What’s the single most important skill you need to be a good yoga teacher? Proficiency at Asana? Expert knowledge of yoga philosophy? Great sequencing?
Well, all those things are helpful, but you can be the most flexible, knowledgeable person on the planet and still be a rotten teacher. Because teaching isn’t about how good you are at something. It’s about how well you can connect, listen and communicate with others. Let me just define communication here. I’m not talking about the clarity of your verbal cues, or your body language, or your tone of voice. I’m talking about a way of being with others that fosters deep connection, trust and hope.
Real communication takes place when we are open, present and available to another person. When we see the world through their eyes and share in their triumphs and struggles. It’s what happens when we acknowledge and value somebody’s intrinsic worth regardless of their personality, life stage or achievements.
Creating this kind of profound connection requires self-awareness and the ability to put our own stuff to one side long enough to devote our attention to the needs of the other person. As teachers, we must let go of our need to be liked, our fear of being judged or our desire to fix ourselves and others. The greatest gift we can give our students is to stand beside them as they follow their path, accepting them exactly as they are and holding space for them to explore, stumble, rejoice, doubt and experience themselves through the healing practices of yoga.
Good teaching IS good communication and good communication requires authentic human connection. And that means listening. Listen to your student’s words, to the messages behind their words, and to the language of their bodies.
Most yoga teacher training courses don't teach active, empathic listening and that's a mistake. These basic counselling skills are as vital to teaching yoga as the ability to sequence a class or adjust a pose and should be be on the curriculum of every Level 1 yoga teacher training course.
One of the most important reasons for learning counselling and communication skills is self-care. And I don’t mean doing a daily Yoga Nidra and drinking green smoothies. Like it or not, students are going to use you as a sounding board, agony aunt and, occasionally, a scape-goat. Yoga is extremely powerful and when your students experience an emotional release, or simply feel overwhelmed, the fall out can be challenging.
Many teachers are not equipped to deal with the emotional extremes presented by a distressed, angry, confrontational or suicidal student. If you’ve never come across the concept of ‘transference’ (when people project their past experiences or relationships with others on to you) you’re likely to be upset or confused by students who behave in an aggressive or overtly sexual way towards you.
Learning how to work with others on an emotional level, and how to manage your own feelings, is the secret to being a great yoga teacher. These skills help you to make a meaningful difference to your students lives while managing your own wellbeing so that you can thrive as a yoga teacher.
So why didn’t you learn all this in your Yoga Teacher Training course? Because many programs aim to teach what their trainees expect (predominantly asana) in the shortest time-frame (which makes the course more affordable). Now, we could argue the merits of 200, 350 and 500hr yoga teacher trainings until the cows come home. But the simple fact is, 200hr, and even 350hr, trainings simply do not equip you with enough knowledge and experience to handle the curve balls that are going to come your way.
Yoga is a lifelong education, for both teachers and students. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t teach straight out of a Level 1 yoga teacher training – teaching, with good mentoring and supervision, is a vital part of the learning process. But if you feel unsure how to handle particular students because of their physical or emotional needs, or find yourself feeling anxious and emotionally drained by your work as a yoga teacher, it’s time to up-skill so you can take better care of yourself and your students.