Saturday, April 24, 2010

Yoga Ethics: It's Not about the Teacher

As you may remember, on a recent visit to San Francisco I attended one of Darren Main's classes at Yoga Tree studio.  Afterward, I spoke with Darren a bit about his teaching, and I shared that I was a beginner teacher.  We talked a little about that, and I told him my teaching philosophy, which is basically that I need to do a really good job when I'm teaching so my students can forget about me as much as possible and focus on their own practice.  Teaching yoga is about me to the extent I can control how present I am, how prepared I am, and how knowledgeable I am, but that's about it.  My job as an instructor is to get out of the way so the yoga can do its thing.  This, of course, means letting go of my ego as much as possible.

That can be difficult.  I want my students to feel welcome and safe and successful, but, if I'm honest, I also want them to like my class, my music, my personality.  Most of all, I want them to come back.  I would be heartbroken if a brand new student attended my class and then never wanted to try yoga again.  If that happened, no question about it, my ego would place 100% of the blame on my teaching.  Similarly, it's hard to keep the ego at bay when a student pays me a compliment.  As a new teacher, I'm craving any validation I can get!  The slightest kindness can keep me going for hours after I've left the studio.

At least theoretically, these sorts of ego problems are solved through my teaching philosophy.  The students are not there to see me; they've come for some quality time on their mats.  When they leave the studio happy, it's not because of me; it's because they just practiced yoga.  I'm not saying a good teacher doesn't contribute to a good experience, but I do think it's important to remember I'm just a small component of my students' practice. 

I shared the gist of this with Darren (although I wasn't nearly as long-winded, I assure you!), and he told me he teaches an ethics class for a yoga teacher training program.  In that ethics class, he uses the analogy of Pavlov's dog to make a similar point.

In many instances, the instructor is a constant for his/her students as they undergo transformation through their yoga practice.  Darren explained that the instructor is in the room when this amazing change and growth happens, and the students can easily - and erroneously - credit the instructor for initiating all of this transformation.  Really, though, it's the yoga that's making the difference, not the teacher.  The teacher is the bell in the Pavlov's dog analogy; the yoga is the dog food.  The yoga is what's transformative.

I haven't been teaching long enough to know the best way to help my students understand this distinction (and, trust me, at this time there is zero danger my students will confuse my teaching with the dog food).  When I teach, I try to remind my students that I'm just a guide and their practice is their own, but I'd love to hear what the more seasoned yoga teachers have to say about this.  Does anyone have any suggestions or stories to share from dealing with issues like this one?


Update: If you haven't already read this article in the New York Times, I think it's worth the time.  I found the comments even more interesting than the article itself - there's enough there to keep us talking for days.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Seven Things I Want to Tell My Beginner Yoga Students

1) It gets easier.  Fast.  Soon - sooner than you think - you will know the pose names (even, in some cases, the Sanskrit names), and you won't have to think so hard to get yourself into each pose.  The word "flow" will actually make some sense to you, and your transitions from pose to pose will feel smoother and more natural.  You will even discover that you can match your breath to your movement.  You will begin to reap the benefits of your practice, and this will bring more positivity, strength, and peace to your life.

2) It really is all about the breath.  This took me years to figure out, and I still struggle with it every single time I practice.  This is why I remind you to find your breath about seven thousand times in one hour.  Because I need someone to remind me too.  The breath makes all the difference.  The breath makes it yoga.  It balances you, calms your mind, focuses your attention, and benefits you physically in myriad ways.  Do your best to use your breath.  If you still don't "get" how to do Ujjayi breathing, that's okay.  Keep trying; it will come with time and practice. 

3) You will never regret practicing.  You may struggle to make it to your mat, and you may regret not  practicing, but I'm willing to bet you will never leave your mat wishing you hadn't spent that time there.

4) You will eventually stop comparing yourself to others during class.  This is hard, I know.  I've done it too, and I'll do it again.  But, for the most part, there will come a time when you'll forget to look around the room.  One day you will come to a group class and leave and realize you have no idea whether the person next to you got into Headstand or spent the entire class in Child's pose.  I am not making this up.

5a) Down dog really does become a resting posture.  I know that may be hard to believe now, but this is something else that will happen sooner than you expect.  There will come a time when you've had a rotten day and the only thing you'll want to do is place your palms on the floor and walk your feet back until you feel that space, that freedom, that this pose brings.

5b) I really, honestly, truly don't think it matters if your heels ever in a million years touch the floor in Down dog.  

6) When I say the energy in the room is incredible or that your pose looks beautiful, I am not bullshitting you.  And I am not judging your pose based on what the yoga how-to manual says.  I am looking at you and seeing your effort, and I think you're awesome.

7) I want to shake your hand when I see you modify a pose.  I know how hard it can be to modify when no one else in the room is modifying, not to mention what your own mind says to you when you take a pose down a notch.  Serious kudos to you for knowing your body and taking control of your practice.  You are a quite advanced yoga student, whether you know it or not.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

My Reintroduction to Half Pigeon Pose

Flowers at the Samovar Tea Lounge

When I started practicing yoga in my early twenties, I neither liked nor disliked Half Pigeon pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana).  Time has passed, and I'm not sure when things changed exactly, but I do know I've hated Half Pigeon for at least the last four or five years.  I know the word "hate" is not a great complement to a yoga practice, but I really have hated this pose.  My knees used to hurt like crazy whenever I came into it, and I've never felt like my hips were squared properly.  For some reason, my body awareness goes right out the window when it's time for Half Pigeon.  And, on top of it all, even the Sanskrit name for this pose is harder for me to remember than any of the others.  It's like a conspiracy!

My sister loves Half Pigeon.  She savors it.  I can't relate to that at all, but I know many people feel the same way she does.  When I teach it, I watch at least half of my students sink right in (these are usually all women, by the way).  They move their chests easily towards the floor, touching forehead to ground, and they appear as if they could hold the pose forever.

Many times I would move into Double Pigeon when cued to move into Half Pigeon, telling myself that Double Pigeon was better for my knees.  And perhaps it was.  It's odd, though, that I preferred Double Pigeon, as it's considered a more difficult pose.  My body apparently feels otherwise. 

When I started teaching yoga, I felt like I should walk the talk, so to speak, so I began focusing on my Half Pigeon pose again.  I realized that, if I concentrated on flexing my front foot A LOT, I could avoid the knee pain, and I managed to hold myself in the pose during group classes.  I'd even spend a short amount of time in the pose when I practiced at home.  I was making some progress.

You can buy this ornament and others like it at

Baron Baptiste explains how to do Half Pigeon pose in his book, Journey into Power, and then says: "This should feel so freeing!  If you feel fidgety or uncomfortable, it's just anxiety coming up.  But if you can recognize it as such and breathe through it, the discomfort will dissolve like snow in the summer sun. Tune in, breathe, relax.  Break up tension, break with the old and break through to the new!"

A week ago, I would have shrugged my shoulders at all of this (or even rolled my eyes) and reminded myself that this pose just doesn't really work for my body.  But something changed for me yesterday.

I've had a rough few weeks, and this past week everything felt like it was really getting to be too much.  I felt exhausted mentally and physically.  I rarely feel this way, which compounded things - I didn't know how to handle these emotions, and I knew I was losing perspective.  Though I most often attend group yoga classes, I do practice alone at home once or twice each week.  Yesterday I cancelled my plans to practice at the studio and instead decided to practice at home.  I thought I made this change because I was too tired to say hello to the instructor (I'm not kidding), but I think now that maybe, somehow, I knew what I really needed.

One of my favorite blogs to read is Suburban Yogini, and she said something in a post the other day that really resonated with me: "Practicing yoga doesn’t change a person overnight. All the difficulties of everyday life are still there as soon as you get off your mat and the only thing we can control is our reaction to these difficulties."  This is so true.  But what yoga can do is help us to control our reactions.  It relieves stress, brings us into the present moment, and, for me, reintroduces me to the many blessings in my life, which of course helps with the whole perspective problem.

Yesterday, when I practiced at home, I made the decision to go ahead and do Half Pigeon pose.  By that part of my practice (about 3/4 through), my head had cleared a bit, but I still entered the pose grudgingly.  I did a short set on each side and then came back to down dog, where I thought a bit more about Half Pigeon.  It's a hip-opener, and we store lots of stuff in our hips, including emotional baggage, anxiety, and negativity.  I decided to go back into the pose on the right side.  And then, with absolute disbelief even as I did it, I set my iPhone timer for three minutes and decided to see if I could stay in Half Pigeon (Half Pigeon, of all poses!) for that long.  I honestly wasn't sure I would manage it.

But I did.  And then I did the same thing on the other side.  It wasn't easy to stay in the pose, but my body felt clear and light and free when I came out.  I had to be somewhere shortly afterward, or I probably would have practiced longer than I'd planned.  I didn't want to get off the mat.

Baron Baptiste also says the following about Half Pigeon: "Slam on your mental brakes and expand into full acceptance of the spiritual moment--everything you are feeling and what is happening.  Don't try to change anything.  Just breathe, witness, and let go.  Allow this moment to be exactly as it is, and watch with a quiet mind as each new moment unfolds.  Allow yourself to be exactly as you are, so that you may break through your resistance." 

Not bad advice, as it turns out.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Yoga Playlist

Following are some of my current favorites for when I'm teaching or practicing at home.  These are in no particular order.
  • Your Rocky Spine, by Great Lake Swimmers
  • I Know I'm Not Alone, by Michael Franti and Spearhead (probably my all-time favorite M. Franti song)
  • Islands, by The xx (I'm quite enjoying the entirety of their first album)
  • More Than Life, by Whitley (such a great song for balancing series)
  • I Go to the Barn Because I Like..., by Band of Horses
  • Land Rights, by Xavier Rudd (almost all of his songs make great yoga songs)
  • Time Will Tell, by Bob Marley and The Wailers
  • Golden, by My Morning Jacket
  • Makambo, by Geoffrey Oryema (I could listen to this every day and never tire of it - perfect for surrender series)
  • Man O' War, by Eric Bachmann (a huge hit with my students - thanks, Jennifer, for sharing this one with me)
  • Imagine + One, by Xiren (a beautiful fusion of Imagine by John Lennon and One by U2 - another huge hit with my students, and generously made available for download by CorePower Yoga)