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The Yoga Blog

Should we teach philosophy in class?

The simple answer to this question is very short: there is no “should” in yoga. Yoga is non-dogmatic, we can disregard any opinion or teaching in yoga that is based on should! So lets reframe the question: would it be a good thing if we as teachers had a deeper understanding of the philosophy of yoga? Would it be a good thing if as a community we were better equipped to bring these teachings to our students in ways that are relevant to their practice on their mats? If we could move beyond that “philosophy fall back option” of a little talk about ethics and values and really integrate the teachings into asana practice? And the answer to these questions – I believe – is an emphatic yes. This does however require work. As individual teachers this requires deepening our own understanding of the philosophy of yoga and how this relates to and supports our own practice. As a community this requires exploring and finding ways of transmitting this age-old wisdom in the language of our times.

The work required is analogous to what is taking place when it comes to the technical side of teaching asana. Yoga’s growth in popularity over the past few decades has been accompanied by a focus on methods for the physical postures. Modern understanding and research into our physical and subtle anatomy have enriched our teaching of traditional methods and new techniques have emerged. Yoga today is characterized by a myriad of forms for the physical practice of asana, and our students come to class to practice for all sorts of reasons. As a teaching community we are both growing our expertise in technical instruction and making this relevant and accessible to the wide range of students who walk into our classes.

Yoga: An Inner Practice

Once our students are ready to practice we bring their attention to the here and now and we turn their attention inside. And in class our role as yoga teachers, in very general terms, is to guide our students’ attention so that they practice in a way that is safe and functional. We do this at the level of the gross physical posture with instruction around alignment, muscle use, modifications based on the possibilities and limitations of the individual, etc. We do this at a more subtle level with instructions on breath and energy awareness. Effectively integrating philosophy in class starts with expanding this to include instruction on our students’ inner approach – or attitude – to practice.

Analogous to our instructions at the gross physical level, the intention behind this instruction is to nudge students towards an inner posture that is conducive to yoga. And instruction on our inner approach to practice is rooted in yoga philosophy; it plays a central role in both the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. Both these texts are very practical texts in which yoga is framed as an inner practice; yoga is an embodied philosophy and there is no distinction between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’. This is where we start and many teachers already include instruction on inner posture in class. For example: we encourage our students to focus on the process of practice rather than the end results; we support students in exploring how to embody a posture in a way that works for them; we emphasize the acceptance of where they are now.

Philosophy On Our Mats: Sheds Light, Provides Structure

Once our students’ attention is firmly rooted in the here and now, and on what is going on inside, they will start to wake up. By wake up I mean that in a very personal and immediate way they will start to see things about themselves that they had not seen before. Our students will see patterns of belief and behavior in which they have become entangled. In my experience common patterns that come into a student’s awareness include: competing with others or themselves; a striving for perfection; an over emphasis on doing; and hiding and playing victim. Once this starts to happen it is philosophy that provides the tools and maps to support them in framing their experiences, and in deepening and personalizing their practice.

Integrating Philosophy In Class: Getting It Right

There is no one way of integrating philosophy into our asana teaching in the modern class environment. In this – just as in the technical instruction in asana practice – we as teachers each find our own way. The discussion and examples above serve only to illustrate and to provide three pointers:

  1. Make it real: integrate as much of the ideas and tools from philosophy into asana instruction
  2. Promote enquiry, not dogma: frame a significant part of your instruction as open questions
  3. Keep it authentic: focus your transmission on the ideas and tools that work for you 

Will we get it ‘right’ first time? No, like everything in yoga and life this is a learning journey for all of us. An important part of this learning is, again just as with asana, by maintaining our own self-practice; we work and play with the ideas from philosophy in our own experience on and off our mats. In this way we grow our ability to speak from a place of authenticity, to meet our students where they are, and to take them step by step deeper into yoga and themselves. Will all of what we say resonate with all our students? No, but that does not hold us back in giving variations and modifications in the technical instruction of asana. Will our students appreciate our efforts? In my experience, most probably, when we keep the pointers above in mind.

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