Teaching Yoga mindfully in the 21st century by the light of the Four Noble Truths

This is contribution from Samantha Paranavitana, the second assignment for her 500 hour Certification which she completed this November 2017.

 “What is the Noble Truth of Suffering? Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering: in short the five categories affected by clinging are suffering”

(Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11)
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.
(Patanjali Yoga Sutra 1.2)
In today’s world ‘Yoga’ doesn’t seem to bear any resemblance to the original teachings of Patanjali. Yoga studios offer Beer Yoga, Fury Yoga (https://theplusones.com/melbourne/2017/03/14/namaste-motherfkers-fury-yoga/)   Goat Yoga (time.com/money/4793166/goat-yoga-class-popular-price-sold-out/) and every kind of yoga in between. Participants arrive wanting to be stimulated and excited by the intensity of the practice and the extreme acrobatic contortions of the instructor. Social media is flooded with images of nearly naked ‘yogis’ in gandha bherundasana or pungu mayurasana and other such contortions which the average body is very rarely able to achieve. The Yoga world has joined the global marketplace, enticing the consumers with products and promises; perpetuating a constant craving for the impossible attainment of the perfect, the perfect yoga gear, the perfect execution of the asana, the perfect body, always just that hairsbreadth out of reach. It is exquisite suffering.
One translation of the Pali, word ‘dukkha’ (commonly translated as sadness/suffering) is ’‘incapable of satisfying ’,’not able to bear or withstand anything’, incapable of finding fulfilment. Yoga, in its current and more popular forms keeps its practitioners trapped in a perpetual cycle of sensory desire, clinging unconsciously to suffering. Yoga teachers can help to end the cycle by bringing awareness to the agitations of the mind which they see arising in their students and in themselves.
Suffering in yogasana classes arises in so many ways. There is the frustration which comes up when an asana is too challenging. Students react by trying too hard, causing additional stress and tension in the body or worse, injury to their bodies or by turning away from the challenge so as to avoid the pain of feeling inadequate .Mental discomfort arises from comparing one’s own practice to the other practitioners in the room causing one to feel competitive and even angry or fuelling feelings of inadequacy. Yoga is the union between body and mind via the instrument of prana, most students have an understanding of this concept and it is the task of the teacher to keep gently drawing their awareness back to the breath so as to facilitate a turning inward towards their own experience. If a practitioner can bring awareness to felt experience in the moment yoga becomes a fulfilling practice. If, for example, a student has a problem with paschimottanasana because of chronic tightness in the hips and hamstrings, instead of reacting by berating her body for its inability to perform, the full forward bend, it can be an opportunity to notice how the mind reacts, in frustration,(“I can never do this”)in sadness(“No matter how hard I try I will never be able to do this”) and aversion(“I really hate it when s/he makes me do this”) Reflecting instead of reacting might teach the student self-compassion (“this feels hard right now...what can I do to soften into this asana?) To learn to understand the pain of the negative feelings instead of acting out against them (‘There is difficulty here and I can sit with it because it will pass”) is to be skilful in the face of challenges. Careful and constant verbal cues by the teacher are helpful in keeping students in present moment awareness.
“What is the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering? It is craving which renews being and is accompanied by relish and lust…craving for sensual desires, craving for being, craving for non being. But whereon does this craving arise and flourish? Wherever there is what seems lovable and gratifying, thereon it arises and flourishes”
(Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11)
The Second Noble Truth states that the origin of suffering is the attachment to desire. There are three kinds of desire: craving for pleasures of the senses (kama tanha), the craving to become (bhava tanha) and the longing to be rid of (vibhava tanha)
Yoga teachers are no strangers to kama tanha, it begins in that exquisite release and lengthening of the torso after marichiasana 3 or the heady sparkle of energy rushing through the whole body after a well-balanced execution of chakrasana, it is what drives people onto their mats day after day, the experience of all of one’s senses awake and alive. Most forms of physical exercise provide this gratifying dopamine and serotonin hit, as do food, sex, shopping, gambling or whichever form of distraction floats one’s individual boat. The desire in and of itself is of course, not the problem, it becomes a problem when there is an attachment to the desire in whichever form it arises.
Bhava tanha is the form of desire which is most prevalent in yoga classes, whether it be the lifelong endeavour to perform a 108 surya namaskarams without breaking a sweat or the quiet striving and struggling on the meditation cushion to still the mind and become free from thought forms. It is a ceaseless quest to becoming something other than we are. The Self Help industry is a billion dollar business in bhava tanha, an industry built on wanting, the wanting to be a better parent, a better partner, increase brain power, wanting anything that is more, bigger and better.
Vibhava tanha is the resistance to the perceived negative. We see it in the practitioner who asks repeatedly “but when will I have good enough core and shoulder strength stretch so I can do a ‘proper’ sirsasana? “Or the meditator who shares that s/he had a ‘really bad meditation’ because s/he couldn’t get rid of her thoughts and empty her mind in her session. We are all prisoners to this desire to get rid of the pain of what IS, be it physical, emotional or mental, we want freedom from the pain because we identify with it. This is expressed as ‘my knee pain’ or ‘my abandonment issues’ even though we want to be rid of the same. This is the ego- self grasping at desire to be free from pain and it is this grasping which is the root cause of suffering and not the desire itself. Liberation comes from recognising the grasping and letting go of the desire with conscious awareness. In order to be able to help our students to recognise these habitual patterns of craving and aversion we need to be able to recognise them within ourselves and teach from a place of honesty and integrity.
“What is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering? It is the remainder less fading and cessation of that same craving; the rejecting, relinquishing, leaving and renouncing of it.”
(Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11)

The Third Noble Truth states that there is a cessation to suffering. This end to dukkha is the result of the consistent disciplined practice of accepting what is, Tara Brach refers to it as ‘letting life live through you’. In practice it is a contemplation of the idea that all that arises also ceases, both pain and pleasure, and eventually ’this too shall pass’. In a world geared towards instant gratification this practice is a hard concept to sell, people come to meditation and yoga looking for relief from the stresses of their lives. However within the process of cessation from suffering there has to be a willingness to open to suffering. The willingness to open wholeheartedly and consciously to the pain, the boredom ,the frustration, the desire and fear, because it is only in that process of witnessing these conditions that we are able to see that whatever arises has a natural end. Ajahn Sumedho states’…through knowing desire without judging the beauty or ugliness….we come to see desire as it is…then by laying aside these desires rather than grasping at them, we experience nirodha, the cessation of suffering.’ Nirodha is another word for nibbana which is sometimes translated as emptiness. In emptiness things are simply as they are, there is no identification with the ego-self, simply an alertness, clarity and an awareness of the interbeing of all that exists.
“What is the Noble Truth of the Way Leading to the cessation of suffering? It is the Eightfold Noble Path, that is to say Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right mindfulness and Right concentration”
(Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11)

“…dwelling happily in things as they are.”
(…drishta dharma sukha viharin’ Samyutta Nikaya V 326)
The qualities that comprise the Eightfold Path are Right Understanding and Right Aspiration which arise out of Wisdom. Out of the realisation of Wisdom arises sila or Moral Commitment which includes the qualities of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Arising out of Morality are the qualities of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right concentration.
Wisdom arises from the deep understanding that we are not the body or our feelings and from the insight that we are part of a greater source. Emily Dickinson wrote “If we reach into the silence then we cannot be afraid for where there is nothing there is God” Whilst God is not part of the Buddhist cosmos, I believe the poet was trying to convey a glimpse into Emptiness. As yoga teachers it is imperative to spend some time before every asana class to come into contact with that space within the self which is eternal and unchanging, ever present, regardless of the conditions arising as part of life. In my classes I begin with a somatic exploration of the body and its felt sense, sometimes it just takes a few minutes for the students to drop into the depths of their being selves, to recognise what emotions and feelings they have brought into the room, to touch the silence beneath and to begin their practice from a place of stillness, honesty and compassion. Thic Nat Hahn describes the pause as practicing Shamata (stopping) in order to develop vipassana (insight)
Right Action and Right Speech are important personal practices. Yoga teachers need to model behaviour which is skilful. If the teacher is in a state of hyperarousal, moving too speedily through demonstration of asanas or rushing through the class sequence to get to the ‘peak’ asana, students will mirror the same unconscious behaviour and will be unable to be in touch with the experiences arising in the body, they are denied the opportunity to listen inward. If we bring a steady attention to the immediate physical experience of an emotion, past sensation and stories linked to it that have been locked in our body and mind are “de-repressed” (Tara Brach) and while this should not be a primary aspiration within an asana class if both student and teacher are aware of this process there is a rich opportunity for growth and insight. Teachers also need to be mindful of their speech in the smallest ways, it’s best not to refer to a student’s “bad knee” or to use the ‘motivational’ language more appropriate to an aerobics class, to replace “come on, you can do this!” with “ if it feels appropriate for your body right now you might choose do try this more challenging variation” Following on from there to address the needs of the student who might be overcome with wanting to move on to the more challenging asana but is held back by physical handicaps. To acknowledge the desire in a compassionate way so the student knows that s/he is not alone and the experience can be ok just as it is. An asana class is rich with opportunities for the teacher to bring mindful attention to both actions and speech with compassion and without judgement. Ahimsa should be an important tenet for both students and teachers to learn, nonviolence in our attitude to our own bodies is a novel concept in a culture which is geared towards using extreme workouts to chisel the physical body. Yoga teachers need to sequence their classes to have the perfect balance between sthira (steadiness) and sukhha (ease) in order to enable their students to realise perfect union between body, breath and mind.
‘Right Mindfulness is to be diligently aware...with regard to (1) the activities of the body(kaya),(2) sensations or feelings (vedana),(3)the activities of the mind(citta) and (4) ideas, thoughts, conceptions and things(dhamma)’(Walpola Sri Rahula) 
Offering students time and space within an asana class is key to the development of mindfulness of body, breath and mind. Verbal cues can be used to promote the awareness of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations in the body and feelings in the mind and also reminders that moment to moment experience changes as we pay careful attention to it. Thic Nat Hahn says that mindfulness brings about Right Concentration. ‘When you are deeply concentrated you are absorbed in the moment. You become the moment. That is why Samadhi is sometimes translated as absorption.’ Pranayama practices and yoga nidra are also tools that can be used to help give students that experience of feeling integrated and connected. 
My personal belief is that in order to enrich the student’s experience a yoga teacher need to attend closely to individual needs with compassion. J.Krishnamurti wrote that ‘to pay attention means we care, which means we really love’. Witnessing the struggles of our students in our classes with clear and kind attention can help to transform their suffering and teach them to hold whatever arises in their lives on and off the mat with the same attitudes. Yoga can then evolve into what it began as thousands of years ago, a pathway to equanimity.  



Ajahn Sumedho. Four NobleTruths. Amaravati Publications.
Thic Nat Hahn. The heart of Buddha’s teachings, transforming suffering into peace, joy and liberation. Random House Publications.
Tara Brach. Radical Acceptance. Random House Publications.
Walpola Sri Rahula. What the Buddha taught. Oneworld Publications