Thursday, June 25, 2009

5 weeks to go...

In 5 weeks today my teacher training starts!!! It's pretty scary but at the same time I think I will be as ready as I'll ever be. I've been practicing almost every day for the past few months, teaching twice a week, and recently I started taking classes 3x a week at lunchtime.

Taking classes again has been an amazing experience. It was really serendipitous that I found these classes just as I'm preparing for my training. My teacher is a very experienced Yogi, a brand apart from the usual drop-in studio teachers who are not significantly older than I am. This teacher has maturity and many years of a dedicated practice. He pushes us to completely new understandings of poses while making sure that we maintain rigorous attention to the form of poses. He makes us take our time coming in so that we pay in-depth attention to our alignment and muscular activation in each pose - and then once we're there, he helps us to explore each pose deeply.

In English that translates as: "ouch"!! :) In a "oh, I have muscles there I never even knew about until I felt them every time I moved? This had sure better make me grow as a person..." kind of way.

It makes me feel again like I felt when I first came to Yoga, when I'd walk out of pretty much every class with the above sentiments. It also makes me realize the areas in which I've been lenient in my own practice. With a home practice it is so easy to be unaware of the things you're doing wrong or to ignore the poses you aren't as good at. It's easy to get egotistical, thinking "oh, yeah, I've got that pose down". But a good teacher reminds you that you've never "got a pose down". Even in perfect alignment you can always put more energy or effort into a pose, explore it more deeply, feel it more fully, or at the very least, be more connected to your breath.

So, the countdown has really started... Every day I'm trying to be a better teacher, but I'm finding it difficult to strike the right balance between giving good instructions for each pose, and keeping the class moving at a good pace. How do you 'slow down' your teaching enough to really help students get the most out of each pose, without slowing down the class too much? How much instruction is enough?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Practicing yoga is practicing life

Last week I had a lesson in Karma Yoga. I had adopted a stray cat (or rather, she had adopted me), and for almost a year had been feeding her. She was a lovely cat with a sweet disposition, and desperately wanted to be adopted by me (which my actual cat was having NONE of!).

She was always in fragile health but we had fed her up and she was seeming pretty strong and healthy. So last weekend I took her to the vet to be spayed, in hopes that once she had had the operation we could find a family to adopt her. I was a bit worried that she wouldn't be strong enough and I warned the vet about her fragile health. He thought she would be ok - but sadly, she wasn't, and died during the operation. :( Oh, tears!!!!

I felt terrible. I felt like I had betrayed her. I replayed her pitiful meows from inside the cat-box in the car as I was driving her to her doom. I regretted ever taking her to the vet and I wished I had just let her be.

But then I remembered my own post about Karma Yoga - that action is better than inaction. The intentions of my action were good. I did a better thing by trying to do something good for this cat than by doing nothing at all. We can't let our lives be ruled by attachment to consequences - good or bad. The intention is, has to be, the guiding principle that we live by.

Lesson in point - but I will still miss Patches the cat.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

It's all about attitude

Attitude refers to the way we express ourselves. Interestingly, it is derives from the Latin word for 'fit', and from the Italian "attitudine" which means "fitness" or "posture". How 'fitting' for Yoga because indeed much of a person's attitude is carried in their posture.

A teacher can encourage students towards a positive attitude, as defined from a Yoga perspective and guided by the yamas and the niyamas, leading students towards a non-harming, non-grasping, focused Yoga practice. One of the key things I have heard teachers remind their classes is that a pose is not about results but about effort. Being in touch with your body and putting in the right amount of effort in a way that challenges you while respecting your needs and avoids the risk of injury is a key ability to develop a balanced practice.

Most importantly in the Yoga studio, though, is the teacher's attitude, because this sets the pace for the entire class. A Yoga journal article for teachers ( expresses this perfectly by reminding teachers to pay attention to their posture, since the way you carry yourself is the first thing students will notice as they come into class. Body language can be a simple yet powerful tool to create an atmosphere of trust and comfort for a new student.

Much of a teacher's attitude comes from their own history and personal approach to Yoga - are you playful or serious, quiet or vocal, lenient or strict, or somewhere in between? For me, the most important thing for a teacher to consider is whether or not they are acting according to the principles of Yoga. Are you teaching from your ego, seeking acclaim or admiration from your students? Or are you allowing knowledge to be channeled through you, teaching from a humble standpoint instead of grasping at results?

A recent experience I had puts this in point for me: the other day I was leading an informal group of Yogis who wanted to try salamba sirsasana, supported headstand. As I explained the steps for coming into the pose against a wall, I decided to demonstrate the pose, but it was hard for them to see me with my back against the wall. Acting quickly, I decided to demonstrate the pose in the open, re-positioned my mat, and lifted up. All good until I remembered where I was, and with a sudden loss in concentration I promptly fell straight over backwards with a resounding "thump"! Thank goodness the group was not scared off the pose and after some better instruction had a very rewarding session in headstand!

These are the moments that Yoga teachers dread... yet in these moments we also learn the most about ourselves, and that is Yoga. In reflecting on this quite embarrassing situation, I realized that the primary thing that went wrong that day was that I did not have the right attitude. I did everything I told my students not to do. I didn't take time to prepare for the pose. My concentration was elsewhere. I was focused not on my breathing and the pose but on the group. But more than that, I was over-confident, and took the opportunity to show off for the group. Falling over was a 'tiny Karma' - in other words, I deserved what I got! So, I learned a valuable lesson - and few bruises!

However, at least I can honestly say that I demonstrated positive attitude after the fact. I did not allow my ego to take over, despite being somewhat embarrassed. I laughed heartily at my mistake and assured the group that they would be safe since they had a wall to support them. For me, it was a good reminder that Yoga, like life, is trial and error. We make mistakes, we fall down, both on and off the mat, and it's ok. A Yoga student should never feel judged by a teacher's attitude. While perhaps other aspects of our lives are not so forgiving, a Yoga class is a safe space, where the student is respected no matter where they are with a pose, as long as their intentions are good and they are putting in the right effort. And every once and a while it's good to know that even our teachers make mistakes - and learn from them. I know I did.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Yogic Words

Philosophically, Yoga is about bridging the gap between mind and body, opening the awareness beyond the senses and finding a deeper connection with the Universe.

I am often pleasantly surprised to find a reflection of this in unexpected places, such as this extract from Walt Whitman's famous poem:

(extract from Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey)

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul;
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.