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What is a Yoga Teacher?

I used to have such a hard time describing what Yoga was! I always tried to frame it in a way I felt would be PC or approachable…and failed miserably. Even after studying the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,  which gives a very simple definition of Yoga, I still had trouble with it. After I started teaching, it got worse. I became a card carrying member of the “Yoga gross over simplification club” because I thought, “I need to get people into my class with something catchy!”

As the years progressed, I started to notice that nebulous definitions of Yoga led to nebulous teaching and nebulous integrity. When Yoga can be whatever we want, what does it become?

Many students go to Yoga looking for an elevated experience of what is already comfortable to them. If they can’t sit still in their normal life, they choose a flow style of Yoga. If they are easily distracted, they choose a quiet Yoga. If they are not active, they chose a restorative style. People who want to be skinny, choose a physically challenging style. If it was simply a personal preference, this would suffice. However, the reality is that it always goes deeper.  The aggressive people who chose the aggressive yoga, get more aggressive. The people who are easily distracted are still left not being able to stay focused in their life. The people who cannot sit still and be with themselves, still can’t sit still in their everyday life and be with their own pain and ugliness.  Whatever neurosis we have, we tend to pick a Yoga that further entrenches that neurosis.

In my experience, everyone will say they want to discover the Truth, right up until they realize that the Truth will rob them of their deepest held ideas, beliefs, hopes, and dreams. The freedom of enlightenment means much more than the experience of love and peace. It means discovering a Truth that will turn your view of self and life upside-down. For one who is truly ready, this will be unimaginably liberating. But for one who is still clinging in any way, this will be extremely challenging indeed. How does one know if they are ready? One is ready when they are willing to be absolutely consumed, when they are willing to be fuel for a fire without end.-Adyanshanti

In steps the Yoga Teacher.

The definition of Yoga in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” Patanjali goes on to list the 5 fluctuations or Vrittis:

Right Knowledge


Verbal Delusion



For more details on the principles above, please check out the Yoga Sutras for Every Day Life Series.  

The Yoga teacher’s job is to guide their students to a path that helps them get rid of their vrittis not grow them. Using Patanjali’s definition of Yoga, a Yoga teacher is someone who teaches the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.  Pattabhi Jois said it more simply, “yoga is mind control”.  So a Yoga teacher is someone who teaches students how to control their minds.

What are the tools that a Yoga teacher uses to do this?

In Ashtanga Yoga, the tools are the 8 limbs.

Picture from

Whenever a teacher is out of integrity, you can take out this chart and point directly to what is not being applied. Whenever I get out of integrity, I can point to this chart and immediately know what I have not applied. The 8 limbs are the checks and balances of Yoga and they are the tools of the Yoga teacher’s trade.

Many traditional teachers start their workshops with this mantra which is about the teacher/student relationship:

सह नाववतु
सह नौ भुनक्तु
सह वीर्यं करवावहै
तेजस्वि नावधीतमस्तु मा विद्विषावहै
शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः

Om Saha Na vavatu|
Saha Nau Bhunaktu |
Saha Viiryam Karavaavahai |
Tejasvi Nau-Adhiitam-Astu Maa Vidvissaavahai |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||

Aum! May He protect us both together; may He nourish us both together;
May we work conjointly with great energy,
May our study be vigorous and effective;
May there be no dislike between us
Aum! Let there be peace in me!
Let there be peace in my environment!
Let there be peace in the forces that act on me!


Note the line, “may there be no dislike between us”. It is known in Yoga that there maybe a time in the relationship when the student is not going to like the teacher’s advice and the teacher is not going to like the student’s behavior. Many modern yoga teachers are afraid of this. I was afraid of this. Setting a definition, that was not nebulous, meant that I would be expected to deliver something. It meant that I would have to stand for something. Would I be willing to risk the lose of a student or a class or my job at a Yoga studio because, as the mantra says, I am trying to make my teaching, “vigorous and effective”?

I have seen so many great teachers retract their true statements, water down their teachings, water down their blog posts, water down their Periscopes and Facebook statements because being nebulous is the safe route. Being nebulous gets more likes. Being nebulous keeps the peace. Being nebulous gets you more students.  Does being nebulous follow Ahimsa? Are we harming our students by pacifying them? Does being nebulous go against Aparighraha? Are we keeping information from them that could help them?  Are we practicing Satya or truthfulness? Are we practicing Asteya/non stealing? Are we taking them toward Samadhi or away from it?

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail