Category Archives: teacher training

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t say “Don’t”

In yoga teaching, it is more positive to not use negative words. I often see in writing and sometimes hear the word “Don’t” being used. It is more affirming to use and instruct with positive words and phrases.

I was listening to a Barbell Shrugged podcast, which is what incites many of my thoughts lately. They were talking about more effective coaching. Olympic weightlifting can be very complex to teach. The human brain can only handle so many cues and make them effectively express in the body. So instead of saying 5 or 10 things at once, they encouraged coaches to focus on 1 or 2 cues and let the athlete work on those things specifically. What was also encouraged was to be direct with what you say. Instead of saying “don’t straighten your hips in the second position and don’t allow the weight to pull straight under you or away from your hips”, say “knees back, sweep the bar back”. I tend to use these kinds of cues for coaching a lot. Say what you want to say directly without all the extra fluff.

When I was an Army Drill Instructor, we were told to always start with the position of “attention”. This is where we find the most military bearing and sets the example for our soldiers that we train. But we also refrain from weak gestures, like pointing your finger with a bent elbow. Instead, extend your arm and point with fingers extended and joined like a knife. This shows more strength in leadership than a weaker posture. We refrain from having our hands in our pockets, slumping against a wall, or lazily slogging in a chair. But that is only physical. We learn that what you say in direct ways are important too. You say things directly and to the point. “Halt, get down, Incoming, 50 meters left!!!” That is what commands authority.

When I teach yoga, I’ve seen all variations of Rabbit Pose (sasangasana). So instead of cueing and correcting after the pose, I’ve found a better way to teach it. This usually follows a deep backbend, so I have them sit up on their knees and look at me. I say “feet flat, arms straight, grab your heels, top of your head (not) your forehead, lift your hips”. Oops, I said “not”. There’s a time and place I suppose. I demonstrate as I do this. Then, as they get into the pose, I say all of that again. Invariably, someone still loses their way. But its a good example of using direct cues when they have their heads down and can’t see you demonstrate.

I would recommend that yoga teachers, and other coaches and parents, learn to use positive, affirming words. People get numb to the word “don’t” if that’s all you say. Like “Billy, don’t hit your sister, don’t jump on the bed, don’t run with scissors”. Instead, we say (when teaching shoulder stand), “keep your head centered, walk your hands toward your shoulder blades, and extend your feet toward the ceiling”. You can easily positively affirm “keep your head stable looking up” instead of saying “don’t look side to side”.

In simplest terms, tell people what to DO. Use direct verbs like “extend, reach, fold, bind”. BE positive with the words you use.

Rajasic Yoga: prelude to Metal Yoga, yeah!

There are 3 Gunas that describe in Hindu philosophy the essential nature of energy, personality, foods, Ayurveda, and other elements of nature. These 3 Gunas permeate our understanding of yoga as well. I will associate the Gunas in terms of the energies that are presented in yoga classes in particular.

Tamasic Yoga – For me, tamasic reflects a lower energy. It is calm, thoughtful, less physical, and more balanced with mindful, peaceful thoughts. Some relate Tamas to things like sour foods, negative energy, and chaos. But I am opting for the former in describing a yoga practice. In essence, nearly all forms of yoga have a tamasic element. Seated meditation and savasana would probably best depict the far end of the spectrum. Restorative yoga, Yin yoga, and maybe even Bhakti forms of devotion could present a more tamasic energy.

Rajasic Yoga – Again, my definition, would associate rajasic energy with more physicality. In yoga practice, this action-oriented energy is present in Ashtanga, Power, Hot, and other intense forms of physical yoga. And the physical could relate to a required focus that is indomitable, exhibits perseverance, and resolves to find mental sharpness. Warrior poses and other strongly energetic arm balances and inversions would find the far end of the spectrum.

Sattva – I would maintain that most forms of yoga seek to find sattva. This is when the body is in balance both physically and mentally. It balances the center between rajasic and tamasic energies. It represents balance, peace, contentment, and centeredness.

I was talking with yogi friends before I taught class about something called Metal Yoga. I’ve seen this in several settings. There ARE people who live fairly calm lives, relatively speaking. They are probably not listening to EDM, Hip-Hop, or hard rock types of music. They are not doing CrossFit or Strongman competitions. They most likely don’t raise their voices or have violent tendencies. I’d say for the most part, they are Tamasic but have found their balance in that realm. Whereas, if you go to any school playground, 99% of the kids are going to be running, climbing, and screaming at the top of their lungs. There are adventure junkies who are slack-lining a tightrope a 100 feet off the ground, mountain biking steep switchbacks, and, yes, probably listening to the likes of Metallica and Korn. In this case, their peace if found in the calm spaces between the storms. They have energy that is excessive and needs to be expended to find peace.

There is a time and place for these types of energy. Those who seek to practice Ashtanga or Power Yoga enjoy detoxing through sweat and expending energy. While others are completely at peace with a gentler form of yoga. Based on personality, people will strive to whatever form that helps them find balance, or Sattva.

So to answer the question, why Metal Yoga, is it in line with Yogic philosophy, and is it appropriate? That is debatable. Yes, maybe some words and imagery are war-like and harsh. But if you read ancient yoga texts, like the Bhagavad Gita, it is written in the context of war. In the mythological setting with Shiva, Daksha, and Sati, Shiva creates a hero warrior, Virabhadra, to avenge the death of Sati. This is the origin of the poses of Warrior I, II, and III. So while we seek Ahimsa, non-harming and non-judgment and non-violence, Rajasic energies are still present. So these more forceful, intense energies ARE a part of yogic philosophy. As long as Metal Yoga participants don’t harm others or harm themselves, it is a way that they are working out their Rajasic energies. For me, it is a very appropriate way to rid themselves of the chaos in their minds and bodies. It is not necessary for everyone. But for a few who have more Rajasic tendencies, it is the perfect solution to finding Sattva, or peace.

When Yoga Class is Hoppin!

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Hot Yoga class last night was totally full. Yogis just kept streaming in and we kept squeezing for more space. I was so excited to teach.

This happened before with another class I taught. My last class was full and SO exciting, and then I left. It made me so sad. Its easy as a teacher to regret leaving and moving to other things. I’m feeling the same about a Saturday yoga class. I keep being tempted to say “nevermind” and keeping my same ole schedule.

But for me, hot yoga doesn’t make a lot of sense when its 100F degrees outside. Yeah, I could do it, but I don’t understand it. When it gets cool again in the Fall, I’ll try to pick it back up again. But I’ll leave the hot yoga for other teachers for now.

The energy I felt in class last night was amazing. Usually, in hot yoga, I don’t do a lot of adjustments just because I know some people are very aware of how sweaty they are and don’t like to be touched. But I went ahead and did it and received good feedback. Sometimes as a teacher, I’m hyper-aware of the class energy. When I was an Army Drill Instructor, I felt like I could see everything. If someone had a thread out of place, I could see it from across the bay. Last night was similar. I was able to spot if toes were slightly turned the wrong way. I had x-ray vision into spines that weren’t twisting properly. I saw the slightest lack of engagement in a thigh. I really love when I have that feeling as a teacher.

I think sometimes yogis want to just hide in a class. They don’t want to be seen and will drift to a far off corner. Maybe they are tired or simply unmotivated. Maybe they can do full expressions of poses, but are simply not feeling it. But what I want to do is bring up their energy and to make most of the time we have together. I want them to be changed people when they leave class. I want moods to go from dreary and lethargic to bright and energized. The truth is, the people closest to me are less obvious than those who are in the corner. I flock to the edges because I know those are who need the most help.

Yoga goes beyond poses. It goes beyond what we’re wearing and how we look. It delves into the mind. It eliminates comparison and judgment. We live on our yoga mats in the now. What happened before in the day doesn’t matter. And we aren’t commiserating about the future even one little bit. It is about being present in mind and body. Our Kundalini rises and we look down at our physical self as if we aren’t even there. That’s the essence of yoga.

Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind

Music for Yoga: Part Deux

I was doing CrossFit for a few years before I first went to a local CrossFit Box. We did the warm-up, strength work, and got ready for the WOD (workout of the day). What is interesting is how your adrenaline begins to pump when you see the workout on the white board and you strategize how it will go. You want to do your best and get the best score you can. What really cranks it up is when the coach announces “10 SECONDS!” The timer starts to beep and you step up to the bar. At 3-2-1 GO, the music is turned up loud. Its some hard-charging jam that makes your blood pump out of your chest. Its such an amazing feeling.

The Box where I was going had fairly conservative owners that I had a lot of connections with. While I had harder tastes in music, I still don’t enjoy lyrics that go into unnecessary violence and vulgarity. So this gym (Box) played energetic music, but nothing very hard. At least not as hard as I like.

I decided to get my CrossFit Level I certificate, so I travelled to Atlanta and stayed with my sister-in-law’s family. The training went well and we learned a lot. What I didn’t expect was that the CrossFit trainers always did their own WOD over lunch. We were all sitting down eating our lunches and gathered to watch. It was hot and muggy in Atlanta, so they were unabashed about stripping down to briefs and sports bra. I mean, it was Christmas Abbott and some hugely buff dudes. What was most interesting was their choice in music. And they cranked it up really loud! It was so different from my home Box. It changed my view on what hard really was. And these people went deep into the pain cave. I’ve never seen with my own eyes that kind of intensity. It went right along with their music. Loud and hard!!

Not long after, I volunteered to be a Judge and worker for the CrossFit Games Regional event in Chicago. That intensity I saw in Atlanta was equaled at this event. I mean, they had a professional DJ slamming the jams left and right. It pumped up the crowd as well as the competitors. My own music playlist completely changed after that. I made sure I set myself up with success during my own workouts. I was so amazed by the feeling I had watching those competitors slay their workouts. And the music was about 40% of the excitement. It was huge!

For most of yoga, that kind of intensity isn’t all that congruent with hard music. But for some classes, like Rocket Yoga, it totally fits. It was based on hard, classic rock. In my Hot Yoga classes, I’ve made playlists primarily with techno, EDM, and hard Pop styles.  While its about yoga and not the music, the music can add a lot to what’s going on. In fact, for Rocket Yoga, I have 4 playlists that I choose from to make up a class:

  • Rocket Launch – an intro while first starting up that slowly builds and sets the mood.
  • Rocket Heating – hard driving beats that charge up the energy.
  • Rocket Cooling – milder tunes that fit with seated poses and an introspective mood.
  • Rocket Landing – very calm and mellow sounds that you’d use for meditation or sleep.

For the most part, I don’t even want people to realize the nuances of what the music does for them. I want it to meld into the entire experience of the class. Just like the dimming of lights and calming of my voice toward the end of class. It should be a natural progression toward a peaceful savasana. Its an intense experience of release that rids the chaos from the mind, lengthens and soothes the body, until they arrive at a peaceful existence. Music adds greatly to honing this atmosphere. Feel it and love it.

Yoga: What kind of music is appropriate?

When I took yoga teacher training, we were encouraged to not use music with lyrics in it. We were to use generic music or sounds that fit the tempo and tone of the class. A gentle class would present something different from a power class. And some styles, like Ashtanga and Iyengar, use no music at all. The deep breaths of ujjiya are all that is needed. I’m completely ok with that idea.

Truth be told, when I workout, I listen to the hard stuff. Its all about hard rock and metal, hip hop and rap, grunge and even house music to get my blood pumping. I go fairly extreme with my preferences. And when I practice yoga, which often precedes or follows my workout, it often involves the same music. Sure, I do some relaxing stretches while watching TV. I may do some self massage with rollers and massage sticks with classical or jazz music. But when I have the Rajasic energy that Yangs for energy, its the hard stuff.

I also know, a good number of our population doesn’t favor the hard stuff like I do. So I tone it down a bit when I’m sharing with others. Fortunately for me, Rocket Ashtanga Yoga was developed by Larry Schultz who was the traveling yoga teacher to the Grateful Dead. Classic Rock is the tradition for Rocket and I’m happy about that. Also, it started with the “San Francisco Sound” which refers to live rock music recorded in the mid-60’s and early 1970’s. It started with the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 where the likes of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and others were formed. It melded the Blues with adventurous and improvisational Jazz. It was the core of later Classic Rock.

So, before a general yoga class the other day, I was playing a playlist called the Breakfast Club. It has hits of the 80’s and 90’s. A lady told me “thank you for playing good music.” I’ve been complimented on some of my playlists before. I’ve seen people in child’s pose tapping their fingers on the floor to Smash Mouth and Eminem. While folding forward, I saw a yogi mouthing the words of Prince’s “Kiss”. I had one yogi say they weren’t feeling very energetic and didn’t know how they’d do another 3 sun salutation B’s. But when Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks” came on, he knew he could continue on. Music does for them what it does for me.

So maybe I’m a rebel in my choices of music. I know if I stuck to only one genre, then I’m not going to reach everyone. So I try to vary as much as I can. It provides the additional energy I need to make an energetic and powerful class. Sometimes, I’m slightly disheartened. One person said they didn’t like my music and another asked rhetorically what appropriate yoga music should be. But another time, a yogi said “that’s why I come to your classes”. The music plays a big role in my style. I’m a lover of music and it can do amazing things to you when you let it.

Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution

Yoga Teaching: I Did Something Funny

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Well, I often do funny things.

I’ve done it before, but not so blatantly as last night. I was teaching hot yoga and I had everyone using a strap as a prop. I do that now and then taking advantage of whatever tools I’ve made available.

So I’m doing things I normally do. And then this image pops into my mind (see above). I think I saw it in Yoga Journal of a lady doing Warrior 3 with a strap. I’ve had it in my photo que as a pose to try, but I’ve honestly never tried it before.

I told my class, “I’ve never done this before, but let’s try it.” So we did. I was demonstrating it and it felt amazing to me. And I spoke out loud the feelings I was having about it. At least I honest, right?

What a delightful way to share something. I don’t recommend new teachers do this in class. But this one instance worked well for me.

“We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents”

– the late Bob Ross, Joy of Painting