Category Archives: teacher training

Learning Yoga Bodies

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Funny story: I was playing on a church softball team. We were up to bat and I was serving as the 3rd base coach. I was fairly new to the team, so I didn’t know the players all that well. We had a man on 2nd base and the batter just hit a long ball out into center field. I was thinking, even if I ran slowly, I could easily make it home on that hit. So here I am waving this guy to home. He was like 6’3″ tall and thin. He looked like a giraffe in a slow motion video. I’m certain he didn’t have a single fast-twitch muscle in his entire body. Needless to say, he was easily tagged out at home and I was berated by him for waving him in. I didn’t have the guts to fight back and say “dude, how can you be SO slow!”

I have a lot more experience with reading bodies now that I’ve taught yoga for a while. I have seen a lot of bodies since then in CrossFit, gymnastics, and other sports. I can see a runner and automatically know that one leg seems longer or if they have an injury or tightness. I can watch an Olympic weightlifter and see a strength or weakness very quickly. I’m nothing special, I just have a lot of experience studying how bodies move.

In yoga class, I can often tell if someone is capable of going deeper. If they are inches from a bind or close to reaching their hand to foot, I’ll often help them in that direction. My intuition is getting pretty good. But I can also see when there is a body like mine. I have a lot of years under my belt, I eat well, I lift a lot, and my body doesn’t move like your average yogi. So when I see someone who is strong or not super pliable, I can often tell that they won’t get a bind or attempt deeper variations. So I help them where they are and don’t push for the full expression of a pose.

Sometimes, people surprise you. The other day, I sort of condescended to someone by talking them into headstand. But they just popped up into it without any trouble. I didn’t read that one correctly since I was just going by facial expression and body language. Sometimes, I see a bigger body and they are very pliable. Or an older person who has amazing strength. I love those pleasant surprises.

If you are a teacher, getting experience by watching bodies is super helpful. Sometimes, I think it is more difficult for a naturally gifted athlete or super-limber yoga teacher to understand the limitations. I was once helping someone do muscle-ups on rings using a flexible band. As I was doing this, the coach walks over and adjusted it differently. And that change was largely ineffective. So when the coach walked away, I had them do it how I was showing her. This coach does muscle ups with ease, so he didn’t understand what I was doing since he never had to use that assistance. But it was something I had studied and practiced myself for years. A yoga teacher who pops into binds easily and twists into complicated poses without a problem sometimes doesn’t understand. Sometimes they do. But its good to feel those limitations. If you don’t know what it feels like to weigh 300 pounds, you can easily load yourself up with weight until you can understand. Try to get in and out of a car, or try a downward-facing dog with that weight. Its not easy.

Learn bodies. Learn empathy. And be of real help to your students.

Yoga: Pet Peeves

Haha! Pet Peeves? Dislikes? Yeah, probably too strong of words. Well,…er….some things do bother me a lot or are simply unsafe. But I’ll let you decide if they bother you too.

  1. Going too deep, too early. Safely warming the body temperature is needed before going deep.
  2. If you specifically go to an Ashtanga or Iyengar class (e.g.), you are expected to follow the style pointers. But to insist on specifics in a general flow class is unnecessary. Let people feel and just BE!
  3. If I wanted Body Pump, Zumba, or Pilates, I’d go to those classes. There are some movements that make sense. But most don’t follow what yoga is supposed to be.
  4. Extensive alliterations that make no sense to my body. Sometimes we get mystical and cartoonish when we say silly things that are way overdone. “Give in to the breath”, “Allow the left patella to attract to the right patella”, “Sink your liver into your spine and give weight to the kidneys”….Huh???
  5. Unequal timing to both sides of a pose. I know, sometimes we as teachers lose track. Sometimes we even forget the other side. But we need to try to keep things equal.
  6. Loud music in savasana. I actually prefer silence.
  7. Also over-cueing in savasana. Talk beginners into the position and then clam up! Some teachers talk through the entire savasana.

These are just 7 off the top of my head. I’m sure you can find many more.

 

Be Nice to your Yoga Teacher

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And personal trainer too!

When I was in yoga teacher training, someone said that when you are in a yoga class, the teacher is likely the least wealthy (by money standards) in the room. This is probably true in most cases. Many yoga teachers I know are University students, small-company entrepreneurs, or some other transitional status. This is also likely the case for many personal trainers and other service professionals.

I am probably in the minority in that I have a full-time job as a scientist. But I also know this is all relative. I was teaching a class at a gym with a lot of older members and retirees. I noticed as I was walking to my 2004 Ford F150 truck a lot of BMW’s, Mercedes, and fancy Cadillac’s. So I was probably the poorest person in class that day.

Regardless of our social status, we provide a service to the community. For me, I see this service as a necessity. But in the context of worldly needs, it could be seen more of a pleasure than a need. I still see yoga as a need in that it maintains my health and mental state, of which I’d be a hot mess without it. I’d probably miss days of work from my bad back and I’d probably go a little crazy. So yeah, its a need for sure.

So be nice to your service professional. They care for you and want to see you reap the benefits of a healthy yoga practice.

Namaste!

A Model Yoga Teacher

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Actually, there isn’t a model for any teacher.

When I went to Army Drill Sergeant’s Academy at Fort Knox, Kentucky, we studied leadership styles extensively. This was among hundreds of topics that we studied from psychology, to personal development, to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There is a template for teaching that contains the core elements. Leading by example by having the best appearance possible; having the physical ability to do above and beyond what most soldiers are capable of; and having the utmost discipline from what we do with our own litter to always being punctual. We never ask of a soldier something we wouldn’t do ourselves.

Over time, Drill Sergeant’s, elementary school teachers, yoga teachers, adopt characteristics from many mentors to create an amalgamation of style that is all their own. As we go along, we continually refine and find new inspiration. I think of numerous teachers in my path who helped make me who I am today. I never mimic a single person or one particular template.

That being said, there is one yoga teacher who stands out as a model for me. I took his classes religiously and admired his style. This was when I first started into my dedicated yoga journey. At the beginning of class, I could see he was studying his notes and working through postures on his own. Yet, he was still approachable and would talk with us as we entered the studio. He would often mention the peak pose for the day, so we always knew the goal. He challenged us to do our best. He praised us saying “you all did great. That was a hard pose!” He would pat us on the back and encourage us. But he was also stern. He would say “don’t you dare look down in chaturanga!” All his cues still stand out in my mind. You could tell he brought his own practice to the class to share with us. And he always gave assists in savasana that were amazing!

I not only admired his teaching style, but also his commitment to practice. Much of his practice was taking classes from other teachers. Yes, I would see him in the Ashtanga Primary series. But I would also see him in Fundamentals, Restorative, and Hot Yoga classes. Even though he was capable of harder variations of poses, he often took an easier variation. You could tell he was aware of his body and, possibly, the mood he was feeling. Sometimes the Raja isn’t there. Sometimes a more Tamasic practice is what is needed. I learned all of this from him. And I enjoyed practicing along side him. I have a few teachers who still mentor me in this way and I aspire to do the same for others.

Unfortunately, I see many teachers who never take classes from others. I don’t know if it is that they  don’t enjoy styles outside of their own. Maybe they only do their own personal practice and choose not to take from others. I’d hate to think that they felt they are above other teachers or have nothing left to learn. That would be a shame. We should all remain students. And I feel everyone has something to offer us. It may be a smile or a word. Or it could be a creative sequence or cue that we’ve never heard before. Just like our yoga practice, we never arrive as teachers.

Keep your minds open. Keep your hearts soft. Always be a student of life.

 

What’s with all this Sanskrit jibberish?

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Prior to taking yoga teacher training, one of my favorite teachers would start to quiz me on Sanskrit names of poses. I would laugh and say, there will be time to learn that later. In my own mind, I was saying “why does all that matter anyway?” How can an ancient language be important in Modern Yoga?

In fact, some try to get rid of it completely. There are yoga teachings that try to make yoga available to the masses without all the history, philosophy, and Sanskrit nonsense. Who needs it anyway?

Today, we have mixed martial arts (MMA). In the old days, they pitted a karate master against a Sumo wrestler. Or a boxer against an Aikido practitioner. Today, students begin learning all aspects from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to kick boxing to wrestling. It can be done without any of the history of those original fighting arts being made know.

But I feel we lose so much when we lose our roots. It becomes superficial. When I began with Hawaiian Kenpo Karate as a kid, to Aikido in grad school, we learned the history of what the founding fathers brought to us. We learned about the meanings and the history behind why they studied these arts. We learned reverence and respect. It is a part that is missing from everything in life today. When we live without philosophy, without religion, without a strong parental upbringing, we lose our sense of who we are.

That is what Sanskrit does for yoga. Paschimottanasana is called intense forward stretch. Paschima means West. Traditional yoga is practiced at sunrise. The sun rises in the East and we face that direction when we salute the sun. So what we are stretching is our Western side, our back, glutes, and hamstrings.  Uttana means intense. Earliest yoga was about sitting in meditation. So asana means “seat”. We do yoga to prepare for meditation and find a more comfortable seat. Warming and opening our bodies does this for us. Knowing Sanskrit is the essence of yoga practice. It is the link we have to our roots. Its like your name is “Bill”, but we decide to call you “horse” instead. Our names are important to us. We can’t just disregard them.

Any teenage gym rat can teach you how to do a pushup. Doing knees to elbow in plank has no meaning other than to work toward what you see in the mirror. But to know deeper meanings through understanding Sanskrit and the history of yoga makes for a deeper practice. It also tells you that a teacher has studied and understands these deeper meanings.

Patthabi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga, would say:

99% practice, 1% theory

But the practice is what opens the door to all those other wonders. If you read of students who studied with Jois “Guruji”, they rarely talk about the practice. They talk about what the practice does for you. Their self-study goes way beyond the practice. And that is where we find true yoga.

Being Observed

The yoga studio where I teach is finishing up with a round of 200 hour teacher training. I end up with a trainee or two in the classes I teach.

Last night, I had someone observe my Rocket Yoga class. I have been teaching Rocket for a while and received advanced training in it this past March. So it was fun to hear someone comment on what I’m doing.

First of all, observers love my music. Rocket Yoga was developed when Larry Schultz traveled with the Grateful Dead. With those roots, I embrace elements of Rock & Roll in my classes. You’ll hear the gamut from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Marvin Gaye, Flock of Seagulls, Tracy Chapman, to Stevie Wonder and Santana. It peaks to a fervor during sun salutations and standing poses and starts to soften through seated and finishing poses. I am careful to craft the entire 75 minutes of class so that it ends with more Tamasic sounds. This ambience along with my vocalizations and dimming of lights makes for a complete practice. The lady last night especially loved Pink Floyd saying that it fit perfectly with the Rocket.

Second, and most significant for me, was the care that I gave students. From my own practice, I know when you feel tired and defeated. That’s not the time when you ask someone to do a very demanding pose. Instead, I opt for more of child’s pose than in most classes. As an Olympic weightlifter myself, we will often sit for 3-5 minutes between each attempt at the bar. So I know when we need some time before doing forearm stands or intense arm balances. I am also careful to know when someone needs assistance or correction. Sometimes, people simply step with the wrong foot or twist the wrong way. These are easy corrections that keep them within my instructions. But also being aware of injuries or limitations in students. I try to never say that a yogi is “tight”. Instead, I say that they are stronger in some places of their bodies.

Lastly, I was commended for my encouragement. Larry Schultz always said “you are stronger than you think”. I use that phrase often. Its easy to feel weak and defeated. But they really aren’t. Sometimes yogis are simply tired, but the strength is still there. Someone was working on Pincha Mayurasana “forearm stand” and I said this phrase. It was sorely needed at that time. I also say “just try”. Don’t think about it, just try. Don’t over-analyze or put yourself in a box. If you try, you never know what will happen. I was very stoked that she noticed this in me.

I’ve been teaching for several years now, but I still know I have a lot to learn. This student said she usually focuses on learning sequences from teachers. But with me, it was the nuances of encouragement and care that came through. I think of the melting pot of experiences I’ve learned and adopted from other teachers. I am unique. We all are. But we take what we can as students of the practice and make it our own.

This Ole Friend

I walked in the room and it was like his face was in a tunnel. All I could see was his gleaming smile. He smiled and I smiled back. All the others in the room were ghosts. The yoga mats and props riddling my path were passed without a thought. Without thinking, we connected in a manly hug that meant so much. We are the kind of friends that go well beyond shaking hands. He is like a brother to me. He was sorely missed.

Truth be told. We ARE like brothers. While we are connected by yoga and many of its ideals, we are probably socially, politically, and ideologically opposites. But yoga is stronger than all of those -ologies.

We did our 200 hour yoga teacher training together. We’ve laid hands on each other and the dozen or so others in the class as well. We instructed each other and adjusted our positions. We are a band of brothers and sisters. We’ve seen tears, heartache, and deep bonding through our trials. Most of us showed hearts outside of the skin, while others were more guarded. I was probably the latter. It seems the younger you are, the more outspoken you are. Old, wise people like me often sat and pondered quietly.

The past few months, my brother in yoga took a long, many day adventure by bicycle. Having participated in backpacking adventures and ultramarathons myself, I knew of the travails of such escapades. I thought about him and even worried for him at times. It only takes one person texting while driving to end a life. But it was his journey to take and I admire him for it. While I wouldn’t have the courage to do such a thing, I’m thankful for his bravery now that he is safe.

Now that I write this, if someone saw us from afar they’d think we were strangers. But we have this magnetic resonance that can’t be severed. Everybody needs people like this in your life. It is something special.