What is a Spiritual Teacher?

I just read a great article about how to conduct yourself as a yoga teacher: Five Keys to Great Yoga Sequencing by Derek Beres. This paragraph made me laugh out loud, because I could really identify with it:

Ground yourself. I am not what you’d call a ‘spiritual’ teacher. In fact, I have no idea what that term really means. Spirituality is usually defined as believing that another way of existing in the world is possible but that you’re not living it. That’s a neurosis, not a mark of divinity. It’s fine to acknowledge and work through conflicts, but don’t celebrate them. Go to the source and confront it. I’ve been in a number of classes where the instructor spends half the time talking about very abstract principles of future lives, gods and spirits and souls and weird translations of karma, and yet cannot remember the sequence that they’re teaching. The right side of the flow ends up completely different than the left. Offering students unbalanced asana sequences is not balanced out by taking them out of the room. Ground the flow first; then if you need to fly off, go for it. But you won’t get any height if your feet don’t begin on the ground.

According to Shakti Mhi, who taught my Level 1 Yoga Teacher Training, spirituality is to see beyond the concepts that form our sense of identity, and get in touch with our true nature. By this definition, I would say any yoga teacher who encourages mindfulness is a spiritual teacher, even if it’s as simple as saying “focus on your breath.” “Future lives, gods and spirits and souls and weird translations of karma” can help guide many people toward spirituality, but they can also be counterproductive. As in the example Derek Beres gives, yoga teachers can get so caught up talking about spirituality that they forget to teach spiritually and mindfully. It’s hard to be an effective spiritual teacher if you’re not leading by example. As yoga teachers our job is to meet people where they are, and, from there, gently lead them on a journey towards greater strength, flexibility, or spirituality, depending on what they’re open to. If you rush people into a journey on which they’re not ready to embark, they’ll leave thinking something like, “Yoga is too hard for me” or “That class was so boring” or “I signed up for a yoga class, not a seance.” You have to be mindful of your crowd. You have to accept them as they are instead of perceiving them as you’d like them to be. You have to make it worth their while to put aside their yoga DVD and come into a space where their teacher can see them, hear them, and feel them. Of course, you can’t please everyone and different classes have different target audiences, but, as Derek Beres says, “dialogues are always better than monologues.”

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