Combining Sequence with the Philosophy of Yoga

   At the studio where I take yoga classes, it has been suggested that students are spoiled. It is a friendly atmosphere with knowledgeable teachers. The first class I attended there, and what has kept me coming back and pushed me to complete the teacher training program, is the talk the instructors give at the beginning of class. We refer to this as ‘the philosophy of yoga’. The Sutras, the Gita, and other texts offer suggestions for how  to ‘be happy now’ (which can lead to the goal of yoga). Those teachings have made a difference in my life and I wish to share my experience with others who are interested. And there lies the difficulty.

   At the end of our teacher training, there was a whispered word of caution that, depending on the studio, and mostly likely at gyms or in individual residences, there should not be talk of ‘philosophy’. I think of my teacher as a purist, and the act of leading people through an asana class without the instructions of how to ‘be happy now’, has him believing that ‘yoga’ then becomes nothing more than an exercise class. I understand that is what some people are looking for, but I have not attended a yoga class, at this studio or any other, where a discussion of how the breath links the body to the mind, why we work towards our full expression of the pose, or been invited to notice how the mind sabotages our experiences with its criticisms and judgements hasn’t taken place. This teacher also suggests that ‘yoga is not the poses, but rather the poses are a place to practice yoga’. So the question arises, how does one teach a yoga class without including philosophy?

   This was brought to my attention recently while I was discussing the difficulty of getting more people to partake in the free yoga sessions I’m offering. My friend said, “Well, I haven’t taken any classes from you because your beliefs are different from mine. My daughter-in-law only goes to yoga instructors that don’t discuss philosophy.” I was dumbfounded. On the tip of my tongue were several examples of how the teachings of yoga parallel Christian beliefs, and that those who practice yoga (including the philosophy) are as much, if not more so, on a spiritual path as one who attends church on Sunday. But then I realized that in her honestly, she wasn’t looking for a ‘conversion’, but rather explaining why she would never take a class from me. Here lies my lesson in Santosha. Can I be content when someone misunderstands my purpose for including philosophy and makes a choice to not engage in yoga? Is it my place to spend the next several minutes enthusiastically explaining why she may be incorrect in her assumptions? I chose to remain quiet. She hurriedly went on to explain that although our belief systems were different, she enjoyed my company and our friendship.

   I admit it took a little while for me to settle again in my center, neither depressed at her inaccurate conclusions, nor fanatic about making her a ‘convert’. In the yoga session I had today with a student, there were times when I mentioned to her, “Can you be content here, in revolved triangle? Come back to the breath. Relax,” that I wondered what I would say if I couldn’t remind her that our focus for the session was Santosha. Would a reminder of the energetics of the pose be too ‘woowoo’ for those who attend a yoga class just to get a good stretch? What about reminding them of the breath? I suppose I could link lack of breathing to passing out, but how often could I say the words before it became stale?

   In my experience, I agree with my teacher. The asanas are an opportunity to practice the teachings of yoga. I almost always suggest that we try it out on the mat, and if the students would like, take it ‘out there’, where it really matters. The conversation with my friend has brought to my attention a few thoughts. First, when someone speaks to me about individual sessions, I can inquire as to their preference for ‘just exercise’ or ‘how to be happy now’. Next, in my enthusiasm for people around me to find what I have through the practice of yoga, I realize I sometimes begin a sentence with, “Yoga asks us to,” or “In yoga,” when they have a problem or conflict. If I curtail my ‘yoga language’, perhaps others won’t be ‘put off’ by yoga. Finally, I think I need to branch out of the studio where I have attended classes and see what else is out there. If I find a teacher who instructs students on just the asanas, I would be interested in what they offer the students as far as alignment cues, or if the class is conducted in silence.

   There are many opportunities here for me to learn something and apply the practice of yoga to stretch my teaching abilities. Because I am also a writer, this experience may find its way into my next poem project. If you’re interested in what Volume I has to offer, visit my web site Namaste.