On my way home from Philly where I spent the weekend with Justicia and Shawn Declue and the awesome gang at Maha Yoga. This was the third year I have taught at Maha Yoga. It is amazing to watch the growth and evolution of the studio and the students and teachers who are involved with Maha. So many things could be said about how the studio has grown from a business perspective, as Justicia and Shawn have taken what began as their part-owenrship in a studio out in the suburbs and has evolved into a thriving downtown studio and community that now has two locations (one still in the suburbs) and is under their sole proprietorship and direction. But more impressive than the ways they have grown as a business (And seriously, in this day and age, where making it as a local, independent, boutique-type studio is harder than ever I do see that what they have done as business owners is super-impressive...) is the way they have maintained a high integrity in their teaching and in their relationships with their students and teachers while making yoga accessible, beginner-friendly and affordable. As many of you know, this is no small task.
I had a lot of fun throughout the weekend. We had three asana classes and two long sessions for teachers where we worked with Light on Yoga in the course I call “Cracking the Code.” I found after teaching sequencing to many groups over the years that the work I do in sequencing for practice and class rests on my knowledge of the postures in Light onYoga. I also realized that many folks simply do not know how to make use of Light on Yoga as a resource and so this treasure-trove of information sits on most yoga teacher’s shelves unutilized, undervalued and underrated. I started teaching a course to help people develop a working relationship to the Light on Yoga and I dubbed the course Cracking the Code. (I think the book has an order and makes sense but I think the order is somewhat obscure and you actually need some help “cracking its code” to make use of what is there. Thus, the name.)
Certainly, when it comes to Light on Yoga, the book is both definitive and somewhat archaic in a lot of ways as the conversation regarding so many of the postures and techinques have evolved considerably since its publication in 1966. And yet for me the book is kind of like a Gift Giving Tree in that every time I peruse its pages I come away with some insight, some nugget of inspiration or some new way to see a new relationship between these very familiar postures.
I think of the book as a sutra or a thread of short, terse aphorisms called postures. The poses are like small verses or koans to unlock and to explore through inquiry, practice, contemplation and study. Many times the information provided in Light on Yoga needs unpacking, chewing on, digesting and requires a fair amount of commentary from those who know more than we do. But even assuming the perspective that the information needs unpacking can do a lot to help anyone learn from what is printed there and glean valuable insight to take forward into their own practice and teaching.
Anyway, like so often is the case these days, the asana and the content of the curriculm with Light on Yoga was both in the foreground of our discussion as well as as in the background. We spent a weekend diving into an inquiry about yoga that ranged much farther afield than where to place your feet or hands in any given posture. In fact, upon reflection, I might say that while I think I did a very good job presenting technical information and covering the linear content as promised, I think what stands out for me from the weekend was the work we did in the larger conversation of yoga as we considered life as practice and explored the relevance of asana to our inner life as individuals and as a community committed to practice and to teaching the practice to others. We moved again and again through the small story and the larger story of what it means to practice and teach and to Live in the Light of these teachings in a personal and authentic way.
I personally think it is harder than ever to teach yoga well. It easier than ever to get a job teaching yoga and I am personally very happy that more and more people are practicing and teaching yoga. That being said, I find that the more our work has become a viable means of making money, the more the conversation of teaching seems to move to “what students want” and away from “how to teach the practice.” Obviously, this is a rich and varied landscape in and of itself as what it means to “teach the practice” is nuanced, hard to pin down and open for A LOT of debate and discussion. I am fine with all that. However, it seems to me that the more commerce drives the discussion, the harder it seems to be for yoga teachers and for students.
One of my earliest Iyengar yoga teachers gave me sage advice on the subject of teaching and business when I was first learning how to teach. He told me, “Teach people how to practice yoga. Teach them all that you can about how to engage the practice and how to improve their poses and how to deepen their relationship to the teachings. If you help them practice they will keep coming back to you. Don’t try to get students. Don’t try to keep students. Keeping students will happen if you continue to help them grow as practitioners. That is how it works.”
That was back in 1998 and the landscape of the business was pretty different. There was one-- maybe two-- teachers in any given town and often the yoga was taught in a church basement or a community center. If someone had studio, chances are they also had a mate who had a corporate job that was paying their bills. No one was selling fancy cars with yoga images and no one was talking about juicing, kale smoothies or how yoga could help you “find your power” or “live your dream.”
Back in those days there were fewer real-life examples of yogis who didn’t know very much who were rising to rock-star-like fame. There was less lamenting about great yogis who go unrecognized and whose expertise goes under-valued in the day and age of youth-crazed propaganda and body-beautiful yoga-inspired endeavors. There was no Instagram on which to post pictures of ourselves in fancy postures in exotic locations. Our yoga communities were more local and less international and if you had a bad day teaching no one reviewed it on Yelp, discharged their frustration on Facebook or cried in outrage on Twitter. You blew it and maybe they didn’t come back and maybe they told someone else, but that was about it. As a teacher, you could make your mistakes a bit more privately.
So before I write much more on the topic its only fair that I say very clearly that yes, I have a blog. Yes, I have a Twitter account, several Facebook accounts, and an online teaching presence. I am not ensconced in my local teaching scene day-in, day-out anymore and my students live all over the world. I am particpating in these changes and in this marketplace and I am happy I get to make a living as a yoga teacher. So perhaps this sounds a bit full-of-shit coming from me. I have benefitted personally from these trends I am speaking about and I know it. So we are clear, I am NOT complaining I am musing about how, as great as these developments are in a lot of ways, I watch new teachers wade through the mire of modern yoga times and I don’t know how they do it. I could not have done it when I was starting out.
When I had my very first class on a schedule at my friend’s studio, I had two people show up on the first day. Sunny, who I met when I was subbing a yoga class for Julie at the YMCA came to class and Mary-Kate, my college roomate who was pregnant at the time, came to class. Sunny was in her 60s. Mary Kate was 30. Then a few weeks later, Barry, the studio owner’s astrologer, came to class on a class pass he got in trade for giving the owner an auspicious date for opening the studio. For months we worked together-- just the three of us --until Mitzi came along. Shortly thereafter, I think Virgina started showing up. She was new from California and had some Iyengar experience from there and liked alignment so she was a good fit for our class.
So I could go on but my point is that it was probably a good solid year of teaching before 12 people were in class regularly. And it was one person at a time added to the class. And we all new each other and our strengths and weaknesses. At some point the class grew and I added another class to the schedule. At some point, I had an opportunity to open a space of my own. But my point in telling all of this is to describe what it was like as I was learning how to teach and how different it was than it is for new teachers now. And while I started teaching in 1998 I never tried to make a living at it until 2006, when I left Arizona and moved to Texas and my husband wanted to go back to school. I am not saying my way was better, I am just saying it was different. Sometimes I look out at the situation the new teachers face now and it kinda blows me away.
It seems harder than ever to “teach the practice” because so often in so many situations I hear about, commerce is driving the discussion of what and how to teach. New teachers face pressures I never knew as a new teacher with a bizarre blend of both high and absurdly-low expecations out there in the marketplace. And as confusing as that is, new teachers are told in teacher training that they need to develop a “brand” before they even know who they are going to be as a teacher. Many teachers walk out of teacher training and into public classes of 25 and 40 people who they have never met and walk them through a practice. I would have had a heart attack trying to manage that when I started.
And as awesome as the interface between business principles and yoga can be, I remember days when worn-out, high-achieving business people came to yoga teachers for a way to connect to the richness of their inner life through a sober and mindful practice. Now yoga teachers go to business people to learn how to achieve, compete in the marketplace and carve out their niche. (And again, yes, I like business and yes, I am a bit of a workahlic and yes, I do some of that stuff also. I am not making this a rigid thing here and the last thing I am is a purist. I am a fan of yoga teachers being able to buy organic food, put braces on their kids, buy nice homes and save for retirement. My wish for every yoga teacher who schleps themselves all over town to teach a full schedule of classes is that they have a reliable car in which to do this and that they do not need to worry about how they are going to pay for fixing said car when and if something does happen to it. This is not a rant about how good yogi’s should be broke or that business can’t live with yoga.)
I have observed that many businesses are applying yoga principles to their business operations to great effect. I think conscious business principles are great and I am happy for businesses to be high-minded and so forth. Businesses and corporations will use principles that work for their ends and to me this does not make them yogi’s. Yogis can use business principles to help them grow their business and this does not make them sell-outs, shallow or anything of the sort. To me, it is not about what we are doing but about the how and the why of our choices and actions.
My opinion is that many “conscious businesses” out there are using yoga principles to run their business because these principles work. Anytime you can get some leverage into that aspect of reality that is malleable--and yoga can help a lot with this- well, you have some power with which to create. And if a company was using consciousness principles to better their business and they didn’t work , they would stop using them.
Along the same lines, many yogi’s out there make decisions that are completely counter to business-smarts when their values demand it. I know I have made more than one decision in my life that appeared to be career suicide at the time I made it. (Believe me, my friends, family and students have called me up worried about my mortgage payment more than once over the years.) Sometimes these decisions have turned out well by conventional standards and sometimes not so much. Sometimes we chose for our values and there are conventional-life costs. I do not believe that “doing the right thing” is always rewarded by conventional standards. I am decidedly NOT New-agey on this point.
Of course, there are times when it joins up nicely. Where, as yogi’s we chose for our values and we get a postive outer reward for it. And there are times when businesses do the right thing and still make a profit. At any rate, I know I am wading deep into some pretty dicey and potentially-upsetting territory since I am talking MONEY and YOGA all at once. Partly I have written all this to say that the more I work with yoga teachers, the more I hear our discussion moving towards “how to succeed at the business of yoga” and away from “how to succeed at teaching people to practice”.
Again, I am all for yogis who can run businesses well. I just want the business conversation to come after the conversation of “What does the teaching actually say? What does the practice actually involve?”
And then I think it would be great to ask ouselves and our mentors “How we can bring these teachings forward with intelligence, integrity, clarity and grounded vision? How can we teach people to practice so that in the midst of their demanding lives they have a pathway to sanity through the practices and principles of yoga?”
I am interested not in “making yoga user-friendly” as much as I am in helping the users get smarter, more intelligent, more discerning and more able to meet the challenges of this most demanding endeavor called Self-Awareness. People tell me all the time there is no market for this approach and I need to appeal to the masses and so forth. Frankly, I just can’t imagine teaching another 15 years assuming people are not intelligent, do not want to learn and want only to be entertained when they come to my class. Even if that were true (and I do not think it is) still I can’t continue from that assumption. It simply does not work for me.
Even people who may not know they want to learn and may not know they want help and so on, are pretty damn excited when they can do something today they couldn’t do yesterday. That awakening is what I am interested in as a teacher, not meeting at the lowest common denominator of preference and consumer-driven demands and ideals. I believe we need to meet students where they are so that we can help them take the next appropriate step in their practice, not so that we give them what they want as though we are at Starbuck’s making them a skinny, no-foam latte with a 1/2 pump of sugar-free syrup heated to 178 degrees precisely. Meeting the student where they are is good teaching, not customer service. Meeting the student where they are does serve the “customer” but that is the secondary outcome of teaching well, not the primary aim of teaching.
So, we traversed some of this territory together as a community at Maha Yoga this week which was a bit like preaching to the choir, as they are living these ideals quite consciously and authentically. I could go on but I suppose this is enough for today.
Keep the faith.
I spent the weekend in Oklahoma City teaching at Spirit House Yoga. This was my third visit to the studio and I enjoyed seeing everyone again and meeting some of the folks at the studio for the first time. Ted and Martha, who own the studio have a strong and abiding commitment to offering safe, thorough and conscientious yoga instruction to students of all ages and abilities. It was clear to me that they are doing a great job because the students were incredibly attentive and took instruction very well. Teaching well-trained students is such a pleasure and the foundation the students had made my job very easy and enjoyable all weekend long. We laughed A LOT and in the midst of the playful atmosphere I think we did some some really good work.
I think a lot about yoga--what it means to practice, what it means to be a yoga teacher, how best to share what I know and how best to serve the students who end up in my classes. I am very clear that yoga is a massive subject and that the practices of yoga extend far beyond the execution of postures and that asana is one little piece of the yoga pie, so to speak.
For instance, in my own life of practice I meditate regularly, practice mantra, pranayama, study and have a handful of rituals I practice like puja and so on. Practice, to me, is much more than asana practice. In fact, sometimes I look at what appears to be our current obsession with postural practice and I get a little disoriented and confused about how important it seems to be to so many people. (Seriously, step back a little and look as though you knew nothing about asana and its very odd, this thing we do. Maybe we really are just stretching in sanskrit....)
And, then I reflect on the things that have really helped me shift and change over the years. For instance, if I want to make the topic even bigger than yoga and extend the discussion into what makes for a happy, wholesome and fulfilling life, it is abundantly clear to me that I have needed techniques, tools, experiences and education way beyond postural instruction and far beyond the reaches of advanced asana. So, when I come into a studio to teach asana, I am very clear that asana practice is one piece of the pie. I believe asana is a tasty, lovely, nourishing, potentially risky and yet very worthwhile piece, mind you. But still, I see it as a sliver of the pie, truth be told.
I am certain that if I was a psychotherapist I would look at my clients and think, "Wow, some yoga could help them." And let's face it, as an asana instructor I know some good therapy has helped a lot of practitioners make peace with themselves when yoga was actually giving them one more thing to beat up on themselves about. If I was a minister, I bet I would think, "Some pranayama with this sermon would round out this picture nicely." And as an asana teacher, I do hope people have ways to connect to themselves spiritually beyond the 90-minute public yoga class. Suffice it to say, I am not into the "one-stop shopping" type of promises that proliferate the yoga market-place these days. As amazing and wonderful as I think asana is and as fascinating as the practices of yoga are, I am not so inclined to promise that yoga will change anyone's life, make anyone happier or help anyone make peace with themselves. I mean it might. Of course, it might not. It has helped me. I am into it. But a lot of things have helped me, truth be told.
So, its a big picture, this life of growing into who we most truly are. And lots of things are needed along the way. And many modalities are beneficial. And right now, I am an asana teacher. And, as an asana teacher, I am charged with the opportunity to present the asana practice to people as intelligently, creatively and clearly as possible so that they can engage the practice for themselves and add its power and potency to their lives to move them forward in whatever way they can. I teach asana so passionately, not because I think it is the end-all- be-all of what it takes to wake up but because I love what it can offer us and because teaching it to others is the contribution I am making right now.
And the funny thing is that the doorway of asana opens up so many different hallways and passageways within us. As soon as we decide we are going to engage the physical practice of asana, the many facets of who we are come into play. In order to practice physically we have to learn and study how to do the yoga and the intellectual aspect of who we are comes along. Between philosophy, anatomy, sanskrit names, sequencing strategies, modifications, props, etc. there is a body of knowledge to explore that can keep the brainiest of people busy for lifetimes.
And there is nothing like the seemingly-physical asana practice to call us to work on ourselves emotionally. When we are able to do something for the first time, we grow in confidence and get a chance to feel that wonderful feeling of accomplishment that comes with overcoming our limitations and making what seems like tangible progress on the mat.
And there is nothing like being unable to do something to teach us acceptance, humility and how to validate our efforts when outcomes don't appear as we wish they did. Sit in any yoga class and you will have a chance to watch your mind play the comparison game which can wreak havoc on your emotions. Get an injury or an illness and as soon as you can't physically do what you are used to, you are going to have a confrontation with your emotional self since slowing down, backing off and sitting out are sometimes the hardest poses there are.
Or, start attending a class that offers more detailed work or more physical work than you are used to and lo and behold, the emotions join the experience pretty quickly with frustration, despair, confusion, etc.
Anyway, these are just some of the reasons I like the asana practice so much. As I walk through the door of the physical practice I am getting this download of information about who am I beyond my physicality. I get a chance to observe my mind and emotions when I enjoy the posture and when I don't. I get to watch who I am and how I am as I try, succeed, fail, gain and lose the ability to do, to understand and to feel. And it is this "watching and learning" about who I am and how I am that to me is what asana is actually about, not the posing. I use the poses as tools of this self-observation, as means or Self-observation and not as an ends that stand alone with value outside of what happened along the way.
I think the role of asana in yoga can be misleading in the current culture of snapping photographs of ourselves doing yoga poses and posting them on every available social media site possible. Certainly, asana has a outward aspect of practice that so many of the other practices don't. I mean, I can be chanting my mantra silently to myself while sitting on the train and that is not going to make it to instagram, right? In a letter BkS Iyengar wrote endorsing yoga competitions he noted that, "Of the eight petals of yoga, the only petal that is exhibitive is yoga-asana where the other petals are very individual and personal."
That being said, just because yoga has an exhibitive aspect does not mean that it is primarily or essentially about exhibition at all. In the same way, asana uses the body and yet it is not, in my opinion, about the body only. Nor is asana essentially about the body. We use poses in asana and yet asana practice is not only about the pose or even essentially about the pose. To me, it is about the watching and learning. Asana is about essentially about awareness.
And the beauty of this perspective is that we can watch and learn in the most basic of postures without ever leaving normal and healthy ranges of motion. Using asana to learn about ourselves and to glimpse the larger Self can happen without ever balancing in handstand, without ever pushing up to urdhva dhanruasana and without ever putting a leg behind our head. In fact, I do believe that the pursuit and ambition around the harder postures can be so compelling that some folks get lost in endless posturing and the agony and ecstasy of the exhibition aspect of practice takes on a life of its own can become more of a distraction than an aid to growth.
Don't get me wrong I have nothing against hard poses. If you feel called to do them and enjoy working toward them and so on, great. Far be it form me, queen of handstands on mountaintops and peacock pose on fences and to say, "working on hard poses is wrong!" I personally like that aspect of the endeavor but I do not think it is the point. Just so we are clear, I am not making a case against putting your leg behind your head, I am simply saying I do not think it is necessary. At all. Period.
We talked a lot about these themes this weekend as the group worked diligently to bring awareness to action, clarity to movement and dignity to their posture. So, again, I don't think asana practice "does it all" for anyone but I do think its a great aid to the process and most days, I am pretty happy to contribute to people's lives as an asana teacher and endlessly grateful that people are willing to be my students.
Have a good one. I am going to meet a friend and stretch in Sanskrit for a little while! I will probably even post some show off shots on Instagram.
I spent a wonderful weekend in Fairfax, California with Sienna Smith and the awesome gang at Yoga Mountain Yoga Studio. Sienna and I have gotten to know each other a lot this last year as she has been an enthusiastic participant in my online courses and made several trips to different workshops. She has an extensive back ground in Viniyoga, Anusara yoga as well as a long-standing meditation practice informed by her studies of Buddhism and mindfulness. I found her company to be wonderful and the group of students and teachers at her studio to be fun-loving, curious, hard-working and very receptive.
Like so many of my workshops these days, the room was filled with people who share a deep understanding of alignment principles and body mechanics that is informed by their training and experiences in Anusara yoga. I enjoyed teaching such a well-trained group of experienced yogis with whom I shared a common background and language and who were also interested in adding to their knowledge-base and expanding their perspectives.
It seems to me that while so much of the alignment in Anusara got exaggerated to the point of creating imbalance rather than balance, at the heart of the method was a great blueprint for balance. This basic structure continues to inform much of my approach to practice and teaching and while I have refined, added to and expanded my understanding over the years and while I make disctinctions between the method and how it was often practiced and taught, in general, it continues to serve me well.
For instance, I still think its a great idea to take the thighs back and yet I do not think the big “blossoming the buttocks” actions are actually such a great idea over the long haul, although they may serve an immediate short-term function to correct certain imbalances. And I am more clear than ever that these actions of alignment are directly related to the postural forms we practice and to our own starting point of structure and the actions themselves are not the alignment. The alignment exists, in my opinion, in the relationship between the posture and our structure. “Thighs back” is not an alignment but an action to bring us into alignment. How much we do of it and to what degree it appears visible in our form depends on the pose and on us. At any rate, over time, I think the actions need to be applied specifically and precisely so as not to cause problems and yet they do give us a great general direction in which to point ourselves and our students. So much could be said about that but well, its a big can of worms.
AND I think one of the best things we can do to offset common structural tendencies in ourselves and in our students is to practice a well-balanced range of postures. Given that in a room of 30 people, some folks will have flat thoracic spines and some folks will have overly-rounded upper backs, some will be sway-backed and some will be flat in their lumbar spines, it simply makes sense to me to offer a variety of shapes and to work with shape as much as action to bring balance to the students in our general classes. Specific issues are outside the scope of what we can deal with in a big public class with students we might not know very well, so general strokes of alignment cues and balanced postural routines are a great way to go, in my current thinking. And again, that’s a big topic. I digress.
In addition to a shared language and understanding of basic alignment precepts, I found it very meaningful to connect with people I have known for years and to re-establish a connection to folks I have known somewhat preipherally for a long time. As time goes on it becomes more clear to me that so many folks who spent time together in Anusara yoga were also drawn to the system by their interest, commitment and passion for intentional, transformational community. Perhaps they were drawn to the method for that reason or perhaps the method cultivated the values of community and group-work, but in any case I am watching the threads of the fabric of our community get re-worked, re-woven and re-created these days. I personally find my conenctions with my associates from Anusara much more enjoyable than ever because there is a new level of honesty present in our conversations. For me, even the difficult conversations are more meaningful when they are honest as opposed to the pleasant, positive, somewhat “easy” conversations that sit on top of unexpressed misgivings, doubts, jealousies and judgements.
Even in the upheavel of the structures that held folks together under the formal auspices of “Anusara yoga” and even in the midst of the psychic burden I felt during the times of my personal dissolution and disillusionment with it all, I kept hearing a small voice inside saying “the story is not written yet.” I do think a chapter closed and maybe even the first book in the series is done and finished. But that does not mean that the story is written.
It’s a great reminder of transformation, really. It can be so easy to view life as a series of snapshots and to get crystalllized inside ourselves when a bad picture is taken or when the pictures all seem to be of other people. But in actuality, we are in a moving picture, in a movie that started before we were the us that we know now and will continue long after we are the us that we know now. We are not here, frozen in time, stuck with a shitty picture on a bad-hair day with unforgiving light. Nope, in the very next moment, the light can change, our hair might get styled and the whole composition of the scene can improve and come into view. I know in my own life that if you snap a shot of me at any given moment in my day I might look totally awesome but I might also look quite unimpressive.
So often over the years of my time with Lee I would get upset about one thing or another and he would listen patiently until I spelled out my whole drama in detail and then he would say something like, “Well, you have to keep a high vision.” Inside I would be like “WTF does that do for me right now, dude? I am ____________ and freaking out.” (Fill in the blank with broke, hating myself, hating someone else, angry, depressed, worried, etc.) I think mostly I just nodded and looked back at him trying to seem like I was a decent student. But one day, when I was particularly upset I said, “What does that actually mean?”
And then he told me, “Well, if you think about the view that a bird has over a landscape it can be very helpful in times like this. The upset right now that seems to be ruining your world, is actually quite small in the scope of your life and even smaller in the scope of your many lifetimes. In terms of your sadhana and your work with me, this problem of yours does not even register on the screen of something I am worried about. That is what I mean by keeping a high vision.”
Oh. I see. And I did. And I still do.
Don’t get me wrong, I am an excitable type and I love a good drama as much as anyone whether it is my own or someone else's. And yet something really came to me that day that continues to live inside me as a working, living and breathing teaching lesson from my guru. We do need to tend to the details and the content of whatever mess we might have made and it is a great idea to learn how to enjoy our success and to rest when the water is calm, so to speak. And yet, all that content--good times, bad times, loss and gain, all live in a larger story of awakening and unfolding. Remembering the larger story can be helpful because then we begin to play a participatory role in the saga as opposed to living at the mercy of the script-writers of our own negativity and our own habits of thought and behavior.
What does any of this have to do with my time in Fairfax, California? Well, I suppose the last few gigs I have taught have felt like part of a new story for me. I am enjoying my roots more than ever and I am beginning to see and feel new sprouts of growth emerge and begin to grow a little stronger and more stable within me. The good humor of the students around me, the skillful postures being practiced, the intelligent questions being asked, and the unabashed mutual enjoyment of our work together all seem like good signs that the next chapter is well underway for many of us.
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