*This article was originally posted on the now defunct bentoutofshape.com in 2012. It has been re-posted here with no changes or edits*
High on the list of questions I get asked quite often is how students can find/identify a "good" yoga teacher. It is becoming increasingly difficult to sift through all the yoga teachers out there, as the number of yoga teacher training programs increases. Sadly, complicating the problem is the fact that not all programs are created equal. Some teacher trainings appear to be just income generators for the studio with no real criteria for entry, no means of quality control for the training content, and no major qualification requirements for those teaching the program. Yikes!
The question of how to identify a “good” teacher also raises the issue of what, if anything, makes a teacher objectively "good.” Is it just the ability to do a really long handstand? Or memorize a sequence of poses? I hope not, because my ability to sustain handstand is pretty lame…
In my own yoga life I currently have 3 primary teachers. One is the teacher of my asana practice who guides me along the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga path. The second is the teacher of my spiritual practice and philosophy. The third is the teacher from whom I learn how to teach and communicate the practice of yoga to my students. All of these teachers together contribute to my knowledge and understanding of the practice in different ways.
There are also many other voices I listen to and places I turn for information about the practice. Before finding my three primary teachers there was a chain of other teachers, going right back to my first yoga class. Some of those past teachers I outgrew, some passed on, and others introduced me to other mentors from who I learned what they thought I needed to learn. All of those teachers played a role in shaping me as a yoga practitioner and a teacher, so it is nearly impossible to identify any one individual as a good or bad teacher. In addition, it seems that people want simple and easy characteristics to look for when trying to spot the good teachers (maybe a special hat they all wear), but it's much more complicated than that. I can easily recommend specific teachers who I know from experience to be skilled at communicating the practice. However, I cannot easily create a list of criteria that I have based that decision on.
So, for now, I shall artfully dodge the question… Because what I can do easily is highlight some key behaviours to watch for that are most definitely indicators of a bad teacher. I’ve come up with somewhat of a system to help answer your question: Red flags are behaviours that are so serious you should consider leaving class immediately, and Yellow flags are behaviours that should alert you to potential risks. (I fully admit to stealing this system from a relationships columnist that I quite enjoy, but I have been told that good writers borrow from others, and great writers steal outright, so shhhh). Some students might not realize that it’s ok to get up and leave when they find themselves in a situation in which they do not feel safe, but it is very important to know that it is your right to exercise that option.
I truly believe the majority of yoga teachers have good intentions, and genuinely want to help their students. I also am well aware that errors can happen on “bad days” to even the best of teachers. Some teachers, however, have received poor (and even incorrect) training or are inexperienced and make honest mistakes. I'm not going to get too picky or impose my opinion on how poses should be taught. I want to instead address issues that are clearly serious problems and should not be shrugged off any longer, especially by trusting yoga students.
"No pain, No gain"
I love a challenging teacher as much as anyone else, and I don’t want to suggest that your yoga practice will be without discomfort and struggle, but this type of statement implies that progress only comes through pain and suffering--and that assumption is fundamentally wrong. The authoritative text for all yoga practices, the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, says very little about the physical practice, but what it does mention is that a yoga posture should be steady or stable, and at the same time comfortably or softly held (“sthira sukham asanam” Yoga Sutras chapter 2, verse 46). The word “softly” is a key word in that sutra. The journey for a student on the road to softness may be full of effort, and effort is sometimes not without discomfort, but the discomfort is not intrinsic to the benefit of the pose in any way. Hearing "no pain, no gain" in a yoga class, unless Jane Fonda is teaching it (and even if she is), is a definite red flag, and a reason to get up and leave the class.
"Stretch into the ligaments"
This instruction is just foolish. Muscle and elastic connective tissue both have the capacity to shorten and stabilize any weakness or injuries present in the tissue. In other words, if you over-stretch your hamstring muscles, you can, over time, work to strengthen and stabilize them through correct effort. If you tear a muscle by pushing too hard in a pose you can, with intelligent instruction and effort, potentially heal the tear. Ligaments, however, have a much different structure. When they are over stretched, they do not regain their original position. If you stretch ligaments you remove a critical support structure for the joints and very little can be done to change that. A student with stretched ligaments is going to have a lifetime of weakness and challenge in that area. I believe some teachers have made the confused assumption that poses held for a long time, which have been used for decades to lengthen the connective tissue in the body, are also intended to lengthen ligaments. This is not the case, and yoga students should avoid stretching ligaments at all times. Stretching connective tissue happens during long holds of seemingly easy and supported poses. Properly instructed students will come to this understanding about the alignment of the pose, and correct use of props. Unfortunately most classes with long holds are not often taught with the essential support of props. If I were to try and give you some advice in a nutshell, I’d say avoid stretching anything in the joints. Unless perhaps your goal is to end up a puddle of disconnected muscle and bone on the floor.
"Headstand and shoulder stand are appropriate for everyone"
This one might get me in trouble, so if you get the urge to write me really angry comments, make sure you use really bad spelling so I won’t feel as bad…
There are styles of yoga that advocate headstand without any preparation at all. It is my opinion (an opinion I think is shared by a great number of well-taught, highly experienced teachers) that putting an inexperienced yoga student into advanced postures such as headstand and shoulderstand is not only risky, but just plain dangerous. Headstand and shoulderstand commonly, but erroneously, result in bearing weight and pressure on the neck. When done correctly neither pose involves risk, but the potential for incorrect instruction coupled with inexperienced bodies results in a tremendous risk for serious injury.
Both headstand and shoulderstand require a lot of groundwork be done to prepare the body. Proper working in the shoulders, stability in the arms, ability to properly position the pelvis, and intelligent action in the legs are all necessary to make the postures safe. Like so many things in yoga, it can be easy to perform the appearance of the pose without any of the internal workings. In a seated posture this is not good, but at least the risks are relatively low. In headstand and shoulder stand, the consequences can be much more serious. While it may be reasonable for a teacher to assume that a class of experienced students will know how to work correctly in these poses (with correct, detailed, and refined instruction), throwing a group of beginners into them is quite dangerous and irresponsible. The motto of any good yoga teacher must first be “do no harm”.
Well I think that's enough for today... I'll see if I can add to this list over time and potentially get myself into even hotter water.
Until next time, keep practicing!
"We are all beginners, it just takes some of us longer to realize it"
- Chuck Miller