This is a question I have contemplated many times since teaching was first thrust upon me. And it’s also one this website has explored extensively in recent weeks.
After reading all of the responses from other teachers, I began to wonder… how on earth can I call myself a yoga teacher?
- I have no qualifications.
- I’ve never attended a teacher training of any real length.
- I’ve never studied under a guru, nor a teacher for any length of time.
- I’m a long way from mastering asana to any degree.
So how did I end up teaching? And should I even be a yoga teacher at all?
Well, my first foray into teaching was a combination of circumstance and opportunity.
I was at a gym ashtanga yoga class and the teacher couldn’t make it. There were only three of us, regulars, and I felt comfortable enough to offer to lead the other two students through. Not teach them as such, but just remind them of what the postures were.
It was an accident of timing -I was there, the teacher wasn’t. But it was also a matter of destiny – I had a history of tutoring at school, of teaching dance, both my parents were teachers… teaching came naturally.
Yet teaching yoga is about far more than just teaching. A yoga teacher is not like an aerobics teacher, nor a dance teacher. You can’t just learn the moves well enough so you can pass them along to others. My history of teaching in no way qualified me as a yoga teacher, and I was very aware of this.
But opportunities to lead classes kept presenting themselves. Friends wanted guidance. The teacher didn’t show up again. And then she had to quit teaching because she was pregnant and I was offered the class.
Dilemma. I was enjoying leading people through the postures, focusing mainly on a modified Power Yoga sequence that had been my home practice for the past few months. But I hadn’t trained as a yoga teacher. I hadn’t studied consistently with one teacher. I was largely self-taught. How could I call myself a yoga teacher?
In many ways, I felt like a fraud. Yet deep down, what I was doing also felt right. So I kept on going…
But the dangers of teaching from this place were brought home to me a few months ago when Swami Karma Karuna of Anahata Yoga Retreat sent me an email expressing concern about the context in which a Sanskrit term had been used.
In my years traveling and teaching around the world, I have found that many people take the ancient practices of yoga lightly and write about, speak about, teach about them in a partial way.
We as writers and inspirers of others on the path need to be very aware of how we use the sanskrit terms and I feel should do our best to get an in depth experience and view of practices in order to give people a more full understanding.
That initial email led to an illuminating and thoughtful exchange between us which reminded me of how vital it is to truly know the depths of what one teaches. I realised that I had been using some Sanskrit terms in my classes thinking I knew what they meant, but only passing on incomplete or partial knowledge. This realisation again brought up this question for me.
Was I really qualified enough to call myself a yoga teacher?
When I said yes to the yoga classes that were offered to me, I took my commitment to my students seriously. My home practice had been solid, but sporadic, but I knew if I was going to teach then I needed to have something to teach from, so I began to practice daily. I ordered a couple of hundred dollars worth of yoga texts from Amazon and immersed myself in their teachings. The only thing I couldn’t do because of my locale was find a teacher of my own.
I still don’t really have a teacher, but there are many teachers I have learned from and many different styles. It’s an approach to yoga that Marianne Elliott humorously describes in her article, Is it better to only do one kind of yoga? as ‘straw sucking’. She asks:
Is it possible to access the profound benefits of yoga by dipping into many different practices and traditions? Or is it necessary to dedicate ourselves to lengthy, in-depth study and practice of one tradition?
After reading it, I wondered, if one is dipping into many practices, can one truly be a teacher? Does one know anything deep enough to be able to pass it along with any authenticity?
I mean, right now, my practice consists of the following:
- A daily Kundalini sadhana given to me by a Kundalini teacher that I’m practicing for 90 days straight
- Bikram yoga 3 to 5 times a week
- Prana Flow home practice 4 – 5 times a week
- Sporadic one-off classes with other yoga teachers as the fancy takes me
- Mindfulness off the mat in all relationships
Hardly a consistent practice with one style, one teacher is it?
It’s an issue that Swami Karma Karuna of Anahata Yoga Retreat also addressed in our email exchange:
Many modern yoga teachers make their own systems, yet have not fully realized themselves as was the tradition in the past. One did not share teachings in past times until they had a high degree of realization within themselves.
Now we become Reiki Masters in a few months???? Yoga teachers in a one month training????? Then the student also learns it partially and mixes it with their other teachings and in this way some of the great depth is lost and changed and misunderstood.
I gotta say, I agree. Even though I’m teaching with even less than one month’s teacher training (more on that later), I believe that the concept of “yoga teacher” has been greatly diluted by the rate at which teacher trainings churn out the graduates. One month of training does not a teacher make.
By the time I came to Wellington and started teaching up there, I still hadn’t done any teacher training. My home practice was solid, it extended far beyond just the mat, and I read widely. But still, I craved more. Especially because my home practice had evolved out of the set postures of ashtanga into something far more intuitive and a little niggle in the back of my head was concerned that maybe this wasn’t really yoga anymore and was just me playing around.
Enter Twee Merrigan and Prana Flow – a style of yoga which emphasizes connecting to the flow of prana within. A light went on. This was how I had been practicing at home.
Suddenly there was a bridge between my home practice and how to teach that helped me to access the authenticity of my own learnings over many years. My time with Twee was tight – four days here, three days there. But her teachings meant I saw how all those years of self-practice and exploration had given me a depth of experiential knowledge that I could call upon to teach within this particular style.
Plus there is one other experience I’ve had that has given my teaching a depth or understanding that likely can’t be found in teacher trainings.
Five or so years ago I had a partial kundalini awakening, brought about by a combination of factors including psychedelic drugs.
That awakening led to two psychotic breaks with reality, a month apart. My body began doing spontaneous yoga kriya that I’d never learned before – I wasn’t doing yoga, the yoga was doing me.
All kinds of weird and wonderful things happened to me, to my consciousness, at this time. Everything was broken open and blasted through. The secrets of the universe, of God, of humanity were all revealed. And all of the darkness and unaddressed issues of my psyche rose up to torment me with madness – madness of the kind that required commitment to a psych ward.
Got the certificate to prove it.
And had to stay put until I’d sufficiently proved my sanity and so was allowed back out into the real world.
Putting myself back together again was horrendous. It was a long, slow, process of integration as I began to make sense of what I’d seen, heard, done, understood and realised. And yeah, I can see in hindsight how incredibly dangerous it was to mix yoga, meditation and drugs the way I did. Stupid, ignorant, dangerous and could’ve ended far, far worse than it did.
Psychiatric institutions are full of people who’ve dabbled in consciousness expansion combined with drugs. I was incredibly fortunate to only spend a short time in a psych ward and to be able to integrate my experience in a meaningful way afterwards.
With many years, and much reflection and practice, between myself now and the self that went mad, I can understand the truth of my experience – the weird and wonderful ways in which the unconscious, the ego, the intuitive self and the suppressed yearnings of the heart twisted and combined with delusion to create my reality at that time.
This experience in and of itself in no way adds to my teaching. But the process I was required to do in order to untangle the truth from the delusions and the realisations from the madness to become whole again has informed my teaching.
I now have an understanding of the ways in which mind, emotions and body intertwine and play out, combined with an appreciation for the power of prana to move us from within us and direct our practice.
As a result, I see yoga not as a posture, but as a process that results in a posture. Yoga is the stripping back of the layers of self to reveal the truth beneath. i.e. the being that makes us so beyond all the facades of the ego engineered to protect us from the pain of human life.
Now, getting back into teaching again after the birth of my son Samuel, I’ve been pondering what to teach and how to teach. Teaching a set series of asana based on a class plan is one thing. Students get a yoga “workout” and learn something about the asana they’re led through. They feel great after class.
But that’s not what I’m there to teach. If the word yoga means to yoke or to bind, that to me means yoga is about connection. When I teach yoga, I’m teaching connection. The asana, pranayama, mantra, mudra, bandra, meditation… it’s all a means with which to teach connection.
Connection to breath.
Connection to self.
Connect to prana.
I know, from my own experience, that asana lives within us. That all we need do is connect to breath, to prana, and to get out of the way, and that asana will be revealed to us.
I don’t need to teach you how to do Standing Bow.
I just need to teach you how to get out of the way and then Standing Bow will reveal itself to you.
So does this make me a yoga teacher?
But it seems to be working for my students.
And in the end, I guess what really makes me a yoga teacher is the students that choose to come and do yoga with me.
So to my students… I am forever in gratitude. That you spend time with me and allow me the great gift of sharing my understanding with you. It is a precious gift. It is, in the end, what makes me a teacher.
So as long as people want to learn from me… I guess I’ll be a teacher.