Teaching Dharma


By Aadil Palkhivala  |  

When the soul descends into a body, it has a reason for doing so. It is this purpose–this mission of the spirit–that is our individual and unique dharma, be it grandiose or humble.

Our personal dharma can be uncovered by answering the questions, “Why am I here? What is my life purpose?” One of the greatest saints who ever lived in India, Ramakrishna, was known for encouraging his supplicants to answer those questions. Whenever anyone visited him, he would ask, “Who are you?” By asking that question, he was able to learn whether his visitors had identified their dharma.

Discovering our dharma is the most important step in our life. If we do not take this step, then our efforts are not directed toward our soul’s end. Even if we work tremendously hard in life, we end up unfulfilled, climbing the ladder of success only to find that it was leaning against the wrong wall. We curtail our freedom if we do not have a clear purpose. How can we wholeheartedly put effort into life if we don’t have a direction in which to go?

It is important to keep in mind that each phase of life may have a different dharma. The dharma of the baby may be to suckle, the dharma of the teenager to study, and the adult’s dharma may be to reach her spiritual destiny. What’s more, a given phase may hold not one dharma but many. You may simultaneously be a yoga teacher, a parent, and an activist for a sane government.

As teachers, we can benefit our students most by helping each one discover and realize her individual dharma. In this article, I suggest various ways to encourage students to reveal and live their life mission.

Perhaps the most direct approach is to encourage your students to ask themselves regularly, “Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is the reason for my existence? Why did my spirit choose this body, and what does it want to experience?”

During the first few months of asking such questions, your students may be inundated by a torrent of answers. The truest answers emerge slowly as time passes, just as they do in almost any decision-making process. In searching for a house, you may see one, then another, and think, “No, I donÂ’t want this one or that one”–but you have to see them to realize you don’t want them. Similarly, in the process of discovering their dharma, your students may have to explore many options until, at last, they have the strong, unshakable feeling: “This is my path. This is something that I must do.”

During class, there are other questions you can raise to aid your student’s inquiry. Ask, “If you had all the time, money, and energy you wanted, what would you do?” Another approach is, “If you were dying, what would you wish you had done that you are not doing now? Why aren’t you doing it? Are you waiting for something catastrophic to happen before you start listening to your heart?”

There are other ways to assist your students in this important process of self-discovery. Start each class with quiet time, allowing their bodies and minds to become still. This gives them a rare chance to become introspective and receptive to deeper sources. At the beginning of class, I often ask my students to move their mental energy into their heart center so they can look inside themselves, search for the true purpose for their practice, and strive to rediscover the intention behind each action they take. This helps them slowly but surely come into contact with the spirit within.


Throughout class, remind your students to move their pelvic energy up toward the heart center, using the gentle lift of the Mula Bandha and the strong ascent of the pit of the abdomen. This helps them use their asana practice to stimulate the heart center until finally, in Savasana (Corpse Pose), they can go deep into their hearts and look inside themselves to discover their inner reasons for living, acting, and practicing. The heart center is where the spirit lives and has its deepest connection in the physical body. Teaching students to go into the heart center throughout class and to settle there at the end of class helps them discover their spirit and hence, over time, their dharma.

Teach your students that asana is not to be practiced for the sake of asana, but for the sake of dharma. Who really cares if you can open your groin or not? It’s wonderful that the potential for opening the groin exists and that opening it makes us stand taller, but where does that fit in the big picture? How does the asana practice aid the mandate of the soul? Our asana practice must serve our purpose, and not serve only itself. When we practice more than what our dharma requires, we only feed the ego. If my dharma is to be an exceptional artist, practicing asana for 18 hours is for my ego and does not serve me. On the other hand, when we practice to fulfill our dharma, our practice is imbued with passion–it is no longer a constant effort to appease the body’s ego, but a yearning, calling us to be more fully ourselves.

As you develop long-term relationships with your students, remember their particular needs and, during class, make suggestions and modifications that are unique to them. This will help them connect their practice with their personal mission. For example, if you know a student’s dharma is to be a highly accomplished pianist, teach him refinements in the use of his hands. Teach him how to protect his wrists and fingers, showing him poses that are best for their release and avoiding those that could create tension.

If we want to be well-rounded teachers of yoga, if we want to serve our students with the gift of yoga, if we want to help each student fully receive the blessings that yoga has to offer, we cannot merely teach asana. Our responsibility is greater than just knowing the actions of the poses. Our responsibility is to cultivate human beings. The asanas are merely the bait. People come to us to become fit, and we give them an evolutionary process. A student feels the true impact of yoga when the practice changes his entire life, not merely his body. A holistic way of teaching integrates all the eight limbs of yoga and moves the student to explore, discover, and then live their dharma.

The path of yoga is the path of revealing dharma and enabling us to live it. Our job as teachers is to assist this process. In doing so, we help our students realize their uniqueness, act on their passions, and, as they continue to walk on the path, discover the purpose of their soul.

This article is excerpted from a forthcoming book called Teaching the Yamas and Niyamas by Aadil Palkhivala.