When I’m at home I practice with my yoga teacher. But when I travel, I collect teachers.
I’ve practiced yoga in Spain, the Czech Republic, Isreal, Egypt, Costa Rica, Scotland, France, all over the United States and more. I’m on a plane to Texas at this very moment and you bet I already have the best yoga studio schedules saved to my phone, even for a short weekend trip.
In addition to staving off unnecessary travel-stress breakdowns, offering rare cultural insight, unwinding body from plane-seat-asana, and reminding me that life is about joy not plans, prioritizing yoga while travelling has a multiplicity of benefits.
As a yoga teacher myself, try as I might to just let go and be a student, I can’t help but take notes on teaching technique. Let me tell you, while each has the potential to be a cauldron of transformation, not all yoga classrooms are created equal.
There are those teachers who make time stop, who remind us of what we didn’t know we’d forgotten. Those who change our practice with a simple cue that wakes us up from a long unconscious slumber, those whose palpable inner stillness calls us back to ourselves or those whose generous touch, applied with the skill of a surgeon yet the softness of a mother brings out tears that are long overdo.
But I learn just as much when there is something not quite right in the classroom... when teachers are a little too aggressive, disconnected or concerned with their fancy choreography or music.
While technique is important, far more influential is the energetic environment a teacher creates. More than what is said or done, what is felt in a classroom is the true medicine. If we don’t feel safe to challenge ourselves, to take it slow or to break down and cry if need be, there is only so much transformative potential available in our practice.
On the cusp of the new year, as I prepare to teach my first cohort of yoga teacher trainees, I’m asking myself- what it means to be a ‘good’ yoga teacher. Here are five guidelines for an Alchemical Yoga Class.
1) A teacher of integrity creates a welcoming, inclusive, safe yet stimulating space for all bodies to experience the full rainbow spectrum of being human
Yoga is not one size fits all, instead, it’s an individualized practice that honors the ever-shifting needs of our body-mind. From the depths of grief, anxiety and depression to the heights of love, joy, oneness and universal purpose, the complex art of teaching group classes is to create a safe space for diverse bodies of all ages, races, genders and levels of able-bodiedness to feel empowered to meet themselves exactly as they are. Some days we need to drop a knee or take child's pose or savasana for the full practice, some days we need to push our self-imposed limits in order to open our hearts to inner and outer transformation by expanding, up leveling or deepening our postures.
By offering varying levels of modifications for poses, encouraging the intelligent use of props and underscoring the primary importance of mindful breathing and emotional balance regardless of the outer technique being practiced, a skillful teacher creates an environment where you feel supported, grounded yet strong and challenged.
In a transformative yoga classroom we are encouraged us to honor our breathe, body and the pose itself as the primary and sacred teachers. The purpose of verbal or hands on adjustments is to deepen or amplify the experience of your inner body and breath as true teacher. There is never anything to fix in a yoga posture (excluding obviously dangerous misalignments), as the experience within the posture itself is the teacher.
2) A teacher of integrity sees the beauty in you
Coming to class with an attitude of curiosity and the intention to accept yourself as you are generates a glow that is palpable. A teacher of integrity encourages this attitude of acceptance, self love and self compassion. No matter the state of your physical, emotional or energetic body, they see the universal lifeforce pulsating within your postures, creating space for the possibility of grace.
During my first yoga teacher training we did an experiment where we silently beamed support at each other with our minds as we each stood up to cue a pose. The second round we were completely neutral recipients as our peers cued the same pose. The results were universally felt- when someone sees you in your highest, you feel it!
When we are surrounding by supportive, loving encouraging people, we shine. The art of the collaborative classroom is a space where we all feel that amount of encouragement on our unique path of growth. The yoga classroom becomes a kula, a sacred community, where you are mirrored in your highest potential regardless of the specifics of how you feel that day.
3) A teacher of integrity encourages you to get outside of your own box
Why do so many practitioners equate the effects of a yoga class with therapy?
Contemporary somatic psychologists and movement therapists agree, the body is the unconscious. Patterns of movement unconsciously lock in old emotional and thought patterns, preventing us from accessing the raw freshness of the present moment. Therefore, we can shift long standing patterns of negativity, judgement, victimization, aggression ect. by working directly with the way we move.
With detailed or evocative cuing that creatively cultivates a sense of experience of direct sensual experience, a skillful yoga teacher has the power to encourage using fresh eyes each practice. A creatively structured and carefully crafted yoga class has the potential to both celebrate and challenge what we think we know about ourselves.
We cannot see that which is unconscious within us without being woken up by life or another person. A skillful teacher guides us towards a new experience of specific areas of our body so that, over time, we are more embodied in an area where we were previously on autopilot. In the words of Thich Naht Hahn, “in the beginners mind there are many options, in the experts there are few.”
Yoga continues to change lives and to change the world after millennia because of its capacity to offer a fresh outlook on our lives an attitude and to, in some cases, short circuit talk therapy, creating space for a new way of being that is more aligned to our true nature as innately open, loving and kind.
4) A teacher of integrity invites you into deeper intimacy with other humans & the cycles of nature
A practice that never changes depending on the cycle of the season, the moon, and current events is a practice of escapism, disconnection and numbing. Yoga means connection. We all long for connection with ourselves and each other. Connection is a healing balm in a culture of isolation.
The gift of becoming more and more collaborative with the flow of life force within us is an embodied experience of our interconnection with the cycles of the natural world, an acknowledgement of how our body shifts with the season, injury, age, cultural climate, life circumstance and our emotional state. When we tune out the world around us we automatically tune out our innate guidance system.
To be a yogi is to become simultaneously more sensitive yet more resilient to the diverse, ever-changing and sometimes contradictory needs of our physical, emotional and energetic bodies, and to become more skilled at meeting and managing those realities moment to moment to cultivate a sense of internal balance. This, in turn, generates a sense of clear seeing (viveka khyāti), so we are more compassionate and awake to our interconnection with all beings, the two-leggeds, the four-legged, the winged ones, those who swim and the body of the earth herself.
The yogic science of life (ayurveda) invites us to follow the shifting cycles of the moon and seasons in our bodies in an effort to rejoin the harmony of the natural world and our original nature.
5) A teacher of integrity lives their life as yoga
Yoga practice is preparation for the real work and the real joy: to remain connected, awake and alive to the complexity of being human in an imperfect world, to break down the walls around our hearts, to trust in our true nature as flexible, generous, open and to trust our life by resting in gratitude.
If we remain consistent in this intention, we become younger as we age, our minds become less rigid and attached to our identity and to being right. We begin to offer the fullness of our love and our gifts more generously and selflessly to those around us and to the world.
We are all teachers. May we remain steadfast in this intention for our daily lives while cultivating ongoing compassion for our mistakes & imperfections.
It’s imperative that all teachers are kept honest, grounded and in touch with the effects of their actions on those whom they are honored enough to hold transformative space for. I ask for your help this year in holding me accountable to these ideals inside the classroom and out. And I’ll keep showing up for you as we co create a new world one yoga class at a time.