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Yoga has certainly gained a great deal of popularity over the last decade. And popularity generates demand. As a result, we now live in a world that is almost over populated with yoga teachers!
People are often wary of individuals who travel to India, or pretty much anywhere in the world these days, attend an intensive four-week-long training course and come back as qualified (glorified!) yogis. And perhaps rightly so, considering that on the teacher training course I did there were a couple of fellow trainees who couldn’t even do Shoulderstand! Some of them had been practising yoga only for a few months; many of them for two or three years.
When doubts or questions arise about the quality of the yoga teacher training system, the parallel with the medical profession always comes to mind: Is it the training received at university that makes a good doctor or nurse? Or is it one’s aptitude and genuine desire to help others? I love teaching yoga because I know how transformational the ancient discipline can be, having experienced the changes in myself and observed them in others. In the ultra-competitive world we live in, we have to be demanding of ourselves. And I find that a healthy dose of self-doubt never hurts; it can help prevent self-complacency.
Over the years, I’ve attended countless yoga classes, and now that I’ve taught quite a few myself, I can’t help but wonder: What makes a good yoga teacher?
Is it flexibility? Strength? Stamina? Or simply a blend of presence and compassion? Does it matter if you can do Headstand? Or Handstand? Or if your toes touch the back of your head in Pigeon Pose? And is it necessary to know the Sanskrit names of all the postures?
While some of the best yoga teachers I’ve come across happen to have impressive physical skills, others were ordinary humans with limited flexibility, rather like myself. Ultimately, I believe it’s more about being a good teacher, i.e., authentic and of service to others, than being able to stand on one’s head—although the latter helps. As yoga instructors, all we need to do is share our enthusiasm for the practice and our (more-or-less-limited) knowledge of the discipline.
One’s energy and presence are very important factors. As teachers, coaches, or whatever we like to call ourselves, we need to be grounded, focused and enthusiastic. A good teacher’s tone of voice will be calming and at the same time motivating. You want your students to relax, but also to feel stretched out at the end of the class. This can be a rather tricky balancing act. I’ve been in yoga classes where the tone was harsh, even military, and others where it was artificially calm and supposedly soothing. In both cases, the effect was a feeling of irritation.
A good yoga class is also about striking a balance between the physical and mental elements of the practice. Although I’m very much interested in the philosophy, I’ve attended several meditation retreats and I trained at a centre in India where the emphasis was mainly on Vedanta (Hindu philosophy); I don’t feel in any way qualified to teach it. It would feel rather inauthentic if I tried to impart any lessons on spirituality, also because I don’t believe spirituality is something that can or should be taught in the form of a lecture.
In my own experience, the physical aspect of yoga (asana) is the best form of preparation towards a spiritual path. However, in the classes, I tend to introduce a small amount of mindfulness meditation: the most basic and probably most useful of the spiritual principles. The pace of the class is also important. I’ve been guilty of trying to pack too much into one hour. It doesn’t work. Less is truly more. We must allow for some space between postures and not be scared of silence.
Above all, we must be able to make old and new students alike feel at ease; unjudged. We must be able to connect.
Written by: Nico De Napoli
Editor: Travis May