Teaching Yoga

by David Life |
June, 2016
David Life Teaching Yoga

1. Q: Why do you teach yoga?

SHARON: To teach provides me with an opportunity to purify my perception of others—to practice seeing others as holy beings.

2. Q: What is Yoga?

SHARON: Yoga is Enlightenment—the ecstatic realization of the Oneness of being. Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodha PYS1.2, which I like to translate as: When you stop identifying with your thoughts; fluctuations of mind, then there is Yoga, identity with Self, which is samadhi, happiness, bliss and ecstasy. My teacher, Shri Brahmananda liked to define yoga as: “Yoga is that state where you are missing nothing.” Yoga means wholeness. Knowing yourself as a (w)holy being. Yoga is realizing the oneness of being—when otherness disappears and you realize yourself as one with all that is.

3. Q: What does it mean to be a yoga teacher?

SHARON: The word yoga is the aim as well as the practice. Yoga is enlightenment. A teacher of yoga teaches the way to enlightenment. To be able to do that, a teacher should be an enlightened being. In the same way that a piano teacher should be able to play piano—a yoga teacher needs to know about yoga. My beloved teacher Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati said that, “Because it is the Kali Yuga, many people will be interested in yoga, and these people need teachers. It isn’t necessary that a yoga teacher be an enlightened being, but they must be able to immerse themselves in the study of the teachings.”

4. Q: What makes a good teacher and how can one grow & evolve as a teacher?

DAVID: The great Shri Krishnamacharya, the guru to our beloved teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, said that a good yoga teacher should have:

  1. A lineage connection – A good teacher is part of a lineage and has acknowledged their own teacher and has been blessed by their teacher to teach.
  2. A regular practice – They practice regularly, most often daily. This consistent practice informs their teaching; they practice what they teach. A yoga teacher lives an exemplary life, following the precepts of yoga.
  3. A sincere liking for people – A teacher must sincerely like people and make themselves available. A good teacher will even place the welfare of their students above their own. A good teacher always comes from a place of compassion; they are able to put themselves in the place of the student, to know the appropriate teachings to give.

Once we have found a qualified teacher it is up to us to keep that precious teacher in our lives with the techniques of discipleship. We plant the karmic seeds of our experience with our students in the future by how we treat our teachers today. Our students will treat us in the same way as we have treated our own teachers. We become good teachers by being good students.

As each of us grows and evolves as yoga practitioners, our expression of that evolution in the form of teaching evolves. It is a parallel development.

SHARON: Krishnamacharya’s list is pretty helpful and to the point. I would add that a good teacher is a communicator, not a professor. A good teacher must be a good listener and for that to happen the teacher must be humble, must not arrogantly think that they can help others, they must serve others, not be self-serving.

5. Q: As a teacher what are you trying to convey to students?

SHARON: To convey the truth that we are all connected. There is no separation between self and god or between self and other or between self and nature. What is realized in the enlightened state of yoga is this Oneness of Being — non-duality. Yoga is not something you can “do” as in “I do yoga.” Yoga is who we really are—yoked, joined together with all of existence! As I teacher, my job is to perceive the students (as well as all beings) as holy beings.

6. Q: Are you critical of teachers who limit their teaching to only teaching asanas?

SHARON: Myself as well as other people can only see according to the limits of our own perception. I don’t feel that it is helpful to be critical of others who are teaching yoga. Each person teaches in the best way that they can—according to what is important to them. Personally I feel that asana is a very important and powerful yoga practice and that it can lead to enlightenment. Asana means connection to the Earth. At this time in our planetary history our human connection/relationship to the Earth is not mutually beneficial. We are causing a global crisis because of our greed, enslavement and exploitation of other animals, which includes the devastation of the forest and all of the plant kingdom, the pollution of the soil, water air and atmosphere.

Our bodies are made of our past karmas—everything we have ever done and have left undone or unresolved goes to make up our present body. When we practice asana we feel the presence of every animal that we have eaten or harmed in some way, every unkind word we have said or thought, all the anger and blame, jealousy and resentment—it is all stored in the cells and tissues of our physical bodies. Yoga asana provides a potent therapy to heal those relationships—I wouldn’t underestimate it.

7. Q: Does it bother you to know that most people in the world today regard yoga as physical exercise?

SHARON: No it doesn’t bother me. The practices of Yoga are exercises. I think the concept of “exercise” as in “to work-out” is actually a pretty apt way to describe what happens when you practice yoga—especially yoga asanas. You actually work out the negativity from your body/mind system. You let go of some of the neuroses, fear, tension, tightness and uptightness. In the process you feel lighter, happier and more comfortable, which are all feelings that indicate you are close to your true nature which, according to yoga is defined as boundless, limitless joy or absolute unconditional love—Satchidananda, which translates from Sanskrit to mean: the knowledge that you are existing as absolute bliss.

8. Q: In ancient times the secrets of yoga where transmitted to a student by a master, an adept a rishi or swami. Do you think this method of teaching yoga has been lost in our modern times?

DAVID: This transmission did not stop in classical times. Part of what makes a successful teacher, a master teacher, is that they are able to transmit and empower others with their wisdom teachings. We all know that the karma of enlightened action is an enlightened result. Reincarnation is also a principle of yoga philosophy that we cannot deny if we want to call ourselves yogis. The names and faces have changed, but has the system of transmission really changed?

Today there may be greater access to information through translations, publications, internet and so forth, but mere information is not transmission. Although true transmission could occur through a book, reading a book does not assure transmission. Instead, the book awakens samskaras that were pre-existing in seed form in the seeker. True transmission can also occur through dreams or visions, but no matter the method – the kind of transmission we are talking about depends upon the relationship between a teacher and a student just as it always has. This process is continuing to unfold according to Her plan today.

SHARON: It appears to me that the philosophy and practices of yoga are still being transmitted by knowledgeable teachers to those who are interested.

9. Q: Considering the advantages to the classical system, what are the pros & cons to the modern system of Yoga teaching and transmission?

DAVID: It is the “classical system.” It is called the parampara (the lineage) and it is alive and well in the present moment. There have always been seekers of various levels of capacity, and corresponding exoteric or esoteric teachings and teachers available. We could agree that there is a preponderance of exoteric material available in this age, but there must also be an increase in deeper (you could say secret) teachings. These deeper teachings would not be apparent at the level of popular press or internet, etc. but only available to the participants.

SHARON: I am not sure what you are getting at here. Perhaps what you are referring to as the modern system as opposed to the classical system is the fact that today yoga is taught to large groups of students rather than as a one-on-one experience. The classic situation where an aspirant renounced home and family and set off to find a guru, and if they were fortunate enough to find one moved in with their teacher and served the teacher (cooked the food, cleaned the house, etc.) in exchange for precious teachings is, I would agree, rare these days. But still we should consider that evidence exists showing that in ancient times, say two to five thousand years ago, yoga was taught in universities in India to groups of students and yoga was also taught in ashrams and monasteries where many students would be housed under one roof and there would be a guru or abbot who would be respected as the giver of the wisdom teachings to the congregation. And this system can still be found today all over the world, not just in India.

10. Q: Traditionally, a serious student of Yoga studied in the classical guru-disciple relationship and tradition. Today, it seems that there’s more cache in a Yoga teacher having studied with numerous teachers. Pros and cons of this?

DAVID: That probably says more about what modern people are interested in, and how long they can concentrate on anything, than it does about how Yoga works! At first I thought you said, cache and the word cache refers to a hoard – hidden away, like “a cache of…food, drugs, guns or money.” That is an interesting word to use in reference to yoga teachers! Accumulation is not a yogic principle, while simplicity is the essence of Yoga. Many modern humans live in denial of their connection to the Earth, and view it as something to be dominated, controlled, acquired, hoarded and capitalized. This learned behavior affects how we view animals, resources, and even knowledge and experience. The only thing that really qualifies anyone to teach enlightenment would be the attainment of said level of consciousness (not the number of false tries). A musician can study with all of the contemporary masters and learn many techniques but unless a student is able to perform to the level of their teachers they will disappear into obscurity.

SHARON: It is hard to say why a student leaves a particular teacher and hooks up with another one. But if we care to look we can see a growing trend in the inability to stay with one person for some duration in most of the relationships in modern times. Most people who get married get divorced and go on to have several marriages or romantic relationships. Most children leave home at an early age and continue into adulthood to have difficult relationships with their parents, citing a “bad childhood.” Most people don’t stay with a job for very long, but have many jobs over the course of their lives. Most people don’t stay in the same house or apartment for very long. It is common to move residences many times. People who watch television switch channels. I would say that all of it is a sign of the times, the Kali Yuga, the age of unsettling conflict. Most people today have fragmented minds and an inability to focus their attention for very long on one thing. Yoga offers a remedy for fragmentation with reintegration methods that provide the means to harness one’s precious faculty of attention and to concentrate it. This ability leads first to self-confidence and later to Self-realization.

11. Q: Most of the great Masters who came from the East have left their bodies. What remains and how can students today relate to or connect with a lineage? Is there still a chance for the serious student to have a discipleship with modern day, American Yoga teachers?

DAVID: Those Masters all had students, who became teachers who had students, who became teachers, etc. A student should not try to connect to a lineage. Instead, they should seek a teacher. When they find a teacher to whom they can relate, whose knowledge and experience they trust, and who had a teacher who told them to teach, they should commit to that teacher. It is through our relationship to a teacher that we gain access to the parampara.

Not everyone has the capacity for discipleship because a disciple is disciplined. Discipline is the prerequisite for discipleship. Guru is a force of Nature. This force moves through trees, rocks, insects, birds, fish, humans…all of life. When the guru appears as the same species as ourselves it is easier for us to relate to, but unless we are disciplined we will not perceive the teacher. If we are truly disciplined the guru is always available.

SHARON: To be a disciple means to be disciplined. When you are able to hold the highest self-less intention in your mind and utilize the yoga practices for your own transformation, any sincere student, who disciplines himself or herself and practices regularly for some duration, will achieve success.

12. Q: There was a time that a student or disciple received a mantra from their Guru. Is this still possible?

DAVID: Sure. Mantra is part of the package of transmission. Each parampara has distinctive mantras, melodies and chants drawn from the infinity of Sanskrit vibration. Nama and rupa are one, the name and the form have an identical nature. Nada Brahma is God as Sound and Nada Yoga techniques like mantra japa lead to this realization. Mantra is received as a whisper in your ear from the enlightened master. It is held in the heart where its repetition manifests into the form of perfection.

In different traditions we see different criteria for mantra diksha, or initiation. Some teachers bestow mantra freely, while others withhold the mantra until certain preparatory work is completed. In any case the disciple must first express a desire to receive a mantra.

SHARON: Yes of course it is still possible to receive mantra initiation. But first you must find a teacher who has themselves received a mantra and has practiced that mantra daily and has achieved some success with that practice and who is also willing to initiate you—whispering the mantra in your ear and helping you to understand how japa works.

13. Q: What is the role of the modern day Yoga teacher?

DAVID: The role of a yoga teacher has always been to guide people in the use of the yogic techniques, philosophy, and wisdom tradition that could lead to enlightenment. In each age the universal teachings of Yoga have been called forth into the language and culture that it serves. Yoga teachers, being immersed in a particular contemporary world culture, are the translators and commentators of these universal teachings into a context that would provide the deepest level of understanding in their time. Sharon talks often about this interesting example: The Hathayogapradipika has a list of asanas to practice, but none of them are standing poses. By contrast, in our present age we find that yoga classes commonly focus on standing poses primarily. She says that perhaps, because the standing poses address our relationship to the Earth, and that relationship to the Earth has become more dis-functional to us than it was in the age that the HYP was compiled. That is the contemporary application of the wealth of yogic techniques that organically flows through contemporary teachers according to the needs of the student.

The yoga of teaching is when the disciple becomes the guru. It is both the closing of the circle, and the origin of a new revolution.

SHARON: A yoga teacher only has one job: to see the student as a holy being. Students can provide the teacher with opportunities to resolve past karmas and move towards enlightenment. Yoga is both the goal and the practice. According to Patanjali, yoga is samadhi, enlightenment, ananda, bliss, happiness, the realization of the oneness of being, where all separation between self and other dissolves. We cannot “do” yoga because it is our natural state. What we can do are practices that may reveal to us where we are resisting this natural state. Once we become aware of our resistances, the obstacles to our happiness, we can start a process of self-reflection where we attempt to reroute our karmic tendencies. By keeping the goal of yoga in mind we can stop reacting, overcome bad habits, and gain control of our actions when they rise in the mind before they manifest into an action. A yoga teacher teaches these practices. To be able to teach these practices effectively a teacher must have some mastery of the practices. Of course, because yoga means enlightenment, it would be ideal if the teacher was enlightened. But how to recognize whether or not a teacher is an enlightened being? There is an old saying, “it takes one to know one.” So whether or not the student sees the teacher as an enlightened being or whether or not the teacher sees themselves as an enlightened being is of no consequence to the practice. The practices remain as they have for thousands of years. Anyone with a sincere desire can engage in the practices of yoga and share those practices with others.

14. Q: How can teachers honor their styles & allow their personalities to come through when they teach, without watering down the tradition or lineage that they follow?

DAVID: First of all, you don’t “honor” a style. In fact, the word style implies a fleeting whim of consumer culture branded with personality. What you honor is the underlying structure of unity that provides stability and continuity. Yoga is a celebration of diversity through the thread of consciousness that is unity. The lineage of teachers spoke the BIG message. Our connection to the parampara provides stability and continuity.

Most of the enlightened masters have spoken simple lessons learned from their teachers. They spoke those same lessons in many ways over and over during their lives with words like LOVE and YOGA. They never claimed to have invented LOVE or YOGA.

Do we really have a choice about letting our personalities come through? Isn’t the personality, the voice, and the subtleties of communication the medium for the BIG message? Ultimately the question is what IS the BIG message? And who told it to you? And could you interest others in that message?

SHARON: Ultimately we want to lose ourselves in love. Love for God. A teacher strives to be an instrument, to allow the teachings to be channeled through them. This takes both surrender and sadhana. A teacher must be humble and work hard to discipline themselves through practicing everyday.

15. Q: How can Yoga teachers overcome personal obstacles in teaching—issues of emotional challenges, ethics, etc.

DAVID: By practicing what we were taught, yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, concentration and meditation. Do no harm. Nurture compassion through selfless action to serve others and relieve their suffering. Eat a vegan diet and advocate for the Earth and all Earthlings. Become a voice for those who suffer the most. Give the BIG message and walk the walk.

SHARON: All obstacles can be overcome through practice. The practices of yoga were designed for that goal– to overcome obstacles. Usually what happens is that many people become yoga teachers before they themselves have become firmly established in sadhana (practice). What to do? Step up your practice. When you become a teacher, don’t let your own practice decrease, instead increase your sadhana. Yoga teachers like anyone else, can remain inspired and motivated by remaining in the presence of God by chanting His Holy Name and being kind to others. How you treat others is very important to your own happiness. That is why a vegan diet is the best plan for someone seeking happiness. Japa and compassion are magical elixirs that heal the heart by dissolving all negativity in the mind.

16. Q: Some teachers today say they feel the pressure to constantly “change things up” vs. the days when one studied in an ashram and there were routines, rituals, sequences, techniques that were practiced unchanged every day. Now, teachers feel students expect faster-paces, more challenges, more variety. How to deal with this and not compromise one’s tradition or style.

DAVID: By giving a student what they want, rather than what they need a teacher serves avidya, raga and dvesha – all obstacles to Yoga. By providing consistent structure the teacher allows the student to step aside from these desires and confusion and rest in the sublime dispassion of repetition. If yoga is taught on the level of entertainment, then the problem that you reveal in your question is inevitable. It is like trying to raise a child by satisfying their endless desires rather than by establishing good habits of temperance and self-control. Children like structure and so do yoga students.

If yoga is taught as a traditional school of practical, perennial philosophy, then the entertainment value is unimportant compared to the enduring consistency.

SHARON: I think that when a yoga teacher has taken the time to discipline himself or herself and has a regular daily practice that includes meditation and japa they tend to be more self confident and less likely to worry about pleasing others. Students tend to respond positively to a teacher who is passionate and self confident about the subject. Passion and self confidence are results of practice.

17. Q: In the Class room teachers can be so worried about hurting another’s feelings that they’re often afraid to tell others the truth. How do you think this affects a Yoga teacher’s ability to effectively convey Yoga philosophy without making the teachings too abstract or watering them down?

SHARON: Well, the teachers themselves have to have direct personal experience with the power of the practice. Once you have this direct experience, there is no way that you can be abstract or quiet about the richness of the practice and the importance of the practice. You want to share it. That’s your job as a teacher. The number one job of a Yoga teacher when they walk into a room that has 100 students, 50 students, 5 students or only one student, is to see that student as a divine holy being. Everything else should come from that; whatever other instructions the teacher may convey should come from a space within themselves where they are seeing the student as a holy being, or at least trying to, at least practicing trying to. That’s the teacher’s job, that’s the practice for the teacher, and if the teacher cannot do that or has a problem with the idea of that, then that teacher will have many problems teaching. Problems will arise between them and their students and they will think that the problems are coming from the student when actually the problems are coming from within themselves. We must remember that the practice of yoga is about cleaning one’s own perception of reality.

David: I think a lot of teachers are afraid to express what they’re really feeling in fear of alienating a potential market. They are afraid that if they push too many buttons the students won’t come to their classes and then they will be out of a job.

SHARON: I think that what we’ve done with Jivamukti Yoga is that we’ve tried to show that one can teach the practice as it was originally meant to be taught, as a path to enlightenment, yet not alienate people. I hope that our success would be an example that others might follow and that it would give other people knowledge to experiment within their own lives, in their own communities, in their own towns, in their own yoga schools, centers and studios. “Well, they did it in New York City, my goodness what a cynical place; if they can teach it as a spiritual practice there, chant the name of God and promote veganism and kindness to all beings, at least perhaps, we could start by chanting OM in our little town here…yes let’s start with OM.”

You know, we would only hope that our contribution would have some value, at least in the realm of setting an example, showing that we were/ are willing to take a risk and engage in an experiment to see if it is really possible to teach yoga as a path to enlightenment in the world today. It’s an engaging, exciting and deeply rewarding challenge!

18. Q: I recently read a survey where several hundred Yoga practitioners where asked what they liked in a class, 78% said they liked chanting, mudras, asana, pranayama and meditation, etc, the whole works, not just an asana class.

SHARON: Okay that sounds great. Perhaps too many teachers assume that students don’t want anything else but a physical workout, but perhaps that is a wrong assumption. Maybe closer to the truth might be that some teachers don’t feel impassioned about chanting, pranyama, meditation, ethics etc, because they themselves don’t practice these things. Maybe to them practicing yoga is just a physical exercise. The best teachers of any subject are passionate about their subject and love to practice. The question for any yoga teacher should be, what turns you on? Life is short you should not waste time doing something that you don’t love doing.

As for David and myself, we didn’t decide to be Yoga teachers first, first we were Yoga practitioners. We loved practicing yoga—all of it, asanas, kriyas, pranayama, Sanskrit, philosophy, chanting, meditate, and finding ways to be compassionate to others. We immersed ourselves in it. Then people would come up to us and say, “What are you doing, can I do some of that with you?” So we did our best to share with those people what was exciting to us.