Teaching the Spiritual Essence of Yoga with Integrity


By Dr. Swami Shankardev Saraswati  |  

It is often only when we teach yoga that we begin to learn what yoga truly is. This is because it is in the context of teaching that we are forced to examine our understanding of yoga critically, and to witness to what extent we embody and communicate this understanding.

Yoga can support the whole being if the student is open to the process. How open a student is often depends not only on how we teach technique, but on how we present our understanding. How we demonstrate essence and spirit in our teaching depends on how much we are actually living yoga, how heart-connected we are, and how much depth and wisdom we have developed.

There are many challenges facing us as teachers. How do we infuse a yoga class with depth without using excessive theory, jargon, and Sanskrit terms, which are often meaningless to our students? How can we teach with integrity, without feeling like an impostor, during personally challenging periods of our lives? In meeting these challenges, we must continuously contemplate what yoga and spirituality are for us, and how we gain depth in our own lives. Only then can we teach the rewards of a deeper practice.

What is Spirituality?
In essence, spirituality deals with our relationship with that which is beyond us as individuals. This is a relationship with something greater than we arewith a creator, or a source of being that we have come from before our —birth, and where we will go to after our death. This is a very personal inner journey.

From the yogic perspective, we experience the spiritual by cultivating our awareness and taking this awareness deep into the subtle dimensions of our being. Awareness allows us to experience the subtler aspects of life and marks a step on our inner journey toward self-realization. Once we have forged a conscious relationship with that which is beyond the “little” us, then we can bring that connection and understanding into our everyday lives. Only then can we truly permeate our lives and teachings with depth and meaning.

As teachers, we may be asked to give some form of spiritual guidance to our students to support their journey. The aim of yoga teachers should always be to empower our students to find their own way. One of the tools we give them to do this is awareness. Therefore, always direct your students to become more aware and more confident in their own feelings and intuitions.

Gaining Spirit in Ourselves
The most important first step for teachers is to develop their own spirituality. Spiritual knowledge comes only from a great deal of study and personal self-development. It takes time to develop true wisdom and a grounded, authentic spirituality. This cannot be achieved from books, and if we attempt to teach what we do not know, our students will quickly perceive this. If our spirituality is grounded in authentic realization, then we develop a heart-connected relationship with all of life and, therefore, with our students. Then even simple practices become potent.


Spiritual knowledge is best gained from our own gurus, teachers, and mentors, from ongoing practice, and, often, from bitter experiences such as loss. There are also skills that we can learn, such as how to really listen to others, how to respond effectively, and so on. These are often taught in counseling courses, which can be an extremely useful addition to any yoga teacher’s armory.

Remember that even though we cannot expect to make great progress in teaching spirituality until we develop it in ourselves, we can still be good yoga teachers if we teach to the level at which we have been trained. We often give our students a lot more than we realize, especially if we are perfectionists. But we need to study hard and practice diligently to continuously upgrade our skills.

Preparing to Teach with Spirituality
There are a number of simple exercises, meditations, and contemplations we can perform before we begin to teach spirituality. These practices develop a more open and grounded approach to our students’ inner lives. Many of these are ego-reduction techniques, because it is usually our own ego that gets in the way of effective and relational teaching. If our ego gets in the way, we may try too hard or become caught up in our own ideas concepts of how things should be.

First spend time contemplating what yoga and spirituality mean to you. Ground yourself and sharpen your awareness.

Only teach what you have studied, learned, and embodied. Recognize your level and do not to teach beyond it.

Do not be afraid to make mistakes; this is how we grow.

Trust yoga practices to do the work. Faith in the techniques powerfully alters the way we teach, facilitating change and growth in students. Teach practices that encourage students to explore themselves at deeper levels. Be as invisible as possible and allow the teachings to shine through. Simply facilitate the process.

Remember that you are a student most of the time and a teacher for only a small percentage of your life. The humility derived from this realization powerfully affects our students.

Be prepared to show or share some of your weaknesses and limitations. Remind your students that you are not perfect. Sharing models possibilities for students very powerfully, and empowers them to change and grow.

Examine your image of what a yoga teacher should be. It is easy to create an unrealistic image for ourselves that will ultimately lead to disappointment.

Avoid the pitfall of trying to become a “guru.” Students’ adulation can be intoxicating and can cause ego inflation, the exact opposite of spirituality. So be prepared to remain grounded in who you really are. A false guru aims to direct students’ lives. A true guru empowers students to find their own way.

Remind yourself that you are only human and that life is challenging for us all. A yoga teacher has problems but attempts to face them with awareness, grace, and poise. Encourage your students to employ yogic methods to better deal with life’s difficulties. Educate them in which techniques they can use outside of the yoga class.


Recognize that each of your students comes to class with different backgrounds, aims, and expectations.

Remember the difference between religion and spirituality. An atheist may lead a more spiritual and giving life than someone who professes to practice religion.

Above all, use the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. This is fundamental in teaching essence, and it never fails.

There are many ways that we can learn and convey essence, and these are just a few suggestions. The most important thing is to be authentic with students. Pretence and hypocrisy are obvious to everyone except the hypocrite. Allow the light of yoga to shine through you, and it will be visible to others.

Dr. Swami Shankardev is a yogacharya, medical doctor, psychotherapist, author, and lecturer. He lived and studied with his guru, Swami Satyananda, in India for more than 10 years (1974-1985). He lectures all over the world. To read more of his work or to contact him, go to www.bigshakti.com.