Nature vs Nurture: Are Yoga Teachers Born or Made?

by Jill Abelson |
September, 2016

Intuition is not a gift but a skill.” – Carolyn Myss

There’s an inevitable week during every teacher training, usually about halfway through, when every student hits a brick wall. You’re forced to set aside your training notebook, stand up in front of the room, and for perhaps the first time in your life teach an utterly simple pose to a group of fellow trainees.

Your own phenomenal teachers make it look so easy. But now here you are, head cocked to one side, staring down at feet and hands trying to decipher left from right. You are blanking out on the most basic instructions, followed countless times before in your own yoga practice.

“I love this pose so much! How come I can’t communicate it to someone else??”

I remember this day from my own teacher training. A hundred of us were in a big room, divided in half so that 50 people practiced on each side. Called up randomly, each trainee had to get up and teach Surya Namaskar to one half of the room. One section practiced—or stumbled through it, as the case might be—while the other section sat and watched. Some people had to start over and re-teach several times. Curiously, those who had appeared most confident up until that point did not necessarily out-perform that day as teachers-in-training. More introverted trainees often did better, displaying poise the others had not.

I’ve often wondered, does yoga teaching greatness come from nature or nurture? As a teacher trainer, I work hard to de-mystify this process. I think the answer, to echo Carolyn Myss from the quote up top, is nurture.

Some people come into teacher trainings with a very spare understanding of how their own bodies function and why. Maybe they’ve sat at a desk and worn tight shoes most of their adult lives. Maybe they’ve been so busy with career, family, or manual labor that they haven’t had time for fitness or sports of any kind. Still others have a very good sense of their bodies from doing lots of yoga and movement, and maybe dancing or athletics, yet can’t grasp how to apply that knowledge to teaching someone else.

I train teachers in alignment, safety, injury prevention, and assisting.  In a 200-hour program, trainees are usually turned over to me at the mid-way point, after alignment and anatomy, and just as they start to practice-teach. The brick wall is looming. This is why I give an important talk called “The Process,” the main thrust of which is:

We’re not necessarily born with a gift for teaching yoga; it’s a skill we acquire gradually over time.

The process begins with—who else? – YOU. In other words, your own body and life experience.  It starts with wherever you are on your mat.  

Then, it involves into you doing yoga asana—meaning you in the pose, practicing the pose, learning the pose inside-out. Like falling deeply in love, this doesn’t happen overnight, and there are no shortcuts. But if you focus long enough—a minimum of 6 months—you reach the next step.

Eventually, you develop a more theoretical understanding of the pose. You go beyond the physical experience, and start to understand the pose at a higher level: alignment, energetic feeling, form. You have some understanding of the pose’s symbolism or essence from your teacher’s insights, other revelations or research, and your own personal experience. You’ve experimented with everything there is to do or know about the pose. This is a milestone in your practice—an ideal point, by the way, to contemplate a teacher training program. 

Then comes your beloved student. Imagine them doing the same pose, as you would. Understand, though, that the student exists and experiences the pose completely independently of you. Other than the name of the pose, there is nothing at all identical between your Triangle and their Triangle.

This is why you might hit a brick wall in TT. “If I can do Triangle pose, why can’t I teach it??” Your discouragement comes from the very simple fact that you haven’t practiced long enough to know how to transfer your experience and knowledge to someone else.

In the movie Julie and Julia, I learned that Julia Child couldn’t even chop an onion when she started cooking school.  She went home and practiced until she got the feel for it. Returning to class one day, to everyone’s astonishment, she chopped a mountain of onions faster and better than anyone else. You might think a master chef like Julia Child had a knack for everything in the kitchen long before becoming famous. But no, Julia became skilled at it over time.

There comes a point in your own yoga practice when you’ve downloaded all the essential knowledge, experience, and understanding you can get from a pose. At that point, your Triangle (or whatever pose) is infused with your knowledge of alignment, edge, energy, form, essence, and symbolism. You’ve experimented with the pose for weeks, months, years and have become skilled at it.  This knowledge is your feedback loop. And once you begin practice-teaching, this feedback loop becomes your springboard: seeing a student, understanding what’s going on in her body, helping with a pose’s execution and mastery, objectively evaluating her needs, in whatever shape or form, and assisting her toward an optimal experience. Based on your knowledge.

I’m surprised at how many teacher trainees, eager to become teachers before a true foundation is built, get down on themselves and feel like they’ve failed. I’m never surprised, several months later, at the end of teacher training: the situation almost always turns around.

The student you’ve taught now experiences the pose to the best of her ability. There is a feedback loop, pointing back to your own experience. Triangle Pose, with layers of intuitive light.

The late, great teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, writing in the Tree of Yoga, describes a very similar process under “The Depth of Asana”:

When we start working on the performance of asanas, we all begin by just scratching the surface of the pose: our work on the pose is peripheral, and this is conative action. The word conatus means an effort or impulse…simply physical action at its most direct level.

Then when we are physically doing the pose, all of a sudden the skin, eyes, ears … all our organs of perception – feel what is happening in the flesh. This is known as cognitive action: the skin recognizes the action of the flesh.

The third stage, communication or communion, is when the mind observes the contact of cognitive and conative action, and we arrive at mental action in the asana. At this stage, the mind comes into play, drawn by the organs of perception…to see exactly what is happening. The mind acts as a bridge…introduces the intellect and connects it to every part of the body. When the mind has come into play, a new thought arises in us…The discriminative mind observes and analyzes the feeling of the front, the back, the inside and the outside of the body. This stage is known as reflective action.

Finally when there is a total feeling in the action…then conative, cognitive, mental and reflective action all meet together to form a total awareness. This is spiritual practice.

When there is oneness from the cell to the self, from the physical body to the core of the being…this is known as integration (described in the Yoga Sutras)…integration of the self with all existence.

This is how asanas have to be performed. It cannot come in a day and cannot come in years. It is a lifelong process, provided the practitioner has the yogic vitamins of faith, memory, courage, absorption and uninterrupted awareness.

A paradox in our culture is that we like fast results. But that’s not possible with yoga. It’s a process, a continuous loop, starting with your own journey into practice, into teacher training and beyond.  

Picture yourself in Triangle pose, extending out into infinity.