What does it really take to be a great yoga teacher?
By Mara Colbert
Mara Colbert is the author of the book How to Become a Great Yoga Teacher Without Spending a Dime on Teacher Training. We asked her what she thinks it takes to become a great yoga teacher.
“The privilege of a lifetime is being yourself.” — Joseph Campbell
Contrary to current popular belief, you do not need to wear a certain brand of yoga gear to be a great yoga teacher. You do not need to have a blog, or play loud music in your classes. You do not need to have a super hot body, or sport a tramp stamp (that’s a tribal lumbar tattoo – don’t blame me, I didn’t name it). You do not need to play the harmonium or quote the Yoga Sutras verse for verse. And get this . . . you do not need to be an RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) through the Yoga Alliance or be “certified” by ANYONE.
What you do need to be a great yoga teacher is to have a strong sense of who you are and what you have to offer. It is also essential to have a solid personal practice of yoga. A desire to teach, compassion for others, and decent communication skills don’t hurt either.
It is important to develop your own voice as a teacher and to be authentic. No one likes to hear a teacher put on their “yoga teacher voice.” The last thing you want is to sound like either a spaced out hippie or a phone sex operator. Use your own speaking voice, conversationally, but professionally. It is your love of yoga that will inspire students, not your vast knowledge. Be yourself.
“Do your practice, and all is coming.” — Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
Personally, I think you need to have been practicing yoga regularly, as in 4-6 times per week, for at least one or two years, if not more. You need to have a genuine love of yoga, and of learning about yoga. Teaching yoga is more about having a solid understanding of yoga in your own body than it is about memorizing information, names of postures, or any other external knowledge of yoga. Yoga is experiential and you have to have some degree of mastery in your own practice, in your own body, first.
That being said, mastery has little to do with how impressive your postures appear from the outside, or how many advanced postures you can do. Mastery is having overcome obstacles and limitations of your own, through dedicated practice, and having experienced progress and transformation. A teacher does not need to be omniscient – she does not need to know everything about yoga and does not need to have mastered many advanced postures. The teacher just needs to know a little bit more than his or her students.
“Keep It Simple, Stupid.” – Kelly Johnson
Please don’t talk about things you know nothing about. For example, if you don’t in fact know the Yoga Sutras, don’t misquote them. And if you don’t know about anatomy, keep your mouth closed on the subject. (I once heard a yoga teacher claim that shorter people may have fewer vertebrae, so it would be harder for them to back bend. Huh?)
Great teachers integrate wisdom and techniques from the various areas of yoga into their classes. Use the philosophy and its lessons as a supplement to your teaching of the physical postures. Do not force yourself to expound upon the chakras or yoga philosophy if it does not feel natural or inspired. First and foremost, teach appropriate physical sequences with good alignment instruction, allowing themes and philosophy to emerge from your experience as a teacher and from your own practice.
What the Yoga Alliance is and is not
If you went around reading yoga teachers’ bios these days, you would have the impression that they are all “Yoga Alliance certified.” But the Yoga Alliance does not certify teachers. The Yoga Alliance allows teachers to pay money to “register” – it’s a directory.
The stated intention of the Yoga Alliance is to ensure that there is a thorough understanding of the benefits of yoga, that the teachers of yoga value its history and traditions, and that the public can be confident of the quality and consistency of instruction. And how do they do that, you may ask? The short answer is… they don’t. There are all sorts of rogue RYT’s running around out there who know precious little about yoga’s history and traditions, and there are no means of gauging quality and consistency from class to class.
I am not knocking Yoga Alliance. I respect what they do, and I sometimes display their letters after my name (in the years that I have chosen to send in my payment to be in the registry). For that matter, I’m not knocking a good yoga soundtrack, or the quoting of the sutras either – I often play music in my classes and even throw around a sutra or two when appropriate. But the vast majority of yoga teachers I know do NOT have the letters RYT after their names. And they are some of the best and most well-respected teachers, both in my local community and nationally, and truly some of the best in the world. Of the master teachers listed in my bio, I’m fairly certain most of them don’t register with the Yoga Alliance. Most of the well-known yoga teachers that you see gracing the covers of yoga magazines also do not display the letters RYT after their names, as they do not need them. Their teaching and experience speaks for itself. And so will yours.
About Mara Colbert
Mara Colbert is a yoga teacher, mother of a 3-year old, and graduate student in counseling at the University of Missouri Kansas City. She is the author of How to Become a Great Yoga Teacher Without Spending a Dime on Teacher Training. Having herself spent a fortune on teacher training, yoga books, workshops, and conferences over the years, she is eager to share what she knows. Check out the book here, connect with Mara on her website, follow her on twitter, or subscribe to her posts on facebook.