Sri K Pattabhi Jois, founder of the modern yoga practice, Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, was fond of saying ‘yoga is 1% theory and 99% practice… and in the realms of the most physical and challenging of asana practices it makes sense that in order to teach it, you have to have sustained a regular and committed yoga practice for many years, even decades to be able to understand and transmit the necessary information to effectively teach others, to safely adjust and understand the biomechanics and anatomy of each posture.
But what does it mean to be a ‘good’ practitioner? Does it mean that you have to be able to hold a handstand for twenty minutes? To balance on a rock in Mayurasana (Peacock pose) while simultaneously tweeting your green breakfast smoothie details to your avid followers?
Of course it doesn’t. However, skilled teachers, whatever lineage they come from, understand that teaching yoga is not the same as ‘demonstrating’ yoga and that deep embodied knowledge of the full spectrum of yoga practices comes from years of dedicated practice and a genuine wish to impart this knowledge to others. Students come to yoga for all sorts of reasons, and more and more are using yoga tools to manage stress and anxiety. Rather than being able to demonstrate advanced poses, in classes where restorative yoga or techniques to reduce stress and anxiety are being used, teachers need to be able to calmly and safely ‘hold the space’ for students, promoting a sense of well-being and a safe environment.
“Teachers need to be able to ‘read’ the class, and the bodies of the students in the class.”
Dina Cohen – London based SYT
Teachers as role models
As we rely more and more on social media for our information and inspiration, it’s difficult not to become overwhelmed by the amount of impressive shapes and Instagram images that we are bombarded with. Teachers that have 800,000 followers and 12 million views on YouTube present a certain perspective on practice. If you ‘commit’ to a daily practice, ‘work’ hard and you too can become strong and flexible as some of the ex-gymnasts and dancers that are capable of extreme asana (and have very good PR strategy!) A good practitioner is also someone who has had an injury, learnt from it and is able to construct effective yoga practices to support and rehab injury or trauma. I have witnessed yoga teachers unwilling or even unable to give up or modify their practice after an injury, for fear that they will somehow be ‘letting students’ down’ or will look like a fraud if they can’t practice. But what kind of message does this send to students? That a good teacher is one who CAN’T look after themselves?
Practice and all is coming?
Daily practice for a teacher is a must, if only a 15 minute one and not necessarily strong asana all the time – and I know that a lot of teacher trainees struggle with the notion that you have to be practicing ten times a day for ten hours a day in order to teach. I would stress that it’s not the length of your daily yoga practice but what you are able to learn about your own body and process, in order to be able to pass that on as a teacher.
if you aren’t able to embody what you are teaching, your students will know at the most unconscious and subtle of levels. But does it mean you have to be able to demonstrate advanced asana? Or even to have done the posture yourself to be able to teach it?
I personally don’t offer postures to students that I haven’t at some point in my life attempted or practiced regularly. I simply can’t find the words or physical adjustments that work for others that I haven’t experienced myself and as I verbally cue students I am often recalling an experience that I had or sensations that arise for me in the pose.
Teachers as guides
What is the role of the yoga teacher? To inspire? To demonstrate? To lead a blameless life in a constant state of blissful and awakened enlightenment?
Certainly the latter expectation is a tad unrealistic! After all yoga teachers are just human, and as fallible and prone to self doubt and insecurity as anyone. From the teachers who teach a weekly class in a church hall to those who lead retreats in far flung places, have a huge Instagram following or have lent their name to a clothing brand or DVD, the implications and demands of teaching are the same. To educate means to ‘lead out from’. As a yoga teacher, the ability to help students to enquire within, to make connections for themselves and to be able to evoke compassion and self-care within others surely beats being able to hold a one handed handstand for ten minutes!
Dina Cohen – http://www.Dynamicflowyoga.co.uk – London classes in Yin, Vinaysa Flow and Restorative Yoga