So I am currently a yoga teacher, teaching in well established yoga studios in Turkey; Yoga Sala Istanbul and Cihangir Yoga Istanbul. Whilst being a yoga teacher, teaching the Ashtanga Yoga Mysore classes I am presented with many opportunities to reflect on my role as a yoga teacher, what I am offering, what support I am giving. Often students’ response to my yoga teaching brings up questions in my mind, such as am I intervening too much, am I sensitive to their needs, am I intrusive, am I not giving enough, are they judging my ability and capability. Do they have barriers and resistance to me, am I treating them individually as equals. It raises both positive and negative responses by the input I give and the feedback I receive as a yoga teacher, my assumptions, beliefs about myself etc, which I may need to accept and adjust or perhaps I need to discard and let go.
But the question that comes to mind most is what does it mean to actually be a yoga teacher.
The first thing I must address is what is the meaning of yoga, why do we practice yoga, what is its purpose. To answer this question I will refer to the source text of Sri K Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga Yoga Institute Mysore, India, as through his work in Yoga Mala he points us in the direction of the main treatise on yoga we can look to, for further philosophical insight and practical knowledge. I chose this text mostly because Ashtanga Yoga is my practice and it is also the style of yoga I teach as a yoga teacher.
I will begin by quoting a statement those who practice yoga regularly may have heard a thousand times “yoga citta vrtti nirodhah” that means yoga is the restriction of the movements of the mind. Yoga is also believed to be the process of self realization, meaning the union of the self with the non self and a way to spiritual liberation.
I often considered enlightenment to be some abstract concept to be chased after to be sought to be found and then once you became enlightened you almost like dissolved from worldly life and ceased to exist in the here and now. Perhaps this is the case, but through the process of my yoga practice, experience as a yoga teacher and my search into the deeper existence and meaning of life, I now have come to comprehend the meaning of enlightenment to actually be something to be obtained in the here and now. Self realisation.
By self realisation my current view is that I interpret this to mean; the realisation of our conditioned existence, the self that is built up of the ideas, constructs, beliefs and creations of man.
To give an example we have lost awareness of the natural world around us, we think we are separate to the universe and live a divided life consuming everything including the eco system. But actually we are part and parcel of the seeds that make up life, part of the macrocosm. Man has produced all manners of products and services for us to consume, taken what is natural and processed it to create a material and false world.
Becoming enlightened and realising the self as separate to the non self is simply as basic as this on a practical level. Knowing that there is no need to label something as organic, if we didn’t play around with it in the first place to feed our greed and desire to consume, it would just grow naturally, without pesticides and nasty chemicals that damage us and the environment. This is just one simple obvious example.
We become some blinded by what is described as avidya (ignorance/delusion) samsara (the cycle of birth and death), our conditioned existence that we seek knowledge. The purpose of meditating is to give ourselves the opportunity to re awaken and listen to the voice within that is the source of our guidance our inspiration. We cannot hear this because we are so programed, conditioned and pulled by external forces that we cannot see, hear and comprehend what is real and true.
So the purpose of yoga is to purify the body and mind, so that we can sit comfortably to hear see and understand what is real and spiritual. That is the internal dweller in mortal body. If we think of the body as a casing for wires or circuits, we all now what happens if there are kinks in the circuit, incorrect wiring or restrictions in the circuit. The current cannot flow and equal energy is not given to all parts preventing full functioning of the energy circuit. The human body and spirit is similiar. If we think of life as breath and a spiritual entity in a mortal body. If the body is bent, hunched, sluggish, the digestive and respiratory system is not functional fully etc, then the current can not flow, energy is decreased. So if we can align, detoxify the body then the energy within will flow; the spiritual entity.
Some of the reasons whilst the body is blocked is due to habitual lifestyle habits which are unnatural, such as sitting in chairs at desks looking at computer screens and also the mental impressions that inhibit and block.
Physical asana is a great way to release these blocks to prepare us for sitting meditation, deeper breathing techniques and controlling the fluctuations of the mind. Due to our ego nature we need something tangible that we can work with whilst going through this process, which is why physical asana is beneficial.
As usual I have gone off on a tangent so I should come back to my original question of what it means to be a good yoga teacher or what does it mean to be a teacher, what is my role.
As a practitioner later a yoga teacher, I am grateful for my stiff body, that did and still does not allow me to progress through asanas at lightening speed. It also helps me to understand the limitations and difficulties others maybe experiencing.
Some may judge this on the outside to another who can practice more advanced poses. This does not mean I am not advanced in my practice and self realisation and it is very east to get caught up in oh he/she is doing advanced series etc so she must be a great teacher.
After reflecting on my teaching and my practice and considering it in more detail whilst writing this piece is that my conclusion is mostly that the greatest yoga teacher is the practice itself. The processing, reflecting and understanding that comes as a result. So the role of the yoga teacher as a person is to create an safe environment and conditions that allow that to evolve.
Also if we take an example of the most basic classroom teacher in a school. The teachers role is to layout the room to enhance learning, understand his/her students, give praise and encouragement where necessary, allow the student to try on their own, provide support when needed, establish boundaries, review and evaluate. Teachers are also mentors so as a yoga teacher you should do your best to live by good principles to be a good role model and mentor for the student. A yoga teacher should also be non judgmental, treat each student as an individual, know when to input and know when to give space.
By applying these priniciples as a yoga teacher you will be adhering to the moral philosophy of yoga in the Niyamas and Yamas, such as ahimsa (non violence), satya (truthfulness), santosha (contenment), dhautu (clean space).
Guruji in his book Yoga Mala has given us the pointers, the road map if you like. He references the main treatises and philosophical knowledge imparted in sacred yoga texts. He refers to Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Korunta, Pranayama, Rishis, Sankacharya, Vamana, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Ayurveda, Tantra, Vedanta, Pantanjali. He discusses the importance of following Ayurvedic principles to cycles of nature and rhythms of life. He discusses how to use yoga as therapy to cure diseases and inflictions of the body and mind. He gives us insight into Patanjalis 8 limbs (Ashtanga) and how to cultivate the practice in order to experience this in this lifetime to prevent the cycle of birth and death.
He describes how food, diet and lifestyle choices can be obstacles to the path of yoga and we should try to moderate as much as possible.
He informs us that Krishmanacharya’s system is based on vinyasa and how important it is to learn from a guru, someone who is well versed and does not have desire for fame and fortune and can understand how to modify the practice to suit the individual. He discusses the importance of breath, bandha and awareness and discusses the distinction between levels types of pranayama and its importance and significance.
Guruji discusses the limbs of yoga and why and how they should be practiced. Most important to practice diligently with faith a guru and your attention on the universal self.
I believe that yoga is not some abstract concept but a way to support living, connection, understanding and living in the here and now. It can help us develop a deeper connection to ourselves and the world around us thus creating a more conscious and humane society by recognising our connection and understanding of our selves and our true nature.
I like to consider that yoga is the “Journey to the light within” and if you continue you will find that “all that glistens is gold!”