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Teaching Context

Understanding how the practice of yoga fits into the scheme other traditional practices can bring depth and sensitivity to your teaching.

By Dr. Swami Shankardev Saraswati

When we practice or teach yoga, we often focus on the technique alone. Techniques form the content of yoga; they create the body of the science and the philosophy. However, it is also important to remember the context of yoga. Yoga is contextualised by its aim, the environment in which it was originally developed, and the environment in which it is now being practiced. Knowing context allows us to adapt the form of yoga with intelligence and an understanding of what we are doing. We can employ intelligent and creative flexibility to modify the practice to meet the needs of the moment while also fulfilling the aim of yoga.

Context is very important. Without context we can never really master yoga or any other art or science. For example, artists learn all the classic principles of their form before learning to improvise and find true creativity. Without training in the classical skills of their art as well as understanding how their art has developed, there is no ground on which artists can base their creativity. Most of the great masters have developed their mastery in this way: by first learning the context.

Practicing technique with an understanding of context takes our yoga practice to higher level. One side effect of understanding context is that we develop a sense of being linked to a greater and deeper purpose. The highest aim in yoga is the awakening of consciousness, and ultimately it is this aim which contextualises all practice. Holistic health and profound inner happiness are side effects of practising yoga with this aim in mind.

Contextualising Yoga: The Six Philosophies

One of the best ways to contextualise yoga is to understand the environment in which it developed. Yoga has always been thought of as one part of a process of self-development. It is one of six allied philosophical systems that support each other and create a mega-philosophical system called the "shad darshan," the "six philosophies."

The word for "philosophy" in Sanskrit is "darshana," from the root "drsh" which means "to view or look at, contemplate, comprehend, and see by divine intuition." Darshana translates as "seeing, looking at, knowing, observing, noticing, becoming visible or known, doctrine, a philosophical system." The term darshana implies that one looks at life and sees the truth; we see things as they are. Yoga teaches us to see life more clearly, to examine the body-mind and behaviours with greater awareness.

Yoga is one of the six major darshana, or philosophical and cosmological systems, of India. These systems are:
1. Vaisheshika (scientific observation), formulated by Kanada
2. Nyaya (logic), formulated by Gotama
3. Samkhya (cosmology), formulated by Kapila
4. Yoga (introspection), formulated by Patanjali
5. Mimamsa (profound intuition), formulated by Jaimini
6. Vedanta (the end of the Vedas), formulated by Badarayana.(1)

Of these six philosophies, the two most important for the yogi are Samkhya and Vedanta. Samkhya provides knowledge of the components of the body-mind and was a strong influence on Patanjali. Vedanta gives us an understanding of the ultimate attainments possible through yoga practice. A good synthesis of all these philosophical systems can be found in the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna teaches Arjuna yoga and how to live his life from within the highest yogic vision.

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