What I admire most in a yoga teacher is his or her passion and love for yoga. The history of yoga is vast, complex, and ornate; when a teacher shows knowledge of one or more of the sundry lineages it makes me feel more comfortable that he or she knows how to lead me though a practice with the proper emphases.
The next characteristic I look for in a teacher is that his or her main concern is safety. Unless the teacher has been working with his or her students for a long time, he or she usually scans the room during the first few minutes to assess the various body types and ascertain the general athletic level of the students. When possible, good teachers ask if any students have injuries that they don’t already know how to modify for.
Clear language to describe proper alignment is essential; alignment pertains to safety and not simply looking cool. Awesome teachers fluidly convey the directions that shoulders, hips, knees, heads, toes, arms and hands should be moving in every asana. On the other hand, since there is no such thing as a “perfect” asana and every body consists of different size muscles, bones, fascia, cartilage and ligaments, great teachers give verbal cues compassionately, not as if they are choreographing extras in a music video.
The main focus of yoga practice is uniting the mind, spirit and body through the breath or prana. Concentrating on the breath cultivates equanimity and peace of mind. Yoga and meditation developed over thousands of years for spiritual reasons: to enable devotees to go beyond their mental soundtracks and realize their essential divine natures. Now many people employ these wonderful tools for psychological reasons: for a respite from their busy mental “to-do” lists, for a few moments of solace during their stressful days, to empty their minds and reboot their psychic and emotional hard-drives.
Awesome yoga teachers usually have an overall intention about the series they are teaching but are sufficiently flexible to be able to adjust for the sundry levels and temperaments of the students.
In my understanding of yoga, the first part of the practice is to generate tapas, to heat up the body, get the blood flowing, and start moving the kundalini energy up the sushumna nadi; once the body is warmer and looser, the second part of the practice consists of twists to remove toxins from the internal organs; the third part of the practice is a combination of going into deeper stretches in seated poses as well as cooling down and leading towards sivasana. This overall structure for an asana series makes sense to me but I’m sure that there are other ways of structuring a class. The main point is that awesome teachers know the purpose of which asanas go during what part of a series depending on how the class is devised.
The next three characteristics I look for in a yoga teacher are sometimes difficult to juxtapose but here goes:
Firstly I want to know that the teacher walks the walk. If a teacher reeks of cigarettes and alcohol then it’s difficult to discern the transformational role that yoga has played in his or her life. I want to know that yoga is an essential part of my teacher’s life and that his or her dedication to the practice is something that I should emulate.
This personal integrity relates to the next characteristic that makes an awesome yoga teacher: authenticity. How can I know about the role that yoga has played in my teacher’s life if he or she doesn’t share that with the class? I don’t need to know thesturm und drang of my teacher’s entire emotional past, but I want my teacher to be authentic, to be “real” in class.
However, in contrast to authenticity, I also believe that there is a performance aspect to teaching yoga that is seldom discussed. It is the ability to command attention in a subtle manner, to “hold” the space. For some teachers, this requires an ability to act or perform in a manner that risks being diametrically opposed to authenticity and integrity. And I’ve even spoken to teachers who deny acting or performing in class. But if you’ve ever been in a class where the teacher is speaking in the same tone he or she would employ to ask you to pass the salt at a quiet dinner table, then you understand what I mean. Also, have you noticed how many of the “celebrity” yoga teachers trained in theater and film before becoming yoga teachers?
So on the one hand, an awesome teacher is authentic about the transformational role yoga plays in his or her life; on the other hand, he or she commands the room like a conductor conducting an orchestra, with a confident voice that inspires students to work for the next 60-90 minutes to attain some of that passion, clarity, integrity, ease, grace, authenticity, compassion, equanimity and love that the teacher embodies.
Ira Israel has a Master of Arts degree in Religious Studies, a Master of Arts degree in Philosophy, and a Master of Arts degree in Psychology. He is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, a Certified Yoga Therapist, an E-RYT500 and the author of “Yoga for Depression and Anxiety DVD” JustYoga.net and the forthcoming “Mindfulness for Urban Depression DVD” IBreatheThereforeIam.com. He sees clients in Santa Monica, CA.