What are the qualities one must have to be a good yoga teacher?
Swami Anandakumar: There are many different kinds of yogas - bhakti yoga, karma yoga, jnana yoga, mantra yoga, kriya yoga, raja yoga and more, and of course hatha yoga - each addressing a different dimension of human experience. Consequently, there are many different kinds of yoga teachers, each according to their area of interest, knowledge and level of understanding. For example hatha yoga and raja yoga each have a different approach to asana practice.
Hatha yoga is more dynamic and energy based, and works towards combining the two primary forces of ida and pingala. In raja yoga, asana aims at centring the body in a posture for comfort and stillness, in order to go beyond the body and see the mind differently; raja yoga is mind based. The teachers of hatha yoga and raja yoga would think quite differently. In the same way, people will also look for qualities in a yoga teacher according to their own understanding and ideas.
What then are the universal qualities that apply when one is looking for guidance? We are all spiritual seekers. At heart we are looking for the source of our own happiness, and if we have come to yoga, we begin to understand that we cannot find lasting happiness in transitory things. In the course of evolution in this life or in any life, we come to see yoga in a different light. We may approach yoga first as a purely physical practice, but eventually we find that the benefits lead us into a deeper understanding.
There are four qualities that can be understood in the broader context of teaching yoga. The first quality of a yoga teacher is discrimination, viveka, because the primary task is to be able to distinguish between needs and desires, essentially between what is realistic and what is not. A teacher needs to have done sadhana investigating his/her own needs and desires, and the rather complex relationship between the two, to be able to understand that we live with forces that are beyond our understanding.
People come to yoga with expectations, desires, even fantasies, and there will be essential needs that have to be met. They may not initially know their real needs, being confused by impressions, ideas and strange notions. As a teacher, therefore, we do not say straight away, `all is one and life is eternal, etc.' We walk a while with the students and see life from their point of view. And then at a certain point, we introduce some ideas that may be helpful. As a teacher we have to distinguish between our own needs and expectations and ensure that that those who come to us for help and guidance can develop that same discrimination. We need to know the tools with which every individual can find some form of insight into themselves and into their lives; these tools are the practices of yoga.
It is necessary for a teacher to have an understanding of practices at three different levels. First of all, we introduce a practice and get to know the technique which will take two or three classes. After a few more classes, we come to understand what the effects and benefits of the practice are. Then a long term study follows of what takes place when we do a practice over an extended period of time and how it influences us outside of the actual effect of the technique. Any practice that we do for some time will transcend its own technique and start to reveal ourselves to ourselves. We must have had some experience and understanding of that process through which we learn discrimination.
Discrimination naturally connects with a certain sense of detachment, vairagya. Vairagya in the context of teaching means that our students are not ours, and we are not yoga teachers, but a kind of guide on the path that we have traveled a little bit ourselves. We are a channel for an understanding that we have been privileged enough to come into contact with, to learn and then pass on to others. There is no sense of attachment to students, to our notion of ourselves as a yoga teacher, or to certain techniques because a technique is always only the means to achieve something, and not the end.
Teachers may sometimes get a little attached to techniques beyond the actual purpose of the practice. Students will come for their needs and as a teacher we are an instrument to help others find what they need. And if they think they have done it themselves, so much the better. Yoga teachers really aim at making themselves redundant, because eventually people will come to understand technique, practice, experience, and be able to stand on their own two feet.
When Dr. Abdul Kalam, the former president of India, as a young man failed his air pilot exam, he became depressed. At the time, he was in Rishikesh and crossed paths with Swami Sivananda. Swami Sivananda saw a very inspiring but despondent young man, and asked what the problem was. When told about the examination, Swami Sivananda gave him one piece of advice. He said, `conquer fear'. Dr. Abdul Kalam said that this sentence lasted a lifetime. It became a sadhana and is still guiding him. If a few words from a teacher can have that effect, then that is teaching at the very highest level.
The third quality is samatvam, equanimity, balance, because there is something about being in the presence of somebody and talking to somebody who has found balance in their life, who is not led by conflicting desires. There are desires in us as teachers, but it is our responsibility to keep those well to one side, and only let the positive and the inspirational come through. Teaching is one of the best and highest sadhanas because it is revealing our ego. Students are very sensitive, and managing their actions and reactions is a form of karma yoga. If we can stay tuned, we realize that no mistake is made, the only mistake is not to rectify the mistake. We can experiment, we can try, and interact, and maybe we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong, but we have the best intention and through that we find that interaction in this way teaches us everything, sometimes very quickly.
If we combine detachment, discrimination and equanimity, we will have compassion. Compassion is where there is giving without a sense of giving. The yoga teacher becomes a channel for something; that is the way to understand compassion. Compassion is not an emotional quality. By being who we are, the right understanding and communication take place, whether it is about a practice, an idea or just a little peace. Something will give them some sense of direction.
These four qualities are both a means and an end because it is a high aspiration. As teachers we are eternal students _ students first and teachers second. Teaching is sharing that studentship and the joy of self-discovery. A teacher can always assume that is what people are looking for. If someone with a sense of balance, detachment, insight and compassion can tell us something about ourselves that we do not know, then that is about the best teaching we can receive.
—30 October, 2009