Teaching From The Top

By Leeann Carey

Yoga has been around for thousands of years, but has experienced exponential growth in the last 10 years. It is now taught in most gyms, fitness community centers, and traditional yoga studios across the United States.

The right instructor can make all the difference in a yoga program.

In the yoga community, there is an ongoing debate among instructors about which environment is best suited to present a safe and effective program.

Last month, I read an article in The New York Times about instructors in yoga studios who view those who teach yoga elsewhere as less qualified. From my experience, the quality of instruction depends on what you value in your yoga practice, not where you teach.

I’ve been teaching and studying yoga for over 30 years, and half of that time I owned and operated a successful full-service yoga studio in the beach cities of Southern California, which included a teacher-training program for those making the bridge from yoga enthusiast to yoga teacher.

Working with hundreds of yoga teachers and consulting with new studio owners and fitness-facility managers, I have discovered a reliable formula for providing a safe and effective yoga program that consists of three basic considerations:

  1. Instructor
  2. Environment
  3. Community.

A great yoga instructor possesses a sincere and devoted interest in what he or she is doing and how it is presented, but also shares a level of knowledge, presence, and communication that makes learning a compelling, contagious, and fun experience for students.

Yoga Alliance is the current governing body for national yoga standards, and provides 200- and 500-hour registration status to all teachers who have graduated from qualified training programs; when hiring instructors, consider selecting from this group. This demonstrates a considerable degree of professionalism and loyalty by the instructor.

Yoga classes can taught in many different venues.

However, the registration doesn’t necessarily guarantee a competent instructor. It only assures that he or she has completed the program and met the requirements designed by the alliance.

Some yoga schools focus more on philosophy, while others focus more on poses. Yoga in America primarily teaches the poses as an entryway into yogic philosophy.

Beyond the poses, look for instructors with strong backgrounds in anatomy, injury management, restoration, and recovery, as these are essential to safely guiding students to breathe properly and move freely on the mat.

Before class begins, an effective instructor will ask students to share any injuries they think the instructor should know about. Not all instructors will know how to work with students recovering from injuries; however, if a yoga instructor is watching the students rather than practicing with them, there is less chance of injury as the instructor can watch for potential problems and provide proper modifications.

Whether they teach in a gym, recreation center, traditional yoga studio, spa, medical clinic, or elsewhere, the best yoga instructors will study, practice, reflect, evolve, and have an ongoing commitment to professional and personal growth, both on and off the yoga mat.

An instructor who observes, demonstrates, communicates, and applies pose and practices modifications suited to all students creates an exceptional yoga experience--regardless of the environment.

Ultimately, it is the yoga instructor’s responsibility to create a safe environment for students to explore and discover both their strengths and weaknesses.

A good yoga instructor meets students where they are in their journey.

In order to safely manage levels of practice, it is best to offer classes based on purpose and skill level, such as:

  • Yoga for beginners
  • Inspired practice
  • Advanced practice
  • Yoga for seniors
  • Yoga for kids
  • Pre-natal yoga.

Descriptive class groupings set a clear path for practitioners to follow, based on individual needs.

Non-competition is a simple--yet important--concept instructors can present. This can be communicated through a balance of precise instruction, open-ended inquiries, and skillful use of yoga props.

Precise instruction is communicated in easy-to-follow instructions, taking students safely from point A to point B.

Open-ended inquiries offer students the time to hone their observation skills of feeling and sensing “what is happening now.” As a result, they can respond calmly and steadily as opposed to reacting abruptly.

Access to yoga equipment, such as chairs, blocks, straps, blankets, and/or bolsters provides an opportunity for the instructor to meet and support students where they are. This translates to promoting patience and mindfulness in students so they learn how to accept and grow regardless of the stage of their practice.

This is the art of meeting people where they are--not where they’d like to be, or the student or the instructor thinks they should be.

A confident, present, and skilled yoga instructor knows how to create a safe environment, and use whatever tools are available to see and teach the students, not just lead them through a series of poses. This demonstrates the act of kindness that truly illustrates being of service through yoga.

Everyone comes to yoga to better their life, improve their physical condition, or cultivate a more mindful lifestyle. And most people enjoy being a part of a like-minded community.

Great instructors encourage collective, creative, and fun learning, which includes:

  • Learning students’ names and greeting them with a sincere smile
  • Teaching the people in the room rather than a personal agenda
  • Communicating the acceptance for students to be where they are, and to learn and safely explore the edges of personal growth
  • Teaching useful skills throughout the day so students can continue to take their yoga off the mat, leading to a meaningful and enduring yoga practice
  • Conveying a non-competitive group-consciousness for learning and growing.

The facility supports yoga community-building by requiring front-desk staff to do the following:

  • Learn students’ first names and greet them accordingly.
  • Know what each class offers.
  • Be familiar with each instructor’s teaching style.
  • Direct all students to the appropriate class level.
  • Avoid placing a novice student in an inappropriate class to fill the room. This is a potential recipe for injury.
  • Take a sincere interest in inquiring about students’ experiences after class.
  • Work with the instructors to present yoga events that build community, such as workshops, open houses, and fundraisers.

The effective life of any wellness program rests on the shoulders of those who teach and provide support.

I have intentionally mentioned the involvement of the yoga instructor in all three considerations. Whether you are offering one or 100 yoga classes a week, great instructors are essential in presenting a safe and effective yoga program.

People will change their schedules to practice with effective instructors because they facilitate a meaningful and transformational experience no matter where the class is offered.

Leeann Carey is the creator and founder of the Leeann Carey Yoga School, a continuing-education yoga company that holds a 500-hour Yoga Alliance registration, serving teachers in studios, fitness- and athletic facilities. She leads Yaapana master intensives across the country, educating yoga instructors how to effectively work with students, and advancing their teaching skills. For more information, visit www.leeanncareyyoga.com .