Updated: Oct 16, 2019
Online materials and books for yoga practice at home and on your own proliferate. Do-it-yourself resources are fantastic and allow us to find ways to practice that suit our schedules and needs in a given moment. It is there a need, then, for more yoga teachers? Why do yogis need a teacher? What is the added benefit to them of being taught, seen, and perhaps even touched by a live human being who has trained in the art and science of yoga teaching? As you might imagine (since all of us at YogaX are dedicated yoga teachers), we certainly believe the reasons are many.
Yoga in the YogaX tradition is inclusive, empowering, collaborative, and growth-promoting. We believe that live yoga teachers are crucial to creating learning contexts for yoga practitioners that express these values. It takes direct contact with a skillful yoga teacher to create yoga classes and individual yoga sessions that support all students – regardless of background, needs, physical characteristics, contexts, or presentation. To us, yoga is by definition a universal practice. The heart of yoga is mindfulness, calming mental fluctuations, regulating nervous systems, and (re)discovering inner resources and strengths. Yoga, defined in this manner, can be practiced by anyone, anywhere – under the guidance of a skilled teacher who brings the practice to life, safely tailored to the physical, emotional, mental, and social needs of each individual student.
At a very basic level, a skillful, well-trained teacher is needed to ensure that a yoga practitioner’s practice is grounded in safety, creates community, and enhances self-awareness and self-knowledge. Anyone who has ever wondered about the risks of yoga, felt lonely in their practice, or felt pushed by a video to do something they did not really want to do, can benefit from a yoga teacher who guides the student through the practice – safely, collaboratively, and insightfully.
YogaX is dedicated to educating teachers who know how to create a safe environment for any student, especially students who may be seen in healthcare, allied healthcare, or mental healthcare settings. Similarly, YogaX coaches teacher to create community to help students make meaningful connections with fellow practitioners, to recognize shared human suffering, and to develop shared insights about enhanced personal resilience, coping, and stress management. YogaX also focuses on helping teachers learn how to give students knowledge that can inform their practice every day – whether on or off the mat. YogaX yoga teachers become knowledgeable about the depths of yoga psychology, neuroscientific and psychological research that supports yoga- and mindfulness-based practices, and evidence-based practices for particular settings or student presentations. The universal and integrated yoga taught by YogaX emphasizes is creating student self-awareness and insight as well as a thirst for ongoing, life-long learning.
Practitioners with the following safety issues benefit from a skillful teacher:
Have you ever practiced yoga with a video and ended up with an injury?
Have you ever tried to structure a yoga practice based on a book sequence and felt overwhelmed?
Have you ever done yoga by yourself and felt upset later?
How Does a Teacher Create Safety?
Safety arise through a skillful teacher’s ability to set a supportive environment, focusing on creating a harmonious space, supporting healthful alignment, and understanding the risk and contraindications of yoga, as well as its benefits and indications. It may mean at times asking students to realign their body or change their breath to protect them from harm or injury. It may mean understanding which guided meditation to choose and which type of imagery to skip with certain students. Creating safety also requires the teacher to set appropriate physical and personal boundaries, follow a clear code of ethics, and always have the best interest of the student in mind. Safety also means that students understand and have choices about their practices.
Safety-conscious yoga teachers collect consent from their students. What does this mean? First and foremost, it means that teachers inform students about the risks and benefits of each offered practice. Second, it means that teachers ask permission from students for certain actions – such as touching, assisting, or supporting the student in physical ways. Such permissions are gathered over and over as a students’ comfort level with a particular action may change from moment to moment. Ongoing collection of informed consent challenges teachers to offer choices, to invite – not to direct or order students to do anything. Third, collecting consent means making sure that students actually respond outwardly and actively to a teacher’s query. A safe teacher is certain that a student has consented to being touched, supported, or called on. A safe teacher recognizes that the student may perceive a power differential that may lead to deferring to the teacher’s judgment or will. In those circumstances, it is up to the teacher to encourage the student to transcend the desire to please the teacher and to be assertive and self-confident enough to stand up for personal rights.
Practitioners with the following needs benefit from a skillful teacher:
Have you done yoga on your own and felt the need to talk to someone about your experience?
Have you felt alone in your practice or in life?
Have you wondered whether your responses to life or yoga are unusual or different?
How does a Teacher Engender Community?
Community arises through skillful actions of teachers who develop an environment in which students interact with one another, feel emotionally supported and safe with one another, and feel part of a group with a shared purpose. Teachers who build community involve students actively in the teachings, encouraging them to speak up, share responses to the practice, and ask questions. Teachers actively invite their groups of students to explore challenging topics together. They teach about yoga psychology (or philosophy) – prompting students into engaged exploration of the many dialectics of yoga wisdom.
Community arises from the shared humanity: The shared humanity of understanding that as humans all of us are perfect as we are – and could use a little improvement. The shared humanity of understanding our profound interconnection and interdependence and how this ties us together. The shared humanity of understanding that all humans experience pain – emotional, physical, mental, relational – and that there are paths that help transcend our suffering. The shared humanity that all of us can experience deep joy that ties us together and lifts us up collectively. Helping students recognize yoga not merely as a physical practice, but a practice of becoming wise, compassionate, kind, joyful, and generous is a perfect way to ground students in community – in shared human experience, folly, and wisdom.
Some of the most profound moments of community emerge from aha moments when students recognize they are not alone in their suffering or their joy. Community emerges in that moment when students recognize together that yoga is not exercise; yoga is a profound personal practice of lifestyle, discipline, and choice with the potential to transform individual lives and relationships. Community means that teachers teach – they impart knowledge, not information. They do not simply direct, expecting students to follow rote instructions. Instead, teacher who foster community encourage their students to bring to bear – in conversation and discussion – their inherent and collective wisdom; their collective physical, emotional, and cognitive capacity to learn, apply, and tailor the wisdoms and teachings offered in class.
Practitioners with the following questions benefit from a skillful teacher:
What is this pose or breath supposed to feel like in my body?
How do I apply these yoga or mindfulness principles in my life?
What does it mean when I feel … when I am in this pose?
Why does my mind wander when I try to meditate?
How Does a Teacher Foster Self-Awareness and Self-Knowledge?
Self-awareness and self-knowledge are facilitated by teachers who meet their students where they are physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially. It emerges when teachers honor their students’ values, recognize their needs, and understand their goals. Skillful teachers collaborate with their students. Together, student and teacher co-create healthful, growth-promoting, tailored practices that draw out inner strengths in students and transform their habits through enhanced self-understanding. Collaborating with a teacher in an individualized manner promotes each student’s sense of agency and self-efficacy; it invites each student to own the yoga practice in a deeply personal manner and to understand what the practice has to offer.
Knowledge empowers students to take charge of their practice. Teachers who foster self-awareness and self-knowledge do not force students to do yoga in a particular way. Instead, they invite and offer practices that they perceive as healthful. Then, they empower students to make choices, draw conclusions, and shape how they practice their yoga on and off the mat. Honoring equality and self-knowledge in this manner does not suggest that a teacher ignores safety. Yoga teachers have expertise and wisdom that helps keep students safe. This wisdom is exercised when a risky situation arises in the service of students’ health and wellbeing. Finally, teachers invite enhanced self-understanding through role-modeling. Therefore, yoga teachers remain vigilant about the impact of their manners, language, sensitivity to culture, and self-awareness of -isms and biases. Teachers who foster self-knowledge value equality and seek neither to stereotype, prejudge, assume, condescend, nor offend. They remain open, self-aware, and ever-growing.
All of us at YogaX believe that only a skillful teacher – live, in the room with students – can co-create the necessary physical and emotional environment of safety, the shared and meaningful experience of community, and the profound sense of knowing and insight needed to help students take their yoga off their mat and into their lives, relationships, and communities. Skillfulness in a yoga teacher has certain prerequisites: authenticity, mindfulness, humility, presence, openness of heart and mind, preparedness, and commitment to life-long learning. The development of these skills and traits is the work of yoga teacher training – such as the training offered by YogaX.
All of us at YogaX invite you to become teachers, to deepen your practice, and to remain students for life. We would love to share your journey and hope to meet you in one of our workshops or teacher trainings.
With heartfelt gratitude to my own teachers and students,
About the Author:
Christiane Brems, PhD, ABPP, E-RYT500, C-IAYT, is the Director of YogaX, a clinical psychologist, registered yoga teacher, and certified yoga therapist. She has practiced yoga for over 40 years. You can read more about her on the YogaX Team page.