Yoga students step onto their mats for as many reasons as there are students. Beyond the physical aspect of the practice, students are seeking to understand themselves, to battle their inner demons (the ego), to discover tranquility and peace, to combat suffering or to seek transcendence. The teacher’s role is to create space for students to examine their own understanding. Do this by teaching from your own experience and sharing what you’ve learned.
The impulse to find transcendence is universal. Everyone seeks to understand why they feel, what their purpose is and how to achieve that purpose and find happiness. Along the way, the quest to understand the self within the world is omnipresent. Eastern sages have sought to understand the self and the other for millennia and that desire has not disappeared. Our modern perspective calls on science to seek understanding but science is simply the modern equivalent of theology and religion. The passionate quest for knowledge that science offers isn’t fundamentally different from yoga. Science is the empirical pursuit of the truth. Yoga is the empirical observation of our place in the world. The role of the teacher is to guide students toward understanding. You can’t do the work for them. They have to show up on their mats and do the practice themselves, but you can offer expertise and experience. The teacher holds space for students to do their practice.
Sanskrit is a dead language but it represents the practice with nuance that require several English words to express. Sanskrit terms are handy because yogic philosophy and ideas can be expressed in a concise way.
Sanskrit provides a spiritual geography for the practice. The use of the language manifests the ideas of the practice. By representing ideas rather than translating the words, the landscape of the practice is relevant and accessible to modern yogis.
Yoga (derived from Sanskrit yuj): the union of the self with the divine. To yoke. In the Yoga Sutra 1.2, Patanjali defines yoga as “the restriction of the whirls of consciousness.” Yoga is slippery in its definition but describing the practice with its Sanskrit word captures the essence of yoga without needing excessive description.
Samadhi: placing, putting together. The putting together of consciousness and objectiveness. The understanding of the self in relation to the other. The existence within the self while simultaneously escaping the confines of the ego. Samadhi is the eighth limb of yoga and is tricky to understand, much less articulate.
Carl Jung took a stab at describing why the concept of Samadhi is best left in its root word. He said that it’s used without definite meaning but instead represents a concept that can only be understood through broad conception of theory. He compares it to asking a man in India what grass feels like. Rather than describing a blade of grass, the man will show you a meadow filled with different types of grass. The concept is articulated by a broad description. Samadhi is a single word that articulates the broad concept of transcendence.
Consider two more Sanskrit words: virabhdrasana and avidya.
virabhdrasana A, B and C (the warrior series) represent the battle against avidya (the ego).
Avidya translates to ignorance, misunderstanding and incorrect knowledge. The warrior poses are an allegorical battle against fundamental misunderstanding of the self.
Yoga is the restriction of the whirls of consciousness. Samadhi (the “goal” of yoga) is existence while escaping the confines of the ego, avidya is misunderstanding of who you are and the warrior poses are your physical self, doggedly carrying on in spite of it all.
Mistaking passing thoughts and experiences as the totality of existence is an example of avidya. Believing that the abject misery of a romantic breakup is your true state is a misunderstanding of yourself. Thinking that the bliss of vacation will last forever is also avidya. It’s not that bliss and misery can’t consume you, it’s that your true self is a moment-to-moment awareness: experiences and thoughts are impermanent reflections of you.
Confusing sorrow with joy is another example of avidya. Convincing yourself that you’ll be happy when you get a promotion or when your husband cooks you dinner is failing to understand that happiness occurs now. It’s not that these experiences don’t equate to joy, but their absence must not create sorrow.
The warrior poses represent the complex and unending battle with your ego. You practice the warrior poses as a way to battle misunderstanding of your true self. Instead of that misunderstanding, you seek to understand yourself in the present moment of consciousness.
Practicing yoga seems simple in its execution, but complex in its description. The battle of misunderstanding is relevant for everyone, regardless of creed, religion or generation. Everyone struggles against the whirls of consciousness and strives for contentment in the present moment. The timeless nature of the battle is represented with Sanskrit. Universal concepts are summarized with concise words. Sanskrit words inform the practice as a representation of the collective struggle.
Sanskrit is no longer a living language, but its use lives on in the practice of yoga. Using Sanskrit to describe yoga provides enduring context to a modern practice. Understanding the concepts of yoga using the descriptive terms of Sanskrit is a tool to inform your understanding of yourself, your health and wellness and your relationship with the world around you. The greater your knowledge of Sanskrit, the richer your practice will be.
The relationship with your students is sacred. Your students depend on you to impart knowledge and wisdom of the practice. You have acquired this wisdom in three ways:
- Guidance from your own teacher/lineage
- Study and examination of texts and literature
- Personal practice
As you pursue your teaching journey, it is imperative that you maintain in equal parts each of these three attributes. To abandon one or more and to continue to teach is doing a disservice to your students and to yourself. If you find that you no longer have time to study or practice, but you still want to teach, reduce your teaching load in order to pick up your own practice. Adhering to this instruction will give you confidence as a teacher, will contribute to the authentic transmission of yoga knowledge and will keep you accountable to the practice and to your students.
Teaching to a roomful of students is daunting. You don’t know why they are there, you don’t know what they expect from the class and you don’t know anything about their bodies and minds.
So, what to do as the teacher? First of all, take some pressure off yourself. You can’t possibly know how each person has been using their body up until this point. As a yoga teacher, you have a tremendous responsibility to transmit knowledge about the body and mind to your students. While this might sound daunting, the point here is not to scare you, but rather to encourage you to only say what you confidently know. You may discover, at least at first, that you don’t know all that much about anatomy, physiology or psychology, mental health, or philosophy! It’s ok to acknowledge your limited knowledge of the practice. Teach what you know, describe the practice in terms of your own experience and continue to expand on your knowledge. Capitalize on the power of silence to represent everything you don’t know.
Your role as the teacher is to be inquisitive about the nature of the mind-body connection. Everyone has stepped on to their mat for a reason, but it’s not necessary for you to know their reasons. You might learn them, but it’s not critical. You are offering a series of options for dynamic and ordered movement. You are pairing that movement with philosophical teachings, suggestions for meditation and space for quiet reflection. The more curiosity you have for your student’s reasons, the more you will be able to attach meaning to the practice. You hold knowledge that you’ve gained from your personal study of yoga. Your students have knowledge they’ve gained through inhabiting their bodies for a lifetime. Pay attention, apply what you learn and teach what you know.