Many modern yogis and indeed many teachers practise to improve their yoga and to get recognition. When I started to train teachers in 1998 (must be getting old..) I had learned in India that the quality of a teacher grows proportional to their ability to perform asanas. Already back then my wife Monica summarily disagreed with this proposition. Although at the time I asserted myself by refusing to train students to become teachers who did not have a promising asana practice, I decided to study and compare the developing teaching capabilities of very gifted asana practitioners against those who were less endowed with abilities such as flicking in and out of lotus posture in midair, throwing both legs behind your head in midair, touching your sacrum to the back of your head in scorpion or lifting from sitting into a one-armed handstand or even one-finger handstand (yes, seen that…).
After watching my students for about 1-and-a-half decades grow into teachers and analyzing the data derived I had to finally agree with my wife that a stunning asana practice does not contribute much to making you a great teacher. In fact I now have to go further to say that it appears to be slightly detrimental to developing extraordinary teaching skills. That’s not what I expected but its what I came to realize from watching my students. It appears that the students who are struggling a lot and have difficult bodies with lots of physical obstacles have the greatest statistical likelihood to turn into great teachers. Why would that be the case? Simple! Because most students have difficult bodies and are struggling a lot, too!
Teachers who had lots of problems themselves can empathize with students because they’ve been there. I give you an example: Let’s say I tell a (appropriate) student to put their leg behind their head. If the student is super-flexible and can put their tibia (shinbone) beneath the TI vertebra my teaching is finished at this point. If however, I have a student that is very stiff in leg-behind-head and I have to take them through a five-year journey comprising of 30 sub-steps to get their leg behind their head, chances are they will be able to replicate this with their own students.
To work through lengthy problems also develops humility in a teacher. It reminds me of the passage in the Mahabharata were Lord Krishna says good-bye to Kunti, the mother of the five Pandava princes. Kunti, one of only twelve people in the entire epos to have recognized him, knows that she will never see him again. She says “I will let you go only when you will send me for the rest of my life one calamity after the other. Because only when I have problems do I think of you.” “So be it’, says Krishna, and leaves.
To make a long story short, I propose to judge a teacher not be their ability to perform the above ‘scintillating contortions’ but according to the following four criteria:
1. dedication to their own practice, extending also to forms of practise beyond postures
2. theoretical knowledge base of the subject and continuing effort to study it
3. communication skills, the ability to transfer the practical and theoretical knowledge to the student and to be understood
4. the capacity to give love to all students indiscriminately
A note to point 2: the theoretical knowledge base of yoga called ‘yoga shastra (scripture)’ is extremely large. While your knowledge will slowly increase, what will increase even more is your knowledge of what you do not know. That is an extremely important point! The most limited teachers are those who do not know what they do not know! Even T. Krishnamacharya when told that he was a guru said he was just a student of yoga.
A note to point 4: there are people who only love themselves, there are people who can extend this to love their family and friends and there are even people who can only love others. On of the reasons why yoga stresses to develop your love for the Divine is that it seems to enable people to transfer this evenly to loving themselves, their friends and people that they do have a troubled relationship with. There will be students that you experience conflicts with. When people in India great each other with folded hands they say “I recognize the Divine within you and because of that I love you, too.” That’s why we use this way of greeting in yoga.