Teacher: “Ah, wonderful! A new student! What brought you to yoga today?”
Student: “I understand that yoga is about becoming more flexible…I need that.”
Teacher: “Yes, yes, yoga challenges the rigidity of our mindset!”
Teacher: “And when we recognize that our tendency to identify with our physical shape and form is merely a confusion, then our true identity can emerge as unchanging, eternal, and free.”
Student: “Well, my hamstrings certainly feel unchanging. Can we free that?”
Teacher: “Yes, of course! Because you are not your hamstrings. Your hamstrings are not you.”
Student: “Umm…can I just forward fold?”
We are standing on the precipice of yoga’s next great incarnation. Over the last century, the practice of yoga has expanded beyond its motherland. Now, in every class we teach, we are forging and defining the identity of yoga within our culture. Yoga is no longer an incense-scented hippie habit from the counterculture of the 1960s. Today, yoga is mainstream. You can buy a yoga mat at Walmart, Lululemon is considered office casual, and mala beads are sold as jewelry. Yoga is here to stay.
We are standing on the precipice of yoga’s next great incarnation.
As yoga moves from outlier to insider, teachers have the unique opportunity to redefine the definition of yoga within their own cultural context. This transition is full of opportunity and delightful confusion. Most poignantly, we often struggle with wanting to uphold the roots of the tradition while maintaining the favor (and attendance) of our students. How can we ethically negotiate this balance?
While each teacher’s answer will be personal, and each class situation unique, here are five guidelines that will help you find your best route through this thorny philosophical wilderness.
1. Clarify your intention.
First and foremost, yoga philosophy isn’t about words—it’s about ideas. Our students are practitioners, not scholars.
When you want to bring philosophy into your class, pause to consider your underlying intention and purpose. For example, if you want to talk about Hanuman, the monkey god, what impact are you hoping to have on your students? What do you want them to learn? It could be that you just love Hanuman and want everyone to know about him. But if you aren’t clear about your intention, you run the risk of seeming pedantic. When you are clear about the underlying intention of the story (for example, “I want my students to remember that they can take a great leap of faith for love!”), then you can more effectively share the heart of the teaching.
If you’re going to bring some of the less mainstream practices into the classroom—such as kirtan (chanting) and kriya (cleansing techniques), or if you’d like to talk about the vayus (the directional movements of energy)—then give your students some context for the practice so that they understand your intent.
2. Define your terms.
It can be gratifying for teachers to share philosophical terms in Sanskrit, but make sure you translate what you are saying so that students don’t feel they’re in the wrong clubhouse. Even terms that you may deem commonplace—such as “om,” “virabhadrasana,” or “namaste”—can be alienating for new students. If you use Sanskrit, take the time to explain what your words mean. A little extra effort in defining your terms will help everyone feel included and make yoga philosophy more accessible.
Even terms that you may deem commonplace—such as “om,” "virabhadrasana,” or “namaste”—can be alienating for new students.
3. Make it relevant.
Resist separating philosophy from practice. Instead, try to relate directly to your students’ lives the spiritual terms and stories that you share with them. Help them bridge the gap between an abstract yoga idea and its practical implementation. For example, if you want to share the concept of tapas (heat and intensity for the sake of transformation), move beyond definition to application. Help them see how their willingness to undergo intensity not only assists them in warrior II, but can help them in that sticky board meeting as well.
Let’s face it: we’re what the yogis call “householders”—we live squarely in the fray of human relationship, drama, and conflict. And yoga practice can help us, and help our students, to negotiate these challenges with more grace. By taking the opportunity to connect the dots for your students, you can help them understand that they can take their yoga practice off their mats.
4. Know your audience.
We want yoga to be accessible. As Krishna teaches in the Bhagavad Gita, yoga isn’t just for the mendicant in the Himalayan foothills—it’s for everyone: moms, dads, business owners, and barkeeps alike. If our goal is to bring the remarkable science of yoga to as many people as possible, then we don’t want to scare our students off.
Who are your students? Are they seasoned practitioners at a boutique studio, or first-timers at an all-levels class at a gym? If you’re teaching an advanced class, they may be ready to hear the crazy revelation you had about that Upanishad or be excited about a ten-minute chanting party. At a gym, they may want to stretch their hamstrings and call it a day.
If you offer practices that may be unexpected for some students (chanting or kirtan, for example), then give them the option to observe the practice rather than participate. Explain what the practice is designed to do and why your students may find it beneficial. Help your students to feel safe and to feel that they belong here too. Soon your gym students may be showing up at that little boutique studio.
5. Share what you love authentically.
What inspires you most about the practice? How is practicing and teaching yoga different from other physical disciplines?
To be a great yoga teacher, you don’t need to use philosophical terms or tell stories from mythology. Being a great yoga teacher is about lighting the lamp of self-inquiry in our students and inspiring them to live fuller, richer lives. Some of us may choose to use philosophy explicitly for this purpose, while others may never utter a Sanskrit word.
If you do choose to share philosophy, share concepts that are authentic to your own personal experience. Just as it can be dicey to teach a pose you’ve never personally done, it’s also unwise to share philosophy that isn’t personally meaningful and clear to you. When you share from your heart, even the most esoteric yoga philosophy becomes relevant and relatable. Then it comes alive.
If you do choose to share philosophy, share concepts that are authentic to your own personal experience.
The Heart of the Practice
Scholars estimate that yoga has been practiced on this planet for at least three thousand years. And within that time, many diverse and divergent forms of yoga have been explored and developed. But though there may be a myriad of practices and philosophies, the goal of these practices is the same: self-realization.
Now that yoga is spreading beyond the bounds of its native land of India, it is natural that this transcendental technology will continue to evolve and ripen as it appears in different cultural contexts. Yoga outside of India will never be the same practice as it is within India; how could it? However, we teachers have a sacred (yes, sacred) duty to mindfully consider how we want to participate in this great synthesis, and to teach in a way that upholds the heart of the practice.
You are the face of twenty-first century yoga. You are the embodiment of the teachings. Carry them forward with humility, mindfulness, and gratitude. And share them gloriously.