it’s not cute pants

Earlier this week I was interviewed by Sam McManis from the Sacramento Bee who is doing a story on What makes a great yoga teacher.

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?

Nearing the end of my sabbatical, I feel a bit out of touch with teaching, even asana in general (as I am still relishing in my spacious break).

And the fact that this is a completely subjective, personal, and intimate opinion, who’s to say?

So I took the question to the all-knowing internet. From Twitter and Facebook came generous feedback.

My favorite: Doesn’t laugh when I fart.

Funny. And true.



The obvious

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.


The Intangible

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.

The pressure!

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.


Who, me?

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:

  • humor
  • kindness
  • sincerity
  • humility
  • passion
  • a walk-the-talk lifestyle
  • acceptance
  • quietude
  • 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.


23 Responses to “it’s not cute pants”

  1. 1 donna February 25, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    What I needed… just finished preparing for Free Friday class. now a deep breath (or many) and hope “the thing” makes an appearance this time… ;-)

  2. 3 Dunstan Bertschinger February 26, 2011 at 12:39 am

    A fascinating article and highly relevant for me training swimming teachers to support deep change in the water.

    Thanks Michelle,


    • 4 blogasana February 26, 2011 at 1:50 am

      dunstan – teachers of all kinds, right? i hear swimming and yoga are very similar with the focus and obviously breath awareness. i hope to take a swimming class at a local junior college soon.

      thanks for the comment and all the best in the water!

      • 5 Dunstan Bertschinger February 26, 2011 at 6:15 am

        Yes absolutely they are parallel!

        That said many ‘coaches’ are more like the equivalent of personal trainers who teach conditioning in the water and not much else…

        Let me know how you go with your swimming, I’ll be fascinated to hear about your experiences…

        Love n Hugs,


  3. 6 Nancy A February 26, 2011 at 1:13 am

    I think the best teachers a.) teach with their own voice (rather than aping someone else), b.) know their students: their weaknesses, their strengths, their joys and fears, c.) practice what they teach.

    this was a great post. bookmarking it for future ref. loved it!

  4. 8 madyoga February 26, 2011 at 1:19 am

    Wow – your sabbatical really gave you time to find words, didn’t it? I’m pretty sure this is my favorite post of yours ever – eloquent, effusive, and so, so true. Well done.

  5. 10 janeen February 26, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    This speaks directly to the work I’m doing right now. I can only come back to teaching if I maintain a sense of balance, whether that’s in cute, size 6 pants or in cute size 12 sweats. This really hit home for me because yoga has become so much about HOW WE LOOK and less about how we feel. I’m glad we’re connecting next week…so much more to say on this topic! Very timely, indeed! Love you.

  6. 12 madyoga February 26, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Good morning! Next day, and still thinking about this post. That is all.

  7. 13 Sarah Schaale February 26, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    I love your posts, Michelle. This one is so eloquent, even reading it as a student. This is what makes me excited about yoga, particularly at IAY. On my first class I felt like I was present and focused in the class, in the poses, in the studio at that time. And somehow after I left, it seamlessly stuck with me. Every class has been different and taught me something new about perspective or my life in general. Michelle, you taught a class that was centered around being “good enough” and its something I come back to often. Sometimes it’s listening to my wrists during practice (downward dog is still a challenge!) to saying no to making plans, to living in a new house that’s not yet full of my dream furniture. Its incredibly empowering to accept yourself, and I don’t think I’d ever think that way without that class. Just one of the many things I find in the great yoga teachers at IAY. Hugs.

    • 14 blogasana March 1, 2011 at 1:05 am

      sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to comment. the impact the practices are having is inspiring — what you describe is yoga to me! and i’m glad we can be a part of that. hope to see you soon… xoxo

  8. 15 Frenzy36 February 27, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    I loved the article. At the studio I never want to feel I am part of a dvd or a zumba class. My perfect teacher decides in that starting moment what direction the class will take based on their feeling from the students as a whole.

    BTW very very creative you are, interjecting those tweets inside your article – nicely done.

    • 16 blogasana March 1, 2011 at 1:07 am

      dave – thanks man! yes, the mark of a remarkable teacher is being able to throw “the plan” out the window and respond to what’s really happening with the people in the room. quite a risk and huge potential reward. thanks for sharing that. xo

  9. 17 sierrajennings February 28, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    It’s so great to read such inspirational posts relating to teaching. My idea of a great teacher is one who brings laughter and humor (naturally-not forced), who is authentic, gives a good amount of permission, reminds students that we are all unique and encourages us to let go of competitiveness, and creates a space for exploration. I think it’s also very important for a teacher to be flexible and check in regularly with new students and those with injuries, and be able to provide modifications to those who need them.
    Great job with the Tweets. That’s really neat.

    • 18 blogasana March 1, 2011 at 1:08 am

      thanks, sierra! gee.. i think you described yourself here :). so good to know what qualities are important to you. hope to see you soon :))

  10. 19 Benito May 6, 2013 at 1:21 pm

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  11. 20 Clarita March 25, 2014 at 3:21 am

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