What I've noticed over the years is that students don't usually know what to look for in a teacher training. I have re-qualified many students who had already attended a 200 hour training with different teachers around the world, but had left feeling that they weren't remotely ready to teach. Even those who had beautiful personal experiences in their previous trainings, often still did not have the confidence to teach. Moreover, even those who did teach, often knew very little about technique, pedagogical tools, or - that dreaded subject that so many trainings brush under the table or outsource to non-yogis: human anatomy.
As I have been circling the globe on my personal journey, I have had the pleasure of attending classes with many graduates of my past trainings, and I have been consistently moved to tears. Each and every one of them was more than proficient - they were outright inspiring, and their knowledge and understanding never failed to challenge and enlighten me. Far be it from me to claim credit for that, though; ultimately it is the result of their own inner knowledge, diligence and inspiration. Yet, it has given me the lasting desire for quite some time now to share what I've learned about training the best yoga teachers - that is, how to prepare students to harvest their inner knowing and access their inspiration. While I humbly hope that these lessons will help other trainers, my deepest wish is that those of you looking for a teacher training will have a clearer idea of what to ask when you question your teachers - which you always, ALWAYS should!
1. Never Stop Practicing Asana AND Meditation
This may seem obvious, but you might be surprised how many high-profile teachers consider their teaching to be their yoga practice. This is a dis-service to both self and others, as it is only through committed daily practice at our own edge that we can maintain a high level of teaching. It allows us to stay connected with beginner's mind, and hence with our students. If you are a teacher, ask yourself if you sincerely and always walk your talk. If you are interviewing a potential training director (which, again, you always should, even if you know them very well as a classroom or private teacher), respectfully and casually ask them what they do for their personal practice. Get as much specific details as you can, and then ask yourself honestly - do they genuinely have what you want?
Now, many yoga students are not sincerely interested in or committed to meditation. This is of course a historical and practical aberration, but to each her own. Nonetheless, it is my experience that when I became uncompromisingly devoted to daily meditation practice (even during teacher training retreats, waking up hours before sunrise to get my practice in before teaching), my trainings simply produced much better teachers. My heart just felt bigger and more open, making me so much more effective as a teacher. So I feel obliged to add here: if you are training teachers, meditate extensively and daily, and see how everyone benefits from your generous investment. And if you are interviewing a potential training director, ask them what part meditation studies play in their trainings, and what will be expected of you in term of meditation before as well as during training. It is a surprisingly good gauge of training quality. That said, however...
2. Study Anatomy - as well as Pedagogy
Many trainings are wonderful personal retreats with sincere asana and meditation practitioners, yet still do not properly prepare their graduates to teach. One of the most common complaints I hear from graduates of such trainings is that they weren't really taught how to teach, or given enough time to actively practice what they were learning DURING the training. This is due to a misunderstanding of a simple educational principle: most of us, especially if we are attracted to yoga, are kinesthetic learners, meaning that we learn best by doing things with our bodies. I have had the good fortune of studying and teaching education and pedagogy to graduate student instructors at the University of California at Berkeley, and I credit that experience with much of my success as a yoga teacher training director. I strongly believe that yoga trainings should take into account different learning styles - teach everything orally, visually and physically, encourage students to articulate verbally, put in writing, read about every lesson, and so on. Moreover, we should teach our trainees about learning styles, for the sake of their own future students. Ask your potential training directors how lessons are conducted during their trainings, and what kinds of in- and out-of-classroom activities are used to facilitate learning.
Now to an unnecessarily dreaded subject: human anatomy. With most trainers avoiding anatomy or outsourcing those required hours to non-yogis, no wonder most of us think of anatomy as a boring or scary topic. This needn't be the case. With a good understanding of pedagogy and learning styles, it is easy to see how many of us need anatomy lessons to be fun, dynamic, physically active experiences for them to make sense. The vast majority of us need to feel and see the muscles, connective tissues and bones in question in our own bodies and on each other BEFORE we read about them in a book or hear a lecture about them. Ask your potential training directors how anatomy is taught in their trainings and by whom.
3. Require Preparatory Reading: Especially in Philosophy & Communication
In almost every training I have offered, students have asked how in the world did we manage to put together a group of exclusively amazingly kind and loving people. By reason and statistics, we should really have at least one or two really difficult characters around. For one, calling every applicant that you don't already know (which is another super important tip for training directors!) is crucial for both sides to know if it is the best possible fit. Even more, requiring the right preparatory reading sets the tone for the best ways to relate to ourselves and each other during a training. This is doubly true for the personally and emotionally challenging format of an immersion retreat. I usually require that students read Non Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg and The Places that Scare You by Pema Chodron, as these are amazing guidelines for every challenge in life, but whatever moves you to become a better human being can do the same for your trainees. This will have tremendously positive results to the way they treat themselves and each other during training, and thus enhance the amount and the depth of knowledge that you can pass on. What are the required readings for the trainings that you are considering attending? What do they tell you about what you can expect?
4. Teach Principles, Not Poses
In the first 200 hour teacher training that I offered, I must have actively addressed over a hundred poses. In the last one? Hardly two dozen. This is partly because I have learned to teach less content more slowly, so that students retain more of the knowledge they are given. Even more so, it is due to the fact that it is simply unnecessary to address every kind of pose. With a little good understanding of anatomy, it becomes clear that there are a few universal principles of posture and movement, dictated by the simple facts of human anatomy, that are hence helpful for everyone, all the time. This is not to discount individual differences; in fact, these principles are often checks and balances to one another - such as drawing the top of the thigh bones back and lifting the lower belly: they are both important in every asana, but different bodies require more emphasis on one or the other in order to come to balance. Still, once teachers in the making understand these fundamental, anatomy-based principles, they can figure out for themselves how to teach any pose to any student. Are we putting words in our students' mouths, or wisdom in their hearts? Are we giving them fish-poses or teaching them how to fish knowledge from the depths of their understanding? Ask your potential training directors about their particular methods of teaching asana - will these give you mere information, or actual wisdom?
5. Go with Your Heart and Gut
Ultimately, all that I've written so far amounts to mere guidelines: listen to your heart and go with your gut. You might be surprised how many students let conveniences sway them from their heart's desire. While dates, location and price are important practical considerations, having to take another 200 hour training because the more convenient first one did not serve you is even less convenient. I have always been committed to keeping training prices low and offering payment plans and scholarships to those who could not otherwise attend - lest we end up sharing yoga only with the financially privileged. Yet, if your chosen training does not - borrow, start a fundraiser or get a second job. It is probably the most important decision of your yoga life.
Shy Sayar is a teacher and therapist with over 5000 hours of experience bringing yoga to students of all levels, treating patients, and training yoga teachers around the globe. Shy believes in Teaching People – Not Poses, since the practices of yoga are infinitely adaptable to fit the practitioner’s stages of development, and there is no need to push the body into arbitrary shapes. Instead, his Tantravaya yoga method integrates the classical Eight Limbs of Yoga, equally cultivating the body, breath and mind to bring each practitioner to optimal, holistic health.
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