What We’re Teaching When We’re Teaching Yoga

I’ve left more classes than I can remember asking myself a big, broad cascade of questions that I’ve only recently been able to answer. All of the questions came from one that seemed simple: what—I would wonder—am I teaching students during class? The obvious answer is that I’m teaching them yoga, but, in a modern context, what does this really mean? I’d leave class, reflect on what transpired, and think to myself, “am I really just a group exercise instructor?” Am I a pop psychology guy trying to help people respond to their stuff with greater compassion and clarity? Am I scholar of yoga trying to teach and share my personal process? Am I some sort of life coach? Even more, I’d ask myself, “are any of these things really yoga as far as traditional definitions are concerned?”

I’m certain that all teachers ask themselves similar questions. After all, the fundamental question that all yogis ask themselves is, “who am I.” Over the years, I’ve come to think that there are 3 buckets of content that we’re teaching when we’re teaching yoga. Of course, the way we interpret and teach aspects within these categories varies according to different styles and teachers.

  • The skill of self-awareness and embodiment

As yoga teachers we help our students use their body more skillfully, breathe more efficiently, and witness their mind with greater clarity and objectivity. There are countless ways that we do this in each class—and students learn incrementally over time. So, whether you’re teaching down-dog, teaching a specific action in triangle pose, asking your students to witness their thinking mind, or helping your students orchestrate their breath and movement, you’re contributing to their ability to be self aware and embodied.

  • The skill of self-care

The ability to observe the needs of your body, breath, mind and heart is a set of skills. And, like all skills, they can be improved upon, but improvement requires practice. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the bottom-line in our yoga practice is that we are taking care of ourselves. Whether you want to think in terms of “big Self,” “small Self,” “temporary self” or “permanent, transcendent Self,” we’re taking care of (the many layers) of self when we practice. We are taking care of our body and we are taking care of our psychological and spiritual well-being. Everything we do in our practice can be regarded in this light.

  • The subject matter of yoga

The last bucket of content that we’re teaching when we’re teaching yoga is the subject of yoga. Yoga is an enormous body of work that includes various philosophical paradigms, ethical considerations, postures and techniques, breathing practices, meditation practices, spiritual teachings and allegories, linguistics and more. We are using the practice to facilitate embodiment, inquiry, and wellbeing (the buckets above), but we would be remiss to not also teach aspects of the subject itself. For some teachers this process is more overt. For example, they will give a basic talk about a philosophical component or ethical precept like ahimsa and weave it as a theme throughout class. For other teachers, the process of teaching the subject matter of yoga is more subtle and it may be as simple as including the Sanskrit names of postures when they teach. However we teach specific elements of the tradition of yoga, it’s essential to remember that yoga is a subject matter and we are helping students understand its components.

Jason Crandell was recently named one of the next generation of teachers shaping yoga’s future by Yoga Journal for his skillful, unique approach to vinyasa yoga. Jason’s steady pace, creative sequencing, and attention to detail encourage students to move slowly, deeply, and mindfully into their bodies. Jason credits his primary teacher, Rodney Yee, teachers in the Iyengar Yoga tradition such as Ramanand Patel, and ongoing studies in Eastern and Western philosophy for inspiring to him bring greater alignment and mindfulness to Vinyasa Yoga.

Jason is a contributing editor for Yoga Journal and has written over 13 articles for the magazine and website – many of which have been translated internationally (including Japan, China, Italy and Brazil). His integrative and accessible teachings support students of every background and lineage, helping them to find greater depth, awareness, and well-being in their practice – and in their lives. Follow Jason on Facebook and Twitter.

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