Whether you’re a curious yogi, a seasoned teacher wanting to take your knowledge further, or a studio owner looking to start or improve your teacher training, you only need a quick Google search to swim in a sea of yoga teacher training offerings. Given the financial investment required for any training, choosing the right one isn’t a decision to make lightly.
One of the things yoga teachers will tell you is that your YTT is only the key in the door of the yoga teaching world, maybe in an attempt to reduce the pressure you might be putting on yourself when trying to pick one. Your first training is merely the beginning of what will hopefully become a lifelong learning journey. But even if many opportunities for learning will come up, where to begin? And if you’re a teacher offering training, isn’t there a hierarchy of knowledge anyway? What to focus on first-hand? What matters more, content or teaching figures? Is a Yoga Alliance certification really important? Do we need more anatomy or philosophy knowledge?
They have backgrounds in anatomy, whether because they’re physical therapists, chiropractors, or life-long movement nerds; they know the business of yoga and all about helping fellow yogis turn into teachers; they’re lifelong students who’ve gained confidence and knowledge through countless experiences on and off the mat.
Each of them touches on various topics they’ve found to be important throughout their teaching careers, and each of them seems to agree on one aspect: when it comes to yoga, we are allowed to get our magnifying glasses and take a close look at what we believe to be true.
Table of Content:
- Brea Johnson – Yoga as a Living Tradition and Tools for the Modern World
- Luvena Rangel – Spiritual Movement: Integrating East and West
- Cecily Milne – For More Questioning & Curiosity
- Carly Stong – Practice as a Microcosm of our World
- Bernie Clark – Beware of Dogma
- Laurel Beversdorf – Making Yoga Multi-Disciplinarian
- Prasad Rangnekar – Empathy, Patience, and Expertise
- Garrett Neill – Applied Anatomy, Smart Sequencing, and Injury Prevention
- Trina Altman – More Critical Thinking to Prepare for Real Life Teaching
- Chelsea D. Snyder – Mentoring Hours and Tools for the Business of Yoga
- Stephanie Tencer – The Importance of Remaining a Yoga Practitioner
- Anne Jablonski – What Matters More: Teaching Well or Checking a Box to Satisfy a Yoga Registry?
- Marsha T. Danzig – Pranayama and Inclusive Language
- Ashley Zuberi – History & Cultural Context
- Jaimee Hoefert – Focus on the Teaching
- Julian Walker – Fabrication and Co-Creating A Living Tradition
- Further reading
Yoga as a Living Tradition and Tools for the Modern World
Brea Johnson | Yoga Teacher Trainer, Founder of Heart + Bones
As a yoga teacher who’s been teaching full-time since 2003, I’ve seen the evolution of trainings shift drastically over the years. After leading both traditional and out-of-the-box teacher trainings, along with thousands of hours teaching bodies to move, I’ve recognized a few key points for an eﬀective and successful yoga teacher training.
The most important place to start is by finding a yoga teacher training that views yoga as a living tradition. This means looking at yoga as a practice that evolves and adapts to the people practicing it, rather than adhering to dogmatic principles. A living tradition honours the tradition, the timeless truths that are just as relevant today as they were at the beginning, while at the same time integrating other knowledge and practices. This is not to take away from yoga, but to enhance and enrich the practice to keep it applicable for our modern needs.
“The most important place to start is by finding a yoga teacher training that views yoga as a living tradition. This means looking at yoga as a practice that evolves and adapts to the people practicing it, rather than adhering to dogmatic principles.”
Viewing yoga through the lens of a living tradition frees us up to make the necessary changes to trainings, so new yoga teachers are impacting those they teach in skillful and eﬀective ways.
Traditional Anatomy vs. Applied Anatomy
Many yoga teacher trainings use the origin and insertion model along with rote memorization of joints and muscles. This way of teaching anatomy has very little relevance for yoga teachers who will be working with a variety of body types in their classes.
In the current Yoga Alliance 200-hour model, there are only 20 hours of anatomy required. And it is also said that some of those hours can include “energy anatomy” such as nadis and chakras. While I don’t have anything against chakras, so little of the training spent on anatomy is woefully inadequate.
Look for a yoga teacher training that focuses on applied anatomy and biomechanics. If they use the words functional movement, even better. A modern yoga teacher training will have a minimum of 30 hours focused on anatomy, and a large portion of that devoted to understanding the building blocks of human movement.
This means that instead of memorizing muscle names, teachers learn how to apply anatomy to real life, understanding joint movement, loads, muscle contractions, and so on. Once a teacher understands how the body moves, it then gives them the confidence to apply that knowledge to the diﬀerent bodies in their classes and can more skillfully modify, adapt and support a more individualized approach to asana.
Asana Alignment vs. Integrative Teaching
Does a training focus on memorizing a bunch of cues for each asana or does it view asana not as the end result, but a way to create diﬀerent movement and mindfulness opportunities?
Being taught a bunch of alignment rules to follow in each pose without adequately knowing the ‘why’ behind the cues will not provide yoga teachers enough of a basic understanding of what they are actually teaching people. Many yoga cues are outdated and are based around creating a specific shape that may not be supportive of diﬀerent bodies.
Integrative teaching means that yoga teachers have an understanding of applied anatomy and movement building blocks. They recognize that one cue does not fit all. Integrative teaching allows the teacher to see yoga asana not as shapes that people have to fit into, but as opportunities to create a desired eﬀect.
“Many yoga cues are outdated and are based around creating a specific shape that may not be supportive of diﬀerent bodies”
For example, instead of teaching Downward Dog for the sake of Downward Dog, an integrated teaching approach means that the teacher might use downward as an opportunity to create a load in the hamstrings to strengthen for the flexible person who needs more hamstring strength, rather than create more flexibility.
This also allows teachers to integrate aspects of diﬀerent modalities into their teaching not to take away from yoga but to create a more dynamic practice for body and mind.
Traditional Philosophy vs. Applied Philosophy and Critical Thinking
In the Yoga Alliance 200-hour standards, at least 30 hours of philosophy and lifestyle education are required (which is more hours than what is required for anatomy). The philosophy is often based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. That’s a great start, but it’s not holistic enough.
In these times in the world right now, it does yoga a disservice to teach its philosophy without recognizing the cultural context it was born in and what that means for modern practitioners. Yoga has a colonial history and, through massive popularity growth recently, it has subsequently excluded marginalized communities and certain body types.
Just as traditional anatomy isn’t relevant to yoga teachers until it’s applied from a foundation of understanding human movement, yoga philosophy needs to be viewed through an applied lens of cultural conditioning, appropriation, and social justice. In this way, the time-honoured yoga philosophy comes alive and can make an impact not just on the bodies we teach, but the minds and hearts of the individuals and the communities we live in.
Real-world business tools and leadership training
Yoga is a big business, and with the proliferation of so many teacher trainings, there are often more yoga teachers than there are jobs. Modern teacher trainings need to acknowledge this fact and help to better prepare their students who have invested time and money to become certified. While some people may feel like it’s not yogic to talk about money or business, they are perpetuating a disempowering myth.
This aspect of trainings is just as important as the rest because it also inevitably brings up deeper core issues about one’s self-worth. This is part of our yoga practice, to look at those core feelings and work with them.
“While some people may feel like it’s not yogic to talk about money or business, they are perpetuating a disempowering myth.”
In my years of working with teachers, when we talk about business and marketing, it often becomes just as transformative as any other aspect of a yoga practice.
Business and marketing tools such as building websites, navigating social media, how to charge your worth, finding classes outside the yoga studio, and finding your niche create a strong foundation of self-knowledge and confidence.
Leadership training in yoga trainings allows us to better integrate the time-honoured wisdom that a yoga practice oﬀers us, wisdom about getting to know oneself better. Leadership training can teach us how to get out of our own way so that we can oﬀer our gifts to help others. Because, in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Spiritual Movement: Integrating East and West
Luvena Rangel | The Curvy Yogi, Anatomy, Ayurveda & Meditation Teacher
Modern teacher training programs are usually designed to fit into the schedule of the faculty and the students. So, essentially, a traditionally lifelong aspiration and effort of spiritual pursuit are today condensed into a couple of months – or in some cases, a couple of weeks-long intensives. From the perspective of what the program is supposed to deliver, I find that such intensive or short term programs in the hands of individuals who are not inclined to consider the deeper aspects of yoga, that is, who do not lay a strong foundation of the philosophy of the practice, can be quite dangerous and harmful. However, given the average yoga teacher training program, I think most schools today tend to focus mainly on asana & movement-based teaching. With a lot of visibility on social media around able-bodied teachers, sadly, the idea is infiltrating the Indian communities as well and risking erasure of this ancient practice with modern misinformation.
“Sole focus on Western anatomy would strip away the philosophical and spiritual nature of the practice and train the students to keep their mental resources tuned in to musculature and movement.”
Many western schools place a lot of focus on understanding the ‘logic’ behind yoga and look for excessive technical correctness through functional anatomy. As a yoga anatomy educator, I find it crucial to keep a teacher training contemporary yet true to its source by integrating Eastern and Western anatomy. Sole focus on Western anatomy would strip away the philosophical and spiritual nature of the practice and train the students to keep their mental resources tuned in to musculature and movement. Sufficient integration of both approaches would help preserve the authenticity of the practice through philosophy, gradually train the students to focus inwards through the asana and also ensure the science to engage in safe practice. A teacher should be trained to understand safe practice and at the same time allow the practitioner to experience the asana.
Teachers across the board need to be trained with accessibility tools, understanding consent and trauma sensitivity. Most communities today are well connected to each other through social media and information, and many, if not most practitioners are keen to be aware of and sensitive of their global footprint and impact. There is a massive chunk of the history of yoga that is left out in teacher trainings. History of yoga is beyond when it arrived in the west and has a colonial residue of hurt, grief, and pain that is generational.
It is essential for schools and teachers to offer training from a space of authenticity that falls back on a lineage backed with the philosophical tools of yogic wisdom and tradition.
A well-rounded teaching program focuses consistently on the philosophy of the practice – not just on the physical bit – and honors the roots, the source, and origin. This way, teachers are given time to understand the history, recognize the space of privilege, and learn to teach from a place of humility and willingness to continuously learn and evolve.
As an ethos of The Curvy Yogi, my practice usually allows my students to go #beyondstereotypes. The current yoga landscape is largely stereotyped to be devoid of diversity. The best way to address this would be for schools to actually be the change and actively have a diverse faculty – South Asian, Indian, teachers of color, those with physical limitations, atypical or larger bodies, and so on. This way, students are prepared to debunk the existing stereotypical narrative and open up to a more inclusive practice.
For More Questioning & Curiosity
Cecily Milne | Yoga Teacher Trainer, creator of Yoga Detour
Ten years ago I did a Master’s thesis on education – sex education, in particular, as it was taught in a small, private, Buddhist school. It was fascinating work. But once the thesis was written and defended, it found a comfy home on my shelf where I didn’t expect it to ever be more than just a cool research project.
I started teaching yoga about two years after finishing that thesis. By then, yoga was all that interested me. I practiced daily. All my friends were yoga teachers. One night we were out for dinner talking about a new project that one of our peers was taking on as an entrepreneurial endeavour. Everyone at the table thought it was a great idea and couldn’t wait to get involved. Everyone except me — the idea looked good on paper but would present all kinds of challenges when it came to logistics.
On that night, at that dinner, I looked around and realized I was different from my friends. I liked asking questions. I didn’t take “good ideas” for face value.
I wanted to dig deeper and investigate further; I’m accustomed to doing the research and trying to see every scenario from multiple points of view. Until then, I never realized how a lack of critical thinking had left a huge gap in the yoga community – at least in the one I was part of.
What I do now is, in large part, a response to that gap. It’s always been my aim to encourage more questioning and curiosity amongst teachers. If more teacher training programs embraced diverse ways of thinking – even when that results in contradiction – the next wave of teachers would have a skill that no one can take away from them: the ability to think for themselves.
“If more teacher training programs embraced diverse ways of thinking – even when that results in contradiction – the next wave of teachers would have a skill that no one can take away from them: the ability to think for themselves.”
In preparation for the trainings I’m a part of, we’ve been known to direct students intentionally to contradictory resources—for instance, one article that says the best way to stretch the hamstrings is with straight legs and another from an equally reputable source demonstrating why bent knees are optimal. At first, everyone raises an eyebrow, or a hand, and asks something along the lines of “WTF? What’s the right answer?!”
But then the dialogue starts. People seek out additional resources. They explore these options in their practice, investigating through sensation and activation. They begin to decipher answers based on experiential learning and in turn, hone their understanding. They get comfortable with “it depends.”
This is why I believe teacher training programs need to put education at the forefront – before the postures, before the Sutras, even before the anatomy. When we emphasize education—structuring trainings based off of comprehensive curricula, complete with opportunities for research, investigation, and exploration—we create diverse environments in which learning can take place. And real learning looks like critical thinking that uncovers new questions and takes us to new places as an industry. If that’s not happening in our TT classrooms, we’re not giving our soon-to-be fellow teachers the tools they need to leave the training with the understanding that learning never stops.
Practice as a Microcosm of Our World
Carly Stong | Yoga Teacher Trainer, Body Positive Teacher
A modern YTT should seek to train its students to see the possibility in all body types. When learning any pose, modifications and adaptations should be taught for all bodies. It is also vital that any modern YTT trains its teachers to see the wholeness in each student. When they do, yoga becomes more accessible to all.
I completed my 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training nearly 10 years ago and, almost immediately, I was running a growing yoga studio. In this role, I met dozens of yoga teachers and experiencing firsthand the gaps in what was being taught in training and what was needed in the role of a yoga teacher. I see trainings advertise the possibility of plugging directly back into an ancient tradition that has been passed down through guru-based lineages.
“A modern YTT program ought to recognize where the practice has come from but, more importantly, understand that the practice is a microcosm of our culture.”
Their required readings include The Bhagavad Gita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and other sacred Hindu texts as though these are all that are needed to move people’s bodies and hold space for their experiences. The widely popularized “yoga body” is seen as the physical embodiment of this spiritual practice. This body is flexible, visibly muscular, able-bodied, injury-proof (usually white, youthful, cisgender, wealthy, and heterosexual), and can perform the most extreme feats of human capability with a blissful look on their face, holding their hands in a mudra.
Not only does this perspective ignore a huge group of people that exist along a spectrum of the human experience, but it perpetuates the belief that we can determine one’s health just by looking at them. In short, these trainings present a version of yoga that whitewashes and erases yoga’s South Asian roots. That version portrays the voices and bodies of Western yogis as the owners, purveyors, and consumers of yoga. It also ignores the reality of many fellow humans, contributing to a culture that profits from people’s negative body image.
I created and teach a 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training program because I believe the future of yoga is brave, inclusive, compassionate, and empowering. A modern YTT program ought to recognize where the practice has come from but, more importantly, understand that the practice is a microcosm of our culture. Look for a training that includes discussions about power, privilege, inclusivity, and critical thinking. Trailblazers in this industry are finding more and more ways to make the practice accessible to populations who were previously left behind. We understand that yogis are more than just asana performers and we are using the tools of practice to fuel our social activism and allyship.
It isn’t as though asana, mantra, mudra, and so on are not useful. What needs to be understood is that these tools are only useful to the extent that each yogi considers them to be. I don’t define what is “good” yoga for my students; instead, I integrate principles from exercise science and mindfulness and support people as they, themselves, define what their practice looks like.
I know that, slowly, things are beginning to change, because I am invited to teach this body positive approach as a faculty member on more and more incredible trainings. These teachers have an understanding that the yoga practice ought to be as varied as the people who practice it. The next generation of yoga teachers wants to contribute to your sense of who you are in the world.
We don’t need to put our hands on you and move and shape your body until it fits into a cookie cutter mold. We want you to explore your unique practice: breath, presence, feelings, freedom of movement, strength, in all of the complexities and variations being human entails.
As an internal practice, a body positive yoga practice is a reclamation of your right to define yourself. Our job is to hold space for you to do so.
Beware of Dogma
Bernie Clark | yin yoga Teacher Trainer, author of Your Body, Your Yoga
Recognizing Human Variation
Most basic yoga teacher trainings run between 200 to 300 hours, which leaves very little time to cover the vast topic of anatomy and physiology. Given certain priorities, this makes sense: you do not need any anatomy training to teach yoga as a spiritual practice. However, once a teacher starts to make claims that yoga can also be therapeutic, understanding how the body works is mandatory. With only a few hours available to cover this topic, yoga teacher trainings default to a very cursory overview, usually focused on the muscles, and treat each body the same. Alignment cues are standardized, and contraindications are universally applied. The trainees soon come to use these instructions as dogmas that must be adhered to. But then they start to teach and realize that most students don’t seem to fit the mold. They don’t always look “right” in the postures and have to be adjusted or guided into the supposedly proper form. To motivate the students, fearful stories are offered: “You need this (and only this) alignment to avoid injury. If you keep doing the posture wrong, you will end up hurting yourself. If not today, eventually!”
The desire to see every person as identical anatomically also arises in the medical field. Many doctors in training prefer not to hear about the wide range of human variability; they want to know what is the one thing they need to do for any patient with a specific condition. Like a yoga teacher guiding a student into Warrior 1, where the assumption is that there is one and only one right way to do the pose, the doctors want to know the one thing to prescribe to a patient with cancer or heart disease. Unfortunately, every body is different and what works for one patient may be harmful to another, like a healthy alignment on Warrior 1 for one student may be dangerous for another. Should the front foot point straight ahead? Not necessarily! Due to human variation, many students may need their foot rotated outward! It depends upon the unique anatomical structure of the student and her life history.
Said another way—it depends upon the student’s biology and biography. Understanding the variations and consequences of the shape of our bones will dictate the safe alignment in yoga postures much more than knowing which muscle articulates which limb. This entails a functional approach to teaching yoga, rather than an aesthetic approach.
One example should suffice to explain how important this is. In figure 1 are two tibias: a student’s (a) and her teacher’s (b). Notice the amount of twisting (referred to as torsion) that occurs along the shinbone. Everyone has some tibial torsion: as bipeds, it allows us to stand balanced by pointing the feet outward. The knees, notice, are pointing in the same direction: straight ahead. To have the feet pointing in the same direction of the knees, whether in Warrior pose, Mountain pose or even Down Dog, requires an internal rotation (usually at the hips) equal to the amount of tibial rotation. That means the student (a) has to internally rotate at her hips 46° to make her knee line up with her foot. That is not possible for her: indeed, the average person only has a maximum amount of internal rotation at the hips of 33°(1). It is easy for the teacher (b) because her tibial rotation is much less. She can do it but her student cannot.
Where do you think the foot for student is going to point in Warrior 1? Certainly not straight ahead! Look at her foot position in figure 2. Guess how many times she has been “adjusted” by teachers to make her foot point straight ahead? Too many times! This is her alignment—based on her unique anatomy. It does not follow the dogma, but it works for her. And trying to change her, out of the best intentions in the world, actually risks injuring her.
“This is her alignment—based on her unique anatomy. It does not follow the dogma, but it works for her. And trying to change her, out of the best intentions in the world, actually risks injuring her.”
Every body is unique. No one has your biography or your biology. Your yoga will also be unique and so will that of each student you come across. Beware of dogma; beware of teachings that treat everyone the same. This is not easy! It requires a lot more effort on the part of the teacher, but with attention and intention, and awareness of the reality of human variation, we can make our teaching more effective for each student we hope to help.
(1) These statistics and many others can be found in my books, Your Body, Your Yoga which describes the lower body, and Your Spine, Your Yoga which examines the axial body. There you will find a full exploration of the ranges of variations likely to occur, how to discover your own uniqueness, and the implications of your uniqueness for your yoga practice.
Making Yoga Multi-Disciplinarian
Laurel Beversdorf | Yoga Teacher Trainer
Today, much of yoga teacher trainings center around learning to practice and teach the asanas. With the focus on movement, I recommend seeking out teacher trainers who are multi-disciplinarians in their personal movement practices and their teaching, because this means they regularly practice and teach more than one form of movement. It could be a yoga teacher who also rock climbs or lifts weights or one who also teaches Pilates or coaches basketball.
“Multi-disciplinarian trainers are less likely to fall prey to dogma, like thinking in the black and white terms of ‘right and wrong,’ and instead recognize that the benefits of moving in a particular way depend largely on what an individual is trying to accomplish.”
A movement practice guided by more than one modality is beneficial because it’s easy to get trapped in an echo chamber of information when you only practice and teach one thing. Multi-disciplinarian trainers are less likely to fall prey to dogma, like thinking in the black and white terms of ‘right and wrong,’ and instead recognize that the benefits of moving in a particular way depend largely on what an individual is trying to accomplish.
Finally, these teachers will likely encourage their trainees to branch out in their physical practice so that it includes more than just the asanas. Instilling values that include a multi-disciplinarian approach to movement will help new teachers set a habit of cross-training their practice. This way, they will avoid the often debilitating pain from joint instability that can arise from a career and personal practice based solely on teaching and practicing the asanas.
Empathy, Patience, and Expertise
Prasad Rangnekar | Yoga Teacher Trainer, Founder of Yogaprasad Institute
In times like these, where anything and everything passes off as Yoga if marketed well, from goat Yoga to rage Yoga, it becomes imperative to start by stepping back from the noise and reflecting upon what ‘Yoga’ truly means beyond the multiple Yoga ‘styles’ that are on offer. After some research about what Yoga is, the enthusiast can generate clarity about the orientation of Yoga they want to study. Then, they can go about finding the right school that aligns with their clarity.
Whichever school the seeker decides to register at, there are a few essentials that need to be kept in mind. Here are some of them:
1) As a Yoga seeker or a potential Yoga teacher, one needs to understand that Yoga has deep roots in cultural tradition. Practicing Yoga without understanding its cultural roots can make the experience purely cosmetic. Sincere students, who are interested in understanding Yoga from its roots, need to attempt to explore the cultural aspects of the practice to gain a holistic understanding. Without this, Yoga will be relegated to the stature of an exercise class.
2) One needs to decide if they want to be a Yoga teacher or an Asana teacher. The aspiring teacher needs to keep in mind that the practice is not merely about physical exercise or breathwork but an extensive body of philosophy and technology that is aimed at self-transformation. If they choose to train themselves to become a Yoga teacher, then it should be remembered that the scope of a Yoga teacher extends way beyond teaching an Asana class.
3) A 200 Hour YTT can be overwhelming since the student is exposed to so many new concepts, ideas, let alone trying to remember the Sanskrit terms in philosophy and Latin terms in anatomy. The student should also be objective of the fact that a 200 or even 300 Hour YTT is a beginning to a lifetime of transformation. One can teach successfully only when one has gone through Yogic transformation themselves. A school that is mindful of the fact that ultimate expertise at teaching comes over time and is patient with students needs to be given due consideration.
“The process of Yoga is a process of individual flowering. Every person is a unique, sovereign individual that starts the process of Yoga from where they are. Everyone can practice and transform themselves through Yoga – beyond race, income levels, gender, and individual capabilities.”
4) The process of Yoga is a process of individual flowering. Every person is a unique, sovereign individual that starts the process of Yoga from where they are. Everyone can practice and transform themselves through Yoga – beyond race, income levels, gender, and individual capabilities. A school that honours this individuality, encourages diversity and has an inclusive ethos is a better bet than a school that sees everyone through the same lens.
5) During the course of training, the student will go through a beautiful process of self-unfolding that could bring up deeper emotions. A school that is considerate of the individual’s background, treats its students with empathy and offers counselling and a support system during training (and in some cases, even after) should be considered over a school that merely comes across as popular on social media – fame does not imply expertise.
6) Lastly, make sure that you speak in person with some graduates of the Yoga school that you have shortlisted. This will help you look beyond the ever so convincing sales pitches of Yoga schools and get the pulse of how things actually happen in the course. The experiences of past students will also help you generate more confidence in the school that you have chosen.
Applied Anatomy, Smart Sequencing, and Injury Prevention
Garrett Neill | Yoga Teacher Trainer, Chiropractor
Many yoga teacher trainings today focus on postural yoga. If that’s the case for your teacher training, it’s important that it be catered to that! This entails that you get practical anatomy training, that you get a keen understanding of how to sequence your class to help prevent injuries, that you learn about the scope of practice (the limits of what a yoga teacher can do), and also get an understanding of what it means to be a yoga teacher. Each of these topics is connected by a common thread: they require you to think and act based on the information you learn. There are a lot of yoga robot trainings out there, avoid those!
Essentially, your training should teach you how to think critically and perform from there!
“If postural yoga is a part of your training, it’s imperative that trainees learn about the human body to serve their students safely and cultivate a sustainable practice.”
Although I do think philosophy and other yogic concepts are essential too, there’s just so much to learn in so few hours. Those of us who lead modern teacher trainings need to establish a priority of knowledge, and best prepare future teachers to be great teachers. If postural yoga is a part of your training, it’s imperative that trainees learn about the human body to serve their students safely and cultivate a sustainable practice. Future trainees, the following is the kind of information you need to pay attention to, and they should help you ask the right questions to your teacher trainers.
If your training is focused on postural yoga and you want to teach poses, then you have a responsibility to understand the human body. Yoga teacher trainings are amazing because they can fill in an anatomic gap that your other education probably missed. We live in an age where people tend to know more about how their phone works than their own body!
Therefore, the content of your YTT anatomy section is crucial. Modern yoga anatomy should be about how interconnected the body is. Yoga means to yolk or unionize, right? So why are so many trainings still toting the traditional anatomy model of the human body as parts and fragments?
“If your training is focused on postural yoga and you want to teach poses, then you have a responsibility to understand the human body.”
It’s important to look at your anatomy content and ask: Would I ever use this in a yoga class?
Quick memorization of the names of muscles/bones/ligaments and a chicken dance to learn the sagittal plane is not very practical. This kind of specific information is helpful to quickly go over to set up a foundation in anatomy and also introduce the language of anatomy. Many trainings still focus ONLY on memorization and instruction of these terms and waste precious hours that could be spent learning and understanding anatomical concepts.
When it comes to memorizing terms, you do know we live in an era with this fancy new-age magical search website called Google, right? So, within seconds you can look up a lot of that terminology and reference it whenever you need!
So what are the concepts I prioritize in my 200-hour anatomy lectures? Fascia, muscle chains, the principles of mobility and stability, how balance occurs, motor learning, how movement occurs, the biomechanics of breathing, how injuries may happen, & fascial remodeling (or how your body & mind adapt to and change through movement).
Now that it’s 2019, all trainings should be teaching the difference between active and passive range of motion! So many yoga classes focus on the passive and, in the kinesiology world, we’re finding that there is a minimal benefit to passive anything (unless it’s coupled with active range of motion, and that’s best implemented by a manual therapist). People get hurt when they push past their active range, which compromises the muscles that were controlling the stability of their joints and loads their passive structures without a semblance of control. These problems are exacerbated by some of the mindless repetition we see in so many yoga practices too! Guess how people tend to get hurt? They dwell at their end-ranges of motion and sometimes push past without any focus on keeping things safe and active.
It’s essential to understand how yoga poses work together. Putting them together effectively is what ultimately makes a yoga class, right? Fledgling teachers should be learning the anatomical rationale and mechanics to each pose and how poses chain together.
When yoga teachers graduate from training, these should feel relatively easy to answer:
- How does this pose prepare us for the next pose? What poses help prepare for complex and advanced poses? (concepts of preparation, warm-up, & transitioning)
- What does this pose do to the physical human body & what happens if I do it all the time? (concepts of adaptation, fascial remodeling, & yoga-related injuries)
- What’s the ratio of my movements? How much do I go forward, backward, etc.? (concepts of well-balanced movement vs. being biased into one movement)
- How can I modify this pose to a given special population? (the concept of how to apply what they know to teach and modify to every body: old, young, medical conditions, pain, etc.)
Injury Prevention & Adjustments
I’m not sure if anyone has ever told you this, but as a yoga teacher, you are responsible for all the human bodies that you are guiding in your classes. Obviously, people will do what they want and hopefully listen to their bodies when given poses and modifications, but you are still responsible for cultivating a safe environment. You also want to be sure you adequately prepare people and don’t give them crazy things to do 3 poses into your class.
Many different types of people do yoga now. Many yoga poses were created in the early 1900s for a specific type: slender, hand-selected, Indian boys; this means that many of the postures we teach today are geared to their alignment, not to 2019 sedentary human alignment. Understanding anatomy, sequencing, and modifications can help students and teachers give options and explore postures that create a sense of strength, safety, and sustainability!
Yoga assists are also a common feature in many YTTs. The old school way of teaching these are passive “deepening” assists, where the yoga teacher imposes external force on a student to help them achieve a level of deeper stretching or a more aesthetic depth. These are seriously not helpful to anyone but the instructor’s ego and that student’s doctor’s wallet.
As mentioned above, passive range of motion yields passive results and does not help cultivate long-term and sustainable change to human anatomy. As a yoga teacher, especially at a 200-hour level, do you know enough about anatomy and the person you are assisting to confidently say you know what that external force is doing on that student’s body? Probably not!
“If we truly want to create a realm of success, safety, and sustainability, we need to practice more effective assists – those based on more minimal interactions, like touch point, energetic, etc.”
One thing I hope we, as a yoga community, move past is these terrible deepening passive-based assists. If we truly want to create a realm of success, safety, and sustainability, we need to practice more effective assists – those based on more minimal interactions, like touch point, energetic, etc. We need to help the student cultivate their own alignment and develop their own muscular awareness. This way is much safer and helps the student understand the pose, instead of enacting physical force on their body under the guise of “helping.”
Those of us who lead trainings need to provide a good foundation of knowledge and cultivate critical thinking, which will create many more opportunities for fledgling teachers. It’s time we taught how to move well so we can better serve our communities; if your training is focused on asana, then once people safely and sustainably practice postural yoga, then the yoga of mindfulness, service, and philosophy can begin.
More Critical Thinking to Prepare for Real Life Teaching
Trina Altman | Yoga Teacher Trainer, Creator of Yoga & Pilates Deconstructed®
Something that is missing from the curriculum in many yoga teacher trainings is how to apply critical thinking skills. Ideally, trainings would encourage new teachers to do more than just memorize cues. Rather, it would be beneficial for the leader to emphasize that what the trainees are learning is a starting point.
This means that once they learn a sequence or a series of poses, trainees should be encouraged to ask questions and figure out how to problem solve, so they aren’t teaching a one-size-fits-all approach when they finish the program. Common cues exist to help students practice poses in a group. However, students won’t look like the pictures in the yoga teacher training manual, even when they follow these cues.
“If teachers were taught that no one looks like the skeleton in the classroom, then they are more empowered to choose cues that work for the people in front of them, rather than feeling like they need to rely on cues from the manual.”
While this isn’t inherently dangerous, it can be problematic when new yoga teachers don’t understand that their students have different levels of mobility and unique body shapes, so the way they practice yoga will look different from what might be expected. In some cases, this can lead to a teacher overcorrecting or cueing a student into a shape that could result in frustration, pain, or even injury.
If teachers were taught that no one looks like the skeleton in the classroom, then they are more empowered to choose cues that work for the people in front of them, rather than feeling like they need to rely on cues from the manual.
Mentoring Hours and Tools for the Business of Yoga
Chelsea D. Snyder | Yoga Teacher, LoCo Urban Wellness Expo creator
Two things to look for in a modern yoga teacher training program: teacher mentoring hours and the business side of yoga.
In some vortex of irony, there is little to no student teaching requirement in any yoga teacher training program. You’re just expected to take 200 hours of mind-bending information and suddenly teach a relatively effective class at your local gym or studio. You know, just step onto that stage in front of everyone who has been practicing yoga for at least 16 years and flawlessly cue them for an hour. Easy peasy. Yoga teacher mentoring hours can help with that transition and should be offered by any credible (not necessarily credentialed) yoga teacher training school.
“In some vortex of irony, there is little to no student teaching requirement in any yoga teacher training program. You’re just expected to take 200 hours of mind-bending information and suddenly teach a relatively effective class at your local gym or studio.”
There’s also this false idea that a teacher training program will equal thousands of teaching job offers or droves of new students coming to your basement studio. Even if that was the case, what would you do if someone tripped and fell down your stairs? Do you have a website or a way to schedule students? Do you have insurance, proof of completing your yoga teacher training program, CPR certification… a business license to open your own studio or set up online teaching? Yoga teachers are business owners: own your business, or your business will own you.
The Importance of Remaining a Yoga Practitioner
Stephanie Tencer | Owner of Studio Po, Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher
I think that while you can be a student of Yoga without being a teacher, you cannot be an effective teacher without being a dedicated practitioner. Why? Because practice and teaching are inextricably linked. The time I spend on my mat embodying my yoga is fuel for teaching. Without my practice, my teaching would fall flat. It’d be disingenuine, inauthentic, and boring.
The most valuable lesson I learned during my initial training was not how to sequence, how to adjust, or how to market my classes, but how to practice. I learned how to show up to the mat and figure out how my practice can best serve me – how to determine what was the ‘right’ practice for that day.
“The most valuable lesson I learned during my initial training was not how to sequence, how to adjust, or how to market my classes, but how to practice.”
There is something about working through this conundrum, day after day, that fosters both a compassionate and creative approach to teaching. Yes, yoga teachers need to learn other skills as well, but if I had to identify one thing across the board that TT programs could do better, it would be teaching their trainees to be true practitioners of Yoga.
In my mind, being a practitioner involves solo time on the mat, not just going to class. It involves inquisitive explorations and critical thinking – both on the mat and off. It’s a relationship with the mat that is respectful and honest, and appreciates the grey, not only the black & white. Being a practitioner is key because it empowers teachers to draw from personal experience and ultimately, Yoga is a very personal endeavour.
What Matters More: Teaching Well or Checking a Box to Satisfy a Yoga Registry?
Anne Jablonski | Yoga Teacher, president of the Feathered Pipe Foundation
It may be time to question the paradigm that learning to teach yoga skillfully can come from a one-stop shop. If you want a well-rounded yoga teaching curriculum, consider assembling it yourself.
Unless you’re one of the fortunate few with access to a comprehensive program that weaves in a rotation of master teachers, why not cobble together your own customized, hybrid teacher training? Consider the elements of yoga that sparkle most for you — whether it’s philosophy, anatomy, breathwork — and invest your time in weekend intensives or workshops with caring, attentive mentors who share an interest in the specific avenue of yoga inquiry that looms largest for you. They’re out there!
“Unless you’re one of the fortunate few with access to a comprehensive program that weaves in a rotation of master teachers, why not cobble together your own customized, hybrid teacher training?”
While this won’t necessarily meet the formal requirements to satisfy a “yoga teacher registry” — although it’s worth asking if those hours can “count” toward certification in another program if that matters for your plans — be aware of the growing chorus of concerned voices questioning the integrity of those registries in the first place. Seek out, find, and spend time with mentors and teachers who are masters in their craft and goad your inquiry. If and when the time comes to teach, you’ll stand on stable ground.
Pranayama and Inclusive Language
Marsha Danzig | Yoga Teacher Trainer, Founder of Yoga for Amputees®
I would love to see a more robust emphasis on pranayama in yoga teacher trainings, not just to fulfill Yoga Alliance requirements, but to make it a much larger portion of yoga practice. I have seen a trend in the last ten years or so where pranayama is barely taught in your average yoga class. And yet, it is a powerful tool that can be used effectively and therapeutically to address pain, trauma, anxiety, stress and so many other challenges that are quite common to us humans entering a yoga class.
Yoga is for everyone. A training with a segment on adaptive yoga for people with disabilities, taught by an expert on the subject, would be important to me. People with disabilities make up nearly 15% of the world population, and many will want to practice or teach yoga.
“Yoga is a practice of exploration rather than a neat system that fits into one-size-fits-all. Phrases like ‘You are safe here,’ ’relax,’ ‘smile,’ ‘I want you to,’ ‘This is a difficult pose,’ ‘I’d like you to’ are misleading and limiting to students.”
Yoga Teacher Trainers should familiarize themselves with adaptive, inclusive language that can be infused throughout the entire training. Yoga is a practice of exploration rather than a neat system that fits into one-size-fits-all. Phrases like ‘You are safe here,’ ’relax,’ ‘smile,’ ‘I want you to,’ ‘This is a difficult pose,’ ‘I’d like you to’ are misleading and limiting to students.
Instead, the training should train its students to be curious, be okay with not knowing, and learn how to ask open-ended questions to students. It should include an in-depth study of various medical conditions and disabilities, yoga contraindications, as well as the best yoga practices for these situations. For example, a yoga laboratory, where students figure out what to do if, say, a diabetic amputee comes to yoga class, would be highly beneficial*. This also means hiring guest teachers who are well versed in adaptive yoga, such as a Yoga for Amputees or an Accessible Yoga Trainer.
*This exercise won’t qualify new trainees to work with everyone, but it will introduce them to the diversity of possible students. It will set the stage for them to find more advanced trainings focused on working with people with special needs if they want to.
History & Cultural Context
Ashley Zuberi | Yoga Teacher Trainer
Modern yoga teacher trainings these days are often missing the yoga. The challenge is that in a 200-hour teacher training, enough time needs to be spent ensuring that trainees know how to teach, which requires a huge amount of practice time, feedback, anatomy study, etc.x
The gap between where yoga came from and where yoga is now must be bridged. A training dedicated solely to the how of yoga misses out on its why, and it is the why of yoga that makes the practice magical.
History and cultural context are lacking in current teacher training programs. More time needs to be spent educating students on yoga philosophy and where the practices actually come from. There also needs to be a discussion on how we can make these ancient concepts relevant to our students today (along with a discussion on cultural appropriation). Without exposure to this information, trainees are missing out on a rich, living database of knowledge, information, and tools that we can draw from to enhance the practices we deliver.
The why of yoga lies within the ancient texts, the stories, and the evolution of yoga over time and its application in our own personal experience today. Without this, there is nothing differentiating yoga from group fitness.
Focus on the Teaching
Jaimee Hoefert | Yoga Teacher, Shut Up & Yoga editor
There are a million reasons to do a yoga teacher training, and each trainee’s motivation for starting one will be as unique as they are. Even if your goal isn’t to end up as a full-time yoga teacher, I urge you to look for a program that actually teaches you how to teach. That may sound odd, but a lot of programs these days focus on so many other aspects of yoga that they forget about what I think is a critical piece of the training.
It’s true; there are a ton of things to learn about in a yoga teacher training that don’t have anything to do with actually teaching — you can read about some of the other important things that should be covered in the rest of this piece. But let’s be honest, the established standard of two hundred hours just isn’t enough to cover everything. Until the standard is changed and becoming a teacher requires a lot more hours of training, the one tangible thing you should get from a beginning teacher training should be the ability to walk into a room full of students and guide them through their practice.
“One tangible thing you should get from a beginning teacher training should be the ability to walk into a room full of students and guide them through their practice.”
I’m using the word “guide” rather than “teach” intentionally— it takes a lot of knowledge and practice to be able to create an effective class from scratch, and even the best 200-hour teacher trainings can only skim the surface on effective sequencing. That skill is something any teacher spends years developing and should involve a continuous study of movement, sequencing, and cueing. But, after your first teacher training, you should have gained the confidence to stand in front of a group and cue them through a practice that a more experienced teacher has helped you to create.
Yoga is a lifelong journey. So is the self-inquiry you’ll start exploring in your teacher training, and so is the practice of teaching itself. Make sure your first training gives you a strong foundation to start practicing your teaching now, so that someday, through lots of personal practice and exploration, you will be able to deliver the kinds of effective, transformative classes that motivated you to become a teacher yourself.
Fabrication and Co-Creating A Living Tradition
Julian Walker | Yoga Teacher Trainer, creator of Freedom Becomes You podcast
For yoga as we practice and teach it today to keep moving forward, we have to get really honest about one thing: a living tradition has to evolve and keep up with the progress of human knowledge. What I am about to say may sound radical, overly dramatic, or even blatantly biased, but it is entirely within the yogic spirit of relinquishing illusions and inhabiting our practice with a sense of empowerment, honesty, and compassion.
It seems that the entire aesthetic of teacher training over the last few decades has been based on a fabrication: the idea that yoga asana is a limb of Patanjali’s 8-limbed path to yoga. I believe teacher trainers, eventually with the legitimizing support of Yoga Alliance, have repeated this myth and its implied authority and passed it along to new teachers believing it was true.
But it isn’t, and this matters, because a mind-body awareness practice based on inquiry and ethics should prioritize truth. So let’s have a look at the following.
Origins and Philosophy
Modern asana practice as popularized and promoted worldwide since the 1930s was a cross-cultural synthesis of Scandinavian gymnastics, British YMCA exercises, and some traditional Indian Yoga techniques. As mentioned above, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is not the asana limb of Patanjali’s formulation — it is merely a piece of marketing that worked like a charm.
“It seems that the entire aesthetic of teacher training over the last few decades has been based on a fabrication: the idea that yoga asana is a limb of Patanjali’s 8-limbed path to yoga.”
Patanjali’s text is explicitly a guide to concentration meditation within a metaphysical framework of religious dualism and puritanism. It does not give any insight or guidance with regard to asana practice as we know it. What the sutras do is to expound a philosophical belief system incongruent with modern knowledge and the goals and values of modern yogis.
How so? Patanjali’s thrust is concerned with concentration meditation as a path of identifying with a pure and disembodied soul, and in turn dis-identifying with our impure bodies and desires. This is the same kind of puritanism we find in other religious traditions, but we have tended to overlook it.
This conflicts with modern knowledge and egalitarian values. Modern yoga has been evolving as an expression of embracing our bodies, along with a mindful, ethical and sacred approach to sexuality, healing trauma, and celebrating health and balance in ways that honor our humanity.
We perpetuate massive cognitive dissonance by then pointing teacher trainees to this text as a guide to the official philosophy, purpose, and origin of true yoga, where no guidance is given about how to embrace our bodies or honor our humanity.
If taught at all, Patanjali could be part of a more fleshed out course that contrasts his ideas with those, say, of Tantra (a much more credible historical root source of Hatha Yoga) and Advaita Vedanta, both of which express forms of non-dualism that directly challenge Patanjali’s metaphysics.
“Yoga” is a term used historically by an incredibly diverse range of traditions to describe a rich variety of practices and reasons to practice. Patanjali is not the source of modern asana practice, nor does he hold the monopoly on ways of thinking about the purpose, goals or techniques of meditation. But that’s OK because philosophy is about inquiry and getting inside of contrasting ideas, not the cult of personality or faith in unquestioned beliefs. What makes mind-body awareness practices effective and beneficial is not their ancientness or lineal purity.
To equip teachers with the right tools beyond just yamas and niyamas, we need to bring in ideas from modern somatic psychology, neuroscience, and mindfulness research.
So when looking at teacher training, either as a brand new trainee, or an already certified teacher seeking more information and skills, here’s what I suggest considering: Is the training presented in an authoritarian way, or right from the start, do you see an open attitude toward cross-disciplinary information and ideas? Do your trainers seem to be lifelong students, invested in growth and learning, open-minded about letting in new information and seeking to empower you to do the same?
Does the training seem pragmatic, grounded in science, psychologically honest, and informed by a cross-disciplinary approach? Does their approach reflect genuine inquiry and learning rather than lip service to knowledge from sources that rely more on faith, authority, and lineal tradition than an interest in facts, and the journey of ongoing exploration? Is there any mention of the necessary psychological self-awareness that should be part of becoming a teacher?
“Do your trainers seem to be lifelong students, invested in growth and learning, open-minded about letting in new information and seeking to empower you to do the same?”
Pay attention to the language around important topics like trauma or mindfulness or the brain, and notice if it seems grounded in science, compassion, realistic ideas, and humility. In real inner work, as in real study of all of these complex topics, humility, honesty, and empathy are usually indicators that someone really takes the journey seriously, so be on the lookout for those traits when searching for a teacher.
Applied anatomy: the practical study and application of anatomy rather than focusing on theory.
Biomechanics: the study of movement mechanics in the human body, e.g., the actions required in our muscles, joints, and nerves to reach out for an object on the ground. Understanding the fundamentals of biomechanics can be as useful as knowing how a phone or a car works; it allows for safe and optimal use of our bodies so we can move with ease and avoid injury.
Fascia: the layer of soft tissue that covers and binds different body structures (like organs, muscles, blood vessels, and nerves), like a big stretchy web across our bodies. Research shows it plays an essential role in shaping the posture of our bodies through establishing tension (or tensegrity).
Fascial remodeling: how your body changes over time. These are long-term changes as it often takes weeks and months for the tissue to physically change in the body. The basis is that movement will stimulate fibroblasts to lay down more connective tissue in the direction (or vector) of the movement. For example, repetitive movements in the same vector make you really strong in that one vector because your body will adapt to it over time. It’s a good reason why it’s important to train variability!
Functional movement: movement or exercises that are relevant to tasks or activities of daily life. It can also be sport-specific. When wondering if something qualifies as functional movement, see how it relates to your ability to perform daily tasks like standing, walking, running, sitting, squatting, balance, etc. or performance-related tasks such as throwing, jumping, etc. Almost any movement can be deemed functional IF it applies to something you do or are training for!
Mobility & Stability: our ability to move comfortably physically. Mobility is different from flexibility in that mobility requires strength, balance, coordination, AND flexibility (it has more aspects than flexibility). Stability refers to preventing or supporting movement. Ex: for us to balance on one leg, our standing leg has to be stable and support the movement of the rest of the body. Ex2: Stability is also preventing unwanted movement; this refers to your ability to hold a side plank without falling over backwards or forwards.
Motor learning: the process of improving motor skills and how we learn movement/exercise. Motor skills are coordinated conscious movements.
Muscle chains: muscles that are connected fascially or in a chain. Beevor’s Axiom: Our brains do not know individual muscles; they know only movement. Because the tissue of the body is continuous, they connect to help generate movement. See Tom Meyer’s Anatomy Trains for great examples. E.g., the hamstrings and gluteus maximus are part of the posterior chain.
Muscle origin and insertion: the places where a muscle is attached to the bone. Origin is where the muscle is attached closest to the center of the body (usually); insertion is where the muscle attaches distally from the center of the body. These concepts have very little use in the context of a yoga teacher training; it’s overly specific. It helps most to know what region that muscle is and what its actions are.
Range of motion (ROM): the range of movement available to each joint. Usually refers to flexion/extension, abduction/adduction, lateral flexion, external & internal rotation.
- Active ROM refers to what your own body can do using the tension and strength of your muscles, and is limited by your nervous system.
- Passive ROM is when an external force moves your body past what you can achieve on your own, such as a teacher, a prop, or grabbing your foot. This will load your ligaments, tendons, joint capsules, & fascia and take your joints further to the physical barrier of their end-range.
Sustainable movement practice: a practice that can be done over and over again while increasing range of motion*, mobility*, stability*, flexibility, and being beneficial to the nervous system without causing injury or straining. The movements are not inherently dangerous, and variability is also encouraged.
Yoga assist/adjustment: the process of modifying a student’s posture to make it more aligned and/or look like the traditional posture. Deepening assists exert an external force on the student’s body which can lead to injury (see passive ROM). Light assists, on the other hand, are gentle reminders of alignment and/or cultivate awareness of muscle activation.
Yoga Sutras (c.400) by Patanjali: a series of aphorisms on enlightenment. It describes the value of sitting comfortably for meditation but says nothing of body twists and rearrangements despite its regular citation as a founding document of postural yoga. (Definition from William J Broad. “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards.”)
10 Signs You’re a Modern Yogi by Brea Johnson
Human First, Yogi Second by Garrett Neill
Breaking Yoga’s Alignment Stereotypes by Daniella Wittern Bush
Yoga’s Missing Nutrients by Kerry McInnes
Modern Yoga: Rethinking Outdated Cues by Kerry McInnes
9 Chaturanga Alternatives by Garrett Neill
But Is That Even Yoga? by Laurel Beversdorf
Introduction by Ely Bakouche
Illustration by Katya Uspenskaya