Just a quick point before we begin: Why “Teacher” as opposed to “instructor?” In my own view, the word “Teacher” carries with it thousands of years of honorable and deeply spiritual meaning. “Instruct” fails to convey the deeper values and meaning of Teacher…and I don’t like the way it sounds either!
I am far from being a good teacher, which is why I offer free Yoga sessions Sunday mornings at a local park…I wouldn’t feel the students were getting the value for the money if I charged anything more than a smile, or even a half-conscious grumbled “good morning.” It is not that my heart isn’t in the right place, but I still struggle with patience and frustration when someone just can’t “get it,” no matter how I try to explain. The sacred position of a teacher is not something I accept lightly, and I worry I might sully the field somehow through my inept efforts. I leave the true teaching to those more deserving the role – Yoga or otherwise.
To teach anything to others is a holy and deeply spiritual calling – even if you are an atheist with no beliefs whatsoever. Teachers participate in the same process that the whole of creation is here for: To teach. To teach or desire to teach Yoga is similar in my view to joining the priesthood, or becoming ordained as a minister; you are answering a higher calling not based on financial reward or physical gain, but an honest desire to share with others what you have learned and introduce others to the path of Yoga and its transformative qualities. Let’s face it, when it comes to teaching Yoga, few make a full living wage without supplementing their income with regular or part-time work!
To be a great teacher
What does it mean to be a great teacher? Why not just a good teacher? From my narrow point of view, all teachers are inherently good through the very act of desiring to teach, and my respect for you knows no ends…The qualities of a great teacher are more than just qualities confined to teaching, they are many of the same qualities that we need to build upon to communicate effectively and enjoy meaningful relations with those around us. All teachers are good teachers, as I have said before – but to be great:
You can explain anything to anyone – It is a real skill to be able to explain something to someone who knows nothing of the subject, or very little. The true art of helping someone understand what you are teaching lies in your own ability to discern how that individual views what you are explaining, how they learn, and how best to present the material from their point of view. (One of my personal stumbling blocks…)
Temper, temper – There will be times when stresses in your own life and environment bring you to a point that you want to yell at those you teach, or at the very least yank some of your own hair out.
A sense of ‘ha-ha’ – Students find learning much more enjoyable if the teacher has a sense of humor. This can be very valuable as a Yoga instructor, especially when you overbalance and collapse in a tangled heap of arms and limbs in front of your entire class while demonstrating an asana. Humor allows you to participate in the laughter that follows, lighten the mood and energize the room, and use the incident as a valuable teaching tool instead of turning red with embarrassment and reacting poorly.
Common sense – A great teacher possesses common sense, which appears to be a rather uncommon quality as of late…perhaps it is time to ‘re-coin’ the term “uncommon sense” to replace it. A great teacher is practical, and can size up developing situations and react appropriately in a seamless manner – dispelling issues before they truly arise, calmly acting upon as opposed to reacting.
You live what you teach – Students have an uncanny ability to intuit when their teacher has no belief or interest in what they are teaching. As I have said, teaching is a higher calling – your own conviction and faith in what you teach will determine the conviction and faith you are able to generate in the classroom.
Both leader and follower – One of the best gifts from a student when in the role of a teacher is to have the student teach you something. An openness to accept the position of follower in your own classroom or Yoga studio may be difficult at times…but no teacher is greater than those who can become a student as well. Through this deeply meaningful experience of being taught by the student, the teacher is given the opportunity to grow and enrich every lesson they teach with the new knowledge the have been open enough to receive.
Tough skin – There are going to be times in every teacher’s career when circumstances in the studio or classroom leave you drained, feeling unappreciated, or even in despair over the events. To teach is to interact with others in a difficult and often demanding environment where the same personality conflicts and other social issues can often be magnified. Forbearance and a willingness to examine yourself without blame are important for your own mental and emotional health, as well as your attitude towards the students in your class.
In my humble opinion, teaching Yoga is one of the highest teaching pursuits one can aspire to. To teach Yoga is to help keep the doors open to ancient wisdom that is as current and true today as it was thousands of years ago. As a teacher of Yoga, you are charged with guiding not only the physical and mental state of your students, but are also responsible for enriching your students’ own spirituality. Yoga is an entire discipline and lifestyle built around a singular goal: To exist in a state of knowing harmony with The Divine and all of Creation. To try to play down or ignore this underlying component of Yoga is to do your students and yourself a great disservice. To teach Yoga requires an additional component which is most often missing from other classrooms: Deep spiritual conviction and faith.
Conviction and Faith
When we speak of “spiritual” in this case, we are speaking of the connection that Yoga has helped to forge deep in our being with our higher self. (Perhaps more correctly said: Yoga reveals the connection we have always had…) That is one of the most profound powers of Yoga practice – you don’t have to have any faith at all, just follow the instructions. The faith and the spirituality grow by virtue of nature. Our natural state of existence is one of perfect harmony with our environment, ourselves, and all forms of sentient life. Yoga is a science that brings about a spiritual result – the physical and mental benefits are more “side-effects” than they are meant to be goals.
As a teacher, you have already been affected at a deep and profound level by all the Yoga that brought you to where you are right now: At the front off your class, with all eyes watching expectantly. Some of those eyes are judgmental, some eyes may ridicule, others may convey boredom, and hopefully most of those eyes left over are glowing with attentive anticipation. Each of your students is there for unique reasons, and each brings their present life-state with them. It can be very easy as a teacher of any sort to find oneself overwhelmed with the problems students are having on personal levels, and this is where faith and conviction as a Yoga teacher are a must.
You have conviction regarding Yoga and its benefits, or you would not be standing where you are now. Have faith that you are an instrument of Yoga whose honorable purpose is to teach what you have learned to others. You don’t have to solve all the problems, and you will rarely if ever be able to meet all your students’ expectations or requests. Have faith that in the same way Yoga began to make more and more positive changes in your life, it will in your students too.
For someone who feels he is unworthy of the role of teacher, it occurred to me that giving advice may be the worst thing I could do, but that is the great thing about advice – you as the reader don’t need to follow it! If I could offer a few final words that may be have benefit: Don’t teach Yoga, teach the love of Yoga…and don’t teach your students how to stretch, teach them how to relax…and finally, teach from the heart, not the manual.
Namaste my friends, my deepest respect to all of those we call Teacher.