I‘ve been getting a lot of questions about my yoga teacher training from friends thinking about becoming teachers. I learned a great deal by going through the process, much of which I wish I had known before I threw down the money and made the commitment of time that I did.
Looking at some of the resources I found on the internet, I am frustrated that they fail to distinguish a yoga teacher training from, say, a physical therapy certification or any other western higher education equivalent. Doing so encourages a teacher-student relationship that can easily lead to victimization and abuse – because a yoga teacher training is so different from western, intellectual learning we’re familiar with that we enter unawares. It is a wholly different beast that requires a very different frame of thinking and its own kind of preparation.
The biggest challenges may not be what you expect, but no one should have to go into yoga teacher training program blind to what happens inside, or into a teacher-student relationship ready to give up our agency and safety because we’re unprepared for what lies ahead. Yoga teachers are not infallible, as I’ve written about before, and students should not give up the right to hold them accountable or hold to their own limits.
Obviously, my recommendations and my knowledge of the field of yoga teacher trainings cannot be comprehensive or complete. But this is what I have learned in the past year and I hope it serves others. I’ve overlooked the usual questions, like “if I can’t do koundinyasana yet should I do teacher training?” (The answer is yes.) All of that stuff – complicated backbends, anatomy, Sanskrit, cueing, and hands on adjustments – will sort itself out. I’d love any feedback.
Advice for those contemplating yoga teacher training:
1. Prepare for a commitment
All yoga teacher trainings are different, but here are some basics: 1) You’ll spend a lot of money ($1,500-15,000 unless you work out a work-study arrangement or find a free teacher training – they do exist!); and 2) You’ll spend a lot of time (anywhere from 5 weeks meeting a few times a week to a month-long intensive meeting everyday to nine months meeting every few weeks). I ended up funemployed for the last 4 months of my 8 month training, and managed to devote 20 hours a week to the training and my own study.
I chose my teacher training program because it was local and convenient. Now, my fellow trainees in the local DC program I did stuck around the city, unlike me, and are moving right into teaching in the studio in which they were trained. This can certainly be a big benefit of training locally.
But since I moved right after training ended, I’ve realized that I would be having an easier time marketing myself as a brand new teacher in a new town if I had trained with a teacher local studios had heard of. Something for us nomads to think about.
If you’re ready for the necessary commitment of money and time, read on.
2. Know that yoga is much more than just asanas
There may be teacher trainings out there that skip the history of yoga altogether and only train people in how to teach postures (asanas). But in order to qualify as a Yoga Alliance certified school, a teacher training will spend at least some time, if not a great deal of time, on the historical and spiritual/philosophical underpinnings of yoga and its many practices (yes, there are many).
Yoga evolved as a system of practice to put people on the path to Enlightenment – the complete uprooting of the egoic personality structure – not just to stay fit or reduce stress. Regardless of the goals of popular yoga practice today, a Yoga Alliance certified yoga teacher training is going to endeavor to produce teachers who know the system’s background and can expound on it when necessary and integrate it into their practices and teaching.
The time spent on these topics will not just be academic in nature – i.e., reading books – but will emphasize experiential learning through meditation, chanting, mantra, pranayama, kirtan and other devotional practices, mindfulness exercises – even sweat lodges sometimes. This can be especially challenging for those of us who aren’t ready to embrace or dip our toes into a new religious system or hermeneutics – including the skeptical, but also atheists and anyone with a devout religious belief that’s not Hinduism or Buddhism.
In Buddhist parlance, those who’ve embarked on the path of self inquiry through study and practices that still the mind and calm the body – with or without the final goal of Enlightenment – are called “stream-enterers.” And, yes – the stream is wet. And cold. And the water rushes by and sometimes catapults branches and logs along like weapons. These various mind and body practices have the potential to bring you hip-deep into the stream and, once there, you may learn things about yourself that surprise you. You may come face to face with memories, judgments, and habits rushing at you with surprising and unignorable speed that you’ve happily not seen or repressed. It can literally be like splashing cold water on your face. Or getting hit by a log traveling at 35 mph.
Wet, clammy, and forced to see how the mind and body are not separate systems but part of a whole will likely considered part of your training – trainings that do this go beyond the Yoga Alliance requirements but it’s definitely to be expected. Furthermore, you’ll likely be asked to share your realizations with your fellow trainees and the instructors.
When it comes to sharing, it’s critical to know your own limits and go in knowing what you’re ready to talk about. Yoga teacher trainers are not likely to be trained psychoanalysts or social workers. So 1) it’s important to be prepared to be asked to participate in group sharing about your own process, which may be dark, raw, and dizzying; and 2) it’s even more important to set your own limits and boundaries in sharing because your instructors may not be equipped to create a safe environment for this kind of work.
OK. If you’re still on board, here’s what to do next.
3. Get to know the field
Not unlike applying to college or grad school, it’s important to know your options and how they’re regarded in the community.
Again, I chose my teacher training program because it was local and convenient. But I knew nothing of who my instructors had studied with, their personalities, or the extents/limits of their knowledge and practices. If I could do it again, I would opt for a month-long intensive with a well-known teacher after doing some shopping (through YogaGlo or workshops, and a subscription to Yoga Journal).
Let’s start with the major lineages and traditions of Hatha yoga being taught and the best-known teachers in each of them:
Ashtanga – This yoga style popularized by Sri Patabhi Jois is often described as a modern-day version of the classical Raja yoga. I know little about Ashtanga, to be honest, but have heard Richard Freeman‘s name come up again and again as a foremost teacher and admire his writings and talks.
Iyengar – This yoga style was popularized in the west by B. K. S. Iyengar, who studied with the same tacher as Sri Patanhi Jois, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, in India. Most Iyengar schools do not offer drop-in classes but require several weeks-long introductory courses, so I am wholly unfamiliar with the school and its teachers.
Bikram – Also known as hot yoga, Bikram Choudhry’s sequence is more popular among athletes and young men than other schools. Bikram leads all teacher trainings himself and requires adherence to his trademarked sequence and teaching style.
Vinyasa – Where to begin? There are a ton of western yogis who have adapted yoga for western audiences, many with great success. These include but are not limited to Power, Prana Flow, Baptiste Power, Jivamukti, Om, Forrest, Yee, Liquid Asana, Anusara, Kundalini, Budokon, and Insight. Follow the links to find those teachers. Some other teachers who have not branded their styles to the same extent (and that may be a draw for you in itself) are Jason Crandell, Michael Stone, Natasha Rizopolous, and Donna Farhi.
4. Get to know your instructor(s)
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of familiarizing yourself with your potential training instructor. But the most important thing is getting to know him or her and his/her ethical commitments,which can be done by taking just one or two classes and asking questions of the instructor after class. Doing so will at the very least set up accurate expectations.
Against the backdrop of #2 above, I recommend spending at least 90 minutes observing your potential instructor in his or her interactions with students and others, inside and outside of a classroom setting. Here’s what I recommend looking for:
– What has the instructor done to address his or her own contributions to violence – structural as well as direct – in the world? (I address this here.)
– Does the instructor speak and act in a way that is kind, honest, and appropriate?
– Is there any suggestion of flirting or sexual innuendo in his or her interactions?
– Does he or she act with selflessness and generosity?
– Does he or she have a sense of humor? Is it one that you can work with?
– Does he or she demonstrate and maintain clear boundaries? Are they ones that make you feel comfortable?
– Is he or she present with you (making eye contact, listening, making time for you) when you ask questions?
– Does he or she delegate responsibilities to others well? I.e., day-to-day operations of a studio and subbing
– Can he or she relate the practice of yoga to the real, everyday lives of working people?
– Does he or she have any additional accreditation aside from being an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT)? i.e., social work, psychotherapy
Now, nobody is perfect. But many of us reside somewhere on the spectrum and inspire more confidence and trust than others – and the questions above are linked to the very philosophies and ethical principles your instructors will be teaching (i.e., the yamas and niyamas from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra). It’s important to trust your own gut, t00, to help you find a trustworthy and skilled guide as you head into unfamiliar territory.
5. Beware the yoga bubble
The rise of Buddhism and Yoga in the West has two very interesting characteristics that set it apart from the systems as they exist in Asia – an emphasis on personal experience and an abundance of lay practitioners (as opposed to monastics). A thorough engagement with modern science and practice, as opposed to faith in meritorious acts or rituals, undergirds much of this.
These are good things for Westerners, and important to cultivate in our own personal practices and at large. And a necessary by-product of these is a re-investigation of the traditional teacher-student relationship in meditation and yoga, and what it means to have a deep personal practice.
Some yoga teachers maintain occupations as psychotherapists, businesspeople, teachers, etc in addition to teaching yoga. Many don’t. And while a full-time commitment to yoga allows for deep practice and a lot of teaching experience, it can also give rise to what I call “the yoga bubble.”
The Yoga Bubble can result in unrealistic expectations on the part of the instructor regarding how much time and energy you can devote to your training – either because they’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a fulltime job that has nothing to do with yoga or they don’t really care. Or it can mean that they’ve forgotten how to act professionally on their obligations to those who have engaged them in a business transaction, which is what a teacher training also is – such as keeping to schedules, respecting your time, and making sure you know exactly what will be expected of you before certification (e.g., completing extra teaching hours outside of training hours and written homework, participating in extra workshops (at extra cost), or passing a final exam).
Many full-time teachers are mindful and humble enough to remain cognisant of the demands of everyday lay life long after they’ve left the rat race behind. Others forget real fast.
When yoga teacher trainings advertise themselves as opportunities to deepen one’s own practice (as well as learn how to teach), boy are they right. It’s an amazing opportunity to learn about oneself and the path, and maybe even get a taste of Enlightenment. But any path has its perils and obstacles, and the above are the ones I think matter most – but remarkably, that have the worst signage.
Anyone interested in pursuing a yoga teacher training should go for it – even if you don’t necessarily want to teach afterward. The important part, and the reason why I’ve laid this blogpost out as I have, is to go in with your eyes wide open.