I gave a teacher’s session on Finding Your Authentic Voice as a yoga teacher, which is not a topic I present on very often in a direct way so I spent a lot of time considering what it means to me to teach from and authentic place. And as much as I value the authenticity of a stable and integrated ego-self, I wanted to direct the consideration to a level of authenticity that lives deeper than the layer of personal experience. Don’t get me wrong, I think yoga teachers should be themselves and I think personality can be a great aid in teaching. And of course, personality can be a big problem, which is a different blog entry.
However, for me, authenticity as a teacher has as much to do with getting myself and my self-concern out of the way as it does with finding nifty ways to be “more myself” in the classroom. I am interested in authenticity as an avenue to serve the needs of the students I am working with and to be, in some small way, transparent to a flow of information beyond the personality-self that can help me with the task of helping people engage their practice intelligently and consistently. Sometimes what serves is my sense of humor. And sometimes shutting up is the highest offering.
It all depends.
He was, instead, interested in our ability to be sensitive to the implicit needs of a situation and in our ability to sacrifice certain personal preferences and tendencies to support a moment that was authentic to the unfolding of the Self, not the self. He said it was a matter of context and not a matter of specific content because life wasn’t solid. Since every situation was different, one should expect what was wanted and needed to be different.
Along those lines, I told my group that I don’t have a “10-step plan to Find Your Authentic Voice” or a list of “8 Easy ways to be More Authentic” or even “3 Surefire Ways to be Maximize Your Authenticity.” I don’t have anything like that. If I did have a plan, believe me, I would write it up into a book and take it to the bank because plans and guarantees of transformation seem very bankable. Plans that guarantee such positive outcomes are quite compelling, after all.
And I am sure those plans, lists and best-selling self-improvement programs work for some people at certain junctures in life, but they have never been a good fit for me as a practitioner or as a teacher. I mean, really, if I could remember the “10 Ways to Avoid an Argument” in the heat of the argument, well, that would be lovely. But the problem is that one part of me reads the article with interest and another part of me gets in the fight and that list, no matter how intelligent and inspiring it was at the time I read it, is not even near my consciousness when it would be most useful and beneficial. That, and many times intimacy is forged in the fire of conflict so avoiding an argument, depending on your type, is simply avoiding the conflict that will call you to higher levels of honesty, communication and self-awareness. Of course, if you fly off the handle all the time, maybe you should take such an list to heart. Okay, well, now I am getting specific.
I digress. Back to my topic.
What any situation calls for depends on a multitude of factors and distilling the nuances of personal and communal evolution down to a tidy list is simply unsatisfying for me.
So, while I do not have a plan, I do have an authentic relationship to practice that I have sustained for many years. I have been through many cycles in this relationship and passed through many ups and downs internally and externally. I have fallen in and out of love with my practice more times than I can count. Over time, these cycles within my relationship to my practice have yielded some depth, clarity and perspective that helps me teach from an ever-increasing authentic place.
Last week Kelly, Anne, Jeff and I recently went to a Songwriter’s Circle at Cheatem Street Warehouse. This unique event happens once a week at Cheatem Street and gives aspiring songwriters a chance to practice their craft and to get support and feedback from their peers and mentors. Songwriter’s Circle is kinda like the practice teaching sessions during teacher training, I suppose. More fun than that probably. Of course, I wasn’t performing or getting feedback so my perspective may be skewed a bit.
Anyway, as we were walking home, Anne and I were talking about how songwriting and performing is a lot like teaching yoga in the way that both the songwriter and the yoga teacher are telling a story that is based, in some way, on their authentic experience. And, Anne noted, some people are better story tellers than others. And, some folks have more insight into their experiences than others. People vary in the vulnerability and transparency they bring to the story telling. Then of course, people have different skills in terms of songwriting and putting a story to music. Some performers had a good song but did not have great stage presence. Some may have had a great experience to share but their song wasn’t moving. Still others were singing about something authentic, but not necessarily that deep or revealing. And, of course, different people appreciate different songs. And so on.
So, it seems to me, authenticity has layers. And it takes time to mine the depths of practice. It takes time to learn how to tell the story in a way that rings true without imposing on others how the practice will emerge authentically for them. And while certain practices and guidelines can be made into lists and help point the way, essentially, what we are talking about is holding a context of service so that the personal expression we bring to teaching is held in the container of helping others, not simply as an end in and of itself. As wonderful as “being real” is, there is a deeper sweetness when our “being real” serves the emergence of something Real inside the group with which we are working.
Well, more on this as time goes by.
Time to film some yoga classes.
Like so many of my students from that period of time, Amanda and I formed a deep bond and have watched either grow, change and transform through many cycles of life. I think me and Amanda have spent over 300 hours in the classroom together and that creates a connection, to be sure.
I totally understand that teachers and students come together during certain periods of life and that, in some cases, those relationships do not endure. Sometimes, we meet a teacher who is right for us for certain phase and they shift and change or we shift and change and through no fault of either person, we part ways and grow in different directions. I have experienced this dynamic as both a student and a teacher. And, there are students and teachers who grow with us over a long period of time and with whom we weather storms of misunderstanding, misperception and find ways to champion one another in and through the inevitable ups and downs of sustained relationship.
At any rate, I had a great weekend.
The theme for the weekend was The Power of Practice, which is a pretty broad topic and gave me plenty of room with which to work.
For me, these days, the power of practice lives in the simplicity of having a practice. I no longer think that getting a new pose is going to radically alter my life or my inner state. As much as I love asana I am a bit of a cynic these days about it.
Do not get me wrong-- it is never not exiting (meaning, it is always exciting) to break new ground in asana. I love it. I really do. Moving from “I can’t to I can” is wonderful and empowering. I am into it. To develop strength in my body, to turn stiffness into mobility, to connect the dots of understanding into observable and felt action is amazing. These examples of progress are profound, radical acts and are some of the boons of sustained practice. It is never not thrilling (meaning, it is always thrilling) to me as a practitioner when I experience progress and as a teacher witnessing breakthroughs is a great part of the job. I love it. I know it is important.
Having a practice, for me, means that I have a way- in the midst of a busy life and in the midst of a crazy culture- to create and sustain a relationship with myself. The way I figure it, the alarm goes off every morning and life pulls me into its sphere. And there is a lot of great and wonderful things in the sphere of my life these days. Also, there are some tough things I work with. The thing about practice is that in the midst of it all, I have a time and space and a set of tools with which to cultivate a relationship with myself and with my own energy.
I think about it from an outdoor education perspective a lot. If you are out backpacking with a group and you get “lost in the wilderness,” the best thing to do is to sit down and stay in one place. If you stay put, the group stands a better chance of finding you than if you are walking around looking for them while they are walking around looking for you.
I think that many of us are living a little separated from ourselves and are, at times, a bit lost in the wilderness of our lives. Practice, for me, is like sitting down and staying put long enough for my better angels to find me when I have wandered off a bit.
I don’t even know that I have wandered sometimes. It is not always some big “acting out” or outer drama that takes me away from myself. Sometimes it is the simple, unrelenting demands of caring for others, making a living, and doing my best to be a good person that pulls me out of the sphere of my own inner connection. Sometimes, it is poor choices, addictions and deeper self-betrayals. Obviously, there is that. But sometimes, the wandering off happens while my intentions are high, my motives are pure and my efforts are sincere. Sometimes, trying so hard is my problem.
Regardless, the point is, we don’t always wander off knowingly. Sometimes, years go by before we realize we have strayed in very profound ways and the power of the practice is that if we have stay connected to it, practice will be there to help bring us back to center. Because, once you have realized you are lost, it is really best to have some skills for staying put already in your pocket. Kind of like a metaphoric Powerbar that can feed you while you wait for the search party. I don’t want to find myself having wandered off, and also having to re-establish my practice. And, of course, having regular practice tends to keep my from wandering off so much or so far. That’s the idea anyway.
It was sage advice and it kept me in place. And she was right. Life opened up and I was able to forge more time for practice and study and it wasn’t the end of the world, yogic-ly speaking.
Well, the day, once again beckons. More soon.
Obviously, times have changed and plenty has been said (and will continue to be said here in the blgogosphere) about the changing the times of yoga, but in some ways, I always feel the my yoga roots when I teach in San Marcso. I am always reminded that what I love about the yoga practice is that it is, essentially, a fairly simple thing.
So all that being said, a good case could be made that it is not simple at all. I get that.
And yet, the stuff around the practice needn't actually be so complex. I mean I get it- there are marketing woes, branding imperatives, business worries, clothing considerations, body-image issues, real and imagined competitions, insecurities and competing ideologies. I know. I really do. I have been in the game a long time.
Really, put 20 people in a room for an hour of seated practice in the morning, 3-4 hours of dynamic standing poses/back bends/arm balances in the morning and 2 hours of restoratives/inversions/ forward bends in the afternoon and well, the seeds of transformation can be planted and watered quite a bit.
I think what I am most grateful for about teaching people over a long period of time that we get a chance to bear witness to each other's struggles and victories more than once and in more than just a glance-at-a-time. Each person is like a facet of the Jewel of the Teaching, providing real-life testimony to the value of what we are up to together. Many of the folks in the room have been my students almost a decade and so they have seen me through more-than-one difficult cycle and I have seen their practice and faith strengthened through their ups and downs as well. It's rich and rewarding territory. The value of our shared experience and lived testimony is not always in the perfect application of the teaching but in the ways we show up both flawed and brilliant, contracted and persevering in the face of the difficulty and in the ways we often find courage in the face of fear, compassion in the face of our failure and and light in our darker moments.
I have always seen them as complimentary teaching tracks that could inform one another. It seems however you go about learning anything, there are going to be gains and losses.
For instance, obviously, an online teacher can't look at your pose and tell you how its going "right" or "wrong." However, in an online class, a teacher can often give a level of information that is rich, deep and precise because they do not get interrupted or side-tracked as easily. You can also rewind and re-watch an online teacher. I have many online yoga students who use the technology, not as substitute for live class, but as a teacher training tool. They pop a bowl of popcorn, open a notebook and watch a class, writing the sequence down and noting the alignment cues and links. Obviously, that is not the same thing as getting it in the body, but it can be a lovely way to understand, learn and see the full picture clearly from a different vantage point.
We work on the pose because it is in the postures where we training our attention and where we develop our relationship to our awareness, to a greater Awareness and where we can lay down the patterns of a loving, intelligent relationship with ourselves. (Don't be fooled by all the talk about the pose, if all goes well, the asanas just keeps us busy while the other stuff is happening!)
In any given pose there may be fifteen key actions that need to be understood, integrated and executed to yield said pose. (Depending on who you ask, that number is higher or lower. I am just giving an example here, not a definitive number.) However, most of us can't manage fifteen cues in the less-than-30-seconds we have to practice press handstand. So, one day we work on one or two points of awareness. Another day, we work on an equally-valid, different two points. And the two points may or may not yield the pose on the day we are working on them. If you have thirteen of the fifteen key points already integrated in your practice and the two given today are the two you needed to complete your fifteen, then voila--you have the pose!! And it will always seem to you that those two points are "how to do the pose." But they were actually the two keys you needed and someone right next to you might already have those and need two other keys. And so on.
If we work on awareness first and and know the poses to be secondary, we get a chance to move away from the complexities of "how do I look" and "how advanced am I" and "what is someone else doing that I can't do" or even "look at me I am doing something no one else can do" and move into the simplicity of inner awareness, personal understanding and the depth of acceptance that comes with being with what is moment to moment.
When I was last here (which admittedly was a long while ago) I was writing about the Soft Skills and Hard Skill of teaching yoga and about the Yoga Teacher Superpowers, which have more to do with personal presence and self-knowledge than they do about anything really "superpower-oriented." I promised a foray into some of the Hard Skills of teaching yoga and so here goes.
be warned, if you didn't read my previous blogs and you jump in now, you are lacking some of the heart-based context that is the back story. Catch up here, if you have time:
1.) Yoga Teacher Superpowers
2.) The Hard and The Soft
3.) Know Yourself
At any rate, diving into Hard Skills which is a big part of the "How to Teach Yoga" conversation. Certainly all the spiritual and psychological context is important and the deeper messages that get filtered into our classes, workshops and trainings are more meaningful than Hard Skills like "Pose Knowledge, Verbal Cues and Progressive Sequencing Strategies", etc. And yet the paradoxical part of the process of learning yoga is that all the intangibles like self-love, self-confidence, self-empowerment and self-acceptance arise in and through the tangible work on asana, both in class and in practice. They also play out in our relationships with our teachers, our fellow students and our colleagues as well as the ups and downs we experience interpersonally are opportunities for growth and development, but that is another post for another day.
Back to asana.
For instance, how do we really learn self -acceptance in asana? Like really learn it? Not just give lip service to it, not just say it in a believable way so our students feel it, but truly and frequently abide in our own clear regard for ourself? For me, I get the most self-acceptance work done through the poses I could not, and still can not, do. Some poses I can not do because I don't practice them, some I can not do because I don't want to stop doing other things (like riding a bike or hiking, etc.) and some I can not do because of structural issues and a sober cost-to-benefit analysis. So there are a lot of reasons why I might not be able to do the pose on any given day but my point is that the "not being able" can be a teacher of self-acceptance, regardless of the reasons.
For instance, the poses I do well and can gain some ground in are the Confidence Teachers But honestly, self-acceptance doesn't come packaged in success and self-validation doesn't come cloaked in applause, notoriety and public approval. These qualities come wrapped in inability, in quiet choices made for my own good, and in asserting self-love in the face of criticism. The self-acceptance learning protocol often looks like stepping back, sitting out, trying less and feeling more.
Think about it-- How hard is it to accept myself when I am rocking out poses I am good at? Not so hard at all, truth be told. But put me in a room with people who are more capable than me or who have different capacities than I do and ask me to practice postures that don't come so readily and its not always easy to feel the same flow of self-love. In those challenging moments I have to give myself love in the face of not feeling it. I have to develop and culture these inner qualities and no one can do that work for me. I have to do self-acceptance, self-love, self-validation myself. It is a blinding flash of the obvious, I suppose, but self-love means what it says--self. Not other.
Or consider the scenario of "honoring your limits" which is great advice that all of us well-meaning yoga teachers say to our sincere students all of the time. What happens when we consciously opt out of something we can do but know we shouldn't do? Think: headstand with our neck problems, handstands with our sore wrists, lotus pose with our knee problems and leg-behind-the-head with our unstable SI joint? Easy to self-accept then? Maybe. Pain is a good teacher and great motivator, after all.
But maybe not. Knowing we can, choosing not to, sitting out, being present to the truth of the moment, and the truth of the body does not always get posted on Instagram and giving things up is not always easy even when they hurt. (Just ask any one who has ever gotten sober, given up drugs, stopped binging and purging or left an abusive relationship.)
So, all that work on self is in relationship to the poses themselves and so even if your mission as a yoga teacher is to help people love themselves more, because they are coming to an asana class, that process of self-love is going to be engage through the asana practice and there are numerous skills that helps us teach asana effectively, clearly and intelligently. I call these the Hard Skills of Teaching.
So regardless of which domain of yoga we are looking at- physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual- it is useful as students and teachers to get a handle on the process of learning as clearly as possible. So often growth- both on and off the mat- happens incrementally and then all-at-once. We often have periods of no-apparent-success followed by huge breakthroughs that seem magical and even mysterious. As teachers, the more clearly we can see what facilitates growth and learning the more able we are to craft learning environments likely to lead to said development in our students.
One good place to study how learning happens is by studying our own direct experience. Certainly, we do not all learn the same way but it is a lovely place to start because our own experience is always right there in front of us, right there inside of us and right behinds us.
In my Teacher Training programs I have a brainstorm process with students that goes something like this:
1.) Identify a pose (or some aspect of a pose) you can do this year that you could not do last year.
2.) Identify, as clearly as possible, the learning process you went through to make this breakthrough.
3.)What exactly happened so that something you could not do became something you could do?
An equally fun inquiry could happen along the lines of:
1.)What intelligent choice for your own self-care have you made relative to asana this year?
2.)How were you able to come to a loving choice for yourself?
3.)What exactly had to happen interiorly for you to back off, do less, refine or examine your alignment with compassion and self-love?
At this point in the session we have a period of journal writing where students write about their learning process. Then we have a chance to share insights and observations about the process of learning yoga asana.
The great thing about this process is that it takes a lot of the mystery out of learning and therefore hopefully out of teaching and we get to hear that for some people in the room it was hearing the verbal cue a certain way that made the difference in the pose. Perhaps for someone else the breakthrough came from getting just the right assist and for someone else it was watching a demo where the knowledge came alive. For some people the breakthrough came from more work and for others it came from letting go.
And in every case, practice and repetition is key. I like this process for several reasons. Certainly, I like de-mystifying the learning process and getting some intellectual leverage into what is largely an experiential process. I also like the process because it begins outlining the responsibility of the teacher and the responsibility of the student. For instance most teachers, when reflecting on their own breakthroughs as students, see how important their repeated efforts in practice are. And yet many teachers I work with in Teacher Training ask for "the right cues, assists and so on" as though they feel responsible for their students learning and as though there is one key to put in the lock that will open the door for every student the same way.
The truth is we have a bag of tricks or a set of skills, that we combine as yoga teachers. These skills function more like tumblers in a combination lock than they do like a key. Ideally we help students develop their own skill-set of practice so that they are able to stand at the door of their own locked poses and experiences and work the combination lock intelligently, rather than haphazardly.
At any rate, there is no telling when the right combination of information, inspiration, preparation and integration will be there for each student relative to their challenges. I see my job as the teacher to keep offering tools, opportunities and insights and the job of the student is to keep working the combination. My job is to keep honing my skills as a practitioner and a teacher and to continue to be more refined in what I offer. The student has their work to do to take what I offer and work with it, to discard it, to embellish it, and to make it work for them. No one can do our poses for us and yet people can help us figure some things out. Another one of those lovely paradoxes of yoga.
In one of our trainings we brainstormed a list of skills and Teaching Methods that we use to help people learn yoga. The list is also in my Teacher Training Manual. This list assumes something I call Pose Knowledge, meaning it assumes the teacher knows somethings about the poses and they are going to be using these skills to teach those things to other people. Now that is a big assumption and something I should probably write about before going to much further.
At any rate, the list.
What else can you think of? How do you learn yoga?
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."