My answers are as diverse as the 3 decades during which I've practiced. But some things are constant, it would seem, so here's what I can tell you about what I look for - either in a classroom setting, or in my own yoga room:
Words Matter: Interesting, when I work alone, I mentally narrate my practice. I'm a verbal person - as you know - and language merges with my physical response when I do asana. For me, the words are synch mechanism like breath. If a teacher is inarticulate, I cannot stand it. For better or worse, tone of voice and vocal speed are also very important to me.
The Teacher Has To Know What (S)he's Doing: You can see I put a lot of onus on the teacher. But in this respect, the relationship is non-negotiable. If you don't know what you're doing (and we all find ourselves at the edge sometimes, in practice), you need to be working with someone else who does. To link with the point above, a teacher who knows what she's doing (I'll use the female pronoun here) is more likely to speak articulately and in a tone that fosters confidence. Teachers who are highly knowledgeable and engaged seem to pull pertinent words from the air and those words are relevant to their students as they perform a pose.
But back to the concept of yogic knowledge... I always look for a teacher with a deep understanding of anatomy and the interconnections of parts of the body (from a muscles-in-movement perspective). I want someone with a long-standing experience of the poses she teaches who understands those poses well enough to be able to modify them for students, as necessary, so that they can achieve the benefit without risking injury to the body or ego. I want someone who explains things (back to language, it would seem), who demonstrates on her own body or on willing students and who pays attention to what's happening. If she's going to talk about breathing/yogic concepts/philosophy/psychology, she'd best understand exactly what it means - and how to teach it.
Creativity is Key: Your body is an amazing machine. It learns, retains, develops, regresses, progresses, heals but it cannot do this to its full capacity when its bored. Really, I'm not talking about the mind at this point. If the body is bored (or freaked out, for that matter) it doesn't thrive in practice. Highly interrelated with this concept is that of the structure of practice or sequencing. Those classes that blow your mind, that change your life, are those that engage your body creatively in ways you've rarely experienced before.
I always say: A good class gets around you and it does that because it's sequenced well.
I'm not going to get into sequencing in detail - it's an art and a science - but I will say that every class you've enjoyed owes much of its success to how the poses have been sequenced and timed. It makes the difference between achieving a new frontier and feeling stuck or even sick. So I will only work with a teacher who understands this premise as I do.
The reason that so many people struggle to create a home (or personal) practice is because they just can't find the creativity. They feel somehow inauthentic when they're not being told what to do - and they also tend to sequence things suboptimally (especially when reasonably new to yoga).
BTW, if you want to learn to practice on your own (and really, there should be a class on this!), the key is to understand sequencing. Also, to kit yourself out WELL. And to practice in the same spot. I could write a post or two on this...
But more pose-specifically, what do I like in a practice?
- I love slow vinyasa - the kind of class in which movement does not stop but which gains momentum imperceptibly. These classes don't shock the body, but they work it relentlessly. I'd rather do a class at this pace than any other (well, variety is good but 7 out of 10 times, this is my preferred groove).
- I like holding poses for a long time. That's not at odds with the bullet above. One can link poses (held for long periods) with movement. And, when the vinyasa part of one's practice comes to an end, long holdings can assist in making gains of strength and flexibility.
- I like a practice that includes a healthy dose of seated forward bends. These poses are SO underrepresented in your average class these days. I realize that it's because they can be dangerous. They're not dangerous if they're taught well and, if you suffer from a host of things, they are some of the most effective poses you will ever do.
- I like inversions - especially the fancy ones! (Don't misunderstand, I can't do many of the fancy ones right now, but I do like a good headstand and shoulderstand or a few handstands in a class).
- I love iteratively-sequenced classes - the kind that move to an endpoint (e.g. hanumanasana (front/back splits) or urdhva dhanurasana (wheel backbend), by incrementally increasing physical awareness required, through specifically sequenced poses that precede that end goal.
But, for today, what do you look for in your yoga class (or home practice)? What pace do you prefer? What style (if this matters to you)? What poses do you love? What features in the classroom experience are most meaningful to you? I want to know. Let's talk!