What does it mean to be a yoga teacher?

TSYP teacher, yoga therapist and teacher trainer, Andy Curtis-Payne looks at what becoming a teacher in the tradition of T Krishnamacharya and TKV Desikachar means, and shows us where this wisdom is to be found in the Yoga Sūtra. 

To become a yoga teacher, you need a guide

अथ योगानुशासनम् ॥
atha yoga-anu-śāsanam 

The first sūtra of the Yoga Sūtra tells us: “now begins the authoritative teaching on yoga”. Looking at the Sanskrit, the phrase ‘anuśāsanam’ implies following the teachings on yoga and that to do this we need support: a guide, a teacher. It is the prefix ‘anu’ that is significant here, as it indicates that we should follow. 

So, who or what do we follow?
A guide or teacher who has experience of the process and the teachings. 

But why do I need a guide? I have a map and I am able-bodied and sensible…

वृत्तिसारूप्यमितरत्र ॥

We need only look to the fourth sūtra (YS 1.4) for the reason: “vṛtti sārūpyam itaratra”. If I am not in a state of yoga my mind is coloured, my view partial or distorted. Therefore, I am not always going to be able to see clearly where I am or where I need to go; I need someone to help me find where I am and how to move forward. 

A true teacher is one who can gently and skilfully help me to see and accept this situation, and who can help me take the necessary steps towards greater clarity and independence on my journey. In the book Freud and Yoga, TKV Desikachar explains thus: “When the teacher recites this, it means ‘Now I am going to share with you the yoga that I have experience of’.” So, a yoga teacher is someone who has experience of yoga, someone who has followed and is following the teaching, this is what is meant by an ācārya. Therefore, if I want to be a yoga teacher, first and foremost, I must practise yoga myself!

स तु दीर्घकालनैरन्तर्यसत्कारादरासेवितो दृढभूमिः ॥
sa tu dīrgha-kāla-nairantarya-satkāra-ādara-āsevitaḥ dṛḍha-bhūmiḥ

Yoga Sūtra 1.14 gives us the necessary guidance here. To practise yoga, doing so in the following ways: dīrgha kāla (for a long time), nairantarya (without interruption), sat kāra (with a positive attitude) and ādara (with enthusiasm and faith). So, to be a yoga teacher I must first understand what it means to truly practise yoga. And this, of course takes time, I must work with a teacher to understand myself and my relationship to yoga before embarking on the necessary training to become a teacher myself.

The importance of experience

जन्मौषधिमन्त्रतपः समाधिजाः सिद्धयः ॥
janma-oṣadhi-mantra-tapaḥ samādhi-jāḥ siddhayaḥ 

TKV Desikachar once said that he liked his teachers to be paripāka, literally meaning ‘cooked on all sides’. This indicates some life experience is needed, so that we understand the struggles and challenges of life and have some experience of using yoga to help ourselves through these challenges. Quoting from Freud and Yoga again: “atha yogānuśāsanam is about experience”. Experience can only come in time; there are no reliable short cuts. This is confirmed if we look at Yoga Sūtra 4.1, which lists five ways of attaining the power of yoga: janma (birth), oṣadhi (herbs or drugs), mantra (ritualistic invocations), tapah (severe austerities) and finally samādhi (the practice of aṣṭāṅga yoga in its entirety). It is only through following the entire teachings of yoga that we can acquire the necessary experience to become a teacher. 

Common to all these sūtra-s is that yoga is an experiential process. Therefore, when we look at the process of teacher training, it must surely follow that this cannot be rushed. Can we really condense the teachings of several thousand years into a few weekends’ training? Can we really understand what it means to change ourselves through yoga and therefore be able to convey this to others in a matter of weeks or months?


Furthermore, we only get out of something what we are willing to put into it, and in the case of yoga the benefits are immense and certainly worth the investment. If we can engage with the full teachings, we can use yoga to develop/grow, to maintain/support, to heal at many levels and ultimately to transform and liberate ourselves from suffering. Then, as yoga teachers, we are in a position to share these amazing gifts with others!

It is for this reason that the TSYP Teacher Training is one of the most rigorous available; it takes time, not just to learn about yoga but to allow it to percolate through us, so that we can embody it as far as we are able. We cannot learn yoga intellectually, it has to be experienced, felt, lived. Then, and only then, can we consider sharing it with others. For this reason, our next Teacher Training course will run over three years and consist of 550 contact hours with an additional 250 guided study hours, to allow sufficient time for the trainees to be taught, to practise, to reflect, to put into practice, to review and to develop through yoga.

Those who join the course will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in this timeless and yet ancient tradition of yoga, to map and understand its evolution from the Indus Valley Civilisation through to the landmark work of Patañjali, the Yoga Sūtra. Theory sessions will introduce each topic; but it is through application of the teaching that we really learn – whether it is āsana or the more subtle aspects of dhyāna, from yama through to samādhi, from kriya yoga to aṣṭāṅga yoga, the entire teaching will be explored and experienced. 

एतेन भूतेन्द्रियेषु धर्मलक्षणावस्था परिणामा व्याख्याताः ॥
etena bhūtendriyeṣu dharma-lakṣaṇa-avasthā pariṇāmā vyākhyātāḥ

As a conclusion to this article, I offer a final reference from the Yoga Sūtra, this time the commentary to YS 3.13 in Frans Moors’ Liberating Isolation, which lists three critical factors involved in the process of transformation:

  1. Dharma pariṇāma – potential: to become a yoga teacher one needs a certain potential. Primarily, I would say empathy, care for others, is an essential prerequisite, and a desire to change and foster change.
  2. Lakṣana pariṇāma – appropriate intervention: in this case, a comprehensive training course covering in sufficient depth the holistic teachings of yoga for well-being.
  3. Avasthā pariṇāma – timing: the trainee needs to be ready and sufficient time must be dedicated to the training process.

If these criteria are satisfied, then it is possible to help someone take the necessary steps to becoming a yoga teacher, someone who understands and is able to represent these beautiful and important teachings.

Andy Curtis-Payne

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