needs teachers like you.

    • IfeTogun says:

      Mike, first let me say that I am deeply impressed by the fact that you analyzed my writing and pulled out a pattern. It’s a very good analysis of why I quit teaching, but it is incomplete.

      You are dead on about one thing: the day I walked away I had never been so angry in my entire life. I felt deceived and disillusioned. However, I still considered myself a teacher and figured I’d just go to another studio at some indeterminate point in the future. When my anger subsided, I kept waiting to miss teaching—I didn’t. If I go a day without writing, you can tell. I’m…sadder. I thought I’d be “sadder” after I stopped teaching. I wasn’t, and when I looked closer the reason was pretty apparent. It’s not my calling. Of this I am sure.

      Sure, I had a passion for teaching, but it was secondary, tertiary even. I enjoyed teaching, but I was more bored and frustrated by it than energized.

      I understand that sometimes passion is overrated, but, as I said in the article, it does form a part of the foundation upon which a number of necessary skills will be built.

      Maybe in the future I’ll teach again, but it is unlikely. Besides, there are many ways to teach.

      Thanks for the comment, Mike. I’ll check out the article you recommended. Hope you’re having fun on your travels.

      • Mike Huber says:

        Hi Ife,
        Well I am glad to hear I wasn't "totally off base"! Yes, I agree there are many ways to teach, and in your writing you are "teaching", and happy for your satisfaction with that. Sorry to hear of the frustration at the studio. I look forward to reading your next article, each one has made me think differently about yoga and teaching.
        Mike

  • Anna Hunter says:

    Ife, As with many others at Teacher training i watched you endure the training with a stiff upper lip (as the British like to say). I am so proud of you and your decision not to teach, but to write. You have a wonderful gift. Through your writing you are teaching! Writing about your experience lends a voice to us as yoga teachers as well as insight. Bikram says it takes about ten years to really become a “teacher”. My belief is that there are no bad students only bad teachers. You are so right, for some it’s a business. Hopefully one of these days I’ll be able to call myself a teacher in the true sense. For now, I study, breathe, eat, sleep yoga as the learning never seems to end. Ife, thank you so much for your contribution to the yoga community.

  • IfeTogun says:

    Thanks, Anna. And I agree with Bikram; I think it takes at least ten years to become anything worth becoming.

  • DJ Sukha says:

    what an honor it is to be apart of the same Yoga Modern team as you. Even though we have never met, you took the words outta my brain and eloquently formulated this brilliant piece. Thank you so much for this article, for your perspective and research.

  • Tricia Ptak says:

    I love your honesty and grit to accept what you felt is the truth. The question is do you love to teach so much that you would teach for free? If yes, the. You are on the right track. Thank you!

    • IfeTogun says:

      Thanks, Tricia for your comment. I agree, not that you have to, but would you. I thing that lies at the heart of knowing your occupational purpose.

  • yogi says:

    great article, but i DISAGREE here: Teaching isn’t something you do on the side; teaching is who you are.

    for all you yoga teachers, you have to understand the difference between the karta (doer) and drishta (seer). if you identify with what you do, you are incorrect. if you identify with who you are, which is the observer within, then you are correct. this is called vidya (knowledge).. and the opposite is avidya (ignorance).

    yoga teachers are supposed to enlighten yoga students.. so that they can reduce or eliminate their suffering. this can only happen if the yoga teacher has vidya or viveka khyati (constant discrimination) between the doer and the seer. this is the essence of yoga and self-realization or enlightenment.

    namaste

    • IfeTogun says:

      Hey, Yogi,

      Thanks for the comment; I appreciate you taking the time to leave one

      I’ll respond to the contents of your comment in a second, but I’d like to point out something about the “spiritual” terms you used in the three short paragraphs of your comment. I find they tend to end discussion rather than engender them. After all, given that they were taken from great and ancient works of the masters, most people have too little faith in themselves (the Observer, as you called it) to say anything else, even if their experience and feelings about the subject should be otherwise. I don’t want to go into it again, as I already wrote about it here: http://intentblog.com/the-problem-of-spiritual-ja

      Suffice it to say I think it is important to keep all people included in the conversation, and such terms only speak to those “in the know,” rather than those who would like to. Strip what you want to say of “spirituality,” then say that.

      As to the content of your comment, let me start with an old African Quote: “God made man because he likes a good story.” What does it have to do with your comment? Simply this: an actor is always aware that he is playing a part, but it is a great actor who is able to get lost in it. Of course he knows that his is Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk, (that’s the discernment you were talking about), but for the sake of the story, when he is on stage, Sean Penn is Harvey Milk. It’s his job if he wants us to get lost in the story.

      The same goes for us. Yes, we need to know that we are the observer and greater than the part we play. But there is a reason for the play we call life, and it is our job to “play” it. Within that play we all have different roles. Some of us are doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers (on ONE dimension, we are, of course complex beings, and play many roles). It is our job, it is what we were made for, and it will define who we are. It is in this sense that I made the statement you highlighted in your comment. The idea behind life is absolutely to realize that one is the observer…but after you do so you keep playing your part.

      All of this however is what I try to avoid in my writing. This level of discussion is extremely esoteric and difficult if not impossible to explain. I believe most people already know this, they experience it daily, and it is only that experience—perhaps guided by less esoteric discussions—that helps us gain “discernment.”

      Last point, regarding your statement about yoga teachers functioning as “enlighteners.” Absolutely not. The student is their own “enlightener,” and the best teachers understand that and stay out of the way. After all, if the observer is within, how could they fail? Sooner or later, with or without help, they will find their way–no one is ever lost. Besides, in this place and time, I’m not sure the quality of fly-by-night training programs qualifies anybody to “enlighten” anything other than how to perform a few postures. I wish I had more room to go into all of this, but each of the thoughts here could generate esoteric articles of their own, and I am a big fan of keeping it simple and getting out of the way.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      Ife

  • Anandaprem says:

    Many great teachers taught "on the side" for years, if not decades. Making a judgment that way is rather silly. Ramanand Patel once said to an aspiring teacher "Keep your day job for as long as you can. That way you teach what YOU think is important, not what sells." Traditionally most Yoga teachers had other gigs if householders, or were full time renunciants if not. Trying to be middle class by making money off selling Yoga is just another example of selling Zen by the river.

  • I agree and disagree with you. I feel that there are yoga instructors that don't really have enough experience or knowledge to be leading a class, but it is wrong for the student to entrust his/her body and well-being fully to the instructor. You have to be responsible for yourself and the teacher is there to help guide you and to act as an outside observer. I find that there is always something to learn from any instructor, but yoga practice is a two-way street and the instructor should remain open to also learning from the student.