Sunday, March 31, 2013

How do you know when you are ready (or not ready) to teach Ashtanga?

I just read Angela Jamison's latest post on the Ashtanga Yoga Ann Arbor blog, where she discusses in engaging detail that million-dollar Ashtanga question: How do you know when you are ready (or not ready) to teach Ashtanga? I encourage you to read her very intensely thoughtful and utterly honest post in its entirety, but here's an excerpt that really speaks to me:

"For ashtanga teachers, transitioning from sadhana to seva (from self-focused practice, to service) can be weird. It can stunt one’s growth dramatically if done without sufficient (1) preparation as a student, and (2) support from teachers and community. When this transition is made because the student puts herself in the teaching role, and not because her own teachers identify her as sufficiently skilled and prepared to teach, the challenges just mentioned are multiplied.

(Subtext: do not get in to ashtanga teaching unless you full-on cannot avoid it. Resist!! Don’t give yourself over to it unless you basically have to do it in order for your own practice to grow, and unless you have tons of support.)

Given these challenges, most teachers need active, invested mentors to whom they are accountable. (I do.) They need a (1) clear method and (2) a sense of history to keep from getting confused. They need to have strong equanimity and mental clarity, so they can (1) stand outside today’s “yoga” market and culture hype and (2) influence that culture positively.

Teachers need to be able to identify, and resist, the ego’s urge to use teaching to feed root chakra needs: money, sex, power, and attention.

(Subtext: yoga BS, and yoga scandals, happen when teachers don’t have all the support they need. Or when they fail to realize that they actually do have sufficient money, sex, power and attention – and thus they constantly grasp after more and more of the same. This happens when we don’t have anyone to call us on our, well, crap.)"

Reading Angela's words above and reflecting on my life of mostly self-practice over the last few years, I can appreciate that what has happened to me over the last few years is really no accident. If you read this blog regularly, you will know that over the last few years, I have, on several occasions, entertained the notion of teaching or "sharing" the practice with others, and although I have made a few limited ventures in this area, none of these ventures have led to anything big or long-lasting.

Reflecting on Angela's words above, I can see that the "failures" of my forays into teaching Ashtanga thus far are actually not bad things at all, from a big picture point of view. While there is probably nothing inherently wrong with sharing my limited knowledge of the practice with others, it is still nevertheless true that I was never in a position where I "full-on cannot avoid" teaching; I was never in a position where I had to teach in order for my practice to grow. As they say, everything happens (or does not happen) for a reason: I am quite convinced that in not teaching Ashtanga over the last few years, I was in fact protected from the vicissitudes of today's yoga scene; a scene which, as many of you know, is more often than not driven by the forces of the free market than by people who genuinely know what they are doing. Angela speaks quite bluntly about this pitfall of the contemporary American yoga scene when she writes:

"The majority of yoga teachers are exploited. Exploiting them is easy because they’re inexperienced as practitioners and poorly trained as teachers. But exploitation, inexperience and poor training don’t help anyone – not really.’s the thing. Trying to pretend you know what yoga is when your practice is not fully developed is a formula for arrested development. Thrusting a person into this job for matters of convenience is not cool. It’s the reason western yoga is full of elementary-level instruction trying to pass itself off as something more by adding special effects. 

(Subtext: when you meet someone who wants you to teach regardless of whether you’re ready, and for matters of their own convenience, is that your teacher? Do you deserve better?)"

These are definitely sobering words for this "fake-it-till-you-make-it" capitalistic culture that we live in, in which it seems that virtually everybody wants to be seen as an expert of one kind or another, whether or not they actually really know what they are doing or saying.

On a slightly different but related note, at her LA workshop last weekend, Kino also briefly addressed this question of when one is ready to teach Ashtanga. During one of the sessions at her workshop last weekend, she related this humorous story of a very physically-talented student she met during her workshop in Taiwan. Apparently, this student, who had a background in martial arts, was doing Ashtanga for the very first time in his life (apparently, he had accompanied a friend to the workshop and was taking the workshop along with the friend to keep the friend company). Seeing that he seemed to be quite physically able, Kino asked him if he could try jumping through with straight legs. After hearing her description, this student effortlessly accomplished a straight-legged jump-through on his very first attempt ever; an accomplishment which took Kino herself many years to achieve.

Anyway, the point of Kino's story is this: You know you are ready to teach Ashtanga yoga when you can look at people who are more advanced in the practice than you are (or who can effortlessly do things that took you a long time and a lot of effort to accomplish), and genuinely rejoice and be happy at their abilities, without being envious of them or even being resentful of their achievements.

Well, all I can say is this: Using Kino's yardstick, I know for sure that I am definitely not ready to teach Ashtanga. If it's okay with you, I'm not going to go into the details here. But I think you get where I'm coming from...           


  1. This article made me think of why is it I really want to take teacher training this Fall, will I do it for the right reasons, and I can say after reading your article, no I won't be. I need so much more experience physically and mentally with my own practice before even venturing into the realm of a potential teacher. Thank you for such an insightful post.

    1. Thank you for sharing so honestly. I am also continually trying to reflect on my motivations for wanting to teach.

  2. Great post and so insightful! Thank you

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  4. Hi, I don't agree with the yardstick you are using to measure whether or not one is ready to teach Ashtanga yoga or any Yoga for that matter.

    I say this because I would suspect that even advanced teachers/practitioners are not free from jealousy, envy and not necessarily rejoicing in another's accomplishments.

    For me, this is a very simplistic view to a complicated subject re: teaching and teaching anything in general.

    Being a teacher (whether of yoga or anything else) is an organic process. I don't think the majority of people who are teaching would be where they are today if they had waited to be 'ready'. I can speak of my own experience (perhaps somewhat embarrassing and I should hide in shame) as I taught having NO experience prior training and just a bit of self-study. I was living in South Korea and started off small. From there, I later went on do to many certificate programs, open a school that I ran successfully for 15 years and went to Mysore 14 times.

    My view on when you are ready to teach is quite different. I think it comes from the following:
    1. genuine interest in the topic
    2. ability to self-study and reflect
    3. seeking out teachers to study under
    4. being self-motivated
    5. being generous with what you learn
    6. being able to say frankly to student you are still learning or my most favorite one when a student challenges you on something, 'I don't know'...and lastly
    7. a simple love of yoga, learning and growing.

    All of these take care of the rest.

    1. Hello Heather,
      thank you for sharing your frank opinions on this subject. I very much agree that the seven points you bring up are necessary conditions for being ready to teach. But I think the question is: Are they also sufficient conditions? Or do we need something more? If so, what would that be?

      The reason why I am not sure these are sufficient conditions is because a very wide range of teachers seem to meet these conditions, from Sri K Pattabhi Jois or Yogacharya Ventesha, all the way to the individual who only started doing yoga three months ago, has just taken a weekend teacher training course and decided that she is ready to teach (she does has a genuine interest in the topic, etc., etc.).

      I'm not saying this to put anybody down. I guess what I am saying is that your seven conditions seem to be process-oriented criteria. As you said, being a teacher is an organic process, so this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But I can't help feeling that we also need something that is more concrete and tangible, something against which one can measure one's progress by. And my sense is that the yardstick I am using gives us that.

    2. Well, when someone comes up with an appropriate yardstick that can 'measure' teacher readiness...this will be a great innovation. Until then we will have to muddle through.

      The yardstick you have provided is highly subjective not objective and therein lies the an issue. How can you really say if someone is free of jealousy and envy. And those who profess to be so are surely saintly!

      Thanks for your points. And for bringing up a good point, which really drives into a deeper issue about teaching and instructing. Most teachers are for all intensive purposes are instructors. Teaching itself really is another ballgame. And I say this having taught elementary school, high school kids and having a Masters....

      So, all in all, teaching/instructing is a process...same with being a student.


  5. I do think an effective teacher, and especially a yoga teacher, should be free from jealousy, envy, etc of his or her students. that isn't to say it is the only criteria.

    Reading this made me think again about something angela wrote in her house rules..about not discussing your practice with anyone else. When I first read that, I didn't really understand what she might mean. Lately, though, I have noticed that discussing my practice(though oddly not so much blogging about it, which does not seem to bring up the issue of comparison with others for me) can bring up feelings of envy, jealousy, ego, etc. I don't seem to feel these emotions nearly as much when I practice at my shala, and I see people do more advanced asana than I am capable of, or people just beginning the practice.

    1. I have mixed feelings about discussing the practice with others. I do often like to "geek out" about practice, either on this blog or in real time with somebody (or with a bunch of somebodies). But I do think that beyond a certain point, talking too much about practice puts the practice too much in one's head and can also cause one to become too attached to certain aspects of the physical practice (thus bringing up issues of ego, etc), when the idea is to just do the practice, give it your best shot, and then try again tomorrow...

  6. Why are we all in such a hurry to "be a teacher", I wonder.

  7. Hi Nobel,
    I want to send you that photo I took of us, but I can't figure out a way to email you from here. Could you send me your email addy? Mine is: musingsfromtheyogamat at gmail dot com. Thoughtful post and comments, by the way! :)

    1. Thanks Savannah. I sent you an email a couple of hours ago.

  8. hi Nobel, thank you for this one :-) it is so difficult topic. on one hand thanks to all feeling-ready-to-teach teachers. on the other it is really hard to find a teacher who wants to teach something more than asanas. can you push your teacher to teach you something more? on the third? hand I don't really know what it is to be a yoga student. what if being a yoga teacher is also exotic to the teacher and based on a concept of for example high-school teacher. there is no age limit, you can be 20something and teach yoga, you can practice yoga for 1-2 years and start the training... there is no such process as an initiation nowadays. I don't like it. but yoga is really young, at least where i live. perhapse western people don't know yet how to deal with being a teacher, being a 30, 40 years old student... when I watch for example Kino, I dream of teacher like her. but I am a begginer, average obstacles, no need for something extra except for practice-practice-practice. but still I miss a serious "official" teacher-student relationship :-)

    1. Interesting thoughts, Monika. Here's a thought: In (most of) the west, in order to become qualified to be a teacher of any subject, you have to have knowledge (experiential or theoretical) of the subject, and you probably also need to go through some kind of teacher training (like a teacher's college, for example, or a degree in education if you want to teach high school).

      The idea is that in order to be qualified to teach something, you need to (1) have some kind of first-hand experience of what you are teaching, and (2) be trained to specifically teach that particular subject.

      The problem with yoga is that while there are teacher training programs out there (which may or may not put you in a good position to teach), there does not seem to be any general agreement in the yoga community as to what constitutes sufficient experiential/first-hand knowledge of the subject to qualify one to be a teacher. Perhaps this is where the disagreement lies in this debate.

    2. that's true. perhapse it should be even more improtant because most of the yoga students are old, not-being-in-process-of-learning, cos it's already finished, less open, more messed up. of course yoga is really diy thing. at the same time people really don't want or feel ready to take yoga seriously. what's the teacher role in this process? I don't know, yoga taken (let's call it:) seriously ruines everything ;-) that's obvious, it overturns everything, plenty to be veryfied. perhapse the moment you stop veryfing is the moment, you feel ready to teach? but still it can be too soon, when you feel good enough or better enough...
      yoga itself is a problem cos it's yoga. in a perfect mode no tools to qualify, judge, reject or anything ;-)
      yoga pisses me off actually cos lately most of the questions have so many answers that "don't know" is the only one :-)

  9. Hi, thanks for sharing your impressions! Many of the commenters have touched on points that I hold tantamount to "being ready." My own practice (in no small part also Vipassana [in the Goenka tradition]) leads me to conclude that as long as we remain accountable to helping other people come out of suffering in tandem with alleviating our own suffering, we are moving toward light (vice darkness). The equanimity of which you speak - the ability to smile inwardly and outwardly when one encounters a "more advanced" practitioner - is crucial. Another seems to be gratitude. For instance, I have been blessed in this lifetime with teachers and fellow practitioners who are more/less agile/equanimous, and through them I am humbled and grateful and desire greatly to "give back" through the asana practice.

    All this is to say that removal of the ego to help others come out of suffering is a long process, that perhaps we won't be "ready" anytime, but we can grow to be humbled and grateful for the incredible gift of coming out of suffering ourselves. It's those things that, in my mind, mark a teacher.

    1. Hello Dan,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think the idea of being accountable to helping other people come out of suffering while also relieving our own is a very insightful one. It may well be that all the other qualities of a teacher (equanimity, gratitude, having to desire and humility to continually learn, etc.) are qualities that help one to be accountable in a more effective way.

  10. When should you teach? When you can't avoid it any longer.

  11. About Kino's yard stick: IMHO, the patthabi jois sequencing system tends to put you in a competitive mode, much more than any other yoga system. I mean, during your visits to mysore, how many times have you been asked "what series are you practicing? at what asana do you stop?". coming from another stye of yoga, this was the weirdest thing for me to hear. I mean can you imagine two iyengar students meeting for the first time, and then one says "what's your most advanced asana?" it's an absurd thought, and yet in the ashtanga community, this is quite normal. anyway, my point is that you do get tangled up in this "how advanced are you" crap, and then suddenly you teach some elderly lady, and all she wants is to go to bed without pain. or someone suffering from asthma, who really just wants to be able to breath normally. These kind of students will make you challenge your view on your own practice, and possibly realize that it's not about how advanced someone is in asana practice at all. If you do realize that, there's no more room for envy, for sure.

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