Category Archives: teacher training

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.

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.

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