BASIC YOGA LITERACY 108
[Note: Originally I titled this, “Things Every Yoga Teacher Should Know,” but I decided that eliminating the word “should” is probably a wise idea, and doggone it, we should all just stop should-ing already! Seriously, I don’t want to give anyone the sense that this is in any way authoritative or THE “standard” for what a yoga teacher needs to know; rather, it is information that I have found helpful and useful over the years as a teacher, and what I feel are good, basic, guidelines for practicing and teaching yoga. This list covers the main categories that are required in most Yoga Alliance-approved Yoga Teacher Trainings (History, Philosophy, Sanskrit, Asana, Pranayama, Teaching Methodology, and Anatomy & Physiology), and my intention was to make a listing that was at once simple, user-friendly, and manageable, but also fairly broad and inclusive of what I consider some major points. Hope it helps! : ) ]
1) The Yoga tradition is generally considered to be about 5,000 years old, based on seals found in India that have figures in yogic postures. However, the tradition probably dates back much further.
2) Vedas – The Bible of India & Hinduism. The oldest known written scriptures from India that have had a most profound influence on Indian or Hindu culture.
3) Two great epic stories, and they are called Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
Bhagavad Gita is found in the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana contains Rama and Sita and Hanuman.
4) Bhagavad Gita – A small section of the Mahabharata, 18 chapters. Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna, telling him why he should fight a just war against his own people, but on a deeper level, it’s God in the form of Krishna (Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu) teaching what true yoga is. Bhakti, Karma, Jnana, and Raja Yoga. Dates about 400 years or so before Christ 400 BCE.
5) Yoga Sutras – Comes in the Classical Period, around 200 BCE, possibly a response to Buddhism or influenced by Buddhism. Buddha lived about 500 BCE. He was born in India. The Yoga Sutras are 196 short statements about what yoga is, fleshing the first sutra “yogas chitta vrtti nirodhaha” (“yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.”) Doesn’t mention asanas as we do asanas, it does contain the 8 limbs of yoga, which include “asana” as the 3rd limb of the yogic path, which is also referred as Raja Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, sometimes Classical Yoga. Even though asana is the 3rd limb, this does not necessarily mean that there was Hatha Yoga at that time. Asana originally meant “seat,” or “sitting posture,” and apparently only later came to mean yogic postures as we know and do them today.
6) Tantra and Hatha Yoga. The Tantric path was partly a response/reaction to the traditional path of yoga as passed down from the Vedas to the Upanishads through the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. The tantric path is less self-denying and more life and body-embracing. And it was from Tantra that the path of Hatha Yoga emerged, although it was still based partly in the other tradition of the yoga sutras.
7) Modern Yoga – Owes a lot to the influence of Swami Vivekananda who spoke World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and was a star of the show. He paved the way for the next several generations of yogis coming to the West. The biggest wave of yogis and gurus came in the 1960s. Krishnamacharya was perhaps the most influential of any yoga teacher in the past century, because he was the teacher of Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, who started Iyengar Yoga, and Pattabhi Jois started Ashtanga Yoga. He also was the teacher of Indra Devi who was one of the first women yoga teachers. Desikachar is Krishnamacharya’s son and he wrote a great book called “The Heart of Yoga.” Desikachar teaches “Viniyoga” which
1) Darshana – Perspective – 6 major philosophical traditions (darshanas) in the Hindu tradtion, and Yoga is one of the 6. Yoga is experience-based knowledge. You don’t know it, unless you’ve felt it, unless you’ve experienced it. There is more to it than this, of course.
2) Meaning of Yoga. The root is yuj, which means to yoke, to unify, to connect. Yoga is generally defined as “union.” Yoga is both the means and the end, or the method and the goal. In other words: We do yoga to be yoga. Yoga in action is expressed as a balanced, harmonious life. Equanimity – “Samatva” – In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that Yoga is “Samatva” – the enlightened/liberated individual (truly wise person) sees and treats everyone and everything equally, because All is One.
3) Yoga Sutra – “Yogas chitta virtti birodhaha” – One popular translation: “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” This is the Yoga Sutras definition of what Yoga is, and the rest of the Sutras is a detailing of what that is.
4) There are about 7 major paths of yoga. Raja, Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, Hatha Yoga, Tantra Yoga, Kundalini Yoga.
5) Hatha Yoga – Emerged out of Raja Yoga and Tantra Yoga. Hatha Yoga is the marriage of “Ha” (Sun), and “Tha” (Moon), marriage of the sun and the moon, the union of opposites. The word “hatha” also means “forceful.” Hatha traditionally used more physical means of accessing the divine.
6) Vedanta – End of the Vedas. Essence of the Vedas. It’s found in the Upanishads. It’s basically the idea that there is only one Reality, that everything is connected, and that we are all one, but Maya makes us feel as we are separate and that makes us live only for ourselves.
7) Lila. Play. Play of God. This is the idea that The One (the Universe – the One Song) created All of this Multiverse for sheer delight of enjoying Itself in the Play of the Many, and as a kind of Cosmic Game of Hide and Seek that some would try to “find” their way back to the original Unity.
1) Sanskrit is a liturgical language, used for reading the scriptures, mantras, rituals, weddings, etc. The closest language in India is Hindi, and many Hindi words are actually Sanskrit words, but they’re shortened. For example: Yoga is Yog. Karma is Karm. Rama is Ram. Etc. Also, “Namaste” is actually a Hindi word. The original Sanskrit word is “Namaskar,” as in “Surya Namaskar.”
2) Sanskrit is considered to be the first language, the language of the gods, yet scholars would say there were languages that predated Sanskrit. One tradition is that first there was the AUM, the sound of God, and from the AUM emerged the Sanskrit alphabet.
3) English, Latin, Greek and the other Romance languages fall into the category of the Indo-European language family, so that many words that we use today have similar roots in all of these languages. Father Pater Latin, Sankrit Pitr, English is Father. Sanskrit Matr, Latin Mater, English Mother. Sanskrit – mrt = mortality, mortal, murder;
4) Sanskrit – It is important to brush up on your Sanskrit, and at least endeavor to learn the traditional Sanskrit names of the asanas, pranayama, and other relevant terms. (Nicolai Bachman has a nice book called “The Language of Yoga” for this purpose.) Is it important to use Sanskrit in your classes? Completely up to you, but it is recommended to learn as much as you can.
5) AUM – is optional, always, and you don’t have to use it in your teaching. Yoga is not a religion, and it’s also nothing that we are trying to convert anyone to anything. It’s a tool, set of tools, to possibly enrich your spiritual life, or your practice of your birth religion, or just your life in general. I would recommend listening to different recordings of AUMs.
6) Mantras – Some of the most basic and well-known are OM, Om Shanti Shanti Shantihi, Lokah Samastat Sukhinoh Bhavantu, Asatoma Sadgamaya/Tamasoma Jyotirgamaya/Mrtyorma Amrtamgamaya, and Om Namah Shivaya. Mantra is a way to purify your mind, and remove negative thinking, and this can also be done, by using positive affirmations, or prayer. Mala is 109 beads strung on a string. When you do mantras repeatedly it’s a practice called jape.
7) Sanskrit is a truly beautiful language, very precise language, and actually in many ways quite easy to learn. Using Sanskrit can help to raise your personal vibration. Kirtan is a practice of Bhakti Yoga that is becoming a very well-loved form of yoga practice today in the West, so one way to do another kind of yoga is to attend a kirtan.
7+) Sanskrit is such a precise language that mispronouncing a syllable can radically change the word, and the language has become “Americanized” so that most yoga teachers do not really correctly pronounce the Sanskrit words, which is okay in a way, because that’s what we do with all languages that we incorporate into our mother tongue.
1) Asana originally mean “seat,” like the actual thing that the yogi sat upon, (tiger skin, grass mat, etc). It also meant sitting posture, like in the Yoga Sutras.
2) Traditionally, there are 84,000 asanas. Wherever this number came from, the point is that there’s a lot of asanas, and there’s no reason why our yoga classes can not be a little bit more creative.
3) Asanas are part of the Hatha Yoga tradition, and they are a way not only of making the body very healthy and enabling one to live a long, fruitful life, but they are also seen as a preparation for the inner practices of yoga, such as meditation.
4) The word “asana” is pronounced “ah-sana.” If you want a sauna, go to Hot Yoga : )
5) One of the main texts of Hatha Yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (“Light on Hatha Yoga”), which is a 14th century Sanskrit scripture by Yoga Swatmarama that very thoroughly explains what Hatha Yoga is, including a number of the major asanas. If you want to learn more about the roots of Hatha Yoga, then read that.
6) Asanas are at their best ways of releasing blockages from the nadis, which are the meridians or energy channels of the body and subtle body. When these blockages are removed, people often experience an emotional or cathartic release, sometimes physical. There’s a really good saying that expresses this, which is “Your issues are in your tissues.” Have Kleenexes available : )
7) Our asana practice today is an amalgam of not just Indian Yoga, but other exercise/fitness systems as well, so in a way, we are probably not doing Hatha Yoga in its purest form, but one that was developed in the last 100 some years.
1) “If you can breathe, you can do yoga.” It might be helpful to tell students to think of their Hatha Yoga practice as mindful breathing, with postures/asanas thrown into the mix, instead of the other way around. In other words, the breathing is as important if not more important than the movements. Remind the students throughout the class to breathe, and to breathe deeply and consistently and rhythmically.
2) Your inbreath or inhalation is also called “inspiration.” Your outbreath or exhalation is also called “expiration.” Both are necessary processes, equally good, because in one you’re taking in oxygen, and in the other, you are releasing Carbon Dioxide. Inspiration is what gives us life, what gives us breath, and sometimes what is breathtaking. Expiration is all that we want to let go of. So you can use this idea for what you can let go of to create space for another inspiration.
3) Inhalation in general activates the sympathetic nervous system, which governs the “fight or flight” response in the body. The exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs the relaxation response in the body. The general idea is that deepening the exhalation will help the body to relax more deeply, and you want to encourage deep relaxation in your students. The more relaxed you are when you do yoga, the better able you will be to perform the asanas, and the better you will feel in general. Words to describe the breathing that you want to encourage your students to do are words such as “long, slow, deep, connected, mindful/conscious” breathing.
4) Major yoga breathing exercises/pranayamas: 3-part Breathing/Complete Yogic Breath/Deep Breathing; Althernate Nostril Breathing, aka Nadi Shodhana, aka Anuloma Viloma; Ujjaiyi Breathing; Kapalabhati (Breath of Fire, and the version where you are just pumping the belly and forcefully exhaling through the mouth or preferably the nose; other version of Breath of Fire is Bhastrika, or Bellows, which you can teach by first teaching the Dog Breath. Bhastrika is in-out, includes the inhalation as well as the exhalation; Brahmari = Bee Breathing; Sitali & Shitkari = Cooling breaths.
5) “The mouth is for eating, and the nose is for breathing.” In general, emphasize nostril breathing, breathing through the nose, for the general reason that this quote highlights. That said, there are times when breathing through the mouth is helpful, like when you want to let out some steam or a sighing breath of relief. Making sounds when you breathe can be helpful, hearing the breath is an aid to mindfulness, and there are 3 basic components to any yoga practice, which are breathing, movements/asanas, and mindfulness/conscious awareness. Also, breathing through the mouth is used for specific breath exercises like Shamanic Breathwork, which can be a very powerful, transformational form of breathing.
6) In general, in yoga we inhale when we do an expansive posture or movement, and we exhale when we do a contractive posture or movement. The instruction to breathe precedes the instruction to move.
7) The word for Breath in many languages is the same as the word for “Spirit,” and the yoga scriptures say that if you can control the breath, you can control the mind (found in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, for example), and that the breath is the bridge between the mind and the body.
1) “If you want to learn something, teach it.” And the best way to teach anything, is through your own learning, based on your own personal experience. Your own personal practice Is key/fundamental to your teaching. You might want to think of your yoga training as a 4-year plan that you’re on, just like earning a college degree.
2) One key to a good yoga class is being able to guide the class effectively using planned out transitions and sequencing. For this, your language and verbal cues are important.
3) Be creative with your language, and avoid words and patterns of speaking that are not as mindful as they could be. For instance, eliminate words such as “try,” “should,” “um,” “you know,” “like,” “we’re gonna,” and use words which are more thoughtful and inspiring and creative. Avoid leader and filler words, such as “the next thing we’re going to do…” Project your voice, and speak with authority, though also more from your heart than your head…
4) One of the most important things for any teacher, is to Be Yourself, be authentic, don’t be something that you’re not, and don’t teach anything that you have not personally digested and assimilated so that it’s become part of you, something you “Know” versus something you merely “believe.” (“Yoga Beyond Belief.”) It’s perfectly okay and even perhaps recommended that you speak from your heart and you share with your students your own personal life and yoga experience. You can think of being a yoga teacher a “sharing yoga,” you’re sharing yoga and you are a student of yoga just like your students are, only you have more practice and experience behind you.
5) Rely more on intuition and feeling than your structure/plan. Be ready to completely throw out your plan for the class depending on what you pick from the students, and what the general feel of the moment is. In other words, be flexible! Intuition includes knowing what a good counterpose or stretch or movement would be for any pose or movement. Ultimately you will not be using a lesson plan when you teach, you will be teaching purely by intuition and inspiration and experience.
6) Remember: “Every body is different!” Your job as a teacher is to support your student as best as you can in harmony with their specific anatomy and physiology, not according to what you think the pose needs to look like, or even what they would like to look like. Yoga if anything teaches us patience vs. instant gratification. Always ask a student if it is okay to assist them in a yoga pose, and be very cautious when you do. Make sure you have your attention on them at all times, especially when they are attempting a challenging asana. It is also your job to tell them when you feel they’ve had enough, or even suggest a modification when the posture is out of their range at that moment.
7) Suggest modifications for each pose that you do, whenever possible, unless it’s clear that everyone can do the pose. You can also suggest more advanced versions of the pose for those who can go further and want to challenge themselves.
ANATOMY & PHYSIOLOGY
1) This bears repeating: “Every body is different.” Two people will be doing the same exact yoga pose, and they will most likely be feeling it in different places in their body.
2) Compression vs. Tension, what Paul Grilley talks about in his Yoga Anatomy DVD. As a teacher, know the difference and guide a student accordingly.
3) You won’t generally assist students in the most fragile places in the body, which are knees, neck, wrists. You might also want to do specific exercises to stregthen those areas.
4) As a teacher, it’s a very good idea to learn the major muscles and bones that apply specifically to yoga. Scapula, femur, lumbar, thoracic, cervical spine, hip bones, pelvis, sacrum, tail bone or coccyx, metatarsals (balls of feet), phalanges, radius and ulna, humerus, acromium process. Also good to learn about the different systems and organs of the body, such as the circulatory system, the lymphatic system, respiratory system, and also the glands and the hormones, such as the pituitary, pineal, thyroid, etc.
5) Subtle Anatomy – Energy body. Chakras. Nadis. Koshas. Your Aura. 7 major chakras that line up along the spine and when active or activated they spin in a clockwise direction. The nadis are the energy channels, essentially the same thing as meridians in the Chinese system. There are supposed to be something like 72,000 nadis, and there are 3 major nadis that we talked about: Sushumna is the Central Channel that runs along the spine. Ida and Pingala. Koshas are sometimes translated as “Sheaths” or “bodies.” There are 5 koshas, one of which is the physical body, then the energetic body, then the mental body, then the wisdom body, and finally the Bliss Body. Sometimes when we practice yoga, we do access the Bliss Body, and people experience moments of bliss, or even more.
6) As a yoga teacher, it is very helpful for your students to know what specifically they are working, and what specifically they might want to be feeling in any given pose. Often they will want to hear the benefits of the pose. Also, remember the importance of the “Placebo Effect” and the power of suggestion, and utilize these ideas for the purpose of healing.
7) Don’t only read about anatomy and physiology, but study yourself, observe what happens to you in your own practice, take notes, and study other people, too, including your students and develop an eye for these things.
7+) PNF – Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation. It’s a great technique to use not only to get deeper into a stretch, speficically a forward bend, but also to prevent injury, specifically of the hamstrings. The technique is to engage the antagonist muscles of the agonist muscle group that is being stretched. So, in a forward bend, you will enagage the quadriceps in order to better and more safely stretch the hamstrings, by holding the contraction of the muscles for about 5 seconds or so, and then releasing, and then possibly repeating that.