A student once told me that she suffered from excessive phlegm in her sinuses and throat. Though she had been practicing asana intensely and regularly for 12 years with many of the world's most noted teachers, her problem persisted. After asking some questions, I realized that this problem could not be solved by an asana practice. Her diet was to blame. I suggested she stop consuming wheat and dairy products and, within two months, she was cured.
The more comprehensive our approach to teaching, the more we can help our students. In the last decade, I have been developing a more encompassing approach to yoga, similar to the one envisioned by my master, Sri Aurobindo. Purna is a Sanskrit word meaning "complete." Purna Yoga is an evolving system using a wide variety of inspiring and effective techniques to address our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Purna Yoga is my synthesis of the vastness of yoga into a format designed to help others in their quest to fulfill their dharma or life purpose.
Yoga is as vast as creation, and its wealth continues to expand. As teachers, we must strive to expand what we know, not just in depth, but also in width. To be of most benefit to our students, we must master asana and gain a working knowledge of many related fields. Below is an overview of a course of study for yoga teachers.
There are three general types of asana: sustained, flowing, and therapeutic. In sustained asana--as taught by my asana teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar--postures are held for longer periods of time. In the holding, practitioners discover refined movements and alignments and are able to open and channel their inner energy. Flowing asana, taught in a variety of traditions, generates heat, flushes out toxins, and develops external form and strength. The use of the breath to connect the postures requires and cultivates an intense mental focus. Therapeutic asana is designed for individuals, each student receiving a unique practice. The normal rules may not apply--knees may be kept bent, movements may be done slowly, active poses may become passive, and in some cases (such as depression), passive poses may become active. Teachers often use extra props to help support the student.
Pranayama helps cleanse and strengthen the nervous system. When the nervous system is in our control, we are able to perceive the causes of our physical tensions. Thus asana and pranayama work together. With asana, we learn to control the body and keep it still, and with pranayama, we learn to control the mind and nervous system.
As we practice pranayama and refine our control of the breath, we open up the energetic channels of the body to receiving light and inspiration in our life. In an ideal body, asana is simply a preparation to safely receive the power from pranayama.
When teaching asana, have students use their breath to do the deeper work. This will help them build the connection between breath, nerves, and body, for it is the nerves that always tell the muscles what to do. When teaching actual pranayama, have the student start with Ujjayi pranayama, then Viloma, and then the more subtle and powerful pranayamas.
Mudras and Bandhas
Mudras and bandhas are used to create specific flows of energy within the body. Mudras are positions of the hands, the tongue, and the feet. Bandhas are locks, the main locks being those of the pelvic floor (Mula Bandha), the chin (Jalandhara Bandha), and the abdomen (Uddiyana Bandha). For both protection and heightened efficacy, the yoga student must be taught which bandha to engage during the performance of asana and pranayama. For example, in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Sirsasana (Headstand), Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), and Viparita Dandasana, Mula Bandha is highly recommended after the student has mastered the basic alignment of the posture. Because the bandhas can cause severe nervous disorders if engaged without precise alignment in the posture, we should teach them to each student individually.
Ayurveda means the "science of life." As yoga teachers, we should be aware of the basics of this ancient science, especially the three doshas (humors) and how they pertain to our students' constitutions. Generally speaking, a person whose constitution is vata (airy, light, creative) should be given more grounding poses, such as standing poses. A student who is extremely pitta (hot, filled with fire) should not be given an extremely dynamic practice but one that is more cooling, featuring shoulder stands and front bends. A person who is kapha (solid, heavy, grounded) needs more dynamic poses, such as jumpings and backbends. Since not everyone is of one dosha, since doshas change over the lifetime of a student, and since different systems of the body (such as muscular-skeletal, nervous, and organic) may have different doshas, we must study this science carefully.
Even though some asana gurus have long spurned the necessity of integrating nutrition with yoga, I have found that nutrition is as important to the health and development of a student as asana. Though far too vast a subject to discuss in this article, three general principles apply. One is to stay away from poisons, including artificial chemicals, caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and refined sugar. Another is to avoid foods that create imbalance in our organic system. If a student has excessive vata, grounding foods are recommended, such as root vegetables and squashes. For kapha, pitta food is advised, such as foods containing garlic, ginger, onion, and chilies. If the student has excessive pitta, then the fire has to be doused with cooling foods such as raw vegetables and organic yogurt. A third principle is to move toward whole food—food that is natural, as close to its virgin state as possible. There is no "perfect" diet, only the ideal food for an individual. Each person has to customize his diet based on temperament, individual constitution and condition, time of year, life circumstances, and genetic makeup.
Vastu is the grandfather of feng shui, guiding the ways that energy flows through our environment and, hence, ourselves. Studying its basics enables us to help our students align themselves with their outer lives. If a student has difficulty sleeping, we may suggest that she sleep with her head facing a different cardinal point. Such understanding should structure our yoga practice as well. For example, sun salutations should ideally be done between sunrise and noon, performed facing east. While doing pranayama, it is appropriate to face either east or north.
Living Yoga (Yogic Philosophy Applied to Daily Life)
From the ages gone by, yoga has developed a profound philosophy that we should apply in day-to-day life. Patanjali explained this in the ashtanga, or eight-limbed path. This path includes the yamas and niyamas, precepts that are the foundations of day-to-day living in a harmonious society. To live yoga means understanding the importance of finding our dharma, or life purpose.
It applies to the creation and distribution of wealth. It means becoming aware of the flows of energy between people, particularly in our relationships with our spouses, friends, children, and parents. "Living yoga" clarifies our relationship to material objects and to our own spirit.
Yoga and Sound (Chanting and Mantra)
Just as sound is a grosser vibration of light, the body is a grosser vibration of sound. Sound affects us profoundly. We must teach our students by example to use only words that inform, empower, and connect us with our light.
The next level is to chant sacred words, such as Om or the Gayatri Mantra. These sounds, when taught and practiced correctly, vibrate through the body and align the nervous system with the mantra. Certain mantras cool and soften the nervous system, while others awaken it. In general, awakening mantras such as the Gayatri should be done prior to a practice, and soothing mantras (such as the repeated Om) should be done after a practice. However, Om is neutral and can be done at any time of the day or night.
Transformative Spirituality (Meditation)
Teaching students to be still and to quiet the mind and emotions is the first step toward meditation. Meditation is the process by which we connect with the heart center (the psychic being) and receive guidance from within.
My wife Mirra teaches Transformative Spirituality, taking this process to another level. We learn how to move the mental energy down into the heart chakra and the emotional/pelvic energy up into the heart chakra. We learn to live as much as possible from the dictates of the heart chakra, our connection with our soul.
Purna Yoga strives to encompass the vastness of yoga as envisioned by Sri Aurobindo. In his Integral Yoga, he synthesized gnyana,bhakti, and karma yoga, developing a whole new system of yoga. As you expand your horizons learning Purna Yoga, may your teaching, your practice, and your life become more and more fulfilling.
Recognized as one of the world's top yoga teachers, Aadil Palkhivala began studying yoga at the age of seven with B.K.S. Iyengar and was introduced to Sri Aurobindo's yoga three years later. He received the Advanced Yoga Teacher's Certificate at the age of 22 and is the founder-director of internationally renowned Yoga Centers™ in Bellevue, Washington. Aadil is also a federally certified Naturopath, a certified Ayurvedic Health Science Practitioner, a clinical hypnotherapist, a certified Shiatsu and Swedish bodywork therapist, a lawyer, and an internationally sponsored public speaker on the mind-body-energy connection.