11 Qualities of the Ultimate Yoga Instructor
In the past year I've been fortunate enough to have practiced with some of the best teachers in the world. So what makes a yoga instructor great? Who is the best? Well, I don't think you could ever pick the "best" because there are so many incredible ones, each unique in their only special way. But I've noticed a few qualities that seem to be present in all of the greats, and if I had to create a composite of the best, describing the qualities that make for a the 'ultimate' yogi, this would be it:
1. Presence - This is one of those indescribable qualities that you can feel when a great yogi walks into the room -- their presence commands attention. Their energy can pick you up, it can make you feel at ease, it can make you feel welcome, and it can make you want to practice yoga even when you're not feeling so hot. Even if only for one class, they'll help you leave whatever baggage you might have right at the door. Seane Corn brings her spiritual energy into class, which lifts you up and provides a sense of purpose while you're on that mat. And if you've ever been to Dana Flynn's class, you can't help but feel her infectious, playful presence -- and when it comes out you're in for a treat.
2. Physical Skills - Though you don't have to be the most gifted physically practitioner to be a great instructor, you do need a minimum skill level to teach at a high level. But sometimes there's no better way to lead than by example. I've never seen anyone move better than Michael Taylor. The best way to describe his movement is tiger-like: slow, methodical, and precise. Some make it look easy because they have ballerina-like agility, gymnast-like bodies, or pure brute-strength. But Michael's practice is different -- it's as if every movement is the result of an intentional thought, knowing exactly where every body part is supposed to be. Just watching him move helps your practice -- it has definitely helped me. I'll add that his step-back is something out of The Matrix.
3. Versatility - Just like a great basketball coach is flexible enough to adjust their game plan at any minute, a great yogi spots his or her students needs or abilities and can adjust on the fly. They can do this because they're in tune, and because their teaching has the depth to go any which way. A great teacher can react without compromising their class theme or focus and go with more flow, alignment, or spirituality depending on whatever they might need. Kathryn Budig strikes the perfect balance of all three -- so when the class needs to wake-up with a little more core work, or maybe some words of encouragement to lift their spirits, or even back-to-the-basics adjustments are in order -- whatever they need, she'll stand and deliver.
4. Personalization - You can spot a Wes Anderson film just by glancing at one of the character's outfits or deadpan witty dialogue. So it goes with yoga instruction. Every great yogi should also have a trademark -- a signature sequence, closing, or even a signature use of a phrase. It can be anything, but it's gotta be unique, authentic, and the yogi has got to own it. Tara Stiles is the best I've ever seen at this because she's taken something much bigger than a pose, an idea, like 'yoga for everyone' and completely personalized it. When you take something seen as complex (for many people, yoga is still esoteric), break it down and make it accessible, yet doing so in a way that's 100% unique and authentic to you, well, that's pretty amazing -- and that what Tara has done.
5. Work & Feel the Room - Great leaders can work the room and make every person they come in contact with feel special, if just for a few moments. It's as if they can effortlessly feel their way a way around a room. Great yogis have this gift, too. Whether it's a subtle touch, a name call-out, or even just a glance that lasts a nanosecond, connecting with students creates a personal touch. Just a subtle touch or call-out from Elena Brower as she works the room can make anyone feel better. She even has a bit of a sixth-sense when it comes to tuning in to even complete strangers in her class, who needed just what the yogi ordered. Once she placed a blanket carefully under a student (a total stranger, who happens to be a friend of mine) who was was going through a breakup. And yes, that story is true.
6. Adjustments - Simple and subtle touches or aggressive "get in there and move the kitchen sink"-type adjustments will do. From a health perspective, bad habits can easily be developed and bad habits can often lead to injury, which leads to a newbie never coming back to yoga (not a good thing). Adjustments are also an extension of "working the room" -- letting a student know 'I'm watching and paying attention and I'm here to help your practice.' Lady Ruth will gently nudge you, Dechen Thurman will go person-to-person, row-by-row, Alex Auder will get in there and adjust you up and down, and Nikki Vilella will take the kitchen sink approach -- all four ways extremely effective -- exactly what you needed at that precise moment and getting that pose and your practice right where it needed to be.
7. Details - God is in the details, especially when it comes to the subtleties of one's yoga. When you practice for a while, it's the details that take you to new places in your practice, places that you never thought you could get to before. And when yogis want to take it up a notch, they take it to Schuyler Grant, the yogi's yogi. Get her talking about the bandhas -- they are interior body locks and there are three of them: Mula, Uddiyana, and Jalandhara (Uddiyana bandha being her favorite bandha child) -- and you're going to come away with an expanded worldview of the power of breath, making you a more efficient practitioner, taking your practice to another level.
8. Warmth - Walking into a new yoga class as a seasoned yogi or a first-timer isn't always easy. In fact, it can be quite difficult. However, if you're a first-timer in Tara Stiles' class you can bet that she'll spot you and go out of her way to make you feel comfortable. We often forget the power of a smile, but not Tara Stiles. It's the first thing you'll get when you walk in to her class. And if you're a newbie who's self-conscious, she'll offer up an "it's no big deal" if she senses any struggling or falling out of a pose -- or even a high-five to someone who probably prefers it. And if you're in Eoin Finn's Blissology class, you'll probably even get a hug.
9. Fun - Sometimes we can get too serious about yoga and get caught up in the competitive aspect of our own practice and miss the part that's pretty important -- the fun. And when it comes to fun, Dave Romanelli knows how to shake the seriousness out of us with his hilarious personal anecdotes, while still conveying deeper messages and movement amidst the smiles, or in some cases, laughter. Or maybe you want to get in to Crow and Kathryn Budig will say "roll your back like spaghetti" -- funny, yet gets the point across and gets you into Crow.
10. Music - I'll never forget what one of my favorite professors at Columbia, the famous film critic Andrew Sarris, said about the role of music in the classic film The Graduate -- how the music by Simon & Garfunkel was a character in and of itself. The same goes for yoga as great music should go hand-in-hand with each sequence and play a role in getting you to where you need to go in your practice that particular day. You'll do no better than the global beats of Derek Beres and his Earthrise Yoga. And Dana Flynn's eclectic mix of, well, everything, will always have you asking, 'What was that song?'
11. Language - A great teacher doesn't just talk for the sake of talking, they make every. word. count. And when it comes to mixing words with movement, Alex Auder uses such deliberate fast-paced diction, detailing every movement in such a way that's so fluid and accurate it's remarkable. And when it comes to delivering words, sometimes through silence punctuated with a meaningful take on life, then Elena Brower is a master at this, pouring out authentic musings which in and of itself are worth the price of admission.
Yes, there's a lot here and it's difficult to get all of this right in one class, especially when you're teaching multiple times a day, seven days a week, and perhaps even flying all over the world. To compare the task of the modern yoga instructor to another popular national pastime: Michael Jordan had 82 regular season games and 20-30 post-season games in a year and he's considered to be the most dominant and most consistent performer in the history of sports. Compare that to the fact that some yogis teach over 1,000 classes a year. I can't even imagine how difficult that must be. And Michael Jordan isn't available to teach you how to develop a fade-away jump shot in an intimate setting, whereas all the great yogis are accessible, at less than $25 for a courtside seat.
So these are just some of the many great yogis that I've had the pleasure of taking class with. There are many, many more that I hope to experience in the coming year: Vinnie, Shiva, John, Sharon, David, Ashley, Kino, Faith, Janet, Bryan, Rusty, Jennifer, Rodney, Rainbeau, Tiffany, Brock/Krista, Noah, Baron, Ally, ... I could go on-and-on, as the list is never-ending and so is the yogic journey -- which is the beauty of it anyway, right?
What qualities and teachers are on your list?