The Necessity of Personal Experience in Teaching

Jignasu Sangeeta (Janice Codron), South Africa

The moment we dissolve the intellect which is identifying with the ego structure of our personality – “I am a good teacher”, “I enjoy teaching” – there are no barriers for the mind to overcome. The moment we develop the idea – “I know”, we create a resistance to learning. If we are in tune with our inner nature, then every moment of the day can become a moment of learning. Experience is the best teacher, so we have to aspire for the experience and not just for the intellectual understanding.

—Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Not so long ago, in a particularly ‘awake’ session of an intensive meditation course I found myself experiencing a very subtle flow of sensations through the body. I had my awareness at the abdomen and after a few minutes of observation, realized that there was a movement going on there from side to side. And then I realized that what I was feeling was the flow of samana prana (the flow of energy in the abdominal region). I was actually experiencing samana without trying to. For me this was a big thing, as experiences of subtler realms are few and far between. I then went on to the rest of my body trying to recall the exact stated directions of the rest of the five pranas, but soon stopped myself.

Coming out of the meditation hall I saw more than ever the necessity of personal experience. I truly understood how rishis and yogis of long ago had worked out a flow of the five pranas because they each had their own direct and personal experience of exactly the same thing and therefore came to their own conclusions.

The experience also made me recall my year of study at Bihar School of Yoga and how often I would take information in verbatim. The five kleshas, the ten most important nadis, the vrittis, the koshas, the pranas . . . all became a semi-stress as I struggled to recall Sanskrit names, English translations and to master the ability to give a concise definition of each. But what for? This information does help us to broaden the spectrum of our physical, psychological and etheric makeup, but we cannot stop there. It is a trap to do meditations and practices that aim at experiencing a certain state. In the search for something specific we miss the reality and the magic of the actual.

I am not good at reciting what I have just read/heard and sharing it with others. As a teacher I have often felt frustrated with this, as I have felt it necessary to impart a few more of the deeper teachings of yoga philosophy, etc. Even with asana – when we read that such and such helps to ‘speed up lymphatic flow in the ducts and improves drainage’ I feel that I will stumble over these words if I try and mention them. However, if I ignore all of this and focus on what I myself have experienced in my sadhana and impart what I can of this to the students, then there is a flow and realness to the class. This is not to say that a talk on yoga philosophy or a deeper probe into the effects on the physiology aren’t useful – it just isn’t always the way. I feel we must be careful that we do not project all this knowledge on to our experiences so that we miss what we are actually feeling. It’s akin to when we want to find a lost pair of scissors. In our minds we have the image of the scissors with the red handle and naturally this is what we search for. But we are so busy with the search for the red scissors that we miss the green handled pair right in front of us.

I think this is how Satyananda yoga works. We are asked to feel the effects of our asana, pranayama practices, etc. and experience them for ourselves. Bodily sensations after a backward bend do not necessarily have to be felt in the back. Relying on personal experience takes the pressure off from us feeling that we should or shouldn’t experience this or that. Rather, it helps us to rest quite comfortably in what is. ‘I don’t feel a subtle flow of energy, I don’t feel a tingling/vibrating, but I do feel the clothing against my skin.’ Without the angst and striving for what we feel we should grasp, yoga (and all else in life, I venture) becomes the joy and journey of personal discovery it actually is.