Deborah Bryant is YogaLondon’s oldest ever graduate at a sprightly 70 years old. She talks to us about why she decided to go for it after many years of thinking about it, why she would recommend the course to anyone of retirement age, and what she’s missing most about her experience.
As yoga teachers and students, how important is it to know about the philosophy of the yoga we teach?
Yoga Philosophy is a vast subject; the Vedas, the Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads, to name but a few. You could spend a lifetime studying just one of these. But yoga is a physical practice, so do we need to know about the philosophy of it to be fully-rounded yogis?
The answer is – why don’t you try it to see?
While we’re in lockdown, we have no choice but to become stiller. We can’t rush about, make plans and run into the future. We have more present moments. So let’s take this time as a gift to expand our mental and spiritual worlds, while our physical world can expand only as far as the local park.
Why study yoga philosophy?
Let’s look into the ‘why’ a bit more. In ancient times yoga was passed from guru to shishya (pupil). The knowledge of yoga was passed on orally, but most of this teaching is now lost.
What was retained is now written down in books. ‘It is difficult to learn through books, but they are our only means of progress until we come across that rarity, a true teacher or master’ says B K S Iyengar in his introduction to his ‘Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’.
The yoga that we practice is incredibly important but, once we add in the theoretical knowledge, there comes a deepening understanding of WHY we do all this stretching stuff in the first place.
It becomes less about how many likes we can get for our latest yoga post on Instagram and more about the deep-seated motivation for getting on the mat every day.
But it’s important to remember that knowledge without experience is meaningless. It is better to come to the philosophy of yoga once you have an established home practice; then the meaning of what you’re reading is illuminated by your own experience.
A (very) brief history of Yoga Philosophy
We don’t really know when yoga began, but the estimate is around 2,500 years ago. Modern Yoga is an amalgam of lots of different Indian forms, but the earliest mention of yoga in a written form is in the Upanishads and the Mahabharata.
The Upanishads are part of the Vedas (meaning ‘wisdom’) – ancient Sanskrit texts, which are a collection of spiritual teachings and the basis of Hinduism. The Mahabharata is an epic tale (the other one is the Ramayana), which tells of the wars between two groups of cousins, as well as lots of devotional and spiritual teachings.
Within the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna’s teaching is infused with yogic concepts.
Following on from these works is possibly the most important philosophy of Yoga; the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Written somewhere between 500 and 200 BC, it is a collection of 196 aphorisms covering all aspects of a yogic life. It is called Yoga Darshana, which means Yoga Mirror, as the effect of yoga is to be like a mirror held up to show the seeker their true self.
In the 15th century, the sage Svatmarama wrote the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Light on Hatha Yoga), which is much closer to a manual than the other works and is more like the yoga that we recognise and practice today.
Where to start
But where do we start? As yoga teachers, the most obvious place to start is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. As an Iyengar yoga teacher, I start all my classes with the traditional chant to Patanjali, so it would be a bit remiss of me to chant away to some sage I have no idea about.
However, if you’re expecting a handy guide on how to do yoga, you’ll be disappointed. The sutras are a series of aphorisms that take you deeper and deeper into the heart of yoga.
First of all, it helps to invest in a good translation, as it’s not an easy text. The one that I go to is B K S Iyengar’s ‘Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’, but there are other good versions out there.
There are four sections or padas of the book.
- Samadhi pada – on concentration, or contemplation
- Sadhana pada – on practice
- Vibhuti pada – on properties and powers
- Kaivalya pada- on freedom from attachment
The first deals with where you’re heading – samadhi. It’s an aspirational way to start and is directed at those who are already well on their way to enlightenment. The second sutra in this section is the definition of yoga that most of us have heard of:
Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness
The second chapter is for the less spiritually evolved (so, most of us) and covers the eight limbs of yoga, as well as the three great paths of yoga; Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Bhakti Yoga. The third chapter is about the divine effects of yoga and the eight supernatural powers, or siddhis. These siddhis include the ability to change size, weight, to attain every wish and to gain power over all things – so eat your heart out, Marvel.
The final chapter is about achieving kaivalya when the sadhaka (seeker) attains liberation from the extremes of pleasure and pain and lives in a state of virtuous awareness.
Things to bear in mind
It’s not a religion. According to Patanjali, those who practice yoga can be of any faith, colour, creed, or sexual orientation (well, he didn’t say that, but I’m extrapolating). Anyone can do yoga, and their beliefs and values will be strengthened by the practice and philosophy.
Don’t be overwhelmed. Yoga philosophy was studied by sages who literally did nothing else, for their whole LIVES. Even in lockdown we still have a whole host of ‘things to do’. I return to the same chapters of my books over and over again. Sometimes, if I have 5 minutes, I just open the book at a random page and read what swims into view and just digest that one section.
Take notes. Have a notebook that you keep to hand, and then when something makes sense to you, jot it down. Or keep a handy guide of the meanings of some of the recurring words, like samadhi.
Where to finish
This is a tongue-in-cheek heading, as anyone who even delves just the tiniest bit into this vast subject knows that there is no ‘finishing’ this subject. Just as we never stop being students of yoga, we never stop being learners of yoga philosophy and where yoga strengthens body and mind, the philosophy of yoga brings spiritual health to enrich your yoga journey.
Whoever pressed the pause button on the world, could you please press play again?
My first question, as a self-employed yoga teacher when Covid 19 hit the headlines, was: how can earn a living if we are in lock-down?
Answer: do it online.
I am a genius. No one else will think of this.
The global COVID-19 crisis we’re experiencing has changed everyone’s lives overnight. Just a few weeks into being told to stay at home, the impacts are being felt on a personal, national and global scale.
But how is this affecting the yoga industry?
Just like every other service, yoga teaching has had to stop in real life. We are no longer allowed to gather together and teach or learn yoga all together in one room. The only people we can practice with are those that we live with – and they might not be so keen on doing yoga!
But what about all our students?
Like many yoga teachers in this country, I felt I had to cancel all my classes after Boris Johnson made the announcement that any unnecessary socialising should be avoided. I felt that from that point I was duty-bound to protect my students and myself from further social contact.
I spent that first week frantically researching how I could transfer my classes online. Since then I have moved all my classes online, and most of my students have made the transfer with me. This process hasn’t been easy and I could have done with a Top Ten Tips to move your yoga classes online – which I why I’m doing this for YOU!
1. Attend some online classes
The age-old adage ‘try before you buy’ applies here in spades. Before embarking on a completely new way of teaching, make sure you attend at least one online class, preferably in the same style as you will be teaching. Take notes afterwards to remember what you liked or didn’t like about the experience.
2. Choose your platform
If you’re not that ‘techy’, this is where it can start to get intimidating. But don’t worry, there are a whole host of ways to teach yoga online, most of which are pretty user-friendly. Here’s a sample of the most popular apps and platforms out there:
- Zoom – the most popular due to high-quality audio-visual and connectivity. The free service allows 40 minutes per meeting and up to 100 participants.
- Microsoft Teams – to access this meeting app, you need an Office 365 account.
- Google Hangouts – many yoga studios have used Hangouts for a while.
- House party – Possibly better for group games, and there have been hacking issues, but also a good live interface.
- Whereby.com – offers ‘meeting rooms’ rather than minutes allowed per meeting or numbers of users.
- Facebook Live streaming – this would be good for sharing previously recorded classes with your Facebook followers.
- YouTube videos – another way to share recorded lessons with your students, but wouldn’t be an interactive experience.
3. Tech comes first
Once you’ve chosen your platform and whether you want to pay for it or not, then you’ll need to work out what device to use. The platform you go for may be dependent on what devices you have available. I attended a class where the yoga teacher has done online classes regularly before, he had a huge up-to-the-minute computer, a light, bright studio space, and lighting set up.
It’s easy to feel intimidated by all the technology and think that it’s not for you. But I also attended a class with a teacher who’d balanced her laptop on the mantelpiece and had no fancy lighting or sound. I got equal gratification from both classes.
If you only have your iPhone and a small space then maybe Zoom classes aren’t for you. But you can record and edit classes on your iPhone and send them out to all your students using a YouTube video.
4. Test and test again
You can’t test too much. The issue here being that time is of the essence especially if yoga is your only income stream. The week before I went ‘live’ with my classes I did three tests with some very kind ‘guinea-pigs’. Each time I learnt something new, e.g. the wifi wasn’t good enough in one room, the phone was too small for me to see the other person and that I needed to check the light before teaching.
5. Choose your times
You might just want to transfer all your live lessons into online lesson slots, sticking to the same time and group of students. This works for them as they feel they still have the same routine, as well as get to see the same faces. Or, if you were teaching for a studio, you could have a daily slot at 8 am every weekday so that it’s simple, and any of your students can join any (or all) of the lessons on offer. Think about what works for you, ask your students, then be clear and decisive.
6. Decide on a payscale
For some teachers, the income is a secondary one, and the money isn’t important. For others, it’s their main source of income and at the moment, every little helps! Don’t be afraid to ask for payment. You will have outgoings if you decide to go for a paid-for platform, as well as the time and energy that you will spend on the administration side of moving everything online – as well as getting to grips with the new way of teaching. Many students are grateful that you are putting all this effort into still being able to teach them and want to pay for it.
However, it’s important to be mindful that this is also a huge financial crisis. People’s jobs may well be at risk, or they may be facing worrying bills. You could ask for pay-what-you-can donations, or let your students know that they should get in touch if money is an issue. You could also offer the first online lesson for free so that they can be sure they enjoy the experience before committing to paying for it.
7. Prep your students
Email all your students well in advance to let them know the changes. Be very clear about what they have to do. It’s all new for them too, and the more detail you can give, the easier it will be for them.
For the first class ask your students to come online 15 minutes before the class starts. That way you can interact with them before muting them (if using Zoom), and give them some feedback on whether you can see them or not before the class starts.
8. Get organised
Once you’ve decided on where you’re going to teach from, set up your ‘studio’ so it has everything in it that you will need for your class. Make sure it looks neat and clutter-free so your students won’t be distracted by looking at all your messy belongings. Give yourself plenty of time before the class starts so that you can be in position when they start to come online – and not frantically clearing furniture!
9. Be flexible and improvise
As yoga teachers it’s in our nature to be flexible – both physically and mentally. And we must be the same in our online teaching too. It might be that a class you’d planned isn’t working as the students are too tired, or don’t have the right equipment. Read the students and respond to them. In this strange and lonely time, a yoga class is all the more important, so make sure you put their needs first.
10. Ask for feedback
Once you’ve taught your first online lesson or sent your first recorded yoga lesson, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. We’re all new to this! And even if they all say how much they loved it, well, that’s also really nice to hear. More likely you’ll find that some students struggled with the tech, couldn’t see your legs because of the light, couldn’t hear you at one point because someone had forgotten to mute their mic and their kid came in – and so on. But then you know for next time!
…Remember that what you deliver doesn’t have to perfect. We’re all doing our best in what is an unprecedented event in all our lives. And if we can keep sending yoga out into the world, then that HAS to be a good thing.
You might also be interested in the Cheeky Yogi’s experience of taking her classes online
Looking for a 5 min sequence when time is short or something to add some fun to your classes – look no further, the warrior mini-sequence will be perfect! I love the strength I find through the first 2 poses than the fun of the last one as I let my imagination run wild! I give you the Warrior 1-2 3… (more…)