As someone who has identified and pursued the pathway of service as a yoga teacher for two decades, I've contemplated this question for a while now. Recently, I had a conversation with a student who shed light on this topic again which presented me with yet more great points of inquiry into the question, are you a yoga teacher or a yoga instructor?
Let’s begin by defining some terms. I like to explore definitions and make sure that I have a clearer understanding of the words that I use when I'm teaching, sharing on my Beyond Yoga Teacher Training Podcast, and primarily so that I can communicate more effectively. In this blog post, I am going to dig a little deeper into the understanding of these two terms that are used interchangeably in the yoga community. It is my hope to help you understand better your ability to identify with one or the other (or both) so that you can become better equipped in your pursuit of facilitating effectively and skillfully within that role.
Instructor and Teacher
Let’s begin with the word instructor. The word instructor is defined as someone who teaches something, usually a technical skill. The word teacher is defined as someone who helps people to learn. I'll even add that a yoga teacher facilitates, cultivates, and supports an environment for learning as well.
When I explored further the definition of the word, teacher, I also found listed the qualities of
a “good teacher”. These qualities included being skilled in communication, listening, collaboration, adaptability, empathy, and patience. Other characteristics of effective teaching included an engaging classroom presence, value in real-world learning, the exchange of best practices, and a lifelong love of learning. For me, this also includes that a teacher inspires others to cultivate and access these same qualities within the classroom experience that yoga teachers are facilitating in the container of a yoga class.
Take a moment to pause and evaluate the experiences you’ve had in your life with the individuals who have instructed you or taught you, within the yoga practice. Was there a difference in these experiences? This may be a new concept for you to explore. Have you felt that the words instructor and teacher were interchangeable?
I believe that we see these terms represented this way out in the yoga studios or spaces where we practice. I also believe the understanding of these two terms can become muddy and because of this unclarity, it prompted me to explore this deeper. The purpose of understanding these terms better is not to label or create any judgment between the two. Instead, the purpose becomes to better understand your role if you do teach yoga, and your identity because it really will impact your approach and preparation for the classes that you lead.
Similarities and Differences
I did find some overlapping similarities when I explored the definitions of these two terms more deeply. There were also some subtle, yet profound differences. One noticeable point was that Instructors teach a specific practical skill whereas a teacher imparts theoretical knowledge which is concerned with or involves the theory of a subject or area of study rather than solely its practical application.
Interestingly, I also ran across a listing of the distinctions between the two terms which included that a teacher can perform the role of an instructor, however, an instructor could not perform the role of a teacher. Have you ever thought about it that way? This helps to provide clarity when you are seeking to understand better which term you identify with and which role you are going to seek to develop.
Going deeper yet, if you teach someone something, you give them instructions so that they know about it or how to do it. This adds to that last point I mentioned where the teacher can perform the role of instructing others in what I like to call the “how”. You might even consider a teacher as someone who teaches something to someone to initiate them to explore their own thoughts, feelings, or actions in a new or different way. This is different from instructing which focuses primarily on the understanding of the application of the action being taught or the yoga asana. Within the yoga class setting, a teacher offers a new perspective or opportunity to experience the practice beyond the physical layers of the asanas that are being instructed in the class sequence.
I almost prefer the word facilitator to describe my role as a yoga teacher. I am facilitating an environment for others to learn from their own unique experience of the yoga practice. I often consider whether we can really ever teach anyone yet we can share or facilitate an environment where others can come to know or learn, which would really then equate to the student's ability to teach themselves.
Now, let’s discuss some clarity around the statement I made earlier about the importance of understanding our identity, or our role. I have often evaluated that as yoga teachers we could quite possibly get this understanding confused. Within this confusion, I believe, we then could be jeopardizing the effectiveness of serving within these roles. Within the label of yoga teacher, you could begin to view your role solely as an instructor. You instruct students on the “how” of yoga asana and usually from the sole perspective of your experience and knowledge of the postures. I'll also add here that yoga teachers quite possibly have gotten stuck on their own yoga mats demonstrating the physical practice of the class experience, in practice themselves, with the students. So this raises the inquiry, if this is your approach then are you really teaching at that point? I’m going to say not. You are demonstrating and giving instructions. You are not teaching. You are also quite possibly not seeing the needs of the students right in front of you because you are on your mat.
“I almost prefer the word facilitator to describe my role as a yoga teacher. I am facilitating an environment for others to learn from their own unique experience of the yoga practice. I often consider whether we can really ever teach anyone - yet we can share or facilitate an environment where others can come to know, or learn, which would equate to the student's ability to teach themselves really." - Sandy Raper
Get off of your mat
I am a huge advocate and encourager for yoga teachers to get off of their mats within the yoga classroom. For so many reasons but primary so that you might truly see the room, the students, and elevate the experience you are facilitating. As a teacher, when you step of your mat, you will then be better equipped to lead students in real-time supporting the needs of their experience in the classroom. When you remain on your mat, except for those small moments when a demonstration is valuable and needed, then you are not immersed in the space of the room. When you remain on your mat, as a teacher, you are not fully present to support and give guidance and direction from what you are seeing or, as I like to call it, reading into the energy of the room. You can check out more about that concept in Episode 66 of my Beyond Yoga Teacher Training Podcast.
Let me ask you this, if you are a yoga teacher, do you translate the class experience into an opportunity for you to practice? And if that is your perspective, are you then really serving your students with that approach? I know that there is a vulnerability for yoga teachers to step off of their mats. It can even feel scary. It requires great trust and confidence in yourself that you know and have all you need to lead the next posture in your class sequence. I promise you, yoga teacher, that the moment you commit to getting off of your mat and out into the room that the experience of teaching will expand and invite freedom. Freedom from the constructs of your mind, from memorization and rote instruction. You will teach from an organized intuitive space. It is a space that is guided by what is being seen and what is actually going on, in real-time, in the classroom rather than what you think is going on from the confines of your mat.
Back to the understanding of the terms instructor and teacher. My main focus for this blog is for yoga teachers to get clear on these two terms and the impact that this clarity of understanding can make on how they are showing up in this role, this identification of terms.
Let's expand further on the term teacher. A teacher may rarely spend time on their mat in the classroom unless, as I mentioned earlier, they find that a demonstration will add value and elevate the experience of learning. A teacher will use great discernment in understanding when this contribution should be made in the class setting. From my experience, sometimes I know that I may be cueing a different approach towards an asana or sequence and who better to demonstrate and add a layer of visual learning than by me, the teacher, choosing to demonstrate at that time the direction in which I’m leading students to explore.
If we view ourselves as facilitators of flow then we want to be skillful that we aren't breaking the flow. As teachers, you want to give clear guidance and direction while remaining very thoughtful so that your teaching approach does not become a distraction from the flow state of being that is also being offered for the students to cultivate and sustain within the practice setting. I'll also add that if cultivating a one-pointed focus and awareness, or being present, is of importance within the yoga practice, then as teachers, we need to remain aware and conscious of keeping and supporting this effort within the classes we lead.
From my experience of teaching yoga for twenty years now, I have found that when I quickly demonstrate and then present myself back within the space again to see how the directions I’ve given have landed or been received then I can also evaluate where I can make a greater impact with offering more (or less) instruction and guidance to support the direction of the class sequence. It’s a great feedback tool. If the instructions you are giving are not being executed then it isn’t the student's responsibility, rather it is your responsibility as the teacher to explore how to communicate more effectively while striving to say less so that there is space for the student to accomplish more.
I am going to challenge you, yoga teacher, that if you feel you cannot teach (I use that term loosely here) unless you are on your mat, in practice with the students, then you may want to evaluate where you may be encountering obstacles within your confidence in yourself to deliver an effective and skillful class sequence. Also consider your ability to hold space and facilitate the learning environment that I’ve already mentioned that supports the embodiment of what being a teacher means.
Does it matter
Alright, so why does any of this matter.? I’ll take you back to that recent conversation I had that I mentioned at the beginning. The friend I referenced at the beginning of this post is not a yoga teacher. She is a student seeking to find a space where she can plugin and create consistency in her practice. She noticed when she looked on a studio's website that they used the term instructors rather than teachers. The use of these terms matters to her. She went on to explain that she wasn’t seeking someone to solely instruct her through the postures. Instead, she desired someone that could teach, and impart knowledge and wisdom beyond the action or physicality of the asana. She truly feels like there is a difference in these terms and because of this conversation that I had with her, I do too. I feel it is relevant and valuable for those of us that call ourselves, yoga teachers, to explore and understand better our role so that we might better support the students we're serving in our communities. It does matter.
Lastly, what you call yourself really isn’t in question here. I am going to challenge you to understand better your role and which of these terms you identify with. And then how are you making an impact out there sharing the amazing practice of yoga with others? What type of experience are you facilitating for the students that step into the classroom with you? Exand your inquiry and even ask yourself, would I want to be a student in my class?
What I believe does matter more significantly, is that you understand that your ability to refine and grow as a teacher is dependent on your understanding of your identity and the role you play in imparting knowledge and wisdom to others within the setting of a yoga class. You can totally seek to develop your technical skillset for instructing others within the physicality of understanding the yoga asana and the alignment and application of their function. If you desire to understand the term and your role as teacher better and how that role’s function differs from instructor then take some time to evaluate and explore again your intention for teaching.
Once you’ve gotten clear on the role you desire to embrace then seek to refine and develop that understanding within a lens of an ongoing and unending pursuit to know and apply that which you are learning. Practicing yoga and teaching or instructing yoga require different skillsets. Just because you love the practice of yoga doesn’t mean that there is an automatic translation into teaching the practice to others. There is a great level of effort and willingness involved to continually seek to understand better how you might communicate the practice more effectively to others and ultimately fade into the background of the experience rather than stand out and possibly become a barrier to someone's ability to experience the practice more fully.
So, are you a yoga teacher or a yoga instructor?
If you are a yoga teacher and desire guidance to support your current understanding and are willing to explore the mindset and application of how you can effectively and skillfully pursue the pathway of service as a yoga teacher then check out my Beyond Yoga Teacher Training Mentorship Program. I am passionate about supporting and equipping yoga teachers with the tools needed to get clear in this understanding so that you might expand and grow in every facet of your teaching skillset beyond the foundation of teacher training.
The BEYOND YOGA TEACHER TRAINING Podcast is a resource to support, encourage and inspire yoga teachers. Want to hear more on this topic? Click the link below and listen to Episode 73: "Are You a Yoga Teacher or Yoga Instructor? With Host Sandy Raper
On the BEYOND YOGA TEACHER TRAINING Podcast, Sandy shares stories and practical teaching tips from two decades of teaching experience and invites great conversations with inspiring guests to support you in your yoga practice, your teaching pathway...and beyond!