I am often asked what it takes to be a yoga teacher. What is sufficient training and how do you know when you are ready to teach. These are the right questions for anyone seriously thinking of teaching yoga. Unfortunately, there are no ready-made answers because teaching is an organic process. For most yoga teachers, the decision to teach is a natural extension of having first been a student.
Today it is popular to hear that a good teacher is an eternal student. Is being a student enough, however? BKS Iyengar, one of the great masters of yoga, says he is a student, a teacher, a philosopher and an artist, but above all he is a beginner. How humbling! How many people are beginners? Most of us want to be an expert. Yet a beginner is more open, accessible and teachable. Beginners possess a fresh mind that does not compare and contrast. Iyengar also states that teachers should let their students know they are learning (The Tree of Yoga).
1. Set an Example
I have been fortunate to have a teacher who clearly demonstrates the attitude that Iyengar recommends. My teacher is not ashamed to say he is a beginner. He once told me he learned more from his students than the students themselves. I remember thinking, "How ironic. Here we are in India to study yoga and he acts like a humble servant." This kind of thinking clearly pinpoints the laundry list of projections and expectations we often bring to our teachers. Sometimes we fail to remember our teacher was and is a student; like us a beginner learning.
Learning yoga is not much different than an actor being handed a new script. In theatre school, I learned my craft was a work in progress. It did not matter what role I was playing but in learning to be open to new information and insights.
2. Have the strength and courage
A challenging catch-22 lies in being a student while that of a teacher. How do we stand in front of our students as a student? A yoga teacher told me she feared losing respect if she was less flexible than her students. At the same time, she also expressed feeling superior to her students. It is not a good excuse to find yourself justifying your ability against your student’s evolution. It takes strength to face our own defaults and continue to teach, as well as to practice, with our fears.
On the flip side, it is understandable because students judge your ability. When I learned the jumps of Ashtanga yoga I was always falling down. With rug burns on my shoulder a student remarked, "Even the great one falls." She was being facetious but I felt ashamed at my progress and it hurt my pride. The beginner’s way, however, is this way: falling, getting up and falling down. Being true to Iyengar’s advice requires courage both as a teacher and a student.
3. Remain a Beginner
I am grateful to my teacher not only for being a student but a person who humbles himself to the art of yoga and strives to serve others through it. A beginner does not have the hang-ups the expert carries. What I mean by this is the way my teacher pointed out my defaults. I have grunted, moaned and collapsed in many directions while learning new postures. I finally concluded to my teacher that my lack of progress must be because of my tight hips.
He looked at me, smiled and said, "It is not your hips but your mind. You need to be a beginner again."
We can make the mistake in thinking the main obstacle is the body, but the ancient texts of yoga say the opposite. In other words, it is not the body standing in the way, but the attitudes, expectations and motivations we possess. It is similar to what the Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah taught in how moving a mountain was easier than altering one’s perception of self or personal view (Everything Arises, Everything Fades Away, 2005).
In this light, being a student is perhaps easier than remaining a beginner of yoga.