As someone who has been practicing yoga for over a decade and teaching for nearly three years, it goes without saying that I know far-more about yoga now than when I first started.
In fact, when I first started to practice yoga, I was pretty ignorant about it.
I knew it had originated in India, and at the time, celebrities like Sting and Madonna were raving about it, but that was pretty much it.
A quick internet search helped me locate a local yoga studio and an equally quick phone call to the studio owner resulted in me dropping in on a Friday afternoon beginner’s class. Luckily, I was fortunate to have an excellent teacher, and the rest is history.
As I learned from talking to fellow instructors and students, my experience was pretty typical.
Whenever I have new students, I always make it a point to ask about their physical and emotional well-being and previous experiences with yoga as well as share pertinent information about myself. The reason I started including the latter was because 99.9 percent of the time, my students asked nothing about my experience or practice as a yoga student or instructor.
Therefore, whether you are brand new or an experienced yogi, here are some things to keep in mind when you encounter an instructor for the first time.
1. Not all instructors or yoga teaching programs are alike.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately depending on your point of view), there are no unified standards when it comes to yoga teacher training. For example, some yoga schools, like the one I attended, required would-be teachers to have practiced a certain number of years before enrolling. However, many do not.
Most teachers including myself are members of the Yoga (YA) means certain standards have been met, but it isn’t like there are people from YA dropping by yoga schools to make sure these standards are being met. Most of it based purely on the word of the owners/directors of the yoga school.
(A few exceptions worth noting are those instructors certified to teach Birkram yoga or are Iynegar-certified. Those are specific “brands” of yoga in which all instructors who hold those respective qualifications must meet very specific requirements.)
Likewise, whether someone is a 200 hour teacher—meaning that they clocked in at least 200 hours of teacher training vs. a 500 hour or more instructor—may or may not tell you something either on the circumstances of their training. While usually more hours equals more teaching experience and training, it really does depend on quality.
If you are interested in learning a certain style of yoga like, say, Ashtanga, it’s a good idea to ask your teacher how long they practiced and who their teachers were. Doing so many tell you a lot more than just going by if they are a member of YA and the number of hours they trained.
2. Yoga instructors are not experts on health, anatomy or even yoga.
Like any other community, people from all walks of life and a variety of backgrounds make up the community of yoga instructors. (Personally speaking, I have known medical doctors, business executives, school teachers and Sanskirt scholars who have gotten their yoga teacher certification.)
While it makes sense to ask an anatomy question to a yoga instructor who has a medical background, do not assume that all yoga instructors will have the same know-how just because they happen to teach yoga.
Even though anatomy was part of my training, I know embarrassingly little about anything beyond the basic parts of the body. (When it comes to specific muscles and muscles groups, I know next to nothing.)
The same is true when it comes to knowledge of yoga. Some instructors really walk the walk and talk the talk while others are more like fitness instructors who just practice and teach hatha and have little or nothing to do with the other eight limbs.
3. Likewise, yoga instructors are not psychologists or experts on human relationships.
Over the years, I have confided in instructors I trusted and viewed as friends and have had students confide in me. While most instructors I know would never dream of sharing personal information without the expressed consent of the other party, not all yoga instructors are like that.
Unlike doctors, psychologists or attorneys, yoga teachers are under no legal and/or professional obligation to keep any information you share with them private.
Yoga teachers are human and some of this may come up in conversations with others without you knowing. If you happen to live in a small town like I do where most of the members of the mind/body community know each other, there is a chance that in the wrong hands this information could get out to many people.
Lastly, be aware of some of the “mean girls (and boys)” who can be found in the yoga community. Experience has shown they can and do exist.
My suggestion: wait until you really get a sense of a yoga instructor before you convey any personal information. Also, go with your gut. No matter if everyone and their mother raves about a certain teacher and thinks they are the greatest if you don’t feel comfortable with them or think something is “off” it’s probably a good idea to stick with your gut.
4. Your body is always your best teacher.
Years ago, I was a student in a yoga class were an instructor forced a student into supta virasana (reclined hero’s pose. The student, who was an older man brand new to yoga, appeared to be in visible pain while the instructor told him to “breathe through it.”
I’ve mentioned this incident to my students and told them if they are ever in a class and something similar happens to them, run, do not walk, out the door.
As an Ashtangi, I know a thing or two about discomfort, but you should never feel like you are in an agony in any pose.
Your instructor may be an M.D./Ph.D. who studied with the greatest gurus in the world, but s/he will never know your body as well as you do.
Sometimes it can be intimidating to speak up, but do it. If your instructor appears upset or outright ignores you, then that’s your cue to head for the door and find a new instructor ASAP.
In closing, finding the right yoga teacher can make all the difference in your yoga practice. While I have been fortunate to have had some very good teachers on my yoga journey, I have also seen some less-than-good ones.
Choosing a yoga instructor should be no different than choosing a doctor, a mechanic, or even a pet sitter. Get recommendations, ask about their experience, and see if this is someone you “click” with.
When I first started out, I wish I had known the things mentioned above. Still, even the experienced yogi may learn a thing or two or at least that is my hope.
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Ed: Sara Crolick