The focus of an Integral Yoga Hatha class isn’t on obtaining a buff body, but in some ways it can be a harder workout. Integral Yoga teachers aren’t interested in their students working up a sweat, but instead create an environment in which students can disengage from their habitual storylines and delve deep within—into a meditative experience. Integral Yoga teacher trainer and center director, Swami Ramananda explains the Integral Yoga approach to teaching Yoga and how teachers serve as humble instruments in this process.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): If you had to write a mission statement for an Integral Yoga teacher what would it be?
Swami Ramananda (SR): To create an atmosphere that allows the students to have an experience of Yoga and to include the elements that lead a student deeper and deeper into more subtle levels so that they can ultimately experience something that’s difficult for the mind to grasp under normal circumstances. This involves setting the right intention: to enable students to transition from their regular, worldly attention to a more subtle, refined attention.
IYM: Would you give us an example of how you do that?
SR: Well, it’s exactly what we do in a typical Integral Yoga class. The teacher creates the environment, the setting, foundation and guidance—utilizing all the limbs of Yoga—that enables the students to move more subtly into the experience of stillness. Yama and niyama are the foundations of the practice. Students discipline themselves and, at the same time, focus their energy and effort in a direction, but balanced by santosha, the idea of being at peace with where you are in your practice.
We set an intention through the chanting of the opening slokas that invokes the grace and guidance of the Guru and Cosmic Consciousness. We work from the grosser level—with easy simple practices like eye movements and the asanas, which engage the mind in a comprehensive way. Everything we do involves the breath. It’s one thing to be aware of the breath and another to be aware of the rhythm, the smoothness, the length of the inhale and exhale—it can get more detailed as you focus your sensory capacity on the internal vs. external world. This combination of things is a beautiful foundation on which to practice.
IYM: How do we practice with santosha?
SR: Because our normal, waking energy tends to be so scattered, we need to do something that engages the mind in multiple levels—paying attention to the body and breath in a refined way, assessing your energy level in an asana. So you learn to come out of the asana when you need to—not when the teacher says or when others are coming out of the asana. Swami Satchidananda (Gurudev) trained us to establish this noncompetitive environment where we creatively describe, encourage and support students to hold this intention of santosha—to let go of ideas about what should be, what others look like, what pictures they’ve seen on a Yoga magazine cover. It’s so ingrained that most students will compete against some idea they have of what’s “good.” This is where a Yoga class becomes less about conditioning the body and more about de-conditioning the mind. We try to get the students interested in discerning the capacity of their bodies in this moment—not before, not later, but in this moment.
This way you create a practice that brings benefit and no harm. A practice grounded in this way not only brings the physical benefits of Yoga but also requires the refined attention that enables your Yoga to become a meditative practice. In order to really focus in class, you begin to embrace the process of letting go of patterned ways of thinking, letting go of normal thought forms that occupy the mind. So, the whole ego identity is suspended and you can escape that identity through the meditative focus of the practice. That’s the beauty of an Integral Yoga class.
As I said, it has the yamas and niyamas as a foundation, asana and pranayama to move from the gross to the more subtle and pratyahara to engage the senses inwardly so that there’s little or no sensory stimuli—all of which leads to dharana, the beginning stage of meditation. Before we do silent meditation, we chant, leading into meditation, which further engages the senses on a subtle vibratory level. When there’s this comprehensive approach that engages the students sufficiently on the physical and pranic levels, this all leads up to the moment of stillness when you are free of your samskaras and subconscious thought patterns. This enables students to get a taste of a part of themselves that they don’t normally experience.
IYM: How can teachers maintain a balance between giving instruction and the silence needed for students to go within?
SR: I think many teachers have a tendency to engage the student so much that the students never go inward enough. The opposite extreme is to not be present enough, so that the students fail to gain a steady focus and their own normal thoughts distract them. If teachers can keep the students engaged, but not draw attention to themselves, then the teachers are enabling the students to stay inwardly focused and to have their own experience. Of course there needs to be some attention to the students to make sure they don’t hurt themselves or to help them refine their understanding but if there’s too much interaction, the class becomes a more superficial experience.
IYM: How do you create enough variety in class while respecting the Integral Yoga method of utilizing a script and set of poses?
SR: I encourage teacher trainees to learn from a script initially so they have a grasp of the basic, essential instructions. We highlight the phrases that say something in a concise, clear, beautiful way, so that they can be at ease with giving the basic skeleton of the class. But then we encourage them to be more creative in other aspects of the class. You can create variation not by changing the poses but by approaching a pose in a slightly different way. For example, in a simple forward bend, we would typically focus on lengthening the torso, stretching the arms up and so on. Sometimes I’ll have the students bend their knees, hold underneath the knees and have the focus be to hinge forward from the hips so they’re getting the proper bend in low back. For those who have tightness in the back of the legs this is sometimes a good, alternate entry to the same place.
We encourage teachers to create some variation in the class that helps students not practice in an automatic way. Some movements like a backward or forward bend are done as a part of other poses, and the nervous system is designed to help us do something we do often in an automatic way, but we don’t want the students to practice Yoga in an automatic way. That’s why we need to bring in some variation, or new detail, to help them stay engaged, so the mind doesn’t just wander off because they know the pose and how to do it.
Teachers don’t have to constantly change the asanas, but they can change the lens through which they look at the asanas or have a theme which they carry throughout the class. I think you can also vary the language that’s used to create an environment of safety, for a noncompetitive and meditative practice. We encourage that kind of diversity. In most of my classes, I have some kind of theme—a spiritual teaching or a particular yama or niyama, which coordinates with the asanas. For example, I might suggest contentment and gratitude as a theme. Students can focus on what they are grateful for and feel blessed as they do the postures, which helps undermine the whole idea of having to do more and be more.
IYM: How do you avoid having the personality of the teacher become the focus of a class?
SR: We suggest that teachers also set their own intention in teaching the class. We role model this for teacher trainees by beginning our classes with approaching the altar and bowing. We light a candle and open ourselves to be vehicles, humble instruments. We invoke the guidance and grace of God and Guru. This is another principle that Gurudev taught us and is a part of our training programs: It’s not about the teachers; it’s about the students. It’s not a time to show how good you are, to impress your students with your knowledge, poetic language or great insights. The role of an Integral Yoga teacher is to guide the students to have their own meditative experience.
IYM: What else did Gurudev stress for new teachers?
SR: He used to say tell new graduates that they are now called “teachers,” they’re in the role of teachers, but, that good Yoga teachers know they are also students. As good Yoga students we practice regularly, so that we are actively working at dis-identifying with the ego and traditional thought patterns that compel us to try to look good and win admiration! Regular practice is an essential part of a Yoga teacher’s life. And, practice doesn’t just mean asana, but meditative practice during which we consciously disengage from the storylines that we carry around and with which we identify. Only when we lose that definition that we’ve created for who we are, can we allow for something deeper to be present. By practicing Yoga regularly, we become more refined, clearer instruments and that divine energy flows through us in ways we may not even notice. The ego becomes more and more purified and diminished so that the spirit can shine through. We want our teachers to have a well-rounded experience of Yoga as a path, not just be people who’ve learned how to say things, but who have experienced Yoga.
About Swami Ramananda:
Swami Ramananda served as the manager of Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville, as president of the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City, and is a greatly respected senior teacher in the Integral Yoga tradition. He serves on the Integral Yoga Teachers Council and leads Yoga teacher training programs and a variety of workshops around the world. He is a founding board member of the Yoga Alliance. He currently serves as the president of the San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute.