Does Your Yoga Teacher Truly Know How to Teach?

Via Michele Christensen
on Sep 15, 2012
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photo: lululemon athletica

I have been blessed to study yoga with some powerful teachers (bows to Shari Friedrichsen, Elizabeth Rainey and Denise Benitez).

Their style models lovingly hosting the room, meeting each student right where s/he is and dig deep for the metaphors and life applications that bring both asanas and yoga principles to life.

Within the scope of my teacher training, my teachers addressed not only the technical and spiritual aspects of yoga but also how to design a class, how to engage with hard-to-reach students—and how to be a self-reflective, ever-evolving teacher.

But I think I’m lucky.

As I talk with other teachers and sometimes, unfortunately, as I study yoga around the country, I can see that many teachers are rich in asana and principles but seem to be poor in their teaching skills. They can demonstrate yoga poses and perhaps even correct our form (and hopefully, instruct well enough to keep everyone safe). But they can’t fully embody the sacred role of teacher.

Anna Guest-Jelley, an amazing teacher, activist, writer and founder of Curvy Yoga, recently wrote a post entitled What it Means to Teach Yoga that, in part, shared how the TeachNow program helped her help yoga teachers become better teachers.

Here are six things yoga teachers can do to deepen their capacities as teachers:

1.  Teach from your whole lineage, not just your yoga lineage.

There is no yoga teacher like you.

You bring not only your yoga and body experiences but your entire life experience off the mat, onto the mat with you, when you teach; all of your experiences can inform your teaching and make your classes singularly wonderful, if you deliberately bring them.

1. List all of  your yoga teachers and influences. That’s probably a lineage you’ve recognized—and even perhaps explicitly bowed to in your teaching.

2. Now, in the same way, list the people who have taught you the most about teaching and coaching others: early teachers, athletic coaches, parents and other nurturers. These might be good influences or good examples of how  you do not want to be. Either way, they’re powerful instructors and a part of your lineage.

3. Then, expand your awareness to other influences far afield of yoga or teaching. What are you passionate about? What else have you practiced or spent much time and energy on?

I’m a mother, a cook, an avid reader, a writer, an Alaskan, a kayaker, an executive coach and a passionate student of loving relationships; these influences all come to play in my teaching.

You may be an engineer by training—or cuckoo for Paris. Without a doubt, you are not a one-dimensional stereotype of a yoga teacher.

Anna Guest-Jelley talks about how she realized the powerful influence of her community organizing background on her yoga teaching.

What to you bring to the mat?

2.  Nourish yourself as a teacher…not just a yogi.

The best yoga teachers recognize that their classes are only as good as their own practice. Their own sadhana of asana, meditation, pranayama and living the yoga principles they cherish, off of the mat, informs their teaching.

Beautifully, that way of holding your practice—as the root of your teaching—actually reinforces and supports your practice, because you can dedicate it each time to your students as well as to your other reasons for practicing.

But few teachers also undertake to nourish the teacher in themselves.

Do you look around for inspiration outside of yoga for how great teaching happens?

Do you take time to study teaching itself, as distinct from studying anatomy or meditation?

Do you continually refine and refresh your class sessions design or your series design?

Do you cultivate your capacity as a compelling inviter of students (read: your values-based marketing skills)?

Do you give yourself time to prepare for teaching…and time to recover from it?

All these are aspects of nourishing the teacher in you.

3.  Recognize your transformative role and honor it.

You are teaching people how to do poses with their bodies— and maybe some special ways to breathe—and perhaps, you teach meditation as well.

photo: flickr/Adam

Maybe you bring a crystal-clear awareness that you intend to be a transformational presence in your students’ lives…but many teachers don’t.

I suspect that sometimes, the best intentions of a teacher don’t come across because they don’t know how to meet students where they are. So, they hold the idea, “I want to help people progress, not just physically but spiritually,” or, they want their classes to be a place where people find inspiration or peace, not just a good workout or a place to stretch.

To have students actually catch the spark of transformation, a teacher must light the candle within themselves; the teacher’s spark—the spark of the class—must meet the student where they are, if ignition is to happen.

What is the very next step for each of your students?

Meet them where they are.

4.  Be sensitive to the anxieties yoga brings up and the ways your persona may play into them.

Exclusion and inclusion; body image and anxiety about that, spiritual not-enoughness (technical term <wink>), performance anxiety— the how-the-heck-do-I-pronounce-that anxiety.

Comparison, comparison, comparison.

Students new to yoga, new to studying with us—or even long-time students—may bring a whole pack of anxieties to class.

Anxiety blocks learning; your students may not be aware of how their anxieties are showing up but if you bring awareness and compassion to them, you’ll begin to notice the feel and shape of the anxieties in the room.

Then you can name them or address them—skillfully yet indirectly—and make more room for a satisfying practice and deep learning.

5.  Develop your skill in working with the projections from student onto teacher…and don’t invite them in.

photo: flickr/Canon in 2D

Projection is a psychological term for how people take human qualities—especially those we don’t fully own ourselves—and push them onto to other people.

We project both the light or ‘good’ traits that we haven’t fully claimed, as well as the shadow or ‘bad’ qualities (which we pretend are not a part of us) onto another.

Teachers and other ‘authority figures’ are favorite targets of projection; by taking the role of a teacher, we are standing up and making ourselves a target for projection; there’s no way around it—but there is a skill set for dealing with it responsibly.

* Be aware of the kinds of projections your personality, appearance, language and bearing might invite. For instance, a very lithe, flexible teacher may be prone to being the target of projections like, “yoga just comes naturally to her,” or “she’s never been insecure about her body,”—even if those things are not at all true of your experience.

* Deliberately debunk projections you become aware of—gently—but with clarity.

* Double-check to ensure your demonstrations serve students where they are, rather than building you up as a yoga deity. It’s unlikely to serve them to see your snazziest stuff, unless that’s a pose they’re working on themselves.

* Finally, be aware of the projections that your ego likes to receive and take care not to invite more of those in. For example, you may inadvertently (or deliberately) cultivate an image of being an elite teacher.  Your clothing, jewelry, bearing, language and patterns of connection before and after class may add to or diminish that.

Whatever those projections do for your ego, perpetuating them doesn’t serve your student.

6.  Bring your humanity, unapologetically.

I see teachers err on both sides of the coin of self-revelation.

Here’s what happens: sometimes, we borrow from the patriarchal, hierarchical models of teaching—East and West—where the teacher knows all and is almost untouchable, so we hold ourselves apart and exude an air of removed expertise. It might feel like that’s what a “good teacher” would do—or that’s what we’d do if we were more expert than we feel, so we fake it.

Or maybe you choose to let it all hang out and bare your emotions, teaching frailties or your life outside of class, so much so that it detracts from the class itself. Both of these are extremes and most of us fall somewhere in between (and perhaps vacillate from week to week).

For me, it’s been a long journey to find the right balance, most of the time. So stick with this challenge…and be kind to yourself in the process.

The invitation here is to endorse your humanity, not showcase it.

If you can take a breath, look into the mirror before class and see the strong and bright—but also perhaps scared or tired or lonely or angry person—behind your eyes, you’ll have a much better chance of connecting with your students, beneath the surface of what they’re presenting to the world.

And if you’re kind with yourself and intentional about bringing your humanity to class, the ways you express and/or talk about it will be appropriate and serviceful, rather than either too-removed or over-sharing.

These are six ways to be a more spacious teacher.

(If you want more, check out the resources at The Teacher’s Path, a project I started in 2010, with bestselling author, writing teacher and yoga enthusiast Jennifer Louden.)


Editor: Bryonie Wise

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About Michele Christensen

Michele Lisenbury Christensen believes committed partnership can provide stability + sustainability, spirituality + soulfulness, and sensuality + sensation… all at once. In her writing and relationship revolution services, she marries yoga psychology, brain science, embodied spiritual practice, and her own journey to turned-on marriage and motherhood to help couples build their capacity for smokin’ hot relating. Get LovingWithPower weekly here:


6 Responses to “Does Your Yoga Teacher Truly Know How to Teach?”

  1. Emily Perry says:

    Great post, and some great reminders here for teachers! Thank you!

  2. cathy says:

    You said a lot! It feels like too much. Today I am going to balance between being tell-all about my life and being distant, a spiritual goddess. Today I show easy modifications instead of my cool poses to not upstage students. Today I do not allow students to project onto me. Today I will hold all spiritual habits, maxims,teachings in my life.Today Imemorize and repeat the best of Rodney Yee, Tom Whomever Rami Alsogood and AnotherGreatyOGI. I will write down all who impacted and influenced me and list how they did so. Today I will impact all my students in all ways done by all my teachers. It just seems too much to just do. It's a process which a good teacher training will require thought from their students to do. I know of many which do.

  3. Heather says:

    You bring up some very important points in teaching. As someone with a Masters in Education and a teaching degree, seldom do yoga teachers possess an understanding of not only educational theories but the way different people learn. Re: some people learn by doing, others by seeing, some by reading, etc….

    With all due respect, I do not feel many teachers are teachers…but rather instructors. As well, teaching as a whole is such an organic process that even having a PHD won't help you much if you cannot share, want to share and express yourself.

    For the most part, I believe teaching can be summed up as a generosity. The more you offer of yourself and your experiences….the more you actually teach, which in the end is to inspire, motivate, encourage and support.

    Finding one's own voice and style takes time, experience and practice.

    The problem of projection is something else. Often students take out their frustrations and lack of whatever onto their teacher. I will never forget receiving a note from someone about how I needed to address weight loss issues. She assumed that because of my appearance, etc…I never had any issues. Really????

    It is fair to say that ALL women have been faced with body image issues. Doesn't matter if you are fat, a skinny bitch or short or tall….everyone has suffered from having it all or not having enough. Doesn't matter which way the pendulum goes because in the end these are unfortunate projections.

    That said, it brings to mind how we seldom KNOW a person but their persona as a teacher, which is NOT the real person.


  4. calamala says:

    The title is "Does Your Yoga Teacher Truly Know How…"? Thus I thought it would be about criteria or discussion from the perspective of a student in a class about if the teacher was fulfilling certain criteria. Then the tone changed to what yoga teachers, for the most part, are lacking. Or how to be come better teachers through your filters, which require self-development and tutoring from a good teacher training program. Many new young teachers are just that, new, young and simply mouth, " up, down, breathe.." demo with young flexible bodies. No crime ever in being young or inexperienced. Tho, those who falter in this and give inadequate directions; mix up sides and sequences, contrdict themselves, cant handle their music and hesitate often.. give me patience challenges and I ultimately avoid.

    I am in the education profession- over 25 years.. A yoga teacher with 200 hours certification has the 'title' yoga teacher, but that in itself is limited. I am often told one 'fact' or another by a 200 hour teacher which defies knowledge I gained in my BS Health and Physical Education and masters in teaching. Usually I simply smile.

  5. lisa cohen says:

    thanks for some good suggestions…as a teacher, I will take these to heart…

  6. […] Teaching a foundations class provided a service to me and to my students. It allowed me the opportunity to guide these new yogis back to their own inner teacher and to their own breath; in so doing, I received reassurance that I am indeed on the right career path, in teaching yoga…and that I am on the right life path by embodying yoga. […]