What is a yoga teacher?
On the Yoga on the Lane Teacher Training course in London on which I’ve been teaching, we spent several hours this weekend discussing the reality of teaching yoga. When you begin teaching yoga, it is common and natural to set high standards for yourself based on your experiences with other teachers and societal perceptions of what a yoga teacher is and does. However, these high standards can easily become unrealistic and self-sabotaging. Here are a few common unrealistic expectations that get mythologized into what we think a yoga teacher has to be.
Myth No. 1: All yoga teachers are incredibly flexible, strong, and proficient in all forms of yoga asana
Proficiency in yoga postures is not the main goal of asana practice. Yoga poses are tools to better understand your self and your relationship to the world so that you can decrease suffering. It is unrealistic, unlikely, and unnecessary that you be able to perform all asana to magazine cover standards. Every body is different with built-in limitations of strength and flexibility that may not ever change. It is easy to fetishise postures as the goal and outward signal that you have reached the stage of advanced practitioner. What is more important is that you are committed to your own practice and remain curious about how your body, mind, and heart react to yoga postures. If some poses do not work in your body, you can simply not teach them or you can learn how best to teach others to do them.
Myth No. 2: All yoga teachers are vegetarians who only eat healthy food
There is nothing in the main body of traditional yogic texts that tells you precisely what to eat or how best to post your green smoothie on Instagram. The conflation of healthy eating trends and the so-called yoga lifestyle is a modern creation more related to marketing than yoga tradition. Remember that teaching yoga and being a nutritionist are two separate careers. Eat what helps you stay healthy and teach people yoga asana from your own experience and heart. That’s enough.
Myth No. 3: All yoga teachers are relaxed, positive, self-aware, and never succumb to stress
Many yoga teachers begin their deep dive into the practice precisely because they need a way to work with their own neurosis, suffering, anxiety, and pain. Because they feel their own pain so deeply and have dedicated themselves so thoroughly to the practice, they have been gifted with the accrued experiential wisdom of what yoga practice can offer to those in need. This is what a yoga teacher teaches. If it happens that through your practice you are always happy and calm, fantastic. If it happens that you have crummy days that you need to spend in bed, fantastic. Yoga teachers are still humans with a range of emotional ups and downs.
Myth No. 4: All yoga teachers possess guru-like knowledge of ancient wisdom
200-hour yoga teacher trainings teach you the basics of yoga asana, anatomy, and philosophy. You are still a student and, especially as it relates to yoga philosophy and traditional texts, have only explored the tip of the yogic iceberg. Have respect for the body of texts and wisdom available to you and humility in terms of your capacity to transmit these teachings. Teach only what you know well and have a personal and experiential understanding of. You do not need to cite obscure tantric verses to teach a good yoga asana class.
Myth No. 5: All yoga teachers understand the body as well as any medical doctor
Students will ask you all sorts of questions about their knees, their hips, and their shoulders. They will tell you about their heart disease or their cancer. They will tell you about their anxiety and depression. And they may even ask you for advice. The best answer to any of these students, unless you have expert knowledge or experience, is to say ‘I don’t know exactly how to help you. Don’t hurt yourself doing anything I ask you to do, but let’s try some yoga and see if it helps.’ Work with students, listen to their feedback, and teach them only what you know. That’s all you can do.
Myth No. 6: Teaching yoga is a stress free dream job.
At times teaching yoga feels like a job much like any other. It is unrealistic to think you will always feel engaged and passionate. Allow yourself the struggles and ups and downs that are common and normal to any career, even while your friends and family are convinced you are spending your days drinking coconut water and practicing handstands by the beach. Take care of yourself with your yoga practice and with whatever else helps keep you going.