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.

 

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The Great Rebellion

james dean

In my teenage years, I started to question what my parents knew. I was learning new things that I didn’t think they knew. I saw them as old and out of touch. We all do it at some point in our lives. We seek our independence and are tired of being told what to do. Even further, we try to take a different path away from our parents. We play “opposite day” with them to the nth degree.

If you look at society, this happens on a broader scale. Its the pendulum effect. During the Vietnam War in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, a counter-culture arose due to young men being drafted into a battle many didn’t want to fight. And then we saw men come home in flag draped caskets and fought against what was going on. Rock & Roll was taking off and that culture gobbed onto anti-war rhetoric. Eventually, these young rebels became professors and professionals in society. They began to teach our children, and those children teach our children today.

The days of Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best are long gone. Instead of embracing what is good and wholesome, we seek to deviate. Instead of embracing the beliefs of our parents, we seek unbelief or even other traditions that are not our own. Some decry our military and go even as far as to fight against our own country. We completely lose perspective. We see our police as the enemy, when they are the first people you want to see in a crisis of your own. It is so hypocritical. We become a lost society when we lose our values and core beliefs. Instead, we grasp helplessly at mysticism or superstition.

The rebel child in me eventually grew up. I went straight into the Army out of high school. I paid my own way through college and eventually graduate school. Me, a minority of minorities, and not exceptionally bright. But I worked hard to make my own way. I stood on my own two feet. I am proud of that. Eventually, I saw my parents as the wisest people I know. I still think that way. Their eyes have seen so much in life. I have been a leader in society and in my church. I have a mortgage to pay for and family to care for. I am concerned for the safety of my home and country. If someone came to my door, I would give them food. But I wouldn’t want them to live with me. I’m not going to let them camp in my front yard. I would rather they find gainful employment and become self-sufficient. We can’t have a society of people who are dependent. We can’t be a society looking for freebies, handouts, and the easiest way out. We should have a lot more pride in ourselves to allow that. We should stand our ground and not play the rebel. That is for the young and weak-minded.

All paths lead back to core beliefs and values. Rebels can’t win.

 

What’s with all this Sanskrit jibberish?

vandegurunam

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.

Mental Plasticity

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The primary emphasis of my yoga teaching is in Rocket Yoga, which is a free-flowing variation of Ashtanga Yoga. It requires me to stay on my toes a lot because variation is the key for this practice to grow. However, there are still core sequences involved with the practice making the variation not as great. Also, it is always intense and has the same basic tempo.

Where I really find myself being challenged is when I substitute teach for other classes. If I teach Fundamentals/Beginners yoga, I am first making sure I meet needs where they are. I don’t want a student to take their first class with me and have them turned off of yoga for life. I trim back heavily on using Sanskrit, deeper alliterations to describe poses, and a lot less of the spiritual/mental aspects.

Yesterday, I taught Gentle Yoga at a health facility that caters mostly to senior adults. Again, I need to meet people where they are and for their current needs. It is actually my favorite class to teach. I end up talking with students long after class and they ask for specific ways to help them through life. It is so fulfilling as a teacher to actually help people who need it most.

The most difficult class I’ve ever taught is Restorative Yoga. The teacher who I substituted for is full of wisdom in her teaching. It wasn’t until after I became a teacher that I realized the nuances and timing of her teaching. I told myself to slow down and be patient with my timing. And yet, I still ran out of poses with 15 minutes still left in class. I need to add this to at least a weekly practice on my own to make my teaching more effective.

Sometimes, we teach a class that is somewhat unknown. It is open to interpretation. Classes like “hot yoga” or “vinyasa flow” usually means an all-levels class of moderate intensity. Then you go completely by feel and intuition. Even by breath and the look in yogis’ eyes. You want them to be engaged and breathing. Maybe even laughing when appropriate. These are fun classes to teach, but you never know where its going to go.

Overall, with anything we do in life, its best to not always be comfortable. Its nice to be challenged with different circumstances. I enjoy experimenting and trying something that just feels good. I did this yesterday in class. I had them do something that I have never done myself, yet it felt really good. Be creative and enjoy what you do. Whether it is at work, taking a different path while running, or taking time to sit in the park and soak up all the goodness that’s around you.

Be aware, be present, and live life to the full.

Side Butt

bodybuilder

Wait! Before you run away. Listen to what I have to say.

Writers are inspired by what they are feeling in the “now”. And right now, I’m feeling very sore in my gluteus medius region a.k.a. the “side butt”.

One way we can divide human movement is in unilateral and multilateral movement. These aren’t exclusive of one another, but they are generalities useful for discussion.

Unilateral Movements (mostly)

  • road or track running
  • bicycling
  • most resistance lifting (Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, CrossFit, …)
  • other cardio (elliptical exerciser, rowing, …)

Multilateral movements

  • most sports (basketball, soccer, baseball, racquet sports, …)
  • trail running
  • yoga

I point these out because, for one, we may be deficient in our side butt muscles. Any time we have a deficiency, we compensate in other areas and this can lead to long-term problems and injuries. Secondly, if we do movements or sports that use side glutes, then it makes sense to strengthen them more.

There are numerous exercises that are commonly used to target the side glutes. Side leg raises either free or with cables/bands and side-wards running or bounding. These are great dynamic movements, but isometric and isotonic contraction that focuses on weight bearing may be more effective (which we do in yoga).

Yesterday, I spent a considerable amount of time in Warrior 3, dancer, side angle, and triangle poses. These are all incredible side butt poses, but the most incredible may be half moon (ardha chandrasana). Warrior 1 & 2 and many other poses target side glutes as well. I may be biased, but there is no better builder of side glute muscles than yoga.

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Pictured 1) gluteus maximus (posterior view), 2) gluteus medius, 3) gluteus minimus.

Muscles 2 & 3 help abduct the femur (leg opening) from your central axis. This helps stabilize the hip joint and adds considerable stability in movement. If you do squats and your knees turn inward, these are the muscles that help keep you knees in line with your feet. Its a major weakness in many novice and women lifters. Outer hip strength helps prevent injuries like hip dislocations and even knee and ankle trauma. It can also add fullness to your appearance in jeans or even a bikini (oh my!)

I never recommend that you do one pose for a bodypart or for a specific sport. There are no quick fixes. So I always say:

All yoga is good yoga

Our bodies are interconnected. And when you do yoga, it encompasses every little muscle of your body plus breath, balance, and mind. When you do Warrior poses, think about strength as you press into your feet. This engages those side glute muscles. And spend plenty of time in half moon pose as well.

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(yours truly doing a half-moon in the urban jungle)

Type that Body!

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We are all genetically prone to inherit traits from our parents. Our body shape is one of these characteristics. What type of shape are you?

  • Pear, hourglass, bowling pin, triangle, …
  • Endomorph, ectomorph, mesomorph
  • Tall, short, thin, round

And can we break from these shapes? Its not easy to do. In sports, work, and life, I always say “rely on your strengths.” If we focus only on what we perceive or people tell us are our weaknesses, we’ll only live a bleak life of inadequacy.

As a Native American, I was born to have a big barrel chest. Unfortunately, this goes along with visceral belly fat and thin limbs (aka skinny legs). If I were a bodybuilder, this means  I don’t have to do a lot to stimulate my pecs and upper back. But the core of my work should focus on heavy squats, lots of abdominal work, and I can’t neglect things like biceps curls & triceps extensions.

In my 20’s, I always had six-pack abs. But its a battle of the bulge now. All I can do is stay persistent. I can’t get disheartened by lack of progress. Embrace who you are. If you have something special that your parents gave you, then why not flaunt it. But don’t worry about things that you can’t easily change.

Makes Friends With Fat

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What are fats?
Fats fall into a group of macromolecules in the lipid family. They include fats, oils, and various other long chain carbon molecules.

Are people afraid of fat in their diet?
Why yes! This is because they don’t understand fat metabolism. They see people who are obese and celebrities talk about dangers of fat. The truth is that fat isn’t converted into fat when digested. Most of the fat we can’t use passes through our system. Fat bellies associated with obesity is caused from eating sugar. Excess sugars are stored as fat in our bodies. Eat a pound of sugar a day and you’ll definitely get fat. Eat a pound of fat and you’ll sit on the potty more.

What do fats do for us?
Look up charts for membranes. Membranes are phospholipid layers that make up our skin, nails, hair, and every cell and organ of our bodies. You need fat to make skin healthy, and I’m not just talking about rubbing it on your bodies. Fat also makes needed sterols, like testosterone, progesterone, growth hormones, and other important functional molecules. These sterols play a huge role in immunity.

What kind of fats do we need?
We would like to focus on Omega-3 fats that come from fish, tree nuts, and other useful sources. However, there are essential Omega-6 fats that are important too. What we’d like to reduce are the Omega-6’s from corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, and canola oil. Nearly every processed food has these sources in it when you read the labels. And guess what, margarine is the worst form of fat that was ever man-created. Pigs won’t even eat it. What we do want to increase in our diets are coconut oil, nut seed oils, and fish oil. Overall, I wouldn’t fear oils. And if you still think fat is evil, pick the lesser of two evils. Pick sugars to get rid of from your life. They are the main culprit that leads to type-2 diabetes, glycemic maladies, obesity, fatty liver disease, and a whole host of other problems. And yes, starches (pastries, potatoes, pasta,…) break down into sugars.

What is ketosis?
When your body doesn’t have enough glucose in the blood, it shifts to burning fats instead. Unless you are a competitive bodybuilder or endurance athlete with less than 8% bodyfat, believe me, you always have enough fat to live off of for many days. Every time you eat sugar, your insulin spikes and makes you feel like you need more. This leads to the feeling of hunger. Conversely, when you eat fat, it stimulates glucagon providing glucose to the bloodstream by burning fat in adipose tissue. It also triggers satiety hormones that give the feeling of satiation, or fullness. For most healthy people, or even obese people, ketosis can be used in positive ways to burn fat for energy.

How do I make fat a daily reality for me?
When you wake up, your insulin is at its lowest. The last thing you want to do is eat sugars or starches that kick it into gear again. That includes cereal, milk, bagels, donuts, pastries, Pop Tarts, and all that other fun stuff to eat. What I do is grab a cup of coffee or two for a little boost of energy. Since fats and oils are nutrient dense, you don’t need a lot. So I put a teaspoon of coconut oil in my coffee. This provides long-term energy, satisfies hunger hormones, and allows you to be productive (make my lips moist too, hehe!). Any time you need a little energy, eat a little fat. If you can afford walnuts, pecans, or other tree nuts, it provides very healthy fats. Eat some cashews or peanuts in a bind (these aren’t Paleo and have some issues). Non-sugared, natural peanut butter or nut butter works too. Since I’m cheap and I acknowledge a risk/benefit reward, I often eat peanuts. Beware of flaxseed oil since it doesn’t have a long shelf life and goes rancid quickly. If it isn’t fresh off the plant, it may already be useless to you. Eat plenty of fat with meals. I use bacon fat to season most of my cooking. It makes everything taste wonderful. And eat a good helping of fish every week provided you are mindful of biological magnification from heavy metals and such. A late night treat like peanut butter on apples is amazing! Apples rank high on the satiation index so it curbs hunger. The fat in the peanut butter will keep you happy all night long!

Caution: The conspiracy theorist in me says to be wary of government agencies like the FDA and USDA. Our government subsidizes grain production and imposes tariffs for imports. For good reason, it wants our grain production to have favor. So it also influences food & drug recommendations, like “have a bran muffin a day”. Many of our dieticians follow FDA guidelines for everything. Remember, there is an ulterior motive in this goal. It is all inter-connected.

Can I use fats & oils for non-dietary purposes?
Absolutely. My massage therapists use a coconut oil blend with essential oils that is amazing! I can’t say enough for essential oils. That is a whole other topic you need to study. Oils of cinnamon, eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint, … have so many health benefits. We have a diffuser running in our house whenever we are home. It is great for alternative, holistic medicine that gets you away from drug use. Its a natural drug!! You know oil and water don’t mix. But guess what? Oils and oils do pretty well together. Rubbing oils onto lipid membranes of skin, hair, nails, etc… can give marvelous results.

Want to have glowing skin, a strong immune system, and to become less fat! Eat FAT!