Bridgett Erickson is a Yoga Alliance-registered yoga teacher. She teaches prenatal, postnatal, vinyasa and restorative yoga classes in Minneapolis. Erickson helps new students discover yoga and the complete state of wellness that a dedicated practice offers. She holds a master's degree in health journalism from the University of Minnesota and is committed to quality health journalism. She helped launch the award-winning Web site, www.healthnewsreview.org. Contact her at whale021@umn.edu.

At a recent yoga workshop, teacher Max Strom explained the difference between a yoga teacher and a yoga instructor. Before you even begin to evaluate yoga teachers for your staff, consider this distinction.

A yoga teacher will find ways to explain a posture until the student experiences the pose correctly, meaning that each particular class participant is in a safe position that meets the goals of the student. Usually, these goals are a combination of strength and flexibility. For example, a teacher will walk around the room, much like your second grade teacher weaving through the desks to assure that your cursive was on spot and correcting the extra curly Qs you had strategically added for "personality". The yoga teacher, just like the second grade teacher, spots "personality" or habitual misalignments and offers verbal or physical adjustments that provide the student with "Aha!" moments that result in true changes in a student's body. As fitness professionals, we've all had "Aha!" moments. Maybe it was when we learned to use the hamstring in unison with the quad while working the leg muscles. From that experience, we know that the feeling of learning, or improving, is what keeps people coming back for more.

Unlike the yoga teacher, the yoga instructor will have a similar teaching style to a fitness video. She will stand in the front of the room, give some verbal cues and sweat, stretch and strengthen her body right along with students. Students are on their own as far as creating their perfect alignment according to the model at the head of the class. This style will initially be more familiar to health club students since most likely they have attended other group fitness classes.

I prefer the teacher approach, and having been asked to teach yoga both ways, I base this preference on experience. Here are the two main reasons you want a teacher vs. an instructor.

  • A teacher watches. When I instructed a class by performing the postures for all to see, I couldn't see the misalignments occurring in the bodies of the students. I could only cue based on common misalignments. My instruction was generic. The flow of the class was determined by how I felt rather than the physical position of the students' bodies. And when I stopped having my own personal yoga practice in front of the room, I was able to see firsthand that many students weren't coming along as swimmingly as it appeared from a distance. Students who appeared stable had subtle misalignments of joints, like a knee creeping out past the ankle when held in a bent position. When a teacher moves to view students from the side, the view allows a different perspective of their alignments. From this view, a teacher can easily provide a verbal or hands-on adjustment to students in need. Bottom line: this approach keeps your clients safer in the classroom.
  • Students aren't watching. I've given surveys to my students for years. Consistently, students come to the mat for the "peace of mind" that yoga offers. Part of reducing stress is being comfortable in your own skin. For yoga, this means dropping comparisons. If a student is watching and trying to copy an expert at the front of the room, it is hard not to compare, contrast and eventually start to question his or her personal success. When I instructed and demonstrated at the front of the room, students misaligned their heads and necks to get a good view of what I was doing. When you teach with words and physical adjustments, this craning of necks and comparing of one body to the next disappears. Plus, we "watch" all day long. Our eyes need a rest. Leading a class from the teaching philosophy allows students the chance to rest their eyes and just listen.

As you hire instructors, their training method and experience level will be the best indicator as to which teaching camp they belong. With that said, most teachers employ a combination of both. I don't hesitate to pull out my perfect pose if I've used my verbal cues and someone is still looking lost and confused. During the evaluation phase of hiring yoga teachers, pull in a group of your staff — those who do yoga and those who think of a sullen street mutt when they hear the words "down dog." Watch for a teacher who addresses the whole room. Does she let the novice student sink or swim while getting in a personal competition with the talented yogi? Or does she keep a safe, beginner's pace to acknowledge the new student and introduce challenge postures sprinkled in for the old pros in the room?

Other factors to consider when hiring a yoga teacher:

  • Does the teacher have a dedicated yoga practice? A teacher usually practices at least four times a week.
  • Is the style of yoga the teacher trained in of interest to your clients? If you want a more active vinyasa yoga class designed to build strength and stamina, look for teachers trained in power or ashtanga yoga.
  • Check certifications. The www.yogaalliance.org Web site has a database of registered yoga teachers who have completed at least 200 hours of training. You can start a search here or pick your favorite fitness teachers and send them to training.
  • How many years has the teacher practiced and or has been teaching? This is an indication of the teacher's commitment to yoga and experience level.

It's also important to be sure a yoga teacher's communication style matches your club's culture. The 16 million Americans rolling out their yoga mats aren't all into chanting "OHMMM," and any yoga teacher you hire should have this in mind.

It is probably wise to set a standard for teachers as far as your yoga philosophy in the health club setting. Most of the Dharma (Indian term used to explain religion or higher truth) talk that occurs in a class can easily be translated into common speak. Encourage instructors to use phrases like "let go," "be in the moment" and "clear the mind." Statements like, "surrender to a higher being," or "aligning your energy with the vibration of the universe" may be more appropriate for a yoga studio than a fitness-based facility.

Talk to your instructor about the mission of your organization. If it is primary fitness, health and wellness, these are the themes that should resonate through any teacher's style. A good yoga teacher can bring all the juicy yoga goodness of calming the nerves, releasing tension and clearing the mind without chanting or quoting ancient yoga texts.

Some tips:

  • Encourage your teachers to choose inspiration that speaks to all. Contemporary poets and non-secular philosophers or writers are full of wisdom that will be accessible and inclusive.
  • All Sanskrit needs to be defined. If you are comfortable with your teachers using Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga, require them to define any phrases used. For example, it is traditional to end a class with the greeting of "Namaste." This translates to "I honor the light in all beings." If a teacher says it in front of new students, they should always indicate the meaning. No exceptions.