Five Traits of a Great Yoga Teacher

April 6, 2016    BY Jules Barber
Yoga Teachers

What makes yoga teachers good at what they do?

Recently, as I was putting together a new yoga sequence for an upcoming class, it dawned on me that there is a lot of room for interpretation when it comes to answering this question, and even more room for interpretation when it comes to figuring out what makes a teacher not just “good,” but outstanding.

Of course, there are a few things to consider when you’re starting out—and some very practical “do’s and don’ts.” I often advise new yoga teachers to keep their sequences simple and incorporate more challenging asanas and trickier transitions eventually, as they gain experience and confidence. It’s also safe to say that throughout a yoga teacher’s career, maintaining relevant and current technical knowledge of anatomy and alignment will be necessary, and that the ability to guide students safely in and out of poses is imperative. Clear, calm, confident instruction is also important.

Some common sense “don’ts” include not being present with your students (like texting while you’re teaching—I’ve seen it happen!), picking on students for taking breaks when they need to, or using lots of “yoga jargon” without explaining what it means. The list could go on and on, but I think you get the idea!

But then what? What is the secret to going from “good” to “great”?

It depends on who you talk to.

Many in the yoga world feel that teachers need to understand anatomy and physiology in depth. Anatomy has become such a buzzword in yoga media these days, it seems like anyone who's interested in yoga (whether they are a yoga teacher or not) is expected to be an anatomy expert.

There’s also a long-held perspective among some yoga teachers that a person has to be extremely spiritual to teach yoga; that to be a “true” yoga teacher one would have studied at an ashram in India, practicing karma yoga all day before sitting in meditation for ten hours straight.

In reality, there are a number of things that inspire people to teach. Some chose this profession because they want to share yoga as a form of exercise, others teach because they’ve found yoga to be both physically and emotionally therapeutic and want to share what they’ve experienced with others.

So where am I going with this?

Perhaps by creating an increasing number of unnecessary yoga “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” we’re putting a lot more energy into our images and identities as teachers and a lot less energy into how we can show up most optimally for our students.

Regardless of where you fall along the “yoga teachers should/yoga teachers shouldn’t” spectrum, here’s one thing that we as yoga teachers need to remember:

While there is a certain degree of self-exploration involved in teaching yoga (again, like asking yourself the question: “How can I move from being an okay teacher to a great teacher?”), teaching yoga is not entirely about us. For the most part, it’s about our students.

And learning to grow strong, healthy relationships with them is of utmost importance.

5 Traits of a Great Yoga Teacher

1. Great teachers check in with their students.
At the beginning of each class, take a moment to touch base with your students and ask them about possible injuries. It’s common for teachers to forget to do this. It can be easy for us to take checking in for granted, especially if we’ve been teaching a while and we have regular students. I know there have been times when I’ve forgotten.

New yoga teachers might also feel nervous enquiring about injuries. But it’s helpful to know beforehand which poses could be adjusted to enhance the class experience for students who want to avoid worsening any injury. This doesn’t mean that you have to ask students to announce their health histories to the entire class, but you can invite them to raise a hand, or to flag you over during warm-up exercises if they have any important information or concerns to share with you.

2. They enjoy the silent moments.
Some yoga teachers, especially those who are fairly new, tend to be a bit scared of silence. As a result, they may overdo instruction, which can be distracting for students. I myself chattered on incessantly when I first started teaching, feeling like I had to share everything I knew about a pose each time I cued it, and that I had to fill every moment of class with information or “inspiration.” The silence totally intimidated me, that is, until I realized what creating silent moments could offer my students. Developing space for quiet moments in class will give your students the opportunity to listen to their bodies and to focus on their individual intentions for practice.  

Be brave, take a deep breath, and savor the silence.

3. They're open to student suggestions, but not afraid to think outside the box
When you first begin teaching, just designing a basic class can feel daunting, let alone trying to come up with something that’s satisfying for your students. Just give it time. Once you start teaching you’ll begin to learn what your students’ asana preferences are.

That said, it’s also important to think outside the box. In my general all-levels classes, if I have students who primarily want to work on hip opening, I try to change things up so that they continue to get broad exposure to different yoga styles, poses, and themes.

I’ve found that my more advanced students often get “tunnel vision” about how to progress in a certain pose or achieve something they are working toward. They can be so focused on particular poses that they start to neglect other areas of their practice. Be open to creating sequences based on students’ preferences, but also be aware that challenging them to break out of their asana comfort zones is important. And I’ve found it’s almost always welcomed.

4. They're the first to arrive to class and the last to leave.
Great yoga teachers take time to build relationships with their students. Showing up early and sticking around after class can open up opportunities for dialogue.

Perhaps your students are wondering where else you teach, or maybe they’re interested in a weekend retreat. I’ve had conversations with students after class that have allowed me to gain a much greater understanding about what they want from practice, as well as how they’d like to integrate practice into their daily lives.

By engaging with your students and addressing their questions and needs, you will become a more successful teacher. That’s how you develop a “following” based on mutual trust and support. Most importantly, you’ll be able to offer students class experiences that can help them to feel more empowered and content, both in and out of the yoga studio.

5. Great yoga teachers are present, not "perfect."
Whatever you take away from this article, remember one thing: Teaching yoga isn’t about trying to fit into a mold of what an ideal teacher “should” be. You’re teaching to a room full of students who have different needs and intentions for practice, which may require you to wear many hats. Sometimes students don’t want or need an anatomy lesson or tons of alignment cues in class. Sometimes they just want a fun sequence, less talk, and more space to feel and move and breathe. Be open to what the students in front of you require and desire, moment to moment.  

Jules Barber
Jules Barber's passion for yoga spans more than a decade and she has practiced all over the world. Having fixed a chronic lower back problem with yoga, she decided to train as a teacher in 2011 and completed her 200-hour RYT with Rita Chohan at Yoganesh. Jules is also the manager of Grounded, a small studio in the Gulf of Thailand, and is on the verge of launching Yoginomics, a business resource for trainees and newly qualified yoga teachers. Drop her a line on Facebook.

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