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In his seminal Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar wrote that “practice of asanas without the backing of yama and niyama is mere acrobatics.” Over the past 30 years, as yoga has increased in popularity in the West, Yoga, the philosophy and lifestyle, has became yoga, “the practice.” Often, that practice is devoid of yoga philosophy.
In 2020, discussions of cultural appropriation vs. appreciation came to the forefront in the yoga community. Foremost among them: whether or not the integration of yoga philosophy is what makes yoga, well, yoga. Is a class that doesn’t integrate the Sutras, as Iyengar said, mere exercise? Must a teacher understand every modicum of the Bhagavad Gita in order to teach a class?
Yoga Unify, a new nonprofit aiming to preserve the tradition and steward the forward evolution of the practice, is providing a container to hold space for these important community conversations. One of the major ones we’re having is about returning an emphasis in mainstream yoga to transmission of ideas over transaction.We sat down with Yoga Unify Honorary Qualified Professional Mandar Apte and Yoga Unify Founding Circle Member Lauren Farenga to discuss how yoga philosophy can be integrated into a practice, while still meeting all students where they are.
Mandar is the former manager of Shell’s GameChanger program on social innovation, director of the documentary From India with Love, and director of Cities4Peace, a nonprofit that uses the tools of yoga to bring together law enforcement and communities of color to find mutual healing. Lauren Farenga is the owner of Lotus Yoga Studio, founder of the Lotus Community Yoga Project and Re-Yoga prop donation program, and a licensed clinical social worker in MA.
Must yoga teachers include philosophy in their classes to truly teach yoga?
Mandar Apte (MA): It depends on the student. Yoga is a mental game. Teachers should not only teach asana—the physical practice, the body posture—but also elevate the student from wherever they are. The teacher has a responsibility to include some philosophical aspects that elevate the mind of the student, which makes the student more inquisitive.
Lauren Farenga (LF): Teaching yoga philosophy doesn’t mean that you have to quote Patanjali in every group class. You can teach yoga philosophy more subtly. For example, when you let students know to make the practice their own—“if this doesn’t feel good in your body, explore that; see what works, accept how you’re feeling”—those cues are yogic philosophy that help people explore the mind–body connection.
MA: Exactly. You don’t have to discover yoga on a quest to be enlightened—you can do it just to help yourself become physically better, mentally better, to reduce blood pressure, what have you. As you’re doing this, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to share yoga’s background. But the art of teaching is to make the student curious, not to spoon-feed every answer.
LF: I’m a big proponent, both as a teacher and as I train other teachers, to meet your students where they are. This is true both physically and spiritually. When I teach, I might explain how the body holds stress and tension, and how that may affect low-back pain. I’m not giving a chakra lecture, but introducing the concept starts the student on a journey that increases both their physical practice and their mental awareness. I also have a yoga library at my studio, so when a student is curious, I can recommend a book, which often piques further curiosity.
What about people who say that yoga should be a refuge from the outside world, not a place to “learn” or be curious about a spiritual journey?
LF: It’s a fine line teachers walk. When you’re guiding a collective experience, you want people to collectively enjoy the experience. I had one person come into my studio once and say “I don’t like any of that yoga, dharma talk stuff. Do you do that?” And I answered point-blank, yes. She left, and that’s fine—it just wasn’t the right place for her to practice. As a teacher, you need to practice non-attachment—aparigraha—about not being everyone’s teacher.
MA: A good teacher isn’t actually teaching anything. A good teacher shares what they have learned, and is sharing because it has helped them. The student will teach you something too. That’s how we avoid creating a pedestal, and instead create a flow.
LF: Yes, always! I have the freedom to share my truth, and that gives everyone else the freedom to share their truth, whether or not they’re on board or not with what it is that I’m offering. I just introduce students to what I believe, what I feel is real, and is working. I came to yoga and meditation for healing, to find a sense of peace inside, and it worked.
So if a teacher guides students from their own understanding of yoga philosophy, and shares what worked for them, they’re integrating philosophy whether they outright say so or not?
LF: I think that’s how yoga traditionally has been. One person got to a point, a spiritual breakthrough, and offered to teach someone else how to get there. Once you feel that, you want others to be able to feel that too. A good teacher embodies their own practice—and of course there will be levels of that. When I first started teaching 10 years ago, there was a certain degree of embodiment, and now there’s a greater level. It’s owning where you are on the journey, and knowing that there’s always more to it. If you think you’ve mastered yoga, you’ve missed the point. To me, that’s the embodiment of yoga philosophy.
MA: Yoga isn’t asana. It’s asana, meditation, pranayama—all eight limbs. It’s like there are four legs of the chair. What makes the chair a chair? Which leg? They all do; it’s not a usable chair without one of the legs. So at every level, all people who study yoga must integrate what they’re learning into both their personal and professional life.
See also: Do Modern Yoga Students Need a Guru?
Should yoga teachers nod to current events, and particularly social justice, in order successfully integrate philosophy into class?
LF: I taught a class the day after the insurrection at the Capitol. It was one of the fullest classes I had in a long time. I didn’t sit there and give a dharma talk or discuss specifically what happened; the practice was about finding compassion. It was about finding ways to connect to how others may be feeling, and coming back to that sensation of what we all have in common.
MA: The practice—whatever you refer to it as: meditation, pranayama, asana—these are ways to bring you to a state of inner peace. That inner peace has no value if you are not channeling it to things that need your attention. Spirituality and social justice are complementary. If you are not spiritual, which means if you are not caring about the spirit, then activism can lead to frustration and can lead to anger. This is because you are practicing activism from a place of being attached to the outcome, rather than from a place of true selflessness. And then it spoils the very reason you are an activist, because you care, and you lose that sense of caring. So get curious about what breathwork, what asana, what meditation can do for you. Because that’s what the world needs more of.
Yoga Unify is a new nonprofit working to preserve the tradition and steward the forward evolution of yoga worldwide. We are a participatory organization built on the values of accountability, nurturance, and collaboration—an organization of yogis, for yogis in which all members have an opportunity to shepherd change. As such, we are committed to supporting the student of yoga in lifelong study, and the yoga teacher in successfully embodying the path of a teacher. We do this through qualifications based on peer-reviewed competency rather than hours studied, with an emphasis on creating equitable and accessible pathways to learning, establishing ethical standards and reporting mechanisms, and investing in the community we serve. Visit the Yoga Unify website to learn more, and be a part of the evolution of yoga, as it reaches more people than ever before.