Yoga is now nearly as popular as golf, according a recent report, which means more people are seeking guidance on a path of stretching their bodies, breath, and minds. The number of people trained to teach is also trending upward, as the quantity of newly registered instructors jumped 18 percent from 2008 to 2014. With so many teachers available, you might think it’s easier than ever to find a yoga teacher, but the reality is a little more complex.
As the volume of teachers increases, standardization and quality of study with experienced teachers is critical to ensure your safety and the integrity of an ancient practice. While some universal standards exist, you’ll come across teachers with widely varying experience levels from many different schools of thought. How can you assess whether teachers are qualified to teach new yogis, or yogis with a regular practice looking to deepen their studies? Which yoga styles and teaching approaches are right for you, now and in the future?
You could just try classes and see what you find, but here are some ways to focus your search, so your journey is most fruitful.
Consider the Importance of Style and Lineage
Yoga is an ancient philosophy with many components passed down from teacher to student for thousands of years. In the Western world, millions first see it as sweaty, physically demanding asana (poses), often meeting a need for exercise, pain prevention, and stress relief. Most practices fall under the umbrella of hatha yoga, guided by the eight limbs of yoga, and explained in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Practices range from moral and personal observances to meditation. To ignore those lesser-exposed sides of yoga is to reduce yoga to a mere workout.
Krishnamacharya is credited with bringing hatha yoga to the west through his students: B.K.S. Iyengar, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and TKV Desikachar, who created their own styles to carry on his teachings and eventually influence the types of classes you might experience at a studio (or even a gym) today.
Here are some of the most prominent modern styles to emerge from his lineage:
Background: Led by K. Pattabhi Jois, the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute was officially established in 1948.
Qualities: Six progressive levels made up of specific physical poses and mental practices in a certain order, synchronized with breath to purify and cleanse muscles, internal organs, and the mind.
Worth Noting: Often students must master a certain level before being granted permission by the teacher to move onto the next level.
Background: Derivatives of Ashtanga, this style has gained incredible popularity in the past 10 years.
Qualities: Considered a more fitness-focused, vigorous set of poses and breathing practices, this style offers a faster pace and more pose variety than Hatha or Ashtanga but offers similar benefits.
Background: Created by B.K.S. Iyengar, the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute was founded in 1975.
Qualities: This style is focused on detail, precision, and alignment in poses and breath work, often incorporating props to support students in the “correct” form and making it accessible and accommodating for injuries.
Worth Noting: Iyengar’s book, Light on Yoga, is considered an authoritative text on yoga practices and is often required reading for a range of yoga schools.
Background: Created by Bikram Choudhury and popularized in the 1970s.
Qualities: Bikram is a set of 26 hatha poses and two breathing exercises done two times in a row for 90 minutes in a room heated above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Worth Noting: Bikram teachers are required to complete nine weeks of training approved by Choudhury himself.
Teachers in these styles must study with senior, experienced teachers, who learned from senior, experienced teachers before them, but at some point in their studies will be encouraged to find their own “voice,” and explore their own way of teaching within the style.
What Does “Certified” Mean?
Yoga Alliance (YA) is currently the only organizational body overseeing the industry as a whole. YA registers yoga schools based on criteria from a standards committee and a curriculum that might include everything from anatomy, sequencing, breath work (pranayama), meditation, Sanskrit, and more. It’s only through these approved yoga schools can teachers claim to be “certified” and “registered” at several ascending levels.
Levels are labeled “RYT” (Registered Yoga Teacher), followed by numbers, which correlate to hours of classroom learning and a minimum amount of time actually teaching:
The first level, RYT 200, calls for knowledge of the eight limbs of yoga and study of the topics above, with varied emphasis depending on the style. Vinyasa schools might spend more time on sequencing that builds heat through a dance-like flow, while Iyengar schools could dedicate more time to anatomical alignment and use of blocks and straps. At this level no actual teaching time is required.
The next level is RYT 500, in which a teacher adds 300 extra hours of training that could include special topics such as back care, restorative yoga, prenatal training, Ayurveda, or therapeutics, for example, plus 100 hours of actual teaching.
An E-RYT 200 teacher has completed RYT 200 and has taught for two years and thousand hours since. These teachers are cleared to guide teacher trainings for RYT 200.
E-RYT 500 is Yoga Alliance’s highest certification, incorporating four years of teaching and two thousand hours since completing an RYT 500. These teachers can lead programs in an RYT 500 program.
Plus, many teachers often study far beyond that level and dive into special topics, such as treating cancer patients. Some would argue there are excellent teachers who don’t have a YA certification at all. For example, Ashtanga certifications to teach come directly from R. Sharath Jois and the KPJAYI institute in Mysore, and have nothing to do with Yoga Alliance at all. It is a wholly western phenomenon that certification is even necessary.
What Does It Mean to Be a Good Teacher?
This is where the intangibles come in. No one organization that can tell you a certain teacher is better than another, because each person’s values of what it means to be good or qualified can be radically different.
If you crave spiritual joy, a teacher whose words travel straight to your heart might be your teacher. If you’re recovering from injury, a teacher who offers intricate anatomical cues or custom modifications might be your version of good. If you have trouble focusing, a teacher who guides you to breathe and clear your mind may be the one for you.
Then, there’s this: As your practice evolves, you will start to diversify and study with different teachers. Whereas you first started by exploring styles and teachers, you might decide to be more serious about your studies and choose one style and teacher at some point in your journey. You can also choose to continue your yoga practice in a diverse way, incorporating several styles and teachers for a path that is uniquely yours.
What to Know When You’re Just Starting Out
Do some research online, at the studios, or ask for referrals. Plus, find a class location that enables you to be consistent with your practice: A key part of yoga now and forever.
- At a minimum, read studio websites and look for teachers with RYT-200 certifications, which should ensure teachers have a basic understanding of how to guide a class.
- Look into certified teaching schools, such as YogaWorks, with multiple locations, or Integral, which often train and retain their own teachers in a certain style, giving you consistency.
- New yogis should look for Basics, Level 1, or Beginner classes taught by teachers who have experience and/or training working with new yogis to focus on key, foundational components for safety, and longevity in the practice.
- Get opinions from yogi friends who know you; they’ve likely tried many teachers and can offer advice for you, specifically.
Form your own opinions by trying at least a few teachers. Ask yourself: Are you comfortable? Do you feel supported? Do you feel safe? Are you learning? Do you feel better when you leave than when you arrived? Ask them questions (before and after class): Do they help with hands on assists? Do they provide modifications, variations, or anatomical cues? How intense is the spiritual component in the class? Don’t be shy about asking for extra help in class if you need it, but be mindful that others may need the teacher’s help, too.
There is always something to learn with each experience. One teacher might not be a fit for you, but that doesn’t always mean that teacher is “bad.” Stay positive, keep exploring, and practice as often as you can to find the good in yoga… For you.
This story was originally published on Sonima by Christine Chen.
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