For me, as a practitioner, yoga philosophy and asana go together like peanut butter and jelly—the philosophy takes me deeper into the asana and the deeper I go, the more I embody the philosophy.
As a yoga teacher, though, it hasn’t always been easy to figure out how to imbue my classes with, say, the wisdom of the Yoga Sutra. When I first started teaching, I could speak limitedly about certain themes, such as non-harming and truthfulness, but I would never refer to a particular sutra as a source. Partly, I thought I’d be speaking Greek to my students, and partly I couldn’t imagine how I could unpack a sutra and link it to the asana in a 75-minute class—and forget about making that happen in an hour-long class!
I didn’t want to be the teacher who gave a 15-minute dharma talk at the beginning of class and then either didn’t shut up for the duration of class or dropped the subject entirely as soon as the talk was over, because I myself didn’t enjoy those types of classes. And lastly, I felt like a fraud trying to teach sutras that I struggled with.
But with patience, time, and an interest in furthering my teaching skills, I learned how to thread the philosophy into my classes in a way that feels authentic to me.
Here are some of the realizations that have allowed me to step up my teaching game.
You don’t have to say anything profound to make an impact.
As blasphemous as it may be in the yoga world, I’m going to say it: A direct reference to yoga philosophy is not a requirement for a yoga class to be good. Understanding this before you teach philosophy can take the pressure off.
So many teachers get stressed out about having something mind-blowing to say that they’re afraid to even teach. But re-introducing someone to their body and breath through simple straightforward language is incredibly powerful and meaningful all by itself. As I matured as a teacher, I began to realize that I could still be a good teacher even if I didn’t mention Arjuna’s bravery in battle when my students were practicing warrior poses, or yogachitta vritti nirodha (that yoga is the practice of arresting the roaming tendencies of the mind) when they were lying in savasana.
Making things “profound” just for the sake of it felt forced.
Simple encouragement goes a long way, and so does directing students toward their breath to focus their attention. Making things “profound” just for the sake of it felt forced.
Once I understood this, the art of sharing philosophy came more naturally to me. If I didn’t wax philosophical specifically in class, afterward I would think, “Oh, that would have been a really good place to talk about one-pointedness.” The next time I taught, I could then sprinkle that concept in with effortlessness.
Teach what you know.
It’s difficult to empower your class with a philosophical theme if you don’t feel empowered by it and if you haven’t learned to embody its wisdom. Perhaps tapas (discipline) has helped you sustain a daily meditation or asana practice, and if that is the case, teach the sutras regarding that concept. If you are on a quest for self-knowledge, teach the sutras on svadhyaya (self-study). Examine how you use the Yoga Sutra (or any other yogic text) to inform your own life and teach from that place. It will be far more meaningful than if you choose a sutra at random. Let your teaching, in all respects, always be true to who you are.
Know your strengths.
Each of us has our own unique gifts when it comes to both teaching and practicing yoga. Identify your strengths and find their connection in scripture. Ask yourself: “What do I love about yoga? What does it offer me? How can I share this?” Then, write down all of the possible themes related to your passion for teaching yoga. After you compile the list, start studying. Read through your copies of the Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita, noticing what resonates with you and which passages elucidate the themes on your list.
Ask yourself: “What do I love about yoga? What does it offer me? How can I share this?”
Maybe one of your practice strengths is consistent effort and you connect this to the notion of renouncing the fruits of one’s actions, which is a big teaching in the Bhagavad Gita. During class, you can speak about the effort it may have taken some students to even make it to class, and about the effort it takes to let go of expectations once you’re on your mat.
As you guide your students through poses, you can ask them to make an effort to be present to the entire experience and less focused on the outcome. This will particularly resonate with students who tend to push themselves too far in class; it can encourage them to be okay with wherever they are, and accept that whatever they do is enough.
Trust that what you share will matter. Whatever nurtures and inspires you will probably nurture and inspire someone else. It’s unrealistic to think that your relationship to yoga philosophy will resonate with everyone, but trust that so long as you are authentically touched by your studies, whatever you share will be meaningful. I don’t keep score, but when I hear a student say, “Yes, that’s how I feel!” or they nod or smile in my direction, I know I’ve reached at least one person and that’s a win.
Keep it basic. Think of a passage or a sutra. See if you can share your interpretation of it during class in a concise way. The fewer words, the better. Leave space for your students to marinate on your words in silence. This will allow their own connection to the sutra or passage to arise. Talking too much may rob them of this.
Listen to your students. Before class I always talk with my students in an attempt to get to know them on a deeper level. Getting a glimpse into their lives can provide clues as to which aspects of philosophy they might be interested in.
Stay connected with what’s going on in the world. Natural disasters, social injustice, political turmoil, and mass tragedies affect us all. You don’t need to refer to something newsworthy directly, but you can offer some yogic wisdom that has given you comfort during these particularly difficult times and may have even inspired you to take action.
Let your resources speak for themselves. You don’t need to create new commentaries on texts scholars have written about extensively. It can take the pressure off to let the resources you have speak for themselves.
I’ve found that many of my reservations about sharing philosophy in class were overcome with time and study. If you feel inspired to share the wisdom of the scriptures in the classroom, give yourself time. Let your relationship to what you are studying deepen and expand. Eventually it will emanate naturally from you. And remember, you can create a truly meaningful class experience without any philosophy at all. You’ve got this.