One of the pillars of a strong yoga practice is consistency. With regular, or even daily, practice, the benefits of yoga are longer lasting and more deeply felt. Even so, aside from the select few who have devoted their lives to the practice, most people have multiple priorities—from kids to work to busy social lives—and sometimes it’s their yoga practice that slips through the cracks. As a teacher, one of the yogic gifts you can pass on to your students is showing how the practice can help with these other demands-and how it could become as essential for students as brushing their teeth.
David Life, cofounder of Jivamukti Yoga in New York City, says the way to bring students into the fold during particularly trying times is to offer a practice that’s meaningful and connected: “It has to be topical at any point in time. Yoga shouldn’t be abstract. It should focus on common difficulties.”
Students may have all sorts of external reasons to skip their practice, notes Life, and you can acknowledge those things directly and openly in your classes. “Yes,” he says, “holidays [take people’s attention], but so do the war, elections, political issues, and community issues.” But those things can be brought into your classes as well. Then, Life says, “people come back to class because every time they do, it’s directly applicable to the mind fluctuations they’re going through at that time. It’s essential for people to see a relevancy, for people to go to a yoga class that’s beyond getting a workout.”
Yoga teacher Tias Little agrees. “The practice becomes a container for the way we live our lives,” he says. “I really try to tie it into the time we’re living in now, try to make it contemporary and related to our culture.” Little is based Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he cofounded the YogaSource studio with his wife, Surya. Little says he’ll often use his classes to “have people reflect on the way they are with their families, their jobs, their careers, and have the practice be the foundation from which they live their lives.”
Little and Life, both of whom are nationally recognized yogis who run respected teacher training programs, say there are various approaches to revealing yoga’s relevancy to students. Life encourages teachers to be deliberate and explicit about bringing up specific issues of the day and working them into the practice. “Fearlessness is respected in a yoga teacher,” he says.
He encourages showing students the links between specific poses and the characteristics they cultivate by asking questions such as, “What does Headstand have to do with our world view? What do Warrior Poses have to do with ahimsa, the principle of nonviolence, and what does ahimsa have to do with the war [in Iraq], for that matter? All these issues give substance to people’s lives. If a yoga practice doesn’t relate directly and inform our lives, it isn’t a yoga practice and it doesn’t have any value. You might as well go jogging and listen to your iPod.”
They both talk about cultivating inner life and mindfulness as well. Little teaches an intense, subtle alertness to states of being. “I often ask people to notice what’s going on for them in their abdomen or their jaw, and from the witnessing [of those sensations], to be able to release. I encourage students to be able to witness with more clarity where they are. I show a lot of images when I teach, images that can inspire and in that sense can bring students into the bahva, or feeling.” He also often uses poetry to tie the physical practice to more metaphysical states. Lately, he says, he’s “using a lot of Whitman and Rilke. That kind of language gets people out of their heads.”
Whatever your classes look like, Life adds that teachers should see their connection with students as a relationship that needs tending and care, and one that depends on a certain level of pure intention. “You need to cultivate independence in your students—and in yourself. If you’re dependent on your students for your livelihood, it’s corrupting. It’s like any relationship. No one likes being with someone who’s all clingy and hangy. [And] you can’t parcel out your teaching according to your dollars.”
Life also exhorts teachers not to neglect their own yoga practice: “You can’t sacrifice your practice for your career. If you do, you’re sabotaging your entire project. And in fact, yoga students are much more attracted to a yogi than to a ‘bogi.’ So the first priority of yoga teacher is to know yoga. If you’re faking it, or if you’re just kind of giving yourself some subsistence in the yoga practice, everyone knows.”
Ultimately, there is no “trick” to luring students to the practice. The millions who are drawn to yoga are generally pulled in because it makes them feel good on many levels. Of course, when faced with the pressures of generating income and sustaining a yoga business, sometimes the simplest advice can be the hardest to remember. But, as Life says, it’s key to show how the practice is relevant for students long after they step away from the yoga mat: that’s what keeps people wanting more.
Rachel Brahinsky is a writer and yoga teacher in San Francisco.