How to Help Students Let Go

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.

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

Hari-kirtana

I’m a yoga teacher based in Washington, D.C. and the author of In Search of the Highest Truth: Adventures in Yoga Philosophy. I lead Yoga Teacher Training courses, workshops, and yoga classes. I also serve yoga practitioners as a private instructor and assist yoga teachers in their professional development.

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Comments

  1. Good afternoon,
    I just finished your book, In Search of the Highest Truth, which I really enjoyed. I am a new yoga teacher and first heard you on a podcast which you described the structure ( me, you, wisdom, me, we) of how you discuss philosophy in class. I love this structure!! However i did not see examples in the book and wanted to know if you could direct me to any content where you use this structure, so I could have a better understanding.

    Thank you in advance and for your work in brining philosophy into the asana practice.

    Justin

    • Hi Justin:

      Thank you very much for reading my book – I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed it.

      I’m also happy to hear that you liked the structure I described in the podcast. ‘In Search Of The Highest Truth’ is a book about yoga philosophy rather than a book about how to teach yoga philosophy so I didn’t bring the 5-part ‘Dharma Talk’ structure into the dialog. And since the discussions upon which the book is based were all long-form workshops rather than short-form talks, the structure never really came into play. In fact, it hasn’t occurred to me until you asked that I provide such examples in my workshops on integrating yoga philosophy into classes, I don’t have any examples of the structure online.

      With this in mind, I’ll look for an opportunity to record a few examples and send them to you. Meanwhile, I have a blog post in my section for yoga teachers where I talk about the structure in more detail than I might have on the podcast: Click here to check out my post called 5 Keys to An Effective Dharma Talk.

      Thanks for writing and I’ll follow up with you soon.

      – Hari-k

  2. I appreciate it if the teacher does so tactfully and is clearly speaking from a well thought out life experience. Usually this comes with age. And a big part of that is speaking to an issue that is largely resolved already rather than something the teacher is currently working out. Otherwise it’s condescending or self serving, in which case I’d prefer the teacher explore silence.

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Eric. Your observation that ‘usually this comes with age’ struck me as particularly significant, perhaps because I’m reading Richard Rohr’s book ‘Falling Upward’, wherein he speaks about how the second half of life ought to be different from the first half of life from the standpoint of both personal spiritual growth and how a community’s elders are meant to serve the community differently than the community’s youthful members.

      I’m in general agreement with you about ‘resolved’ versus ‘still working it out’. The only exception I would make is when a teacher is sharing the process that they’re using to do the work – so that the emphasis is on the process rather than the result – and the process itself is based on an authentic source of yoga knowledge (a qualified mentor or wisdom text) rather than being a product of the teacher’s own speculation. Hope you’re well. – Hkd

  3. Dear Hari,
    I want to thank you for sharing bits of your personal life and then relating it to a philosophical aspect.
    Right now I am spending a lot of time with a ‘facilitator’ teacher who is absolutely great, however I love hearing something at the start (or during) class that resonates on a deeper level, something I can think about after class is over.
    After all, this is what made me go to yoga classes in the first place.