My first thought was, depends on who you ask. With so many styles and approaches to yoga and teaching yoga, “greatness” would make for a passionate debate.
And, perhaps like many teachers, I certainly have a lot to say on the topic.
Or do I?
In the days leading up to the interview I thought more and more about the question. What makes a great yoga teacher?
And the fact that this is a completely subjective, personal, and intimate opinion, who’s to say?
My favorite: Doesn’t laugh when I fart.
Funny. And true.
Let’s just agree on a few essentials. Most teacher training programs cover fundamental topics like posture alignment, safety, sequencing, language, demonstration, hands-on, anatomy and physiology, breathing, and philosophy.
But even the best training does not a great teacher make.
Taking it further
Continuing to evolve, learn, and adapt to life and the practice are essential. My dear friend (and an amazing teacher), Madeleine Lohman posted today on how she continues to grow and respond to student needs. No two classes, let alone no two people, are ever the same.
One Facebooker pointed at staying off the pedestal. Elephant Journal posted a fabulous article by Carol Horton on this topic; even the comments are high quality. Being real — as a perfectly imperfect human — will help keep students from thinking you other-worldly.
It’s important to remember that we are not teaching a group, we are teaching individuals. Many students come to class to get away from cultural expectations to look, act, feel, and think a certain way. Perhaps the most profound thing we can do for each other is give permission to be ourselves, warts and all. As a Facebook friend commented, Someone who makes it safe to be in your own skin–even if only for that hour.
Who to be?
While imitation may be the best form of flattery, the sincerity and mindfulness called for in a teacher can wilt in the shadow of taking on someone else’s persona. This can be challenging, especially for new teachers who are inspired by mentors and taking their first steps in finding their own style.
Common advice for teachers is to stay in the practice. Mat time, meditation, and watching the breath — unrelated to class preparation — are essential to be able to teach honestly and from experience. When we know who we are and have compassion for ourselves on the mat, we can create the possibility in the classroom.
And isn’t that what we’re talking about? Isn’t that what Yoga is? Finding out who you are. First as a person, then as a teacher. Yoga, as a practice of unlayering, is an effective way to get to that core. The beauty is, once you know who you are and show up as yourself, someone will want what you’re selling. As my friend Havi says, your right people will find you.
That thing. Call it heart or natural gift or presence. It’s the thing that no teacher training can give you. It can be uncovered and encouraged, but not learned in the way you’d study anatomy or Sanskrit.
Remarkable teachers have this mysterious way of inspiring and bringing a larger purpose and exploration into the classroom experience in a way that weaves itself into your everyday life. All the while — and this piece is very important — without making it about them. You feel as though you created the pose, you had the insight, you let go. Because you did.
As teachers, it’s easy to get caught up in how to make a class great. But often what most supports the environment we’re trying so hard to create is getting out of the way.
Fear not, fledgling teachers, labels are a dangerous thing. People are incredibly forgiving. If you show up with sincerity, kindness, and some amount of skill, people will respond in kind. It doesn’t need to be polished and perfect. In fact, that would be kind of boring. Just breathe and be yourself.
I do believe this question has been a sabbatical gift, wrapped with bows of Who am I and Why do I love this practice? Having time to consider the answers, let alone the answers themselves, may be the very reason I needed this break.
Oh, and if I had to list the qualities I value in a teacher (as I did in the interview), they would be:
- a walk-the-talk lifestyle
- a spirit of inquiry in teaching style
- larger context (beyond asana)
What’s on your list?
Look for the article in the Sac Bee around March 12th.