How Important Is Your Yoga Teacher’s Personal Practice?

Via Lindsay Jean Thomson
on Apr 8, 2010
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She shoots for the stars…and falls!

Do As I Say, Not As I Do?

lindsay jean thomson

You know the yogasana students who seem to glide effortlessly into the trickiest arm balances and just pop right up into the most challenging inversion without skipping a beat? The dancers, the gymnasts, the supernaturally strong?

Well, I’m not one of them. And for the most part this isn’t something that concerns me because I love the practice of yoga and sharing it with others, on and off of the mat. It’s a challenge that I often find myself resisting but it’s also a source of joy, inspiration, and comfort.

As a teacher though, I sometimes feel limited by what I can’t yet and may never be able to do – physically and otherwise. Not because I believe the teachers with the strongest asana or meditation practices make the best teachers, but because I teach what I know. I don’t teach from the mat in class but I do “practice what I preach.”

Sometimes I wonder if my limitations in turn restrain the students who practice with me. Teachers, practitioners – let’s discuss. How important is the strength of a teacher’s personal practice (yoga, meditation, pranayama, etc.)? What are the qualities you seek out (or avoid) in a teacher?

BIO: Lindsay Jean Thomson teaches yoga in beautiful San Francisco. She’s a student too (and clearly has a lot to learn!) and she wants you to know that you’re your own best teacher. Om Mani Padme Hum – you’ve already got it all inside you, you’ve just got to believe it.


About Lindsay Jean Thomson

Lindsay Jean Thomson is a San Francisco-based vinyasa flow yoga teacher. She teaches at International Orange and is the co-founder of Flex Hour Yoga.


23 Responses to “How Important Is Your Yoga Teacher’s Personal Practice?”

  1. Tacochamp says:

    Hi Lindsay, I recently completed an intense Yoga program in Rishikesh. The program taught much more than just the physical aspects of Yoga, it also focused on spirituality, purification and divine union. I watched the instructors carefully, considering whether or not they exemplified the teachings. What I realized, after careful observation was that although each of them was not perfect in their physical postures or approaches to meditation and mindfulness, they held one thing in common: They aspired to the teachings and the practice. And as a teacher that is the most important thing, not whether you can hold cakrasana or sirsasana for two hours!

  2. caroline says:

    Hi Lindsay 🙂

    For me, more than scorpion pose, a teacher who lives by example is the most important. One who is kind, honest, authentic, patient, who walks the talk. Very often this kind of teacher will already have a deep spiritual practice, meditation, chanting, pranayama, prayer, but maybe not the most kick-ass party trick asana practice. (Don't get me wrong though, party tricks are fun.)

    Some of my most influential teachers have been those with conditions that made it impossible for them to do, say, one-armed handstand… and it seems as if limitations on the gross physical level lead some to deeper understanding of the more profound subtle levels. I love what Annie says above, "I have found that young yogis with perfect bodies often can't guide people into practice from the bottom up because they have never been to the bottom." So true and so well put!

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts and for writing about an important topic.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Hey Lindsay

    I'm into my practice for just the 2nd year. The instructor who has influenced me most was an Anusara-inspired, beautiful woman that not only gave me a peek into meditation and breath but also was hyper vigilant about the integrity of each pose. So, no matter my limitations due to lack of strength or mobility she taught me to be accurate with where my body was and my awareness of it. I used to be grossly obese and so have a lot to build up to. She's incredibly strong and lives a fully engulfed life with her yoga practice, but never has any expectations from her students to emulate her. She just made certain her students were challenged, heard a new poem or two, breathed through the stresses of the day and came back for more because we were safe enough to feel built up after a 90-minute practice with her.

  4. Floating Tiger says:

    Incredible insights from all posts. I had the experience where I had to move on from two teachers because I was not growing they were 'in a mold', as spoken by Valerie above. Breaking from that circle opened studio doors and my eyes to much more than asana. Hence, my own RYT journey began and I am now certified and teaching. I love to shift yogi gears from power flow to Inyegar to attending chakra worshops- in a way that mirrors my life off the mat. It helps me navigate through difficult times and tough decisions with much more peace……

  5. I think with all teaching, but especially teaching physical things, that the quality of the teaching is far more important than the ability of the teacher to actually do the activity well. Look as sports coaches in particular. Very few coaches can come anywhere near the performance of the students, at least once one gets past the high school level.

    Bob Weisenberg

  6. The Deacon says:

    A personal yoga practice is a must for any teacher. For we learn by our practice. It is the journey and a teacher that is on the journey can teach what he/she has learned on their journey …. but not what they haven't learned….so the lesson of learning the asana and pranayama from the teacher who has been learning and has had to work for those lesson will have great value, but the best lessons come from a home practice, everyday diligence.

    Good coaches have usually been there and done that, and the talented and bendy student can learn from a talented and bendy teacher, but it is hard for a talented and bendy student to learn from a teacher who can not reach the limits of the student , only because the teacher is not there yet, tis not to say the teacher won't get there just that is helps to have a teacher that has been there and done that.

  7. That was meant to be just, just in case you want to see what I mean.

  8. I think every good teacher feels just as you do. They understand the process and are well aware of their own faults but keep striving to better themselves a little each day.

    I appreciate @Annie's and @Bob's comments regarding teaching being different than performing. It is true. A teacher knows how to invite others to share the journey, validates effort, encourages and inspires.

  9. yeye says:

    i vow to you 🙂

    Lindsey, the teacher is as good as the inspiration it motivates in the student. Yoga practice or any other practice.

    Let's not forget that Yoga is a practice of self observation. The meaning of Yoga has been taught through out the centuries as the ceasing of the fluctuations of the mind.

    How deep the teacher can go into a pose, how long he/she can hold it, how far she/he can go, how it looks or how it feels to the teacher is irrelevant to the student since it will be the student's own asanas which will teach the yoga student how to practice correctly, what is important to the student to observe is what is the state of mind we carry as we do those poses.

    The form of the asanas only speaks of the beauty of what makes us US…our differences.

    That being said, to answer your question, the practice of your Yoga teacher is very important for the student and teacher alike. It is important your yoga teacher is practicing the moral conduct of a yogi – no violence, no stealing, no false words, no sexual misconduct, no accumulation of material things. It is important your yoga teacher is practicing discipline and self study with awareness, is important your yoga teacher is practicing the asanas with an equanimous mind, the mind of a yogi, it is important your yoga teacher is practicing awareness related to the breath, it is important your yoga teacher is practicing right concentration, right meditation, right state of bliss, very important. In the path of yoga, it is important.

    Yes, the practice of your yoga teacher is very important.

    Namaste ~

  10. Emerald yogi says:

    Tacohamp what a lovely post, with the emphasis being on Aspiring too, Lindsay, thank you so much for sharing as I also struggle with some more advanced posture work and balances, and sometimes as a teacher we can set ourselves limitations by exploring postures that we truly love and feel comfortable in. I think that I should base a monthly practice on those postures I do not naturally flow into, struggle with and find challenging. It's too easy to feel that we should be a perfect example of our practice, and the yogic lifestyle, however for me it's about sharing my love of the practice and aspiring to morals of yogic lifestyle and sharing that heart space with my students and connecting to thier heart spaces. My practice and lifestyle neither are perfect, but I try to apply the principles of love and understanding to my body and lifestyle, without judgment, and a sense of santosha too. But I am going to take on board and try and incorporate poses that I feel less comfortable with into my practice and share with my fellow yogis and see where the journey takes us. As a lot of my practice is quite restorative, I like the theory that as life is sometimes difficult sometimes we really need to challenge ourselves on the mat occasionally to help develop that strength which we can then carry with us along with that sense of love and compassion into our daily lives…..

  11. Shannon says:

    I actually believe it is essential to know the postures so that I can effectively teach them. If I understand the principals of the postures then I can adapt and apply the principal to a more advanced pose. However, it is all speculation until I, the teacher, have mastered the posture myself. In my limited understanding, the postures are there specifically to be mastered and in the process of mastering poses one obtains self-mastery. It is possible to teach only what I know and over time increase my knowledge as well as my teaching ability. I have been teaching for ten years and I learn something new everyday from the subtle to the gross. Until I master a new concept, thought or ability I do not share it so that I am authentic in my approach.

    Lastly, I don't think any of us can presume to know what is best for another teacher. All we can hope to know is what is best for ourselves. As long as we stay true to that then we are sharing what is our very best with our students.

  12. ARCreated says:

    I dont' care if my teacher can do any of the poses – I care that they CARE about me, can support me, hold the space and remind me of what my practice is…recently I find it more and more difficult to take public classes because I am so in touch with doing what is best for MY body at that moment and public classes too often lead me astray…I hope someday soon for a new teacher to take me to my next level —- I have a strong feeling it won't be a yogi but a darn buddhist :p :0

  13. Magi says:

    “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear"

  14. I have teachers who do a great job of explaining poses they can't personally do, as well as getting more flexible students to demonstrate them. Then, I've also seen teachers jump into difficult poses with great ease and seem to expect everybody else to be able to do the same. Overall, the question (or, at least, one question) is whether the teacher's primarily concerned with providing the best possible experience/instruction to the class, or with gratifying his or her own ego.

  15. Notably, last week I was in a class with Dharma Mittra, and he had a student demonstrate a pose he was unable to do (though I think that was only because he'd hurt his shoulder).

  16. Rogelio Nunez says:

    I agree with many things already stated,but seems that you are focusing on the asana and pranayamas….
    Practice is all important, thats where i get my ideas of what to teach each class and where i get to know myself and where i am in this path…..beginning poses can be made more challenging by teaching more subtle actions, more focudsing the mind, holding poses longer, add props for better alignment….
    also don't teach above your certification level or experience….in Iyengar certification, there are many levels and each one you are allowed to teach certain poses, so as a teacher if you want to teach advance poses you must go thru the process of learning how to do them, not necesarily perfecting them though, you do what you can but in the process you learn how to do and teach each pose… this way you are following ahimsa, do no harm to self and others…

  17. livingfrombalance says:

    THIS IS GREAT! I started teaching in February. My body is 46 years old. was never a gymnast or a dancer. Years of running previous to finding yoga has left me flexibly challenged. I CONSTANTLY wonder if I should be teaching due to my limitations. I know I always admire the teachers who can do so much more than I. They are usually the ones that tell me you don't have to be super yogi to teach..(easy for them to say!!HA). I so far, stick to what I know. It is nice to know I am not alone with my concerns.. thank you for voicing this so beautifully!

  18. Gina schadt says:

    I have taken very challenging Ashtanga & Vinyasa flow classes. I have taken very gentle beginners & restorative classes. It is in the moments that I am connecting movement and breath that I feel completely immersed in this practice we call Yoga. Namaste

  19. Teach what you know from your most genuine self.

  20. melina says:

    As a teacher, I only teach what I practice myself. When I demonstrate a pose in class, it is always one I am very familiar with, and have explored deeply in my personal practice. But, I always try to stay in touch with that place a beginner is in, and teach from there as well.
    It's the not the ability to master asana that makes a good teacher, it's the ability to teach from a place of authenticity, humility and compassion. As we know, yoga is much more than asana.
    Thanks for posting this. Great question.

  21. Yogini Mama says:

    I like taking classes from teachers who knows what is safe to do anatomically and provide a challenge on Asana. Philosophical introduction of yoga practice are extra bonus & necessity every once in a while. I like teachets who is not elegant. Approachable, authentic & confident.

    Well, when I teach. I always approach to my core instinct & what is beneficial to my students now. My own practice time comes a necessity to be in touch with the core value, feeling & instinct. Asana wise I teach what I can do & I think that it is Ok.

  22. @dicooley says:

    Lindsay: I also teach yoga and though i have a strong practice, like you, there are many poses I cannot do. Also like you I teach only what I know (though sometimes I will give the cue, if you know "x" pose and you want to go further you can take it now–this gives the more advanced students an opportunity to go deeper and isn't really "teaching" the pose so much as putting it on offer for those whose already know it). I believe you have to know what it feels like to get into the pose and be in the pose before you can teach it. As a student, it is important to me that my teacher have a strong practice, not necessarily an advanced practice; what I mean by that is that they have the knowledge and the commitment, and, yes, can do the poses they teach reasonably well (not perfectly, but well) because if they can't do the pose, they don't know the feeling of being in it and verbal cues will not be genuine but rather will come from a book they read somewhere or some other teacher's mouth. I recently went on a yoga retreat with a well known yoga instructor and he said something funny: "Sometimes you need to demonstrate the poses you suck at. Yoga teachers always demo the poses where they look beautiful, it's good for your students to see that you struggle too." I thought that was interesting viewpoint . While I wouldn't want to demo a pose incorrectly and let my students think that's how it's done, I think it's great for the students to see the teacher also falls out of ardha chandrasana–but keeps trying (and doesn't swear at herself when it happens).

  23. Carri says:

    I like to think of it this way…if for some reason I lost my arms and legs…does this mean I should no longer teach yoga? Of course not! An interesting scenario to ponder.