10 ways to incorporate yoga philosophy into your teaching or practice

Last week or thereabouts, I wrote about my dissatisfaction with the way that I teach yoga as a mainly asana-centred discipline, and haven't really found a good balance of also imparting the philosophy of yoga. (NOT as a religious discipline, as discussed in this post about why yoga is not a religion.)

The post generated a lot of comments, and made me think, a lot, about how to practically incorporate more philosophy into your average asana class. This is a mish-mash of my own ideas, and commenters' suggestions - I can no longer really remember who said what, but if you'd like to take credit for your ideas, feel free to leave a comment!

10 practical ways to incorporate yoga philosophy into your teaching (or your practice)

  1. Speak from the heart, and don't be afraid!  Talk only about things that resonate deeply with you. Don't just throw in a bunch of waffle because you feel you have to - if it doesn't resonate with you, it won't resonate with your students, either.  If you are among those who believe that yoga is more than just asana, know that you are not alone! Take the plunge, and know that you are doing exactly what you are meant to be doing. :)
  2. Tell stories that people can relate to. Tell a story from your own experience, something you learned, or relate a philosophy concept to something everyday. Yoga philosophy is about life off the mat, and this is a nice way to get people thinking about how to apply it to their lives. The best stories often come from our own questions or mistakes, and it lets your class know that you are just a person struggling with it all, too.
  3. Use the yoga sutras as a class theme or as the basis for a pre- or post-class discussion. Take a few minutes before or after the asana practice to have students sitting quietly with their breath, and during those moments, talk briefly through a point in the yoga sutras and allow students to meditate on that concept. If it's your style, weave the theme from beginning, throughout the asana practice, all the way to closing.  There are so many interesting sutras to choose from, you could probably do this for years without ever getting stuck for new material! Possibly best to avoid the ones about levitating, though. ;)
  4. Go back to the basics. Ideas like concentration, gaze, focusing on your breath, listening to your body - these may seem like a given if you've been doing yoga for a while, but for new students the simple things are still new. Don't underestimate the power of going over the simple concepts again and again, even if it's just a mention of how asana is only one part of an eight-limbed practice.
  5. Use concepts from yoga philosophy as the basis for guided meditations. For example, the koshas (sheaths), yamas (restraints), niyamas (actions), prakriti/purusha (ego/true self), moksha (freedom), or other concepts. The koshas work particularly well here, but really, you could script a guided meditation around almost anything.
  6. Market your yoga classes as "asana with a bit of philosophy". Errr, ok, it might need to sound a bit cooler than that. "Roots of yoga?" "Deepen your practice?" Anyway, offer an asana practice with a slightly longer discussion / philosophy time built on. Or, if you are a sequencing genious, sequence the asanas around the philosophy somehow.  You could do something similar with pranayama.
  7. Hold an "introduction to yoga philosophy" session, or regular weekly discussions of yoga philosophy.  Just go for it! Talk to your studio / coffeeshop / wherever about hosting a brief philosophy talk. Make it donation-based, bring cookies, and encourage lots of discussions and questions. Or make it a workshop and get people to actively come up with their own interpretations of things like the yamas and the niyamas.
  8. Keep it non-denominational. Yoga as a philosophy embraces all possibilities and can be accessible to people of all faiths. Since you don't know if your students are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, Pagan, Hindu or any other religious inclination, don't alienate people by speaking from a religious perspective. Always offer non-denominational alternatives so people of all beliefs feel welcome.
  9. Yoga is about self-exploration: empower people to think for themselves! Don't try to tell people what to think or what to do. Use yoga philosophy as a point for discussion and to stimulate thoughts, not as a soap-box. So, instead of saying "ahimsa tells us that to truly practice yoga you have to be vegetarian", say, "ahimsa is about not doing harm with your speech or your actions, think of a few ways hat you could integrate this idea into your life on or off the mat". Empower people to choose for themselves if and how they want to interpret the philosophical teachings into their lives.
  10. Relate it to science. Science is something that most people nowadays, at least those with a modern education, relate to on a very fundamental level. The Dalai Lama has written a whole book on how Buddhist philosophy (very similar to yoga philosophy in many aspects) and modern science are converging in astounding ways. The concept of karma - actions creating similar actions - can be related to the new science of neuroplasticity, the concept of interconnectivity ("OM"...) explained in terms of sharing atoms.  There are more and more studies available documenting the benefits of yoga on a scientific level - even some of those that can't quite be explained!
And I guess, one more that goes without saying: always study, always seek to deepen your own knowledge. Read, talk, write, discuss, and most of all, experiment with living your interpretation of yoga philosophy, and continue to deepen your own journey.