Students often come to Yoga class in a habitual mindset that is geared up for being productive and accomplishing tasks. Unless they manage to disengage from that state, they will approach their Yoga practice with an unconscious tendency to be good, to live up to some standard that makes them feel OK about themselves. Typically, this results in straining efforts to perform well and may simply sustain the same mindset they dwell in for much of their lives.
Creating a theme and carrying it throughout the class can be an effective way to help students shift out of this mode and be more present to themselves. It can inspire them to be sensitive to the different levels of their being, and accept where they are instead of trying to impose some idea of where they think they should be.
When I have asked teachers to describe the typical mindset of their students, a number of similar words come up: harried, stressed, scattered, preoccupied, revved up. Of course, this won’t be true of all of them, but most of our students are struggling with the same influences we all are surrounded by. The messages of our culture lead us to believe that we are all separate beings, each responsible for achieving goals and arranging life well enough to be happy.
Our minds tend to be in a constant state of planning, measuring, and judging that keep us stuck in our heads and unable to feel the deeper, spiritual aspect of our being where we are at peace and connected with the whole web of life. Of course, this is why we practice and teach Yoga.
As Integral Yoga teachers, we know that it is important to create an atmosphere that encourages a non-competitive and meditative approach to practice. But that intention needs to be made very clear and reinforced throughout the class to successfully penetrate the conditioning that often dominates a student’s mind.
A good theme can make a big difference in helping students shift out of habitual ways of thinking and moving through class. The theme can be introduced by reading a quote, a poem, some lines from a scripture or by using your own words. Since we don’t want to add length to the class, it needs to be done and reinforced concisely.
There are endless possibilities for a theme–here are a few examples: Ahimsa, Saucha, Santosha, Tapasya, Dharana, freedom, equanimity, compassion, peace, joy, healing, self-care, connection. I’ll elaborate on this last one, connection, as an example.
I like to encourage students to become sensitive to the ways we are connected to our spiritual essence, to each other and to the world around us. Here are some examples of things I might say to integrate that theme during a class. I often start by having students sit with eyes closed after we chant while I make a few comments to introduce the theme.
Right after chanting: We may think of our Yoga practice as something we do just for ourselves, which limits the way it can reveal and inspire our connection to each other and the consciousness we all share. We can use our practice today to feel how we each contribute to the group energy in the room, to feel how we are connected to the natural world around us, and ultimately to experience the spiritual ground of being within.
During Surya Namaskar: Feel the group of people you are practicing with and think of the energy you want to contribute to the group.
During Surya Namaskar: Think of this round as a moving expression of your Spiritual Self – an expression of the qualities you associate with that Spirit, such as peace, compassion or joy.
During Savasana: Contemplate how supported you are by the earth and allow yourself to fully relax into that support.
During a backward bend or any of the poses: Visualize someone who is in need of healing and dedicate your practice to them; feel that the energy you generate as you practice is sent to them.
During a forward bend or inversion: Feel how the natural law of gravity supports you to let go without effort; surrender to that gentle influence.
As you begin Yoga Mudra: As you lower the head, acknowledge the limitations of the mind and surrender to the higher intelligence of your Spiritual Self.
As you begin Yoga Nidra: Feel gratitude for all the ways you are supported by the earth – given all you need to survive: air, water, food and shelter.
As you come out of Yoga Nidra: Feel gratitude for all the Yoga masters that made these teachings and practices available to you. Remember that you are part of an unbroken chain of teachers and students dating back literally thousands of years.
During Pranayama: Contemplate how every breath is an exchange with the environment, with the plant life around us.
During Nadi Suddhi and or meditation: Visualize that you are generating peace by the way that you practice, and contributing that peace to the collective consciousness.
Leading into meditation: Let all the thoughts dissolve into the vast, still lake of the heart that connects you with all things.
When we can assist students to practice with mindfulness and sensitivity, they will inevitably have a more fulfilling experience. And the benefits go beyond that. Since how we do one thing is symptomatic of how we do everything, this can change the way our students approach their daily efforts. For example, they can learn to enjoy the process of doing instead of thinking that enjoyment depends on the outcome of their efforts. They can learn to accept where they are and let improvement come in time without having to prove themselves.
This effort to support students to shift out of high gear and to be present has become one of my favorite aspects of teaching. The last thing I would recommend to develop this intention is to practice this way ourselves, both in our Yoga practice on the mat, and in our daily lives. That is where we develop the ability to be fully present when we teach, and our presence may be the most important factor in encouraging them to be.