Bringing Philosophy into a Yoga Class

Why?  Yoga is a phenomena of modern culture.  With its roots in prehistoric India, and millions of practitioners in cities across the world, there is no sign that there is any slowing down of the modern yoga movement.  With countless styles of yoga in gyms, health clubs, culture centers, meditation centers, office buildings, and of course yoga studios, how can it all be yoga?  Sometimes it seems that there are enormous irreconcilable differences that make 1 kind of yoga different than others, but still it is always called yoga.  Most people have their favorite style, with many students powerful advocates, trying to convince others of why their teacher or their style is the best.  

The truth is, that all yoga styles have a common thread.  Even as far back as the Bhagavad Gita, and the Yoga Sutras, there is an underlying sense of moving toward greater freedom that crosses cultures, body types, and gender, that has for centuries brought people to this practice.  Krishna taught Arjuna that Yoga is: evenness, skill in action, and separation from contact with pain.  Patanjali wrote that Yoga is the cessation of the movements of the mind.  Kashmir Shaivism teaches that each of us are the play of Shiva and Shakti, the light of being, and the awareness of being.  Anusara Yoga teaches that we are Cidananda, the supreme consciousness that is always and forever absolute auspiciousness combined with the highest creative power that is always in a state of dynamic and unbound freedom called svatantriya.  Bikram Yoga teaches to sweat ourselves to a cleaner body and mind that will feel, look, and move with a greater ease and freedom in our lives.

If all this is Yoga, then how can we bring different ideas to our teaching, to our students, and into our lives to give us a stronger philosophical foundation to give us deeper meaning and greater freedom in our lives.  Of course if we can bring philosophy into our yoga classes, it gives a sense to the students that this is something more than a group exercise class.  I find that although many students are a little uncomfortable with some presentations of Yoga philosophy that feel somewhat mystical, if we try to break down the deeper philosophical concepts into something that we can actually relate to, then our students will find greater meaning in our teachings, and we may also find a deeper sense of accomplishment as teachers of yoga.  The greatest part about this accomplishment in yoga, is that what it brings about cannot be described in words, but certainly it can be called freedom.

Step 1:  Study.  If we want to bring a deeper sense of philosophical teaching into our yoga classes, we must first have a deeper understanding of philosophy in our lives.  The greatest part about modern yoga is that with all the variation, philosophically infusing our yoga classes has no limitations by dogma, rules, or styles (unless you teach under a specific style that allows certain philosophies, but not others in classes).  To study philosophy means simply to look into the journey that we are on, and find common denominator’s amongst our differences in perspectives that can give us themes for our Yoga classes.  This can be from a traditional text of Tibetan buddhism, Judaism, or Yoga.  Underlying all religions, is a philosophical foundation that is based on finding deeper freedom in our lives.  Our themes do not necessarily need to come from traditional texts.  One of my friends teaches at Pure Yoga in Hong Kong.  I attended one of her classes  when the theme was based on a concert that she had attended previously, and how inspired she was from the artist’s performance regardless of the low attendance.  When we find philosophy in our everyday lives, this is usually easy for people to relate to.

Step 2:  Integrate.  First and foremost students are coming to most Yoga classes for the workout.  If we are going to bring philosophy into our classes we need to understand that many of our students may not be open to religious ideas, so we can first look at our student body, and see what our demographic is.  If we are teaching yoga to a strongly muslim population, we may consider not trying to teach ideals that are very hindu in orientation, and keep connected to our students hearts as well as their minds.  Sometimes the best way to connect to peoples hearts is a great poem or story.  The Ramayana, Rumi, and Caroline Myss all have inspiring stories to teach us.  There are countless self-help books in the world that have ideas that most of our students could benefit from understanding.  Whatever kind of philosophy we use, it must bring together the group creating depth and unity so that we are doing yoga with the words that we use.

Step 3:  Get Poetic.  This can be very difficult for many of us, especially if we have very logical and straight line kind of minds.  Rodney Yee is one of my favorite teachers for his use of poetry.  His classes are always so full of beautiful words that give a great depth of understanding of the body, and that feel beautiful to think about.  We can talk about the breath as expansion and contraction, or we can find allusions to the ocean’s slow rise and fall like every wave of our breath comes in, and slowly moves back into the ocean of prana.  We can talk about softening our groins, or we can talk about the deep open space where our legs meet our torso and finding the intelligent receptivity here.  John Friend often tells me to lovingly hug the muscles to the bone.  In every way that we are using our voices in our yoga classes, we can probably find ways to be more poetic with our words.

Step 4:  Sequence.  When we are bringing philosophy into our yoga classes, we should have sequences that can be connected to the philosophy we are trying to present.  If our theme is the celebration of our innate freedom, and the joy of embodiment, it may be a good idea to do something dynamic.  Strong vinyasa, backbends, arm balances all may have deeply celebratory themes.  In the same way if we are moving into forward bends, we can talk about the benefits of becoming quiet, or perhaps we could talk about the quality of Tapas, and how it takes real strength to hold poses with integrity for a long time.  Twisting is cleansing, as 

Step 5:  Interweave.  In my Anusara training, we often talk about the spiritual sandwich.  As you may imagine the spiritual sandwich is full of yoga poses in the middle, with a little spiritual filling in the beginning and at the end.  While this is a great way to begin bringing a deeper meaning into our yoga practice, it can often leave the students feeling a separation between the work in our bodies, and the philosophy that the teacher is trying to present.  It may take a long time to get really good at this, but there are a lot of ways that it can be practiced, like looking at the clock and every 20-30 minutes bring up the theme again.  Another way may be to take specific poses that embody the theme deeply, and remind the students when it is time to teach those poses.

Step 6:  Practice, Practice, Practice.  When we as Yoga teachers are trying to bring more depth into our teachings, we must try all sorts of different ways.  As Yoga teachers we are here to inspire, to create and to embody a deeper sense of freedom and joy.  John Friend explains the 3 most important qualities of being a teacher as: soft heart, sharp mind, and vibrant body.  When we are trying to deepen our philosophical foundations as teachers, we use these 3 qualities to be the best teachers we can be with sensitivity, compassion, intelligence, strength, and coordination, infused with philosophy to teach some amazing yoga classes to all those who are fortunate enough to cross our paths.