Resources for yoga teachers who want to integrate yoga philosophy into their classes and workshops.
For Yoga Teachers
A Case Study in Yoga Class Design
I smelled smoke. I felt heat. I couldn’t see a thing. My senses sent urgent messages to my mind, which quickly analyzed the data and delivered its conclusion: “You’re going the wrong way! Go the other way!”
I ignored my mind and continued to walk through the pitch-black room, slowly but steadily moving toward a fire I knew was hiding behind a wall that was somewhere in front of me.
The heat intensified. I leaned into the heat. Up above, I saw thin threads of fire flicker and vanish. Then, a sudden burst of flame billowed across the ceiling like an upside down ocean rolling in at high tide. I stood beneath a blazing canopy of rippling fire. [Read more…] about Designing a Yoga Class Around a Philosophical Theme
I was speaking with a fellow yoga teacher last week about how to integrate philosophical themes into our classes. She mentioned that sometimes she’s not so interested in hearing any philosophy, that sometimes she takes a class with the intention of just letting go of stuff that’s been weighing her down.
And when she takes a class to unload her own stuff she’s not particularly interested in hearing about the teacher’s stuff. It’s a common practice for teachers to connect with students at the start of a class by sharing a bit of what’s going on in their own lives.
For me, it’s standard operating procedure: I always come prepared to share a little bit of my life with my students as a way to inject some element of yoga philosophy into my class.
Many of the teachers that work with me do so because they want to learn this particular skill: the art of seamlessly embedding yoga philosophy into a class in order to help students connect their outer physical practice to a deeper inner practice.
But sharing a personal realization about yoga philosophy can go either way. For one student, it may be exactly what they needed to hear in order for them to be able to let go of whatever they needed to unload. For another, it may be just the opposite: unwelcome static that hinders their ability to let go of whatever they were hoping to let go of.
So, what should a yoga teacher do? Should a yoga teacher share their personal realizations as a way to teach yoga philosophy or is it better to just invite students to use their practice as a way to work out whatever they need to work out? [Read more…] about How to Help Students Let Go
I was called to teach yoga by a desire to share the benefits that I experienced during the course of developing and deepening my own practice.
If you’re a yoga teacher, I’m betting that your primary motivation for teaching is the same as mine. Almost every teacher I know arrives at their Yoga Teacher Training program with a desire to serve others by sharing the gift of yoga.
The science of yoga is described in the Bhagavad-gita as ‘the king of education, the most secret of all secrets, and the purest knowledge’. Krishna – the speaker of the Gita – makes it clear that his motivation for delivering these teachings is compassion, that he speaks of this divine science out of love, and that even though he is equal to all, no one is more loved by him than one who delivers these teachings to others.
Teaching is an art that you never stop learning. Here are seven ways you can take your experience of yoga to a higher level and elevate your unique value as a teacher:
- Spend some time in an intentional spiritual community: there’s no substitute for living with people who are fully immersed in a spiritual lifestyle, even if only for a short time. Visiting an ashram, participating in the spiritual practices of the community, and seeing first-hand how members of a community practically apply the values of yoga to daily life can be both inspirational and transformative.
- Take an advanced yoga anatomy course: go beyond the basics to learn more about the physical body of muscles, bones, and tendons and how it’s connected to the metaphysical body of energy, thoughts, and feelings. By expanding your knowledge of how each part of your body works in relationship to all the other parts, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of why you feel what you feel in your practice and understand more about why the same pose looks radically different from one practitioner to another.
- Learn Pranayama from an expert: Pranayama is a specialized science that very few yoga teachers really know how to practice much less teach. The liberation of the life force through control of the breath is the fourth limb of the yoga system and yet we tend to skip past Pranayama and jump straight to meditation. By learning how to practice and teach Pranayama from someone who really knows the science, you can add a missing link to your own practice and really differentiate yourself as a teacher.
- Learn how to practice ‘yogic’ meditation: Most of the popular meditation practices taught in yoga studios are actually Buddhist practices that have been integrated into modern, westernized yoga. And while ‘mindfulness’ and other Buddhist forms of meditation have their value, ‘yogic’ meditation, as described in the Yoga-sutras, is quite different in both its techniques and objectives. Again, very few yoga teachers practice or teach the object-oriented form of meditation recommended in the original yoga tradition. Developing a yogic meditation practice will open up a whole new dimension of yoga for you to share with your students.
- Svadhyaya – guided study of yoga wisdom texts: The first few times I tried to read yoga wisdom texts like the Bhagavad-gita I was reading on my own and I felt lost. My inability to access them left me feeling frustrated. It wasn’t until I studied them systematically, under the guidance of experienced teachers, that I was able to wrap my head around them and apply their teachings in my own life. The fact that I was studying in a group setting also made a big difference. The best way to deepen your understanding of yoga philosophy is to find a community of like-minded people who are studying with a qualified teacher who can connect the ancient wisdom texts of yoga to life in the modern world.
- Learn about Ayurveda: It’s not called ‘the sister-science of yoga’ for nothing: the principles of Ayurveda have a direct correspondence to the principles of yoga. Learn how to practice yoga in harmony with your natural bodily constitution, with the cycles of the sun and the moon, and with the seasons. For practitioners who want to experience the health benefits of yoga beyond what they get from their physical practice, Ayurveda provides healing and rejuvenating body-care regimens, food-based practices, and meditations that round out a complete lifestyle of yoga.
- Enhance your communication skills: Getting a concept out of your head and into someone else’s is an art form. When it comes to effectively sharing your personal realizations, the ability to clearly articulate your thoughts is just as important as speaking directly from your heart. Learning techniques of effective communication will help you build confidence in your own voice, amplify the authenticity of your message, and empower you to deliver transformative experiences to your students.
If you want to expand your horizons in any of these seven ways you’re probably asking yourself, ‘how can I find teachers and a community that will enable me to deepen my understanding, extend the scope of my practice, and acquire these kinds of teaching skills?’
The answer: The Bhagavata-sevaya School of Yoga Advanced Yoga Training program at Sky House Yoga in Silver Spring, MD. It includes a complete 300-Hour Yoga Teacher Training curriculum lead by yours truly and my friend and colleague Ashley Litecky Elenbaas.
The 300-Hour Yoga Teacher Training program also includes a weeklong retreat to New Vrindaban, an intentional spiritual community in the beautiful hills of West Virginia. It also includes an Ayurveda module lead by expert Ayurvedic practitioner Hannah Leatherbury and modules that provide in-depth training in teaching methodology, yogic meditation, and yoga philosophy.
The program also features an Advanced Physical and Energetic Anatomy course with Machelle Lee and a Pranayama course with Braja Kishori. These two courses, taught by two amazingly qualified teachers, can each be taken as stand-alone courses for Continuing Education without having to commit to the entire 300-Hour YTT program.
If you would like more information about our Advanced Yoga Training program, come to our Information Session at Sky House Yoga on Saturday, June 16 at 1:00 PM. You can CLICK HERE for a complete description of the Advanced Yoga Studied Program.
And if you have any specific questions, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The world needs the gift of yoga. You have a special talent for sharing yoga. The Bhagavata-sevaya School of Yoga Faculty is eager to help you develop your talent and offer your gifts to the world.
You’ve probably had students ask you which translation of the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita you think they should read. It’s great when our students want to explore yoga’s philosophical foundations. But it’s disheartening if we hear later that they stopped reading because they couldn’t get past the first chapter without feeling lost.
Reading translations of ancient Sanskrit texts requires some guidance, determination, and persistence, especially when the translations are accompanied by lengthy commentaries, as is the case in so many authoritative editions.
Here are seven helpful reading strategies you can share with your students that will help to make the texts accessible and fuel their enthusiasm for yoga philosophy:
1. Just read the translations first, then go back and read the commentary
Assuming a student has an edition that includes the Sanskrit and elaborate commentaries, suggest that they start by ignoring the Sanskrit and the commentaries and just read the translation from start to finish. This will allow them to get a general sense of the complete text. Then they can go back and dive into the details of each verse by reading the commentary. It’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed by reading all of the commentaries along with each text on the first pass, and that can be very discouraging.
2. Try to understand the message of the author.
This may sound obvious but actually it’s very tempting to interpret a yoga wisdom text in ways that validate our own ‘personal truths’. We assume that there’s no such thing as an objective or ‘Absolute’ truth, so we privilege our own perspective.
But communication requires both the articulation of the message by the sender and the comprehension of the message by the recipient. Anytime you try to communicate with another person you have an intention; you want to be understood by the person you’re communicating with.
The authors of traditional yoga wisdom texts want their message to be understood. If we interpret the text with the intention of validating our own opinions or lifestyle, then our egos will sabotage the reception of the message. So encourage students to read with a receptive attitude. That will increase their chances of understanding the message of the author. Then they can decide if the message resonates with them or not.
3. Keep it in context
Taking verses out of context is another way that we can miss the message of the author. Sutras and verses are generally grouped together around a particular topic. For example, early in the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita we read that one should not lament for the living nor for the dead. Taken in isolation we could entertain numerous speculations about what this means and why it may or may not be true.
But if we read the subsequent verses we find the reasoning for the proposition; grieving for someone in any condition, living or dead, means that one has mistaken the temporary body for the eternal self. If we interpret a verse in isolation we may never understand its connection to previous or subsequent verses and miss the point that the text is trying to make about that topic.
4. Defer to the authority of the author
Sometimes we come across passages that fly in the face of our modern sensibilities. It’s tempting to accept the parts of the text that we like and reject the parts we don’t by dismissing them as cultural anachronisms or by turning them into metaphors or by inventing a more favorable interpretation.
The problem with cherry picking the verses we like and casting the ones we dislike aside is that, by doing so, we elevate our own attachments and aversions – the very things yoga wisdom texts encourage us to transcend – above the authority of the author and, in the process, we make ourselves the ultimate authority on yoga. Students who do this effectively disconnect themselves from the lineage of teachers, from the line of transmission through which we receive yoga wisdom.
A better strategy is to encourage students to use their power of critical thinking to try to understand how a disconcerting passage or concept may be true rather than dismissing it, allegorizing it, or re-interpreting it according to their own prejudices.
5. Contemplative reading
The goal of contemplative reading is to allow the text to affect us rather than to absorb information. It’s about associating with the author, listening carefully to the author’s message, and letting the author’s words penetrate deeply into the core of our consciousness.
Encourage students to take their time and and hang out with what their reading. Taking a moment to set an intention of reading with an attitude of humility and gratitude is a great way to slow the process down right from the start. Then they can read through the verses and commentaries with rapt attention until a word, a phrase, or an idea captures their attention. Repeating the significant phrase to themselves a few times will also help them assimilate an idea. Ask them to stay with that point until it releases them, and then continue to read until another point captures their attention.
6. Act on what you read
Yoga philosophy is not armchair philosophy. A unique attribute of yoga wisdom texts is that they give the reader the means by which to re-create the revelatory experience of the author. Realization is applied knowledge: the knowledge contained in the texts comes alive for us when we actively apply the principles that such texts describe. This is the difference between book knowledge and realized knowledge. And the realizations that come from applied knowledge inspire us to dive even deeper into the texts that stimulate such transformative experiences.
So follow up with your students; ask them not just about what they’ve read or what they understood from their reading, but also about how they’re applying their realizations in their life, both on and off the mat.
7. Re-visit the text 6 months later
Once your students have read it, assimilated it, and lived it for a while, encourage them to go back and read it again and repeat the process. This phenomenon never ceases to amaze me: I can read something that I’ve read a dozen times before and each time I find something that feels like I’m seeing it for the first time. Or something will jump out of the text and inspire a thought that hadn’t occurred to me before. I also come up with new questions that had never before occurred to me.
The joy of teaching
In all cases, the value of a qualified teacher to help students understand a text on a deeper level than they might get to on their own can’t be overstated. A good teacher can also help students to apply the teachings to in their own lives. Of course, it’s hard for a novice to identify the credentials of a qualified teacher. If you feel that you have a handle on the teachings of a text that one of your students is interested in and you have the bandwidth to extend yourself, offer to talk with your students about what they read and share your personal realizations with them. Odds are your own depth of understanding will increase simply by having to articulate your understanding. That’s always been the case for me: deepening my own understanding of yoga wisdom texts is one of the reasons why I teach in the first place.
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What are your favorite reading strategies?
How do you approach reading yoga wisdom texts? How do you encourage your students to read for realization rather than just information? Please contribute to the conversation by leaving a comment or suggestion about your favorite reading and realization strategy.
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.
Svadhaya, usually translated as ‘self-study’, is contemplation on the true nature of the self that’s guided by scriptural wisdom.
Rather than mere speculation or self-psychologizing, svadhyaya is a process that provides us with a map to guide us on our journey toward accurate knowledge of our true selves.
Pramana is the Sanskrit word for the methods by which accurate information about the nature of reality may be obtained. In his Yoga-sutras, Patanjali prescribes three such methods: direct perception, logical analysis, and verbal testimony.
Here’s a way for you to lead an exercise in svadhyaya:
Step 1: Have your students make a list of all the different identities they take on during the course of a week.
You can give the process a kick-start by listing some of your own, such as the roles you play at work, the roles you play at home, the roles you play on your way to work, etc.
For example, at work you may be someone’s boss and someone else’s subordinate. At home you may be the head chef or the negotiator-in-chief. When I’m on my way to work my identity may change several times, from in-the-groove-listening-to-my-music guy to impatient-why-is-there-so-much-traffic guy to judgmental-how-come-nobody-in-this-town-knows-how-to-use-a-turn-signal guy.
Our identities change, depending on the relationship we’re engaged in or the mood we acquire, a lot faster than most of us realize. As a result, when we start to make a list, we find that we have a lot more identities in us that we may have realized.
And that’s before we get to the secret identities we’re not going to tell anyone about.
You can make this a group discussion, break your class out into small groups, or have everyone make an individual list in anticipation of a discussion. Once everyone has their list of identities, you can ask, ‘which one is the real you?’
Odds are the answer you’ll hear back is, ‘all of them’.
Fair enough: each of our identities has its own contextual validity. So here’s the follow up question:
Step 2: “Who is the person that experiences all of your different identities?”
In other words, since we can all observe the various changes in our identity that we go through, who is the observer?
Our starting point is a state of identification with the fluctuations of the mind. Our objective is to get to a point where we identify with the self that experiences the fluctuations of the mind rather than the mind that’s fluctuating. Doing this takes practice and detachment: getting into the habit of not readily identifying with the fluctuating mind.
Doing that requires getting a little distance from the fluctuating mind. This exercise is one way to help students start to experience that distance.
This exercise combines direct perception with logical analysis. It’s challenging in part because, our senses are imperfect, our powers of deduction are limited, and our habit of identifying with our acquired psychology is deeply ingrained.
Of the three methods that lead to right knowledge, the most reliable is verbal testimony, provided the source of that testimony is also reliable. If the author of a book about self realization is self-realized or, at the very least, directly referencing literature left behind by self-realized authors, then such a book may be considered a reliable source of information about self-realization.
Is there such a thing as a self-realized person?
The symptoms by which we can recognize a self-realized person, or a person who is steadily travelling the path of self-realization, can be found in the Bhagavad-gita (2.54-61):
How do we know if the Bhagavad-gita is giving an accurate portrayal of a self-realized person? You can look for testimonials from time-trusted sources. For the Bhagavad-gita, there is no shortage of such testimonials: from the sages of antiquity to Emerson and Thoreau and Gandhi and Einstein, deep thinkers with an interest in transcendental knowledge have consistently looked to the Bhagavad-gita as a source of such knowledge.
Yoga has a system of checks and balances to validate a teaching: if your teacher teaches it, the books of yoga wisdom confirm the same teaching, and sages who have illuminated the path of self-realization also confirm the same teaching, then the teaching is accepted as valid.
Here’s another way to engage your students in self-study: contemplative reading.
Contemplative reading is not an intellectual pursuit of information; it’s an attempt to allow a wisdom text to affect us by listening carefully to the message of the author. The goal is to let that message enter deeply into the core of our consciousness. Rather than attempting to read a specific quantity of the text, we attempt to make an intimate connection with the enlightened speaker of the text.
Here’s the process:
1. Humility and gratitude
Take a moment to cultivate an attitude of humility and gratitude as an approach to your reading. Find words in your mind that express these feeling before you start to read.
2. Allow the text to stop you
Read until a word, a phrase, or an idea strikes you or catches your attention. Stop at that point. Repeat the phrase that captured your attention a few times. Simple repetition often helps more to inspire insights so going over a point a second or even a third time can result in a deep internalization of the passage that caught your attention. Stay with this point for as long as it inspires you to do so.
Write out your insights and realizations. Use a pen and paper rather than a digital device.
4. Repeat the process
When you’ve taken this point of inspiration as far as it will go, pause for just a moment, express gratitude for the insights you’ve received, and then move along, slowly reading again until another passage strikes you in the same way. Repeat the process as often as you wish, or for as long as your allotted time allows.
Since contemplative reading is a solitary pursuit, you can have your students engage in the process for a fixed amount of time – say 10 to 15 minutes. Then suggest an individual week-long experiment that they can take away with them: ask them to actively look for ways that his or her insight or realization from their reading plays out in their lives off the mat. You can also suggest that they write down the way that they saw their insight become manifest in the world. At the end of the week, they can revisit the passage that inspired them by reviewing all of the ways that they saw their insight reveal itself in the world.
Svadhyaya even emphasizes scriptural study because one of the functions of a yoga wisdom text is to provide us with the opportunity to re-create the revelatory experience of the author. The value of a genuine yoga wisdom text is that the person who wrote it – or spoke it – is speaking to us via the printed page for our benefit: they’re in a position to help us wake up because they’re not sleeping.
svadhyaya is not just theory, it’s applied theory.
When we take theoretical knowledge about yoga out of the book and into our lives we can start to experience the transformative power of yoga. By trying to align our thoughts, words, and actions with the conception of the self that’s described by self-realized authors of transcendental knowledge, we can actually begin to feel the distinction between our temporary material identity and our eternal spiritual identity.
How do you like to teach svadhyaya?
Yoga Teachers: If you’ve developed some svadhyaya exercises for workshops or teacher trainings that you’d like to share, please tell us about them.