You just know. There is no definitive explanation, no one answer. You just know when you’ve found the right yoga teacher. Trust your instincts. Soak up the vibe, see if it connects deep within. Be open to experience, and eventually you just ... know.
That’s about as concrete as longtime yogis and their adherents get when musing on the nettlesome question of what makes a successful instructor. They speak in abstractions and avoid absolutes, relying on esoteric language and metaphysical images — no doubt frustrating those who live the unexamined life.
But come to think of it, can there be any other answer? What is yoga if not a personal inward quest, as much a search for peace and enlightenment as for physical strength and suppleness?
“What makes a good yoga teacher?” asked Michelle Marlahan, owner of It’s All Yoga in Sacramento, Calif. She smiled warmly, maybe even beatifically, then added, “You’re going to get 10,000 different answers from 10,000 different people.”
Great, but what if you’re a wary neophyte wanting to give this yoga thing a whirl?
You’ve read that it’s an ancient Hindu art form meant to develop the mind, body and spirit, partly through a series of poses and exercises. Still, so much remains a mystery.
You’ve searched the Yoga Journal database and found 16 studios within five miles. That can be overwhelming. And within those studios are teachers specializing in styles and techniques — often offshoots of offshoots — with a dizzying array of Sanskrit names and multifarious variations of asanas, or poses.
The answer, humble seeker: Let go, open your consciousness to new experience, accept initial awkwardness and incompatibility not as failure — there is no failure in yoga, they say — but as a necessary step in reaching a higher plane.
In some ways, finding a yoga teacher is like seeking romance. You may experience many first dates — maybe not so much disappointing as lacking that spark and connection — before you find the person who really fits you.
“The good thing about yoga is you can still date around,” said Anne Marie Kramer, co-owner of Zuda Yoga in Sacramento and Folsom, picking up on the analogy. “It’s great to be able to experience different teachers. You always take away something from each class. Everything in life is there for us to learn from, and each class is like that.
“What I look for is the brightness in (a teacher), someone with compassion and who maybe evokes a feeling from the class. It’s all about creating an experience where the teacher is empathic to the class’s needs.”
That’s all well and good, but some might want advice that’s a little more grounded in practicality. You don’t have to be a deep thinker, for example, to know that an instructor must have the technical chops when it comes to poses and helping students make adjustments.
“Most teachers know all that foundational stuff,” Marlahan said. “But a remarkable teacher has a mysterious blend of making students feel cared-for and being inspiring. When I teach the teachers, I really stress that they are not teaching a group; they are teaching individuals.”
Much comes down to personal preference. Some yogis talk more than others. That can be distracting. Some give the rote cues and little more. That can be intimidating.
Want a spiritual studio that exercises the soul as hard as the soft tissue? Those abound. Or do you feel more comfortable with a spiritual-lite approach — more work on muscle imbalances, less on chakra balancing? Those are plentiful, too.
A yogi must be flexible about the class’s skill level without dumbing down the practice, veteran instructors stress. And there’s this: Can the teacher challenge the student without scolding, impart spiritual components without acting holier than thou, show compassion without coming off as a parody of a junior-high guidance counselor?
Those teachers do exist.
For student Brett Williams, teacher Rachel Miller of Yoga Shala in Sacramento was the “gateway for me into the yoga world.” To hear Williams talk about Miller helps one better grasp yoga’s esoteric concepts.
“What is great about Rachel is that she is accessible to normal people who aren’t hard-core yogis, but her accessibility doesn’t come at the expense of the yoga practice itself,” Williams said. “She teaches in a manner where you really feel like you’re being taught individually even in a class of 40-plus people. She knew my name after a single class and would provide feedback to me and other individuals who needed the help.”
Miller sees a yoga class as a conversation.
“My whole commitment is to the liberation of the individual,” she said. “I’m very outspoken, not just about the corrections but that I’m on your team and here to make you powerful. The real success of a yoga teacher isn’t how many numbers you get but how many shining faces are looking back at you at the end of class.
“Our job as teachers is to carry the ideals of the student. (But) you can have a crappy teacher and still have a good experience. Which is one cool thing about yoga.”
First as a student and now as a teacher, Tyler Langhorne said he’s learned that nothing can turn off a yoga novice faster than an “inauthentic” instructor, the cliche-spouting “find-your-breath, be-present” type.
Instructors must balance professionalism with warmth. They need to engage with the class yet exert a measure of control, lest students lose focus. Perhaps the trickiest part is correcting a student’s pose: Telling someone that he or she is doing something “wrong” seems wrong in itself, given yoga’s overriding “nothing-is-good-or-bad” ethos.
Those who feel uncomfortable focusing on yoga’s spiritual dimension also must gauge carefully which teacher to choose. Some are more religion-based than others, but Zuda’s Kramer noted that novices have to expect that spirituality will be addressed.
“Someone called me once and said, ‘You’re not going to talk about karma, are you?’ “ Kramer said. “I said, ‘Yes, we’re a yoga studio. The spinning studio is right down the street.’ “
As Langhorne said, if you want body stretching alone, try Pilates. Yoga is meant to stretch consciousness.