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?
To some extent, the answer depends on what kind of teacher you want to be and what you think it means to offer an authentic experience of yoga. Some teachers see themselves as facilitators of their student’s practice. In this case, it’s the student’s world; the teacher just lives in it.
Students who are attracted to ‘facilitator’ teachers are usually interested in doing their own practice. They’re happy to fly their own planes while the teacher directs flight operations from Mission Control.
I think that’s fine, both for practitioners for whom the practice is one of insular self-care and for teachers who feel better suited to creating a safe space for letting go than to providing education about yoga philosophy.
My own calling is one of providing meaningful spiritual education to my students. By ‘meaningful spiritual education’ I mean an education that empowers them to engage with the material world from a position of transcendental knowledge, one that offers tools for both unloading stuff that’s weighing us down and downloading tools that will lift us up.
It’s hard to know how what I have to say will affect someone. It may be helpful or it may not. It’s easy for a ‘Dharma Talk’ to come off as heavy or preachy if it’s not done with some finesse and sensitivity. And we may choose a topic that has nothing to do with whatever’s going on with a student that particular day.
The root cause of all of our problems is avidya: our inability to see the truth about ourselves, the world, and our relationship with the world. Whatever we hope to unload during a class has its origin in avidya.
The most basic teaching of yoga – that we are eternal spiritual beings having temporary material experiences – addresses the root cause of all of our problems.
So I find myself sticking to basics a lot; repeating the same simple message about the distinction between spiritual and material consciousness in as many different ways as I can think of. Over time, I’ve learned to share these teachings rather than preach them. And the more I work on cultivating my own experience of these teaching, the more life shows me all the different ways they can be shared.
So after I spoke with my friend who goes to classes just to unload her stuff, I thought more about the different ways that I can share a piece of my life and make a philosophical point while still leaving plenty of space for anyone to just let go of whatever stuff they need to unload.
It really just comes down to being aware of the vibe of the class, being aware of my own state of mind, and accurately assessing my level of knowledge about the students who showed up to class. If I can get a good read on these three things then I’ll be in a good position to know whether I should be specific about my philosophical messaging or say just enough to give people space to let go.
Yoga is, after all, a subtractive process: the process of letting go of whatever obscures our view of our true, spiritual nature.