Thursday, October 15, 2009

So You Think You Can Teach...

I'm surrounded by Eggheads. Professional Eggheads. Of my immediate relatives, there are seven Ph.Ds, five Masters' degrees, four university positions, at least one emeritus professorship, as well as publications, honors, titles, chairmanships, etc etc. This is a crowd that takes its education seriously. You can see why I get hung up on qualifications and trainings. I tear up during "Pomp and Circumstance."

With all the talk about "authentic" yoga, and asana teachers as fitness instructors and who should be teaching, and who is making a mockery of the whole discipline, I wonder, "What makes you think you can teach?" It's sounds like I'm being cheeky and rhetorical, but, honestly, I want to know.

If one has a solid, standard training--say six months to a year--meeting over weekends and learning all the asana, how to sequence them, modifications, a discussion of philosophy and history, maybe learning a bit of pranayama, student teaching--what is s/he really qualified to teach? To me, it seems, like s/he is ready to lead students through a safe, carefully-considered Hatha Yoga class. But, what about beyond that?

Yoga Alliance requires 20 (30 hr.s total) contact hours of instruction in yoga philosophy, yoga lifestyle and ethics for the 200 hr. R.Y.T. designation. The program is heavily weighted to asana, altho the techniques, training, and practice section (100 hrs.) includes kriya, mantras and meditation, evenly weighted between technique and teacher training. So how much time does that really leave for the spritual elements of yoga? And I'm not saying that this is a bad mix, but just that it's not a lot of time left for non-asana.

I suppose there is self-study to familiarize yourself with the texts most traditions refer to, but does that do anything beyod expand your own awareness? Does close-reading really prepare you to deal with your students' issues? Does reading the Bible make you a minister? Does investigating the Freudian canon make you qualified to psychoanalyze?

I think it's great to provide students with a context for their asana practice; to show them that Hatha is just one part of a much larger system. But this is as far as I go, because I just don't feel like I am qualified go beyond a simplified definition and explantion of the yamas and niyama or the other seven limbs. Do you?

I really want to do other trainings prepare a teacher to go beyond asana? How much time did you spend on the spiritual aspects of yoga in your preparation to be a teacher? Are we really teaching it or giving lip-service to the rest of the discipline so that we're not "just" fitness instructors?

I've been thinking about this a lot and this is why I ask. What do you think: are we really qualified to teach this stuff or should it be left to the counselors, ministers, monks, and therapists?


Linda-Sama said...

great question! but I can also play devil's advocate and turn it around and say that just because someone has an advanced degree in something, that also does not make them a "good teacher." I am sure all of us who have gone to college can attest to that! the awarding of a degree only means you have passed the necessary tests to get the piece of paper. same thing with yoga teachers.

I can only speak for myself. I only teach what I know. I am not going to sit in front of a class and pontificate about things I have no knowledge about. I have answered "I don't know" more than a few times to yoga questions over my 8 years of teaching.

every teacher has their own knowledge base. as for me, I started reading books on my spirituality over 30 years when I was in high school. once I got back into yoga in the mid-90s, I re-read all those books combined with yoga books I not only had to read, but wanted to read. I was a sponge. I have also sought out teachers who could answer my questions outside of my yoga training. and I have also been fortunate enough to study at one of the leading yoga schools in the world, the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, every year since 2005. I also study one on one with a Buddhist monk who nourishes my spirituality. My yoga is informed by Buddhism.

I was encouraged by my teacher to teach. maybe she saw something in me that made her think I could teach yoga, I don't know. I don't think the mantra "teach what you know" can be over-emphasized.

When I got back into yoga in the '90s, I knew more than a few teachers who had never had ANY yoga teacher training, yet they taught because they had their own long-time practice and people loved them. how many people can or would do that nowadways??

In the olden days (as my teacher Ramaswami says) teachers did not get "certified"! a student was taught one-on-one, as Krishnamacharya taught. Ramaswami studied with him for over 30 years! a teacher taught when their teacher thought they were ready to teach. how many yoga schools would do that now? and think about it: how many of us would get very insulted if we finished a training and the trainer said, uh, I think you need to study more before you teach.

not everyone who goes to yoga teacher trainings should teach, bottom line. and some who would make good teachers have no desire to teach.

teach what you know, don't fake it. because people can usually tell who is the real deal, who knows their stuff.

Linda-Sama said...

"Does reading the Bible make you a minister? Does investigating the Freudian canon make you qualified to psychoanalyze?"

no. but there are many unqualified ministers (let's ask the Catholic Church about priests) and psychoanalysts, despite their degrees and years of training.

I think in many cases it comes down to personality and life experiences that makes one "qualified" to be a teacher of anything.

I teach yoga and meditation in a domestic violence shelter. Why? because besides karma yoga, I've been where those women are. I am Anglo, they are Hispanic and we share a common ground of abuse and sexual assault.

So I think that it's not all about the book learning -- you teach what's in your heart. I don't care how many hours of training a teacher has, if it doesn't come from the heart, for me, it's fraudulent. for me, ya gotta live it and own it.

Yoga Spy said...

Interesting points to ponder! Here's my take:

1. The majority of yoga teachers are qualified to teach only asana. You wrote, "If one has a solid, standard training--say six months to a year--meeting over weekends and learning all the asana ... what is s/he really qualified to teach?"

To me, six months to a year is standard but NOT solid (ie, adequate) teacher training, UNLESS the trainee has significant prior practice (for most, this means a decade or more). The training program should be the final step for already-ready practitioners!

Today's training programs are a joke because there is no selectivity. Programs accept all who are interested because training fees generate profit.

2. Most programs are upfront about their focus on asana. Some of the "yoga fit" programs are actually quite thorough in teaching anatomy/kinesiology, safety, alignment, etc. They make clear that their focus is on physical health. So I doubt that most students try to teach philosophy anyway.

3. If a teacher teaches what she knows (as Linda wisely advises), perhaps brushing on a philosophical tidbit, she might subtly introduce spirituality without pretending to be some enlightened guru. If a teacher mentions the Bhagavad Gita or one of the yoga sutras or yamas, she might inspire students to think differently about the world and themselves; this sharing of what she knows (however limited her knowledge might be) could go beyond asana for her even-more-novice students. Nothing wrong with that.

Today I, too, wrote a somewhat-relevant post on the teacher-student relationship:

Yoga Spy

krish said...

I think Linda-Sama is exactly correct. I had a teacher training course and I feel I have enough life experience to complement that to instruct and counsel students on a variety of problems, from stresses on the job to handling divorces. My self-study with the texts has allowed me to teach the sutras deeply and meaningfuly, far beyond the initial teacher training program.

Rachel said...

In the UK we train for three years to become teachers (I think that's longer than in most other countries but I could be wrong!) and I still don't see myself as qualified to teach more than asana, basic pranayama and relaxation/yoga nidra (I have been specifically taught yoga nidra though).

When it comes to philosophical and spritual matters, I am not at all sure I have come far enough on my onw yoga journey to even consider teaching any of it to others. When my students ask me questions of a philosophical or spritual nature I refer them to my teacher (who often refers them to her teacher). I have a *lot* more study to do before I can start even thinking about teaching this aspect of yoga.

I teach what I know, what I have experience of. I teach people who are in chronic pain because I have chronic pain issues and know how yoga has helped me. I teach yoga for back health because I have complex back issues and know how yoga has helped me...

I'm not there yet with the spritual side.

On the other hand I have had teachers who have taught me yogic philosophy so perfectly but because the dont' have back problems or pain they just don't know how to modify a practice for this.

We all have our niche I guess. It's finding it and being confident with it and always always continuing to learn.

Linda-Sama said...

"Today's training programs are a joke because there is no selectivity. Programs accept all who are interested because training fees generate profit."

Hallelujah! Thank you for saying that! of course I agree...that's why you have babies teaching babies.

but that would never happen in...dare I say it?...AMERICAN yoga teacher training programs. Because in America we are SUPPOSED to have equal opportunity for all.

Can you imagine the outcry if XYZ Yoga School had an application process that turned away half the applicants? or even 25%? I am sure cries of "elitism", "you're not bettter than me" would ensue! and how about lawsuits?

My friend in Africa is still doing the British Wheel of Yoga teacher training that she started in 2006!

As for teaching yoga philosophy or anything other than asana, I believe in-depth study needs to be done outside of an initial teacher training. When I first studied at KYM (a month long intensive), our days were 7 am until 6 pm, 5 days a week. My second trip was an intensive just on meditation. now I do private classes, one on one, on any yoga subject I want to know more about.

for me, I am always a student, before a teacher. it is a life-long learning and you STILL won't know enough.

I have thought about offering teacher training, people have asked me to, but my requirements would be strict! I would require each participant to do a 10 day vipassana retreat in the strict Goenka tradition -- totally silent, sitting about 10 hrs. a day (it's free, by the way.)

Talk about a brain enema, but you come out knowing yourself...a little bit more.....;)

Brenda P. said...

I knew I'd get some good, thoughtful responses...

L-S Let me clarify...I think all teachers need training to learn HOW to teach. Teaching is a skill that can be taught. To be a GOOD teacher may be unteachable. That may be an innate talent that is already there and just needs to be nurtured (perhaps what your teacher saw in you). I still think "just knowing" isn't enough and that everyone can always use a bit of guidance.

That being said, at some point you just have to get on the horse and start riding. Maybe that's why I never made it beyond a Master's degree...I just had to start doing.

YS-I just assumed we were talking about some one with a strong, established practice. You're right, tho, I think a lot of people want to teach before they're ready.

K-While I think it's a testament to your relationship with your students that they feel they can come to you with marital problems, I wonder about the appropriateness of a yoga teacher encouraging that kind of counseling. Check out Bob's comment from last week:

R-I'm with you. I still feel pretty fresh on my yoga journey, too.

Eco Yogini said...

As a non-teacher yogini, with a friend who went through a local teacher training program, I agree that just taking a teacher training does NOT make you a teacher.
I have had many many well trained teachers who have practiced for several decades, traveled and studied in India... etc, who were TERRIBLE at teaching. And then, I have had fantastic teachers who have only been teaching for a year (and I mean fantastic as in, more than asana based).
Yes, you can learn how to teach, but I do believe that it is a special skill that is not suited for everyone.
I also believe that many people take teacher training because they are encouraged to in order to 'deepen their practice'.... what would happen if there were alternative programs for those who were never meant/wanted to teach but could take training to deepen their practice?
I read so many posts/comments about yogi/nis taking the training without any initial meaning to teach, but at the end think- what the heck, mayswell teach now that I "can"!

I also think this comes into play with the legislation of yoga teaching in the States... on the one hand I have read the outcry from teachers against regulation and certification... and then I read posts like yours Brenda, where everyone seems unhappy with the state of the teacher training in America today.

Instead of accomplishing anything, it's cyclical... no solutions....

Emma said...


i put a link to your blog on my blogroll, i hope that's okay.. let me know if it isn't :)



Anonymous said...

Ah, it's like herding cats, isn't it? Here's my take:
I totally agree that the skills of how to teach, sequence etc can, and should, be taught. It was precisely this kind of training, at KYM, that started to give me real confidence in my teaching. I also agree with Linda though: teachers are who they are and no amount of training will make an unintuitive, self-focused egomaniac into anything other than what they are. I have had more than one teacher like this, with great training behind them and basically nothing to offer.
I also think that consistent, long-standing home practice brings authenticity: teachers who walk their talk. And practice at teaching. I haven't been teaching very long: just five years or so. But I have taught thousands and thousands of classes, big groups, small groups, individuals, healthy people, people with pain, ill people, sad people, anxious people...
Every time I teach I learn something. If the student trusts me enough to communicate openly, I often learn really significant things: how they experience poses, what happens in their heads when they are doing breath awareness, whether they resonated with something I said...
And this brings me to beyond-asana. A friend told me, after coming to one of my classes, that my teaching is all about God. I was surprised, because I tend to try to cloak that a little in order not to freak people out. People come back though, so what I say must be helpful. I teach from what I know, what I have experienced on my mat, in my body-mind. Only that.
Very little, these days from the YS or the BG. I have started to think along the same lines as Mark Whitwell: these texts are useful, sure, but they are hooked to the dogma of a religion that is not of my culture. It is possible to teach a stripped back yoga, one that gives people an immediate experience of Self, Source, without the pretty words. If someone gets that, they will be a good teacher.
I still tell stories, of course, I still teach some philosophy in between the asana. But not so much as I once did.
I am not sure whether knowing, say, the YS, quite well, has given me the space to say, no, don't need that, or whether it was never needed to know.
My two cents worth.

Brenda P. said...

Ecoyogini-you've noticed the standardize or not. I actually wrote about this during the summer when I first heard of the regulations in NY (altho they have already been on the book in Wisconsin for a few years--who knew?)

Nadine-always sneaking in late and summing it all up beautifully! Yes, yes, and yes! I especially like your bit about M. Whitwell and borrowing from an unfamiliar culture. I suspect that is a big part of my reluctance to use chanting, etc. in my classes. I'll take your two cents!

Anonymous said...

I loved what Nadine had to say. Especially the part about teaching a stripped down version of Yoga.. I guess that's kind of what i feel like I'm teaching and I just hope that it helps some people : )

babs said...

Well, I don't feel qualified at all to be a teacher. I have been practicing yoga for eight years and I did a 200 hour teacher training. The more I teach, the more classes I take for myself, the more I read, the more I realize I don't know. Just as it is with most things.

I have an amazing teacher and every class of hers that I go to, I learn something about alignment and anatomy, I do a pose I have never done or thought I even could do, and I learn that yoga is way, way more than asana.

I can't teach any of that to my students.

But, what I can share is my passion for yoga. My enthusiasm. My faith that yoga is an overwhelmingly positive force in my life.

I don't have a "famous" teacher. I haven't travelled to any so-called "spiritual" epicenters. But, I am aware of the power of yoga. I have seen it work in my life.

And, while I might feel completely inadequate as a teacher, I have the same students every week. It might be to make myself feel better, but they must be coming back for a reason, right?

I think it is evident that there is a difference between good teachers and bad teachers. But, we must remember that my good teacher might not be right for you.

I would never judge someone's teaching abilities on the fact that they went to a community college or, gasp, an American 200 hour training.

LaGitane said...

I know I'm coming late to the discussion, which has been thorough and enchanting!!

But I'd like to add something that my teachers recognized in our teacher training (which by the way had a LOT of yoga philosophy in it, including in the exams - but my teacher was a very spiritual / philosophical teacher so maybe that's just his personal flavour):

teaching is a Calling.

All the training in the world cannot make you a teacher if you are not called. Equally, you can be a teacher with no training simply by being called to share what you know.

It goes far deeper than a practice, or a training, or a test. When you are Called, teaching is an unstoppable urge to share what you know and inspire people who love what you love.

Hmmmm... And what of the Ego in teaching? I may have to post about that!!

Thanks as always for the great discussions Brenda. :) Peace.