When people come to a yoga class, on some level they know it is not the same as taking a Crossfit or circuit training class. Even a new or casual student has an intuition that yoga is something deeper.
Yoga is not an exercise regimen. The eight limbs of yoga provide a spiritual way of life designed to unite us with the whole of existence.
There is a tendency in the West to focus on only one limb of yoga, the asanas, or postures. While there are undoubtedly benefits to engaging with yoga on even one level, as a teacher, you want to authentically embrace the entire spiritual system if you wish to serve as an example for your students.
When you set out to teach, you are committing to living a yogic lifestyle. You will live yoga and pass it onto others.
We offer these nine foundational steps to prepare yourself spiritually for this transformative path.
1. Read spiritual books. Today, we have access to knowledge and wisdom that has stood the test of thousands of years. Go deep into spiritual texts, both ancient and modern. Read and reread them, you’ll gain a deeper understanding each time you pick up a text. The list of books recommended by your particular teaching training program is a great place to start. Read Bhagavad Gita while you’re stretched out on a blanket in the park on a warm day. Read Iyengar’s Light on Yoga while curled up in bed. Read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda during your morning train ride. Read, read, read. By doing so, you’re honoring the niyama (personal observance) of svadhyaya or self study.
2. Daily practice of asanas. Commit to a daily home practice, in addition to attending a teacher led yoga class three to four times per week. The physical postures of yoga help you master your emotions as well as keeping your body in optimum health. It also helps you build empathy with your students since this is much of what you’ll be asking them to do! Most importantly, this work prepares your body for union with the divine.
3. Practice pranayama. Renowned yoga teacher Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa says, “How you breathe is how you live.” How will you live? Shallow and strained? Or deeply and richly? Breath work helps balance the systems of the body including the nervous and respiratory systems and nourishes your spirit, awakening the energy, or prana, within you. Too often overlooked by western yoga practitioners, a handful pranayama techniques are your best tool to cope with the stresses of everyday life.
4. Meditate. Meditation, or dhyana, is the seventh limb of yoga and is supported by our breathwork and asana practices. It has a range of health and emotional benefits that have been touted by practitioners for thousands of years and even proven by science. Common approaches to meditation include repeating a mantra or focusing on an object such as the breath or a candle flame. Meditation teaches us to concentrate, to let go of thoughts that don’t serve us and is the best way to cultivate inner awareness and clear seeing. Fundamentally, meditation’s purpose in yoga is to unify us with the divine.
5. Walk the walk. The moral code of yoga outlined in the yamas (laws of universal morality) and the niyamas (personal observances) are not meant merely to be studied. To prepare yourself for a life in yoga, you must begin applying them every day. At the beginning, it can help to concentrate on one concept at a time to experience them at a deep level. Set your intention to live the yamas (compassion, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-possessiveness, maintenance of vitality,) and niyamas (discipline, contentment, purity, self study and devotion) as faithfully as you can. This is ongoing work — for life!
6. Sing! Don’t let your spiritual work feel heavy and burdensome. Take time to sing, it’s a beautiful way to release emotional tension and strengthen the voice and presence you’ll need for teaching. Mantra singing (called kiirtan) or the singing of Hindu devotional songs (bhajan) are methods of traditional yogic singing. You can find a class or explore them online. But really, any singing will do if you pour your heart into it!
7. Find a teacher. We are lucky enough to live in an age where you do not need to live in close proximity to your spiritual teacher. You can skype, email or talk on the phone with a variety of qualified spiritual coaches to explore different yoga styles and find someone who resonates with you. Having an experienced, authentic teacher can make a huge difference in your journey, keeping you on the path and helping you work through any spiritual blind spots you may have — and we all have some at some time!
8. Check Your Ego. Spiritual pride is one of the potential pitfalls of choosing a spiritual path such as becoming a yoga teacher. Be humble and remind yourself that we are all but students and you have much left to learn. Cultivate a sense of humour about yourself and have empathy and compassion with others who are on beginning the path or traveling another path altogether.
9. Commit to lifelong learning. You have probably already discovered that the more time you spend with yogic principles, the deeper your experience becomes. Your union with the divine is an ongoing experience that requires ongoing effort. Spend your life seeking wisdom, attending retreats, and pushing your personal practice to new levels and the yogic lifestyle will never get stale for you.
This is big work. Don’t feel you must hurry through this preparation for life as a yoga teacher. Try to stay in the moment and savour the fresh feeling of learning about yourself and the universe. Your passion and dedication for this spiritual work will shine through for your students.