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Why There’s No Substitute for a Good Yoga Teacher

good yoga teacher

Donna Farhi - An advocate for teaching to each student

Why There’s No Substitute for a Good Yoga Teacher

I have a confession to make:  I am a yoga teacher who has no yoga teacher. I can attend classes, watch videos or participate in online practices, but I do not have a main yoga teacher with whom I practice.

Frequently students or friends ask me for recommendations of videos or online classes to take if they are unable to make it to a studio or gym for in person practices. I usually suggest one or two yoga teachers who have the services available, or offer to record mine. Yet at the same time I remind students of the benefits of in person instruction. “What is it,” they ask, “that separates a video from a teacher in the flesh?” I have thought about this question a lot as I leave studios and move to new ones. I have wondered about what we look for in yoga teachers while I continue my quest to find the right one for me.

Videos and online practices provide a wonderful outlet to learn asana, to learn some pranayama techniques and even perhaps to gain some awareness of yogic philosophy. The savvy yogis out there may even be able to bring these aspects together during a taped practice to have a truly quality time on their mat. However, I posit that there are significant things missing from distance learning.

How to Spot a Good Yoga Teacher

In person, a good yoga teacher reads his/her students’ body architecture and apply principles of anatomy to give them the best practices. These teachers teach who is in front of them rather than sticking with a script of which asanas they wish to lead. They offer modifications based upon actions or information given by their students’ bodies or words. Good teachers can change a class plan on a dime to create one that works for all the people in the room. Scripted video classes do not have the options to change the sequence so students are left figuring out for themselves what to do or not to do.

Teachers who are there for their yoga students provide an environment that can finesse an arm balance and child’s pose in the same breath without letting anyone feel like they are less than the other yogis in the room. These teachers weave in themes of philosophy, wellness, seasons, poetry, humor and music to their asanas so that the practice becomes one of wholeness rather than just physicality. They also know to stick to strict instruction of asana if it is needed. They can speak to those knowledgeable about yoga and beginners equally and together.

Great yoga teachers create a space that is safe for exploration and growth. They know what asanas need modifications for what conditions, and if they do not are unafraid to admit their limitations. They know to offer suggestions of therapists, counselors, massage therapists and the ilk and do not posit that they are these types of healers (unless of course they actually are). Such teachers put the wellness of their students at a premium.

Perhaps what makes an in-person practice stand out most from those on video, recording or online is that yoga teachers are space holders for their students. They know the individuals in front of them and can witness changes in their energies, moods and bodies. They allow for growth, emotion and heart to be present for these students without imposing their own beliefs or stories upon them. They come to the mat clean and leave their own emotions outside the room so that the yogis in front of them have the space to explore their practices however they unfold.

But the best part of having a teacher you trust is that they know who you are. These teachers encourage you to enhance your strengths and to accept where you have weaknesses. They know what asanas your body craves and which you should avoid. They can suggest books, music and other teachers that would work for you. They are honest. They hold space for you when you want to go deeper in an individual session or laugh with you and your community of yogis. They are willing to let you go when the time is right for you to move on to another teacher. These teachers do not judge.

These yoga teachers know YOU.

Being the Kind of Teacher I Like to Learn From

I strive to be one of these yoga teachers to my students. I work to see them, support them and to allow them to grow past my classes if it is right for them. They watch me learn from my mistakes as they become wise from their own. My students are like a family.

These qualities are what I look for in a yoga teacher. While many online classes provide some of these aspects, there is much that is missing from the in-person interactions between students and teachers. These online sources are terrific outlets for getting ideas for sequences and asanas, but often are missing much of the off-the-mat benefits of this teacher-student relationship. For these reasons I suggest that online classes are no replacement for the in-person ones.

Until I find one for myself, I will have to be satisfied in being such a teacher to others. I will enjoy practicing with those teachers who teach great asana online. I will read about philosophy and anatomy and enhance my own learning. I will continue to be my own yoga teacher.

About Nancy Alder

Nancy Alder teaches the Yoga of Ease in Connecticut. She writes for Origin Magazine and has been featured twice in their "Inspire" series. Her daily practice on and off the mat is chronicled at her site Flying Yogini. When not teaching, practicing or writing about yoga she hangs with her elves in the enchanted forest and counts the days until the next snowfall.

2 thoughts on “Why There’s No Substitute for a Good Yoga Teacher”

  • Jennifer

    Dear Nancy,

    I am in the same boat as you. I am a yoga teacher without a teacher. Partly because of geography (I live an hour away from the closest studio) and partly because of time (I work a full-time job as well as teach, I have 3 children, and a grand-daughter).

    I have been trudging through the Yoga Sutras without a guide and rely on online yoga classes to learn from as well.

    Like you, I strive to be the kind of teacher I would love to have. One who really cares for their students and one who leads by example.

    Thank you for this piece. It makes me realize I am not the only one without a teacher.

    • Nancy Alder

      Hi Jennifer.. So glad it resonated with you! I have similar issues with distance, time and small people (I have two). It is an eternal struggle but I am so thankful that there are online classes where I can find new ways to flow, new ways to look at bodies and that I have an online community of yoga teacher friends to connect with daily. One day we'll find that perfect teacher.

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