Category Archives: yoga

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.

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.

The Yoga Teacher’s Touch

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There are many people who are fine with doing yoga at home. Maybe its the schedule, price, or location of a local yoga studio that makes yoga inaccessible. But for those who can, having a registered teacher trained to adjust postures with a critical eye toward safety and improving your practice makes it invaluable in a class setting. When I take pictures of myself doing yoga, I can see where my shoulders are internally rotated or my alignment is off. A teacher can do things for you that you can’t see yourself. But there is so much more beyond that touch. It separates a yoga teacher in a studio from a mere fitness class or online instruction.

I’ve said this many times, but in old school India back in the beginnings of modern yoga, there weren’t dissections of anatomy, no skeletons as models; diagrams of muscles, tendons, and ligaments weren’t a part of the training. The founder of Ashtanga yoga, Pattabhi Jois, and other teachers would adjust yogis based on energy. They could see the flow of the body and have a feeling for adjustments based on each individual’s body. It takes years of experience to know exactly what touch is needed to make a beneficial adjustment. Improper adjustments or not being aware of limitations can lead to injury. I’ve been injured myself by yoga adjustments. It can be a thin line between being helpful and pushing too far.

But beyond alignment and posture itself, there is much more to a teacher’s touch. Sure, a good teacher can use verbal cues and not touch at all. In hot yoga, I’m the sweatiest person in class, and it made me self-conscious to make adjustments. I know I’ve even dripped on people and their mats. But we’re all hot & sweaty so most aren’t bothered at all by mutual grossness. Yoga  touch goes beyond moving bodies. Sometimes, it is assurance. It is comfort. I can go and touch a person doing  a seated forward fold and I immediately notice a change in their breath. They might tense for a second, then with an exhale fully lengthen into the pose. Sometimes I touch a knee in a warrior pose and it immediately moves and responds. I have very qualified teachers in my classes who I touch because they don’t get touched often in classes. It feels good that a teacher is aware of you and is there for you. It isn’t always a correction. Sometimes it is love and respect. Usually it is both.

Yoga is often viewed as self-therapy. But the interaction with a teacher and even fellow yogis makes it more of an experience. Savor the times when you get to touch and breathe with your teacher. It makes for a much deeper experience.

Bunch of Cheaters!

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There are a lot of anti-“insert name” people out there who don’t like anything the other side does. When you come from a place where you don’t know how the other half lives, you end up with a very narrow perspective in life.

Many of us were raised in an era where there wasn’t internet or YouTube. All we had were books and magazines. They were called “Muscle & Fitness”, “Flex”, and other descriptive names. They were our Bibles for learning our sports. In bodybuilding, we learned how to do everything strictly. You didn’t cheat your muscles by swinging a dumbbell up with your curls. You wanted continuous tension on the muscle.

Then you had powerlifting, which was often a big part of the bodybuilding discussion. You lowered the bar strictly to your chest in a bench press. You don’t bounce it off your chest or do partial reps. You needed full extension for it to count.

But these know-it-alls who spent all this time with their noses buried in the magazines often weren’t proficient in other sports. And if they didn’t know what they were talking about, they mocked and ridiculed other sports. They still do.

Take Olympic weightlifting for example. It is in compete juxtaposition to powerlifting and bodybuilding (neither of which are Olympic sports). The goal is not to get big muscles or to do an isolated movement in a single range of motion. Actually, there aren’t a lot of rules at all, even though most know that they are technically much more difficult movements. In both the snatch and clean & jerk, the goal is to take the bar from ground to overhead in full extension without pressing it out. That’s about it. Yeah, you can’t touch your knees to elbows or touch a body part to the ground other than your feet. But that’s it. Simple eh?

The truth is, most of these know-it-alls would say that it is a sport for Cheaters! And yes, it is 100% cheating. You use a hook grip, which is a cheat where you wrap your thumb along the bar and wrap your other fingers around. You pull the bar up only as high as it needs to be before pulling your body under. And guess what, they bounce (or oscillate) out of the squat to get to standing. Cheating? Absolutely! But that’s not the end of it. Then you bounce the weight on your shoulders before split squatting under it to get to full extension (the Dip & Drive). Its completely cheating. And this is what the average muscle head thinks when they write comments on YouTube. Yeah, they’re all the experts, haha!!

In other circles, we call it performance. The controversy when the Fosbury Flop first happened in the high jump. Total cheating. When you find ways to reach new heights, sometimes you have to cheat (aka, find better ways to move your body in space).

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In gymnastics, you soon learn how to kip to get above the bar. Its a skill little girls learn early on in their careers. Is it cheating? Yes, it is. But it gets you to where you need to be. Kipping is actually a thang. No, some crazy CrossFit’r didn’t invent it to make the masses of Planet Fitness gurus angry at them. But its the first thing you see in the comments. “That’s not a pull-up”. “They only do that because they are too weak to do a real pull-up”. “You’re turning off the activation in your lats. You’d get much more out of a strict pull-up”. Haha, so they say in the comments.

Yeah, you could do an Olympic clean & jerk strictly. It would look like this:

  1. Slowly deadlift the bar off the ground.
  2. Strictly curl the weight to your shoulders without any excess movement.
  3. Military press to full extension locking it out overhead with no knee bend.

But I guarantee they wouldn’t be lifting 233 kg like Ilya does (512 pounds for the know-it-alls). Instead of a brute force event, it turns into an art of speed and power. It becomes a study in kinesiology (body physics). It adds elastic and kinetic energy instead of just raw strength.

People who bash things like butterfly kipping pullups really aren’t aware of the goal. The goal is performance. If someone says, without any other assistance, hang at full extension and take your chin over the bar as many times as you can in two minutes, does it matter how you do it? The goal is to do it. So you do it as intellectually efficient as you possibly can. Its not done to make the YouTube know-it-all commenter happy. Performance is different from other aspects of sport and fitness.

Yes, you could keep your feet still and throw a discus. But you’re not going to throw it far. If your goal is to be stupid, then do that. I’d rather see Al Oerter spin his way to win an Olympic gold instead.

There is a place for momentum, speed, kinetics, and other cheating to get performance! And cheating is life. A strongman lifts an Atlas stone exactly how a mom would heave a bag of potatoes to a shelf. You’re not looking at strict movement in life. You do what is necessary to get the job done.

The Eyes of an Artist: Yoga Teaching

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You can read books on yoga, study pictures, read articles, and go to the ancient texts as much as you want, but hands-on instruction of students is where I learn the most.

I had a few ideas going into subbing Yoga for Beginners class last night, but I was mostly an open book. I started with gentle warming and I began to talk the class through Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A). We explored every pose and talked about modifications for each. But mostly, I was emphasizing external rotation of the shoulders and internal rotation of the thighs. In every pose, I showed them how this was important.

To be honest, they started out like beginners. But they are SO smart! I would show them how a pose should look, and I’d also show them what happens when it falls apart. I’m sure they could see how awkward it looks when a body in not aligned properly. I wasn’t absolutely sure my ideas were sinking in since its a lot to remember. But then something amazing happened.

Once we got to seated poses, like one- and two-legged forward folds, I could see them applying the concepts without me even telling them. Well, I still told them. But they used the basic body alignments to find their own paths. Once we know how to walk, then we can learn how to run.

In anything you teach, you try to find the most effective ways to get your points across. I’m finding my way and it gets so much easier. Its a never ending journey, not just as a yogi myself, but as a teacher. There isn’t enough psychology, physiology, anatomy, history, spirituality, ….. and other know how that you can ever fully grasp.

I saw some work with acrylic paint that was layered in beautiful colors in a shallow tray. It was beautiful and complicated just how it was. Then, they started drawing through with tool making the colors change and shape into something even more marvelous. You can’t explain how that picture develops, but it continues to evolve into a spectacular amalgamation of color. That is how yoga teaching is. You can’t hardly define what will come next. Every person that you touch is different. They are all so unique. You can’t predict their reactions. You don’t know their heartaches and injuries. The colors of your interaction meld together and are beautiful regardless of the outcome.