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Your Yoga Resolution: 6 Tips for Choosing a Yoga Teacher

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Congratulations on your wise choice to start or revive a yoga practice in 2013. You are not only brilliant, you are also wildly efficient. A good yoga practice makes all those other popular resolutions just kind of happen without much further effort. Yoga, when practiced earnestly, regularly, and for a while, gives a sense of clarity and connection that tends to organically draw us toward healthier choices. Whether or not you actually gain those benefits is largely determined by whether or not you find the right teacher.

There are many ways to practice yoga. These tips are for people who are interested in doing the physical form of yoga poses that is so popular now and which is relatively brand new as a cultural phenomenon. Whether the poses are old or new, our sedentary society of multi-taskers is in desperate need of an elixir for frazzled minds and stiff bodies, and yoga can be just that. Physical yoga moves our bodies into rare and necessary shapes while keeping the mind fixed to one single thing at a time. Thus, interest in it has exploded.

With this increased popularity has come a corresponding and uncontrolled surge in the number of yoga teachers, almost all of whom I believe have the best intentions to pass on something positive and meaningful to them. Paying your yoga forward takes years of personal practice, highly-developed communication skills, and an understanding of the different ways that people learn.

Most yoga teachers have gotten diplomas that say they are ready to teach. Many of them have sustained serious yoga practices themselves and continue to educate themselves. But, sadly, only a fraction of them are fully prepared to teach people to stand on their heads, put their legs behind their necks, or even to do a simple backbend in a way that is safe and that embodies the highly effective non-physical system of yoga practice. That's because the requirements necessary to call yourself a yoga teacher are unfortunately easy to satisfy, and any class can be called a yoga class, no matter what is taught there.

Not many people know that there is no nationally-recognized certifying body for yoga teachers. That's because the popular forms of practice are quite new and varied. The range of yoga practices is so wide, in fact, that creating a single organization that certifies everybody who teaches yoga has not yet proven possible. So, for now at least, you've got to take matters into your own hands and check out different teachers for yourself until you find the one for you. So, here are a few tips for making the most of your new endeavor to practice yoga.

1. Plan for success. Set reasonable goals that will be easy to attain. Slow change is lasting change. Many longtime practitioners practice every day. But, they probably didn't start that way. You'll see benefits more quickly with three classes a week, but if you can only do one, do one. Start where you are. It took me five years to get to the point where I was practicing every day, but I started by doing it once a week. If I hadn't started that way, I'd never have started at all.

2. Start with a beginners' class. Or 10. If all goes well, you'll be doing yoga for the rest of your life. No matter how fit you are, start at the beginning. The better teacher you find, the more likely that there will be some concepts that you didn't learn in other exercise classes, like specific breathing and how to use blocks and straps for assistance. More advanced classes might not teach you the basics that will help you get the most from your practice.

Also, in a beginners' class, everybody is a beginner! You'll feel more comfortable not knowing everything, and the instruction will be better suited for where you are. Then, keep going to beginners' classes until you feel very familiar with the things you learn there.

3. Play the field. Yoga classes and teachers vary widely. Many people try one yoga class, then decide they don't like yoga or that they don't like yoga teachers. One yoga class isn't enough. If you go to a class that you don't like, try another one. Get over it and move on. There is a class and a teacher out there that will be perfect for you.

4. Ask your potential new teacher what makes their class different from exercise classes. A teacher of any subject should be able to tell you what they teach. I frequently ask yoga teachers, in as friendly a way as possible, what qualifies their class as yoga practice. I am amazed at the variety of great answers I get. I am shocked, though, at the number of teachers who can't tell me. They can't identify yoga practice, yet they purport to teach it.

If you are looking to stretch, get strong, have fun, or have a social experience, you can do it all in a yoga class. But, all of those things can also happen in a spin class or a cardio class. Where is the yoga in a yoga class? It's not your responsibility to know that yet, but a good yoga teacher will have a solid answer.

5. Ask your potential new teacher how they prepared to teach. There are too many ways to practice yoga for there to be one simple pathway that prepares you to teach. Many great yoga teachers are not formally educated, and many formally-educated teachers are not great. But, the teacher should be able to tell you how they prepared, whether it be via a structured course or not. If they don't have a clear answer that gives you confidence in their knowledge and skills, look for other options. There are many great teachers out there. You're important enough to have the best.

6. No mean yoga teachers! Is it too much to ask to be inspired? Fancy poses are impressive and fun to do and watch, but they provide no means for measuring the success of a practice. An authentic yoga practice of any kind, physical or not, eventually shows you the way to your soul. And as soon as you see it, you see the same in other people, and you treat them well because of that insight. If a longtime practice is working, the practitioner becomes kind and respectful to other people. You start to like people. Find a teacher for whom the practice seems to be working in the way you want it to work for you.

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