It's not enough for a yoga instructor to simply teach a class. If we really want to serve those who come to us to learn, we need to help them learn to practice yoga when they are not in class.
The very core of Yoga is practice. The second sutra in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, defines yoga as the mastery of the thought-waves, called vrittis, in the lake of the mind. When we have mastered the thought-waves, we are able to still them, and then the Divine light of the True Self shines through.
So, yoga is mastering the thought waves, and, according to the twelfth sutra, one masters the thought-waves through abhyasa, practice, and vairagya, detachment. Sutra fourteen explains that one must practice for a long time, without a break, and with sincere devotion for the practice to bear fruit.
My personal experience is the same. For some years I've been learning to play classical guitar. At first it felt like my fingers were made of wood. They simply wouldn't bend as was needed to play certain notes. There were several times that I felt like throwing the guitar down and giving up. However, as I continued practicing, what was previously unbendable softened, and in not too much time something akin to music began coming from the guitar. Practice made the difference.
According to Baba Hari Dass, a great yoga-meditation teacher, thinking that you will advance in yoga without practicing is like sitting on a beach waiting for a pearl to wash up.
So, for our yoga to succeed, we need to practice. But here's the rub; most people don't like to practice.
So as yoga instructors and mentors, how do we help aspirants create a habit of practice?
The first step is to be solid in our own practice. We can't pass something onto another that we don't have. So if we want to inspire people to do their practice, we need to do our own practice first.
There is a tale on this subject involving Mohandas Gandhi, the politician/saint of India. It is said that one day a mother came to Gandhi with her little boy for help. She asked Gandhi, "Please, Bapu, will you tell my little boy to stop eating sugar. He simply eats too much sugar and will not stop." Gandhi told the mother to leave and come back with the boy in three days.
The mother returned with her son and said to Gandhi. We have come back as you asked, Gandhi turned to the boy and said, "Young boy, stop eating sweets. They are not good for you."
The mother then asked Gandhi, "Bapu, why didn't you tell my son that when we first came to see you? Why did you ask us to leave and come back in three days? I don't understand."
Gandhi said to the woman, "I asked you to return with the boy in three days, because three days ago, I, too, was eating sweets. I could not ask him to stop eating sweets so long as I had not stopped eating sweets." (This story comes from the website https://gandhimemorialcenter.org/activities/educational-programs/children/).
Doing our own practice serves several functions. First, by doing our practice, we gain something to teach. Because mastery of yoga is only accomplished through practice, our practice will enable us to advance and to then be in a position to teach others.'
Second, by practicing, we internalize and come to understand the practice, so that when we teach we are not simply parroting information heard from others. Rather, by practice we come to know the practices, their effects, and their limitations.
Third, when doing our practice, we face our resistances and learn how to get through them. Everyone has resistance. Moving forward requires overcoming the resistance. Each person's resistance is different, and so our method to overcome resistance may or may not apply directly to another person. However, having met and overcome resistance we understand the struggle our students are facing and can lend them knowing support, helpful hints, and compassion.
The second step in encouraging our students to practice is to remember where the wisdom comes from. An instructor is not the source of the knowledge but is merely passing on what was learned from the endless tradition of teachers and students. There is a certain humility in knowing one is only a link in a chain and not the source of knowledge. This humility opens a space in the mind for the wisdom of the ages to flow through and inspire our students; and that inspiration will motivate them to practice.
The third step is to love our students with the selfless love that a mother has for her children. I've been fortunate to be a student of Swami Veda Bharati for many years, and the great love he has for all his students both attracts students to his teaching and prompts them to want to learn from him. Love is a strong motivator.
The fourth step is to help our students create a base from which their practice can grow. I used to do rock climbing and to get up the rock, I had to find tiny ledges as footholds so I could push my body up the rock. Our students need footholds like this from which they can grow their practice. Start small. For example, Swami Veda Bharati tells people to do two minute meditations several times a day. Often, when mentoring students who are having difficulty maintaining any practice, I suggest meditating one time a day for five minutes and do it regularly. Most people can find five minutes in the day to do something for themselves.
Even such a tiny foothold enables the student to begin forming the habit of doing a regular practice. Eventually, s/he will want to expand the practice. Then the mentor's task is to be sure the student doesn't try to advance so quickly that s/he becomes overwhelmed and stops the practice altogether. Small increases over time work best.
The fifth step is to motivate the student to practice by celebrating his or her successes. When a student comes and says she did her practice every day, acknowledge that; ask her how she felt after doing the practice. Normally, she'll say "relaxed, good." By reinforce that, saying something like "so doing your practice helped you feel better?" she'll begin to hear her own inspiration and this will help her continue her forward movement.
We can also help students do their practices by gathering them together into a mutually supportive community. Being in the proximity of others who are practicing serves as a good motivation to do our own practice and this helps those who are less disciplined.
Through these five steps, mentors and teachers can expand their service and help their students make true progress on the path.