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January 17, 2016

What to Look for in a Yoga Teacher.

Flickr/Robert Bejil

When I first moved to Burlington about 10 years ago, I was a little lost. I was embarking on a new career, looking for friends and just beginning to find yoga.

I tried a few different yoga classes in studios around the area, looking for my community, and nothing felt quite right. I began to feel like Goldilocks in the search of the right yoga space. I couldn’t place why the studios and teachers didn’t call to me, but I hoped I would find the studio that did.

After a few months in my new city, I found a space that offered challenging vinyasa classes grounded in alignment, and I started to immerse myself in that community.

Looking back, I can understand that there’s an aspect of trusting one’s intuition when it comes to discovering the right community, but I’ve also learned some tips on what to look for when it comes to finding the right yoga community:

Ask about lineage.

Ask your teacher where she/he learned from. Essentially, you are learning from your teacher’s teacher, so be sure they learned from someone legit. There are lots of fads out there, and it’s important that your teacher be a well-trained and wise yoga scholar. If your yoga teacher doesn’t know who their teacher originally learned from, you might want to move on.

They let go of ego.

I know teachers who teach because it’s their mission. They do it from their heart; they do it with purpose and intention. They don’t do it because of the shape and size of their body, no matter how strong and flexible it is. These teachers teach from a deeper part—a part that goes beyond their asana (physical yoga). They aren’t doing it for outside validation or because they look good in ardha chandrasana (half moon). You’ll know when you encounter a teacher like this. You’ll feel it.

You don’t need to impress them.

Excellent​​ teachers care about the safety, alignment and breath of their students. They don’t want to see students injure themselves by attempting to get into sirsasana (headstand) incorrectly. Great teachers don’t care if their students spend the entire class in balasana (child’s pose). Look for teachers who offer alternatives for challenging poses and teachers that offer easy-to-understand cues instead of leaping into asanas. Additionally, these teachers know how and when to use a soft touch and can help students connect more deeply through this method. I used to challenge myself to not take balasana, but I learned that I sometimes need to soften and relax in my practice.

They assist.

You know that feeling when a teacher helps you really open in a twist or expand in a back-bend? It’s magical. There’s an art to hands-on assisting. My teacher once warned me about the “weak assist.” Those may be worse than a weak handshake. The best yoga teachers offer adjustments with a powerful, strong hand. These assists shows that the teacher is experienced and not afraid to guide their students. Additionally, my teacher assists me in my life too. She has helped me with career decisions and told me which are good vitamins to take. They are not life coaches, but quality yoga teachers are filled with knowledge about holistic living and can aid in making decisions from a yogic approach.

The sequence makes sense.

Students can’t be expected to get into a twist without having warmed up first. Experienced teachers build sequences that are intuitive and fluid—and, most importantly, safe. Sequences should follow an arc, and leave the student rested and centered before savasana (corpse pose). If you’re feeling​ rushed​, ​confused​ or in any pain​ during a yoga class, the teacher is probably not prepared to lead a class. And sometimes the asana being offered doesn’t work for my body that day, and it’s okay to not do it. Most of all, trust yourself in class. The ultimate teacher is often within us. Yoga teachers help us to better access that part of ourselves.

Other cues that you’ve found a great teacher include the stability and quality of their voice, excellent music (but not overly relying on music), a knowledge of sanskrit, incorporation breath work in the class, and a sense that she lives a yogic life of compassion, kindness and balance.

Yoga teachers are inspiring souls, and it’s worth the wait to find the best ones. I’ve met yoga “celebrities,” and traveled far to meet them, but was left disappointed.

My favorite yoga teachers live in my town and are also very real people. It’s easy to put teachers on a pedestal and to worship them. Admire them, respect them and learn from them, but remember that they are human.
With deep gratitude to all my teachers.

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Relephant Read:

How to Choose the Right Yoga Teacher.

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Author: Molly Ritvo

Editor: Toby Israel

Image: Robert Bejil/Flickr

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Molly Ritvo