Today I was listening to a palliative care physician speak with Oprah about what he observes and feels during the end of life for individuals in his care. His comments reminded me of what the ancient Yogis were acknowledging while constructing their practices. Instead of only celebrating the Life Force, the earthly prana, the Yogis also included the reality check of Savasana, the corpse pose.
You would think that reclining face up and relaxing is the easiest thing to do but it turns out not to be true for all. Sometimes at the end of an asana class, students are reclining because the teacher told them to do that and maybe their eyes are closed, but their minds are busy - planning, emoting, daydreaming - and not at all deeply relaxing. No amount of skillful instruction can convince the person who is afraid and resistant to 'letting go' to relax. That person can't 'hear' the teacher.
I know because I was like that early on ... reclining there and thinking/fearing that if I really relaxed I would lose my sense of self. If I profoundly relaxed, would I sink to the bottom of the pool of Life?
Today I would compassionately label this gripping onto the ego and smile but back then, decades ago, it was my secret. Genuine relaxation and acceptance of the mysteries of life was beyond my reach then because I was in control mode. Blame it on the immaturity of youth but that would not be correct because, frankly, many humans will try to avoid the ultimate letting go well into old age, sickness and death.
OK, so you might have clicked on my website looking for an uplifting account of the benefits of Yoga and now you are bummed. I have good news for you - if you are smart and lucky enough to choose a traditionally trained teacher who studied with Indian or Tibetan yoga masters or those Westerners who did that, you will be guided to learn to be comfortable with the full range of human experiences, from birth to death.
"A good fire burns itself completely." - Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
I was speaking with a trainee today. She shared that she had recently read an article about the economic reality of being a yoga teacher. In that article (one that I remember reading) the author stated that relying on your weekly classes to provide an adequate income is not wise and went on to encourage diversified sources of income. For yoga teachers who don't have another career or family support (inheritance or spousal), this would mean sources such as private classes, workshops and teacher training.
My response to this was, "Well, you have to have something to offer."
Teaching any subject or skill with depth and wisdom requires experience that only a longterm commitment can provide. The process cannot be hurried, especially for yoga asana teachers - those who teach the physical practices. My clearest first memory of an authentic yoga class was this: It feels like physical therapy and psychotherapy in one session. I loved it! But think about that - physical therapists and psychotherapists do extensive training to prepare for their careers. The same is true of yoga teachers, or should be.
Earning a living as a yoga teacher is not impossible but it is rarely easy or abundant. It's important to know this if you have aspirations to teach. Here are a few thoughts about categories of teaching situations.
Group classes are quite variable. When we start out, new to a studio or new to students, we'll be very lucky to make much money at all. I did plenty of these classes and came to look at them as a way to gain more experience and, most importantly, build community. If a particular class brought in enough money for weekly groceries I was pleased and still am - 30 years later.
As time goes on, if you develop a strong network of regular students, and you have a reasonable agreement with the studio, you could do well teaching these classes. Just don't fall into the trap of trying to teach more than 6 group classes per week to pay the bills. That's how yoga teachers burn out.
Private classes are intimate in nature. It is just you and the student. In that setting it is all about that particular student and how you can best provide yoga techniques for him or her. A teacher also quickly learns to respect privacy issues, establish healthy boundaries, and see clearly what an individual can do safely. Private sessions tend to be slow in pace and progress, thus requiring patience.
I've also learned from doing hundreds of private sessions that they are just as demanding and tiring as group classes. When you and the student are well matched they are fun sessions but when there isn't much rapport, they can be tedious - sorry, but it's true.
Workshops come in many forms - half day, full day, weekend, multi-day and retreats. This way of teaching requires a clear message (a theme) that is chosen in advance, organized by the teacher or the host, and presented as advertised. The best aspect of workshop teaching is the element of time - a teacher has more time to develop a theme and guide the students to explore the theme. It's the difference between a quick shower and a long luxurious tub bath.
When students go to workshops they are willing to spend time with you, lots of time, so it is important that you take their confidence in you seriously and give them a learning experience. You have to have something to offer - certainly, your own learning experiences are something that you can share.
In other words, "Don't teach what you do not know."
Teacher Training was another suggestion in the article and I can't dispute that it has been a reliable source of income for me since 2005 but it definitely is not something a new teacher should think about. Even a naturally strong practitioner and gifted teacher has to go through several years of on the job training (teaching) before she can dream of doing this type of mentoring.
My advice on this topic is practical : teach weekly group classes, many private classes and a few workshops for 10 years and then maybe, after all those experiences, you might have something realistic to offer to those who aspire to teach. You'll get hints from your students, the ones who attend your classes regularly, who will give you feedback and ask for "more". The more is what you have to offer.
There's a saying: "This affects me on so many levels."
When a person says this it is a signal that there are multi-dimensional cause and effect aspects to whatever is happening. An example would be a combination of personal, relational, economic and political levels that someone is dealing with.
In other words, it's complicated.
In yoga training we also utilize levels. Beginner, intermediate and advanced, to name a few basic variations. Levels are used to guide students to appropriate classes - the right class for each student's skillset. This being so, you would think that these class level descriptions would all adhere to the same standards, like a common language that is used by all yoga teachers, students and studios everywhere.
However, this isn't true. For example, a beginner class in one studio might actually be better described as an intermediate class in another studio. A teacher could describe her class as advanced but another teacher would describe the same class as intermediate. And yet, the reality is that every group class (2 or more people) is multi-level, even in the most advanced class that you can imagine.
Those who have trained with me in Yoga Dharma have heard my comments about this - actually, more like musings on the topic. Describing a class level and the skills required to participate in it are often determined by the studio or school that hires the teacher but I feel that it's the teacher and the students she attracts who are the real determining factors as to what the true class level is.
For example, a teacher could offer a class for beginners but the day and time of the class attracts more experienced students than true beginners. The teacher then has to decide - should she teach foundation skills only as advertised or could she offer additional skills that are a little more complex and challenging for the students that attend this class every week? If she is responding to her experienced students, her beginner class will begin to morph into something else that is harder to describe.
The other alternative is an all levels class.
An all levels class opens the door to the possibility of having beginners, including those with significant movement or learning challenges, along side experienced students who have fewer obvious challenges but who desire to learn more techniques for practice. Mr. Iyengar was a brilliant master of these kinds of teaching situations - he knew how to build up the beginners and challenge everybody else in the same class.
Even though it is daunting, teaching an all levels drop-in format class is a fantastic training ground for strengthening a teacher. If the teacher can learn to gracefully handle all the variations and the unpredictability, she'll become wise in ways that can't be easily duplicated in teacher training.
When I studied with Judith Lasater in San Francisco she had two levels only. Level One was an open door to all students, including inexperienced beginners (students with no yoga training at all). Level Two was a class for experienced students who had trained for several years. The way you initiated the process of getting permission for level two was to attend level one - after observing a student at level one, she would say yes or no to attending level two. Everyone who studied with her went through level one, no exceptions. It was a very clear policy.
The first year I attended level one even though I had two years of training in NYC with an excellent teacher. Level one was a large class and I learned that many had been there for years. Nobody felt held back. It was a level of study that methodically strengthened us and was a friendly, joyous class.
During one class we were working on jumping with two legs into full arm balance at the wall. This skill is not a typical beginner skill but Judith must have felt that some of us were strong enough to attempt it. She gave a variety of choices to us - some would try this jump into the pose with two legs while others would happily concentrate on Down Dog. I was ready and I managed to do it. After that class she invited me to Level Two.
The next week I went to the level two class. It was equally friendly but in a quieter way. As I looked around I could see some Yoga Journal 'models', students whose pictures appeared in Yoga Journal, the print magazine. I also saw students who obviously had physical challenges - when they weren't in the postures you might think they were beginners who had landed in the wrong class but when you saw them in asana, their practice was clearly advanced. Their postures were executed with discernment, intelligence and precision. When they modified a pose to suit their personal needs, it was fascinating to observe. They might not reach the end point of a pose but what they did do was beautiful.
I studied at level two for another year and then moved back to NYC. I learned so much from this experience with Judith and it continues to inform many of my practice and professional orientations today.
There really is a difference between experienced, well-trained yoga practitioners and those who are beginning the training. One Indian teacher said, "The first 10 years are the beginner years" and I agree with his statement. However, one level is not superior to the other.
To be a beginner is to participate in the most difficult level, actually. It is ironic to me that beginner implies easy when, in fact, to learn the ground rules of any complex skill is challenging and requires education, practice and patience.
This new year I am playing with describing my classes in a new way. I only teach 2 public classes per week. If I use Judith Lasater's approach, Level One will be on Fridays and Level Two on Tuesdays. And, yet, my personal inclination is to not use the word level at all. Wish me luck.
Mr. Iyengar, also known affectionately as Guruji, is seen here during a delightful moment in front of the camera. One of his favorite words was "vast" and I feel certain that he felt the vastness of this natural setting. He was a force of nature himself, as playful and strong as the wind swirling around him.
You can see his good will and sense of humor in this photo. These qualities were interwoven into the foundation of his teachings - even when he was strict about paying attention to the details of what we do in the asana. While I never journeyed to India to study at his institute, I did study with him here directly for a combined time of four weeks over the years when he travelled to the US to teach. I am so grateful that I did that because I witnessed first hand the twinkle in his eyes, his infectious laugh, and when a student was struggling, his wise empathy.
I had a few interactions with him in various situations - in classes, during lectures, and at social events. Treasured memories. One interaction that I had was a letter exchange with him. He was known to be a good communicator, especially letters, and during his last tour of the US to promote his book, Light On Life, I decided to write to him about something he said during a fireside chat with us, his students. In response to a question, he said that teaching children is different from teaching adults and it's important to change the approach to meet their natures and needs.
I won't go into details but will say that I was seeking his advice about a teaching situation I had in 2005. I told him what was happening and that perhaps I had mistakenly assumed that college students are adults. I was teaching them as if they were adults. Was my assumption at the root of a few problems that were manifesting in those classes? I sent it off with the hope that he would read it but I didn't expect an 88 year old man to respond to someone he didn't know.
But I was wrong - he wrote back within 2 weeks! He addressed me as "My Dear Suzanne Newton" and then went on to give me a few suggestions about teaching children ages 17 - 24. He raised six kids of his own and taught hundreds more, so his words were based on experience, not theory.
The tone of his response was generous and supportive, even though he diplomatically confirmed that I had made a mistake and he was happy that I was seeing some positive changes based on his talk. He closed the one page letter this way: "With love and affection. Yours Affectionately, BKS Iyengar".
Some yoga students and teachers like to differentiate yoga methods in simplistic ways, as if styles of practice are exclusive. Breath centered yoga versus heart centered. Precise alignment versus continuous flow. Mr. Iyengar's practice and teachings embodied the integration of breath, heart, precision and flow. If you've heard otherwise, please scroll up one more time and look at his smiling face, a man and a method that have touched yogis world-wide.
Today is the first winterish day in north Alabama - grey, colder, and wet. It is mid-autumn but feels, at least for a day, like we shifted into the next season.
One of the many reasons I love traditional yoga practice is the recognition that we humans live within the natural world. We are not separate from it. We are interwoven into the web that is life. Nature affects us and we affect nature. The yogis call this prakriti.
Prakriti has three primary qualities that are collectively known as the guna. Tamas, rajas, and sattva. Tamas is the grey, cold, wet quality. Rajas is the bright, hot, dry quality. Sattva is moderate: warm, pleasant, balanced and equanimous. Sattva described by one word would be peaceful.
Many traditional yoga teachers say that the essence of yoga practice is the cultivation of sattva - by skillfully counterbalancing tamas and rajas, the sattva manifests.
How do you know that you and the guna are well balanced by an asana sequence? You feel better by the end of practice. It's that simple.
If I am feeling cold and down (like today), doing some hot energetic poses could be the answer but if I am deeply withdrawn and struggling to get into my car to go to class, maybe a combination of restorative poses and supported inversions practiced at home would a better alternative.
In a past blog I wrote about the positive force field of classes and the sangha that forms in a class of regular attendees. In this post I want to say, hey, it's OK to stay home.
What's a yoga practitioner to do?
Practicing at home is becoming more and more rare. I know because I ask my students and friends about this. Practicing at home can sometimes feel lonely and tamasic, especially if you live alone. Yoga can also become one more item on the 'to do list', if you let it. Feeling overwhelmed by your to do list items - the dusty floors, the dirty laundry - and not practicing because you have so many things to do is a tamasic result. But here's a question - are you dusting and doing laundry to balance that overwhelmed feeling or did you just pick up your cell phone to text a friend or watch a youtube video instead?
If being alone is reinforcing that 'down' cut off feeling, then yes, go to a class. If alone time at your house is a very rare thing, then, yes, go to a class for some 'me time'.
On the other hand, perhaps you could balance tamas by selecting a sequence that you can do at home. One that feels right for you - maybe standing poses, maybe backbends or maybe restoratives that open your heart and lungs. Play with a prop - how many postures can you do with 2 blocks? A chair? Turn off the cell, walk away from the computer screen and step onto the mat.
The ultimate place to balance that tamasic feeling is at home. Going to class is external - you have to go there. I'm grateful that you attend my classes, don't get me wrong, but being willing to practice where you are (at home base) often requires genuine rajasic will power. You, your mat, the sequence, and the most important ingredient - your curiosity. Who am I today and how does this practice make me feel after I am done?
It can all add up to sattva.
Today is my mother's birthdate. She was the primary reason I returned to Huntsville in 2011. My husband passed away that year in California and then I turned my attention to my mother who was caught up in a similar struggle. After a few months she died in early 2012. That is how my teaching life began here - with significant losses.
My identities of wife and daughter were forever altered that year. While I can still relate to these roles, the flesh and blood people are no longer available to interact with. So, today at my mother's grave, I spoke a few words of concern and comfort towards her and then left, making plans to prune the Indian Hawthorne bush and plant some irises at her gravesite.
What does this have to do with Yoga practice and teaching? Actually, more than you would think. Asana classes end with Savasana, the corpse pose. I remember Geeta Iyengar progressively guiding us into Savasana for several minutes and ending with the words, "Let loose yourself, let go yourself." She was speaking of the ego, without saying it directly and I am certain that most of us were able to trust and deeply rest as if 'dead to the world'. The enormous auditorium full of 900 students became silent and peaceful.
Ego is what makes me feel and think that I am different from you. Even if it is illusory, it is a way of creating a boundary, a safety zone. Perhaps it is a link to the survival instinct and yet can be willingly sacrificed in a situation when saving another human or animal is more important than saving yourself.
The yogis described human consciousness (citta) with these words: manas, ahamkara, and buddhi. Our consciousness is a blend of these three mental capacities. The yogis didn't insist that the ahamkara (ego) is a bad thing to be permanently excised. Like a mask or a shield, it is useful when needed.
When I loosen my grip on what makes me different from you, I can sense an expanded world with delineations and boundaries that are mutable and permeable, not rigid.
As a teacher, how do I convey this experience of relaxing the ego and expanded awareness to new students?
Today I asked my fall semester students to lay out their mats and perhaps stretch a little before class. It was their first active class. When they all instinctively faced the big floor-to-ceiling mirror on one wall I was bemused but also understood what was happening. It was a learned response to having a mirror in the room - when one is present, you tend to face it, like it or not.
Before roll call, I directed them to turn their backs to the mirror. It was a clear message that Yoga is not about looking at a mirror image of yourself. Yoga is not a performance. Let go of using a mirror to be self-critical, let go of assessing how well you are doing compared to others! We didn't look at the mirror for the next hour and won't for the next few classes.
Letting go of dependency on mirrors to give us performance feedback is one way to loosen our grip on our egos. Instead of looking out, we learn to sense what is going on from the inside out.
At the same time, I could see that each student has her own unique persona. Generally speaking, some are extroverts, some are introverts, some are sincerely curious and a few are not sure if this is really where they want to be. Being a class of women, I know that they are all daughters and they are all students. In time I might learn a little more about each individual, although this isn't necessary. One of my responsibilities is to bear witness to all of these variations of the human spirit while teaching the asana - establishing common ground and step by step guiding the group and each person onto the path of yoga.
When I describe a student in a certain way, such as an introvert, it isn't a negative label. I simply see a student who is shy. Next week she might relax a bit and be a little more outgoing or she may be the same. It is not my role or responsibility to remove her mask of shyness (mask being another way that ego is often described). Instead, I let her be who she is. It is through the asana, pranayama and traditional philosophy that I can communicate with her while she absorbs the experiences of the practice. If she is inspired by Yoga to make changes, that is up to her.
By the end of a yoga class each student will have an opportunity to relax enough to loosen her attachment to her ego and let go for awhile during Savasana. This is a private, voluntary and personal experience that can never be forced from the outside. It is an inner process of release.
Long ago the yogis in India used the term sangha to describe a community of like-minded people. The Buddha was a yogi who developed buddhism and sangha is one of the essential components of his teachings. In other words, it's one thing to diligently practice yoga and meditation by yourself but spending quality time with other yoga practitioners is equally important.
When you reflect on this term, sangha, you will probably realize that you belong to several groups that share a common bond. Family, friends, co-workers.
What distinguishes the term sangha from a common bond group is the phrase like-minded. When I ponder like-mindedness I recall moments of genuine agreement, as in, "Yes, I feel that way, too." Or, "I agree that this is the way to do this." Or, "I have some questions and doubts but I basically agree that our common goal is the same."
Weekly yoga classes often become a sangha, especially if there is a core group of students who attend a class regularly. You'll know that sangha energy is present when you step into the studio and someone smiles and nods at you ("I see you. Welcome.") or perhaps calls your name and asks how you are today. Nothing more needs to happen beyond that - simply, here we are together doing this class.
Sanghas aren't competitive or judgmental spaces. You could say that sanghas are safe havens for the trial and error moments that are inevitable in asana or pranayama classes - attempting a pose, a technique and perhaps not achieving it today. In a sangha, you feel safe and secure while 'failing'.
You also feel safe when you have break throughs, moments of success within a pose or an affirmation from the teacher. Your fellow students are genuinely happy for you, even though no one has to say a word. You feel it.
And then there are all those classes where you know you are traversing a wide plateau of faith in the practices but not much is changing. Your sangha understands because each one has had that experience, too.
We live in paradoxical times - so connected by computers, cell phones and apps but also oddly disconnected when we rely on the technology too much. Instead of attending a local yoga class, we think that 'doing a class' in front of our computer monitor or TV screen is an equivalent experience - but, it isn't.
Watching a streamed video or DVD can provide useful information and experiences that get you going or keep you going when taking a class in person isn't possible but it can't provide a teacher who sees you, responds to you personally and who supports your development step-by-step.
Taking class in front of your computer screen won't provide a community of like-minded people who share your affinities and aspirations. You have to be willing to leave your home, go to the class, introduce yourself and for an hour or so, be in the presence of people who are dedicated to Yoga, just like you.
I train teachers - yoga practitioners who aspire to be yoga teachers and yoga teachers who seek continuing education. I first did this in Rhode Island when I asked a few dedicated students to assist me in my classes at my studio. Apprenticing with an experienced teacher is a classic way to learn how to be a teacher.
When I moved to North Carolina in 2003 I trained aspiring teachers in a formal way, joining a prominent yoga studio to become a co-director of a 300 hours training program. Unlike my experiences in NYC, San Francisco and Boston, I was in a new environment that was not predominantly composed of Iyengar practitioners like me. The local NC community had many teachers and several styles of practice and I decided to open up to the validity that there is more than one way to practice and teach Yoga.
That's where it started - in Greensboro NC - when I began to hear the phrase "gym yoga" as a description of the difference between "real yoga" in studios and yoga classes offered in a gym. Most of the complaints and gossip came from the teachers who taught in a gym or fled from teaching in a gym.
In 2011, after returning to Huntsville, I met several students who were looking for teacher training and I responded by designing a program that emphasizes the traditional Eight Limbs. These students are seeking something that is authentic, a way of practicing that has complexity and depth, and is nourishing on all levels - physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. Because there are very few yoga studios here (I believe there are only 4 in the Valley), many of these seekers have studied yoga in the local gyms at some point.
One concern of mine is the fact that once the teachers are trained and they look for a place to teach, many will be drawn to the gyms because this is where the students are and encounter predictable limitations. I am not imagining this - they are telling me that they are concerned and a bit perplexed about it.
It's true that "gym yoga" is dominant in the Tennessee Valley and in some circles much maligned. Mulling on this, tonight I had an epiphany or two ... BKS Iyengar taught in gyms in Poona, Mumbai, London and Ann Arbor and I never heard him say anything negative about it. In fact, I can report that I studied with him directly in Ann Arbor Michigan in at least 3 different gym settings at the university during an intensive there. If teaching in gyms was good enough for him, why are so many teachers complaining?
I, myself, teach regularly in gyms - one of my specialties is teaching yoga courses in colleges. These college credit courses have always been situated in a gym. I've done this since 1989 and while not always ideal, somehow I manage to give yoga instruction there.
So, now that I've written this ... I am a gym yoga teacher ... why am I OK with it and how do I make it work for the students and me? I'll answer this in a future post.
In the meantime, please note that I also teach in a "real" yoga studio downtown and conduct Yoga Dharma training courses in my private home studio.
I remember my yearnings to connect with a spiritual practice many decades ago. Being a physically active person, a dancer, I desired a practice that included my body as a key component of the quest. I wanted to be a participant on equal footing with the natural and dynamic forces I saw all around me. I aspired to discover and trust a path that would be nourishing for a lifetime.
After some dabbling I found Yoga to be the marga, the path for me. That was forty-five years ago.
It offers everything that I require. Physical movement, philosophical study, contemplation and community. It challenges me and it comforts me. It inspires me to 'try try again' as well as accept how I feel today without fear of failure.
The statisticians have noted that millions of people world-wide practice yoga. Twenty million? More? I don't know how these numbers are calculated. When I began my studies only a few Bohemian spirits openly admitted to practicing the postures. Yes, things have changed significantly.
As a practitioner who offers classes and workshops and mentors aspiring teachers, I feel a personal commitment to share the living traditions of yoga.
These traditions, the ones I learned from my Indian teachers directly and indirectly, have fulfilled me and continue to inspire me everyday ... for decades.