Decolonization and Diversity

On Sunday, I shared what I heard at the talk on Cultural Appropriation and Yoga. First I wanted to share the discussion we had, and I think it is very important for us to recognize discrimination and colonial power structures which create barriers within yoga. That said, I anticipated that this could be read as promoting one type of yoga practice or space. Actually, I feel this discussion about acknowledging the riches of yoga and acknowledging the diversity and complexity of the South Asian wisdom traditions points to creating positive, textured yoga spaces and practices in Western contexts that are accessible to people.

I have long been a proponent of the idea that if we explain why we are bringing sounding and mantra, or some use of Sanskrit, symbolism, that most people understand the very human, welfare-based message of them, and that it is not a barrier to participation, but makes participation deeper and more meaningful. But, as the discussion we had on Saturday implied, this needs to be done skillfully, and explained and explored. If people are truly resistant to any form of yoga symbolism or the mere mention of its incredibly rich development in South Asia, this is likely a barrier caused by a misunderstanding and fear of Hinduism or other traditions in general. Again, gently working with this and trying to address and approach it through information and cultivating awareness is really what the de-colonizing discussion leads is towards.

The yoga tradition is not monolithic – it is diverse, and there are different paths and processes for different stages of life, contexts, purposes etc. Many of the texts are inherently non-dogmatic in that they contain choice and diversity within them. The Bhagavad Gita is a great example of this, and is where we first see the outline of the different paths: bhakti, karma yoga, karma sannyas, and jnana. Acknowledgement of the rich history and diverse technology of yoga should also be freeing rather than constricting, and in that sense is very post-modern.

One of the big issues for some people is anthropomorphic deities. And, as I often stress in training, these are not universal within the broader yoga tradition. Where they are found, there may be an understanding of them as rich representations of energetic pathways, or as the embodiment of divinity. And so, having spaces/classes that use Vedic symbolism like Om or the swasti symbol is also very true to the more niirguna schools. Arya Samaj, for example, which is a Vedic revival organization, does not use anthropomorphic symbolism because in the Vedas God is repeatedly described as vast and formless. This is also true of Sikhism and Kabir(ism). I personally have diverse sacred objects and symbols in my teaching spaces, and I often explain that thi is to give access to the diverse methods and approaches across traditions in the broader Sanatana Dharma. Though I tend more towards niirguna practices myself, I have had rich experience in saguna bhakti practices. So, just very briefly, I want to make clear that this is not the promotion of one monolithic type of space or practice. It is about acknowledging and not denying or obfuscating the depth and heritage of a practice due to continuing colonial ethos.

The Natural Pluralism in Yoga

You can also read this post on Elephant Journal:–chetana-panwar/

I have been feeling concerned lately about some of the discourse surrounding yoga and social action, and yoga and its intersection with business, advertising and particular socio-economic philosophies. I am troubled by a presumed homogeneity of socio-political perspective that is being attributed to yogis and yoga philosophy.

It seems so innocent, and I am sure I have used the phrase before, to say “yoga philosophy says…”. Perhaps as teachers we might use this kind of short cut or generalization when exploring a very specific aspect of yoga thought, the context of which is understood, such as when explaining the yamas in fairly non-contentious, straight forward terms. But even here, if we stray into saying “Patanjali says…” and then give a more interpretive statement about the Yoga Sutras, it is misleading. We really should only say Patanjali says… when quoting the Sanskrit text, or a translation of an aphorism while at the same time making clear the interpretive decisions of the translator. Otherwise, the looseness of discourse implies that we can clearly outline what yoga is in a few simple, uncontested statements with which all yoga practitioners and teachers would agree. I doubt this could be done except in the most broad and generalized terms, because, in fact, yoga in its wider sense includes an incredible pluralism.

Stephen Cope mentions that we often teach a diverse jumble of yoga teachings without too much concern for the inconsistencies or different textual origins. We teach a bit of Vedanta, a bit of Tantra, a bit of Samkhya, and us the term yoga to include all of these in its broader sense. In fact, I don’t mind this approach and preserving the diversity of the various aspects of the yoga tradition. AND, I feel it would be wonderful if even more yoga teachers were aware of the complexities and could guide group explorations of different positions of different streams of yogic thought on some of the more contentious or divergent aspects of the tradition (i.e ideas that were not agreed upon, why, the distinctions and how they may affect our interpretations in the current context). This way, rather than people rejecting ‘yoga’ due to a particular perceived failing of a certain school of thought, they could simply discover and explore other equally authentic schools of yoga thought.

For example, yoga is often presented as a tradition of literal renunciation in which the focus on the body was viewed as an obstacle to enlightenment, and that this had to be overcome. In our modern context it is common for this to be interpreted as body-negative. There are layers of issues I’m alluding to, but suffice it to say, that this is not an accurate description of the whole of the yoga tradition, but is most common to a more extreme practice and expression of Vedanta that I understand to have flowered around 1500 BC along with Sannyas Yoga, and to have peaked again with Shankaracharya in the early Middle Ages. Although Tantra and Vedanta share one of the same basic tenets, and that is Monism, Tantra is typified by the recognition that if there is only one fundamental essence, it is here within all situations and within the body as well; as such the body and all of its actions can be ritualized as tools for realization. Tantra Yoga and early Shamanic Vedic tradition can be viewed as body positive, and not requiring literal renunciation. Krishna makes this case when he synthesizes action and renunciation in his presentation of Karma Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita. I use this as an example of how it is simply very limiting to ignore the plurality in the wider yoga tradition.

Having briefly presented the pluralism inhering in the broader yoga tradition, I would like to come back to the issue of yoga teachers currently using discourse which suggests that we can establish a common socio-political world view for yoga practitioners and yoga teachers to fall in line with. When we say, “All yoga teachers should support the Occupy Movement,” or imply that a philosopher like Ayn Rand has nothing to say to anyone in the yoga community, and that her novels and other writings are fundamentally un-yogic, we begin to walk down a road where there is no dialogue, and no diversity of opinion or social action is acceptable. If leaders in the community put out this type of message it ironically goes against the more post-modern, popular, democratic movements which in essence are in favour of decreased power disparity, increased circle dialogue and working through collaborative management. Inspiring guilt and subtly suggestion a ‘party line’ that yoga teachers must toe is a dangerous step and one I feel I must speak up about. I believe we can work together even more richly through navigating and celebrating our diversity of practices, philosophies, backgrounds and ideas of how to bring various aspects of yoga into our lives and into our society.

This week in various Facebook posts, blogs and newspaper blog comments, I have seen an incredible and categorical condemnation of Lululemon and Ayn Rand, which has come about due to the yoga wear company’s putting the controversial “Who is John Galt?” phrase from Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on their shopping bags. The comments were mostly aggressive, black and white and belittling. Yes, Lululemon is a corporation. Yes, their clothes are no longer made in Canada. Yes, their clothes are probably more expensive than necessary, AND they offer free yoga classes several times a week in their stores. There is inevitably light in the darkness and dark in the light. This is not an article in defense of a corporation. For me it is all about how we inquire, how we listen to all of the sides, and how we express ourselves even when there is emotion. What change might we most like to inspire in the company. Surely not simply the dropping of a bag slogan. What about a clear statement of intent to use some of the profits to better the working conditions of overseas workers?

The founder of Lululemon’s explanation of why he used the phrase on the bags has been summarily rejected. For me, it is one of the interesting aspects of this: Rand’s concept of rising out of automatism and mediocrity. Further, I have not seen anywhere any attempt to understand where Ayn Rand might have been coming from as a Russian emigrée in the earlier part of the last century, with her distaste for state controls and her belief that art, ideas and inventions flourish when they are not controlled by an oppressive state or the guilt of coerced altruism. In fact, yoga is often seen as a process of de-socialization, the process of getting at our authentic responses un-encombered by the layers of armour we develop over the years of self-protection and influence. We cannot say that there is nothing at all in Rand that can be understood through the yogic lens. Rand makes her case against totalitarianism and for free will, and she was a capitalist. Probably most yoga teachers are not in favour of totalitarianism either.

And so it seems that the vicious distaste for Ayn Rand expressed recently in the yoga community has to do with her promotion of capitalism and the pursuit of individual happiness.  On Facebook, I made a case for the concept that in order to facilitate yoga sessions where we hope to lead experiences that are designed to be integrative and help people embrace and discover wholeness, we have to have glimpsed contentment, integration and wholeness ourselves. And so, yoga is both an individual exploration in wholeness and transformation (of the way we see things), and a social one. But, individual processes are there alongside collective ones. The pursuit of individual happiness is not evil, it is simply a part of a larger process and a wider engagement. Further, at the moment economic recession is giving a large nudge in opening up discussion of modifications of our current capitalist and mixed social-capitalist systems. This is our current reality. But, I imagine that not all yoga philosophers and teachers have exactly the same ideas on economic reform or how to achieve social and economic equality. I personally am what I would describe as a social liberal interested in post-modern educational and dialogic methods. And yet, I am not willing to label those more fiscally conservative as un-yogic.

In my view, we do not need a separation between Ayn Rand or any philosopher and yoga, we need to be open enough to understand different views and to see and speak to our perception of their benefits and limitations in a respectful and undogmatic manner. Perhaps skill in action is the yoga here.

What I think perhaps we ought to collectively consider is what common ideals we hope for the yoga community and teaching community, such as accessibility, fairness, non-violence or abuse etc. For this we could look closely at:

a) how power shows up in yoga teaching, and how we can create more safety, fairness, equality in the teaching/learning experience.

b) how yoga teachers can effectively provide for themselves as well as make yoga accessible;

c) how we as a community can create arbitration in cases of ethical problems, breeches or concerns possibly through an ombudsperson; et cetera.

First, our community and communities of yoga teachers and practitioners needs to find ways of coming together as a community to address issues of immediate concern in yoga teaching, as well as to find ways of doing outreach in a more cooperative and effective manner, and increasing public awareness about yoga and concerns in teaching etc. If people are speaking to the public on behalf of yoga teachers, they should be elected spokespeople and there would need to be ways of having broad-based dialogue within our communities. These are desperately needed first orders of business which we have been speaking about in some forums lately, but which is difficult given that we are an unregulated profession with no clear ways of organizing collectively.

It’s all in the method, people! If we look at popular yoga teaching methods, we can find clues to why we have not been entirely successful in coming together as a community. Do we teach in a way that allows for diversity, or do we promote one way, and use methods of delivery that squash dialogue? Are yoga teachers strongly encouraged to follow rank and file? I have seen this very dynamic recently in classrooms where a teacher says a contentious statement at the very end of a talk, such as “and obviously this would not be appropriate, right,”  followed by automatic replies of “right”, suppressed “I’m not sure’s”, and the lecture is closed – time to go. I call this the slip-in-a-personal-philosopic-position-at-the-last-minute-so-no-dialogue-can-happen technique. Does that sound familiar? Suppressing dialogue and pluralism, or guilting groups into certain thoughts or behaviours is not new. It creates fear that our inner thoughts and ideas are unacceptable. This is not what the 99% is calling for, is it? Just the opposite, I think. In terms of teaching methodology, we can bring in more dialogue by recognizing that the group has a greater collective wisdom than as singular members, and that discussion and skillful disagreements in classes are rich and important and we do have time for them. We can make time for them, and learn how to skillfully facilitate such dialogue within focussed class sessions. Kripalu Centre really excels at this and has really taken seriously the importance of method. Increasingly, I experience myself and my colleagues bringing more inquiry and sharing into yoga education.  This is exciting – it is the demonstration of non-agression, fairness, equality and honouring.

When I first started teaching yoga, I feel that I was encouraged to teach in black and white maxims, and to present yoga as a monolithic entity. The more I teach and live, the more I recognized yoga as a paradoxical this…, and… I cannot say this is un-yogic, or that is un-yogic. An action or method of coming to a decision is skillful or unskillful, or a bit of both. And all this is part of our individual and collective evolution.  It’s all part of the process. I recognize yoga (in part) as a method of inquiry and a state of harmony which arises when one allows oneself to explore the multiple aspects of one’s identity, and opens to one’s best-suited role in society (dharma).

My intention in this post is not to criticize, but rather to promote the idea of pluralism in yoga, dialogue as an educational methodology, and to promote textured understandings of philosophies and lifestyles as very often multi-facetted.

Leading Transformational Experiences

I have not written a blog post in a while, and I have been missing it.  But as many of you know, I was in India for two months teaching philosophy and methodology for the World Conscious Yoga Family Yoga Teacher Training course.  I truly savoured the experience of teaching my 9-10:30AM class and the getting the opportunity to share our philosophy teaching experiences with my Japanese counterpart on the program, Eesha.  So many days we talked about fresh ways of looking at this or that sutra that just emerged crystaline during one particular session.  So many times I said to myself, “I should blog about this”, but just savoured the moments on my balcony or in my room chatting with Eesha and occasionally taking notes right on the syllabus or in the manual text.  Heavenly!  At some point I will get to unpacking those notes, or finalizing my manual edits and may get the chance to post some thoughts here…

But tonight I wanted to share the amazing experience of leading a group of yoga teachers in a two-hour workshop at the Toronto Yoga Conference about the art of teaching.  What a wonderful opportunity to be in a group of teachers for a period of time with the subject of experiential teaching and learning.  Ah!!  At the outset, I passed around a hat of slips of paper and we mingled to meet the other people with the same word or phrase on their slip.  Words like: holistic, safety, experiential, non-sectarian, process-oriented, and integration.  What did these words have to do with educational methodology.  From this point we centred and Om’d, and flowed into a visualization and journaling/sharing sequence about powerful teaching experiences we had been involved in, and what we hope students of our yoga philosophy or yoga experiences classes would take away.  From this mind-map of teaching intentions we realized that what people often take away from powerful teaching/learning experiences is often not necessarily about the content, but about the process, the sharing/group think experience, the windows into new ways of thinking or seeing that opened up for them and the resources to follow that up at their own pace in future sessions or on their own.

So, you don’t need a PhD in Sanskrit to lead transformational, experiential yoga workshops.  In fact, it may even be to your advantage if you don’t.  I find the moment I get the slightest bit ‘scholarly’ in my presentations on yoga history or philosophy, a certain number of participants just check out immediately.

I indulged and took some time to talk about teaching models, and how different types of activities or yoga experiences could be strung together with a talking/teaching piece to create a satisfying session full of inner inquiry and that left participants feeling like they were taking insights from their own experiences out the door into their lives.   I get so inspired by educational models, and how experiences and talk pieces can be skillfully strung together to this effect, that I wanted to post my hand out here (below).  After reflecting on the slip from the beginning of the class, and how they fit into the educational models, we got back into experiential learning mode and chewed a raisin for five minutes, and then debriefed with a partner.

Are we talking about yoga yet?

This was a demonstration of how an experience (like mindfully chewing a raisin) can be a leaping off point to yoga philosophy discussions surrounding Raga and Dwesha (craving and aversion), aparigraha (non-grasping) and generally, mindful eating and savouring the now.  The group brought up the fabulous point that directing the senses toward the now allows us to savour our experience the first time with total satisfaction, rather than shying away from pleasure, or total attention to what we are doing, with the result that we are unsatisfied and crave more.  Savouring the now!!  Allowing the senses to fully absorb and appreciate everything the world has to offer in the now, in the appropriate moment, and then moving, unclinging, into the next moment.  I would like to put forward that yoga is not so much about shutting down the unruly senses (including the mind), but about directing them skillfully, and utilizing them to savour and appreciate through presence.  For example, gazing into the centre of a flower, laying down on a bed of grass or sand to look up at limitlessness of a clear blue sky, seeing the veins of a freshly opened leaf (there will be much opportunity for this as the leaves in my part of the world pop from their buds in the next few days).Thank you Stephen Cope, for making the concept of savouring so resoundingly clear in your book The Wisdom of Yoga.

We closed by placing our hands on each other backs in a circle and breathing in synchronicity, tuning in to the energy and vibration of breath and of OM in and around the circle.  I feel an immense amount of gratitude to share in circles like this.

Hari Om!!

Following is the handout from today’s workshop.

Leading Transformational Workshops

With Chetana Panwar at the Toronto Yoga Show


How to Facilitate Transformational Experiences:

 As a part of our Yoga Teacher Training programs I have spent many years developing an experiential philosophy and methodology curriculum that weaves together diverse aspects of yoga and ties them to philosophical discussions.  We learn about yoga both intellectually through discussion, and experientially through journaling, mind-mapping, visualization, mantra, energy work, meditation et cetera.  I wanted to offer students a sacred space open to scriptural study, inner work, profound group bonding, and devotional experiences.  I hoped to provide techniques that would help them to integrate these experiences into their understanding of yoga and into their perception of what the teaching and learning community represented for them.

In teaching this type of session, I use a blend of two models.  One is a common post-modern educational model, and the other a model for experiential learning.

Model for a participatory learning class

The flow of such a class is actually very intuitive.  I often use the terms:


Teacher’s input

Students’ exploration

Closing – review of the insights of the class

Elicitation:  The class begins with a mining of what the students are already bringing to the class.  You may begin with a group brainstorming about the topic, a visualization and brief pair sharing that connects the group to the topic, a related mantra, a brief journaling and sharing to help the group excavate their previous thoughts or experiences related to the topic you intend to present.  The elicitation is meant to be fun and to engage the group right off the bat.  It also allows you to co-create the class a bit; if students come up with an understanding of the topic that is different from what you had intended to have the group explore, you may modify or open up the experiential component so that these avenues can also be pursued.

 Teacher’s Input:  Unless you have in mind a purely experiential learning experience, in which students are learning solely through their own response to a certain activity that you bring to the class, there will be a segment of the class that is reserved for a presentation of some information by the teacher.  Because educational models were so much based on lecture formats in the past, some modern teachers try to do away with the lecture as much as possible.  But this can lead to the feeling that students are merely manipulating information or knowledge that they already possessed.  I recommend a balance of teacher input, and student exploration or experiential learning.  There is a richness in this blend in which the teacher is offering access to new information (quotes from scriptures, philosophical concepts, historical background information et cetera), AND there is valuable time given for participants to explore the concepts and relate them to their own lives.

Students’ Exploration:  If the group does not have a chance to relate the information to previous ideas, knowledge or life experience, it will likely remain dry or remote to them and the lecture will not hit home.  It is therefore important to offer meaningful time for activities in which participants either reflect on some idea and what it might mean to them, or get into pairs or small groups to explore the concepts presented.  Pairs and small groups allow each participant to have more of the talk-time and therefore share more of their own ideas and experience.  The more you work with groups, the more creative you may find your activities become in order to engage the group with the ideas presented.

Closing:  Finally, it is more satisfying for everyone if the class comes to a close in a meaningful way.  Just as we don’t like to have classes opened with the teacher saying “Turn to page 10”, the class falls a bit flat when it is closed hurriedly without ritual or group reflection on what has gone on.  I use a variety of closing rituals, often two or three in combination, such as:

  • journaling in silence,
  • a brief survey of the findings of the pairs or small groups,
  • chanting or meditation to bring the group back together as a whole,
  • each member calling out a word that summed up the experience for them that day,
  • an energy work circle in which we place our hands on the backs of those sitting next to us and chant Om several rounds, or in which we place our hands over or under our neighbours’ hand around the circle (left hand under and right hand over).

Model for experiential learning session

I learned invaluable techniques for experiential learning from the senior teachers at Kripalu Centre, which is in my mind one of the fore-running organizations in the promotion of this type of method in spiritual and holistic education. The components vital to such a session are:




I gained an appreciation for the importance of bringing emotional safety to the experiential work I was doing with students, and of offering time and strategies for integrating the experiences from Ken Nelson at Kripalu Center and my participation in his sessions on Leading Powerful Experiential Workshops.  In this model, the learning is driven by the experience facilitated by the workshop leader, which is set up and concluded by activities or rituals that promote emotional safety and personal integration or the experience.

Safety:  The facilitator can foster an emotionally safe and nurturing environment by:

  • turning down the lights or having candles,
  • letting students know a bit about the flow of the session, and when they will be able to shift their seated position, go to the bathroom etc.,
  • making sure there have been enough group ‘breaking the ice’, and ‘getting-to-know-you’ sessions before embarking on an intimate Transformational Experience,
  • assisting students in finding partners for any pairwork aspects of the evening if they need this assistance,
  • making sure that as a facilitator you never ask students to do an activity that you yourself would not be comfortable doing, or modeling for them.

Experience:  The facilitator, and possibly the group will create an experiential activity.  An experiential activity is any process or inquiry that causes the participants to gain new insight about something simply from engaging with the group and the experience.  Yoga Asana classes are in and of themselves experiential if the participants are invited to explore and reflect on their own experience of asana that day instead of just following the teacher’s cues.  That said, yoga philosophy and history can also be taught experientially.  Facilitators can design yogic experiences or activities to demonstrate philosophical concepts, such as those that help to cultivate surrender of the firm boundaries of ‘I-ness’, and/or help participants get in touch with their bodies and glimpse states of union between body, mind and higher mind, and to connect with states of wonder, bliss, absorption or devotion.  Experiences can also be used as a part of a lecture or presentation, as I mentioned above.  Most commonly I integrate these two models and use even simple experiences to inspire reflection and discussion, such as:

  • Chewing a raisin for 5 minutes and flowing into a reflection on clinging and craving versus savouring;
  • singing kiirtan or other devotional songs and then observing their effects,
  • sharing circles and healing circles,
  • activities that show us the ingrained patters of movement and response to circumstances that we have cultivated and what it might be like to shift them, such as crossing the legs or folding the hands in the way opposite to that which is automatic for us.
  • Activities that help us to understand the mind-body connection more deeply such as a visualization on peeling and biting into a lime.
  • eye-gazing meditations with a partner and reflecting on the concept of I-ness
  • synchronized breathing and/or energy work and reflections on universal prana or the primordial vibration.

Integration:  The facilitator should encourage the integration of these states or realizations into their understanding of yoga and their lives, such as,

  • allowing for silent contemplation at the end of an experience before moving on or closing the session,
  • allotting time for journaling their experiences right in the circle after the experience,
  • having pairs debrief with each other regarding the experience,
  • having the group debrief with each other regarding the experience,
  • conducting a ritual that ceremonially closes the experience and helps to reinforce the experience through its symbolism.  As you will notice, I often use fire, prostrations, and the concept of surrendering or offering up whatever the participant wishes to release or transmute.

I would like to emphasize that each session is a creative, interpersonal journey.  I begin with a plan, a theme, and a message that had come up for me in working with the group.  I may have planned ahead by writing a mantra on a white board, or asking students to review a certain more lengthy mantra if we would be working by candle light.  But as people arrive and we co-create the sacred circle, I notice that I am often moved to present a different message, or different, spontaneous activities.  It has been proven to me again and again, that when as a facilitator I allow myself to open up to the group’s energy, and to be a channel for universal energy, that there is a special, mystical quality to the sessions that creates a real intimacy amongst the group.  For example, one night we were having a Divine Feminine evening, and after some pretty etheric Ma kiirtan, I was moved to ask the group to move into toning to the sound Ma to whatever pitch, tones or length of sounds seemed right for them.  We would continue for about 20 minutes.  For me, this was one of the more powerful experiences I had with that group.  It felt fresh, non-sectarian and universal.

It is in this spirit that I offer this session today – to inspire your creativity, and to give you a leaping point in facilitating this type of session.

Sample Class – the following is a class designed to get new yoga teachers to reflect on the art of teaching, and how teachers can take concrete steps to set up nurturing, confidence-building, [insert your adjective here] experiences.


Visualization:            Allow to arise in your mind, the image of a teacher who has moved you.  Stay with the visualization of that teacher, or an interaction you had with them in which they exude the qualities and teaching presence that moved you.  Now, allow to arise in your mind 3 words that describe them and the teaching/learning context they evoked.

Pairwork:            When you’re ready, turn to a partner, and share the image and the words you came up with.  Having shared this with a partner, is there anyone who would like to share their visualization with the whole group?

Journaling:            Turn to your journals now, and write a bit about what you would like your students to take away from classes that you facilitate.  Write also about qualities that you have that you would like to draw on to create this type of learning context.  Finally, consolidate these ideas into 5 words.

Small Group:            Make a mind map of all of your words.

Now, let’s tap into how can we provide the context for increased ‘self-respect’, for example, to be one of the outcomes of the yoga class. Think about the small ways, or ways of being that you can bring into the classroom to make these intentions for your teaching-learning experience a lived reality for your student groups.  For example, if you said ‘continuity’ was important to you in your teaching and learning, what context would you be willing to work in to create that outcome?

These categories may help you to think about ways of putting your intentions into action, and creating a culture or sacred space for your classes.

  • Registration
  • Setting/yoga space/atmosphere
  • Attitude/dress
  • Language/voice
  • Content/continuity
  • Access/availability
  • Resources for students continuing and self-guided learning

Closing:            Share with the larger group some of your ideas in each category.

Teaching About Teaching

I think I have found a good analogy for the repression in the yoga teacher training world surrounding teaching methodology.  It is like a 1950s parent regarding talking about sex with one’s children: either there are lots of musts and mustn’ts, OR a refusal to discuss the matter at all, believing that when the time comes all will come about naturally without any need for any prior discussion or education in the matter.  So, yoga teachers are ambling into classrooms thinking either there is nothing to know about teaching except their subject, or they come with a rigid prescription of how to control the classroom environment absolutely.  This is what I would call the patriarchal missionary position of teaching.  The teacher decides what is going to be taught, is exacting in requiring the students to follow along with the commands, the teacher comes into the room last, leaves first, and generally cultivates no intimate, authentic relationship with the students (that is except the inappropriate intimacies such power disparity and repression inadvertently breed).  He is on a pedestal to which students are not encouraged to aspire.  In this type of teaching ethos, neither the teachers nor the students realize there are a myriad of other ways of approaching teaching.

Do we really want yoga teachers who are ill equipped to navigate the subtleties and complexities of facilitating groups of people?

I would like to dedicate more time this year to working with teachers and teacher trainers discussing the magic that can happen when we place ourselves within a circle of teaching and learning – when we come prepared with something to offer, but are open to where the energy of the group takes us – when we cultivate an openness that allows for a co-created journey, and yet assume the responsibility of the facilitator – when we allow ourselves to be equals with the rest of the circle, while understanding the importance of appropriate professional boundaries.   Facilitation is a sophisticated art that we can explore in teacher training through implicit approaches like modelling, as well as explicit dialogue discussion around the benefits and challenges of various approaches to issues that arise in the canvas of the classroom.

YTT Standards Town Hall

On September 30th I went to the Yoga Community Toronto (YOCOTO) open meeting about standards and sustainability in Yoga Teacher Training.  It was a wonderful evening chaired by Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie at Renaissance Yoga.

So many topics were brought up, and many insights shared amongst a diverse group of yoga practitioners.   I appreciated having the opportunity to discuss the challenges and benefits of having accepted standards.  There was a lot of support for the idea that we do need some formal association or associations helping to guide, educate and chair groups of teachers should ethical issues arise.  Scott mentioned a trajectory for such an association:  public education, support of teachers, ombudsman for ethical issues and discipline, and standards for YTT and YTT trainers.  I thought that sounded wonderful!  Some of it sounds similar to what the Yoga Alliance has been trying to accomplish, particularly the public education and the YTT standards.  Certainly it reminds me of the Federation of Ontario Yoga Teachers, an organization that had existed for some 30 years, and helped to connect yoga teachers through a newsletter, and regular retreats, as well as providing the vehicle for observing teachers and giving feedback on the safety of their teaching.  FOYT closed last year, partly due to the difficulty of filling volunteer board positions.  I believe this may also have been due to the challenge of adapting to the exponential growth of the yoga teaching community, and the diversity that has come with that.  So how can a non-profit yoga teachers association run effectively and reliably with some continuity of board members, and yet still represent the diversity and the growing needs of the yoga teaching community in Canada?  Our small group discussions showed us that to make progress we would need to have consultation sessions followed by working groups with very, very specific areas for discussion of both big picture concerns and concrete options to be taken back to the collective.  I think this would be an incredibly valuable process in itself even if it did not lead us to the specific end of mounting a unified, city, province or nation-wide body, but if it served as a model for discussion and a few concrete steps in the listed directions.

I contributed a few thoughts, the first being that there are so many layers of yoga teaching that we need to be clearer on.  What is the scope of the essential holistic course on yoga teaching, now called the YTT 200?  Could advanced studies be divided up into disciplines such as structural yoga therapy, holistic yoga therapy and ayurveda yoga therapy, for example?  While a structural yoga therapist requires an in depth education in anatomy and injury remediation from a physiological point of view, an Ayurvedic yoga therapist requires an in depth education in the diagnostic and healing modalities from breathwork and movement to lifestyle and herbal supplements.  Initially a teacher requires a bit of both of these to be able to teach a movement modality whose basis is in physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.  In my view, though a general yoga teacher does need to understand the basics of body mechanics and the contraindications and modifications of postures for injury of other limitation, they do NOT need to be akin to a physiotherapist.  Imagine the aspect of yoga that is akin to Tai Chi – basic movements that help to maintain physical agility, promote proper flow of body fluids, move, increase and sustain subtle energy et cetera.  Essentially we need to better understand what the scope of a holistic yoga teacher might be, and the further education required to move into yoga as a therapy, whether structural or Ayurvedic.

On another note, many people took issue with the concept of hours as being the determiner for a YTT.  I feel curricular content with essential components, and optional components for YTTs to choose from would be one method of organizing the YTT standards.  What is essential for any YTT, and what other elements are there that would make up the optional components of an entry level YTT.  There was a lot of hesitation about the idea of a curriculum, I believe because different traditions feel that their yoga content is so vastly different from another school’s essential content.  While I agree there is variation, I think if we cannot come up with at least a general outline for a first level of YTT with lots of room for choice amongst lineages and trainees, with some guidelines for teaching approach of YTT, then we are as good as being without any collective standards, meaning we are not in any way a cohesive profession, or even a cohesive discipline.  I do not think the case is this grave.  I believe if we had ample time and incentive to sit down as a collective of senior trainers from various disciplines (i.e. if the government mandated it), we could come up with a basic curriculum, say half of which was mandatory, and half of which was from a selection of topics.

We spoke about testing, and standardized testing across the industry.  I am much more comfortable with structuring a curriculum around topics and experiences offered in the classroom and having each YTT entity be responsible for their own testing subject to checks and observation by a board, than I am with standardized testing for the reason that no teacher likes to ‘teach to the test’.  This would make YTT even less experiential, and more like hoop jumping.  Rather than a standardized test, essays on a selection of topics could be submitted perhaps to a third party body, and a student could be required to give a practical class for a third party organization before final certification.  This would help to avoid the issue of standardized testing and teaching to testing which involves asking questions for specific answers.  Such tests are limiting in evaluating a teacher’s true understanding of a subject in a textured way, and do not evaluate their strengths or weaknesses as teachers.  They may simply point out small gaps in formal knowledge (i.e. the stuff you memorize).

Of course no discussion of content is complete without discussing how it is imparted.  Since we are talking about yoga teaching, I wanted to address the issue of teaching methodology as part of the YTT curriculum which is often misunderstood or omitted.  As proof of this almost, some of the other participants in the forum did not seem to understand what is meant by teaching methodology, or the vast scope of it.  There had been a portion of the discussion about injuries and knowing more about our students before they attend a class, and how we get that information in an authentic and safe way.  And so I wanted to highlight that this type of subject is part of what could be discussed under the teaching methodology portion of teacher training.

Teaching methodology includes a vast array of considerations related to teaching, from basic needs assessments and intake forms, to the way in which we demonstrate, teach and adjust or assist in postures.  It includes consideration of the venues we choose to teach in; the length of the classes and class series, and the planning or organization of their content; considerations of the benefits of pre-registered class sessions as opposed to drop-in classes; how we use voice, and how we use touch; how we engage with students before and after class to how we feel about the role of students in our classrooms.  It is everything from facilitation style to options for mat configuration.

One of the members mentioned that students learn this by watching their own teachers.  While this is true, I wanted to make the case for both implicit and explicit learning about how we can be as teachers.  Of course in YTT the trainers are likely trying to model this throughout the training in how they teach asana classes, how they interact with trainees, how they moderate discussions, if there are any discussions or it is all sit-and-listen lecture format.  But, if we do not open up an explicit discussion in YTT of the rationale behind our teaching approach, we are leaving it up to the students – new teachers or teachers-to-be — to have noticed all of what we were modeling, and then to take it on hook line and sinker.  We are not offering the opportunity to sit in dialogue with other teachers-to-be and trainers and discuss the benefits and shortcomings of various approaches to managing a group of people, a classroom, an asana/pranayama practice.  I feel these discussions about our pedagogy as yoga teachers are incredibly valuable – mostly because there is no ONE recipe.  But if we are encouraged to consider such things, we are given the tools to grow into our own unique teacher, and to continue growing as an educator/facilitator, as opposed to just imitating what we think we’ve seen others doing, and perhaps not clearly even knowing why they were doing it that way.  This is why the explicit discussion of pedagogy is as important as the implicit lessons we learn by observing excellent facilitators.

I have seen many teachers who mistakenly believe that they need to control a class, to be a master and be able to answer every question.  This leads them to disempowering their students, and causing themselves anxiety.  In fact one of the most important concepts to come out of studies into adult education, and a halmark of the post-modern educational approach, is that teachers facilitate a space for learning that happens through the group coming together.  We as teachers don’t have to know everything about every physical condition, for example.  The students are the experts in their own bodies, and we are in dialogue with them.  As facilitators of a learning space and a transformational space, we find ways to create safety, explorations and dialogue around the experiences we provide in asana or pranayama or other yoga activities.  I believe that YTT students are liberated by discussions of ‘post-modern education’, and the idea of moderating or facilitating groups as opposed to ‘getting students to do what we say’.

YTT is a great place to begin reflecting on and discussing our pedagogy with our peers and colleagues.  In a way it sets us up to continue on this path of ‘reflective educator/facilitator’.  I don’t think this is a process which ever ends.  I think most of us are always honing or tweeking how we use language in class, or the balance between asana, pranayama, relaxation and discussion in our classes, for example.  Maybe that is the yoga of teaching – we are mindful of it as a process on ever deepening levels.  Here’s hoping that the vast array of aspects of teaching methodology and how they can be explored in YTT are a significant part of any discussion of YTT standards.

Hari Om!



What’s in a name?

About 10 years ago I legally changed my name to Chetana, a spiritual name I had been given by a Tantrik nun, meaning consciousness.  I found it harder being called one thing by some of the people in my life (co-workers, family members and in other bureaucratic matters), and another among yoga teachers and yoga friends.  I had just moved to Ottawa when I legally took the name Chetana, so it was easy enough to assume it in all areas of my life.  I have found since that a name is powerful.  It can change how people relate to us, if it is foreign or hard to pronounce for example.  I have seen that it is easier for people to take on positions of authority if they have certain titles or designations.  Labels are to a certain degree how we initially get acquainted with something or someone.   A spiritual name is like a mantra – as people call us by that name, especially when it is freshly given, it is a little wake up call, a reminder of our deeper essence, what our teacher saw in us.  It can help to give us a glimpse beyond the personality, who-we-think-we-are, in those moments of heightened noticing.

Through Yoga, many of us have had the experience in meditation of going into a pre-verbal state in which we experience the nature of objects without describing or naming.  Adopting a spiritual name can for a time be akin to this cutting through the limitations of who we think we are.  But this is not permanent; perhaps this is why sannyasis often get new spiritual names as they receive different initiations.  As a tool for seeing everything from a different perspective.

The trap is perhaps thinking that those layers of identity we develop over the years are unhelpful, or are the not-us.  My feeling at this point is that they are part of the multiplicity of who we are.  People tend to say things like, “I’m this way, or I’m that way”.  One of the most helpful things for me has been accepting the multiplicity of who I am: seeker, writer, traveller, linguist, mother.  Acceptance of ourselves seems to come not from reducing who we are to a single thing, but rather by expanding our view to accommodate and embrace all that we are.  The true identity is not the reduced, single-minded, focussed spiritualist, but rather, all the layers of personality and that which is beyond.  Our identity as a spiritual seeker, or mystic is not the ‘true’ identity, but simply one more aspect of our personality, albeit perhaps one that is attractive to us.  Multiplicity is contained in wholeness.  The expansive, all-we-are is what I feel I get in touch with when I drop back into a state of meditation, whether seated, or after savasana, or on a long nature walk.  It is all the names I call myself and more – so, I can sense it in that pre-verbal state, but there is no name large enough for it.

In my tangential way, I have been trying to write about what we call yoga.  There are many names, and many ways to describe yoga and the various aspects of the tradition.  It is not that one is the true yoga, or the true name, but that they are all part of a description.  To describe the whole of it in one name seems impossible.  The names that have endured or come close to this all seem to describe this almost un-namable vastness.  Plain ‘Yoga’, union.  Sanatana Dharma, the eternal way.   Om.

That said, for us as teachers, or schools, or lineages which practice a certain aspect of the tradition more than others, names can be useful — in particular if they clearly represent what they are intended to label.  This is why a teacher’s name can be a very effective label for a particular way of practicing yoga.  Then all that behoves the student or reader/listener is to know and understand which particular practices or approach to yoga that teacher emphasized in his/her teaching.  The limitation of these appellations seems to be the understanding that yoga schools are invariably a part of a larger tradition, which has been diverse almost since its inception.  No one school has a claim to THE yoga.  Where names become extremely problematic is when the name of a school of yoga is identical to name of a major branch of the tradition, such as Kundalini Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga.  People with limited exposure to yoga history and philosophy often misunderstand that this school is the only one teaching that branch of yoga, or that they are one and the same, or the only one with the authority or direct transmission of that branch of yoga.  Using such a name can appear to be an inappropriate claim on knowledge.

We didn’t used to have any particular name for our approach to teaching yoga or teacher training.  But as I mentioned above, names can be helpful.  They help us to identify our pedagogy (approach to teaching).  Having reflected on our approach to teaching and continuing to do so, is in my view absolutely essential for every teacher/facilitator.  Not having one word to encapsulate what we were doing, meant that others either had trouble describing it, or described it as something much reduced.  In the same way that the word Hatha Yoga has come to mean only asana, when we use the word yoga, it has come to mean only asana.  I have heard it aptly said that nowadays when people hear the word Buddism they think of meditation, and when they hear Yoga they think of asana.  One of the unique things about Yoga is that it can be used as a wellness modality that includes movement.  But, it was and is very important to us that people know that one of our main aims is to give people access to diverse practices in the yoga tradition: mantra, pranayama, visualization, philosophical aphorisms, yantra, ritual, meditation, and Ayurvedic understanding of the elements and balanced living, as well as asana.  So, we chose to name and describe our approach for people as Akhanda Yoga, or Akhanda (holistic) Yoga.  What we like about this is that while it helps people to understand a bit about the type of class environment, process and practices, it also refers to that indescribably vast essence of what yoga helps us to experience: wholeness.

copyright Chetana Panwar 2010

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