I recently met a young man named Ken who owns a yoga studio, has just completed a 500-hour teacher training, and is now starting a yoga teacher training himself. ”For our studio to survive we must have a teacher training program,” he told me as we had lunch together one afternoon. Thanks to Groupon, Living Social, and the like, small studios are having to drop the prices of their classes into the single digits, which only lessens their chances for surviving against bigger, more established yoga studios. The solution, it would seem, lies in opening training schools. In fact, starting a yoga teacher training program has become such a regular occurrence these days that it’s almost expected that a studio owner will, and maybe even should, train teachers.
Teacher trainings have become so prevalent that studios are practically expected to offer them, and many studio owners aren’t quite prepared to step into “teacher of teachers” shoes, but feel financially pressured to do so.
Ken’s plan was to invite a senior teacher in to help clarify some of the more refined points of philosophy and Sanskrit because he felt he was less proficient in these areas. I thought “Good for him!” He understood that completing a teacher training did not yet make him an expert, and that having assistance from a seasoned teacher would likely improve the quality of his program.
Ken is a rarity. Often I find that yoga teacher training programs aren’t taught by instructors who have a recognized mastery in the subject of yoga. Many studio owners aren’t quite prepared to step into “teacher of teachers” shoes, but feel financially pressured to do so. Instead of the classical method of refining their craft, assimilating their own teacher’s subtle wisdom, and waiting for when the time is “right” to begin teaching and subsequently passing their own experience on to others (who might also teach one day), it would seem that more often than not the ideology of current yoga culture is to encourage the churning out of training programs as though they were a commodity: one after the other, along the assembly line.
And truthfully, teacher training programs do pay the bills. I know from experience. I’ve owned a studio and directed a yoga and service-focused nonprofit whose mission was to train specialized instructors to work in underserved areas of the community (with the homeless, in juvenile courts, at special education centers, addiction and recovery centers, and within domestic abuse shelters, for example). Most of my students had to pay for the training since academic scholarships for this particular focus area are less than scarce. Even though we became a registered post-secondary school in the state, there simply was not much financial support in the form of grants and funding for our band of scholarly, big-hearted karma yogis, and our small organization could only offer financial aid to a very few.
By the time I began training teachers, I had studied and lived with yoga masters and had taught yoga classes for 25 years, so I felt confident teaching the material itself, but it didn’t always feel good to me that our organization depended on teacher training programs to stay financially afloat in a competitive yoga market. However, the noble, karmically sincere cause has to have financial backing for survival. So yes, I understand the motivations of studio owners who are well intentioned and well trained and still have to pay rent. My wish is that all teacher trainings would seek to offer the deepest level of yogic truth and are under skilled instruction in a grounded tradition. But often, they are not.
In our modern world, when looking for a teacher training, a potential student will often pick the most convenient option, deciding on a particular training due to its location, affordable price, or hours of study that won’t interfere with a busy schedule. In early yogic history (prior to yoga’s boom in popularity over the last 20 years) an earnest student would never consider learning yoga beyond a few poses, much less teaching yoga, unless he or she could study extensively with a master teacher. That’s right, rather than plug yoga and meditation into a busy life, the yogi(ni) adapted her lifestyle to live in ashrams, or anywhere she could be near a great teacher (guru). And at some point, often decades later, the beloved teacher would push the student out of the nest and say, “Go teach!” Times have definitely changed, and in many ways having yoga fundamentals readily accessible for all (able to be learned through teacher training programs, at workshops, or simply at drop-in classes) is a good thing. Even a superficial overview of yoga may prompt further study and exploration.
But there is a problem with the overall trend to get certified and then immediately begin certifying others. Namely, it takes years for the depth of what one learns in training programs to bear fruit. In a training we may get mind-blowing rockets of information and think,”YES! this could change the world! I need to share this.” But those rockets of insight take seat within us only through practice; otherwise once you stand before your students, what was once clear and radiant in the moment can become fuzzy and opaque. Why? Because knowledge comes from experience, and that takes time.
When we listen to the concepts of yoga taught through the lens of a teacher’s deep experience, that lens magnifies our understanding. A seasoned teacher could make the act of opening a cardboard box meaningful. Most of us have known teachers in school who made their subjects come alive because of the depth of their understanding. Mathematics or sociology became our favorite subject because of the intense study and multilevel knowledge of our teachers. These teachers can hone in on their subjects from any perspective and bring the key points home and we are awed.
Some of the senior Iyengar instructors with whom I studied in my early days would admonish newer teachers from offering a new technique to their students before really integrating and understanding it themselves. Being a notorious rule breaker, I remember scampering back to my eager students and attempting to show them a pose variation or bold sequence I had not yet digested. As the wiser teachers warned, the results were less than desirable. Partial concepts would leave students feeling energetically weird or unsure of the goal of the practice. Try though I might to give all the details, I wasn’t established in the practices I attempted to teach.
In some schools of yoga, it’s recommended to practice pranayama techniques for a year before giving them to students for their own use. There are subtle flavors and textures that emerge with time that are far beyond simple steps or techniques. Plus there is risk. Breath practices, when they aren’t taught properly (and thus not practiced properly), can affect the nervous system negatively. Forgetting a step in a traditional process can leave students feeling unbalanced. A budding teacher will often want to make yoga their own by expressing these techniques in their own words—and this is important because mimicry has no heft—but an instructor who is not grounded in practical anatomy, or in their ability to skillfully observe and assess their students, may invent a pose variation or sequence that could harm their students. And, in this way, the teacher plays a high-risk game of “telephone” where the undigested words of their own teachers become a creative approximation of a tradition.
There is a beauty in parampara (a succession of teachers and disciples in traditional Vedic culture). Often, master teachers only allowed one other teacher to pass the teachings of their lineage on to new students. This was done so that the message did not become diluted. But because yoga is now so widespread, keeping the teachings of yoga contained is not likely.
Recently I watched a presentation featuring videos of Swami Rama of the Himalayas. He was a wise sage who brought the tantric lineage I study to the United States. As I watched the videos, my passion and understanding for why I study yoga was renewed. His confidence and absolute certainty about the vast subject of yoga was apparent. Mature, ripe guidance is solace for the eager student.
When you feel you are ready to teach, instead of reaching for the leaf, find the sustaining factor of that tree instead: the roots.
When I attend Rolf Sovik's lectures on yoga philosophy, it's as though his teachings leap off the dry erase board and take on a life of their own. His yoga nidra practice is profound and accurate to the details he was taught by his master, Swami Rama, 30 years ago. Gary Kraftsow speaks on yoga therapy and stress management techniques with the ease and clarity of one who has lived with masters and has learned wise healing techniques for every physical and emotional state. Judith Hanson Lasater teaches with a common sense and clarity born of a lifetime of study with advanced masters like B. K. S. Iyengar. Sandra Anderson’s teachings give pranayama and Sanskrit meaning because she herself has years of experience practicing pranayama and studying Sanskrit. And a teacher like Rod Stryker has the ability to translate physical movements to the subtle body because of a lifetime of study and observation. Every one of these worthy teachers are living examples of what they learned from their own teachers, and they also continue to call themselves students.
My point? On the tree of yoga it’s easy to climb to the top, grab a leaf, and think you have knowledge of that tree. But when you feel you are ready to teach, instead of reaching for the leaf, find the sustaining factor of that tree instead: the roots. The origin of these roots reside in the words of teachers who are scholars and masters. When those roots take hold in the firmament of your own life, through your own practice, then it may be time to share what you have learned. And in due time, the training of successors may be a way of handing down the fruit of a lineage.
If earning a living through yoga is your goal, host workshops with marvelous sought-after teachers, lead retreats for groups who want to travel, sell yoga-related products, but let us not be the generation that diminishes the training of yoga teachers to make a dollar. Being a student of yoga is a deep honor. Let us humbly be students for as long as we teach.