David Frawley’s advice for yoga teachers: “go to India”

Sunset, Thanjavur Temple, 2008 (©Metta Yoga)

“A good Yoga teacher should follow Yoga as a sadhana or spiritual practice, not simply as an outer vocation.   The aspiration for Self-realization and God-realization should be the foundation of wanting to be a true Yoga teacher.

Consider bringing in Ayurveda, pranayama, and mantra into what you present as Yoga.  Learn the main yogic types of meditation.  Learn at least some Sanskrit so that you can know what the original terminology of Yoga means.   Try to study the deeper Yogic texts and do not just limit yourself to the Yoga Sutras, which is only one of many great Yoga classics. My favorite is the Yoga Vasishta.

Try to study the life and teachings of the great modern yogis like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Yogananda, or Ramana Maharshi.

Visit India and its ashrams and holy places to find out more about the spiritual background of Yoga.  Do not be afraid of the devotional or Bhakti side of Yoga but try to understand its relevance.

But above all root your teachings in nature and in your own experience, as Yoga is something that is rooted ultimately in all of life.  Learn the cosmic Yoga if you can, letting the Earth, mountains, wind, stars and waters be your teachers.” [emphasis supplied.]

This post raised some hackles when it was suggested that yoga teachers would benefit by studying in India.  It was even suggested that going to India to study yoga smacked of elitism.  So when I read this post by David Frawley I had to smile.

David Frawley is the Director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies.  Frawley’s article is interesting because his compares yoga in the East and West, something I have also blogged about.  Yes, yoga IS different in India (at least where I study), despite the mainstream commercialization of it here.  I think Frawley’s article is very insightful and he hits the nail on the head when he says things like “some modern asana groups want to avoid the spiritual side of Yoga, or at least the Indian side of that spirituality.  Some spiritual Yoga groups, meanwhile, have no asana component or teaching…” and…

“A true Yoga teacher in the classical sense would be one who could teach all eight limbs of Yoga with integrity, experience, devotion and insight.  They would be able to develop programs at an individual basis and not simply be limited to group or public classes.  That requires much more study and practice than most Yoga teacher’s training programs today.”

You can read the comments in the “Babies Teaching Babies” post from those of us who have gone to India to study.  A comment was made that those who’ve been to India suggested that “those of us who haven’t gone to India aren’t teachers.”  I disagree:  “the experience of being in India changed my whole way of looking at Yoga;  and “yes it is possible to teach without going. but I UNDERSTOOD a a hell of a lot better when I began immersing myself in the culture, I became a much better teacher after I started going.”  I said that my practice and teaching totally changed after learning what I learned in India.  Frankly, I learned things at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram that I never heard anyone talk about in any previous trainings (except the teacher who inspired me to go to India in the first place.)

I am actually a bit dismayed yet amused at the elitist charge (considering that back in the day I was on food stamps and marched in protest with the Farmworkers’ Union) and the defensiveness that speaks once again (as is so common lately in the yoga blogosphere) to the “us v. them” mentality.  Perception is reality which is different for everyone.  The non-dualism of advaita wisdom does not map to North American uber-dualism.

No one suggested that those who do not study in India are not yoga teachers.  David Frawley does not suggest that either.  But what he does is differentiate between someone who teaches asana and someone who teaches more than asana when he is asked what he believes makes a good yoga teacher.  His advice for students who want to become teachers is:  “To be a real Yoga teacher is a great achievement of the human spirit and requires great dedication and commitment of a life-time.”

Of course not every yoga teacher can go to India to study or even wants to go.  India is not for everyone — I wrote about that  here.  There’s a lot fear involved when some people think of going to India.  During my first trip an American yoga student had a mental meltdown 10 days into the month long intensive and had to be sent home.

But I can tell you that you will learn more about the spirituality of the Gita, or Sutras, or whatever your favorite spiritual yoga book is by feeling it wash over you in a temple as the priests chant rather than reading about it in a book.  I guarantee it.

And just because someone goes to India to study, that does not automatically make them a better teacher — just like someone going to the best law school or medical school does not automatically make them a good lawyer or doctor.  There are many other things involved in making a good teacher, it’s individual, it’s not just one thing.  To teach ANYTHING well, one needs the aptitude to teach.  “Good” teaching springs from knowledge and years of practice and experience, including life experience.  Wisdom comes from life experience, not out of books.  It’s been said that there’s a ton of knowledge out there now, but not a lot of wisdom.  Same in the modern yoga world.  Even after 10 years of teaching, I still consider myself a baby teacher.  OK, maybe a toddler by now.

But those who DO decide to study in India will be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams.  I can only speak about the school that I attend, I have no idea what happens in Pune (Iyengar yoga) or Mysore (Astanga yoga), but there is a reason that people keep returning to the heart of yoga to study.  It IS different, and paraphrasing what Louis Armstrong said about jazz, “If you have to ask what India is, you’ll never know.”

In order to study in India, yes, it IS hard to find subs for your classes.  It IS hard to be away from families for however long the study takes.  And  yes, there is no guarantee that your yoga job will be waiting for you when you return, given that in certain areas of the country (especially mine), yoga teachers are a dime a dozen and as soon as you leave, 12 more are waiting to take your gig, some who will teach for nothing.  But as the saying goes, if it was easy, everyone would do it.

The bottom line is that if you want to do it, you’ll do it, without hesitation.  You’ll save your money for a year or two years or whatever it takes, find your subs or even give up your classes, maybe even a family, and go.  That’s how important it is to some people to travel to the heart of yoga.  When I made my decision to go the first time I knew in my bones that nothing and no one would stop me.  Is that elitism?  Or commitment of a life-time?  My students are glad when I go because they know they can not drink from an empty cup and what I bring back is not only for me, but for them.

The fact of the matter is that yoga teacher trainings in the United States are much more expensive than it is to go to India for a month to study with the senior teachers of Iyengar, Jois, or Desikachar.

“To be a real Yoga teacher is a great achievement of the human spirit and requires great dedication and commitment of a life-time.” 

What are you willing to give up to become a “real yoga teacher” whether it’s here OR in India?  I asked that question back in 2008.

So go to India to study.  Or not.  I don’t care, just like I don’t care what “your” yoga is.  I know what mine is.

Just keep it real.

7 thoughts on “David Frawley’s advice for yoga teachers: “go to India”

  1. Soon, it won’t be long now before I make my way to India. She’s been calling for some time now and maybe next year or the year after that, it’ll be time for me to go. Finally. I can’t wait!

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  2. A few things. Overall, when looking at the quote from Frawley, both what he’s saying and also what he’s emphasizing, makes a lot of sense to me. The line about India is pretty understated really, and the main thrust of what he’s saying is study widely, pay close attention to your life, don’t limit practice to asana, and don’t think of yoga as simply “a vocation.” Basically, he’s telling us to go for the depth, to work towards liberation. Which seems like commonsense to me, but certainly isn’t as common of a view as it probably should be.

    About the “elitism” charges. Some of it definitely is an us vs. them mentality. However, there are plenty of valid concerns about classism in North American yoga – you yourself have brought many of them up – and I believe that those concerns do tie into discussions about traveling to India. (I think of some of my former English Language students who spent years paying off the travel bill that got them out of their war torn home nations.) Simply put, anyone who can travel to India has a certain level of privilege in their lives. That doesn’t mean their lives are necessarily easy, nor that they are rich and elitist. It quite obvious that you, for example, have to work hard to get things lined up for any time studying in India.

    I actually think a great deal of the problem in these discussions is coming from the lack of sussing out specifics in these conversations, as well as misusing terms. Whomever called you elitist simply for going to India is misusing the term. You’re not elitist – you have some privilege to be able to arrange your life and locate and get the resources needed to go to India. That’s quite a different issue. Charges of elitism carry with them a mostly negative tone and view. Whereas speaking of privilege is much more about acknowledging current social place and abilities. In addition, when speaking about privilege, a lot of it comes down to what one is doing with said privilege that determines ethical/moral judgments. Going to India to sincerely deepen one’s yoga practice and bring those skills back to your students here in the U.S. is a good use of privilege in my book.

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    1. as for “privilege”….yes it is. and I wake up grateful every day and thank Buddha/Shiva/Kali, etc etc etc for the life I have considering where I came from.

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  3. I think I need to re-subscribed to Frawley’s newsletter.
    “root your teachings in nature and in your own experience, as Yoga is something that is rooted ultimately in all of life. Learn the cosmic Yoga if you can, letting the Earth, mountains, wind, stars and waters be your teachers.” This is my yoga, which is way I stopped writing about yoga (at least in physical asana specific terms) and now write about the world around me–but it’s still all yoga to me.
    As for India, I admit I am in the scared to go camp. My life experience is pretty much limited to small town life (and even the city here is small) so it would be a huge culture shock just in the number of people alone. I do think about going sometimes though–maybe I’ll be ready someday.

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  4. Thank you for a truthful and inspiring article! I couldn’t agree more – yoga is a way of life which india reminds me of, being chaotic making me more centered, being alive/noicy makes me peaceful within! I am in india now and come here every year which feels like taking a perspective in my life, to see and be clear able to cut the crab.
    Namaste Linda!

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