There is no doubt in my mind that being a Yoga teacher has been an incredible journey of personal growth. When I started out 12 years ago I simply thought I’d be showing anybody who turned up to class a few Yoga postures and hopefully they’d enjoy themselves. Yet Yoga always seems to have it’s own plans, it’s own drive, leading me on unexpected journeys and to unforeseen places.
It appears to be the same with many who come to Yoga – at first, we simply do not realise the power and the beauty of the practice to transform our lives. Then a few years down the line we recognize that in fact Yoga is leading us on a rather amazing journey of self-recovery.
Whilst I am writing here about fulfilling one’s potential as a Yoga teacher, really this is what Yoga offers us all – practices and teachings to help us become who we truly are. And if much of our work life is about teaching Yoga authentically, then it seems inevitable that our lives will also be transformed.
Saying that Yoga helps us to become who we truly are implies a question – well who are we? This is an inquiry at the very heart of Yoga. As Yoga teachers we can ask ourselves regularly – who are we when we teach? What sort of Teacher do we wish to be? How can we be authentic Yoga teachers, and what does that even mean? And perhaps one of my favourite questions, what is unique about us that may come through our teaching?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers of course, these are simply useful questions that I believe we should ask ourselves regularly. For myself, the answers continue to change from year to year. A favourite writer, Rachel Naomi Remen, author of My Grandfather’s Blessings, writes,
After all these years, I have begun to wonder if the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.
To Be In Service
A vital aspect of teaching Yoga is to remember that we are in service. In service to our students. In service to the teachings of Yoga. This is the spirit of Karma Yoga, the Yoga of selfless service. When our teaching is filled with this spirit a number of things happen. We may begin to let go of our own story around teaching and focus on what really matters – inspiring others to the practice.
We live these days in a culture that celebrates success. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that of course (there are a many brilliant and successful Yoga teachers), this celebration of success can certainly create intense pressures on teachers to be good, to be great even, to be a slick teacher – like a performer, to be a “successful” teacher. We may measure how “successful” a teacher we are by how many students we have in class, how well known we may be, how much money we are making, or by comments people offer us after class, and so on. In short, our self-worth as a teacher becomes dependent on a great number of variables, many of which are completely outside of our control, yet we give them a great deal of power.
With perhaps much of our identity caught up in being seen as, and seeing ourselves as a successful teacher, we may begin to teach in a way that brings this sort of validation. Instead of being in service to our students and to the Yoga tradition, our teaching may become distorted.
It’s a practice we love and we want to be good at teaching it, but we may find ourselves full of self-judgment, and we modify how we teach and what we teach in order to be “successful.”
Of course as teachers we do need to make a sustainable, healthy living. Yet can we fully trust that prioritizing students and being in service to the Yoga tradition will bring all the rewards that we require, financial and otherwise? While I fully acknowledge that if we wish to make a living from teaching Yoga we need to use our business acumen and marketing skills to help us along, I believe we should not compromise on being true to teaching authentically, true to the full, holistic nature of the tradition of Yoga. Let us drop the story (and the stress) of needing to be the great teacher, and instead be in service, and be at ease in ourselves while teaching.
There’s a lovely quote by Zen Buddhist teacher Maezumi Roshi,
Have good trust in yourself – not in the One that you think you should be, but in the One that you are.
There is some magic that happens when we drop our story and be in service. Our teaching may take on a beautiful quality of humbleness, and the unhealthy aspect of our ego, our separateness, may fall away. Our true nature starts to blossom forth in our teaching. We tap into our natural desire to offer help and be of assistance. We may find the courage to simply be ourselves and our work becomes truly joyous, truly easeful. How beautiful it is to give of ourselves, to offer out our passion for Yoga! To genuinely meet our students in each moment, in each class. In this way the spirit of Karma Yoga opens the door for us to fulfill our potential and develop our own natural mastery as Yoga teachers. Mastery arises simply as a result of one’s experience, dedication and service to teaching Yoga.
In a highly recommended book, The Courage To Teach, author Parker Palmer argues that while it’s important to reflect on what we teach, how we teach and even why we teach, we may ask ourselves, who is teaching? While we may be drawn to skilled teachers who have the ability to break down and elucidate potentially complex material, perhaps more important is the teacher themselves. It is worth asking ourselves, why are we drawn to some teachers and not others? And in our own work, who are we when we teach? What does it mean to be our self? Teaching thus becomes a process self-discovery and an inquiry into the inner life of the teacher.
Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.
Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach
Reviewing Your Teaching:
How Do We Hold Space For Transformation?
As Yoga teachers who wish to fulfill our potential then, it becomes necessary to regularly take an honest look at our motivations and what our personal agenda is for teaching. The interesting thing about Karma Yoga is that it directly addresses these motivations.
As teachers we hold a position of authority. Authority may come from various aspects of our teaching: our understanding of Yoga, our own embodiment of the practice, our ability to hold a space safely and effectively, to inspire students and more. Yet we should be aware that true authority is not about imposing our will, our agenda or abusing our power. It can be tricky in a Yoga classroom when students start to put teachers on a pedestal, or that we put ourselves on a pedestal, believing in and falling for some idea that we are extra special. As Yoga teachers we should be mindful of the potential power imbalance within the teacher-student relationship, and be clear in ourselves about our interactions with students. Can we deliberately step off any pedestal that we find ourselves on and relax into a teaching space which encourages equality and recognises our students’ innate, natural wholeness?
About three years into my teaching career I came across the writings of Donna Farhi, who is now my primary teacher. Much of what I am writing about here is inspired by her work.
In 2006 she wrote a book called Teaching Yoga, Exploring The Teacher Student Relationship, a highly readable look at ethics in teaching Yoga. It was exciting to read as a Yoga teacher as it touched upon so many aspects of teaching that I had experienced but had rarely been discussed or taught in any depth. Donna, in her own teacher training programme, proposes a Pedagogic Model for Teaching Yoga. Pedagogy refers to the the principles, strategies and methods of teaching. How may we be truly effective Yoga teachers? What strategies inform, support and guide us in what we say and do with our students?
“In real learning the student is always gaining increasing degrees of self-reliance, self-confidence and self-responsibility. All teachings should be assessed in terms of the independence it creates.”
In the Yoga Sutras, the first of the eight limbs of Yoga, Patanjali introduces us to the Yamas, foundational principles for living in community. The first Yama is Ahimsa, which means non-harming and cultivating compassion and loving-kindness towards all beings. While a full commentary on the Yamas and Niyamas is beyond the scope of this writing, I believe as Yoga teachers we should aspire to embody and model these principles. In terms of Ahimsa, the space we hold as teachers should be entirely safe and free from harm. We are creating a container for our student’s welfare, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. A space where students are encouraged to listen to the messages their bodies are giving them and have the permission to act on those messages. Only when a classroom is safe and free from fear that we create a space which fosters true learning, development and transformation.
What if everything we offer out as teachers – every word, action, adjustment, class structure, sequence etc – was offered in an entirely safe, kind, clear, inspiring environment, within the context of increasing students’ “self-reliance, self-confidence and self-responsibility”? How would our teaching develop within this paradigm? What language would we use? How would we use our voice? In fact, we can regularly review all of our teaching and check whether we are operating from this model of cultivating self-reliance. I recommend reviewing every class we teach, even if it’s simply noting whether a certain phrase used was effective or not.
Whilst reviewing our own teaching is very useful, perhaps even more beneficial is peer reviewing, asking others to give us helpful and constructive feedback. In my experience peer reviewing is not supported much in our Yoga community which is a shame as it can be incredibly valuable for our own growth as teachers. Are we afraid of being criticized, or having our identity as a “successful” Yoga instructor challenged? Instead can we encourage an environment where it feels safe (Ahimsa again!) to offer and receive constructive feedback. Personally my teaching has grown immeasurably when I have received such feedback from colleagues, and from students too. They are in a position to witness and experience my teaching in a way that simply I cannot do objectively.
If we set up a protocol where feedback may be offered with kindness, asking what worked in class and what didn’t work, and why, we can, with just a little humility and gratitude, make great strides in the quality of our teaching.
To blossom as teachers it becomes necessary to challenge ourselves, to have the courage to step out onto new ground and explore new teaching techniques. Perhaps we can even allow ourselves to make some mistakes along the way! There is beauty in allowing this vulnerability in our development. It is through the reviewing process that we can learn from mistakes and consider our ongoing refinement to our teaching. In embracing this process our teaching will not be mechanical, simply going through the motions to get through yet another class. Instead, the creative refining of our teaching brings us renewal, freshness, passion, innovation and inspiration.
The Spirit Of Inquiry
I mentioned earlier that one of my favourite questions to ask teachers is what is unique about us that may come through our teaching? What does it mean to be our self? How and what would we teach when being ourselves? Answers may lie in further questions: what are we genuinely passionate about in Yoga? What inspires us to this path? Is it the spirit of loving-kindness? Discerning precise alignment? Learning to move with grace and integration? Discovering the art of deep relaxation? Bring Yoga philosophy to life? What moves us most about the tradition of Yoga?
When we take the time to reflect upon such questions, explore and teach what we are most passionate about, it is inevitable that our teaching will have more power, be more effective, more energised, and be offered through our unique being in a healthy and inspiring way. Perhaps just as important, teaching Yoga with this approach, honouring our individual nature, may bring more joy and renewal to our own selves.
In this inquiry, it’s a valuable process to look at what parts of our personality are prominent in helping us teach with greater clarity, transparency and service, and what parts of our personality hinder the quality of our teaching. What patterns of our own behaviour can we take a good honest look at (Satya), and act upon to either inhibit or encourage? How may we hold a safe and clear space for ourselves as well as our students?
Movement As Inquiry, Posture As Process
Do you know the saying: “Give a someone a fish and you feed them for a day; teach them how to fish and you feed them for a lifetime”? We may apply this to teaching Yoga.
A few years ago I was leading a teacher training and during the very final weekend one student-teacher said to me, “Well I don’t know why we keep going through these movements. When I teach I can just place people into the postures.” At that point I realised that while others on the course had cottoned onto what I was presenting, I had failed to reach this student. It taught me a lot about being clearer with the reasoning behind the teaching model I was advocating.
A significant aspect of Donna Farhi’s pedagogic model of creating student independence is to teach Yoga Asana (postures) not so much as static shapes to be achieved, but as inquiry. When we practice Asana we are in movement. We are moving into a form and moving out of a form towards something else. Even as we rest inside a particular shape for some moments, there is always the dynamic movement of breath itself. Rather than achieving shapes and judging how advanced we are in Yoga by how far we can bend, can we let our inquiry be about how we move. How can we (re)discover healthy, natural movement, inclusively available to everyone?
Movement is a process. Every single movement we make initiates somewhere in ourselves, then travels though the body, completes momentarily and then flows onto the next movement. It may start in our centre. It may start in the periphery of the body, our limbs. The point is, do we notice this process? Do we have choices in how we move and where we move from? Do we know how to move with grace and ease so that we are true to Patanjali’s original teaching on Asana, that we are steady and comfortable in our posture (Sthira Sukham Asanam, 2.46)?
We can teach movement not so much as simply telling students what to do, but to create an environment and a language where students are inquiring into their own movement (which is different to everyone else’s movement). That we give students permission to move and find their own way. Yes, sometimes we need to be directive, especially with beginners. However, the long term principle of student independence should always be encouraged. One simple method to do this is to actively engage students by asking questions within our teaching. Here are a couple of examples:
Rather than saying, “Raise your arms as you breathe in”, how about, “What phase of the breath, the inhalation or exhalation, supports your movement as you raise your arms?”
Rather than saying, “Stand evenly on your feet”, how about an inquiry where we explore the weight of the body coming down through our feet, forwards, backwards, to each side, and then centering? In this way we are encouraging an active participation from our students, and we empower them to their discover their own Yoga practice as it applies to their unique being.
The Importance of Personal Practice
When you practice, wisdom grows.
When you don’t practice, wisdom wanes.
Todd Norian, Yoga Teacher
It is certainly satisfying, as one progresses along the teacher path and enjoy whatever successes transpire along the way. Let us acknowledge and celebrate when we teach well, but then let us let it go and move on. There seem to be many ups and down in this work! Yoga offers us equanimity, joy and ease if we stay true to our own development our own learning and practice.
It’s within our personal practice that we explore and develop the knowledge which we share onwards. We hold authority as teachers because we have travelled the path before our students, and we can show the way clearly.
With sustained practice we increase the capacity to reach down into ourselves, to see and understand our own patterns of behaviour and held positions. We may shine a light on what drives our motivations, our ambition and reactive behaviour. It is through understanding ourselves that self acceptance and compassion flourishes. Sometimes, if appropriate, we may also seek therapeutic help from others. And on some level, all our difficulties are actually pointing us towards who we truly are. Let us welcome them. There is no need to rush the process of our self-development. Mastery takes time, many years even. Then, inevitably, our Yoga practice may reveal the clarity, freedom, ease and responsiveness that lie obscured by our habitual reactivity. The more we marshal the courage to walk this challenging path, the greater our integrity, skill, compassion and ability to reach out to and teach our students.
Thus a healthy personal practice keeps us true to the tradition, grounded within the tradition, always opening us up to deeper and clearer insight, allowing us to tap into the deep wellspring of our own natural wisdom.
I suggest that as we arrive in our practice we take some time to check in with ourselves physically, energetically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. How are we doing today? Can our practice be one of permission to explore, to be creative, responsive and organic? What would be the most appropriate personal practice in this moment? An active, dynamic Asana practice, restorative Yoga, seated meditation, or would it be more valuable to go for a walk in nature? In this way we meet ourselves every day, exactly how we are – and that is what we do as Yoga teachers, meet and greet our students and creatively respond to where they are at, each moment, each class. Our own embodiment of the practice is vital if we are to become the finest Yoga teacher we are able to be.
“The best teacher you will ever have – the one singing and dancing in your own heart.”
The Shanti Mantra
Please know that this writing is meant simply as a springboard for further dialogue. I fully welcome further contributions to the discussion. Tell me, what does it mean to you to fulfill your potential as a Yoga teacher?
As a final note, much of what is offered here is encapsulated beautifully in just a few lines by the Shanti Mantra, a chant used traditionally to address the teacher-student relationship. Perhaps all that needed to be written was this!
Om Saha Navavatu
Saha Nau Bhunaktu
Saha Viiryan Karavavahai
Tejasvi Naavadhiitam Astu
Om Shanti, Shanti Shanti
May we be safe and protected here as we come together to practice and learn Yoga
May our practice together be nourishing
May we practice together with great enthusiasm and presence
May our practice together bring us deeper understanding
May no obstacles arise between us.
May we be free from fear.
May we understand the truth that all is One,
Om Peace Peace Peace
Taittiriya Upanishad, Katha Upanishad, Mandukya Upanishad and Shvetashvatara Upanishad
(Translation inspired by Dr Richard Miller)
This article would not have been possible without the support, teachings and writings of Donna Farhi, Parker Palmer, Mark Stephens or Dr Richard Miller and others. My heartfelt gratitude always.
- The Courage To Teach, by Parker Palmer (more info here >>)
- Teaching Yoga, Exploring the Teacher Student Relationship, by Donna Farhi, available from her website here >>
- Falling Short of Knowing and The Ethics of Uncertainty, A Pedagogic Model for Teaching Yoga, an audio recording by Donna Farhi, available from her website here >>
- Teaching Yoga, by Mark Stephens (more info here >>)
About Neal Ghoshal
Neal has been practicing Yoga for sixteen years and teaching since 2003. He sees Yoga as a map guiding us home to a place of peace and relaxed openness in each moment. He enjoys creating a safe and inviting space in which to learn and discover the tradition and the evolution that is Yoga.
Neal teaches as part of the faculty on Donna Farhi’s Advanced Teacher Training, and as faculty on the teacher training programs at Kawai Purapura Centre in Albany, Auckland. Contact Kawai Purapura for full details.