Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Teaching Yoga, Teacher Trainings: Some thoughts

I just watched this video interview with John Friend, where he shares his thoughts about teaching yoga, and his own process of becoming a yoga teacher. I don't know much about Anusara yoga, beyond having taken a few Anusara classes here and there a few years ago. But I think that many of the things that he says here about becoming a yoga teacher are very interesting, and apply to aspiring teachers of any yoga style. Here are a few points that he brings up, along with my own thoughts and comments: 

(1) Teaching before one has even done the practice: Friend points out this phenomenon early in the interview, citing his own experiences with people who want to join his teacher trainings. I will confess here that I also succumbed to this tendency when I first started practicing yoga. I taught my very first yoga class (in 2005) only six months after I went to my first yoga class, after attending a weekend teacher training program. If you had asked me at that time what my motive was for teaching yoga, I would have said that I wanted to share the joy of yoga practice with others, or something like that. But now, with a little more time and honesty, I'll confess that I was also driven by a certain narcissistic urge to feel important and respected in front of large crowds of people. Because I was naturally flexible in some areas, I was able to put on a show of being a "yoga expert". Eventually, other circumstances in my life beyond my control made me put teaching yoga on hold, and I have not formally taught a class for about two years now. Fortunately, nobody was hurt (to my knowledge) during my short tenure as a yoga teaching charlatan :-)

But on a larger scale, I personally think this tendency of yoga students wanting to be teachers without much practice experience of their own is an unsettling, and possibly dangerous thing, both for the aspiring teacher in question and for his or her students. After all, in theory, almost anybody who has $3000 (or more) to spare can just walk off the street these days and enroll in a yoga teacher training. If you think I'm exaggerating, well, I'm actually speaking from experience. A couple of years ago, this studio I taught at started offering a 200-hour Yoga Alliance Teacher Training under the sponsorship of a large prestigious yoga corporation. I attended the information session, but did not do the training, because I couldn't come up with the money at the time. At the information session, the teacher trainer who was to lead the training went out of his way to reassure everyone present that they did not have to be able to do x or y asana in order to become a yoga teacher. Fair enough. But I also got the sense that there wasn't any particularly strong effort to emphasize the importance of having a personal practice as a teacher; all I heard were vague, feel-good assurances to the effect that "If you are doing your best, you are good enough." Nor was there any requirement for the participants to have been practicing for any length of time; in fact, the official line at the information session was that all that was required to do the training was simply a "desire to deepen one's practice."        

I have no statistics to show how many of the participants at this teacher training already had an established personal practice before they joined the teacher training; nor do I know how many of them developed a personal practice as a result of participating in this teacher training. But it might be interesting to note that the teacher training sessions were conducted one weekend a month over a period of six or seven months, in order to accommodate the busy lives of the participants. This, by itself, may not mean anything, but I can't help wondering: If somebody did not already have an established personal practice coming into the teacher training, how likely would meeting for one weekend a month with a teacher trainer be to lead to this person's establishing a personal practice by the end of the teacher training? 

One might think I'm being very harsh here. After all, one might say, yoga teachers (and yoga teacher trainees) are people with regular lives and obligations, just like everybody else. They are individuals who have nobly decided to take time and space out of their already very full lives to deepen their practice and share the joy of the practice with others. Why be so harsh on them? The trouble is that there seems to be a disconnect here between what we expect of yoga teachers and what we expect of other professionals in whose hands we similarly place our bodies in. For instance, we expect commercial airline pilots to have clocked a certain number of hours in flight time (not just in "training") before we deem them capable of flying our bodies from point A to point B. Similarly, it seems, at least to me, that there should also be a similarly objective requirement for aspiring yoga teachers to have clocked a certain amount of personal practice time on the mat before we entrust our bodies (and minds and spirits) to them in a yoga class. 

(2) The tendency to connect going deeper in the practice with becoming a teacher: This is another phenomenon that Friend points out in his interview. This phenomenon might not be so surprising, in light of the fact that teacher training programs out there actually cite the desire to go deeper in the practice as a minimum (and often, the only) entry requirement. In fact, it is quite possible that these very teacher training programs may have played a key role in fostering the impression that going deeper in the practice equals becoming a teacher. After all--and I'm being very cynical here--fostering such an impression makes perfect sense, from a purely business point of view. If one's goal is to get more people enrolled in one's teacher training program, it makes sense to go for the lowest common denominator on the list of possible desires that yoga students could have, something that is vague enough to be easily fulfillable, and yet broad enough to appeal to the largest possible number of yoga students. Thus, something along the lines of "You will deepen your practice at the end of this program" is a better selling point than, say, "You will be able to put your leg behind your head at the end of this program" or "At the end of this program, you will open your third eye and have kundalini gushing forth from your muladhara chakra like water from a fountain."

Again, if I may cite my experience here, I can personally attest to the fact that going deeper in the practice does not equal becoming a teacher: Nor does becoming a teacher equal going deeper in the practice. Over the last couple of years, as I focused exclusively on my personal practice, I have been able to feel more deeply what the practice does to my mind and body, and what it means to me. I suppose it is possible that I may venture into teaching again sometime in the future (hopefully, without hurting anybody), but for now, I am quite happy doing my own practice (and talking and blogging about it), and do not feel that my practice is lacking in depth or is not going any deeper just because I do not teach.

(3) There might not be a demand for yoga teachers where one is living: This is an interesting point that Friend brings up. He cites one case in which in a certain city, statistics indicate that the number of yoga teachers are equal to the number of yoga students. I suppose his concern here is that if one tries to become a yoga teacher in a place where there is no demand for one's services, one may be setting oneself up for a lot of frustration and possible disillusionment.

I think his point is well-taken. But I also wonder if there may be times where a teacher needs to step up and create the demand for what he or she has to offer. After all, back when many senior Ashtanga teachers first started teaching, most people did not even know what yoga was. So they were in an environment where there was no demand for their teaching, simply because nobody knew anything about what they had to offer. I can't help thinking: If they did not put themselves out there, so to speak, and endure lots of frustration in the process, would there be the community of Ashtangis that we have today?     

(4) One should not become a yoga teacher in order to escape one's day job or life: Friend brings up this point towards the end of this video. I think it's a very well-taken point. In any case, I suspect that anybody who becomes a yoga teacher in order to escape dissatisfaction with his or her day job/life will soon discover that there is really no escape: As a yoga teacher living and operating in this world, one essentially faces the same fundamental challenges that one would confront in any other job, albeit in slightly different manifestations. The same issues of dealing with difficult people, making enough to cover the overhead costs and pay the bills, etc., etc., remain.
These, at any rate, are my thoughts on teaching yoga and yoga teacher trainings. I understand that many of you out there are actually yoga teachers, and that some (or even many) of the things that I describe may not jive with your experience. But as always, I thought I'll put my thoughts out here first. If you have anything to share, I'll love to hear from you.


  1. Very interesting Nobel. I saw the interview but for some reason did not have a chance to watch it in full.

    I have also been thinking about teaching a lot lately, guess it is in our minds, have a post coming about it so it is good to see your perspective. Very honest of you what you say in the beginning, I could not agree with you more.

    I believe that having a practice is critical for anyone teaching, because they inform each other, and also teaching what one knows, which can be easily forgotten if a practice is not maintained.

    Good points here... food for thought... still writing my article, will reply in that form in more detail rather than go manifesto here :-)

  2. Spectacular honesty, I really understood your point of view. I just posted some of my own thoughts on my 200 RYT, I hope you will check it out

  3. I'm in the middle of teaching training program right now, after a good dozen years of practice, plus over a decade of meditation practice. I still am not totally sure I want to teach - or maybe, it's more accurate to say that I still am finding my voice, style, and approach to all of this, and it might look a lot different from most studio based yoga classes/programs.

    It's funny - I actually have a practice sequence and one of Iyengar's books sitting next to me right now, waiting for me to do a bit more practice before tonight's training class. My motivation has been mostly off for a few weeks now, and I'm mostly dragging myself through this part of the program.

    Although I feel the program I am studying in is above average, I still look around and see folks who seem pretty keen on the physical aspects of practice, but haven't done enough of the meditative part of the practice to really talk about it or incorporate it into what they are doing. And my god, even with some weeding out going on, there are a lot of teacher training students here. Which makes me start to wonder where all these people are going to teach if they choose to.

    I actually partly disagree with statement #4. Or maybe not. I'm not sure. But there's a difference between mindlessly trying to escape from the hassles of your current job, and making a conscious decision to be a yoga teacher. I think part of the problem is that so many people opt to teach yoga solely for extra income, and they squeeze in a training, find somewhere to teach a few evening classes, and that's that. It's an add-on, instead of a priority.

    Intentions make a big difference, regardless of how much one actually teaches. And I'd agree that depth of practice doesn't necessarily improve or expand as a result of a teacher training.

  4. Hello Claudia, yes, I definitely agree on the importance of having a personal practice, whether or not one chooses to teach, but especially if one wants to teach, because, as you pointed out, the personal practice informs and grounds the teaching. Of course, I may also be biased by the fact that I (and you too) practice Ashtanga, which so heavily emphasizes the personal practice component.

    Hello Sondra, I just read your blog. I don't know much about Pilates, so I don't have much to say about how it would compare with YTT. But I think you are right that one should be discriminate when choosing teacher training programs, and keep in mind the target audience that one wants to reach out to. Which, in a way, highlights even more the problematic nature of having Yoga Alliance impose overarching standards on all teacher training programs. Different yoga styles or approaches will, by necessity, give different weight to different aspects of yoga practice: How can one common set of standards do justice to this difference? I don't have the answers here; just thinking aloud :-)

  5. Hello Nathan,
    although I do not have any statistics, I do get the sense that in many cities, the yoga teacher market is quite saturated; in business terms, it's a buyer's market, with many more teachers than studios for them to teach at. Which means studio owners get to pick and choose a lot. So yes, I do share your wonderment about "where all these people are going to teach if they choose to." But maybe this forces people to be more creative in teaching yoga, and to try out alternative ways of spreading the yoga message. So maybe things will work out for everybody in the long run.

    I also agree that intention makes all the difference. To me, it makes a difference whether one chooses to teach yoga in order to contribute something to the lives of others and the community, or whether one is doing it only to be able to add the title "Yoga Teacher" to one's list of titles.

  6. This post is so spot-on in terms of how I've been feeling lately. I have so many friends who took teacher training, many with minimal personal practice prior to signing up for the program. They are so excited when they finish their programs and can't wait to teach. I whole-heartedly support their intentions, but with a city-full of yoga teachers I feel few are qualified to lead students for long term. A town only needs so many teachers who can only teach beginner classes, and many who try out yoga for the first time with these 200hr YTT teachers think lowly of yoga because of these superficial yoga classes that never seem to get any deeper.

  7. Teaching yoga is the new waitressing.

  8. Hello Yyogini, yes, I totally see your point, which confirms my feeling that the yoga teacher market is quite saturated in most cities. Hopefully your friends will be able to see that becoming a RYT is only the very first step in one's practice (and teaching), and will continue to cultivate and deepen their personal practices.

    V, if teaching yoga is the new waitressing, does this mean that rock star yogis are rock star waiters and waitresses? :-)

  9. I think there is a "sharing the new found bliss" syndrome amongst some of these teacher training students. They discover something that makes them feel good, and want to spread it. Which is a nice intention, but terribly underdeveloped.

  10. The rock star yogi concept is stoopid anyway.

  11. Yes, Nathan, I understand the "sharing the new found bliss" syndrome. It's a nice intention, as you said, but I wonder if this also makes these students more vulnerable to exploitation by studios out to make some money from their TT programs.

    V, :-)

  12. The yoga market could always use more GOOD teachers. I guess the positive side for generating so many yoga teachers is that it forces all current yoga teachers to constantly improve themselves, ie. shell out more money for further training, which is bad for yoga teachers' wallets and good for the students. Alternatively, I could learn a ton by practicing lots under one good teacher, reading yoga books, and interacting with the cybershala.

  13. students CAN tell the difference between inexperienced & experienced teachers. don't underestimate that fact. at least all of mine can. trainings are stupid & only exist to generate income for the trainer. one must become an apprentice & stay by one certified (as in certified by the guru) teacher's side for years. one also needs to have a daily practice for at least 3 years or more. that's my 2 bits.

  14. I think you bring up a good point, Yyogini. There's a sense in which yoga teaching is just like any other activity in which there is a market and competition: Healthy competition tends, all other things being equal, to bring the best to the surface, which is good for the "consumers" (in this case, yoga students). I just hope that not too many students suffer in this process from bad teaching, and not too many teachers suffer from disillusionment/burnout.

    Thank you for bringing in a new perspective, Bindy: Students can definitely tell whether the teacher is experienced and know what he or she is doing (or not). And yes, I am definitely very much in favor of this idea of apprenticeship.

  15. I taught yoga several years, and in the end, for me, it's work--somewhere you have to be. There were days I didn't want to go--although I will say that when I was done, I always felt really good and was glad for it. It feels as good when you're done as practicing yourself (which I found to be surprising and wonderful). I also was not that comfortable with people bowing at me, as I'm completely flawed. There are also many many yoga teacher wars, and I was privy to those, and it was good b/c I'll never put a yoga teacher above me. Now I just practice my ashtanga, and it is freeing. Where I live now, no one knows I used to teach, and lordy, I've been practicing so long and still am not a great practitioner. No one would know--ha ha! I'm not beautiful. I don't appear young for my age. I even have a chronic disease. I'm a little calmer on days I do yoga--but w/out practice, that gain is lost. But it's good that so many are willing to cough up the big bucks for teacher trainings I suppose b/c it feeds the teachers, and most yoga teachers need the money. The down side is that it's hard when you are a long term practitioner to deal with some young (yoga years young, not chronological) teacher spouting spiritualisms. Of course, I have a good teacher--you can really tell the experience in the hands of the long time ones. Teaching, I am guessing, and in some ways I know from talking as a teacher to other teachers, has the same pitfalls as life and as your own practice. Just my 2 cents.

  16. Thanks for sharing, Anonymous. When I was teaching yoga, I also had days when I didn't feel like going, and I also felt really good after teaching anyway. But I also felt that things in my life were shaping up in such a way that I actually had more days when I didn't feel like going rather than when I did; I think that this, among other things, was one of the many signs that signaled to me that I needed to stop teaching and work on my own practice.

    "I'm a little calmer on days I do yoga--but w/out practice, that gain is lost."

    That sounds like me ;-)

  17. also blogged about the topic...that video touched a nerve... "babies teaching babies"

  18. Yes, Linda, I just read your blog post :-) Very insightful points you bring up.

  19. thanks, blogrolling you on LYJ....

  20. yeah nobel. tim miller calls us "glorified waiters." especially mysore teachers. i can't tell you how many students just sit there and WAIT for that adjustment instead of trying on their own. MORE COFFEE PLZ

  21. Thanks Linda. I am very honored to be on your blog roll :-)

    Yes, Bindy, I have noticed from being in mysore classes (especially those taught by senior teachers) that many students don't even bother to try postures (especially challenging postures like kapotasana) by themselves: They just kind of freeze there and wait for the teacher to zip around and adjust them. In my more cynical moments (like now), I wonder if they do this just so that they brag to their friends afterwards: "I got adjusted by such-and-such-senior-teacher in x-asana!"

    Well, to extend the "glorified waiter" analogy even further, I wonder if mysore teachers get "tips" of any kind? You have to excuse me, I'm having a very cynical streak right now :-)

  22. I am one of those who sits there in a Mysore class and waits for the teacher to come and adjust me in Marichi D and Kapotasana after trying a couple times. It's not because I want to brag about being adjusted or because I want the teacher to do the work, it's because I can go so much deeper into the pose when I get adjusted instead of doing a week bind on my own.

  23. "weak" bind, not week bind!