What does it take to be a really good Ashtanga Yoga teacher?
I love Miami. I love the sunshine, the sandy beaches, the open vibrancy of the people and the flashy sense of style.
Since I run a yoga center on Miami Beach, I get to see many people move in and out of the city, and sometimes even settle down to become a native. We treasure our long-term teachers and have worked hard to cultivate a solid teaching staff. But one question that inevitably comes up when some of our best teachers move away is:
What does it take to be a really good Ashtanga Yoga teacher?
In this method of teaching, students memorize the series of postures in the Ashtanga Yoga method and the teacher guides them deeper when appropriate. This method of teaching is named after the South Indian city where the founder of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois lived and taught for the majority of his life. His grandson, R. Sharath Jois, now continues directing the Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore.
One distinguishing feature of the Ashtanga Yoga method is the Mysore Style practice. In order to teach Mysore Style, a far deeper level of personal experience and education in the field of yoga is required. There is really no training program that makes you into a Mysore teacher. We have developed a long term apprenticeship with teachers who are a part of our community, who we think are ready to teach Mysore style.
The first qualification for us is a good foundation in the practice and the method itself.
The teacher must have gone through healing and personal transformation through the Ashtanga Yoga method over the course of many years. Direct experience, called pratyaksa in Sanskrit, is the highest form of knowledge and it is from this space that Mysore Style teachers ideally teach from.
The practice is best done for many years under the guidance of a qualified teacher, which means someone who has spent a great deal of time close to the lineage of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.
Ideally, Mysore Style teachers have gone through a kind of deeply individual journey where the obstacles to true practice have presented themselves and the teachers have used the practice itself to work through these difficulties. Sometimes people have a beautiful practice just because they are good at asana, but they have not experienced a healing journey through the practice.
One of the key tests for an Ashtanga Yoga Mysore teacher is an injury. Many students love the practice when it’s easy, but a true teacher is one who knows how to work with the practice when it’s easy, difficult and average.
Working with injury in your own body helps build the direct personal experience that gives you compassion, information and technical tools to help students heal and work through the same types of things. The best teachers understand how to work with the Ashtanga Yoga method when students have energy and potential, pain and injury, and balance and anxiety.
All the physical components of a sound practice must be there such as, in-depth anatomical information, study of primary yoga texts–like the Yoga Sutras—and practice of at least into the Intermediate Series of Ashtanga Yoga. But a good foundation in the Ashtanga Yoga method means more than just jumping through really well, doing deep backbends, holding a handstand or completing a certain series. It means understanding the true depth and power of the Ashtanga Yoga method as a science of healing for the body, the mind and the soul.
The next crucial thing for a Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga teacher that we look for is integrity.
The solid character of the teacher is something that inspires faith in the student. Even now when I think of my teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, I rest in the full faith that I have in his integrity as a teacher. Some people would say that he was too interested in money or that was too friendly with women, but there are lines that he would never cross in no uncertain terms. As a student, I never witnessed or experienced anything that would call his integrity into question as a teacher of the Ashtanga Yoga method.
In the Mysore room, students go through deep personal transformations and they rely on their teacher to be the guide through the darkness into the light. The yoga room holds the potential for evolution because it is a like a temple erected in honor of the sacred space within. Students have to trust their teacher to be a guard of the consecrated grounds of the inner body.
In order to teach Mysore Style there can be absolutely no murky aura around the teacher. The teacher must clearly and brightly hold the space of the lineage with grace, power and strength.
If there is competition in the room between students on a physical level, the teacher must address these issues both within themselves and between the students. There is no room for flirtation or anything that could be misconstrued to be flirtation.
In order for the student to trust the safe space created for their personal journey, they have to trust the intention of the teacher every step of the way. If there is even a hint of flirtation in the interaction then the student may doubt the teacher’s motives or the teacher may take advantage of their position of power over the student and manipulate the student for their own gain. Power can be addictive and destructive. It is the moral responsibility of the teacher to keep their intentions pure when in the Mysore Style room.
The eight limbed path of Ashtanga Yoga includes a precise emphasis on the moral and ethical guidelines of a yogic lifestyle and it is crucial that, at the very least, the teacher does their absolute best to embody the moral foundation of the yoga tradition while teaching. Ideally, the teacher lives the full yogic lifestyle while teaching, practicing and throughout their entire life.
But yoga teachers are not saints. We get angry, frustrated, depressed and anxious just like everyone. We eat too much chocolate, fried food and have our sins and vices. The key is to understand that, as yoga teachers, we have a responsibility to honor and represent the best of the lineage in every instance possible.
The teacher is someone who asks a lot of the student, pushes them where they need to be pushed and takes them to places they would not otherwise go. When that happens, an emotional release often follows and the teacher must be there for the student every step of the way.
As one of our Mysore teachers at Miami Life Center, Patrick Nolan said, “If you make someone cry, you have to give them a hug.”
It is a simple notion but one that can be hard to put into practice. As a teacher you want to create a space where students work hard, but you have to be as compassionate as you are engaging. All Guruji had to do was be in the room and I would work harder and go deeper. But he was also always there when deep backbends brought up challenging emotions. The teacher has to be someone who the student knows will make them work really hard and someone whom the student can also trust with their most tender spaces and vulnerabilities. In essence, the teacher must epitomize the balance that is at the heart of the Ashtanga Yoga method, which is to be soft and strong at the same time.
When considering if you are qualified to teach Mysore Style it is important to check your intention. Your reasons and intentions ideally spring forth from a desire to share the lineage that has changed your life with others. While yoga teachers need to make a good living, the basic motivation to teach, especially Mysore Style, is about spreading the sacred flame of the Ashtanga Yoga tradition. Good teachers can certainly earn a good living, but if you are looking to get rich quick there are probably faster routes to material wealth.
The last responsibility of a good Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga teacher is to remain an eternal student. Sharath recently said that for many he is a teacher, but he will always be a student. It would be too easy for a teacher to maintain a pretense of authority and an expert’s point of view. Having ample time each year to be a student frees the teacher of the need to know and opens up the humility needed to walk the path of Ashtanga Yoga with strength and grace.
Editor: Brianna Bemel