Teaching yoga without asana



For me, on September 28–the first day of my fall writing class–worlds will collide. Well, meet anyway. I’ll have 20 brand new university freshmen staring at me, ready to learn. They’ll be freaked out, stressed, full of uncertainty. They need help with their writing, and they’ll be looking at me to give it to them.

This term, my answer will be The Bhagavad Gita and portions of other texts (The Yoga Sutras, The Little Prince, Thoreau). I’m not saying I have an agenda, but I seem to have an agenda. They’ll be writing about yoga.

What’s funny about this is, of course, this is a writing classroom. It’s the negative image of the shala and my Ashtanga teaching: No asana involved.

It is true that I’ve tossed in a few postures during the course of the quarter before. Around midterms, students actually start complaining to me of physical pain, mostly in the back, shoulders and neck from sitting at a computer too long. We’ll do some standing shoulder openers and seated twists. If the class seems sleepy or lethargic, I may have them do switchychangyasana, and make them all move to a different desk—it gives them a new point of view.

But this doesn’t really count as teaching yoga. I’ve been re-reading The Gita, and the Yoga Sutras are fresh in my mind from my summer training. I’m faced with the fact that I’m going to have to help my students understand what the word “yoga” means in a very complicated way.

“Yoga is skill in actions,” Krishna says in The Gita, “ “Yogas citta vritti nirodahah,” writes Patanjali. This word goes untranslated into English. We think we know what it means. Or maybe it’s untranslateable. I’m thinking it may take me all term to work that out with my students.

I am, myself, more inclined to the yoga of study, to reading and quiet thinking. Learning to integrate my brain with my body has been my chief challenge in Ashtanga over the years, and it’s caused me to revise all that I thought I knew about who I am. I hope that through their writing, my students also learn a new way of thinking about themselves.

Posted by Bobbie


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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

One thought on “Teaching yoga without asana”

  1. A student of mine, who is a schoolteacher of 8th graders at a charter school in the distressed urban area of Springfield, MA, told me that one of her students was reading the Gita, unprompted by her, “because he wanted to learn more about yoga and thought it was a good place to start.”

    (yoga geek that I am, hearing that story made my heart warm.)

    I’ve noticed a few things since I started teaching my students more than just the third limb a year or so ago: they are more interested, more dedicated, more enthusiastic about their practice. We do asana primarily, yes, but I start each led class with Sutra discussion, and some (benign) pranayama – and it resonates with them. Their asana practice is more integrated afterwards; they get more out of their practice than when it was just basically asana instruction. And, I feel more fulfilled as a teacher, too. I don’t get burned out by teaching any longer, because teaching the Gita or the Sutras requires me to have a depth of knowledge and intuitive understanding of what I am sharing – the mental capacity needed to express my own understanding in a succinct and clear way keeps me on my toes, and the challenge is gratifying.

    I love the Mitchell translation of the Gita. Your students will, too, I bet. Good luck!

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