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The Teacher's Guide to Sadhana

Does being a yoga teacher mean sacrificing yourself to a regimen of personal yoga that can begin to feel more like overkill and obligation? Or does teaching yoga essentially give you a free pass when it comes to determining your personal practice?

By Dan Charnas

When Santokh Khalsa began to teach 31 years ago, sadhana meant only one thing: up at 4 a.m., cold shower, and more than two hours of yoga, chanting, and meditation—daily. At the time, Khalsa's discipline came from a strong belief in front-loading his spiritual practice. "If you give one-tenth of your hours [in the morning], Spirit covers you for the rest of the day," he says.

Since then, Khalsa's demanding schedule of healing and teaching has loosened his daily practice considerably: He may listen to mantras while walking, or submerge into deep meditation while in the Jacuzzi. "I validate anything, as long as your intention is spiritual growth, and you're doing it with consciousness on a regular basis," says the Los Angeles-based Kundalini Yoga teacher trainer.

Why It's Important
The value of a daily practice is something we teach our students, so it's ironic that becoming a teacher can create one of the most formidable challenges to our own practice. It's a given that instructors need a strong, daily spiritual practice to keep them grounded in what they're teaching. But the demands of the job make it that much harder to keep to a daily practice. It's not just the sheer amount of time that teaching demands, but that fact that it requires you to be demonstrating and practicing yoga constantly.

Does that mean you can let your own practice slide?

No, according to Khalsa. "The only way you can be an effective teacher is to be totally there for your students," he says. That, he adds, is why a daily practice is so important. "Sadhana is the means to let go of ego, personal agendas, and attachments."

Sadhana has another, more grounded rationale, according to Stephanie Culen, whose Flow Yoga class made New York Magazine's best-in-the-city list recently. "You can't teach it," she says, "without doing it yourself in some way."

Sadhana Changes with You
That's why you may need to be flexible and creative with your sadhana. "It's a practical thing," says Culen. "The hours of the day are [spent] teaching, so sometimes your personal practice is sacrificed for the teaching practice."

Not practicing what we teach may feel hypocritical to us. But in reality, the change from a physical sadhana, full of asana, to one that's more ethereal is a natural part of the teacher's evolution as an "advanced student" of yoga, hints Shiva Rea.

"I don't use the word 'practice' very much," says Rea. "Practice can mean being very dutiful … and that can get heavy. As soon as that sentiment is there on a regular basis, to me it's a sign that the sadhana has definitely downshifted into [rote] practice."

For Rea, the 24/7 of living, teaching, and raising her son has become her sadhana. "If the surf's up, then I'm on my board, chanting the Gaitrei mantra. If I need more sleep or my son wakes up, then I will enjoy my kaia [embodied] sadhana later in the day."

Sadhana Tips for Teachers
Yoga teachers have special needs and face unique challenges. Recognizing them is the key to keeping a sadhana that is substantial but sane.

Don't be a fanatic. Being a teacher doesn't mean being superhuman. "Don't be stuck on 'I can't do it perfectly, so I can't do it at all,'" says Khalsa. "If you can't do it all, do what you can do." That means creating a personal practice with realistic goals and a respect for your own limitations.

Diversify your rhythms. Respect the ebb and flow that comes with daily life as a teacher. "On your maximum output days, do something simpler," says Rea. "On other days, you need to be committed to doing a fuller sadhana." Rea says that the idea that sadhana has to be the same thing every day is not realistic for many teachers. On days that she had to do a lot of driving around for private lessons, Rea would often stop to do her sadhana in a park or in the empty racquetball court of a nearby gym. Establish an inner altar, Rea says, that travels with you.

Teaching is a sadhana. Remember that being a teacher is a spiritual routine unto itself. "I'm not sure [teaching] is enough alone," says Khalsa, "but it's part of your practice."

Dan Charnas has been teaching Kundalini Yoga for more than a decade and studied under Gurmukh and the late Yogi Bhajan, Ph.D. He lives, writes, and teaches in New York City.

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Reader Comments

Carmen Dapat

Thank you Dan, this is very reassuring to me. In the last few months, I decided to let go of teaching yoga classes because I felt I couldn't cope with my workload of motherhood to a 2yo, studying a post-graduate degree as well as teaching yoga. The more I taught, the less my own practice became, until it got to the point I felt I wasn't being 'present' because i was busy rushing from one place to another. I know I will return to teaching at some point, but for now I think it's important to nuture my own sadhana, in order to be an authentic example for others. Blessings.

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