Thoughts on the Needed Quality of Yoga Teachers

Yoga teachers nowadays get educated through a number of training systems. Some get a certificate after a few weekends, some after some months, others after 2–4 years of study. Some study in the West, others in Asia or more specifically in India, where yoga became a widely recognized indigenous Indian intellectual property. Yoga courses are a specific travel purpose defined in the Indian visa application forms. There are virtually thousands of Indian institutions of various kinds that provide a wide range of yoga teacher trainings.

After that being said, it is important to look back into history what were the criteria for being a yoga teacher. In fact, yoga teachership had many facets. A teacher could be named as e.g. an acharya or a muni or swami or a guru.

Classic yoga texts often define yogis as munis – the ones that do not speak. But it it not so much related to verbal expression, but to the state of mind. So, the mind of the yogi has to be at least in a state of ekagra, “one pointedness”, or better niruddha, where the functions of mind and attention stop to be active and thus the yogi realizes the Truth behind the manifested world. Thus, one changes from being in the state of avidya into the state of vidya. With this he becomes also a mukti, a “liberated one” (from the construct of maya, the world as presented to our consciousness by the mind).

Apart from professional qualities (scriptural, methodical, and practical) the yoga teacher had to follow the principles of yama and niyama. These principles have a number of versions, but the most frequently cited ones were formulated by Patanjali. They in a way define the ethics of a yoga life. This is why the Code of Ethics of yoga teacher training institutes usually includes the principles of yama and niyama, but their interpretation may vary.

Still, is this all sufficient for a yoga teacher if he is to be a real teacher, one who would be recognized as such by the old yoga gurus, and who could bring the essence of yoga to those around him? The problem is – who cares for such a yoga teacher? He would in all probability not be an asana man.

Shri Ramakrishna had a board of pundits to verify, whether his realizations conform to the scriptures and traditions. Others were recognized only by their followers through their experience at their presence.

So what are the qualities a yoga teacher has to have? Can he be a showman, a businessman or a family man? When is it safe to follow the teachings of a yoga teacher? What would be the tests of his mental and spiritual integrity? What are the traits of yoga teachers whom one should avoid? Surely the Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test (incidentally, this is the test performed also by the present US President; cf. or a medical check-up would not be sufficient to assess him.

The problem of present day yoga landscape is that with the enormous number of yoga teachers with various credentials, it is very difficult to have a protocol of standardised assessment of their yogic and human qualities. The usual criteria relate to his/her ability to do and teach asanas (handstand is the fashion now), the number of courses held in the Himalayas or Bali, number of books, number of newly “invented” asanas, number of spots on various communication platforms (Facebook, Twitter, vlogs, discussion forums etc.). For a handsome and flexible yoga teacher with an impressive life story (recovering from grave illnesses, change from poverty to affluence etc.) it is easier to form an image of a successful yoga teacher.

But what do the old sources say in this context?

I will insert here three citations from an admirable book called Ozhivil Odukkam (Dissolution into Being) by Kannutaiya Vallalar (probably 16. century) as translated by R. Butler (2013):

Do not associate with those gurus who are impostors, [trying to impress you with their] actions. They are like labourers who work for wages, or merchants who sell and barter goods. As for the true, supreme guru, he is unchanging like time, yet casting his gaze [upon his disciple] he establishes him [in the non-dual state beyond objective consciousness]. There are no words to praise him. He is beyond the reach of the mind.

The teachings of those who are steeped in the delirium of the three deadly impurities are like the incoherent ravings of a madman; they impart them to the foolish, passing them off as wisdom. We are reminded of the story of the shepherd who jumped into a river, clutching a bear with her little of cubs who were being swept along by the flood, and was drowned along with them.

Know that only he is the jnana guru who, with a glance, bring the disciple to absolute stillness, having perceived [in him] the state of maturity wherein becomes harmonised [with the Self] as that which is false gradually disappears, so that he dissolves into the waves [of the ocean] of bliss of union [with the divine], in which he exists as Reality itself.”

Who could be a yoga teacher if we accept these criteria? Which registered yoga teacher would stand up to the mark?

The only thing we can do is to admit, that a present-day yoga teacher, regardless of his formal education, experience etc., cannot avoid staining his teachings through his personality traits and kleshas (avidya, asmita etc.), and thus has to bring to the attention of his trainees that he is not an ultimate authority. If he behaves ethically, even if he teaches only asanas (what happens frequently nowadays), he should mention that asanas are only a starting point towards the subtler aspects of yoga. That yes, asanas tell us where does the body store the unwillingness to listen to beneficial advices. Where are the areas where information does or does not flow. Where are the areas of bodily resistance reflecting inner resistance. And that the resistance the body reflects, cannot be resolved only by asana flows. The mind should be cleared of improper contents.

A friend of mine – a yoga teacher – was asking a yogi (a pramukh of a South Indian ashram) what is necessary to do in order to achieve enlightenment. The yogi gave a description of suitable practices and with a wink of his eye added: but there is still a small gap on the way to enlightenment and that can be bridged only by a guru. But because my friend is an action oriented person, he missed the last point as there was no doing involved. Only time will show whether he – as a yoga teacher – will find the bridge for this gap.

And this would be the story also of a great number of present day yoga teachers. Thus, we are entitled as yoga teachers to do only what we are able to do without harming others in their (often intuitive) quest for the state of yoga.