Tag Archives: teaching

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Amazing is Normal

I love when my Rocket Yoga students come into my general classes. Sometimes I’ll offer a harder “Rocket” option and my Rocketeers are the only ones who do it.

In a Rocket class, the harder version is the standard. So I don’t even look twice when they pop into handstand or flying pigeon. Its just normal.

But when I’m teaching a vinyasa flow or hot yoga class, what is normal turns out to be quite remarkable. Every yogi is special to me, but those Rocket Yogis are the icing on the cake.

You are stronger than you think – Larry Schultz

When Yoga Gets in the Way

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I say this tongue-in-cheek. Yoga is not really in my way.

Summer-time means lots of vacations for everybody, including yoga teachers. So we end up substitute teaching for each other very often. I had 2 extra classes each of the past 2 weeks. Yet, I still got 5 really good days of working out on the weights. But I was toast by Monday. Everything was fried and banged up.

My goal is to take Mon & Tues as rest days since I teach and demonstrate fairly rigorous yoga classes those days. I needed it this time. My most brutal workout is Weds since I don’t teach again until Saturday. I focus on my chest that day and, besides heavy bench presses, I focus on yoga-related movements like dips, muscle ups, and deep pushups. But I get dumbbell and pec-deck flyes in there too. I don’t dare work my chest before teaching yoga. There were times when I was demonstrating chaturanga or upward facing dog and my triceps went into a full cramp. That is kind of embarrassing as a yoga teacher to suddenly drop out of a pose writhing in pain.

The problem is, when I teach yoga, I’m not really practicing yoga myself. I demonstrate some poses when I teach, but I’m mostly walking around, adjusting bodies, and observing safe alignment. I get just enough lengthening to feel good about myself. So I consider those active rest days.

The point I’m making is that we wander through busy lives seeking healthy minds and bodies and we shouldn’t make excuses to not do anything. Doing yoga doesn’t mean going hard all the time. It can be lengthening in front of the TV or even seated in your car in meditation. It doesn’t have to be a sweaty, all-out endeavor with yoga mats and tights. But the same is true with resistance and cardio exercise. You can always find a place to do some lunges or pushups. If you have access to weights, you may do a 5×5 of back squats and that’s it. It doesn’t have to be an hour-long workout. Maybe jog around the block when you walk the dogs. Anything that gets your heart rate up is good. No excuses.

Don’t let life get in the way of living life

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.

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.

 

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.

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.