All posts by Andy Yoga

Yoga Teacher & Photographer serving East-Central Illinois RYT-200 Yoga Alliance Ashtanga Immersion 50 hr CrossFit Level I trainer CF Olympic Weightlifting Gymnastics Movement Former Army Drill Instructor Microbiology, mycology, plant pathology, Ph.D. Fly fisher, kayaker, backpacker, musician Husband, friend, dog lover Runner, Olympic weightlifter, CrossFit (Rocket Yoga 100 hour, Feb 2016)

RYT: Registered Yoga Teacher?

Why even bother with registering? Too many people ask this without knowing.

I know there are conspiracy theorists out there who wonder about yoga teacher registration. You have to admit, there are a lot of organizations that are out to get our money with little or no benefit. And yes, it is right to question why we would do something that seemingly has very little importance. But the bottom line is this. Its how our system works right now. If a better one comes along, then we’ll change.

The criteria for honoring a registration certificate for a teacher is, for the most part, based on an honor code. As yogis, we are supposed to have honor since it is rudimentary to the first two branches of Ashtanga yoga (as in 8-limbs, not as in the Mysore-centered practice of Pattabhi Jois). One of the yamas is Satya, which means truthfulness. To become a RYS (Registered Yoga School), the curriculum and overall mission is to honor core elements in teacher training. There must also be an E-RYT to provide for direction and leadership in the Education process. An E-RYT is someone who has the teaching hours and core training needed to direct the program. There are programs that do not have any adherence to common guidelines and you have to beware of their motivations. They could be pure and wholesome or they could just be out to get your money. And believe me, teacher training isn’t cheap. It can range from $2,500 to $15-20K. First, you want to know that you are being taught what you need to know. Second, you want to know that the piece of paper (your certificate) means something.

Yoga is really special in that it is steeped in a very rich history that dates back 5,000 years. There are ancient texts that provide insights into the intentions and history of the practice. But, in the modern world of Instagram and brightly colored leggings, which is a multi-million dollar industry, much of that history mumbo jumbo is seen as unnecessary  baggage. There are even training programs that brag about not including Sanskrit, history, or philosophy of yoga in their curriculum. These are the training programs you have to watch out for. They are out to get your money. They are as shallow as a rootless tree. They want you to see the pretty forest without talking about the roots and what feeds the forest.

Whether you believe in yoga registration with an organization like Yoga Alliance or not, its is smart to play the game. I am fairly amazed at the number of teachers who don’t. When I plug in the name of the town where our studio resides, only 3 teachers from my studio come up. It means that most are not RYT’s. I’m not sure why that is. Is it laziness or just not believing in the system? I’m not sure.

Gaining credentials as an RYT does not begin until the day you register. Even if you’ve already taught yoga for 10 years, that time is not supposed to count toward your hours. Then you log your hours as often as you can to keep the log up to date. This is where Satya (truthfulness) comes into play. When I tabulate my hours, I realize how easy it could be to fudge them a little. Just estimating hours off the top of your head or rounding up for classes could easily happen. Getting your 1,000 hours to get your E-RYT could be easy if you just lied. But that’s not very yogic is it? Only you can see the darkness of your heart.

Once you have hours toward your E-RYT, then you can start giving continuing education credits to other teachers as well as teaching in RYS teacher training programs. But, again, you can’t get your 1,000 hours without first registering. And, it does new yoga teacher trainees no good at all if an E-RYT lies their way into getting their credentials. They will not have the hours of experience and, more importantly, they have a stained character. You want your teacher to talk the talk and walk the walk. The Yamas and Niyamas are needed if you want to fulfill the higher limbs of yoga. And if you’ve never been taught these essential concepts, then it would be hard to call yourself a yoga teacher. Yeah, you can be a body pump or zumba teacher or something else, but it wouldn’t be yoga.

Honor the system. Be truthful with your students. But most importantly, be true to yourself. Satya. Namaste!

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Yoga Class Sequencing

A good friend of mine just finished teacher training and she got me thinking about sequencing. We learned different ways in teacher training and they were different from what I read in books. I don’t know that I’ve seen a lot of hard and fast guidelines about this. I think much depends on the kind of class you are teaching. But the structure usually finds commonalities across disciplines.

The yoga teacher who I emulate most taught a Sunrise class on Saturday mornings. He was an incredibly introspective and kind person. He was also very capable to not only teach but to demonstrate technical postures. I loved his tone and his demeanor. He was very stern about certain things. When going into chaturanga he would insist “don’t you dare look down”. When we brought our leg forward and back in Surya Namaskar B, he would push us to not make a sound on the mat thereby engaging hip flexors and lower abdomen. Occasionally, he would look at his sheet to see where we were. I admired how much he thought about his classes. You could see him practicing his sequence before class. While I was in training, he showed me his process and what he wrote. It was all in Sanskrit.

I once mentioned this in teacher training and my teacher humbly acknowledged that his procedure was a good one. But she confidently said that what she does in a vinyasa class just comes from experience. Her sequences are creative and largely fall onto her Ashtanga base. As I look at what I do today, it combines both approaches. Sure, a general vinyasa class takes no preparation at all for the most part. You just go in and teach. You may ask students what body part or pose they would like to focus on, but otherwise its up to you. In specialty classes, you need to develop a more thought out plan. Slow flow, gentle, restorative, beginners,… all require some level of focus if you don’t teach that all the time. So you may scribble out some ideas. So what I do is usually off the cuff, but I write down a few peak poses now and then that I’d like to cover.

The general rule my teacher gave us was 2/3 standing and 1/3 seated. I follow this pretty well:
Warming – I once went to a class where the teacher’s first pose involved a deep hamstring stretch. I cringed with worry that someone would hurt something. Sun Salutations are the go to for Ashtanga Yoga. It covers the most ground while building heat. However, most beginner/intermediate classes require more warming than that. Child’s pose, tiger, cat/cow, seated twists. These are good starting points. I also like standing sun flows.
Heating – Once we are warm, I go into stronger poses. Planks, chaturanga, arm balances, warriors, triangles, side angles. These fit along with my Ashtanga bias as well. If I feel we are getting tired, I mix some balance poses along the way.
Forward Folds – Now that we are nicely opened, we can do wide leg forward folds, goddess, and hand to foot type poses.
Seated poses – The last third of class I do one and two legged forward folds; reverse plank and boat pose; then maybe marichyasanas and baddha konasana.
Backbends – Bridge pose and upward bow are stalwarts of any class. They are good completion to seated poses.
Inversions – Even if it is a beginner class, we do some form of inversion (meaning heart higher than the head). It may be hand stand prep, supported shoulder stand, or legs up the wall. Or we may go for headstand, forearm stand, shoulder stand, and handstand.
Twists – We always try to finish with twists and maybe crunched positions like knees to chest. This is what makes our bodies feel accomplished and ready for what life has for us.
Savasana – I come from a traditional and Ashtanga based practice. Since Samadhi is the highest of the 8 limbs, I feel it is the most important. We feel our greatest peace and bliss in corpse pose. The general rule is 1 minute of savasana for each 15 mins of practice. When I’ve taught in fitness gyms, they don’t acknowledge its importance. To some its just a waste of time. Its one reason why I prefer to teach in a yoga studio. Students there have been trained to understand the why.

I’ve been to a lot more classes lately where many of the rules I follow are different. I really love Baptise style yoga, but it seems we miss out on most of the seated postures. A lot of Vinyasa classes do very few seated postures, if at all. I think its how people are trained these days or maybe they don’t come from an Ashtanga background. We also see a lot of repeated sequences and postures. I can understand the reasoning, but it bores me a bit because I know there are so many other poses that we can experience. And I get a little tired of just standing for an hour. But people embrace these classes and it makes me happy for those students. I personally prefer the variety of a complete practice.

My best advice to a new teacher is to find a basic sequence that includes all the required elements. Then you can add and subtract from that sequence. We are taught in speech classes that you don’t want to read a text word for word. You bore the heck out of your audience that way. Instead, speak extemporaneously and maybe have a few key points listed. Write out a few peak poses or area of emphasis. But you don’t need to memorize a sequence or write out an entire list. You have to interact intuitively with a class to know what they need and want. If beginners wander in, you need to meet their needs while also making it challenging for the most advanced student. Give options and make it possible for everyone to practice.

Thai Yoga

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I bought a new book on Thai Yoga and I totally ate it up last night. I’ll give more details later, but I just want to say how excited I am to learn something new. Thai healing goes back 2,500 years and involves several disciplines. Many are somewhat familiar with Thai Yoga Massage, or “Lazy Man’s Yoga”. There is also an Ayurvedic medicine component. But what most aren’t familiar with is actual “Thai Yoga“. It is a self-healing practice based on yoga poses. The level of detail in symptomology is very amazing. In many schools of healing in Asia, human dissections was something that wasn’t done, so familiarity with actual anatomy is not present. However, they have a very intuitive knowledge of energy. There are 10 major sens lines that travel through the body that are key to Thai healing. Actually, there are thousands, but we consolidate for practice. So I’ve begun to learn about this energy and how it is useful to healing.

I am going to start a Thai Yoga practice for myself and to see if it fits with me. As I was reading last night, I was visualizing and mimicking what I could as I sat in my recliner. I don’t know if it is just the power of thought or if I was actually feeling what I was feeling. I actually felt an amazing difference just walking through poses. I am so excited to develop this practice.

I will share more when I know more. Right now, I’m just at the tip of the iceberg. I’m hopeful this will bring healing in my own body. Then I hope to share with others. Maybe it will begin as a class in Thai Yoga. We’ll see!!

Spread Happiness

Have you ever smiled at someone who is not smiling and suddenly their face brightens to return your smile? It really happens. I saw a nice older lady at the grocery store yesterday and when I smiled at her, she just beamed from ear to ear back at me. Happiness is truly contagious.

We talked about the dynamics of a yoga class in teacher training. I had a day in Rocket Yoga not too long ago. I was very tired and sore from my workouts, but I tried to put on my best “teacher face”. But it wasn’t enough to overcome my lack of energy. I don’t know if it was me, the weather, the moon, or whatever, but everyone seemed to feel like I did. I offered a few challenging poses but nobody went for it. They all took a gentler version. We were all in an energy slump.

Then just a few days ago, I taught a Rocket class that was completely the other way. Even before class, I couldn’t get people to quiet down when I read the announcements. Everybody was talking together and giddy with excitement. And to top it off, one of our Ashtanga teachers who just glows with goodness came to class. I think everyone was feeling good, but especially my yoga teacher friend. Her energy and the effort she put into each pose brought everyone else’s levels up too. It got super hot in there with all the energy. It was one of the best classes ever. Again, happiness is contagious.

Unfortunately, you can’t fake happiness. There are people who are truly having hard times. There are people who’s demeanors are naturally depressed and tamasic. Biting words, sarcasm, dark thoughts, and frowing faces are the norm for them. Teacher training talked about these kinds of people. It only takes one person who can spread negativity to an entire class. While yoga teachers aren’t usually therapists, it is helpful to talk with them to make sure they are OK first. But you also have to set an expectation of living in the now. Forget your troubles of the past or agonizing about the future and live for now. Make it a happy now. You can always choose to be happy.

Recent generations have been burdened with feelings of unworthiness, self-loathing, and negativity in their view of the world. They are not comfortable with the color of their skin or the gender to which they were born. They’ve complicated all of life with lots of clutter and chaos. Most of it is completely unnecessary. Most of it is selfishness. When you think of someone truly in need, where water and warm clothes are lacking, they are only focused on what is real. The unecessary frivolities we worry about are obstacles to happiness. When we live in comfort and excess, we have the opportunity for burdensome worries.

My recommendation to them is this, come backpacking with me for a weekend. We’ll hike back a few miles into what is real. All you can have is what you can carry in your pack. You can’t burden it down with unncecessary things or it will drag you down, both physically and metaphorically. If you’ve ever carried a 100 pound pack, you know what I mean. You only take the essentials. You make your own fire to stay warm and cook food. You use a filter to clean your own water. You consider weather and wildlife when setting up your sleeping area. You don’t get cellphones, headphones, or anything that distracts you. All you get to think about are the leaves at your feet and the stars in the sky. You listen to the coyotes in the distance and squirrels rustling in the brush. All that clutter in your mind goes away when you are down to only a few ounces of water. When you are needy, you prioritize what is important to you. Believe me, all this social nonsense goes away. It really isn’t very important in the grand scheme of life.

Simplify life. Seek nature and the little things. Find love. Believe in something greater than you. You don’t always have to be in control. Find a beautiful animal that will always love you back. Go to the park and watch the kids run barefoot. You can choose to be happy. You don’t have to wallow in negativity and despair. And if you don’t know how, I’m always here to help you. Someone can help. Its not hard to do.

Find ways to not Overthink!

When I teach rocket yoga, there is a part where you do boat pose, Navasana, and then I say “cross your legs and roll up to a handstand….don’t think about it; just do it!”

Think of yourself standing at the edge of a tall cliff that overlooks a deep pool of water. You stand there watching others for hours as they gleefully jump into the water. Then you finally muster the courage to try it yourself. You stand on the edge and look down. You are afraid, but you aren’t even sure what you are afraid of. Multiple times you toe the line only to talk yourself out of it. You see some kids walking up the path and one guy just tears off his shirt and jumps in. He didn’t even think about it, he just did it.

I’m a type-A planner type of person. In fact, I love the act of planning. I love to overthink things a lot. Its my job as a scientist to overthink things. I analyze and evaluate efficiencies. I consider the work flow that creates the most productivity in a short amount of time. Its how my brain is wired to think. So creating a workout plan is something that I love to do. I’m thinking about body parts and energy systems. I’m thinking about progressions to a peak maneuver or building strength to a one-rep max! Its what I do. But every once in a while, I want to turn that part of me off. I just want to hear someone say, do this, and then I do it. Instead of doing my own personal yoga practice, sometimes I just want to go to a class and do what they tell me to do. Maybe it doesn’t always feel good in my body, but it makes me experience something different. It allows me to “feel” and just “be”.

I had a back injury recently and was doing bodybuilding to recover without putting powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting loads on my back. I actually heard a podcast this morning of the strongest pound per pound powerlifter in the world. She spoke about how years of bodybuilding, building muscle mass and tendons, and doing antagonistic work of push-pull muscles. She mentioned how bodybuilding creates balance and doesn’t have weaknesses. So when she turned to the strength performance realm of powerlifting, she had the mass and the machinery to do the job. So I was doing bodybuilding for several weeks until my back could handle a load again. But instead of transitioning into my same old workouts, I turned back to CrossFit. Not just CrossFit, but the Main Site daily workouts.

What is so nice about doing the CrossFit.com WOD (workout of the day) is that you don’t get to choose the workout, it chooses you. I absolutely scale it as much as I need for that day. Sometimes, I may only do 60% of the prescribed workout. But I still do the workout every day! It is 3 days on and 1 day off. And I do it around my yoga teaching. It looks like:

  • Mon – Teach yoga (rest day or active rest with light cardio)
  • Tue – CrossFit day 1 (I pick the last day one of the 3-day sequence)
  • Wed – CrossFit day 2
  • Thu – CrossFit day 3
  • Fri – active rest or go to a yoga class
  • Sat – Teach yoga at Noon – Then do CrossFit day 1 (the last one published)
  • Sun – a.m. CrossFit Day 2; p.m. CrossFit Day 3

It has really worked out nicely. And since I scale as needed, I haven’t been wiped out. I am only mildly sore most days. On my Day 3, I have been doing calf raises (from research I read on eccentric contraction improving mobility). I also do any other bodyparts that I feel I missed in the past 3 days. If I feel super motivated, I may do Olympic weightlifting along with the workout of the day.

Its fun to plan and deload and cycle through a progression that you’ve designed. But its also nice to take a break and let someone else decide the workouts too. Then you just get down to it and get work done. You don’t think about it, you just do it!

Sculpting Your Body

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A calorie is a measure in thermodynamics of the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water through 1 °C, equal to one thousand small calories (kilocalorie) and often used to measure the energy value of foods. We burn these units of energy in our body by breaking the chemical bonds between molecules and converting them into usable forms. The resulting energy expenditure often produces heat as a by-product.

I’ve been dieting for a little while to get my weight down. I’m not really out of shape, but I know that a lower weight will allow me to function better in yoga teaching and other endeavors. And, I also know I’ll be in a better place to stave off diabetes and heart disease if I am at a lower weight.

I was just thinking the other day as I was watching the show Naked and Afraid. The couple that was on the show was in very good shape. I would have to commend their preparation for the show. However, for a survival challenge, it doesn’t help one bit to be anywhere below 10-15% bodyfat for a man or 20-25% for a woman. The “reserve” energy that is in fat is useful when surviving on very little food, hot day-time temperatures, and cold (for naked) night-time temperatures. If anything, I’d be cramming down the calories in preparation to give myself some reserve energy.

In the reverse situation, if a person who is very fit and active happens to have an injury or long-term illness, the transition to a sedentary life could result in unwanted weight gain. So the better starting point for this situation would be to have a lot of muscle and very low bodyfat. Then they have the potential to recover more quickly and get back to their functional body composition.

The problem I see is when we age. What should our body composition be as we get into our later years? And it may not even be as old as you think. Many active men can eat what they want into their 20’s, but by their 30’s, their metabolism slows down and they tend to gain weight. Women follow the same pattern, but it is accelerated if they go through pregnancy. Regardless, you want to set yourself up for success as you go into the next age.

Where a car’s engine is what burns the fuel that we put into the gas tank, so are the muscles to the human body. The more muscles we have, the faster we burn. On average, men have more muscle mass than women and tend to lose weight faster. However, a man who is without much muscle mass will suffer the same inability to lose weight. So the first step is to build muscle. And I’m not only talking about skeletal muscle. Your heart is a muscle too and it needs to get stronger as well. A stronger pump and stronger engine leads to a better ability to burn fuel. And this is entirely true for women too. Muscle-to-weight ratio is a relative game.

The uphill climb is testosterone and other growth factors. Both men and women have them, and they decline in both as we age. So as we get older, weaker, and vigor declines, reacting to conditions becomes much more difficult. That’s why we have to set ourselves up for success earlier in life. The earlier the better. It is much easier to maintain a functional weight than to try to fix the problem at a later date.

Here are a few steps to success:

  1. Build muscle first. Eat to perform. You can’t work out and build muscle if you are restricting your diet. Work on getting stronger first. And work your heart as well. Make the strongest engine you can before proceeding. Make strength goals for yourself.
  2. Burn your engine. Once you reach your strength goals and heart stamina, then start to burn more fuel than you take in. When you are in calorie deficit, you’ll start to lose weight (if the goal is weight loss). But don’t go so much into deficit that you can’t perform.
  3. Maintain your ideal weight. At first, this may mean tracking calorie intake and expenditure (I use the Fat Secret app). If you learn to hold your weight, then you’ll be in a better position to react to changes. This is key to longevity. It gets more difficult every year of life. So get there now and stay there.

Note: I am very against BMI (body mass index). For sedentary people, the BMI may be useful. But for anybody who lives an active life, the BMI goes out the window. This is especially true if you carry any appreciable amount of muscle mass. Muscle is much more dense and heavy than fat. So for a given height, the weight classification is erroneous. Most bodybuilders and strength athletes are considered obese or morbidly obese by BMI standards. Likewise, endurance athletes would be considered underweight by BMI standards. Whereas both groups are very healthy. A better measure is bodyfat percentage. You can get tested hydrostatically (most accurate) or there are fancy bioimpedance weight scales that gives you a rough estimate. Generally, men are considered very athletic if they fall somewhere at or below 10% bodyfat and women about 18%. To survive in most scenarios, it is best to not go too far below these standards for best health.

 

 

Make the Shapes

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When we get to a certain point in Rocket Yoga where we attempt Eka Pada Bakasana (one-legged crow pose), I give specific instructions. I tell them to place their front foot on the ground with the knee up. Place the knee on the same side upper arm. Plant your hands and start to raise your back leg straight off the ground. That’s the shape!! We don’t need to go further. But maybe, just maybe, we can begin to pull the front toes off the ground and balance fully on our hands.

To be honest, only a select few can do the pose in my classes. And even for those who CAN usually don’t hold it for the full 3 breaths. But none of that matters. What matters is making the shape. Then, the intention for the pose is fulfilled. You still engage the same muscles whether you are in the full variation or not.

Side note: One pet peeve of mine is when people call some other pose a boat pose (Navasana). You have to ask yourself, what is the intention of the pose? If I’m not mistaken, its to develop uddiyana bandha and the muscles of the psoas and frontal torso. Oh, and a side peeve, I don’t agree that yoga = fitness, so I don’t call it “core”. This isn’t a body pump class. The other poses that people call Navasana are Ubhaya Padanghustasana, Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana, and Upavistha Kapotasana B. They are not intended to be boat pose. If they are not strong enough for the full, straight-legged variation, then have them bend their knees. They may even lightly rest or hover their toes off the floor. Regardless, their anterior chain is engaged and working. You disengage if you grab toes or legs.

I just saw a picture of someone doing triangle pose (Trikonasana). Only the student had her front leg very bent. The intent of the pose is to lengthen hamstrings, glutes, and side body. So if the leg is bent, it is not meeting the intention of the pose. The adjustment I would make is to bring the student back up. Then take a block with their front hand from the long end; straighten both legs and make them straight and strong (straight meaning not hyperextending); hinge forward at the hip with legs straight; then place the block on either side of the leg directly beneath their shoulder onto the floor. The student doesn’t meet the intention if they don’t do this correctly.

When making adjustments as teachers, it is imperative that we know the intention for every pose. And it may not be the pose at all. You may be focused on a drishti or chakra or body part. Whatever it is, meet the intention. Always ask yourself “why” you are doing a pose. If a yogi cannot do the full expression of a pose, then modify to meet the intention. Usually it means making the same shape even if they are not flying or binding or whatever it is. Every BODY can do every pose.