Beginning in the 1960s, there was a tremendous wave of enlightened masters who came to the West to impart the teachings of Yoga. Their coming was heralded by singular great souls who taught in the early 1900s, like Paramahansa Yogananda and Swami Vivekananda. Most of these teachers came from India. There was a distinct spiritual vibration one felt in their presence. Their ability to elucidate and demonstrate the Yoga teachings and practices was awe-inspiring. Thousands immersed themselves in Yoga.
Students were attracted, and organizations were established. Students were trained, so that the teachings could be disseminated. Today in the West, we don’t see the same sort of influx of realized masters. What we do have are Yoga teachers from various traditions who have devoted the past decades to study and practice, and have gone deep on the spiritual path. They bring their knowledge, experience, and insight to the teaching of Yoga, as well as the blessings of the great masters who trained them.
The transmission of spiritual teachings is a privilege and an art. It involves skillfully communicating what we have garnered over the years so that others can reap the benefits as well. There are four key factors that can enhance and ensure the effectiveness of this process: inspiration, information, motivation, and transformation. When they come together, a dynamic environment for exploration, practice, and growth is created in which genuine spiritual unfolding can occur.
People are inspired by not only what you say, but by who you are. They are quick to observe if your presence and manner embody the message you expound. If they experience tranquility and clarity, ease and poise, in the way you speak, act, or move about, it reinforces their confidence in the teachings and gives them hope that they, too, can experience similar benefits. What you have to offer is deemed authentic, valuable, and attainable.
Teach what you love and practice what you teach. This will enliven and give authority to all that you say. Share from your heart, and you will reach the hearts of others. Do so with patience, kindness, and respect for the uniqueness and integrity of each individual’s process and path.
When you teach Yoga, something is imparted from the depths of who you are, from your own experience, and that is possible only if you practice sincerely and regularly. The Yoga Sutras states that practice must be done for a long time, without break, and in all earnestness in order to become firmly grounded. Such practice becomes a crucible in which spiritual insight crystallizes. We can only give to others that which we ourselves have. So, to be a good teacher, we first need to be good students ourselves. Then, with gratitude for all we have received, we can generously offer the fruits of our practice for the comfort, upliftment, and benefit of others.
Gratitude engenders humility. In speaking at Teacher Training graduations, Swami Satchidananda would often describe how wheat grows. A young plant will be green and stand straight up. But as it ripens, it will turn a golden or orange color and bow low. Wisdom and humility go together. Humility should not be confused with lack of confidence or low self-esteem. It means answering the call to serve when it comes, trusting that all you need will be provided at the right time. Sometimes people undergo comprehensive trainings and then are hesitant to teach. They may feel their knowledge is incomplete or have anxiety about getting up in front of a group. It’s important to realize and remember that it is not about you—it’s about serving those who are guided to attend your class. Trust that there’s a reason—invisible patterns of commonality and forces of attraction—that have brought you all together. There are lessons to be learned, gifts to be shared, support to be given.
You don’t have to know everything in order to teach; in fact, that would be impossible. In the Hindu pantheon, Sarasvati, the Goddess of wisdom, is shown holding a book in one hand and a japa mala (rosary) in another. The message is: If the Goddess of wisdom is still learning and practicing, who are we to feel that our learning will ever be complete? There’s also an Indian saying that reflects this truth: “What we have learned is just a lump of clay; what we have yet to learn is the whole earth itself.”
One of the best ways to learn is to teach. When you try to explain something to someone else, you can clearly see the gaps in your own understanding. In my own experience, when I review materials to share with others, greater light comes to bear than when I simply study for my own edification. When I discuss the teachings with a group, the insights from others broaden my own perspective—like seeing light reflected from newly revealed facets of a jewel. After class, I note down all I have learned from the session and that becomes part of my personal study guide. The Holy Bible states, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there.” Likewise, when people gather in the name of Yoga, seeking greater health and happiness, peace and spiritual growth, the divine power and grace are there to back their efforts.
When people are inspired, they are more receptive to hear what you have to say. Whether you are offering instruction in Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, or Jnana Yoga—whether elucidating a scripture or exploring a practice—communicate in a clear manner material that matches the proficiency level and interests of your group. Just as eating too much food, improperly cooked, and at the wrong time will result in indigestion—consider what can be well assimilated and how best to prepare it. Refrain from overfeeding your students. Like good seasoning, let the beauty of your language bring out the greatness of the teachings.
For lectures or discussions, a dry presentation of information rarely holds peoples’ attention or engages their participation. A skillful teacher, like a master chef, has a repertoire of techniques that can help spice up any session. By interspersing information with demonstrations, stories, analogies, scriptural references, or relevant examples from everyday life, a rich and varied texture is created.
Stories, in particular, are very helpful when introducing new, abstract, or possibly controversial points. They immediately slow down the pace and shift the atmosphere from the head to the heart. They are like sugarcoated pills that can help people swallow hard-to-digest ideas, allowing time to ruminate on them further. While it may be easy to oppose a teaching, it’s less likely that someone will challenge a story. Later on, by recalling the story, they will remember the teaching. Sri Gurudev once told us, “In the future, continue to tell the stories I told. That way, people will know you are my disciples, and they will remember me through you.”
True stories, or anecdotes, can be a fount of hope and inspiration. It’s natural to feel that if something worked for someone else, it has the potential to work for you as well. This can foster faith in the teachings and engender stronger motivation to practice.
As a teacher, you are a link in an eternal chain, with the original teacher, according to the Yoga Sutras, being God. The chain continues with each new student who wholeheartedly embraces the spiritual path. Until their inner motivation is awakened, your interest in their progress can provide the necessary external motivation to keep them going. You can suggest weekly goals for practice or specific ways to incorporate the teachings into daily life. Allowing time in class for sharing about their experiences will promote interest and enthusiasm. Sharing about your own spiritual journey can help make the path feel more real and graspable, especially for beginners. It can make the difficult seem doable; the unattainable, accessible; and whatever obstacles may arise, surmountable.
The study and practice of Yoga is not about memorization and imitation; it’s about integration and transformation. Ultimately, it’s about freedom from all suffering and liberation. The teachings are like a recipe book or a map. Reading a recipe for chocolate cake is hardly the same as enjoying a slice. A map of the Grand Canyon cannot possibly convey the grandeur of actually being there. To have the experience, you need to bake the cake or make the journey.
The role of the teacher in this process is to provide the inspiration, information, and motivation to help students find their path and get established in a regular practice. Sri Gurudev likened the teacher to a signpost, whose purpose is to point the way, so the students can make the journey and reach the goal. We can offer our guidance and support, but the transformation, itself, is a mystical process that happens slowly and quietly within the individual. When the time is right, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, the beauty of what has been wrought becomes visible for all to see.
Swami Satchidananda: A Lesson in Teaching
In the mid-1970s, I attended a large Yoga conference in Los Angeles with Gurudev. There were a number of gurus invited, so several presentations were scheduled concurrently. About three hundred people showed up for one of Sri Gurudev’s talks. I was curious to see what topic he would select and was stunned when he began to speak about tapasya, accepting pain as help for purification. This was southern California, and I felt certain that a topic like “Happiness is Your True Nature” or “Follow Your Bliss” would have been more to the audience’s liking. I figured he must know what he is doing, because he was a consummate teacher as well as an enlightened master. But as he proceeded, people began to leave—first one by one, then whole rows at a time. I felt distressed, but he continued unperturbed. By the time he finished, there were only a few rows of listeners remaining. Smiling sweetly, he left the stage.
It was a defining moment for me about what it means to be a teacher. It was clear that teaching was not about being popular. It was not about giving people what they seemed to want, but what they truly needed. It was about serving as an instrument in the hands of a higher wisdom. The talk that day may have been delivered for one person whose need in the moment outweighed everyone else’s combined.
Over the years since that experience, I have given many talks and conducted many programs. I have come to realize that the immediate response is not always an indicator of the true impact it might have. Sometimes those who have the most objections become the most devoted students later, and those who seem very enthusiastic soon drift to other interests. A really interesting talk may be entertaining, but have no lasting impact. A simpler presentation might be the impetus that changes someone’s life. Who’s to know? The Bhagavad Gita says, “Do the work that comes to you, but don’t look for the results.”
As teachers, we are there to serve to the best of our ability. May we be ever grateful for the gift of the teachings, for the training and guidance we have received, and for the privilege of sharing this with others. May all the great teachers who came before us continue to light the way and shower their blessings, so we may walk with integrity, serve with humility, and, ultimately, attain the highest realization.
About the Author:
Swami Karunananda is a senior disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda. In 1975, she was ordained as a monk into the Holy Order of Sannyas. She has had almost 50 years experience teaching all aspects of Yoga and specializes now in workshops, retreats, and teacher training programs that focus on the science of meditation, the philosophy of Yoga, personal transformation, and Yoga breathing techniques for better health and well-being. She developed, and for 30 years has taught, the Integral Yoga Teacher Training programs in Raja Yoga and in Meditation.
Swami Karunananda served as president of Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville in Virginia and in California, as well as director of the Integral Yoga Institutes in San Francisco and in Santa Barbara. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees, and as the chairperson of the Spiritual Life Board at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville, Virginia.
Interested in fostering interfaith understanding and harmony, she is featured in the interfaith documentary entitled, With One Voice. She also compiled and edited the Lotus Prayer Book, a collection of prayers from various faith traditions, and Enlightening Tales as told by Sri Swami Satchidananda. She served as contributing editor for The Breath of Life: Integral Yoga Pranayama, as well as a senior writer for the Integral Yoga Magazine. In her book, Awakening: Aspiration to Realization Through Integral Yoga, she describes the spiritual path and provides guidance for the journey.
Source: Awakening: Aspiration to Realization through Integral Yoga by Swami Karunananda