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)

Yoga Teacher Education & Experience

The E-RYT is a designation under Yoga Alliance for Registered Yoga Teachers to give Educational credit to others for various training. It is a nice credential since it can be attractive for workshops and courses where credit can be given to teachers who want to gather education credits. It also alludes to the fact that this is a teacher with a good number of hours of teaching under their belt with worthwhile experiences to share to others.

On the other hand, some credentials just represent a badge that means you had a course or class or training, but haven’t really experienced much. In the Army, enlisted (non-commissioned officers) rip on 2nd Lieutenants (commissioned officers) who have Airborne jump wings on their chests. It means they went to a 2 week course and did their 5 parachute jumps and that’s it. It is an elective course in ROTC and OCS as part of their training. And I think it is a good thing to do and a worthy accomplishment. But it doesn’t mean they’ve spent time in an elite unit like the 82nd Airborne Division where they not only jump, but conduct missions upon deployment. And they definitely haven’t jumped into a real battlefield situation, which is an even more rare occurrence even for those who serve in Airborne units. I’ve had numerous courses in so many things. I am certified to teach Olympic Weightlifting through CrossFit. But to be honest, since then my style has completely changed and I would only teach half of what I learned there. In some ways, that credential has gone out the window. I am certified in Gymnastics Movement, but I was never a gymnast nor would I pretend to claim any expertise. Sometimes you have to weigh training and time on the mat with what you’ve actually experienced.

But what I have done is an accumulation of life events over my many years that adds to a wealth of knowledge. When I was a kid, there weren’t personal home computers. We found our information by doing. We experimented. We read magazines and watched what other people did. We did sports. I wrestled in high school along with any other sport I could do. But mostly I lifted weights and ran. I started running 10K races in the 2nd grade. I learned to stretch and to strengthen my body. Since then, I’ve been an Army Drill Instructor, certified Sports Diver, became a scientist having studied kinesiology, anatomy, and physiology, was deep into Ultra Marathon running (which is a science unto itself), long-distance backpacking & kayaking, and numerous martial arts. Human movement is something that I know a lot about. As a scientist, I study efficiency and productivity. We all have many experiences whether child birth, dealing with pain and disease, and life in general. All of this contributes to our personal bag of tricks.

In Sanskrit, the word is Santosha. It means contentment. I am very happy with where I am right now. I am focused on teaching Rocket (Ashtanga) Yoga and continue to develop my expertise. I came to realize the other night, there will be a time when I can’t demonstrate the poses anymore. If you look at Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga) and BKS Iyengar, many of these greats taught late in life even though they didn’t participate fully in classes. Football coaches were once players themselves, but they effectively teach and lead teams to victory without putting on the pads. The same is true of Yoga. We find ways to demonstrate and use talented pupils to show how its done. In my mind, I can see the energy of how bodies should move. I can see where we can eek a few more millimeters of length. I can efficiently adjust a body because of training in human anatomy. We are sometimes taught “Only Teach what you Practice”. I see the value in this, but I totally disagree. If you look at Béla Károlyi who coached numerous Olympians to Gold in gymnastics. He never did balance beam or uneven bars, yet he taught so many athletes. He never practiced what he teaches. But he has a thorough knowledge of what it takes to be successful.

Since I started traditional yoga late in life and became a teacher 4 years ago, I am only a little over half way to the 1,000 hours of teaching required for the E-RYT. But I am not at all disheartened. I feel Santosha. I teach on the side with only a few hours a week. But I don’t ever take any class for granted since I only get to teach infrequently. I know teachers who become completely burned out of teaching yoga. They did intense trainings abroad and went to all the conferences. They LIVED yoga full time and then just walked away. It is quite possible that there can be too much of a good thing. It is like my feelings about immersive teacher training. Yes, you can do it all in a month of intense training. I liken it to deep REM sleep. It is in deep sleep when, not only our bodies grow and recover, but our minds as well. We organize, categorize, and analyze our thoughts when we sleep. That is why people with PTSD, anxiety, and others who lack quality sleep fall down a very slippery slope. Things that should be inconsequential begin to seem astronomically important. I find the same with teacher training. We need time to process and live out what we learn. If you hear something in training, then you can evaluate how other teachers are doing it. It comes down to experience. I know that I can teach others from a standpoint of experience. I can totally relate to almost any situation since I’ve actually been there. It is the value in living a long life.

There are reports of teenagers teaching yoga. I’m all for this endeavor and the idea of starting anything at an early age. However, what they lack is life experience. They can’t possibly understand a 40 or 50 year old body. They can’t possibly realize what effects pregnancy has. They don’t know what its like to be a powerlifter who now sees merit in muscle length for their quality of life. Nobody who teaches yoga can close their minds to all that is around us. We can’t only focus on one style and expect to fill our basket with knowledge. We need to experience and feel what our students feel. Maybe go for a run and understand what it feels like the day after. Do a CrossFit workout with heavy weight and know what its like to have a week of soreness. Spend a day with your grandparents or go to a retirement home and realize what it means to have limitations on movement. Then you can accurately define yoga from a pool of compassion and empathy. Experience yoga!

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Yoga Words

If you are a school teacher or remember being students yourselves, think back to writing essays for a class. Sometimes, you pull out a thesaurus and try to find a flowery, pretentious, over-the-top word for something simple. You use alliterations that attempt to make mountains out of molehills. If you say something too simple or direct, then you think people will think less of you.

As a yoga teacher, we try to communicate as best we can so a student can flow through class without confusion. However, there are times when that elementary school essay comes into play. We use imagery and allegory to a fault. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for these things. In meditation, it helps to guide the mind to a happy place. But for most of yoga, keeping simple cues and direct commands are so much more effective.

A pet peeve of mine that I am guilty of myself is the word “don’t”. Don’t turn your toes out; don’t rotate your shoulders inward; don’t look from side to side in shoulder stand. Instead, we should use  more positive, affirmative statements. Like, “Be sure to keep your head stable in shoulder stand”. Instead of “don’t let your arms sag in Warrior II”, say “engage your arms and feel energy through your fingertips”. OK, maybe that last part was a little flowery. But that’s ok, right?

Another key thing is either the student saying they are “tight”, like “I have tight hamstrings”, or, even worse, when a teacher says that about a student. Think of a marathon runner who is most efficient in a shorter range of motion. Think of a powerlifter who squats 800 pounds with thighs parallel to the floor. Yes, they may actually be tight in those muscles. But what they really are is very strong in those positions. So a more correct and positive statement is “you have strong hips”. Or, “if you have very strong hamstrings, it is OK to bend your knees”. We don’t have to denigrate shorter ranges of motion; instead we can celebrate their strength!

There is a time and a place for gushing words and phrases. But for the most part, we can do without them. There may be times and places where your words are totally accepted. But for a general vinyasa yoga class, it may be better to find more neutral words with direct meanings. Imagine you are at Fort Benning, the home of the Infantry, teaching a yoga class. Or maybe you are asked to teach a yoga class to weightlifters at the Olympic Training Center. Think of how your words come across. Do you sound like some fruity nut job or do you sound like a professional yoga teacher? Don’t be the stereotype. Be the teacher.

Lastly, as I just related, always know your audience. Make your words, intensity, and demeanor reflect the goal of the class. Give more energy to a Power class and be more soothing in a Restorative Yin class. If you teach to specialty groups, be aware of where your words may lead. If you are teaching at a women’s help center for those who have experienced trauma, make sure your words don’t exacerbate their feelings. Make it safe for them. Many of our ancient texts are written completely about battle scenes, hence Warrior poses and the like. While it is often appropriate to embrace this spirit in classes, be aware of when it should be refrained.

ADDENDUM: Since we are talking about communication with words, we can relay this to body language. When I was in Army Drill Instructor School, we were taught how to come across as strong leaders. You point with a full arm extension with fingers extended and closed. It looks weaker to point with a bent arm and a single finger. Stand with good posture without slouching. Demonstrate correct form, not modifications or dance interpretations of a pose. I know it looks good to point toes for aesthetics, but a flexed foot is usually the correct anatomical position. And drishti always counts. Always demonstrate and instruct where they should focus. Drishti changes where the energy should be focused and guides the pose. This is all a part of good communication and should be combined with positive, direct, simple verbal commands.

Ooops, I’m in the Wrong Class

Once upon a time, I was sitting in a University class and the professor walks in. He is known to be a stern teacher and not all that personable. He doesn’t even acknowledge us and starts writing on the board what appears to be very basic chemistry. He is writing about molarity and Avagadro’s number. The problem is, everyone in the class had signed up for something a lot more complex. Someone finally spoke up and asked, “Isn’t this supposed to by Physical Chemistry?” For those in the know, its likely the most difficult class you can take in the sciences. He kind of scoffed and looked angrily at us and began wiping off the board. Next thing you know, up go the differential equations and formulas for understanding the geometrics of a water molecule.

Kind of a different slant on this is when a beginner yogi walks into my Rocket Yoga classes. It happens almost once a week. The information sheet and website describe the classes, but I don’t think people usually read the descriptions. I mean, yoga is yoga right? [Wrong!] The description says that Rocket is a mish-mash of Ashtanga from all 6 series. And to the right column says it is “High Intensity”. So you think people would ask around.

We start out with 5 sun saluation A’s and 4-5 sun B’s. Chair pose and wide leg forward folds. Once we get into splits, they are already fully invested in the class. But then we start into much more difficult poses not to mention throwing in some forearm stands and handstands.

Now is when they say “What have I done?!!!”

But its too late to back out now. I can tell by even the most basic poses that they’ve never had an Ashtanga class. Even more accomplished yogis who are strong and flexible who haven’t been taught the style of Ashtanga show their different experiences. Its not wrong, its just not how we do it in Ashtanga.

And you know what? All of this is OK. They didn’t stumble into the wrong class. I tell everyone, do what you can do. If you need child’s pose, then by all means take it whenever you want. If you want to sit and watch when arm balances come up, go ahead. But please try if you can. I tell them to keep coming back. Maybe take some Ashtanga and other more intense classes to build strength and breath. Anyone can try Rocket and is welcome to come. I try my best to speak to every new face I see after class. Most often they don’t come back, but I’m hopeful they will try again. That’s all we can do is try our best.

Why carry jumper cables?

jumper cables

I carry jumper cables in my truck hoping I never have to use them. I try to keep up on auto maintenance, but sometimes stuff just happens. The same is true with my spare tire. I check it hoping I never need it. I carry a fire extinguisher in all my vehicles. I hope to never need it. You could say that about anything in life.

I have family and friends who have a different attitude about safety and worst case scenarios. The worst thing ever is our dependence on cell phones. It is the safety net that leads many to peril. I know people who never learn to change a car tire because they know they can always call someone to help. But cell service isn’t always there. Sometimes, help may not come for a long time. Meanwhile, you are stranded in unknown territory helpless to survive. I mean, if you don’t do it for yourself, do it for the child strapped in the back seat. Do it for the loved ones who care for you? I just heard of someone who’s husband died of a heart attack. I can’t blame the wife, but she dialed 911 and was unable to perform CPR. People don’t learn the simple Heimlich maneuver to reduce a choking hazard. I don’t get it. Why not learn tools of survival? Why would you just allow yourself or a loved one to die without your help?

When you go boating, you take a life preserver. In most cases, its the law to carry one for each passenger. You say to yourself “it will never happen to me”. But what happens when that time comes?

I personally believe in protecting myself with a firearm. The worst feeling ever would be hiding under a desk just hoping he doesn’t find you. And what if you are there with a loved one and you are helpless to do anything to save them? If you don’t do it for yourself, then do it for them. Criminals are stupid cowards. They travel in the path of least resistance. If they know sheep will cower in the corner and not fight back, they will continue to prey on the weak. Don’t be the weak one. Don’t be the bubble-wrapped person who thinks it will never happen to you. Don’t be in that place where you are helpless.

When you reach and you feel the life preserver with your hands, at least you know you have a fighting chance. You can live at peace with this knowledge.

CrossFit Isn’t Unique

So if you do a workout that combines several exercises done at maximum effort, is that unique to CrossFit? Certainly not! It doesn’t make CrossFit special in the least.

When I wrestled in high school, it was very common to run sprint intervals doing pushups and sit-ups in between. We often ran a minute of loops on the mats and then pop out calisthenics or wrestling moves in between. We often did a hard set of burpees and then carried someone back and forth across the room. This exercise has been done for thousands of years (since wrestling is the oldest sport).

Then I entered the Army. Talk about high-intensity interval training. Run around the pit, do flutter kicks, run around the pit, do pushups, run around the pit… We did max pull-ups, max pushups, max sit-ups…as many as we could in 2 mins for each exercise. Yeah, CrossFit does that too. But this has been done for a couple hundred years. We run obstacle courses, do long marches with weight on our backs, and lots of intervals that shock your system. Talk to Navy Seals, Force Recon, Special Forces, Rangers, SAS, Spetsnaz,…they do it too. Nothing special.

So if its nothing special, then why do so many naysayers complain about it? I don’t have a clue. The ego does wonders to the human psyche.

Most of it is jealousy. People are like, why don’t I get filmed on ESPN or CBS Sports for doing supersets of back and chest workouts? Why don’t I make money off of bench pressing over twice my bodyweight? Its the haves and have nots. So classic.

Yet you don’t have to be a Green Beret or professional athlete to do this exercise. Anybody can do it. You don’t have to do what CrossFit.com freely publishes. You can do something similar. You don’t have to do the prescribed 225 pound deadlifts, you can lift a sack of potatoes instead. There is no excuse why you can’t do CrossFit. If you want to learn a specific skill, there is always someone who is able and willing to help. If you want to learn to Powerlift better, find that person. Olympic weightlifting, strongman, gymnastics, distance running, yoga, …find someone! There aren’t any excuses. And if you hate CrossFit, don’t call it that then. Just mimic what they do and call it something else. There is no need to hate anyone. We have enough hate in this world.

We Experience what we Know

Have you ever seen a toddler hurt himself? He looks up at you not knowing what his real feelings should be. It takes the response of a parent or those around him to realize what he should feel. They train him at that moment to be weak or to be strong.

When I would fall down or get injured, my Dad was the type who would say, “you’re ok, get up and rub it out.” He wasn’t being callous or cruel. It was just his way of making me think of something in a different way. If I didn’t have a broken arm, then why cry about it?

Throughout society today, I see intense coddling that leads to a lot of perpetuation of a lack of mental toughness. Your mind is extremely powerful at handling pain and emotions. What I see today is, when the child falls down, the Mom runs over and coos and panders. Even if it wasn’t anything serious at all, the child ends up crying hysterically like he was mortally wounded. Instead of thinking, “no big deal”, he is conditioned to think “everything is a big deal”.

Mountain out of a molehill

I completely admire the realm of psychology. I’m a scientist and I like aspects of human emotion and pain responses. But I also believe that, once we define something, we tend to self-diagnose what we have as that definition. For instance, someone is starting to have a feeling of indigestion, acid reflux, and pain in specific parts of the abdomen. So he jumps on WebMD and self diagnoses himself as having kidney failure. In reality, he goes to the doctor and it turns out it was the acid in the orange he just ate that makes his tummy upset. Next time, he diagnoses himself with attention deficit disorder and bipolar disease. You wonder if he had never heard of these things, he wouldn’t even think to consider such maladies.

If you ever watch the movie Platoon, a soldier is badly injured in an enemy ambush. He is screaming and writhing in pain when the Platoon Sergeant walks over and presses on his mouth telling him to “eat the pain”. While the terror in the soldier’s eyes remain the same, a calm comes over him and he is quiet. There are stories where a person is amputated in a car accident and they don’t even realize what happened. Sure, shock does terrible things to us. But it all happens to relate to how our brain responds to pain.

I’m certain that none of us wants to see a loved one hurt, especially a child. But maybe our first response is to not make a huge deal out of minor boo-boo’s. Maybe I need to feel sub-zero temperatures while waiting for the school bus. Maybe I need to know how it feels to not eat for a day. Maybe I need to run a half-marathon in the heat and learn to overcome what I’m feeling. When I wrestled in high school, I wore a t-shirt that said “mat burns builds character”. I didn’t let an opponent know that I was ever in pain. I had to be strong in mind and body to battle someone who is my equal. You can’t go into battle showing weakness. When I was an Army Drill Instructor, I had soldiers standing at the position of attention for an hour without flinching when 100F heat bore down on them or blinding rain swept across their face. Soldiers learn to embrace the suck. CrossFit athletes learn to keep going when the average person would collapse. Its all about how we face adversity.

Coddling leads to “triggering” responses. Now colleges have therapy dogs, quiet rooms, and other consolation for even the most minor offenses. These are 18 & 19 year olds who are supposed to be learning how to face society. Yet, other men and women of the same age are out on the front lines in battle. Its all about how we are conditioned to rise above oppression. Do we cower and cry, or do we fight and prevail?

Condition yourself and those around you to have pride for yourself. Learn that life isn’t always perfect. Learn that we don’t have to respond to every attack. Learn to have a tougher shell so you can just keep walking when the dust storm kicks up to full force.

Physical toughness leads to mental strength. Mental strength means you can’t be defeated.

My Love/Hate with Ashtanga

“Hate” is not very Ahimsa, so maybe I’ll say I have problems with the system.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Ashtanga. I’m the guy with his nose buried in the books trying to figure this thing out. I’m studying testimonials of students of Pattabhi Jois. I have the documentary video “Ashtanga NY” that I watch numerous times just to get a glimpse of Guruji. I’m watching Advanced A & B practice on YouTube with Guruji in his blue polyester shorts calling out the counts. I had a 6-day a week practice knowing that if I work hard, all will come to me. I’m fascinated by it all.

When I walk into a Rocket Yoga class, I know its going to be difficult. I know I’m going to be drenched in sweat. But I also know I’ll laugh, listen to jams, and celebrate tiny victories with my fellow yogis. It isn’t so seriously cultish that people either submit or are ushered away with their tails between their legs. In Rocket, I know there will always be something I can do better. But I always feel like that some day will come. And maybe that pose never clicks, but at least there are hundreds of other poses I still can call my own. There is always hope and positive vibes.

When I first started yoga, I was a CrossFit guy, ultra-marathoner, powerlifter. I never did things halfway. I jumped in head first. So if I went to a yoga class, I wanted the hardest it could give (at least that’s how I thought). I see this in beginners today. The Body Pump Gym Class has invaded our yoga studios with the mentality of go hard or go home! When my teacher first came in, she was stern and very disciplined. The Army DI in me understood this well. So that’s what I gravitated toward. Funny thing, this teacher also learned Rocket early on. When I finally took Rocket with her, I was like “oh, Ashtanga in a fun way!” Yeah that’s what I want!

I haven’t done the Primary series, whether Led or Mysore style, in more than a year. The last time I went, as a yoga teacher and regular practitioner of yoga, I felt belittled in class. My first teacher told me, when you go to Mysore with a new teacher, you have to turn the other cheek and take whatever that teacher is teaching. I guess I wasn’t willing to turn my cheek this time. The assumption was that I was clueless about yoga, that I didn’t practice enough on my own, and that I didn’t understand anatomy. Heck, I’ve done cadaver dissections in human gross anatomy, along with all the prerequisite classes I had to take to get there. I studied human movement in Kinesiology classes. I worked out with weights for 40 years. I know something about the human body. I didn’t have the time or where-with-all to explain all this to the teacher. Even worse, when some of my young Rocket yogis go to Ashtanga, they are treated the same way. Its no fun when your exploration of a pose is laughed at. No fun at all!

The go hard or go home mentality left me years ago since I learned what yoga really is. As my practice is honed, I realize the need for ahimsa and santosha, non-judgment and contentment. I realize Asana practice is only the 3rd limb of 8 limbs. And if we only focus on Asana and not develop a yogi’s full character, then it isn’t embracing ALL of yoga. This is where I depart from Mysore Ashtanga. I no longer feel freedom and enjoyment in an Ashtanga practice. It takes me back to a beginner’s mentality where the only thing important is forcing yourself into a mold in the most intense way possible.

As we market yoga to generations of students, I believe that we stay true to our roots and try our best to teach yoga that holds to the tradition and practice that has held for thousands of years. However, we can do this in a way that is also accommodating to where they are right now. We need to make it accessible and “fun”. It needs to produce results in minds and bodies. Words that should never enter into yoga are “prohibitive”, “restrictive”, “unattainable”. When we teach a general vinyasa class, when we get to Downward Facing Dog and you can’t put your heels down with a flat back, we don’t say “go sit in a corner and wait until the end when you can join us again”. That isn’t helpful to any student of yoga.

People don’t know yoga. People don’t know CrossFit. They think people are just showing off and out to hurt themselves. This is far from the truth. Both yoga and CrossFit are infinitely scale-able. If we prescribe a workout, we make sure everybody can do it no matter their limitations. And we make sure everyone is fully satisfied and encouraged in the end. That is what CrossFit is to me. And that is what Rocket Yoga is. Everyone is welcome to play. We laugh, we play music, we have fun…and we grow!