Don't miss The Art of Teaching Yoga, a mentoring program for registered yoga teachers at Yoga Journal LIVE New York, April 21-24. Register now!
At The Art of Teaching Yoga, some of our favorite master yogis will guide an intimate group of students through Yoga Journal LIVE! New York and teach YOU how to use what you already know to become a better teacher. We asked one of these seasoned yogis—Coral Brown, a teacher trainer, holistic psychotherapist, and longtime student of Shiva Rea—for ways to bring philosophy into your classes. If you register for this groundbreaking course, which counts toward 22 Yoga Alliance Continuing Education contact hours, you'll learn even more.
1. Do it in a way that students can digest.
It's important to take into consideration the community and the studio itself. Some studios have images of yogic deities everywhere you look; other studios choose to have more of a blank-canvas approach, which lets students define what yoga means for them. The biggest lesson for me that I use daily is to meet students where they are and speak their language. For years, I taught lunchtime yoga in a corporate setting at a state-run agency. We didn’t chant Om, but I did teach them about the chakras, the The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the The Bhagavad Gita, and more, all without using Sanskrit terms. These concepts and texts can be translated into everyday language without losing the essence of their meaning.
2. Provide a practical application for the material.
Meeting students where they are doesn’t mean compromising the integrity of yogic philosophy, but rather providing students an opportunity to learn at their own pace. Often students get lost and confused when teachers banter on about yogic philosophy using Sanskrit words without explaining how these words affect us in the here and now. It's important to provide a practical application for the material. For example, you can teach the qualities of Muladhara Chakra by pointing out the grounding emotional benefits of a pose like Easy Pose. Guiding students’ awareness toward these emotional landmarks helps them remember that feeling safe, stable, and nurtured are their most basic needs. Continue making these correlations between the emotional qualities of poses that align with the emotional qualities of the chakras, and you’ve taught a chakra-based class without even saying the word!
3. Break down Sanskrit words.
However, if your students are ready for the next level of learning, then take them there. Break down Sanskrit words so students understand why a chakra or a pose has its specific name. Sanskrit is so rich in meaning that much can be learned just by getting lost in the translations.
4. Help students integrate yogic principles into their lives.
The lessons revealed in the Sutras and the Gita are very user-friendly, even for newer teachers. Take the yamas and the niyamas, for example. The first of these 10 yogic commandments is "do no harm." This concept can be threaded throughout your class as you guide students toward recognizing the many shapes that this concept can take. Negative self-talk, judgment of others, and pushing past our physical limits are all violations of ahimsa (non-harming) that are present in most asana classes, never mind off the mat! Reminding students to integrate the principles of the yamas and the niyamas into daily living will help enhance not only their quality of life, but their connection to yoga.
5. Remind students that yoga is more than just asana.
Yoga in the West is mostly defined as the physical practice, yet there is so much more to gain than physical strength and flexibility. By withholding the subtle aspects of the practice, we are missing out on what is at the heart of yoga.
6. Start slowly.
Please know that there is no pressure to bust out Sanskrit like a boss or become a yogic scholar. Like the rest of your practice, it’s a process, so have no fear. As my Sanskrit teacher says, "Don’t try and drink the ocean: take a cup to the ocean, scoop up some water, and sit with the contents of your cup." Try starting with Om. Yes, I’m serious. Om has a ton of juicy philosophical tidbits to share. Before you offer it up, give people space not to chant if they do not wish to do so. Secondly, explain what Om is (go straight to the Mandukya chapter in The Upanishads if you need help). Whether you read directly from the text or give your own 3-5 minute commentary, all is welcomed.
7. Choose something that speaks to you.
If you want to take it a bit further, pick a sutra (Swami Satchidananda’s commentary is a highly accessible offering of the Yoga Sutras) or a sloka (Sanskrit verse) from The Bhagavad Gita or The Ramayana that really speaks to you. If it touches a chord in you, your teaching of it will be more embodied, rich, authentic, and relatable.
8. Create a theme for your asanas.
Introduce your sutra or sloka after your Om's at the beginning of class. You can either chant it in Sanskrit or read the word-for-word translation and then the commentary in English. If you’re feeling it, have the class join in the Sanskrit chanting by offering call and response one word at a time. You’ve now set the tone and theme for your class. Let this be the basis of the asana practice you offer and find places where there is a pause in the movement where you can briefly elaborate on this theme. Long-held seated poses are great opportunities for a little talk, but be sure to offer some silence as well for your students to sit with these ideas. See if there are any asanas that relate to your chosen theme that can offer a deeper experience for your students both physically and mentally. Use your theme to reinforce connections to their thoughts, words, and actions on and off the mat. Finally, you can end class with a re-chanting of Om and the sutra or sloka, adding a final commentary to complete the loop. Don’t worry about right vs. wrong -- speak from the heart and do your best!