In my early years as a Western born and bred yoga teacher, I felt somewhat intimidated by what I viewed as the mystical, unfamiliar, Indian philosophy element of yoga. I sincerely wanted to understand the teachings and so I read a multitude of books, sat through lectures, and pursued the spiritual view of yoga with best intent. Still, my understanding was surface level at best. I believed Eastern philosophy was a “big subject” and therefore assumed someone more advanced than I was necessary to capture and explain the wisdom, and so I hired others who claimed to have a grasp on the concepts to teach the philosophy portion of yoga teacher training at my school. The problem was, while I hired several different individuals to cover this competency, there still wasn’t clarification for me or my students, and we were often left more confused than when we began. These philosophy teachers did indeed explain the meaning of certain concepts, such as the Yamas and Niyamas, but something was definitely missing. Memorization and definitions just failed to transfer the feeling of spirituality that I believed would be a part of deeper knowledge. I knew the teachings were meant to aid transformation and spiritual development, but the way they were being presented continued to portray the meaning in a theoretical way rather than something more sacred. Yes, the conversations about the Yamas and Niyamas were impactful, but I couldn’t help but be aware that our humanity kept us slipping backwards when we weren’t in that yoga frame of mind. The philosophy teachers I employed delivered a cohesive lecture on how a yogi should interact with the world, but I would occasionally look at their Facebook posts and couldn’t help but wonder if they knew this stuff so well, why they didn’t seem to “live” the philosophy in ways that honored one’s true potential as a yogi.
I have always believed that sometimes, if you want something done right, you just may have to do it yourself. So, I determined that if I wanted this subject taught differently, I would have to be the philosophy teacher at Heartwood. The fact that I was still quite unsure of how all the information integrated was a moot point. I would figure it out, not just for my benefit, but for all the students yet to come. So, I plunged into yoga philosophy for a period of five years or so before I felt even the initial inklings of competency. I continued to teach what I knew, but I also knew I needed to know more. I read books, listened to famous gurus, and took online classes with schools I admired and trusted. I gained an academic view from college level courses that combined historical & cultural explanations with intended meaning and tried to combine that with spiritual approaches that included meditating on the teachings and humbly listening to older, more experienced teachers with authentic ties to Indian culture in some odd hope that just being in a guru’s presence would bring insight because being Indian makes a teacher more authentic. (Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.)
All this seeking certainly gave me information to share. I knew the yoga sutras by number, could share the story and themes of the Bhagavad Gita, and had broken down the important concepts of the 13 primary Upanishads. But what forced me to deepen my understanding was less my studies and more a result of teaching yoga philosophy to others. To teach is to learn and each time I sat with a circle of students, their inquiries forced me to question the meaning and intention of each sutra. As I struggled to find the words to explain what was really a felt sense of meaning, I progressively deepened my relationship with a worldview that provided a new understanding of life, the mind, and our place in the world. Devotion to the teachings doesn’t come from blind faith or being enamored with the idea of Eastern studies. That is more infatuation with Indian concepts. I found real life application and questioning the yoga sutras, only to find their wisdom impossible to deny, set the stage for embracing them earnestly.
Still, I found it impossible to transfer a sense of the sacred to newer yoga students in the 40 hours allocated to philosophy and history in a yoga teacher training course. I did my best to set a great foundation for my students and many have proclaimed that the philosophy portions of YTT have changed their worlds. But I also was aware that my lectures, however well-intentioned and heartfelt, had only opened the doorway to each individual’s relationship with these teachings. The possibility that my mostly-American yoga students would walk through that yoga door and go on their own intimate journey with the teachings seemed remote. People are just too busy in modern society to wander into the forest for 14 years to meditate and contemplate the teachings as they did in ancient times. In the modern world, our short attention span and determination to have measurable outcomes to validate our investment of time and energy into anything has us wanting to quickly mark a subject as complete so we can move on to learning more stuff.
How could I possibly teach my yoga students, (all of whom I respect and believe to be well intentioned seekers) to do more than sit and listen to my lectures as one more necessary endeavor or “assignment” they had to do to become certified so they could lead others along the path? How could I awaken their humility, so they understood that what they believe they had grasped wasn’t true knowledge, but only intellectual understanding? Were my students worthy of teaching others if their relationship with the yoga sutras was little more than memorizing the meaning to package up and pass the information on, just as they planned to apply the information about alignment or sequencing to future classes?
I don’t mean to sound sarcastic, but I know what a barrier the practical mindset creates for new yogis. I commonly get asked, “How do I use this when I’m teaching?” as if all the information they receive in YTT is designed to be utilitarian in their career. I thought the same way when I was a newer yoga teacher, dreaming of a fulfilling career helping others as I aspired to share the amazing practice that I loved.
I was lucky. The dissatisfaction I felt over the hired teachers’ outcomes and a nagging need “to know” forced me on a personal journey of yoga philosophy far beyond what I ever had use for as a teacher or YTT trainer. I became a believer in the deeper dimensions of yoga beyond the intellect, and the quest to know became a personal practice rather than part of my career skillset. As I came to rest in the teachings and develop a richer, profound heart knowing, I began wrestling with the problem of how to teach philosophy in a way that encourages students to channel their energies and tackle the obstacles standing in the way in respect to our shorter attention spans and the belief that we must have measurable utility for anything we bother to devote time to.
Encouraging students to sit with the teachings was of foremost importance. So, I began gifting my students with a beautiful journal from India, encouraging my students to meditate on the sutras not only through sitting in stillness, but through writing. I created dozens of journaling prompts which I hoped would instigate an internal conversation with self, allowing the writer to apply the concepts of the yoga sutras to their own life experience. I next added a broken bowl project ceremony to my training where students would hopefully reflect on their lives in the breaking of a bowl, and then create art from reconstructing the shattered pieces. This was followed by intention setting (which in my YTT is always a review of the yoga philosophy teachings as they can be applied to bringing us back to wholeness) so the broken bowl art project served as a symbolic opportunity to see the sutras’ value in the complex story of our own lives.
But the technique I have loved most of all has been a project I designed for my advanced 300 students: to begin a yoga sutra art journal. While very few of them finish the project to its full potential (my art journal took over three years to complete and I’ve recently begun revisiting each page and adding to it, so my journal will never be done) my students must do at least 10 pages to graduate, which invites them to spend a bit more time with at least ten of the individual sutras as a sampling of what it is to “sit with” a teaching and be absorbed with finding the meaning for a longer period. The art journal is a way of teaching process, not production.
Art journaling is the process of layering. You begin by putting gesso on a page to make paper into a canvas. When that dries, you cover the page with color or inks. That too must dry before you add additional paint with stencils, leaves or other textured items, such as mandalas or other designs. This layer must dry before you can add markers, text, Sanskrit, pictures, or anything else. I won’t get into the details and techniques of art journaling here but to say that to complete a page in your art journal requires revisiting the page 8 or more times if you are not just rushing through the process without thought. And each time the artist returns to a page, they read and consider the meaning of the sutra to contemplate how they might visually capture the essence on the page. This quiet work, striving to capture the meaning of the sutra as per your own interpretation, is a meditation of its own. And with each page demanding continued thought and time, it invites the artist to sit with the teaching much longer than they might without the project to keep them engaged. Even the small joy that comes from watching the visual interpretation take shape becomes inspiration to keep with the page – and as result, the sutra.
Students do have to get past any issues they have with attachment – such as the avoidance syndrome that comes from not feeling good at art or wanting perfection on the page. Detaching from any desire to create beautiful art is important if they want to actually get lost in discovery and honoring the sutra. I myself am often intimidated by art and don’t feel gifted when it comes to painting or drawing, and yet, I’ve learned that creativity can be a tantric endeavor, and working on my sutra journal isn’t about art at all and is actually about sitting with the teachings and using creativity to see the sutra in a new way. My finished art journal sparks reflection and meditation and I use it as a teaching tool as well, often putting the colorful visual pages on an altar to create ambiance and spark curiosity for sutra discussions.
Creating a yoga sutra art journal is a big commitment, and not for everyone. Doing so takes time and materials and most of all, patience. But for those who respond to a more entertaining, engaging act of study, this project can be a powerful instrument for learning and developing a deep relationship with the wisdom of yoga. Just as mantras or mudras and other forms of tantra can be an instrument for “crossing over” to deeper dimensions of spirituality, so too can the yoga sutra art journal take you to a new level of understanding.
Ginny Shaddock is the owner and spiritual teacher at Heartwood Yoga Institute. She is an ERYT-500 Yoga Teacher and C-IAYT Yoga Therapist.