The Relevance of the Upanishads in Teaching Yoga

Alright, it’s Friday night, I just had a pint of espresso gelato, and I’ve got some Ingrid Michaelson playing to help me continue from the last conversation, how is the study of the Upanishads relevant to the contemporary study of yoga?

What role might the teachings [of the Upanishads] have in how you teach yoga?

First, I’d like to digress a bit and talk about how I came to become a yoga teacher. (Nikki Chau is taking the long way home… You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you? :))

To be quite honest, I’m not exactly sure why I decided to come to yoga teacher training. Of course, I could cite a number of reasons, like my lame attempt at a joke in this reflection: the decision came when I realized I had wandered far enough into the woods to point out what a tree looks like (groaning allowed here), but not yet far enough that I could confidently describe to someone the lay of the land.

Some part of me was motivated to “be in the system to change the system” after I saw how … well… bad, gym yoga was, after taking one or two classes at my local 24 Hour Fitness. (I don’t mean to imply that all gym yoga is bad out there. One of my friends from yoga teacher training, Candace Jordan, is a fabulous teacher at 24 Hour.)

Well, I could go on, but you get the point. The reason, the *real* reason why I teach yoga, is unknown to me. I just responded to the urge to teach, but of course, how to do it, and how to do it effectively, would be something I’d learn over time.

The Foresighted Teacher

When I first started teaching, I wanted to cram as much information in the heads of unsuspecting victims… ahem, students, as much as possible. I had learned so much, so so much, and I was more than excited to share it all! I was that overzealous teacher that talked too much (and still do) about the hands and shoulders and shoulder blades in Downward Facing Dog and the gastrocnemius in Warrior I and blah blah blah, off I’d go.

My first lesson on being the far-sighted teacher is from Kathryn Payne and the story of Indra and Virochana in the Chandogya Upanishad. The two had been living at Prajapati’s house for 32 years before Prajapati asked what they were doing there. Thirty-two years! I don’t know if that was some sort of reverse dog years back in the day, but to me, that is a really long time to just hang out waiting for a teaching. Granted, they were going to learn the secret to obtain all the worlds, but still!

When Prajapati told them “The person that is seen in the eye—that is the Self”, and sent them away, Indra pondered upon it, and came back because he had more questions. And what did Prajapati say? He wanted Indra to stay with him for another 32 years! And on and on it went, for a couple more rounds.

“So it is, Indra,” replied Prajapati. “I shall explain the Self further to you and nothing else. Live with me another five years.” Indra lived with Prajapati another five years.

This made in all one hundred and one years. Therefore people say that Indra lived with Prajapati as a brahmacharin one hundred and one years.

When I first read this story, as a student, I stopped dead on my track of “I want all the answers and I want them now.” What is the position of the diaphragm in this and that pranayama technique? How do I know when this and that happens? When will I “get it?” (Come to think of it, I was probably one of those annoying kids that incessantly asked “Why?”)

Indra teaches me to live my questions, and as a student, not to expect all the answers handed to me on a silver platter, but my job is to take a statement, a teaching, and *think* about it, contemplate on it.

As a teacher, Prajapati teaches me to have foresight, to give students chewable and digestible bites, and in time, the students who stick around, who have the willingness and commitment, will learn the lessons on their own terms.

The Koshas and Ways of Looking at the Human Body

As you may have noticed, I am pretty concerned with the muscles and bones in the human body. In my first couple of classes, I got downright specific, saying things like: “lift your xiphoid process”, and “stretch your Piriformis”. It was the language I had heard in class, and so it was the language that I repeated. Luckily for me, my mentor Jean Massimo put me in my place, “You need to meet the students where they are”, and where they are is not straight out of an Anatomy class.

Having worked in the Technology industry, my mind has been accustomed to thinking of systems as individual components, and I would think of the human body as such: this bone here, that bone there, this action requires this muscle to stabilize and that muscle to be the prime mover, and so on.

This is all fine and good, Kathryn told me, and as a teacher, it is almost a moral obligation to understand Anatomy. And yet, there is more to the human body than just a bag of bones (sorry, Norah Jones), which I’m learning more and more every day from the Taittiriya Upanishad and the kosha system.

Besides the gross physical body which we can all feel, there are subtle undercurrents that course through, the emotional layer, the energetic layer,… all things that are just as equally important to direct our attention.

Chanting Om in Class

Once in the 200-hour teacher training, we discussed chanting, especially the Om sound, and whether or not we should/would do it. Would it sound too “religious”? Would it scare people away?

As the time, I didn’t feel particularly strong about one way or the other. (After all, there are other bones for me to pick. 🙂 Har, har, har.)

After having read the Mandukya Upanishad, I have a much stronger conviction around chanting Om: that is, unless I am prohibited to do so, I will chant it, and I will explain as best as I can the significance of it. I believe that people are only afraid to do things that they don’t understand, and Om may seem mystical schmystical at first. Once someone is exposed to what it means, then they can make the conscious choice to do it or not.

AUM, the word, is all this, the whole universe. A clear explanation of it is as follows: All that is past, present and future is, indeed, AUM. And whatever else there is, beyond the threefold division of time—that also is truly AUM.