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The Qualities of a Great Yoga Teacher

As yoga has exploded in growth over recent years, and along with that, so many yoga teachers to choose from in most areas, one question I hear a lot is "how I can find a good yoga teacher?" If you are ready to begin studying yoga and asking that question yourself, you are smart to do so.

Having a good teacher is very important to your growth and progress on your yoga path. There are lots of things that occur along the way, changes associated with physical, energetic, and spiritual growth, and sometimes obstacles emerge. All of these things make a student of yoga curious, sometimes anxious, other times maybe even susceptible to a false sense of power (ego.) Having a teacher that can answer questions and provide reassurance at crucial moments, and the ability to help balance and adjust a student's perspective when necessary, is crucial.

Since I truly believe I have one of the very best teachers of Hatha yoga on the planet, the most straightforward way I can think of to help answer the question above is to speak from experience about the qualities I have seen in my teacher, Shashi Pottathil.

1. Background and Training:

When I met Shashi in 2006, he was a man in his 50's (although he could pass for late 30's) who had been a teacher of yoga for more than 30 years at that time. Fast forward to today (November 21, 2020) when he celebrated the 20th Anniversary of his San Diego studio, and his total years as a teacher is now 44+ and counting (and he still looks 20 years younger than his chronological age!) He is from Kerala in the South of India, where he hails from what is known their as a "yoga family." This means that for generations upon generations, his direct ancestors, including several of his uncles other current family members, were yoga teachers. In a sense, yoga is "in his blood" perhaps literally.

Currently he is one of the highest ranking certified teachers of the Yoga Alliance, the most prestigious yoga certification organization based here in the states. He regularly volunteers as a teacher at churches, synagogs, retirement homes, and works with cancer patients to help them harness the health-giving power of yoga to fight their disease. His studio in Mira Mesa, CA "Yoga and Meditation Center" is a thriving yoga practice that he started a few years ago - with no marketing budget. 99% of his student base was built upon word of mouth, and the other 1% came by way of walk-ins or the "yellow pages" (back in the day.) Here is a great hint in your search for a teacher - talk to that person's students and find out how enthusiastic they are about the training and guidance they are receiving.

Besides his experience and credentials in traditional Hatha yoga, he has degrees in science and business, and was an executive for pharmaceutical company based in India. From this connection to the scientific community, he participated in scientific research studies of the affects of yoga on the body and immune system. This experience gives him a unique perspective, one based on both the traditional Eastern philosophy of Ayurveda and Yoga, and the science based Western philosophy of "show us proof and we will believe."

Admittedly, it may be very hard to find a teacher that happens to have this unique combination of experience, background, and credentials. And to begin studying yoga, you don't necessarily need someone as qualified as my teacher.

The important thing is that the yoga teacher has some verifiable training or certification that can vouch for the fact that they know both the theory and application of what they are teaching. Ideally, this will be someone that has valid certification as a teacher. Whether your teacher attended free classes at the local community center for long enough to absorb a good foundation, or paid lots of money to attend every certification program and yoga retreat available, they both are valid paths to teaching. How qualified they are depends on the individual's natural talent, the time they spent training, and how qualified their teachers were.

2. Character and Motivation

This might be even more important than point 1 above. With the very best of credentials, if the person you are considering as a teacher has "ulterior" motives outside of helping people advance both as students of yoga, and on their journey towards (yes, I am going to say it) enlightenment, then it could be a red flag.

Now, I am not claiming that yoga teachers should only teach from the goodness of their heart with no eye towards creating a viable business and livelihood for themselves with their teaching endeavors. What I am saying is, if their motivation is inappropriately slanted towards personal gain (whether financial, sexual, or otherwise) or if they are overly obsessed with a "power dynamic" associated with being in the role of a teacher, then you would have a problem.

As ironic and unfortunate as it is, although yoga is a spiritual as well as physical path towards health and well-being, by its very nature, it is susceptible to "misuse" or even abuse. We have all heard stories of organizations that seemingly start out with the best intentions and then end up in the news being accused of cult-like practices.

As much as I am not trying to scare anyone with this discussion, I am simply saying, take your time and do your research. Talk to some students, and attend at least one class just to observe (if possible.) What is the dynamic between the students and teachers? What does your intuition tell you about both the qualifications and character of the teacher or studio you are considering?

Lets return to my model yoga teacher, Shashi. His yoga teaching practice is truly "thriving" - and this includes financially. Ironically, this appears to be the case because of how focused he is on helping people, not taking from them. To put it another way, it is what he gives away, every single day and week, that brings him such a successful school of yoga.

What I mean by "gives away" is everything from the time he volunteers to various community organizations (he teaches for free wherever he can find a need for yoga in the community) to being available to students outside of classes to help them with any challenge they may be facing. He is a natural "therapist", and people talk to him about everything from health problems to marital problems, crisis in business or professional life, or whatever.

He does this because he truly believes that human beings in our times are in desperate need of the wisdom contained in yoga, on both spiritual and physical levels. His most prominent motivation, both in his words and in his deeds, is to "help people." This quality of his character is very apparent, and I am certain it explains the success of his yoga practice.

Although there is no perfect formula or even "perfect" yoga teacher, I hope that by using my teacher as a model, I have given you a useful frame of reference as you set out to find your yoga teacher. Just do some homework and trust your intuition, and as always, enjoy each moment.


Doug Gargaro is Sunia Yoga's Director of Digital Marketing. He lives in San Diego, CA and received his 200 RYT certification with Yoga Alliance from Shashi Potthathil. For more information about Shashi and his unique teaching approach to Hatha yoga, visit his teacher's website.

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