Top 10 Things Exceptional Yoga Teachers Do

Here's the deal: I'm good, but an exceptional yoga teacher is what I want to be. And this is no easy task. No, I tell you, it's not as easy as it looks. 

Here are the concerns of an exceptional yoga teacher:

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  • keep all students from injury

  • exhilarate everyone

  • calm everyone down

  • but lift everybody up

  • be on time

  • know everyone's names

  • devise a beautiful, safe, fun sequence

  • memorize the sequence

  • manage music

  • watch the time

  • remember the sequence for the other side

  • study the alignment of students and assist them as much as possible

  • know left from right

  • speaking in public

  • make everyone sweat

  • cool everyone off

  • so watch the thermostat

  • make sure your own alignment is spot on so that you are a good model of the pose

  • don't injure yourself

  • be the overall energy keeper of the class

  • make sure not to offend anyone

  • but maybe keep it light and fun? People might laugh at some point?

  • make everyone feel seen and cared for

  • but give them space to be in their private world

  • to cuss or not to cuss?

  • that is the question

Whhheeewww. See? The really good teachers can take on all of this stuff. It takes skill. 

So what I want to do is narrow down the most important things an exceptional yoga teacher does. Now, remember, there is no such thing as perfection. You will never be a perfect yoga teacher. You'll never be a perfect anything so just give that up right now. Got to give it up, as Marvin Gaye would say. 

I have been thinking about this for a long time. What makes a really great yoga teacher? I've been studying all my favorites. I've been going to yoga studios all over the world (well, in some countries...I'm not that well-traveled). I've been noticing my own students and what they respond to. I've been thinking about my favorite yoga classes I've ever taken. 

And I've narrowed down the top 10 things great yoga teachers do. As a student, as a teacher, on and off the mat, these are the things that I've seen make a difference to me and to others.

Top 10 Things Exceptional Yoga Teachers Do:

10. They sequence their classes correctly and safely: 

Sequencing is very important for creating a fun, safe class for your students. Here the basics of exceptional sequencing:

  • Good rhythm: warm them up, cool them down

  • Build to a climax or peak pose (sequencing is like storytelling)--prepare the muscle groups for the peak pose with easier poses

  • Have a theme, according to your peak pose

Let it be fun and different. Let it tell a story. Let it be like a dance. Make sure they learn something. Make them proud of themselves. 

9. They make all students feel good:

I am so bad at remembering names, you would think that I black out every time someone tells me his or her name. So this is my own advice I have to heed: make it a game to remember students' names. Come up with something about them that will help you remember their names. 

There have been so many silly times that I've said someone's name, felt like it was wrong mid-name, and trailed off timidly in the middle of saying the name. I should have a gallery of all the funny faces I've seen as I've done that. That's stupid. If you think you have the wrong name, just come on out and ask the name again.

Because calling people by name makes them feel so good. Especially if it's a new student. They will feel seen, heard, cared for, watched over. And that's what you want when you come to a yoga class. I'll never forget how one of my first teachers called me by name in the middle of a huge class during one of my first classes with her. I still have not forgotten her, and I've followed her yoga teaching career (she has since started her own studio and it's awesome and I go whenever I can). 

But I was really impressed not only that she remembered my name, but also that she said it correctly. That is true skill. 

All my favorites have done this in one way or another: made everyone feel important. All students treated equally. Every race. Men, women, kids. Old, young, previous students, new students. A great yoga teacher watches everyone, corrects lovingly when she can. Assists gently and smartly when he is able. A great yoga teacher lifts everyone up, one at a time.

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This is my go-to checklist before I teach. This checklist helps me to make sure I am finely tuned to teach a beautiful class, and to light my students up from the inside.


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    8. They know what to do about music:

    Sometimes I am fantastic at this. Sometimes I stink at this. I have good playlists, and I end up playing them over and over and over again. And that's not good. But it's good that I made some playlists! So I don't know. I'm working on this, but I've learned so many things about this particular topic. It's not about rocking out like you would when you're dancing around in your kitchen (which you should do every night, no matter who is in there), it's about exhilarating your students. Sure, it's good to have a favorite or two for yourself tucked away in the playlist, especially if it's your first class or a scary workshop, but let's get real: it's all for the students. What do they prefer?

    • Know your students: check all the demographics and compare with how they measure up with your songs. Age is definitely a demographic that should be paid attention. For example, I had some elder ladies tell me straight up that they were "not sure about the music" so I toned it down a bit. Guess they don't listen to Drake very much.

    • What kind of class is it? A restorative class might not need Major Lazer songs. A power class might do without the Chinese flute music. You get my drift.

    • Meditation and savasana? All yoga teachers have their own ideas about what to do during the quiet times of the class. Well, the song has to be really good or really relaxing. And that is my opinion. Whatever it is, it has to help the students get deeper, feel better. It has to help their meditative experience during these times. If the meditation involves visualization or intentional thought then music is even more welcome in my opinion. I point to the first bullet point of this section for more thought about this.

    • Music or not at all? For some of my classes, I just say NO. Not today. There is less distraction (especially for me). Sometimes this does not get rave reviews. But when you feel that you should not play music, then just don't. Always follow your instincts, which brings me to lucky #7.

    Get 3 Free Awesome Playlists for

    3 Different Classes

    These are some of my favorite playlists from my library. And you are more than welcome to them! Because I know how relentless the everlasting search for the perfect songs for your classes can be. I've been there. I'm there right now, pouring through Spotify, actually.


    Playlists for 3 different types of classes: restorative/meditative, powerful/fun with a meditative cool down/savasana, and then a playlist for a class that's a good mix (got a little bit of everything).

    So take this and enjoy it, and I hope your students do too!


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      7. They follow their instincts:

      I might come into class ready to be a fiery drill sergeant ready to make washboards of all their stomachs, but I sense when my students need something else. So I turn on my breathy goddess voice to bestow peace and calm amongst their stressed out heads. 

      It's about learning to listen to the energy of the room. You have to read what your students need because it is certainly not about you. I'm learning this slowly but surely. If I feel like doing something, it doesn't matter. It's a listening that has nothing to do with your ears.

      And I also know when to stop listening. Like when they are sending me hate thoughts through the ether. I laugh, and I tell them to turn off their hate now, damn it! Just kidding. But really I'm not. Sometimes I know my students can do a little bit better, hold the pose a little bit longer, and I can feel they are getting angry a little bit, but I think I know what that is. It's resistance. Resistance is a force that will always try to push people back from their best. You've probably experienced this when you've tried to do anything worthwhile in your life. It's closely related to fear, might even be fear at a base level. I don't know what it is exactly, but it tries to keep you from being your best. 

      But an exceptional yoga teacher brings out the best of the student by following her own inner knowings. By trusting his instinct. 

      6. They acknowledge the role of leader:

      You are more than an instructor. You are a leader. A yoga teacher literally leads the students. Yes, that's obvious. Way to go, Liza. 

      But it means more than that. You set the energy and tone not only of the class, but also the energy of your students. They are there, whether they know it or not, to change their energy and state of mind. They look to you for that. Your own energy infects them. It has to happen before they even walk in, in my opinion (unless you're late all the time and they are there before you, like yours truly). 

      You also exemplify how they should interact with each other. If you have a friendly, open smile and demeanor, they will turn to their neighbors with the same warmth. And then all of a sudden, everyone is connected. All the students are united, are in there together. The more you can show love and light, the more they will show theirs. And anyone can practice from home now. We come to a studio or gym so that we may experience community during practice

      It is this way with every facet of your own energy. Showing some humor and lightheartedness will 9 times out of 10 make them laugh. If you are present in your teaching, they will be present in their practice. If you are focused on your breath during meditation, it gives them the strength and concentration to do it themselves. If you are having fun, they will have fun. Show them your love and enthusiasm for the practice. They will show you theirs. The result is a big love fest Stalin could not resist. 

      Energy is contagious. And you are the leader, the captain if you will, of the energy of the precious souls before you. Your example, your way, your attitude, your energy. They look to it before class, during class and after class. Affect them well. 

      5. They keep their own practice a top priority:

      Your own practice is where you started. It is where the flame was lit underneath you, where it turned into fire. Stay very close to that heat because it will sustain your passion. 

      I've been guilty of letting my practice slip. You know what happens? The teaching becomes drab and dull. Novelty slips, and it's very easy to teach the same poses over and over again, just going through the motions. You become bored, and then they become bored (see #6 above). The whole thing becomes kind of a sham. Your teaching lacks luster. Maybe some of your students stop coming (also has happened to me). 

      When you are teaching day in and day out, maybe it's the last thing you think you need to be doing when you have a little bit of free time. But guess what? It's the first. When you are teaching, you are not practicing. You are doing your job (that you love hopefully). You are fostering the practice of your students, and that is work. No doubt about it. And like everyone who works, you have got to a have a plan for release from work. What was your release before you start teaching? Exactly. 

      Let it make you feel good after you have made others feel so good. Life is give and take. Plus, it's a release that helps you to be better at your job. You learn new stuff every time you take a class from someone else. And your presence and energy is clearer, of course. I'm so much more confident, conscious and focused when my personal practice is strong. 

      But you know what? All that's happened is that you have forgotten why you're doing this. Your own practice reminds you of why you wanted to be a part of other people's transformation. What inspired you to become a teacher was your own transformation. So get back to the mat to feel the love for it again and again because your transformation is never done...

      4. They never stop their pursuit of knowledge, creativity and advancement of their trainings: 

      It's like the study of yoga could never stop. I feel like you could study it for the rest of your life and still not know everything there is to know. There is an infinite amount to learn when it comes to your profession. Doesn't that feel good? You will never not have anything to do or learn. 

      Be thirsty for more information. Be insatiable in the pursuit of learning about what you love. The training never stops. Teacher training is only an introductory course. Study your own teaching, learn your strengths and weaknesses. Be completely honest with yourself. Capitalize on the strengths and find more information about your weak points. Take a course on assisting. Do a training for public speaking. Whatever it is. Be relentless about becoming a better teacher. 

      If you feel drawn to something in particular, follow it. Take a workshop on ayurveda. Attend a seminar on crystals. 

      Trying new things is what really sets the exceptional teachers apart. Think outside the box always. Incorporate something into your class you've never seen done before. Experiment. And then you can even learn from your own experimentation.

      It's a big fat classroom, and never have there been more places to go to for information and learning. 

      3. They nourish their bodies: 

      Well, I just can't say enough about eating well. I feel like we all hear it all the time, and adhere to common, good holistic healthy living as much as we can, but I've noticed a tricky thing when it comes to yoga instructors: we think we are so healthy we can break the rules more than other people. Watch out for this.

      Me: "I've taught 2 yoga classes today so eating a whole pizza and 3 beers is fine." 

      The next morning in my class: "All right, I guess let's just do child's pose for 20 minutes everyone. Sway back and forth if you want to or something."

      Talk about sending hatred through the ether. Try that and see what your students think about it.

      Your body is the container of your energy. Hell, it is your energy. According to #6, you need to care about that. Your teaching will suffer if you're hungover, constipated or hangry (everything will suffer, but we're talking about teaching here). Let's treat the temple well: clean foods, plenty of water, fresh air, yoga, aerobic exercise, all the good stuff. Especially before class.

      Clean up your temple. Inspire your students to do the same. 

      2. They keep their minds clean:

      I think, besides yoga, meditation is one of the biggest things you can do for your teaching. Because there is so much crap in your mind you need to need to dump. That sounded very bathroom but seriously, think of meditation as a cleaning out. Still sounds a little bathroom. 

      Practicing meditation before class really creates profound effects. When your mind is clear, there are less mess-ups, less forgetting what you did on the other side, less ums and uhs, less sorries and oopses. But there is more clear direction, confidence, focus, inspiration. You might get the insight to change something about your sequence that could really open something up for your students, a few of which might really need it that day. 

      In your meditation before class, just work on clearing the mind. Work on letting your mind be an open, blank space. This is a way for inspiration and clarity to come in, and these are the best qualities of a good class. 

      1. They never forget their big yoga teacher intentions, the big WHYs: 

      Why did you want to be a yoga teacher? What was the big reason?

      It helps to recall the moment you knew you wanted to be a yoga teacher. What kind of desire was there? What did you feel? What emotions were there? What did you think was possible of the future?

      Maybe you live in an unhealthy place, and you just want to help people to be healthier. It does not have to be profound. Lord knows, mine is not super deep: I want people to feel better so that they do better. That's it. In so many words. I just want to lift people up to the next level.

      So think about that. Ponder it. You're probably, most likely, not in it for the money. And if you are, that's good enough. Start with that. Money is a coverup word for freedom and love in my opinion. It all comes down to the beautiful transfer of energy, and your intention will probably have roots somewhere around there.

      Keep this big intention of your career in your mind at all times. Especially before class. Meditate on it. Make a mantra from it. Practice your own practice with it.

      Remember how fortunate and privileged you are to be doing something that you love. Feel gratitude for your career, that you get to be a teacher of one of the oldest disciplines that is actually more popular than ever. That's crazy if you think about it. It's like a revolution that you get to be a part of. 

      You were called to this profession for a specific reason so remember that big why constantly. Never give up the why. Remember your big yoga teacher intention always. 


      Who are some of your favorite teachers? What do they do that you admire? What are your yoga teacher tips? Comment below, I'd love to hear about it!

      Related: How to Accelerate Your Teaching with Mudras: 11 Hand Gestures & Corresponding Poses

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