Guidelines for Yoga Teachers

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

How can we use yoga to survive in the outside world?

Before trying to understand how to apply yoga commercially, we have to understand the limitations or situations that yoga is facing today, how different people are utilising this need to project yoga in society, and what your role in it can be. Yoga has become a hot word, especially in the last two or three years in India. Today, people go for yoga lessons in their thousands. But they really don’t know what yoga is. They don’t know why they are practising a particular asana or pranayama. They seem to be doing it purely for physical development – not in terms of physique, but as a way to deal with the limitations that their social life has placed upon them.

Who are these people practising yoga? They are the normal mixed bag of society – from different trades, professions, social status, economic groups, traditions and religions. What is their situation in life? They are struggling on two fronts: physical and economic. The word ‘physical’ here is intended to mean the limits that society has placed upon a human body and movement. What is the ratio between movement and remaining static during an entire day for an average person? Whether in the car, sitting on a chair in the office, or lounging in the living room at home, you are static much of the time. Minimum time is actually spent in movement. At home you move from one room to another, or if there is a garden, maybe ten steps outside to pick flowers or water some plants, or perhaps half an hour of joy-walking in the morning or evening. Those who feel the need to exercise more, go to the gym, sweat a bit, and come back home.

This condition is not appropriate for the physical body, because the health of the body depends on movement and regular exercise of the body’s organs. From hundred percent movement we have come down to about five percent. Life has become easy in the metropolises, and not much physical effort is required to achieve anything. As a result, a condition has been created in the physical body, which over a period of time sets in genetically. Subsequent generations become weak and therefore experience disease and imbalance, which causes further physical deterioration.

The second front an average person is struggling on is financial. The world revolves around money today, and you have to make sure that you have an adequate income to meet all your needs and family demands. This drive leads to psychological stress, mental and emotional debility.

Now, these people are not coming to yoga for spiritual illumination, but to find physical health and mental health. They are not concerned with creativity, changing their personality or values. They just want a fit body and a slightly better mind. That’s all. Since they are not coming for the real purpose of yoga, there is no need to preach yogic philosophy to them, and a yoga teacher has to recognise this. Without this ability, you are not a yoga teacher, no matter how many degrees and certificates you acquire.

Due to the increased attraction to yoga, many people see yoga as a means of livelihood. It is a craze, and many yoga teachers are not concerned with whether they are teaching yoga correctly; they are concerned with financial gains alone. This is a dangerous trend. In the course of time, a situation will arise when the negative results of such yoga teaching will be evident, and there will be a decline in the demand for yoga.

If you want to become a sincere yoga teacher, your responsibility is to work to bring the right approach, understanding and practice to people. Many yoga teachers around today are teaching push and pull yoga, not sthiram (steady) and sukham (comfortable) yoga. Different brand names like power yoga, kinetic yoga and so on have come up, but they do not have an understanding of the yogic system, let alone the yogic tradition. So, if you want to work as a yoga teacher, the first commitment you have to make is to be sincere to yoga. Otherwise you can teach, but you will not be a representative of yoga, not someone who understands yoga. As a yoga teacher, you have to practise living yoga. Live your day with a yogic attitude, and be the witness, the observer, the drashta, of yourself.

Another factor to be understood is that in today’s society, an organisation has the power, not the individual. An organisation can evolve if it has proper guidelines, aims and objectives. So, if you can associate yourself with an organisation, or create one, you should do it. Don’t dream too big, or you will get lost in your imagination and fantasies, and miss the existing opportunities. If you want to be a yogi, remember this point: don’t miss the opportunities existing in the present. We make plans, we desire to do many things, but we get so carried away by our little achievements or problems that the aim becomes the means and the means become the end. If you are part of an organisation or cultivating your own, you must also have training in administrative skills.

The other point to remember is: don’t get caught up in the accolades you receive. You may wonder what to do when people look at you as a spiritual, illumined or elevated person when you are only a student of yoga. Remember that you are identifying with your ego at that time. If someone praises you, will you believe that, or say, “I know what I am, it is not your opinion that is important to me but my understanding of myself.” If you think you are spiritually inclined, but are elated by praise or depressed by abuse, where is the balance that should be the result of your practice? Therefore, you have to guard against situations, words and ideas which disturb your peace of mind.

Yoga teachers should also understand anatomy and physiology, and some psychology. They should know about pratyahara, dharana and dhyana. They should have the ability to differentiate between, for example, an ambition and a samskara – to look back at a chain of events and come to a conclusion. They should have a knowledge of swabhava or individual nature, of hatha yoga, raja yoga, karma yoga and bhakti yoga. This much is enough. You don’t need to know kriya yoga and kundalini yoga. Ninety-percent of the social demands can be fulfilled with a knowledge of physiology, anatomy, psychology, hatha yoga, raja yoga, karma yoga, dhyana yoga and bhakti yoga.

Ganga Darshan, May 2005

How should we deal with our own negativity while teaching?

First you need to remember that you are not the teacher. When you think of yourself as the teacher, that thought blocks learning. A student will never block learning. Instead of identifying yourself as a teacher, become a more humble student. The humble student eventually becomes a true teacher, because he doesn’t close the door of learning.

When you teach yoga, you teach asana, pranayama, shatkarma, meditation, and so on. There are discussions about the practices, and at the end of the course the participants leave with their certificate or diploma. This is the trend of yoga teaching, but it is only classroom teaching. No instructions are given about how to become a perfect teacher. Yoga teaching is not confined to the physical or mental practices of yoga. Excellence in performing asanas does not indicate good teaching. Communication skills are also not the criterion of a good teacher. Reading books on yoga and talking about them is not an indication of a good teacher. People are not taught how to become good teachers.

What are the requirements of a yoga teacher? As long as we are teaching only asana, pranayama, body work, bone work, muscle work and energy work, we are in tune with our bodies, with our movements, with our breath, but we are not managing our mind. We are controlling the body, not the mind. We ensure that the body performs the postures in the correct manner, but the mind is left free to wander around to think whatever it wants to think.

Along with training in asana and pranayama, teachers should be given a specific sadhana to improve their teaching ability and to deal with all their own mental stuff. As a rule, every teacher must maintain a diary in which they should make an effort to imbibe, implement and practise the principles of yoga, not only the practices of yoga. Pick up one principle of yoga and work with it for a month, so that it becomes your sadhana as a teacher for a month. Then pick up another principle and work with that for another month, and keep on working in this way.

What are these principles? Many yoga teachers do not know what their strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs are. So yoga teachers must practise the SWAN principle of sadhana regularly. Just as you prepare your classes by turning the pages of a book and making notes, and you get ready to go out in public to give a class or lecture, in the same manner you should be able to look at the diary and recognise what you are and where you are, and what is highlighted in your life at that moment. Which strength is highlighted, which weakness is highlighted, which is circumstantial, which is internal, which is a samskara, which is a desire. In that way, teachers must monitor their own mental states.

Along with this, the teacher must make an effort to be in a positive state of mind before teaching the classes. How? Not by coming home from work, changing your clothes in a rush, and jumping into a yoga class with all the stresses of your work, so that you are teaching the students to relax while your own mind is under pressure and tension. Before giving a yoga class, a teacher should ensure that he or she is in the right frame of mind to give the class by doing ten minutes of meditation. In those ten minutes of meditation they should identify with a principle of yoga and become that principle of yoga.

Swami Sivananda has given very clear indications on the yogic principles that one should try to imbibe in life. They are known as the Eighteen Ities: serenity, regularity, absence of vanity, sincerity, simplicity, veracity, equanimity, fixity, non-irritability, adaptability, humility, tenacity, integrity, nobility, magnanimity, charity, generosity and purity. As a teacher, for one month practise serenity for ten minutes before your class, and then give the class, maintaining that state of serenity. As a yoga teacher, for one month, practise absence of vanity. First, observe your vanity, then try to control your reactions, your ego, your pride, and give the class, observing yourself, as well as the students.

Therefore, yoga teachers should become more humble students because along with teaching in the class, they should be learning to manage themselves. When we have the idea of teaching, we identify with the ego. When there is ego identification, then connecting with yogic principles is not possible. Telling people how to practise yoga or how to teach yoga is not really the criterion of a yoga teacher. In order to excel as a yoga teacher, after the training you have to identify with the principles of yoga rather than with the practices. Teach people the practices of yoga, but for yourself practise the principles of yoga. Only by training yourself in how to manage your own mental agitation and negativity can you become a good yoga teacher.

Ganga Darshan, October 2004

What qualities make a real yoga teacher?

You’ll find the answer in the book Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull was a brash young seagull who wanted to learn how to fly the fastest. He experienced both success and failure in life, but ultimately became a master. At the end, when the young seagulls came to him to learn how to fly, he simply told them, “Let us begin with the basics.” A person who can say, “Let us begin with the basics” is a true yoga teacher. But a person who tries to fulfil the expectations of the students, forgetting the basics, is not a yoga teacher. Every system has a discipline. When you start learning maths, you don’t jump to higher maths or algebra straight away; you start with simple addition and subtraction. That is how a yoga teacher should begin, regardless of what people think.

Yoga teachers must have a plan and stick to it. They should not change the plan according to the student’s opinion. We tend to get swayed by different opinions because we think that unless we teach what the students are seeking or expecting to learn, they will go to another teacher and we will lose the revenue. This idea creates a phobia in the teacher’s mind, and then it is difficult to teach yoga properly. The teaching of yoga should not be altered, restricted or constrained by the ideas of the students who come to the class. You should have a plan and follow that plan. In your plan, always begin with the basics and try to be a simple yoga teacher. During the learning process you should study the different methods and their intricate details, but when it comes to teaching, always begin with the basics. As a yoga teacher, when you become more complex, it goes above the head. So simplicity of instruction, simplicity of practice and simplicity in guiding the students should become the hallmark of a yoga teacher. Do not try to show or prove that you know more than other teachers.

Ganga Darshan, November 2004