Even before I trained to teach yoga professionally, I attended some pretty horrible classes. Back then, I didn’t know what to look for or even what my body needed, so I just took classes wherever I found them. I practiced at one studio for a year where I constantly went home feeling drained, defeated and dehydrated. The teachers were more like drill sergeants; they didn’t lift the students up—it was as though their M.O. was to break us down.
Consistent yoga practice provides clarity and balance unlike any other health regimen or workout available. Good, honest instruction from a caring teacher will put you on a lifelong path, enabling you to build a toolbox that travels with you and helps you through the highs and lows of life. There are some amazing instructors out there, but there are also many people who shouldn’t be teaching yoga at all.
Here’s some advice on how to safely navigate your way to a good yoga teacher.
Test the waters
Look at all of your options—are their studios near your home and place of work? What time of day is best for you, and are there classes that can fit easily into your schedule? Make a list of several studios that work, then inquire about free intro classes and introductory passes. Most studios offer affordable trials to new students. Chat with teachers before and after class whenever possible, and share your health issues or concerns. Try out a few different teachers at several studios—write out a list of pros and cons after you get home, then compare your notes after about two weeks of trying it out.
Do you feel inspired and empowered?
One important trait of a good instructor is their ability to inspire students and provide tools for transformation and success—both on and off the mat. When teachers put themselves on a pedestal or showboat challenging physical poses, newcomers to yoga are put off and discouraged. Teachers need to stay honest, humble, present and maintain a consistent level of challenge and encouragement.
My goal as an instructor is to make my students feel safe and supported while creating a non-competitive environment in the studio. Seek out instructors who offer suggestions for improvement and growth without any condescension or militaristic cueing.
Start with beginners classes
If you are completely new to yoga, please attend only classes labeled “intro”, “level one” and “beginner.” Set yourself up for success and surround yourself with rooms filled with other beginners. When I started practicing a very challenging style many years ago, there were no beginner classes available—so there I was, sink or swim. It was humbling, and a less stubborn woman would have gone home and never tried that style again. Today, it’s my home practice and I try to maintain it 4-5 days a week.
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The point is, stick with classes that are geared towards people starting out so that you don’t wind up in a room full of people twisted into pretzels while you fumble or pretend to guzzle water to kill time, as I did. Intro level classes are designed to show you how to breathe properly, safely use props and provide modifications to harder poses, so that you can learn and go from there.
Set realistic goals
Long-lasting results are only achievable when you commit to slowly and steadily winning the race, so proceed accordingly. Look at your weekly schedule—are you able to attend classes at least three times a week? It’s my strong opinion that you should start off with at least three classes per week and then increase only if time and budget permit. Begin with a nice, structured, realistic game plan and know that it takes time and dedication in order to achieve goals.
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Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by saying that you need to learn how to do a headstand or anything too contortionist-like, and remember that we are all always supposed to maintain a beginner’s mind. Don’t say “I’m going to yoga everyday” or use it as a new year’s resolution—you will no doubt drop it and miss the opportunity to transform your life. Be willing to grow and change, and stick with teachers who’ll help keep you on track with your goals. From lowering blood pressure to weight management and stress reduction, good instructors are out there waiting to be of service.
Be prepared to feel your feelings
A good instructor will not only lead you through the physical poses (also known as “asanas”) but help you go deeper into yourself. You’ll learn about observing your thoughts and sitting with whatever it is or isn’t going on. Know that good, solid instruction will inspire you to be your own guru and learn more about staying true to yourself. Feelings will arise on and off the mat; strong, grounded instructors will help you navigate those feelings and maintain a better connection with yourself.
Good luck on your yoga journey—it will no doubt improve your life and inspire you to live more fully and joyfully.