Back To Basics

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

How can we become better teachers of the Bihar/Satyananda system of yoga?

The first point is to deepen your understanding of yoga and upgrade your teaching skills. Why? Because there have been big changes between Swami Satyananda’s early teachings and what we teach today. The original intention of the practices and instructions, and how Sri Swamiji presented them initially, is not something that many teachers have been exposed to.

An understanding of Sri Swamiji’s original approach to the practices is necessary in order to fully comprehend our yogic system and tradition. We need to come back to basics in our own teaching process, because the original purpose and meaning of yoga gets lost in the continuity. Every time a new teacher starts yoga classes, the style, the intention, the words, in fact, the entire teaching changes. We have all gone our own way, with good intentions, but with limited understanding, with role playing and agendas. So the idea is to go back to basics, to keep things simple, to fall back on the simplicity of the practices.

As teachers we have touched upon the needs that people want fulfilled through yoga, but we have not touched upon the essence of yoga. While teaching Satyananda Yoga, we have never defined the actual practices in the manner that Swami Satyananda taught them. Therefore, the idea is not to look into new developments or ways of presenting yoga, but to go back to the original teachings and understand the perspective of Swami Satyananda. If we, as teachers, are not clear on what we can do to make the techniques easier, simpler, more understandable and in-depth, the whole concept of yoga is lost over a period of time. Then any organization becomes a commercial organization, and the individual teacher a commercial teacher. Even today Sri Swamiji insists that yoga should be as simple as possible, without trappings, only what is necessary to make people understand and reconnect with the essence.

How should we approach yoga teaching?

It is important to remember that we are not yoga teachers, but sadhakas. Yoga teaching is our profession and sadhana. As a professional activity we may teach yoga to various groups, beginners, intermediate and advanced, and plan accordingly so that we are able to develop our professionalism. However, an effort has to be made to identify yourself not as a yoga teacher, but as a sadhaka. So let us first change the concept in our mind.

There is a professor teaching physics in a classroom and a professor experimenting with physics in the laboratory. The classroom teacher has the theory, but the laboratory worker is actually involved in and experimenting with that theory. We are the ones working in the laboratory; we have to experiment, observe, analyze and develop. Then our teaching role changes; we actually become sadhakas, experimenters, and not teachers, exponents or speakers. This is one point we should understand as yoga trainers, teachers, or head of a group or centre, that we are sadhakas and that we teach students sadhana.

Whatever course we give, it is not just a yoga course. We try to go one step beyond by providing a direction for the student to develop. Either the direction is given in the form of a home practice or some other form where that continuity and inspiration can be maintained. Those people who want to go deeper can do so. There has to be that option of not perceiving yoga as a morning practice, but as an understanding that involves continuous effort. So the approach to teaching has to be that of a sadhaka, not that of a teacher.

How can we keep a balanced attitude among the many demands of teaching?

We have to be very clear about the qualities we are looking for that can help us improve our professional and individual performance. Sanyam, or a balanced attitude, is important, but we have to cultivate this step by step. In the cultivation of sanyam, there has to be an analysis of our needs, responsibilities and opportunities. Balance among the three will bring about sanyam.

What is the need? Perhaps you are running your own centre, and it does not have the support of many people. It is an independent organization, managed simply by one or two people, with one or two other teachers, or maybe none. In this case, the needs for your personal life and for the maintenance of the centre are clearly defined: finances, structures and facilities. In a bigger organization the same needs are magnified, maybe ten to a hundred times. Next, we have to create an opportunity to fulfil the need, and then we have to be responsible for the fulfilment of the opportunities and needs. This is where planning comes in.

We must plan according to our resources, maybe a small class or a big class, a weekend seminar or a week long in-house seminar. These three aspects of need, opportunity and responsibility must be defined on a long-term as well as a short-term basis. Ask yourself, for example, “How many courses can I conduct this year and what should be the direction in my teaching? Should I teach only hatha yoga, or include other yogas? What kind of assistance will I need?” A balance of these three aspects will lead to sanyam, clarity and wisdom in professional life.

Often we become insecure when we are unable to reach our target, to fulfil the plans that we had set out with. There may be a deficit of finances, facilities, assistance or other things, which causes uncertainty to set in. Then we go into overdrive thinking about how to manage the situation. In that state we may take on too much and spread ourselves too thinly. There are so many things to do and we have no grip on the situation. That insecurity has to be managed at a personal level. It may result in worry, anxiety, frustration or manifest in other ways. However, the important thing is to analyze our confidence before going into overdrive under the influence of that anxiety. This is where the balanced attitude of sanyam comes in. Where there is confidence and competence, we should go ahead, but when we feel that things are getting out of control, we need to restructure again with firmness. Checking our attitude in the course of our daily affairs is important. The more work we create, the more involved we become in those details, and the less able we are to apply our mind to the bigger picture.

This is what we have to look into and assess: where we are now, which goals we wish to achieve, and whether our aspirations can support our professional life. Then we should try to make the process simpler, more efficient and effective. We need to recognize what we are, what our aspirations are and then adjust our professional life accordingly, whether in administration, teaching or interaction with people. We can try to be more aware of the present and open to the future.

Ganga Darshan, October 2004

What is the essence of the Bihar/Satyananda system of yoga that yoga teachers need to embody for their students?

Most schools that teach the physical component of yoga, say asana, follow the feel good method. You stretch your body and you feel good, feel loose and light and say, “Yoga has really helped me!” This feel good factor is superficial. We don’t subscribe to it because we feel that the body can influence the mind.

In the early days when Swami Satyananda was beginning the yoga training, he would say that when you practise an asana, don’t identify with the body. In the initial stage, become aware of annamaya kosha – the twist and turn, the motion of the body. When you have developed an awareness of how the body responds to the asanas and movements under your commands, become aware of pranamaya kosha. Say you are practising surya namaskara; in the first stage it is an exercise – backward bend, forward bend, stretch, contract, etc. Then the practice connects with the body and an awareness has to develop in which you are able to see the whole body, from the tip of the fingers to the toes, being involved in the practice of the asana. You have to visualize; you have to see yourself practising the perfect posture before you actually attempt it. While doing this, also experience the stiffness, aches and pains. Visualize these first. Then, when you perform the posture, you will find that something gives. If you can’t touch your toes today, after a week something will give, your muscles will relax and you will be able to touch your toes. That is the connection with annamaya kosha. To harmonize annamaya kosha, to prepare the body, visualize first, practise thereafter.

Before you start your class or practice, say, “I am going to do twelve rounds of surya namaskara now.” Before beginning, sit down for a few moments in a meditative state and see yourself practising surya namaskara. Feel the same stretch and contraction of the body and muscles as you would when you are actually doing it. After you have gone through the mental asana, do the physical asana. You will find that your body is responding differently, and performing better.

When you are in control of the body, then you move to the next dimension, the prana. During visualization before the asana practice, you will see the movement of prana in your body. Visualize your body as transparent and see the prana moving through the body. If there is stiffness or pain, the prana will be blocked in that particular area. Will the prana to flow through that area. When you are able to see the movement of prana unhampered through the body, then begin your practice of asana.

Your mind is now connecting with something subtler than the physical. Go through this for some time, then move to manomaya kosha. Identify your mental state when you begin to practise yoga. Are you relaxed, peaceful, tense, disturbed? Then in your mind work with ida and pingala. If you are tense or agitated, before practising asana close your eyes and try to activate the ida principle, not with pranayama, but through willpower. If you are feeling lethargic, activate pingala. Be aware of the mental states and energies and try to balance them out before the asanas, or any yogic practice.

As yoga teachers, also make a chart for yourself of your strengths and weaknesses, needs and ambitions. Be thoughtful; write down all the attributes that you consider as your strengths, your weaknesses, your needs and your ambitions. Each time you practise yoga, have the thought or idea in your mind: “This is the weakness I want to overcome, and this is the strength I want to cultivate. This ambition is only my fantasy, and I will work to achieve this need.” Define the priorities in your mind in relation to your personality and your requirements, to better the quality of your life. This is how a sankalpa arises.

If you practise yoga with a sankalpa to increase your willpower, for example, even asanas, pranayamas, mudras and bandhas will help you to achieve that, to develop the strength and the quality that you are looking for in life. They will also help overcome the weaknesses and shortcomings, and manage ambitions and needs.

At each level of practice you need to have a focus and go step by step. First, annamaya awareness to remove the physical blocks from the body such as stiffness and tiredness. Second, pranamaya awareness to regenerate the different organs with prana. Third, manomaya awareness to balance and harmonize the mind with the body. Fourth, vijnanamaya awareness to recognize the strengths and weaknesses, and how to get out of the weaknesses and develop strength of character and mind.

If you can first experience yoga in this manner in your own practice and see the benefits, and thereafter teach this process to other people, they will gain much more from yoga than is normally possible in a physical class.

Swami Satyananda has emphasized the subtle awareness in our yoga practice. This is the main difference between the Satyananda system and other systems of yoga. The body is used to access the mind. Prana is used to access the consciousness. The entire yoga is used to access inner spiritual harmony and balance.

—Mangrove Mountain, Australia, March 2004