Swami Kriyananda, the founder of Ananda and of Ananda Yoga, was a wellspring of wisdom and inspiration for teachers of any subject. His teaching style balanced deep insights with common sense, and inspiration with practicality—all delivered with delightful humor. I am endlessly grateful to him—and he in turn always gave credit to his guru, Paramhansa Yogananda. He even said, “Ananda Yoga is Master’s [Yoganandaji’s]system, not mine.”
Here I’ll share a few of his many insights into teaching Hatha Yoga (all quotations are his words). Most of these points, in fact, pertain to teaching any aspect of Yoga.
Good teaching begins with discipline
Sure, we want to teach in an intuitive flow, but in order to align ourselves with that flow, we need to study, to understand all aspects of our subject, and then thoroughly prepare our class so we can present skillfully. As Swamiji put it:
If you want to teach something well, you need to know ten times as much about it as you have time to say. That backing will give power to what you do say. If one person has that backing and another doesn’t, they could say exactly the same words, but one will have power and the other will not. You’re giving students much more than information; you’re giving them vibration.
Sometimes teachers are tempted to teach things about which they know a little bit, but not enough: for example, a particular therapeutic use of Hatha Yoga, an aspect of the astral (energy) body, or a subtle spiritual point. If we teach without enough backing, however, our sharing will be weak, perhaps even misleading. It’s best to teach only what you know well.
Make it clear
Swami Kriyananda had a gift for making important concepts clear without diluting them. He worked hard to develop that gift: He would rewrite his books many times as he strove not only for the right words and phrases, but also for the sentence and paragraph rhythms and emphases that would most clearly bring out his intended meanings.
On many occasions, he advised teachers: “If you can’t say something clearly, then you haven’t understood it yourself.” When I find myself struggling to convey some concept, I recall his words and laugh in the realization that the reason I’m struggling is that I haven’t yet understood the very point I’m trying to make. Then it’s time to change directions.
Keep it simple
Simplicity is a valuable aid to clarity: it’s also closer to reality than is complexity. Swamiji often pointed out, “The closer you get to the essence of truth, the simpler it is.”
Yet many hatha yogis revel in complexity and esoteric knowledge, because they wrongly equate intellectual knowledge with understanding. Although Swamiji was the smartest person I’ve ever known, he downplayed the value of intellect; he called it “a lower order of intelligence.” True knowing, he emphasized, comes only from experience.
For this reason, he encouraged teachers not to get too much into esoteric concepts. Such information might titillate students’ minds, but if they can’t experience it, they won’t understand it. Instead he urged us to teach things that students can practice; then their own experience will bring understanding.
Relaxation is key
Of all the well-known benefits of asana practice—strength, flexibility, balance, and so on—Swamiji gave by far the most emphasis to relaxation. It begins with physical relaxation, but it’s much more than that:
By perfect relaxation the whole yoga science can be mastered. This is as true for Raja Yoga as it is for Hatha Yoga, for relaxation must be taken into progressively subtle realms, through mental and emotional calmness to spiritual expansion and receptivity.
It is impossible to develop true Self-awareness without first learning how to relax. Energy that is bound cannot soar to divine heights. The science of Yoga might even be defined as a process of progressive relaxation: first, from outer attachments; then from attachment to body, to thoughts, to personality, to ego—until you find yourself at last in the stream of infinite life.
By relaxation, however, he meant relaxation in the midst of effort, not instead of effort. No one ever slid downhill into divine union.
Get beyond the physical
Swamiji was pleased that, in recent years, many more yoga teachers have begun emphasizing deeper levels of Hatha Yoga practice. This was ever his approach:
The true purpose of Yoga is to facilitate the development of Self-awareness—not as a self-enclosure, but as a doorway to an expanded awareness of the surrounding universe, of truth, of very life.
The practice of each individual must be directed, not toward outward appearances and display, but inward to the center of his own being. Every outward movement must proceed from this inner center.
Every posture is associated with certain mental and spiritual states which, if you meditate on them while doing the posture, will come to you more easily than if you go through the postures absent-mindedly, or thinking only of their physical benefits.
The physical benefits, however, are good motivators to practice, as is the exhilaration that comes with accomplishing a difficult asana. The point is not to let those enticements become the focus:
Don’t imagine that you’re a better hatha yogi just because you can assume all these weird positions. That’s for athletes, for people doing calisthenics, but it’s not a spiritual thing.
Tune in to your students
Swamiji often emphasized that teaching isn’t about what the teacher wants to say; it’s about what students are ready to hear:
While you’re still learning a subject, your teaching is more or less talking at your students. It’s more on a level of information. When you’ve assimilated the subject, so it’s a part of yourself, then you can talk to them; you focus on them instead of just what you’re thinking. Then finally, when you’re relaxed enough with your subject that you can think of them and what their needs are—not just of what you know, but of what they don’t know, and what they might come to know—then you’re really teaching. You need to tune in to the people and know where they are. Try to feel their thoughts, their vibrations, and then respond accordingly.
Encourage student inquiry
It’s our responsibility to help students make the practice their very own—not only by offering modifications as appropriate, but also by encouraging their inner exploration. Swamiji put it this way:
As you practice each pose, do not ask yourself merely, “What do the books say I should be feeling in this position?” Feel, rather, what the total significance of the pose is to your own inner consciousness. As you move a hand, feel that your mind is moving with it. Feel, still more deeply, the relationship between outward movement and the inward movements of the soul.
Try asking students to practice in this way, and to share with the class what they experience. It can lead to some fascinating discussions.
Personal effort is just the beginning
Hatha is often translated as “forceful,” an attitude that many teachers strongly emphasize. Forcefulness alone, Swamiji emphasized, will not take one far:
Many students of yoga make the mistake of thinking that by their willpower alone, exerted through breathing exercises, physical postures, and meditation techniques, they will attain cosmic consciousness. Their approach to the spiritual life is almost as if God were a sort of divine mountain, to be conquered in a spirit of mountaineering bravado! That is hardly the spirit in which to approach yoga, that highest of spiritual sciences!
Yes, students need to use their willpower, but we need to encourage them to practice with sensitive awareness. Otherwise, we not only invite injury, but also inhibit their experience of the inner dimensions of the practice:
If you enter a pose, not jerkily, but with an inner sense of harmony and peace, the very act of assuming that position can help to develop this bhav, or spiritual attitude. How you get into the postures, the mental thought that you hold during the practice of them, how you rest between the poses—all of these are an important part of the practice of Hatha Yoga.
Even when practiced with sensitive personal effort, however, techniques alone cannot by themselves take one to the spiritual heights. That’s why Swamiji encouraged teachers to emphasize a higher kind of awareness:
The goal of yoga practice is simply this: to deepen one’s receptivity by stilling the body, mind, and emotions, thereby making oneself more sensitively aware of the movement of divine grace within.
If you don’t feel ready to speak of divine grace to your yoga students, you can instead speak of spiritual openness, inner receptivity, and sensitive awareness. Such attitudes will help them practice in a way that can draw that grace, even if you never say the word.
How can we be the best teachers we can be?
I asked Swamiji this question on behalf of those who teach Ananda Yoga, and his answer translates into other yoga lineages as well:
Try to tune in to Master [Paramhansa Yogananda]. Try to feel what he would want—and what I would want, because I’m a living representative of what Master gave, and I can give a lot more of what he taught than just about anybody else because I knew it from firsthand, because in fact he commissioned me to do this work. So the two together.
Teachers have to use their intuition, that’s the main thing. They have to work on developing it and feel what is right—then check with the director of Ananda Yoga.
Does this advice change, now that Swamiji has left the body? Not really. Each of us still needs to tune in to the source inwardly, and to check our insights with those who have trained closer to the source than we have done. That’s certainly what I do.
Thank you, Swamiji, for all you have given.