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Once upon a Time

Storytelling can bring more life to your teaching than any technique you read about in your teacher training manual. Here's how to make sure your students understand the message you want to convey.

By Dan Charnas

On a recent Tuesday night at Integral Yoga Institute in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, Swami Ramananda sat before a group of his students and told them a story.

In India, Ramananda said, there was once a sculptor commissioned to build a temple. As he approached a block of granite and began to chip away, the sculptor felt a strange resistance, as if the rock resented being poked and cut. The sculptor got spooked, and he moved to the next block of granite. This second rock was more willing to be chipped and sculpted into the statue of a beautiful deity. When the sculptor was finished, he placed the granite statue on a high altar. He used the first block of granite as the stepping stone upon which pilgrims would stand when they made their offerings to the deity.

Later, Ramananda continued, the first stone complained to its friend, the carved stone. The first stone lamented its own destiny beneath the soiled feet of worshippers, while the other stone was now being revered and bathed in milk, honey, and rosewater. The second stone responded, "If you recall, you didn't want to be touched, carved, and chipped by the master."

To a student of yoga struggling through an exercise or a rough stretch of a practice, a parable like this can be balm for the troubled spirit. In fact, the power of storytelling in the teaching of yoga can't be overstated. Many of yoga's great masters taught through stories as much as they instructed by demonstrating asana.

What is the relationship between storytelling and yoga teaching? What's the best way to incorporate stories into your teaching practice? Can they get in the way of imparting to students the core of our curriculum, asana? And if they can, is storytelling beside the point?

It's about Us

Human beings are hardwired to seek out stories.

"Because of the nature of our minds, we are impelled as adults to make sense of our lives in terms of narrative," Dan McAdams wrote in his 1993 book, The Stories We Live By.

Given that view, stories can be seen as the natural yoga of the mind, the folding of experience into narratives that give meaning to our lives.

Stories also provide a means for us to learn. One of the greatest ways to teach students, says Ramananda, "is to give them something real: an example from your life, my life, something that can really touch a person's heart, rather than a concept that they might only grasp mentally."

It's about the Teacher

For Ramananda, using personal experiences, observations, and anecdotes comes naturally, because his own teacher was a storyteller.

Ramananda learned the parable of the two rocks at the feet of his master, Sri Swami Satchidananda, twenty years ago in an ashram in the hills of rural Virginia.

"His storytelling was the way that he spoke with us," says Ramananda, who remembers hearing Satchidananda's tales frequently, whether in the classroom or at the airport waiting for a flight.

Satchidananda's friend, Yogi Bhajan, the master of Kundalini Yoga, also taught yoga through stories, most often while students were in postures and exercises. Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa, author of Marriage on the Spiritual Path: Mastering the Highest Yoga (KRI Books, 2007), was one of his first American students back in the late 1960s. "I loved it when he would tell stories," she says. "There was the famous one about his teacher making him sit up in a tree for three days. There was always some moral. He wasn't just teaching us exercises and postures. He was teaching us an approach to life."

Satchidananda and Yogi Bhajan represent a generation of yogis from India who imparted yoga in the West the way they were taught themselves: at the feet of wise masters.

It's about the Culture

But the experience of becoming a yoga teacher isn't like that for many students in the West. Here, teacher trainings were organized, regimented, and codified. The informal Indian process became something thoroughly Western, academic, and often antiseptic. As a result, many young yoga teachers focus on procedures—getting students in and out of asanas—rather than the more holistic approach of the masters from South Asia.

When Jennifer Lobo, cofounder of Bikram Yoga NYC, took her teacher training with Bikram Choudhury, stories were an integral part of the way he explained postures to his students. But Lobo finds her own trainees have to be urged to use storytelling.

"We always ask them to bring their own experiences into their teaching," Lobo says. "We have to encourage our teachers to stay after class and talk to the students."

It's about the Tradition

One of the reasons it can be difficult for some yoga teachers to incorporate stories into their classes is the intensity of the regimen that they are teaching. The concentrated yoga sets of some hatha classes, especially those of Bikram Yoga, often demand the full attention of an instructor.

"There's so much dialogue involved in teaching a Bikram posture," Lobo says. "We have an hour and half to do 26 postures. There's not really a lot of time for stories, especially because we have so many beginners."

On the other hand, practices that, like Kundalini Yoga, focus less on asana technique and more on the experience of yoga as lifestyle, are extremely conducive to storytelling. Toward the end of his life, Yogi Bhajan would often spend a half hour or more talking to students before beginning a meditation. Well-known teachers of Kundalini Yoga such as Guru Singh and Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa use stories in almost every class they teach, as do many of their former students.

Khalsa believes that there was a reason for Yogi Bhajan's penchant for storytelling, aside from imparting information. "Someone once said that the difference between Americans and Indians is that our role model is Mickey Mouse and theirs is Lord Shiva," Shakti says to begin to imbue his students in the West with a little less Disney and a little more dharma. "The storytelling was just to give us more of a tradition."

Using Stories in Your Classes

Storytelling is a powerful tool in your teaching arsenal. Here are some things to keep in mind when thinking about using stories in your classes:

  1. It's about You. There are plenty of places to find inspirational anecdotes and aphorisms—great books such as the Tao or the Torah, or tales from your own teacher. But the greatest source of stories is your own life: something that may have happened to you years ago, or a thought that occurred to you on the way into the studio. "I think that stories make a teacher more human," says Lobo, "and make students realize that you're a regular person."
  2. It's about Experience. Advanced teachers may be more comfortable improvising with stories than beginners, who may need to concentrate on the basics. Knowing when to bring in a narrative requires teachers to keep their intuition flowing and watch their students carefully. On the other hand, storytelling may come quite naturally to novice teachers, and if so, they shouldn't shy away from it.
  3. It's about the Students. Sometimes teachers can be afraid to talk to their students in a way that exposes them personally. And, indeed, it's wise not to let yourself become the focus of the class.

    "I can think of two reasons not to tell stories," says Ramananda. "First, if you're in the middle of a focused practice, a story would interrupt that moment. The second would be if the story would somehow draw attention to the teacher. A personal story is fine. But it should draw attention to the teaching."

  4. We Are a Story. In Vedanta philosophy, all of creation exists as a stage play, produced by God. "Being godlike ourselves," Khalsa says, "of course we love stories. Life is a movie, and we're all in it."

Dan Charnas has been teaching Kundalini Yoga for more than a decade. He studied under the late Yogi Bhajan, Ph.D., and he currently teaches at Golden Bridge Yoga in New York City.
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