Body, Mind, Spirit Magazine

What Sets a Yoga Teacher Apart?

By Healingyoga

"The mediocre teacher tells.  The good teacher explains.  The superior teacher demonstrates.  The great teacher inspires."  ~William Arthur Ward

"What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches."  ~Karl Menninger

I once heard that taking more than one teacher is like taking more than one wife. In a world where there's a yoga teacher on every corner, that's quite an interesting idea. After all, with a veritable buffet of yoga teachers available, how can we choose just one?

I suppose the answer is -- very carefully.

What I first looked for in a teacher is veeeery different than what I look for now. Back in the early days, I was shallow enough to be impressed by a teacher's form in asana. Interestingly enough, even though I may have admired these teachers' physical prowess, I didn't feel as though I could relate to them in all of their yogic perfection. Then one day I walked into a class with a teacher who needed bolsters to sit in Easy Pose and a lightbulb went on in my head -- I was touched more deeply by this teacher who showed herself to her students. Rather than try to be yoga perfection, she taught acceptance of one's body by merely being herself in class.

As I deepened my study of yoga, I acquired a few more teachers and my feelings about what a teacher should be continued to change. In the Bhagavad Gita, the student-teacher relationship is described as both informational (presentation of information) and transformational (openness is required). I'd seen plenty of informational teachers throughout the years, and I found myself yearning for a more transformational experience. 

Then I found a teacher whom I believed fit the bill. Her form in asana was impressive, yes, but I also saw something deeper in her. Yet as time went on, I began to feel off when we were together. It's hard to describe, but it was a feeling that she was robotic or trying too hard or too pushy in her teaching or perhaps not walking her talk. After months of this, I realized that while I respected her training and her commitment to her practice and her teachings that I just didn't respect her. She wasn't walking her talk, and so I moved on.

Sounds harsh, doesn't it? I questioned my decision and wondered if what I was seeking was perfection in a teacher. And then I met a beautifully imperfect teacher. She felt real to me, authentic. And rather than overengineer my experience, she gave me the latitude to find my own way. I felt gently guided rather than sternly taught. And that made all the difference.

During one of my yoga teacher trainings, I was taught about the responsibility of the teacher:

  • We need to walk the walk ourselves
  • We need to know the student – spend time and interact with student, have some understanding of the anatomy of the person (both subtle and physical)
  • The relationship is yoga – not friendship, not business partner, not love relationship, must maintain hierarchy so that you keep authority, friendly but not friends

Yes, I keep these tenets in the back of my mind, but I also remind myself to not be too attached to what I teach. Ultimately, it's about my students finding their own path, not about me pushing them down the path that I've traveled. Yes, I can share my experience with them and I can offer them tools to use, but true transformation can't be forced upon someone. It's an experiential thing, not an in-your-head thing. Sure, I can give someone information and he/she can understand it, but the power of the information is when it's an internal experience.

I recently read an article about teachers not walking their talk, and it got me thinking about my role and responsibilities as a teacher. I only have my own experience to offer. Yes, I have knowledge from trainings and of course what I teach is informed by my trainings, my experiences, my beliefs, my opinions, etc. All I can be is authentic and of service. 

What do you look for in a teacher? And, if you're a yoga teacher yourself, what kind of teacher are you? Do you walk the talk, as they say?

I particularly like the Karl Menninger quote from above. This quote reminds me of why I don't push yoga on others. Rather, I model what I teach. I suppose that's why people approach me about yoga, not the other way around.



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