Teaching Public Classes

Swami Omgyanam, Belgrade, Serbia

It was one cold winter 4 years ago when I first visited the volunteers' office at the municipality of Belgrade, Serbia. Homeless people of the city were in need of warm clothes and when we delivered a full trunk of coats and jackets we had collected in our yoga centre 'Bihar Yoga Club', we asked them how we could be of more use. Industrious and hard working young volunteers soon arranged for us to teach public classes, free of cost, in their municipality.

Public in the yoga class

People who come to a yoga centre or an ashram have chosen yoga in preference to another physical activity. They usually come with certain information about yoga if not with a spiritual inclination. In my public classes the majority of people were not familiar with yoga. They did not know what yoga was. They came just because it was offered for free.

At our first class about 70 people appeared. I soon learned that most of them were ageing, some were ill, some post-operative convalescents, some were mentally unstable and some had behavioural problems.

There is no chance to have an interview with a new student to ask about their health, medicine taken and other necessary details, as we normally do with students before they commence attending classes. The class was scheduled in between other activities of the sports centre and there was no possibility to set a time even for distribution of a questionnaire. Even a questionnaire would not serve the purpose as in every class about 30 percent of the students are new.

Well, it was a peculiar situation and peculiar yoga classes they were.

Adapt, adjust, accommodate

Soon the class had grown to 85, 100, 110 students. The classes were scheduled in the morning, so working people and young people were in the minority. The majority of the students were in the 50+ and up to 70+ age group, and to some of them the sense of hearing had started weakening. The municipality could not provide the sound system so I had to learn to project my voice, to shout and maintain peace within and without. Not to mention that I have no platform to sit on, so in order for everybody to see me, I have to teach standing all the time – so standing and moving around and shouting, peacefully.

Even during the yoga nidra practice, every instruction had to be said at the top of my voice, but in such a way to still enable relaxation and withdrawal into oneself. The trick is to be calm, steady and very relaxed from within, and let the voice come freely with full force from the core of the stomach. Then the voice is loud but the vibrations are not disturbing. I found out that in that way teaching leaves me full of shakti after every class, as if I had churned my own manipura chakra, by shouting in shanti.

People have lost the habit to listen to each other, it was impossible for the absolute beginners to understand my simple instructions. My instruction, 'Lift your right leg' had different results: lifting the left arm, head, left leg or the whole body into standing position. Practices done in the lying position with the head turned towards the teacher were difficult to follow. It was much easier to watch my face talking to understand the practice. I had to perform practices and show them how to do them, over and over again.

I soon came to know that people cannot sit on the floor for more than a few minutes, that they cannot even lie on a hard floor for a more than ten minutes, and that they cannot stand for more than five minutes. I had to develop the new skill of making my class plan in such a way that the students in one class do asana in sitting, lying, and standing position in appropriate sequence and amount of time.

As the time allotted to us by the sports centre was just one hour, I had to make a plan for every class in minutes, so that they have the right amount of asanas (about 25 minutes), pranayama (15 minutes) and yoga nidra (about 17 minutes). So if I have to introduce a new asana the asana segment of the class would take 35 minutes, then pranayama would be adjusted to 10 minutes, and yoga nidra should be 15 minutes.

Maybe you will think that I am a perfectionist, but believe me, with such a big group of people from all walks of life, coming right from the street, you have to be on top of it. The plan should be fixed and stable so that there is no space for insecurity. Every moment of insecurity in the teacher, every slight nervousness or impatience in the voice, every irritability revealed in body movement will be detected and the commotion within and eventually from without will start. At the same time, you must be spontaneous and also free, within the borders of the class plan.

Discipline the masses

It took them quite a while to understand that it is not appreciated to speak during the yoga class. People were making comments, shouting to me 'Louder!' They were laughing like little kids about some asana, they were pointing at someone, or just chatting. Sometimes the students would start a fight over a space, or they would attack the person who was able to relax deep enough to start soft snoring. Some people would check their bags and make continuing noise due to the inbuilt nervousness. Once a lady during yoga nidra secretly took from the bag a packet of snacks and placed it on her abdomen and continued munching from it until it was finished.

To find the right measure of implementing a discipline, to be firm but gentle, to avoid being policeman and harsh, was a challenge, but soon I discovered that to maintain a decent amount of discipline was necessary.

Even today, after 4 years, there is always someone coming late 15, 20, 25 minutes. The late-comer usually comes with a bundle of covers and yoga mats in plastic bags and adjustment lasts for the next 10 minutes with all the noise. Not to mention phones ringing occasionally testing the level of everyone's pratyahara in yoga nidra.

Spiritual yoga

As soon as we started with public classes I learned that those new students, peculiar as they are, would become my teachers. Many yoga teachers would like to see some spiritual aspirant entering their class, some seeker who want to study the Bhagavad Gita, learn mantras, meditation and come to the ashram. Well, my public class students have no such inclinations but they have taught me what spirituality was.

None of them came for any spiritual purpose. They came basically to fill the long hours of the day, to do some exercise and to make friends with someone. But they genuinely experience and feel how with yoga they feel better, they become better and they keep on coming. They simply love the Satyananda Yoga practice of yoga nidra. They clap after the practice, some still in lying position, each time. I tried to ask them not to do that, it did not work. Then I understood: they do not clap to me, my teaching, but to that peace or inner space they are connecting with, after who knows how long. They cannot find the way to that peaceful inner space anywhere else. I can see how they change over time for the better, outwardly and inwardly. That is for me spirituality.

Testimonies

One lady was very keen to teach her husband who would not come to a single class himself. He had severe allergies and he was sneezing and using tissues all the time. He stopped going out and meeting people, even family gatherings and dinners, as his condition was very uncomfortable. His eyes were red, his nose red, and he had running nose and had to blow the nose every now and then. With neti he considerably reduced symptoms and now he is visiting his friends happily.

One lady had high level of cholesterol since youth. She has her GP medical check-up every month as she comes in the group of high risk for cardiovascular diseases. First she noticed how her sleep considerably improved with yoga. Her doctor asked her what was the new thing she had introduced in her life as he noticed the level of cholesterol was reducing. At firsts he could not remember, then she remembered that yoga was new, but thought it was just a coincidence. Now her cholesterol is within the normal level and she practises yoga nidra at home.

My favourite reported benefit came from two sisters over 70, heavy built, leading 100 percent sedentary life. One of them, the cheeky sister, teased the other saying to me, 'You know, after every yoga class she walks home in fast tempo, and always does some cleaning, but heavy stuff, like cleaning windows, the store or carpets. And you know, she is basically lazy and she just watches her TV shows all day'.

Many students reported how they sleep better and feel more peaceful and less irritated with the issues that usually gave them strong reactions.

Some back pains were lessened, some disappeared. Many elderly students reported how they walk better and feel more confidentin the snow and on slippery pavements in winter. Pawanmuktasana and some utthanasana, on a regular basis, made knees, hips and muscles of the legs strong and also with other standing or balancing postures the balance and stability improved.

The best of all benefitsis to see them smiling and joking like school girls and boys after every class. They say that yoga makes them happy, and the day when they go to yoga class is their happy day.

Outdoor classes

Last year we moved from the hall on to the lawn outside, to have classes in the open air during the summer months. That was definitelymy best experience and I believe their good memories as well.

The yoga meadow is just next to the sports centre where we normally have classes and it is by the Danube river with a beautiful view all around. We have to adapt, adjust and accommodate every single class. We meet many challenges. The cleanliness of the lawn, the level of noise or silence, the weather, the amount of people passing by – are all subject to change, day by day.

The sun, and therefore the shade, is moving during the class; the day is getting hotter, so we have to change places and adjust. The grass is not always cut nor always clean; it has some bugs and bees. A stray dog comes along from nowhere and licks someone's face or foot during nadi shodhana or yoga nidra.

A mentally-deranged citizen occasionally decides that my students are his audience willing to hear his teachings. Or a trance techno party, leftovers of the previous night, is still in full swing around 8 a.m. in the boat house club just next to our meadow. The old freight train, happily blowing the horn, passes 15 metres away from us usually right in the middle of yoga nidra, just to overpower my instructions . . . . . but the eye exercises in nature, pranayama in the fresh morning air by the river, antar mouna with all the beautiful sounds of nature, and overall recharging with early morning prana and sun rays– make those classes very special.

Conclusion

Fifty to over a hundred mostly senior citizens, our students in each class, twice a week, with 30 percent students being newcomers in each class, make a great exposure to yoga in Belgrade. Many of our students have their children all over the world as in the 1990's many people emigratedto Sweden, Germany, UK or USA. They usually come to Belgrade during holidays and their parents make sure they are introduced to Satyananda Yoga. This takes them by surprise with its classical, traditional, integral and systematic approach. Many people have been exposed to our system and all of them reap great benefits.

For myself I can tell only that these are my favourite classes. I walk to every class with great joy, and very gladly meet new and every time different challenges. I see obvious benefitsof yoga as I have never seen before. I see appreciation of every class in the eyes of my students and tangible genuine joy after every class. This is the best reward for my teaching.

—August 2017

Students' Response to Public Classes

With the classical yoga I have great benefitsfrom the practices for the digestive system. Recently I faced a great health problem. At New Year's Eve I was admitted to the emergency ward for an inflammationof the colon. The doctors suggested an immediate operation, but I refused. After leaving the hospital, I continued with my yogic practices focusing on the practices for digestive disorders. Now when I feel discomfort in my stomach and pain starts developing, I take a glass of warm water and gently do the yoga practices. After a short while the pain disappears. Not only that, everybody has noticed how I have become much more positive since I attend yoga classes. Yoga is medicine! Due to my work as a fight attendant and 40 years of smoking, I have developed HOBS chronic bronchitis and I use sprays, medication and I feel weakness. When I started attending free yoga classes I have seen that the practices are not demanding and after them I do feel better. I have noticed that I have difficultyto pass the six blocks of houses on my way to the yoga class. I have to stop and sit down, take a shortcut or use the inhaler. However, after the class, I have no difficultyto walk back home and to breathe.

—Dusica Antic

I am 80 years old and I function much, much better than my friends who are not practising yoga. I had problems with sinusitis and now they are gone with pranayama. Especially nadi shodhana is very pleasant and beneficial. I make an effort to practise yoga every day.

—Zdenka Glisic

After many years of back pain (neck spondylitis) and many physical therapies, my friend brought me to yoga, which is one of the best things that happened in my life. Yoga has helped me to move about and live without any help and assistance at this advanced age of 86. I am happy to be able to do some asana under the competent guidance of our teacher. After her classes we all feel relaxed and smiling. Apart from detailed and clear instructions and guidance in the practices, she gives us a lot of love. We all, more than 100 of us, feel so grateful for the opportunity to have such good quality recreation as yoga.

—Juvanc-Gerden Ana Nusha

Yoga has changed me. I have started to love people and I am no longer leading other people's lives. I feel healthy and young in spirit. I love all!

—Slavica Korunoski