This summer I once again returned to Samahita Retreat on Koh Samui, Thailand to study with my teacher Paul Dallaghan.
Paul has been a helpful guide and great source of inspiration on my path of practicing and teaching Yoga.
So I thought it’s a great idea to sit down with Paul and ask him a couple of questions about the art of teaching Yoga. As Paul has been a practitioner, teacher and researcher of Yoga for 20 years now, I was curious to hear what his thoughts and advices are on teaching Yoga.
Paul has been studying in a one-on-one capacity with Yoga master Tiwariji, head of the Kayvalyadhama Institute in India and a true master and teacher of Pranayama. As well, he studied closely with the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois who granted him advanced certification to teach the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system.
Since 2012 he has been following his interest in research and is honored to be taken in by Emory University in Atlanta, USA, in the field of Biological Anthropology, where he is following a PhD program bringing the yogic practices and philosophy to the scientific field.
You can find out more about Paul here:
About Paul – Learn more about Paul and his life committed to teaching Yoga
Paul’s International Workshops – Check out where to practice with Paul
Samahita Retreat’s Website – A beautiful place to reconnect to yourself and Paul’s “home base”, I highly recommend it.
Watch our conversation here:
I apologize that the audio is pretty bad. I underestimated the wind and it was my first video interview.
Summary of key parts of our conversation:
After a short introduction I tell him how great it has been in the past weeks to practice and study with him, especially now, that he is not teaching so often. I ask how teaching in past weeks has been for him.
Paul: It’s been very good. The opportunity to reconnect with a number students from the past and meet new students. But it’s also the mode of teaching that provides an opportunity to present a deeper understanding about practice and discuss that.
Some of that understanding about the practices gets refined as one studies slightly different subjects that merge on this – aspects from science on the medical side, on the physiological side, on the neuroscience side. And when those answer a few things, then what we practice also become a little more alive in them.
And then sharing those things with practitioners, like yourself, that have been in it for a while – some more, some less – and to have the opportunity to work through those things and especially when you go with questions and it digs things out.
So obviously for me as a teacher and somebody who thinks on this stuff, I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity, and it’s in a perfect location.
The evolution of teaching in a teacher’s life
Tom: It definitely is a beautiful place, there is some healing power in dedicating some time to study, to relaxation, towards the study of those practices. I also find it very interesting – having studies with you over the past couple of years, to see the evolution in your way of teaching. Obviously the foundation has remained, but I can see a refinement, an openness to incorporate new insights that you get from your research and as well from your consistent committed practice over so many years.
One of the main fears of young Yoga teachers is not being ready to teach, not knowing enough. As I see how much you evolved already in the last 7 years, having been practicing Yoga for 20 years, how should a young Yoga teacher approach this fear, especially if they compare themselves with there own teachers that have much more experience?
Paul: Well, That’s an issue in many fields, also for example in the academics. For example PHD-students teaching undergraduate students. Who is really ready. There is even a joke among seasoned professors: “How can I have read the book, yet? I haven’t even taught the course.” In most teaching environments you are kind of thrown into the teaching role and have to put it together. And where I think Yoga has gone astray and has lost some of his impact force is when we start teaching ahead of ourselves.
If you as a young teacher are thinking “I am not ready”- what does that mean, ready for what? Ready for the level of some senior teacher? Obviously that takes time.
Or, I try to make up for my feeling of not knowing enough, so I take bits and peaces from different workshops and push them into my class. Because that’s what people want – cool and exciting.
What you want is a teacher, who- no matter if they just started or are in it for 50 years – is a practitioner, who is learning, growing, shifting
Those are 2 blunders and I don’t think either of them is helpful: One is the lack of confidence, one is kind of a band-aid on that. When really, what you want is a teacher, who- no matter if they just started or are in it for 50 years – is a practitioner, who is learning, growing, shifting. And that also continues with me. So there is development, an evolution, this is material that is organic, that lives and grows, our understanding of it has to grow deeper with it and that’s gonna influence others that are newer on the path.
As opposed to: I have it all figured out, after 15 or 20 years I know it all. That’s the end the teacher, that’s the end of growth, that’s the end of the student.
So the newer Yoga teacher could approach it like this: I have learnt and practiced some of these asana, learnt about the theory around it, I practiced teaching it and now I am gonna go out and teach it, that’s the level that I am gonna stay at. And that’s good for a general Yoga class.
Maybe to sit here and discuss the depth of asana, with pranayama, the fusion with science, the physiology etc., this may have taken 20 years. And it requires the interest and immersion into it. Like I already said: Don’t jump ahead of yourself.
You know this mudra: Jnana Mudra. It’s the students mudra, meaning: I know very little, not Zero, but little. Partly because that little gets further defined and developed through experience. So the newer teacher can only grow by teaching a simple class, continue that and continue to study and practice.
And then there is the continued study with a teacher, meeting and working together over many years, like we have, and like I have done with my teacher. What should not happen, and you see that in any field of teaching, not just in Yoga, is that people say: “I know enough”. That’s when it ends.
Tom: Then also the inspiration goes away. You just keep repeating yourself instead of refueling yourself again and again through your own practice.
Your practice is like a relationship with yourself – it’s modified and matures over time
Paul: Yes, that little question you inserted before, how to keep up the practice? It’s like a relationship, and obviously we cannot keep all relationships going. But this relationship is with ourselves. Sometimes we do want to run away from ourselves, from our practice. It’s natural.
I personally love to practice, the way of doing it is modified and matures over time as life and age creeps up. The love, the connection, the sincerity, the interest comes because we are feeling it. You are with it instead of just repeating it.
I might be saying: “Oh, here I go again”, then it becomes boring. You might hit a point where it could become boring and dry out, but then a new fresh love and approach has to come in. And if you are also not caught by a linear, rigid, dogmatic approach like it has to be done a certain way. Then there is the opportunity of growth, to feel it out. Because asana is not like it got solved a thousand years ago. And that’s the answer for all time. This is almost a foolish approach and goes contrary to everything we learn in any other field, which follows a sort of evolutionary approach. There are amazing asanas and we need to practice and study them and understand them better.
Every generation’s knowledge is build on the previous one’s. Our understanding deepens in terms of how we can do those things and how they can work for us
So take your practice, explore it, feel it, then this stuff stays alive and it has to because it’s not just about us, but about all these generations coming.
Tom: That’s an interesting point. There is always those 2 sides of one the one hand staying with the tradition, learning, studying, practicing the techniques from a teacher, honoring the lineage, on the other hand being yourself, honoring your own experience and adjusting our teaching to modern times, merging it with the other knowledge we have available now.
Paul: It’s a very find line. One immature approach is to study something for 6 months and then thinks they have to change it or even come up with their own system and brand it. There is so much more to learn. And if one is trying to get their own brand name after such a short time, it isn’t really matured or developed. If you learn and practice, learn and practice, it could take 10 years to get somewhere.
My own teacher has a 60-year background in teaching and the times change in there. Even just in the last 10 years, the technologies and the aspects in life that we are dealing with, the people we meet for practice, all of that has changed only in the last 10 years. Practice is there to help the people, not the other way around. So one would have to be very qualified to start working with it and the justification to change something in practice should be more than “oh, I don’t like that, let’s change it”.
Practice is there to help the people, not the other way around
Let’s take physics for example. Einstein learnt Newtonian physics, yet was interested in the concept of time and was able to come up with theory of relativity. He didn’t throw away anything saying ‘it’s rubbish’, he built on it, with time invested, study, care, new insights came with that.
It’s similar with Yoga, a beautiful tradition, one of the great values for me has been that I was able to learn them in this kind of classic, traditional way and still teach them that way. But the understanding around them and the exact nature of doing them them can be fine-tuned.
It’s different if you just come in and say: “I have just come up with a new breath game”. Or “let’s stick our foot here and see what happens”. That’s careless and a little dangerous in a way. (…)
Tom: So one could say: “Stay on your path, value the tradition…
Paul: … and try to contribute…
Tom: …and don’t let it dry out but develop it…
Paul: Because anything that static becomes stagnant and easily becomes dogma. Now you don’t know why you are doing things.
If you take the first Yoga Sutra: atha yoga-anuśāsanam. It’s basically saying: We could give you the anuśāsanam, we could give you the layout, the rules, the doctrine. But really anuśāsanam is: you have to discover and experience it inside.
There might be this state of consciousness, the yamas and niyamas – don’t treat people like this or that, be kind, don’t hurt them – but ultimately it has to be embodied, lived through and that way it’s experienced. So what we are doing is something that is alive, and it’s alive within people. What’s the value of having our box of rules and dogma if it’s not lived, doesn’t reach the people. It has to be worked through.
So contribution is definitely a big part of it.
Tom: So we have to put it into our lives. That brings me to a good point. Looking at your life, at the beginning there was a lot of practice, then even deeper periods of practice in India, you build this retreat place here and taught for many years. Now you have your PHD-studies. Family came along the way.
As a Yoga teacher, trying to practice Yoga on and off the mat while handling life, there often needs to be a bit of intention when creating your lifestyle. How intentional were the decisions along the way when you decided to start this place, how intentional did you adjust when family came along etc.?
Paul: When I started teaching Yoga, having had some business related studies before, also some disaster happening before, when I stepped into the Yoga, I was happy to embrace it, it was not just something nice to do, it was kind of the only path that made sense. I was living in New York City, acting and doing Yoga. I thought, if there is something in your heart, live it. And if you are in your mid-twenties you can do that. But then after a couple of years, having a foot in both areas, I thought: Yoga is about my own development, that’s were the real work needs to be, so again another step forward, another decision: This I wanna take on with both hands. Of course, there was no guaranty that I could actually live off of that.
Then I went to India the first time, which took me a couple of years to save the money and have the time, I thought I need more than those 2 months for studying here. And again, just being a bit brave and making a decision, I left New York to study in India. I didn’t have any plan for any of this (retreat etc.). So Jutima and I stopped in Thailand. Little things came, but the focus was on practice. I taught a couple things in Costa Rica and so I said, let’s try something in Thailand and study in India.
But then in that mix, life goes on. It was not: Ok, let’s first build the place, then have family, then kids etc. It all came kind of on top of each other. There were a couple of years, just Jutima and I, teaching, practicing, studying, living in India, that was a very interesting time. But then you are asked: “Do you wanna take on a place or not?”. Do I say yes or no to that? Do I say no because I wanna indulge in my current time level which will not last forever anyway? Am I afraid? Am I not smart enough to handle it? On the other hand: If I say yes: Can we teach better, can we offer better food, can we create an environment?
And then the way life works is, all of the sudden you are pregnant with a kid. So then my promise to myself was: I will stick to my practice, but it has to adapt to running a place as well as teaching as well as being a dad.
So you respond to life, and it lifts your practice
You respond to the forces of life, and if you don’t drop it, it will actually uplift you in your practice.
Tom: From my own experience, after quitting my job and committing to teaching full-time, doing what I love, forced me to go deeper in to my practice and my path. Because all of the sudden it’s just you, there is no way of blaming others anymore (colleagues, boss, company etc.). It’s just you doing your thing. And if you accept it, it really helps you on your path.
The most important quality is sincerity
Paul: My teacher always says, the key quality for the student, and that includes the teacher because they are still a student, the most important quality is sincerity.
I really mean it. I am in it. Do it. Try to understand it.
I was happy practicing, just me with my partner. I was happy practicing with the new place, with the kids, with everything else happening around. And it doesn’t end there. You have to adapt to what’s coming.
And it’s not that you abandon anything along the way, social life for example. But your priorities just change. Now you are there for the place, the staff, the people, your kids and family.
And if you don’t step it up with the priorities, we know what happens. It all falls apart.
In a way, running something well is part of a Yoga. Taking care of family etc. It’s our development inside instead of just the poses.
Tom: So to just wrap it up here: Do your practice, stay consistent, prioritize well and be intentional
Paul: also be happy, care, don’t be obsessive in practice forgetting other important parts of life.
Take time for yourself, how much is a separate question, because
With a practice, you can grow, without a practice, your imagination grows.
What a great insight at the end.