5 Keys to an Effective Dharma Talk

More and more practitioners are looking to yoga as much for sparks of inspiration, knowledge, or wisdom, as they are for a workout. And more and more yoga teachers are feeling inspired to share their personal realizations as they expand their knowledge of yoga philosophy.

One way you can share the wisdom of yoga is through a short ‘Dharma Talk’ at the top of your class. I come from a bhakti-yoga tradition where daily talks on yoga philosophy can last for an hour or more so one of the first things I had to learn about teaching in modern yoga studios was how to give a talk that conveyed an essential teaching in a very short amount of time.

The first studio I taught at had a clock up on the wall above the seat of the teacher. I could always tell when taking to long to make my point because I would see students sneaking a peak at the clock above my head – a clear indication that they were wondering if I would ever stop talking. After a few weeks I realized that I had just 5 minutes to complete my talk before people would start to get antsy.

Meeting the challenges to delivering a short and compelling Dharma Talk

Like me, you may also find it challenging to start your class with a Dharma Talk. My big challenge is that I get so inspired by yoga philosophy that I can talk until the end of the class. I know other teachers who tell me they feel their yoga very deeply but have trouble organizing your thoughts into a tight, coherent message. New teachers often feel as if they don’t know enough about yoga philosophy to speak knowledgably about it.

We can always read a passage from the Yoga-sutras or another book of yoga wisdom but what does the passage mean to you or your students? Maybe the challenge is in connecting a wisdom text to doing “Life-asana”.

After a lot of thinking and a little research, I found that using a simple, five-part structure helped me to make a personal connection with my class, defer to a higher source of wisdom than my own speculation, and bring ancient teachings into a meaningful context that students could practically apply in their practice both on and off the mat.

Here’s a look at the structure I try to use when I speak before an asana class:

1. Share a little piece of your life.

Yoga is about relationships; making connections. Your students want to connect with you, get to know you. So tell a quick story about something you did or something that happened to you. It doesn’t have to be extraordinary or deeply personal. In fact, it’s better to share something that could happen to anyone: a common challenge, a simple joy, or one of life’s familiar annoyances. Take just a couple of minutes to share the experience and tell your students how it made you feel, what you thought about it, and how you responded to it.

2. Invite empathy.

Odds are that your experience is not entirely unique. So take a minute to ask your students if your story sounds familiar. You’ll probably see nods of recognition, of ‘been there, done that, know how you feel’. We share the same kinds of triumphs and tragedies, big and small. How we respond to life’s roller coaster is what matters. And one definition of ‘dharma’ is ‘the best way to respond to one’s destiny’. That brings us to the question of ‘how do we know the best way to any given experience?’

3. Invoke transcendental knowledge.

Find a passage from a book of yoga wisdom that speaks to your story. What advice do the sages of antiquity have for us? How do self-realized yogis respond to such situations? The amazing thing about traditional yoga wisdom texts is that, if we spend a little time with them and try to live their teachings, they have a way of telling us just what we need to hear when we need to hear it. Take a minute to read or recite the text and add some relevant commentary that illuminates the text.

4. Share the effect.

Tell your students how seeing the key elements in your story through the eyes of yoga’s wisdom tradition transformed your experience. You can bolster your student’s faith in the transformative power of yoga by telling them how you have been transformed! Realization is simply applied knowledge so you don’t have to be a philosophy scholar to teach yoga philosophy; all you have to do is try to live whatever little bit of yoga philosophy you’re studying and share your realizations along the way.

5. See the future.

Ask a rhetorical question about what the world would be like if we all took our cues from the masters of yogic wisdom. After all, we don’t just do yoga to change ourselves; we do yoga to change the world by changing ourselves. So encourage your students to join you on the journey, starting right now: link the experience of yoga wisdom in the world to the experience of doing yoga on one’s mat. The key to helping students take their practice off the mat and into their lives is to share your experience of living a life of yoga with them.

Keys to using this structure

To make this work really well, practice giving about 1 minute to each step so that you can finish the whole talk in just 5 minutes. Then when you give your talk, start it casually, in a conversational tone, before you chant ‘Om’ or do whatever you do to get your class centered. That will make your talk feel less like a formal lecture and more like sharing. Then you can ask everyone to set a personal intention that’s based on the essential message of your talk, follow with your centering ritual, and then take your class into the physical practice.

Offering a few reflective thoughts at the beginning of a class about how yoga philosophy makes an impact on your life is a great way to make a personal connection with students and inspire your students to integrate the principles and values of yoga into their own lives. The trick is to keep it personal, focused, and short.

How do you compose your Dharma Talks?

Yoga Teachers: What works for you? How do you organize your Dharma Talks? Leave your tips in the comments below.