What Kind of Yoga Do You Teach?

published in June 07 issue of Yoga Therapy in Practice.  


I met Mary while she was on a weekend retreat at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. I spend a week there every summer as the core faculty Yoga instructor. My responsibilities are to teach one-hour classes in the morning and evening for all the participants at the Institute, as well as several three-hour workshops for the staff. It is a particularly challenging gig for many reasons. The morning and evening classes can be very large, anywhere from 30 to 75 people, with a full range of experience from complete beginner to teachers. Sixty minutes to facilitate a practice with a group of that size and diversity is a considerable undertaking, particularly for someone who teaches a "personalized" approach.

I always make a point of showing up before class is scheduled to start to meet as many students as I can. That is how I met Mary, a woman in her forties and mother of two who was coming out of a marriage plagued by alcohol and physical abuse. After a doctor suggested that Yoga might be helpful for her, she attended an array of classes at the local gym and Yoga center. Unfortunately, the doctor did not specify what type of Yoga class to go to, and chances are the doctor had never actually been to a Yoga class. Mary was left both confused and intimidated by the classes she attended.

Mary had decided to give Yoga one more chance at Omega, and seemed pleasantly surprised to be greeted before class. I believe this was the reason Mary felt comfortable approaching me after class to ask, "Why are Yoga teachers so different, and what kind of Yoga is this?"

Over lunch I did my best to respond, starting at the beginning. The earliest evidence of Yoga is carvings from an early shamanic period that pre-dates the creation of Hinduism and Buddhism. From out of this "pre-classical" period came the original textual basis for Yoga, the Vedas, which are essentially Sanskrit poetry about nature. This makes the Vedas very difficult to translate and open to wide interpretation.

The classical tradition of Yoga begins with texts composed by varied teachers offering many different interpretations and assertions based on their readings of the Vedas, referred to as Vedanta. Further explications come from both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the most noteworthy being Samkhya Philosophy, the Hindu epics (Mahabarata/Baghavad Gita), and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The majority of what is being taught at Yoga centers today is based on a classical tradition. Citing a guru, text, or lineage is seen as a way to legitimize or authenticate the teachings. The popularization of Yoga in recent years has also led to a number of workout-based schools and classes that are more concerned with physical prowess then any behavioral or spiritual component.

Classical models and their modern offshoots share a common framework: they are achievement-oriented. Whether the goal is a rigorous pose, transcendental enlightenment, or six-pack abs, the practice implies that something needs to be obtained. The relationship between teacher and student tends to be somewhat anonymous. In the classical model, there is a strict hierarchy of knowledge and a guru/disciple dynamic where the Master bestows or transmits the teaching to the selfless devotee. At the newer gym-style class, knowledge is not so important, and students are largely left to their own devices as the teacher leads more then instructs.

It is important to note that this dualistic framework is a departure from the "Pre-Classical" or "Archaic" origins of Yoga. As Georg Feuerstein, a prominent Yoga scholar, writes:

"Archaic Yoga is nothing like Patanjali's well-known eightfold path or the better known approach of Hatha-Yoga with its elaborate arsenal of postures (asana). From what we can gather from the Vedic hymns, Archaic Yoga was less individualistic and, like shamanism, more intrinsically linked to the weal of the community rather than the salvation of the individual. Its principle concern was to discover cosmic order through inspired inner vision, and to help preserve that order in the realm of human interaction through appropriate attitudes and actions."

"So you teach 'Archaic Yoga'?" Mary interjected. "I guess you could say that." I replied hesitantly.

Unfortunately, there is no specific school or name for "non-achievement" or process-oriented approaches to self-practice. An attempt was made to coin the phrase "vini-Yoga" ("vini" meaning "that which is appropriate"), but the teacher who is considered the bearer of this tradition is not interested in creating a set system or methodology, and has specifically requested that the term not be used. Paradoxically, this seems to me perfectly appropriate.

Nonetheless, poor Mary just wanted to know which Yoga class to go to, and I was clearly not helping. Lunch was almost over, so I convinced her to meet me again over dinner to continue our conversation. As the market for Yoga-related products has grown, and countless teacher training programs graduate more and more Yoga teachers every day, it has become increasingly important to articulate my departure from the classical and modern approaches to Yoga. I was determined to find a simpler answer to her profoundly simple question.

The workshop I taught after lunch for Omega staff provided a perfect opportunity. This was a much smaller group, fewer than 10 people, with a very different sort of student than Mary. The Omega Institute is one of the largest centers for holistic studies in the country and features every type of Yoga under the sun, including the most acclaimed teachers from around the world. In exchange for their work, the staff is afforded the opportunity to experience it all. This tends to make them much more discerning than the average student in an open class.

I always start these workshops with a consideration of the origins of Yoga. I am often taken aback by how little attendees seem to know, and by the amount of blind faith that is encouraged by other teachers. Often the more seasoned the practitioner, the less available they are for any real exchange. In this instance, there was one student in particular who seemed downright hostile and annoyed that I was even talking. In the past, I would have ignored it, but having just come from my conversation with Mary, I felt a need to address the student.

"So are you not interested in what we are talking about?" "Is this like a lecture or something? I thought this was an asana class." "Well, we have three hours. I thought some discussion was in order before we get to a practice, and a lot of what we are talking about informs what I want to offer you today." "Well, I am interested in advanced asana." "OK", I said, "What does advanced asana mean to you?"

She rolled her eyes and plopped forward into a straddle seated forward bend without responding to my question. It was shocking how abruptly she chose to disregard me. The other students seemed equally shocked, and I continued the conversation without her by posing the same question to the others present. This led to a discussion of what it is to be "advanced" in Yoga. Does being able to perform intricate or difficult physical postures make someone "advanced?" If not, what is the purpose of practice?

Suddenly the woman in the straddle forward bend popped up and said, "The Master Patanjali says that the true goal of Yoga is to achieve direct perception of ultimate reality."

After a moment of awkward silence, I said, "I would beg to differ that there is any goal to Yoga. To me, thats like saying there is a goal to the sun being in the sky. And I'm not sure what 'direct perception of ultimately reality' means, are you?"

"Don't you have a guru?" she asked, and then rolled back into plough pose.

This peaked the interest of another student, who asked, "Do you have a guru?"

I responded, "I have teachers who have provided me a technical basis and helped me discover my understanding of practice, for which I am deeply grateful. But I don't know that this would constitute what most people think of as a guru. In fact, my most influential teacher rejects the deifying of gurus, and I would agree. My practice is dedicated to SAT GURU. SAT refers to that which is existing or being. SAT GURU is the teacher that comes from within each of us. We all have direct access to SAT GURU by birthright."

This led to a further exchange regarding the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, in which I acknowledged the document as valuable, filled with many deep truths, but cautioned against attributing too much to any particular text or teacher. I proposed that Yoga is inherent to nature and life, that attempts to achieve or attain something are an impediment to the simple experience of it, and that this is expressed in "how" we go about our practice much more then" what" poses we practice.

We then proceeded to have a two-hour practice emphasizing the breath and the quality of practice more then any particular idea about form. When necessary, we modified the positions so that each pose was a challenge that could be met with a light attitude and without struggle. The woman who had disregarded me earlier continued to do so, and only occasionally joined in with the rest of the class. She spent most of the time in her own world doing all sorts of arm balances and splits poses but very little conscious breathing. When we had finished, the woman quickly left.

As the students made their way out, a man with long gray hair who had silently listened to the discussion and carefully followed every instruction during the practice, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "People are where they are. I want to thank you for your honesty and courage. Seems to me your Yoga is more about 'being' then 'doing.' That's helpful." He smiled.

At dinner I told Mary the reason that Yoga teachers are so different is the same reason that people are so different. We talked about where she lived and the different Yoga classes in her area. I suggested that she try some different teachers, and if she could not find one that she felt comfortable with, how she might develop a self-practice at home.

Ultimately, there is no external authority for Yoga. The teacher is not there to prescribe, only to facilitate appreciation for the spiritual journey already taking place. Teachers, texts, and postures are only vehicles for what comes from within. The only thing that distinguishes the teacher from the student is experience, and as they come to share and mutually understand practice, the distinction between teacher and student disappears. The teacher says:" What I am teaching, you already know. It is in you, as you."

The classical model of Yoga overshadows this truth by creating "levels" and placing people in positions of power. As Yoga therapy continues to define itself, it is my hope that it will not follow this model, and that clinical and professional development will not sacrifice the essential context for the teacher/student relationship.