Recently, I asked my Instagram followers what makes a good yoga teacher? Here are some of the most common responses:
- Someone who has an in-depth knowledge of anatomy
- Someone who weaves philosophy and scripture into their classes
- Someone who incorporates pranayama (breathwork) and meditation as well as postures
- Someone who practises what they preach, and lives “a yogic lifestyle”
According to these definitions, I fall way below par.
Now, I’m not the best yoga teacher in the world (although I don’t know how you’d quantify this, besides not breaking your students’ necks), but I’m by no means the worst. I reckon I fall somewhere comfortably in the middle.
I know enough to create valuable and intelligently structured classes, but I rely on familiar movement. I’ve memorised the key core muscles, although I’m not entirely sure how they work together. I’m able to talk about yoga philosophy confidently, but only if someone expresses an interest.
Oh, and I also enjoy beef burgers, the occasional beer and lounging about in old, coffee-stained pyjamas, which I’m doubtful constitutes a “yogic lifestyle”.
Despite these flaws, and the lofty expectations people often have of yoga instructors, my classes are pretty busy, and I’m teaching beginners on an almost weekly basis. I’m not telling you this to prove my worth…
Instead, I want you to understand that you don’t have to be perfect to be successful, respected and valued.
Success is in the details
Why do I think people keep coming back to my classes, even though I’m not the most knowledgeable, spiritual or virtuous teacher out there?
I mostly thank my attention to detail.
Above all, I want every person to feel heard and seen when they walk through the door. I don’t want to create a conveyor belt environment, where success equals more students rather than knowing students. And I’ll quit teaching if I ever become an unapproachable presence, incapable of building two-way relationships.
Notice how none of these values has anything to do with grasping the intricacies of the musculoskeletal system, eating plant-based, reciting scriptures or generally being the most righteous person on the planet.
When you pay attention to detail, the big picture will take care of itself. – Georges St-Pierre
Admittedly, it kinda sounds like I’m trying to build a yoga utopia (there’s a place I’d like to visit), but all I’m trying to do is create a welcoming, collaborative and supportive environment. While this may seem like an unattainable goal, I’ve found it as simple as implementing the six small gestures below…
Learn people’s names
The easiest way to facilitate connection in your classes is by learning your students’ names. I can already hear some of you grumble: “But I have too many students, how do you expect me to do that?”.
Let’s be honest, it doesn’t take that much effort, and if you’re unprepared to do it, then you might want to consider a career that doesn’t involve human contact.
At the very least, learning someone’s name is common decency. At best, it shows you value the student as an individual – they’re not just another anonymous face on the capitalistic studio merry-go-round.
Don’t be afraid to cock-up either. Sometimes, it takes me four or five classes to learn someone’s name, and I get people mixed-up all the time. Nevertheless, despite a little awkwardness which is easily brushed off, I keep asking because I care who this person is. A simple way to start learning names is by gaining access to the register beforehand.
Memorise your class plans
For new teachers, having a class plan to hand is extremely helpful because there’s a lot to remember – sequences, posture names, modifications and adjustments. However, if you need to bring one, make sure it’s tucked away out of sight.
Reading from a class plan looks unprofessional – it gives the impression you aren’t confident in what you’re doing and haven’t adequately prepared for the lesson (don’t worry, I know you have, but your students don’t).
As well as this, religiously sticking to class plans stifles innovation, and continuously checking notes distracts you from being present to the needs in the room.
Make yourself available before and after class
While I understand this might not be possible all the time (after all, we’re busy people), you should aim to arrive early and stay after class more often than not.
As well as giving you a chance to settle in and mentally prepare for the class ahead, it provides a fantastic opportunity to break the ice with students and introduce yourself to beginners who, probably, are a bit nervous. Plus, you need that time to discuss any injuries, health conditions or other concerns people have.
Remember injuries and health conditions
Much the same as learning people’s names, remembering injuries and health conditions confirms you care about a person as an individual. Plus, it demonstrates your competence.
If I kept having to remind a teacher about an ongoing health concern, I’d lose faith in them – I’d worry they didn’t care or, even worse, understand how to adapt a class to keep me safe.
It’s worth mentioning here that yoga instructors aren’t doctors or physiotherapists, and too many people are falsely led to believe that yoga can “cure” them (I mean, it might, but making grand claims you can’t substantiate will only lead to disappointment).
Nevertheless, if a student has an injury or health condition, it’s up to you to do your research and make sure you’re offering this person modifications, props and suitable adjustments (please note I didn’t say advice).
I’ve been to plenty of serious yoga classes, with no hellos or smiles, and plenty of bustling ones, where conversation isn’t met with icy death stares. Guess which I prefer?
This is mostly personal preference, but I can think of nothing worse than walking into a class, especially if I were new, and feeling like I couldn’t express myself to the teacher or other students. I’m not condoning endless chatter and distraction, but a little communication goes a long way towards creating an environment people want to come back to.
Plus, if chatting with other practitioners is frowned upon, what does that imply about the teacher/student relationship? It suggests there isn’t one.
At best, discouraging conversation (which includes questions during practice and clarification about postures) makes yoga a miserable and one-sided experience. At worst, it creates an unfair power dynamic where students are taught to surrender their whole selves to someone else’s system and ideals. In extreme cases, this kind of toxic guru culture leads to emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
Anytime we put someone on a pedestal, we take away our own personal power. – Emily Kane
Don’t be afraid of saying “I don’t know”
There’s so much power in “I don’t know” – it’s authentic, humble and demonstrates a willingness to cooperate with others who do know.
Like I said earlier, yoga teachers aren’t doctors or physiotherapists. They’re also not counsellors, life coaches, healers, gurus or mini Gods (although some would like you to believe they are).
As teachers, there’s a lot we don’t know, and a lot students expect from us. Unsurprisingly, we’re bound to feel like imposters from time to time. It’s tempting to try and fulfil these expectations, but don’t let your ego get the better of you – you have to admit when you don’t know something.
Not only does it make you more relatable (because we’re all just drifting through life figuring out what the fuck is going on), but you’d be doing your students a disservice, and potentially harming them, by providing false information.
What small things make up your big values?
Your values probably look a little different to mine, and that’s okay because the key to success lies in identifying what’s important to you.
But despite our differences, this detail-orientated approach works for everyone – it will help you to realise your values without becoming overwhelmed by them.
If you liked this blog, read my guide on how to survive teaching your first yoga class.
Image credits: Unsplash.