Kelly and I got home from Asia on Wednesday night very late. I spent Thursday at home, unpacking (and drinking copious amounts of the excellent tea we brought back home with us) and getting ready to go to South Carolina for the weekend. Friday I left home and made my way to Columbia to spend the weekend with Stacey Milner-Collins and the gang at City Yoga. This was my third time teaching at City Yoga and I always have such a good time when I am there.
City Yoga, to me, is one of those studios that embodies some of the best qualities of community anywhere. Stacey is an excellent teacher, a sincere practitioner and a down-to-earth, passionate, smart and very deep person. She and her faculty of teachers are well-trained, kind, funny and the students there range in ages, abilities and backgrounds and manage to maintain a genuine kindness for one another, good cheer in the face of hard work and enjoy laughing at life's absurdities. Being with Stacey is always a treat for me because I had the great fortune to assess her Anusara yoga certification video years ago and we have weathered more than one season of community challenges together.
It's a long story why this weekend fell so close on the heels of a major overseas trip and as we all know, it is not the best planning, to say the least. However, jet lag worked in my favor waking me up early in the morning with lots of time to practice before teaching and sending me to bed early to get my rest, so it could have been worse for sure. The weekend was very fun for me and as usual, a few themes emerged between my collegial discussions with Stacey, our personal reflections on growing older (my 44th birthday is a week away!) and my interactions with the students and teachers in the group.
One thing I am really thinking about these days is what yoga means to me. In a very real way yoga is not my religion, it is not the whole of my belief system, it is not something with which I agree on all points or try to embody at every turn. Don't get me wrong, I am really committed to my practices and I really love so many of the teachings I have learned over the years. AND I feel more aware than ever of how important it is to use the practices as means of listening to myself and my own wisdom over and above subscribing to outside ideals as a way to live up to some "yoga standard" that seems, more often than not, a bit of a moving target.
And as a teacher, this is the conversation that is interesting to me these days. How can the deep listening that we train on the mat (move your bone this way, direct your attention here, don't do this, keep that and add this, etc.) be a training for a deep listening to ourselves in other areas of our lives? There are a lot of interesting parallels to me with this because when I first learned alignment principles I remember them feeling very much like an imposition. In a sense, "correct alignment" felt wrong because it was often the exact opposite action than was happening "naturally" in the posture. In the beginning, the way I knew what to do in any pose was to watch what happened "naturally" and then just do the opposite. (Still, many times, this is a decent and dependable strategy kind of like my friend who said she knew a guy was bad news for her if she was attracted to him! Joke. But a true story.) Over time, however, my relationship to the alignment changed and I recognized it more and more as an intelligent organizational strategy and less and less of a set of imposed ideals.
It seems that what is natural to us as human beings has many layers and what often feels natural is simply habitual. Both on and off our mat, we often come to the teachings with habitual coping strategies that feel natural and feel like "who we are" when really, they are simply a conditioned set of responses. And my understanding is that yoga was originally aimed at undermining the notion of who we think we are and delivering us to the experience of who we actually are.
So there is a time to adopt a set of organizations strategies to guide our inquiry and our behavior and there is also a time to use the strategies as tools for taking the next step which is really listening to ourselves, not just always applying the outer structures; not just following the rules. For instance, it's easy to just adopt a "yoga personality" or "yoga values" as yet another false self, much in the way we just "scoop our tailbone" in every pose because we think we are supposed to, when sometimes that is not ideal for the pose or for our body type. These outer alignment tools are not the end, they are the means by which we move beyond the rule-based application of yoga into the deep listening required to know ourselves, our needs and our best expression of our own values in the moment.
The thing is- living, alignment, yoga, relationships, etc- are not the kind of things that can be nailed down into one-size-fits-all statements that will always work out beautifully for everyone all of the time and thinking that yoga can provide us with such answers is a bit simplistic and perhaps even naive, in my opinion. My sense of it is that these one-size-fits-all statements like "do not harm" or "trust in the universe" or whatever inspiring quote, teaching, realization or alignment principle we are attempting to work with has an endless array of potential applications- each with its own nuances- and the only way to know how to apply the general principles to our unique situation is to be engaged in a process of deep listening to the multi-faceted aspects of who we are.
Yoga is not an intellectual endeavor only. Nor is is a feeling endeavor only. Nor is it a physical thing only. To me it is a conversation between so many domains of who we are and between the many levels of truth within us and a set of skills that helps us navigate the complexity of the conversation through practice. it must be lived.
Certainly more could be said about all this but well, the day beckons.
Well, what a trip it has been. I am officially done with my teaching and feeling a bit tired as well as inspired by the different cultures, the unique food and all the amazing people I had a chance to visit with, practice with and teach.
I had a great time in Singapore with the group there. Many of the students started a 200-hour program almost a year ago with me and Noah Maze. And many of the students were new to the group. We had an incredible mix of experience, ability, personality and nationality yet I have to say that the group formed one of the most profound and cohesive bonds I have witnessed in quite some time.
I emphasized sequencing strategies in my teaching work and while I think people received a lot of practical information about creating sequences and intelligently crafting yoga practice and classes, the overwhelming feedback during the closing circle was how supportive the group was and how powerful it was to be in community together. That was very meaningful for me. I am such a dynamic blend of technician and athlete as a teacher and practitioner but when you get down to where my values are closest to the bone, I am very much a creature of community.
And as far as that is concerned I am a visionary, an idealist as well as a pragmatic realist. As much as I am fed by community, I am challenged by it. As much as I love to be with people I am, in many ways, an introvert and I recharge more alone than I do in a group. And as much as I believe we need community to grow and feel fulfilled in our humanity, I am well aware of how difficult it is to keep a community healthy and vital. The incredible pulse of autonomy and belonging is such a razor's edge and perhaps one of the most recurring themes in both my personal life and professional life. Obviously, these ideas could fill a book, not just a blog entry so more on all that for another time.
At any rate, the week was full and very rewarding for me to facilitate and to be part of.
Here are some scenes from the asana intensive.
After over a week in Singapore, Kelly and I came to Kuala Lampur, Malaysia for a Walking the Path of Practice Intensive. We did 3-days of advanced asana practice together which was really fun. (And really intense!) When Foo, my host, picked me up from the airport he gave me the run-down on the psychology of the average Malaysian student that he teaches: They like to practice advanced postures and try hard things and even if they can't do them, they enjoy the challenge. Also, these students fall into the "Athlete" category of yoga practitioners and would rather do asana than talk about it and like to learn technique to the degree it improves their postures but not just for analysis or knowledge. On top of that, the average Malaysian student is both humble and ambitious and more-than-a-little-shy at first.
Well, the students could certainly bend and they did seem to love to work hard, so I combed the book for some obscure advanced postures as well as some tried-and-true familiar poses. We went deep into the forward bends, the back bends and spent a lot of time on arm balances. We had a great time, the student's sincerity and kindness was touching and I think the practice-based format was great for their psychology and disposition.
I could write an entire book on teaching strategies and my reflections on how many ways there are to effectively teach yoga to different people. For some people a lot of explanation is needed. For other folks, lots of demonstration gets the job done. For many people ongoing repetition is the key, for others hand-son assistance, and so on and so on. Years and years ago, I thought that one way or one type of class format was best but I am so clear now that while certain approaches are best for certain people, no one way is best for everybody. And then, of course there is a whole book on the way the market is driving the teaching these days but that is way too big of a topic for this morning!
At any rate, we had a great time. The students were fun to be with and my muscles are sore from all of our work together! Now for a day of exploring...
Here are some scenes from the weekend. Enjoy.
So, I had a lovely time in Sydney at Preshana Yoga. This was the fourth module in a 4-part 200-hour Teacher Training Program that Noah Maze and I collaborated on over the last year. It was a very unique experience for me to teach the first module and the last module of a program. Normally, I am more involved with the course of a training program and can see the gradual changes occur as a group moves through the curriculum. This was a bit different for me and it was a great pleasure to see the changes, the shifts and the growth of a group from the first week to the last. The group that completed the program had that special glow that comes from a year of deep work, intelligent sacrifices and inner questioning that comes with committing to a transformational educational journey like a teacher training program.
In my experience, these kind of year-long programs are so profound because they create a conscious frame around our personal journey and provide a valuable lens through which to observe all the lessons that life brings over the course of a year. Sometimes the lessons are clearly "on-the-mat lessons" like we learn to do a pose we could never do before or we gain clarity about some aspect of alignment or anatomy. Many times the year is full of "off-the-mat lessons" where we are brought to the edge of our old ways of relating to ourselves and/or our lives and we are called to shift and find new avenues of understanding and expression.
For me the year has had a lot of lessons both on and off the mat and it was fun for me to look back over the year from my first visit to Sydney and the first week of the program and to reflect on what changes I have made internally and externally, in my personal life and in my teaching work. In a lot of ways for me, the year involved a very steep learning curve about who I am as a teacher and where my interests as a trainer are. I feel so much more settled inside myself and much more at peace with my offerings. I had some huge shifts of letting go, forgiveness and clarity that came with some pretty big price tags. All in all, I am a lot happier now than I was a year ago. I am so pitta that I also have a list of things I'd love to shift change and upon which I would love to improve, but honestly, even that list doesn't have the power over me it once did. I pay a lot of attention to these days when my feelings of happiness and satisfaction arise because I believe a big part of overall joy in life comes from simply noticing it when its there (which is not always so simple to do).
On a practical level, I am enjoying a back-to-the-basics approach to my teaching that, coupled with new insights and experiences allows me some greater range in my teaching and outlook on the practice. You can see below that we got the straps back out to look at leg rotations and energetic spirals, we did some good-old fashioned study of Light on Yoga and we made some good forays into partner work and prop-assists. All in all, we had that dynamic blend of inspiration, analysis and hard work that I love in an asana workshop and training.
I have Teacher Training on my mind a lot these days as the program in Sydney comes to completion and as I am looking ahead at Week #3 of a 200-hour program in Singapore. Gioconda and I are also deep in discussion about our Alchemy of Flow and Form 300-hour program we begin in the fall in Texas. To me the opportunity to work with yoga teachers is one of the things I like best about my job. This week in Singapore we will focus on Sequencing Strategies then the following two modules Noah will take the reigns with a focus on observation, adjustments, themes, and philosophy. I will come back to Singapore in year to teach a program on Advanced Postures in Practice and Teaching. So there is a lot to consider and to look forward to.
Gioconda and I are creating some very groundbreaking programming for the Advanced Level Teacher Training that I am very psyched about. Our aim is to provide a range of educational experiences that will help develop the experienced teachers as practitioners so that their understanding and range of knowledge increases through direct encounters with yoga and its teachings, rather than through teaching drills and hypothetical teaching situations. Also I am so excited to be able to dive into the heart of the alignment methodology with long group practices and for Gioconda to take the gems of those sessions into the flow-based practices throughout the weekend. Our hope is that our unique strengths and backgrounds will encourage everyone to find their own unique ways to present their growing understandings.
So much could be said on this topic but that is it for now. I am percolating with lots of insights from my trip but next up is a shower, a walk about Chinatown and perhaps some tasty noodles.
I am writing from Sydney, Australia after a lovely visit to Japan where I taught in Osaka and Tokyo. I had a wonderful time and learned so much from my visit. We had great luck to be in the country during the blossoming of the cherry trees so that was super fun. The Japanese people are incredibly friendly, hospitable and gracious. We ate amazing and interesting food. The yoga students were attentive, hard-working and super-fun to be with. This was my first time teaching with a tranlator and the insights from that experience alone could fill more than one blog entry for sure.
All in all, I can't imagine a better first visit to a country. I feel like I learned and grew a ton as both a teacher and a person.
I was talking the other day about teaching in different countries and I told my friend that in some ways it sounds exotic and yet in the experience of it, teaching in a different country is actually quite ordinary. I love having the opportunity to travel, to visit different cultures and I consider it my great and good fortune to get to teach yoga to people all over thr world. But the thing is, people who do yoga in every country are also very simliar to each other and the task of teaching yoga postures is very simlilar no matter what language we speak. There is the pose, how to do the pose, how to unlock the energy of it, how to keep it safe, how to deepen it and so on andno matter what country the class is in.
Even travelling to teach yoga in America gives me lots of chances to experience regional differences and there are certainly cultural differences country to country. I am not discounting that aspects of the work in any way. Those differences are part of what makes what I do fun for me. And I have always love travelling and exploring different places so I also enjoy that part of my job. And I am somewhat amazed that people invite me to come teach in places that require crossing an ocean. It’s definitely a cool thing and I am grateful for the opportunites so many wonderful hosts and students make possible. Having said all that, the actual teaching of the actual yoga is very ordinary to me.
I think because yoga is aiming us at a deeper layer of who we are than where our cultural identities reside what I notice most about teaching in different countries and with people of different cultures is how similar the work is and how similar the people are who practice yoga. I benefit a lot from considering our differences and every visit teaches me so much about myself and what makes me tick but my repeated experience on the road is a return to how much alike we are as people and as practitioners.
More on this soon. In the meantime, here are some scenes and pcitures to enjoy.
Scenes from Osaka
Teaching Moment in Osaka
A Few Pictures From Out and About inTokyo
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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."