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10 Attributes of Great Yoga Teachers

10 Attributes of Great Yoga Teachers

Thursday, November 9, 2017 - 10:02am

Angela (far right) leads a class at the YMCA Anthony Bowen.

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10 Attributes of Great Yoga Teachers
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When asked to write this article, my first response was, “Sure, that’s easy, I’ll have this done tomorrow!  A plus B plus C plus D = Great Yoga Teacher.”  Then I started to read what others had written and began to question myself, “Who am I to say what makes a great yoga teacher?  I do not know enough.  I am not advanced enough.  What if I write something and others in the Yoga community judge me?  What if I don’t get it right?”   

I had to stop and laugh at myself.  As a yoga teacher and a human, some form of these questions are always swirling around in my head, no matter how long I’ve taught or how credentialed I am.  

What makes a great yoga teacher?  Do I listen to these voices in my head and let them inform my teaching?   Or do I hear these voices and move out anyways, making myself vulnerable and taking a risk?  This is not easy work.  Sure, it gets easier with time, but I often find the more experience and knowledge I gain, the more I can use information to cover up my vulnerability, my fear of being judged by a room full of people.  Fear of sharing my deepest self with others and being rejected.  

So what makes a great yoga teacher?  Here is my Top 10 list.

1. A great yoga teacher is willing to be vulnerable.  Sounds a bit conceptual and, SO much easier said than done.  I really struggle with this one.  There are several ways to practically work on being vulnerable in the class room.  One way is eye contact.  Do you look into the eyes of your students?  I often find myself looking through students, because if I look into their eyes they will SEE me. Intimacy= Into Me See.  Most days I am scared of what people will see.  But a great teacher of yoga will do it anyways, despite the fear they may feel.  This kind of real connection is what changes them and the lives of others.  “Without fear there is no courage.”  Which leads me to #2

2. A great yoga teacher has the courage to be imperfect.

I’ll always remember a quote from Yasmine, one of my first Bikram yoga teachers, “Perfection is boring.”  The way she said it landed in my bones, as I lay on the grungy carpeted floor in a pool of my own sweat.  As a student, I want a teacher who knows how to be human, because I’m human and I want to know that it’s okay to be me, just as I am.  But a great teacher will not just stop there, which leads me to #3

3. A great yoga teacher will take a stand.

Of course as a student, I want to be held in a safe space… but I also want to grow and keep moving forward.  The founder of Budokon, Cameron Shanye, coined a helpful phrase, “The way we do anything is the way we do everything.”  This is very true when we practice yoga.  If a student is constantly late to a yoga class, I can assume,they are probably constantly late to everything else in their life. If a student shies away from trying new things, constantly pushes too hard past limits, doesn’t take rest, takes too much rest, makes excuses….if they are doing it on the mat, most likely it’s showing up everywhere.  A great teacher of Yoga will hold students accountable for their actions and stand for students when they are not able to stand for themselves. Offering feedback can be uncomfortable and often result in people not “liking you.”  But a great teacher will do it anyway, because they are willing to risk not being liked for being respected.  They operate out of their own integrity and become a force for transformation in a student’s life.  My life has been changed by many great teachers who were willing to stand for me in my growing pains and blind spots, with fierce compassion, wisdom and tenderness.  

4. A great yoga teacher protects the whole.

In a yoga classroom setting, the teacher is in charge.  Therefore it is the teacher’s responsibility to protect the whole.  Great yoga teachers understand what it means to create a safe space for the entire community to operate in.  We’ve all been in those classes where the one student keeps talking really loud, or completely doing their own thing, or smells terrible!  A great teacher will take care of the whole, by holding the one accountable with graceful assertivness.

5. A great yoga teacher knows how to use conversational and essential languaging.

It can be helpful for a teacher to demonstrate a pose, but it is essential that a yoga teacher can  walk a student in and out of a pose, using just their words.   A great teacher is a Master wordsmith.  They can speak to someone’s body like they would with a friend at Happy Hour.  They are able to have a conversation with bodies and make their words land.  A great teacher does not just talk to a student’s brain, a great teacher talks to student’s nervous system on a visceral level.  When a student leaves this class, they might not be able to tell you why their life was just changed…but they FEEL it and start to live differently.   

6. A great yoga teacher speaks to what is in front of them. 

We’ve all been in those classes and I know I’ve taught a few, where the instructor is going on and on about high minded ideas and philosophies which have nothing to do with the class in front of them. Great teachers are able to weave a soulful or inspirational theme throughout the class and the theme connects to what is actually happening for the students in the room.

7. A great yoga yeacher is always working on their own practice.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that to be a great yoga teacher you have to hold 10 minute handstands or wrap yourself up in a tiny pretzel.  I was a college soccer player and currently train seriously in Martial Arts.  My hamstrings are never going to let me wrap up into an A plus pretzel.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.  A great teacher is not just practicing yoga asana, a great teacher is always practicing how to be a more loving human being.  This path looks different for everyone, but the great teacher is actively on it and dedicated to being the best person they can be for themselves, others and the world.   Mary Oliver asks a great question in her poem, This Summer’s Day, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”  A great yoga teacher is constantly asking this question of themselves and others.   

8. A great yoga teacher is always a student.

To be a great teacher you MUST be a great student.  I tell students in my teacher training program to never trust a teacher who claims to “know the truth” about everything.  A great teacher exudes a palpable curiosity of life.  They are seekers of truth, not “knower’s” of truth.  But knowledge and experience are also important qualities of a seasoned teacher, which leads me to #9.

9. A seasoned yoga teacher has knowledge and experience.

I use “seasoned” instead of “great”, because I think you can be a great teacher by teaching what you know.  But there is definitely something to be said for years of experience and study.  A great and seasoned teacher has experience teaching students.  They have sought out higher education and knowledge for their own growth and advancement. There is a wisdom that comes with experience.  A “seasoned” yoga teacher is developed with time, patience and endurance.  

10. Last but not least, to be a great yoga teacher you must show up.

As a Director, teacher and student this seems like an easy one, JUST SHOW UP.  Students trust that if your name is on the schedule, it is you who will be there.  Yet, we so often see Yoga teachers treating their classes only as a pay check.  I am not judging, as there have been several times in my yoga teaching life, where I have tried to get a sub at the last minute.  But to be a great teacher, you just show up no matter what you’re going through.  You take your commitments seriously and if you feel over committed, you make needed changes.  Of course life happens, we get sick, we take vacations, etc, but a great teacher is consistent and dependable, even if they do not feel like teaching on a particular day.   

I am blessed and honored to have had so many “GREAT” teachers in my life.  I humbly commit to staying on the path of a teacher working towards greatness.

About the Author

Angela currently teaches Yoga, Budokon and Self Defense full time at 202Strong, Flow Yoga Center, Yoga Heights, Vida and George Washington University.  Her vision is to create a community of Everyday Warriors through movement and psychology, who are equipped and motivated to face their Everyday fears and cultivate courage and resilience. As a leader in the Women's Self Defense Movement, she inspires women to be physically strong and safe, while also creating  paradigm shifts in how we see ourselves in the world. She  leads Yoga Teacher Trainings and Budokon Academies throughout Washington DC. She has a Masters of Divinity, is a certified End of Life Care Counselor, studied Buddhist chaplaincy through the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, and worked for 12 years at Joseph’s House AIDS hospice. She is a competitive Martial Artist in Muay Thai, Jiu Jitsu and MMA. She also knows every 80s Monster Ballad and loves high alcohol content beer. 

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