How to Choose a Qualified Yoga Teacher
So far, no national or international certification program for yoga teachers exists, and it is unlikely that it will, because of the traditional nature of Yoga instruction. For many thousands of years, Yoga was transmitted from teacher to student on a one-to-one basis; only comparatively recently has Yoga been offered in a group class format. Advanced practice of Yoga still is best undertaken on a one-to-one basis, if you are lucky enough to find a competent teacher who is willing to teach you. In my opinion, teaching Yoga should not be viewed as a hobby or a sideline undertaken by someone who reads a couple of books and decides to become a Yoga teacher; he or she must be under the constant supervision of his or her personal Yoga teacher. This relationship between teacher and student is taken very seriously by both parties and is never entered into lightly.
People are constantly asking us to recommend teachers in their area. Because of my belief in the strict training required for the teaching of Yoga, I have made it a policy never to recommend a teacher unless I have trained the person. I cannot take responsibility for other peoples teaching. This does not mean that there are no competent teachers available; you may just have to search a little harder.
In the following paragraphs, I have outlined what I believe are the minimum requirements for a competent teacher of Yoga.
1. Daily practice of Yoga exercise, breathing, and meditation. No one can make progress in Yoga without a serious commitment to daily practice. A teacher must have this support in order to build the solid foundation of experience that is required before he or she can show others how to achieve that experience; daily practice is also needed to maintain the strength and health necessary for the extra demands of teaching.
2. Regular contact with a teacher. No teacher can work effectively in a vacuum, and no one becomes so advanced that he or she does not need the guidance and support of his or her own teacher.
3. Study of the important Yoga texts. Study is one of the five observances that are part of the essential eight "limbs" of Yoga practice (see #4, below). A teacher needs to have an intensive background of study that includes Patanjalis Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Bhagavad Gita, and all world philosophies, at the very least.
4. Ethical behavior. The five yamas (meaning "restraints": nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, periods of celibacy, nonhoarding) and the five niyamas (meaning "observances": purity, contentment, tolerance, study, remembrance) are the first two limbs in Patanjalis system of classical Yoga (called "Ashtanga Yoga"). The remaining six limbs are 1) physical exercises (asana), 2) breathing techniques (pranayama), 3) withdrawal of the mind from the senses (pratyahara), 4) concentration, defined as selective and voluntary dishabituation (dharana), 5) meditation (dhyana), and 6) absorption, or ultimate union with the self (samadhi). My teacher Lakshmanjoo once said that, like a child developing in the womb whose limbs grow all at once, rather than one by one, these eight limbs must be developed simultaneously. The ethical guidelines of the yamas and niyamas are a part of Yoga practice not for moralistic reasons but because they support and protect the student during the unfolding of personal experience in meditation. A teacher needs this support and protection for the same reasons as well as to help reduce the interference of personal ego in the teaching process. An ethical Yoga teacher conducts classes in a responsible, safe, and aware manner; organizes classes that are not too large for each student to receive individual attention; and never pushes students beyond their limitations. Sexual involvement with students is absolutely prohibited.
5. A healthy vegetarian diet. Although you do not need to be a vegetarian to practice Yoga, a Yoga teacher must conform to different standards. Someone who is taking responsibility for teaching others how to use Yoga meditation techniques must have the steadiness and nonviolent attitude that can only be attained through a vegetarian diet. It goes without saying that a teacher should not smoke or use drugs (other than prescription medication) or misuse alcohol.
6. Training in basic anatomy and the effects of Yoga techniques. A teacher must be able to vary the techniques according to each students ability and know how to advise students with common medical conditions such as hypertension, arthritis, and back problems. I also believe that a teacher should be able to recognize when a student needs professional psychological counseling and be familiar with community services to which to refer the student.
7. Ability to separate Yoga from religion. I have seen many poor-quality instructors take on the trappings and robes of Hinduism or some other religion to give themselves an authority through packaging rather than through the authenticity of their own Yoga practice. This practice severely misrepresents Yoga. Yoga is not a religion; it predates Hinduism as well as all known religious practices and its techniques have been used throughout the world. Yoga is a system of nonreligious, transcultural techniques which can develop greater self-knowledge and awareness. Unlike a religion, Yoga does not require adherence to certain creeds or beliefs, nor does it require obeisance to any particular prophet or god. Yoga is not ritualistic, nor is it occult. The texts of Yoga are not scriptures but rather handbooks or guidelines of how to use the techniques safely and what kinds of experiences might be possible. Everyone has a right to their personal religious beliefs, but a teacher must never impose his or her personal beliefs on students in a Yoga class.
Becoming a Yoga Teacher
There is no national certification program for teachers at this time, because each organization has its own standards. The information above in "How to Choose a Yoga Teacher" will give you some idea of the qualifications that we feel are important. The best way to start is to do your personal Yoga practice every day and study regularly with your own teacher. We do not recommend starting to teach Yoga without several years of study "under your belt." Get a good solid base in your own practices with a teacher, read and study about Yoga practice and philosophy, and build strength, awareness, and health, including a vegetarian diet. Teaching is hard work, and if you try to do it without being in top condition physically and mentally, you do a disservice both to yourself and your students.
Teaching Easy Does it® Yoga
An exception to the rigorous standards described previously is our program "Easy Does it® Yoga." This specially designed program for seniors or those with physical limitations consists of adapted Yoga techniques, and it may safely be taught by anyone even without a professional background or special training. Our book The Easy Does It® Yoga Trainers Guide is a text developed especially for this program. It is our hope that many people will use this book to help a family member, friend, or client benefit from the techniques of Yoga. It includes step-by-step instruction in how to teach dozens of adapted Yoga techniques that can be done in chairs or in bed, as well as sections on breathing and relaxation, suggestions for working with various medical conditions, and some curriculum outlines.
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