When I was at university, I was struck early on by the realization that the best academics were not always great tutors. It is a real skill to recognize where students are in their current level of understanding and facilitate their progress to the next step - a skill which some of the academics most revered in their own field of research would neither have nor be particularly interested in acquiring. Sometimes, a humble Ph.D. student would be able to explain concepts more clearly and accessibly than a lauded professor.
Students may well be drawn to teachers with an advanced asana practice initially because their yoga looks so impressive. Perhaps they think this teacher will be able to help them with their own aspirations of becoming an “advanced yogi," and they may be right. But impressive demonstrations alone are unlikely to be enough to keep students coming back to class. The teacher needs to also have a much wider range of skills to give students the support they need as they explore and develop their own yoga practice. (Explore different styles you may want to incorporate into your practice in Different Yoga for Different Days: A Quick Overview of 5 Popular Styles.)
There’s a common misconception among students and trainees alike that to be a great yoga teacher you need an outstanding asana practice. And it’s certainly true that there are gifted yoga teachers out there who have exceptional yoga skills of their own.
But, equally, there are fantastic teachers who share the joy of yoga with extraordinary skill without ever feeling the urge to demonstrate one-armed handstands mid-class. And there are also remarkable yogis who have a beautiful yoga practice of their own, but who would not necessarily make great teachers.
5 Qualities of a Good Yoga Teacher
So, what makes a yoga teacher good? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are yoga teachers, but, in my experience, the following five qualities are non-negotiable:
Passion for their own yoga practice
By that I mean they have been on their own journey with yoga and they live and breathe what they teach. Their guidance as to what can come up when students are working through postures is informed by their firsthand experience of practicing the asanas. They teach what they have first learned themselves. Their commitment to continuing to develop and explore their own yoga practice keeps their teaching fresh and authentic.
Deep knowledge of yoga
No, great teachers do not have to be super-advanced yogis working toward levitating, but they do need a strong understanding of what they are teaching. They must know the fundamentals of yoga anatomy, alignment, cuing and sequencing in order to keep their students safe.
The ability to hold space
Whether they teach in community halls or swanky yoga studios, good yoga teachers are able to turn the room into a space where students can come into their body and be free from judgement. They hold space for their students to feel safe and supported in the experience of being fully present. Truly wonderful teachers make their yoga classes into a sacred space. (Are you wondering about 'Holding Space': What Does It Mean?)
It doesn’t matter how abundant the teacher’s expertise, or how great their passion for yoga if they are not able to share this effectively with their students. Teachers need to be able to give instructions so clear and positive that students can immerse themselves fully in their practice. When the communication is good, students can look within, without the distraction of trying to work out what they are meant to be doing or whether they are doing it right.
Connection and intuition
There is real skill in working out what students need for their highest good. Great yoga teachers have the ability to meet their students where they are and guide them forward with warmth and compassion. The best yoga teachers will know that students need different types of teaching at different times -- sometimes supporting, educating or challenging -- and they are able to tune into and accommodate those needs. Yoga classes should always leave students in a better place than where they were found.