A guide to yoga philosophy on the mat
How to integrate the deeper traditions of yoga and yoga philosophy into a modern-day practice.
Yoga teachers often talk about integrating the lessons we learn on the yoga mat into everyday life. How we can take a deep breath when we’re overwhelmed, consider ahimsa (non-violence) when we feel triggered or contemplate brahmacharya (moderation) when we’re reaching for that next piece of chocolate. But how do we share these lessons on the mat?
I remember the cathartic releases and “aha” moments of my early days as a practitioner, which were largely facilitated by a gentle yet confident teacher who somehow managed to share some of the wisdom of yoga in a sweaty vinyasa practice. When you’re teaching an open flow class with students of all levels, it’s hard enough to get all your cues out without inundating everyone with constant chatter and maintaining your relaxed yogi persona! The philosophy part is kind of important, though — if we’re not going to share any of the philosophical elements of the tradition, we might as well just call it stretching.
Byron-based yoga teacher and retreat and yoga teacher training facilitator, Lara Zilibowitz, never fails to impress me with her ability to effortlessly integrate yoga philosophy into her classes. “The purpose of yoga is spiritual awakening, of connection to divinity within that we are never without. If we are not helping our students understand this, I believe this is a tremendous, missed opportunity. That doesn’t mean we have to use words like ‘God’ if that doesn’t resonate, but at the bare minimum, inviting a sense of awe and inquiry, the defining elements of human spirituality, into every class,” she shares.
Easier said than done, right? The secret may lie in keeping it simple, which benefits both teacher and student.
Nicole Walsh, one of my very first yoga teachers and owner of InYoga, a Sydney studio offering classes and teacher trainings, emphasises the importance of keeping yoga philosophy accessible, based in real life and not too preachy. “Trying to sound like a wise guru is going to be a tough act to live up to, and your students will prefer to see your humanity, humility and authenticity. Make it as conversational and relatable as possible, but be sincere and heartfelt,” she advises. To do this, share what lights you up. “I believe it’s more important for teachers to share what they are passionate about, rather than sounding clever and all-knowing. I think in general people come to a yoga class to feel better about their life, so bringing in some relevant, accessible yoga/life philosophy can enhance their experience of connecting to all levels of their being through their yoga practice,” says Nicole.
Lara agrees: “Pick philosophy that excites you! Rather than rehearsing lofty concepts that don’t resonate, find an aspect of the teachings that inspires you. This often requires advancing your own studies and doing further embodied research to digest and assimilate yourself. In doing so, the transmission will be authentic and igniting.” Also, she says, simplicity is powerful: “Philosophy that I come back to time and time again is the potency of slowing down enough to open [myself up] to awe. To perceive the miracle of the senses, to connect to the wonderment of the breath, to cultivate a devotional attitude to existence on and off the mat. This may not seem like formal philosophy, but it is the most profound bridge between the physical and the spiritual.”
5 ways for yoga teachers to integrate yoga philosophy into a dynamic practice
1. Theme your practice philosophically
Many teachers integrate physical themes in their classes – backbends, twists, arm balances, etc – but philosophical themes are rarer. Pick a limb of yoga! It could be a practice that focuses on the importance of breathing, being kind to your body by practising ahimsa (non-violence) or not being attached to what your practice (or yoga outfit!) looks like by contemplating aparigraha (non-grasping). Tell your students about the theme at the start of the practice and remind them throughout the class.
2. Embrace child’s pose
I love child’s pose in my personal practice, and I make sure to treat my students with at least two or three throughout my own classes. Child’s pose is a perfect place to remind your students of the theme of the practice, integrate some philosophical musings or remind them to feel their body and breathe.
3. Start with a story
This may be one of the most challenging things for yoga teachers (especially ones who don’t love public speaking) because it involves a great deal of vulnerability. But sharing yourself with your students in this way is also hugely rewarding. It helps them to feel more connected to you and soak up the teachings of yoga in a more tangible way. So, try this: Somewhere at the beginning of the practice, tell your students a story. It might be a story of a Hindu deity, a Zen tale, an explanation of a yoga philosophy, an explanation of your theme or simply a story about your own experience of yoga. I often talk to my students about something that happened throughout my week that made me think more deeply about life. If having your students staring at you while you speak is unbearable, then start gently — tell the story while they are lying down or in child’s pose. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a yoga teacher (who I approached after practice because I loved her class so much) was: “Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.”
4. Stay a student
Remain open to new discoveries and keep learning. Read, watch, study. The more you soak up the philosophies of yoga in your own life, the more they will trickle into your teachings.
5. Remember the power of breath and meditation
This is great if you’re having a bit of an off day or just can’t manage to share yoga philosophy on top of everything else (we all have those days where we just need to be on autopilot to get through!). Remember that breathing and meditation are essential elements of yoga’s deeper philosophies (back to the limbs!). Talk your students through a pranayama (breathing) exercise at the start of practice and/or end with a meditation and voila! Yoga’s deeper philosophies shared!
So often students come to yoga for the workout but stay for something more. If you’re a teacher, remember how that passion sprouted for you and how this inspired you to share yoga with others. Yoga can be a truly transformational experience for both teacher and student, and it’s a joy and honour to be a part of this collective evolution of human beings. A dynamic practice, where students are in the flow and receptive, may just be the perfect place for philosophy. Lara puts it beautifully: “Everything is in a state of living vinyasa, of ever-evolving change and flow. This is the greatest truth I know and a realisation that radically shifted my way of being in the world and my attention on my mat. To feel, to teach, that we are connected to the earth, the sea, the stars and each other, is an ever-unfolding process of transformation.”