The Value of Study for Yoga Students & Teachers
In my role as a teacher trainee and mentor I have a lot of conversations with yoga teachers who want to learn more about how to bring the deeper teachings of yoga into their asana classes. Generally they come to me wishing to learn more about the philosophy of yoga, or the mythologies, or to get a more nuanced understanding of subtle body anatomy. They also want to know how to bring this knowledge into their classes in a simple way. But what I have noticed is that often these teachers have not studied the teachings deeply and it is not a formula for weaving the teachings into classes that they need, but rather more time in relationship with the teachings themselves. They don’t need to simply spend more money on trainings with teachers who know and love the philosophical side of the practice; they just need to put in some time reading the books that already line their bookshelves.
The practices of hatha yoga are so captivating with their emphasis on physical movement, deep breathing, meditation, sound and imagery. They also take a fair bit of time and energy to practice so that they become part of our body of experience. So it’s no wonder that many students of yoga find there is little time left at the end of the day for study. But without study the physical practices can lose context. Study offers us perspective, as when we read the words of one who has walked the path before us we gain a deeper understanding of the stages of practice. Study can offer us greater knowledge, as well as a more refined understanding of the goals or intentions of practice. I always love it in teacher training when a student finds a passage in one of the great yogic texts that both comforts and inspires them. When they can hear their own experience mirrored in the words of another they know they are not alone. Study therefore helps connect us to the lineage of practitioners and the wisdom of the great teachers.
If you are a yoga teacher who feels ready to dive into the deeper teachings of yoga, but aren’t sure where or how to start then keep reading and I ‘ll share my favorite practices and tips. If you are a committed student of yoga then one thing you most likely have at this point is discipline, which is great. Now in order to expand your knowledge beyond what you already know that discipline will simply need to be directed in a new way in order to support your studies.
1) Pick a Focus
First thing is to choose a focus for your studies. I recommend picking one text to work with for an extended period of time. Examples could be the major Upanishads, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, or some of the Tantric texts that have been translated into English. If you are interested in the mythologies and stories than choose one of the Puranas or the epic poems of India such as the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. Choose one, purchase 2-3 translations and commit to deepening your relationship with that one text for a certain period of time such as 3 months to a year.
2.) Study Right
These texts demand your attention; they should not be read like a cheap dime store novel while riding the bus to work. Nor should they be read only when you are exhausted and have fallen into bed at the end of your day. Instead set aside dedicated time for study, in the same way you set aside time to meditate or do your asana practice. Clear an hour or so for study and contemplation, turn off your phone, let your housemates know you don’t want to be disturbed and then sit down with your chosen text- but don’t just open it up and start reading yet!
3.) Clear Space & Set Intentions
The first step in understanding these texts is to put yourself in the right mind space in order to receive their wisdom. Place the text in front of you, seat yourself for meditation, and then allow yourself to meditate for 10-20 minutes. This will clear your mind of excess activity, expand your consciousness, and allow you to shift into a receptive state. Close your meditation by bringing hands to heart and state your intention, create clarity around the why behind your study and your desire to learn more. Only then should you open your eyes and pick up your book.
4.) Read Slowly, Small Amounts at a Time
As you begin to read your text, read slowly and take your time, like you are savoring a fine meal. I recommend reading aloud if possible. Something about reading aloud makes you slow down and enunciate the words, clearly, plus hearing them spoken adds another dimension to your understanding. I also suggest that you only read a small portion at a time. Don’t take in too much at once. Instead take small bites and then chew on them for a while. Notice when your mind starts wandering or you are reading without comprehension and put the book down again.
5.) Contemplate & Reflect
After you have finished reading take another few minutes to sit and meditate once again. Let the words you have received work on you. And then finally open your eyes, open up your journal, and write about what you have just read. Write as little or as much as you like, but take a moment to ask yourself what you have read about and what it means to you at this point in time.
6.) Compare, Research, and Gather
Once you have worked your way through a text, try reading it again in another translation. Or you might read a couple translations simultaneously, working through them at the same pace. Find teachers that study these texts and hear their impressions of the material. Dive into the history of the period in which the text was written and find out what was happening then that might have influenced the philosophical outlook at the time. Look up different translations on the Internet if you like too. Basically try to hear the teachings from a few different angles so you know there is not truly just one way to interpret them.
7.) Steep & Express (aka Practice!)
The final step is really one that is happening as you go through the other steps. This is what I call steeping in the teachings. Letting them work on you over time. There really is not a shortcut for this. Someone else can offer you their wisdom and inspiration on the teachings, but they can’ t make you get them on a gut level, that will only come through your own intimate relationship with them. And as you marinate in the teachings they will begin to shift the way you see, respond to, and engage with the world around you. This should happen naturally, and at the same time you should place some emphasis on putting the teachings into practice in practical ways in your own life. Challenge yourself to live according the philosophical ideals that speak so powerfully to your heart, and mind, and as you work with the teachings in this practical way they will come alive for you, they will become a part of who you are.
Bonus Tip: Start a Study Group!
All of the above tools work really well in a group context and the support of others may help you stay more motivated and engaged if you find study challenging. Stick with it though and you will find it becomes easier in time. I had to read most of the philosophical texts a few times over before I even started to get it. Be patient as you expand your mind in this way!
And now if you have done all this and you want to learn some techniques for weaving what you know into your classes, and your lectures, then by all means contact me and I will share what I have learned, or point you in the direction of teachers who are masterful at that. And if you have already done all theses steps and find you still want greater clarity than I can certainly recommend scholars and teachers who specialize in making these teachings accessible to others. But if you haven’t put in your time with the texts themselves then I recommend you start there. You won’t simply absorb their wisdom simply from buying them and putting them on your bookshelves!
Hope this helps you to make study an important and nourishing part of your sadhana.