Teaching Yoga without Chanting


By Brenda Plakans  |  

Yoga instructors want to bring the full experience of yoga to others—the health benefits and the mental benefits—and to connect people with an ancient practice that has been effective for them. Historically, chanting has been an integral part of this practice, and many teachers include it in a class to create a feeling of spirituality.

However, what if chanting just doesn’t resonate with you? Can you still be an effective teacher? As with many changes to the yoga tradition—from opening the discipline to women to widening the variety of asana practiced—mantras are just one ingredient from the past to include in a modern, Western sequence.

“I have very little experience using chant in my own practice and no training in chant as a teacher,” says Jennifer Mavin, a yoga instructor in Grinnell, Iowa. “I’m very much a believer in teaching only what I know. I would not feel comfortable leading my class in chanting simply in the name of inclusion. I lean toward a bit of caution when including such practices so that a variety of individuals feel comfortable and welcome in class, rather than risking turning off students who could benefit from the breath and asana work.”

Know Your Audience

We tend to attract, and keep, the students who want to practice yoga the way we do. Students who want a class with an Eastern flavor will seek out someone who draws from those traditions; people who are interested in a physical or therapeutic practice will stick to someone more focused on working with the body. Both approaches provide mental as well as physical benefits, so no one is missing out by choosing one style over another.

“Personally, I don’t chant in my own practice,” says Linda Schlamadinger McGrath, director of teacher training at YogaSource in Los Gatos, California. “I have friends that say chanting sends tingles down their spines. I’ve never felt tingling, and so it’s not an experience that I can speak of. You can’t deliver an experience to your students unless you really can appreciate what it’s going to do for you.”

What the Research Shows

Scientific research into stress-reduction techniques supports the idea that if you teach what works for you, it will work for your students. Donal MacCoon, a therapist and research scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, explains that both his work on mindfulness-based stress reduction and a meta-analysis (an analysis of many different studies) by Bruce Wampold, also at UW-Madison, suggest that what matters in healing practices (yoga with asana, meditation, mindfulness psychotherapy) is not the specific ingredients but what they have in common.

Yoga works for people, MacCoon says, when it is taught by “a person who delivers that rationale with conviction because they themselves believe it.” Besides an articulate, dedicated teacher, he says, what these approaches have in common include time to focus on the practice; a belief in the importance of self-care; and a group aspect, with people paying attention to each other.

“We want to avoid this rigidity that believes, ‘I’ve got the way.’ We have a menu of options for people, and they work,” explains MacCoon. “Let’s not get too caught up in arguments about specific ingredients.”

Whether you create a class around a simple series of asanas or include a variety of breathing and chanting sequences, your students will experience mental as well as physical benefits.

Other Spiritual Tools in the Yoga Toolbox

“Chanting is an active engagement with a spiritual tradition, more often than not with Hinduism,” says McGrath. “I feel that puts a lot of students in an uncomfortable position. You’re asking them to actively engage in something that’s grounded in devotion. That can cause conflict for people who don’t necessarily identify with the tradition.”

But your class doesn’t have to be a spiritually sterile experience just because you don’t teach chanting. Mc Grath says, “I use a lot of storytelling in my classes, from the Mahabarata, the Bible, from many different traditions. With a story, you’re not asking people to actively engage. They can passively appreciate its beauty.”

You can create a contemplative mood by starting class with a quiet, seated meditation to help everyone clear their minds and prepare their bodies for the practice. Music is also useful and you can choose pieces that include chanting, so that students hear the language and get a sense of how the rhythm affects the physical movement. Pranayama is highly adaptable and can help soothe and calm students after a rigorous sequence, focus their minds for a specific meditation, or prepare them to move into Savasana (Corpse Pose).

Above All, Satya (Truthfulness)

“Chanting sort of depends on the person,” says Rhonda Key, a YogaWorks instructor from Washington, D.C. “If I go into a yoga class and I’m ready to receive and participate, then it will benefit me. I enjoy it when it’s sincere, but when it doesn’t seem sincere, I’m thrown off by it and no longer get the benefit.”

McGrath uses the analogy of a vegetarian chef who can’t be expected to produce succulent roasts because she can’t taste them; a yoga instructor who is unaffected by chanting shouldn’t worry about including it in her classes.

“When you teach, you become transparent,” she says. “The most important quality in a teacher is authenticity. If you try to become a persona that fits a mold, then that’s going to become apparent. Do your thing, do what you believe in, and the truth will prevail.”

Brenda K. Plakans lives and teaches yoga quietly in Beloit, Wisconsin. She also writes the yoga blog Grounding Thru the Sit Bones [http://groundingthruthesitbones.blogspot.com/].