Judging teachers

The notion of yoga competition is universally mocked by serious practitioners. As I wrote in my prior post, “Olympic fever,” asana is only one aspect of yoga, not the goal. It cannot be judged by a one-time performance.

That said, I have a confession to make. Asana is key to my yoga practice, so I choose my teachers partly by their asana ability. I say “partly,” but I admit that it’s an important part. In a way, I am judging them by the very thing I’ve claimed cannot be judged.

But what the point of studying with a sloppy teacher? I’m a visual person, and I learn by example. It’s invaluable to observe someone enter, exit, and hold poses with clean form. The best teachers seem to “fill” their poses with both energy and ease: always elongated and open, but without working too hard or rigidly.

(Case in point: See image above. Would you prefer to study with Mr Pretzel or Mr Iyengar, based on their form in natarajasana?)

That said, there are exceptions. A senior teacher might, due to age, be losing strength or flexibility, but be a rare expert on pranayama or philosophy. Another might be healing an injury and unable to demonstrate asanas, but still be brilliant at teaching by words.

While my focus is Iyengar yoga with a chosen teacher, I’m an avid experimenter in yoga, dropping in on classes whenever I travel or even in my home city. I can enjoy a class despite a teacher’s so-so form: She might introduce an excellent sequence or novel interpretation of a pose. She might have a pleasant voice or simply be humorous or charming. I’m not saying that asana quality is everything. But, for my chosen teachers, I do judge: on form and movement and “overall impression.”

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Image: Talkingsun

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11 thoughts on “Judging teachers

  1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with chosing a teacher partly based upon their asana ability. If you’re going to a hatha yoga class, then it makes sense that a teacher that’s able to “do” a pose would have more insight in body mechanics and would be able to provide more first-hand knowledge. I know I feel more comfortable working on challenging poses if I know my teacher has a good understanding of the posture himself/herself.

    That said, there are exceptional teachers that can teach postures to students that they cannot do themselves. 🙂

    Cute picture with Iyengar’s book and the pretzel guy.

  2. As a teacher your greatest mirror is your students – they will mimic your movements down to the slightest detail. I have a tendency to flourish my hands when coming into a forward bend. Nothing dramatic, just a wrist movement that I never even thought about – until one day I saw one of my large male students doing this same gesture. It looked so incongruous I nearly laughed out loud until I realised that of course, he was only copying me. 😉

    My teachers were rigorous in creating our attention to detail: “if you speak it, demonstrate it!” they would say. If your knee is not above your ankle in Warrior II, don’t say it!

    This reminds me of a recent discussion – on Grounding Thru the Sit Bones? – about our Western attitude towards Yoga. With so many choices and our culture of “the customer is always right”, we “shop” for a teacher and put ourselves in a place of judgment. This is just the way our modern world works – whereas in previous times, it was the teachers who ‘shopped’ for the students, choosing whether or not they were worthy of receiving the teaching.

  3. My favourite teachers have usually been great teachers… regardless of asana skill. I like demonstrations, but am not a visual learner per se. I have had teachers who were FANTASTIC at asana, but terrible at teaching. I really don’t attend a class to watch someone “perform” a pose perfectly… i could do that on yogaglo.

    i attend a class to learn, have personal feedback and adjustments and listen to variations of explanations on alignment. of course, asana is only a small part of what yoga is to me… so perhaps that is why I am so lenient in this area.

    of course, everyone is different. 🙂

  4. @LaGitane: Excellent point about the modern trend of shopping for yoga teachers instead of yoga teachers selecting their students. So true. I think it would be such an amazing experience to be ‘chosen’ by a teacher and to learn directly from them long-term. I don’t suppose this happens much anymore does it?

  5. Thanks for the comments. I agree that ability to DO asanas doesn’t ensure ability to TEACH asanas (much less the other limbs of yoga!). Also, I seek a myriad of other qualities, including those mentioned by Eco: personal feedback, manual and verbal adjustments, etc.

    But, yes, I do look at the teacher’s overall form and alignment, which to me demonstrates awareness. I’m not seeking an Ana Forrest or an Ashtanga acrobat. I’m seeking someone engaged, energized, and at ease; often, what I call “sloppiness” is due not to inability but to inattention.

    Regarding teachers who teach poses that they cannot do themselves: I myself probably would not do so. If I have not experienced something, could I truly be wise and effective at teaching it? (This applies to any teaching: Shouldn’t I have firsthand knowledge (whether intellectually, academically, experientially, socially, psychologically, athletically, physically, etc) of what I teach?)

    In a nutshell: Teach what you know. That could mean asana or anatomy or the sutras. Then it’s sincere and authentic.

    Again, thanks! Your comments push me to question my opinions and that’s always good.

  6. I once had a teacher who looked at herself in the mirror for the whole class. Her postures were beautiful…but I wanted to shout “look at me! help me!”.

    I agree with you that it is nice to have a teacher who can do a pose and understand how it feels etc. With that said, there are a lot a lot a lot of poses that I can’t do but I still teach them to my students. To me, it reinforces my yogic philosophy that we are all built differently and are at different levels and that yoga is unique to each individual. I get comments from students that it is nice to know that I have to work at poses too.

    For the poses I can do, I consciously try to have great alignment and do a good demonstration.

    Great post!

  7. I think that it is possible to teach a pose that you can’t practice yourself, as long as it’s something you’ve studied, attempted (the longer and harder the better) and feel you understand.

    For example, I can’t (yet!!) touch my head to my foot in King Pigeon. But that wouldn’t stop me from encouraging a student with a very flexible back to come into the full pose, because I understand the alignment, mechanics, breathing and assists associated with the pose. Every person’s body is different and it’s important as a teacher to encourage people to find their own strengths and limitations, not adopt yours.

    As teachers it’s important to be wary of our ego. Do we hesitate to teach a pose we can’t perform because we are ‘afraid’ of our students being ‘better’ than we are? My teacher used to say that to really be a good teacher you have to be able to put yourself in the body of your student, not just teach as if you are the only body in the room.

    Now, it is something completely different to try to teach a pose that you have not studied (meaning: tried… and tried… and tried…) If you don’t understand the pose – how to come in, alignment, breathing, how to come out – then you may put your students at risk of injury by trying to “teach” it.

    On another note, I think sometimes the poses that we can’t do are the ones we come to understand the most, because we study them, break them down, and explore every possible “trick” and tip!

  8. i dont necessarily prefer it, but ive had great classes where the instructor barely goes into any of the poses. again, im not sure what it is about them (usually great assists, though, is my guess), but the class can be great not only is their asana isnt perfect looking, but even if theyre not doing it at all

  9. Last night I thought of this post. I attended a class with a different teacher. She was a phenomenal yogi- able to bend and stretch and visually demonstrate all the postures beautifully.
    But she was a terrible “teacher”. Her verbal cues were catastrophic, she barely adjusted. I found myself having a difficult time following her sequence, her posture changes and wishing she would give more specific instruction.
    I also quickly realized that while practicing yoga I could not often look up at her to see what the heck she was talking about- I was busy in downdog… and my dristi was not looking forward at her.
    When she described a posture as “just do this” it was set. I will take an experienced, non-bendy but great verbal instruction teacher any day over someone who was great at asana but not so much at “teaching”.

    Being able to “teach” is a separate skill.

    1. Thanks for sharing this story. I agree 100% that a good practitioner doesn’t necessarily make a good teacher. They are indeed opposite skills: with the focus being either inward (self practice) or outward (teaching others).

      Again, I never meant to imply that I put asana ability over teaching ability! I just meant that a good teacher also typically holds her own body with keen and constant awareness. (Haven’t we all seen folks who beautifully demo a pose and then slump as soon as they’re not “on”?)

      About visual teaching: In Iyengar yoga, teachers typically demo a pose and then verbally direct students into it, following with personal attention and manual adjustment. This allow students to learn visually, verbally, and, most important, experientially in their own bodies.

      I can’t stand when teachers do the whole class along with students (as if class time is their own practice time). I agree that verbal teaching is more important. But get this: A fellow teacher at a community centre (she’s not an Iyengar teacher and, to me, should demo less and teach more) mentioned that she’s had non-English-speaking students in her classes. If she stops demonstrating, they have no idea what to do. That is an interesting dilemma: On one hand, I want my students to be English proficient (otherwise I cannot truly teach them); on the other hand, if they are new to North America and trying to immerse themselves in their new culture (including yoga!)…

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