What's in a Yoga Teacher?

Written by Heather Morton

What is it that truly makes a good yoga teacher? Is it just a bunch of subjective things that makes you like or dislike them as they teach you yoga? Is it their fantastic ability or knowledge alone?

Leaving aside subjective preferences there are indeed key ingredients that help you embark not just another journey in calisthenics, but your life journey. Many yoga students have often asked me how I found my teacher. What did I feel was right from the start? How did I progress? What was important?

In my case, had it not been for another student at the Ashtanga school (shala) in Mysore, I may never have met my primary teacher. This student was writing an article with The New Yorker which became entitled, "The Yoga Bums." She saw I was a fierce backbender in spite of the fact that I should have been doing the "closing” asanas in the finishing room in the old shala in Lakshmipuram. She spoke to me about Yogacharya Venkatesha who was the only teacher providing classes on backbending and possessed a gift for it.

The first few things I recall during my initial meeting with Yogacharya were in him stating that he did not give any physical adjustments. This was a surprise to me. He talked about not wanting to make people dependent. He also stated that his aim was to teach a student "how" to practice alone.

I was not intimidated but curious and started the next day.

The essence of Yogacharya’s teaching as I grew to experience it was not in shaping the student to fit the yogasana, but the reverse. He taught that the practice should fit the student. Students learned the practice posture by posture, which ensured they learned it well – really well. Classes were not taught as a mass production line, but in small groups with each student quietly practicing along aside another one. There was a lot of onus placed on the student to remember what was taught. Because he was not repeating himself. The reward in remembering what you had been taught came with the reward of learning more. Not remembering kept you repeating the same pose or being sent home.

Yogacharya’s approach was to guide the student in becoming their own inner teacher. This cannot be done by spewing out instructions. This is not necessarily easy either, but teaching people to breathe and stay longer in a posture is difficult. The whole idea has to do with the Sanskrit phrase, “Sthira Sukahm Asanam” meaning to explore what is and not what you are doing. With the latter approach comes the tendency of getting caught up in performing. The former approach allows for space, silence and stillness – the essence of the postures.

For me, Yogacharya is the only teacher I have found who is not teaching “monkey see, monkey do.” Yogacharya guided students to explore and investigate the asanas (postures) on an individual level. Each asana in the beginning was practised 3 times. Later on it was practiced once and held for 30 to 45 breathings.

It was under his direction that I learned to build my own personal practice of backbends. When he asked me, “What do you what to learn?” it was always with both excitement and dread. I was excited because of the possibility of what was open to me. I dreaded it because I understood the long path that still lay ahead of me.

Sometimes the asanas I learned were very simple while others were difficult and well beyond my current capacity. The simple ones made me remember that I was and am a beginner while the more difficult ones never let me rest on my achievements.

The single most important thing I learned from Yogachayra was to practice alone and under any given circumstance. Whether in a cramped hotel room, a stuffy basement or a small corner of the practice room, I practiced. Yet it has been the silent joy that came from gradually mastering an asana that is the essence of his teaching. During my struggles Yogacharya would say, “When you return to your country it will come.” And whether or not it was in my country or still in India, there was nothing more satisfying than emerging into the asana.

Not everyone can teach you this.

So, what’s in a teacher? Here’s my list...

1. Ability to observe the student objectively

2. Is compassionate but does not aim to please

3. Has clear ideas and doesn’t give mixed messages

4. Genuinely wants you to succeed

5. Teaches you how to ignite your own inner teacher

6. Understands the struggle but does not baby you

7. Creates a safe environment but not an overly comfortable one

8. Elicits and inspires you to strive for more

9. Listens to you but does not necessarily agree with you

10. ______________________________________  (What’s on your list?)

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