Donna Farhi on Why Your Yoga Teacher is Not Your Friend

In this interview, we discuss her latest book Teaching yoga swing: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship and consider it in relation to our recent video interview with yoga teacher Mark Whitwell on The Definition of a Yoga Teacher.

Kara-Leah: How would you define the relationship between a yoga teacher and their student?

Donna: First let me say that I always capitalize the word Yoga to reflect that it is a 5,000 year old spiritual tradition and therefore should be recognized accordingly, like the word Buddhism.

I think it is impossible to define what the relationship between a Yoga teacher and student is because that depends on the teacher and it depends on the student and the degree of connection, commitment and intention on the part of one or both parties.

But what I can say is that as a teacher I attempt to offer my fullest commitment to the process of creating a context where the student can realize the wisdom of Yoga through their own practice.

Kara-Leah: What is actually being taught in a yoga class?

Donna: One of my students in Amsterdam once said that he felt “an invisible message in between the lines of every instruction.” Regardless of whether we are teaching meditation, pranayama, asana, Yoga Nidra, or speaking about the philosophy of Yoga, I believe that ultimately what is shared is the modeling of the teacher being completely authentic within themselves and present within the moment.

This capacity to be in a state of focused presence sets up a field that is palpable and it is through this invisible web that the teachings get transmitted. More and more I believe the most important thing that can be shared is how to befriend yourself in all your dimensions, and as a result how you can be in friendship with others.

Kara-Leah: What are the qualities of a good teacher? If a student is seeking out a good yoga teacher to learn from, what should they look for?

Donna: Because I train teachers I’ve had a great deal of time to consider what makes a good teacher. I can tell you straight off it has very little to do with whether a teacher can do virtuosic movements and everything to do with their yoga trapezeinterpersonal skills.

That is, are you good with people? Do you know how to listen? Do you truly care about others and genuinely feel satisfaction when your students show progress?

I’ve known teachers who have all the moves, but they have been unsuccessful in generating any kind of student body because they are just terrible in their interactions with others. I have colleagues who, while capable and refined in their practice are not highly adept at difficult asanas, but they often have very successful studios because they offer safe and practical instruction, and a loving environment and community for their students.

Kara-Leah: Are there different ‘levels’ of yoga teachers? How would you define those?

Donna: I think there are definitely different levels of teachers depending on the depth of what you wish to transmit. Some teachers are very happy to offer a basic and safe introduction to practices such as asana and pranayama. I don’t see this as hierarchical because helping people to use these aerial yoga hammock practices is a great gift to humanity. Well done!

But perhaps the teacher is interested in sharing how one might dive into the revelation of our indivisible oneness, which is the deeper wisdom teachings of Yoga. How can I help the student to see through the obscurations to that realization?