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more yoga teaching

21st April 2004 permanent link

Some thoughts – prompted by my friend Bettina’s graduation from one of the most rigorous yoga teaching programmes in the world – on how yoga teachers are trained.

Here’s how it works in ashtanga vinyasa yoga, the style I practice and am most familiar with.

Teaching qualifications are only issued by the head of the school, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, to students who personally attend his school in Mysore, India. There are three levels of qualification.

  1. Students (e.g. me) who have attended the school at least once and completed the basic “primary” practice series to Pattabhi Jois’s satisfaction, are ok’d to teach the first half of the primary series to beginners, but not to bill themselves as qualified teachers.
  2. Students (e.g. my friend Bettina) who have attended the school several times and completed most of the “Intermediate” (pretty damn tough) practice series can request Pattabhi Jois’s authorisation to teach. Note the presence of words like “several”, “most” and “request” in that last sentence. There is no formal entitlement to a teaching qualification if you attend X hours of classes or can get into positions Y and Z – it’s more a matter of convincing Pattabhi Jois that you are competent, dedicated and serious about your yoga. About 80 people worldwide have this qualification – the semi-official list (everybody who is on it is qualified, but not absolutely everybody who is qualified is on it) is at These people are referred to as Authorised teachers.
  3. The most senior Certified teachers generally have to have studied with Pattabhi Jois for ten years or more and to have completed the first of several (hair-raisingly) Advanced practice series. There are just over 30 Certified teachers worldwide. (The certification is actually a something like doctoral-level degree officially recognised by the Indian government, but that’s just a curiosity. The Indian government has no more authority or competence to make pronouncements on yoga matters than any other)

I believe this teacher training system is excellent. Why? Because it works when judged by its results. Pattabhi Jois has been practicing and teaching yoga longer than almost anybody else alive, and he knows what he’s doing. I mentioned previously that I know about a third of the hundred-and-some Authorised and Certified teachers – have attended their classes and/or studied alongside them in Mysore. In my experience they are generally very dedicated yoga practitioners, capable teachers and good folks.

Some people object to the system for various reasons. One is that it absolutely requires attendance in Mysore for substantial periods and so is too much commitment in time and/or money for some people. My view on that is: tough. I wouldn’t want to be taught yoga by somebody who wasn’t dedicated and serious; willingness to go to India for several spells of several months and pay substantial tuition fees is one pretty good way of demonstrating dedication and seriousness. It’s not the only way, of course, and people who are serious about their yoga but can’t, because of family commitments or whatever, drop everything and go to India can pursue yoga teaching qualifications in other schools, some of which are also good.

In any case, acceptance of the reality of where you are is a yogic virtue: I have a small child now, and I started practicing ashtanga yoga when Pattabhi Jois was already in his eighties, so it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever be able to spend as much time studying with him as people who started twenty or thirty years ago. But that’s my karma and there’s no point wailing or gnashing my teeth about it – I just get on and do my practice anyway (currently, as much as my eleven month old son allows).

Another, superficially more serious objection is that Pattabhi Jois’s “curriculum” simply consists of aspiring teachers convincing him that they are serious about, and have attained some level of proficiency in, their own yoga practice. There is nothing in it about teaching skills or techniques as such; no anatomy training; no formal classes in yoga philosophy. In reply to which I would just reiterate: it works. All the graduates of Pattabhi Jois’s non-system that I have taken classes with have been capable, safe and inspiring teachers.

Some of Pattabhi Jois’s senior western students do offer more formal teacher training classes including study of anatomy and theory and teaching assistantships at their own schools. I’m sure this is helpful and people learn a lot from it. But they all also emphasise that the real training is from doing, observing and learning from one’s own practice, and the qualification that counts is Pattabhi Jois’s say-so. Some of the people I’ve studied with have had this kind of apprenticeship, some haven’t. The ones that haven’t are mostly the more experienced ones who started studying with Pattabhi Jois in India years ago and didn’t have anybody to help them when they went home. I haven’t noticed that any of them are any the worse for that.

The “system” has other peculiarities. One is that some of the most experienced western teachers, who studied with Pattabhi Jois long before yoga was fashionable and starting to become commercialised, didn’t bother with any form of official authorisation or certification. I mention this partly as an excuse for a gratuitous picture of one of them, Danny Paradise, doing a demonstration at a course in England a few years ago:

Danny Paradise

Danny is resented by some latter-day purists because he never “served his time” in Mysore and (note the hairdo) because they regard him as a morally lax aging hippy who doesn’t take the whole thing seriously enough. Ha. I found him an inspiring teacher and a thoroughly nice guy, his demonstration was the most impressive I have ever seen by a westerner, and the clincher: Pattabhi Jois speaks fondly of him. A few years ago when I started a lot of these hippy-era “dinosaurs” didn’t appear on the quasi-official teachers’ list. Most but not all of them now do.

There are other good teachers who also don’t have formal qualifications from Mysore. One of my first teachers was a student of one of Pattahi Jois’s Certified teachers in England, but hadn’t been to Mysore himself. A lot of people who are visiting Mysore regularly also start teaching before they have formal authorisation. If you’re going to do this stuff seriously you pretty much have to be doing it full time, and how are you supposed to support yourself through several years of full time yoga study, including regular long trips to India, if not by teaching? So fair enough. Bettina was one of these people up until a couple of weeks ago, and I suspect she probably hasn’t suddenly, magically become an even better teacher just because she now has a piece of paper. When I was in Mysore I never noticed newly authorised teachers being taken off into a corner to be told The Secret.

That’s just the process as it works in one particular school of yoga – the one that I personally have practiced for several years and am therefore qualified to talk about (and, indeed, teach at the most basic level). Other major Indian yoga schools do things somewhat differently but similar basic principles apply in many cases. Probably the largest and most organised is the school headed by BKS Iyengar in Pune, India. Mr. Iyengar also studied with Pattabhi Joi’s teacher Krishnamacharya in the 1930s before going on to found his own school. He was one of the first Indian yoga teachers to become famous in the west in the 1960s and now has a large network of associate schools worldwide. Iyengar yoga has an elaborate system of tiered teaching qualifications. The basic levels are done by training courses in the student’s home country and the minimum training time generally appears to be two years part time; for the more advanced levels the aspirant has to attend advanced teaching courses at Mr Iyengar’s institute in Pune, for which you have to be personally recommended by one or more existing senior teachers, and I’ve heard there is a waiting list of several years. (I prefer Pattabhi Jois’s style – he’ll let anybody who shows up into his classes, but you have to convince him you’re serious before he starts to take much notice of you)

That’s already more than long enough and I haven’t even begun to get on to some of the things I wanted to talk about like: how these current systems as adopted by some of the more traditionalist Indian yoga schools represent an adaptation of the traditional guru-lineage apprenticeship to a world where there is more interest in yoga than ever before; how they compare to more formal teacher training programmes that are springing up in the west; and who, if anybody, really benefits from expecting yoga teachers to have formal paper qualifications anyway. So Coming soon: Part Two.

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