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.

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Debate on Yoga in Washington Post

When I first met Vishva ji in Rishikesh, I asked him whether he identified more as a yogi or as a Hindu. I was not trying to polarize the two, but for many reasons was interested in any discussion that night evolve from the question. I had no idea that 12 years later this very questions would become a widely and hotly debated topic on the pages of the Washington Post blog nonetheless.

If you haven’t seen it, I have put a link here because it should be read first hand. It has already been scooped by the NY Times and opinions I’m sure are beginning to form based on second hand descriptions.


Now that you’ve read the debate between Deepak Chopra and Aseem Shukla, I’d like to suggest that part of the difficulty in this debate is that the terms need to be defined; otherwise we’re arguing at cross purposes. The way that the two debaters use the words Hinduism and Yoga are quite different, as is the interest they invest in the terms. Deepak Chopra argues that Hinduism evolved from Yoga. Aseem Shukla argues that Yoga evolved from Hinduism. In some senses both are right. It depends on how you define the terms.

Chopra’s arguments show that he defines Yoga in the broadest possible sense as Sanatana Dharma – the seed truths and energy explored by the rishis beginning about 10,000 years ago. Hinduism, I infer, for him is the socio-cultural religious system that evolved from the Brahmanical interpretation of the scriptures of the Sanatana Dharma and the Vedas. The kernel of the religion is the same, but Hinduism is a codified form with structured beliefs and not always egalitarian. As such, before even the word Hinduism was ascribed to this tradition, Buddhists and Jains separated from the tradition for the socio-political layering that had come about in the Brahmanical period. This is a common trajectory which is likely recognized in all religions – the tension between revelation and institutionalization. Of course patriarchal inequities also cropped up later in Buddhist institutions – something less commonly understood. For more on that, please read A Cave in the Snow by Vickie MacKenzie. In any case, this is why Chopra compared Hinduism to Christian sects. In this analogy Yoga would then be compared to Christian mysticism, or to the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. What I interpret Chopra as suggesting here is that while Christ exhibited and promoted a direct connection with God, the Church(es) for the most part promote the intermediary of priests as necessary. In the same way, Yoga is a gnostic process like the rishis explored, of going beyond socialization, doctrine and belief, and releasing oneself from divisive codes and systems in order to find the authentic self/Self. These definitions are in line with my own understanding.

Shukla uses the term in the exact opposite way. He equates Hinduism with Sanatana Dharma and the wisdom of the Vedas (its widest possible interpretation), and defines Yoga as the Classical Yoga of Patanjali (2-300 AD). By this definition he would be right that the Yoga Sutras were written after the Vedas. But, as above, this does not mean that Yoga, by its widest definition, evolved from Hinduism.

I think this debate, which in various forms has been going on for quite some time now, would be served much by the developing of some common language. As is mentioned in the blog, the word Hinduism came from the Persians describing the tradition of peoples inhabiting the region to the east of the Indus river. This happened in the early middle ages around the time of the Mogul invasion of India, I believe. Just as city names have been modifies post British Colonial Regime, perhaps the name Hinduism has outlived its colonial utility. It is by nature a label given by the Other. The use of the word Sanatana Dharma, however, implies going back to the source wisdom of the tradition. Many Vedic revival sects attempt to do just that – to get back to the basics and strip away what is dogma or the result of power brokering etc. That said, the debate is further clouded by the fact that there is so much pluralism in both Indian philosophy and in modern day Hinduism. There are Hindu sects that worship a plethora of anthropomorphic deities in which the full power of the deity inhabits the material statue, and there are Hindu sects that reject the use of anthropomorphic images even as symbols. To discuss either Hinduism or Yoga as a unitary tradition, the absolute code of beliefs of which can be debated and agreed upon is perhaps the primary issue here.

I find this debate very interesting from a historical point of view. But in reflecting on the intensity of it on the WP blog, I wonder if it would not be more helpful if we could ascertain what we aim to understand from such a debate. If our aim is to reduce discrimination and gross misunderstandings about Indian traditions, and false references in schools, then certainly I think there are processes which could and are to some extent being taken. Name calling and mud slinging by respected adults is not the way forward for teaching tolerance and understanding to our children.

If we wish to increase esteem for India’s heritage which was assaulted badly during the Colonial era (both the Mogul and the European colonies) then it seems to me that cultural revival, such as is occurring with yoga (asana, kirtan, meditation, ayurveda and religious studies) is a wonderful start. I certainly think that yoga teacher training programs should add include a philosophy and history component, and that more discussion about yoga and its processes and long history should be explored in yoga classes, or in workshops, universities, public lectures etc. This would be more appropriate and effective than making demands that yoga teachers use the word Hinduism to describe Yoga’s origin. But also, perhaps initiating formal sharing meetings between cultural groups at both international, national and community levels would be helpful. Perhaps we need to highlight in political and cultural institutions the pejorative light cast on India during and since the Colonial Era and outlining steps forward as Indian citizens and the Indian diaspora continue to excavate aspects of their cultural heritage and pride. I think in the past we have neglected how much of this may be necessary for all post colonial nations.

Finally, what is needed both in yoga communities and in general is more accessible information about, and a higher level of general knowledge about Indian history, the richness of its diverse spiritual philosophies and the diversity of modern-day living traditions.


I would also like to see more balanced and realistic reports about India’s economic and social issues. It seems we are either fed the glory of the world’s most spiritual land, the crown jewel of economic booms, or the despair of corruption and disenfranchised poverty. Can we as a global society take one of the precepts of yoga – vidya, or clear seeing – and begin to authentically see Indian (as well as other societies) society for its merits and demerits, and begin pointing to and supporting systemic change for the increased welfare of all of India’s citizens.

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