Asana as a means, not an end

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We are in the age of yoga selfies. So much that it has almost become a form of spam. There are scores of blogs where people are trying to achieve this and that pose in 30 days. Yay! I did the splits, now what? Welcome to what yoga has become in the West. What if we were to discover that asana was just a way to penetrate the ego so we can see our true selves more clearly?

To put asana in context of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it is the 3rd limb of yoga after Yama and Niyama, which are moral precepts. The 8 limbs of yoga do not come until the second book in the yoga sutras which focus on practice. And in the second book the 8 limbs of yoga are about 2/3 the way though. There are only three sutras that refer to asana, and they refer to the “state” of the citta (mind-stuff) in the asana rather than “how to.”

Were the 8 limbs of yoga deliberately placed far back in the text? Why did Patanjali only refer to asana three times in a 196 verse text? I don’t pretend to be a sanskrit scholar. I am still quite a beginner at yoga as I have only been practicing 15 years. But my gut instinct after reading the Yoga Sutras is that Pantanjali placed asana achievement as low priority compared to the goal of having the practitioner silence the mindstuff to see his/her self more deeply and attain realization from that process.

The problem in the West is that Citta Vritti Nirodaha  (silencing the mind stuff) doesn’t instragram well. Lululemon would not have market if Westerners valued silencing the mind instead of doing Scorpion Pose. The Wanderlust Festival would have to fire their DJs if pratyahara was taken seriously. As seen in my previous post, there was a recent study that says people would rather give themselves electric shocks than to sit silently for 15 minutes. Our society is chronically distracted. We do not value silence as a culture. We prefer doing more and more and more. Has that moved us forward as a society? It certainly has stressed a lot of people out. I see that in my job as a mental health worker daily.

So what are asanas for then? They are a means to penetrate your mind via the physical body. They are a direct laboratory to asses your inner self both physically and mentally. They build strength, increase circulation, provide physical health so the practitioner can carry out his or her dharma and be of service to the world.

And if you are going to do asanas, do them properly. Not just based on the teachings, but do them to learn about yourself. Don’t do them to show how “accomplished” you are. That is just ego and delusion. One day you will get older, and be less able, and God forbid get injured. Then what? If you have been practicing yoga properly until that point, it won’t matter. Your mind will remain still, and you will know that your consciousness has nothing to do with your body.

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Subbing in the shadow of the popular teacher

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I sub a lot of classes. As seen in my previous post Why I Only Teach Two Classes Per Week, one of the reasons why I keep my own schedule light is so I can provide service to teachers who need to take time off. I have a busy end-of-summer subbing schedule for teachers who are one or two levels above me. I have subbed so often for the other teachers at my studio, that I have earned some respect. That respect is hard to earn as a sub.

I’m sure many of you have your own preferred teachers. You go to their class, see the sign that they are on vacation and that there is an unknown sub. You may leave, or you may stay. As a frequent sub, I have been on the other side of that schtick for so long that I would like share a few of my thoughts about how to deal with the group dynamics that are thrust upon the unsuspecting sub.

To see where I am coming from, I encourage you to see the movie “Bad Words” to get the spirit of what it is like to be the sub for the popular teacher. The quick plot is a 40-year-old man finds a loophole in how to enter a spelling bee for middle school students. He is booed mercilessly from the contestants’ parents on his mission to “win” the nationals. I will spare you the other details of the film, but you get the gist. The sub of the popular teacher is instantly persona non grata.

In the film, the character played by Jason Bateman is booed so often, that he waves his hands like a symphony conductor every time the audience turns on him. This is the attitude one must have to withstand the psychic onslaught of students who are none too pleased with your presence.

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I follow some hard and fast rules when subbing any class. First, I follow proper etiquette of asking students if they are new or injured or menstruating. Being a male, I have to ask the latter question delicately, but not so delicately that it is awkward. There is a fine line.

Secondly, I start and end the class during the time as it is posted on the schedule. Some teachers are liberal with their start and end times. I had a teacher in Las Vegas go over for an hour! My poor wife had to wait in the hot parking lot for me. Hence, I am stickler for schedules, and I realize people appreciate the predictability of when they will get out of class.

Lastly and most importantly, I only teach the poses that I know well. Perhaps the popular teacher is so advanced, they have glossed over the obvious details of foot placement and all the other minutia seen in my other posts about how to do basic poses.  You will always appear more confident when you teach what you know, no matter how “basic.”

There are major pitfalls to avoid when subbing for the popular teacher. The first is to try to mimic the teacher’s style. I’ve been to classes where the sub does this and it drove me nuts. You will come across as insincere and like you are “making fun” of the teacher.

Another sure way to failure is try to teach poses that are more “advanced” because you think that is what the students want. I have done this in the past with miserable results. You have a good chance of injuring someone that way, and fulfilling your prophecy of being “inferior” to the regular teacher.

When you come across the student who has an injury, you ask them what their teacher is doing to work with that injury. For example, someone with a hamstring injury should not be doing forward bends unless they have been given very specific instructions on how to do them without further injuring themselves. I would most likely not allow them to do forward bends at all. If in serious doubt, I will tell them to sit out the class and refer them to a more senior teacher. This takes me and the studio out of a position of liability. I have angered some students by doing this in the past, but it shows that I am serious about their safety. It is practicing Ahimsa.

Now that I have a few seasons of subbing for popular teachers under my belt, I am realizing that those students who are serious about yoga will stick around to see what you have to offer. The ones who leave in a huff are better off not in your class. They are not ready for what you have to offer them, and you don’t have to deal with their ‘tude. Time and time again, some of those students of the popular teacher end up coming to my regular class where I am not the sub.

 

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Who is better, your regular teacher or the visiting teacher?

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Many years ago I participated in a weekly mediation group. I felt my teacher was very wise (and still is) as he was steadfast in adhering to the weekly meeting no matter what. He even held the group when his newborn child was in intensive care! We would sit quietly in mediation for one hour, and then he would give a one hour talk. Once upon a blue moon he would pass out information about the new 10 day retreat coming to town, or the 10 day retreat in Bali, or the visiting teacher who was giving a talk at the university. He would never go to these events stating that “I used to be a 10 day retreat habitué, but I found that they don’t really provide me any more insight than I already have.”

The yoga world has more of it’s share of “10 day retreats” with so and so teacher. I admit I enjoy attending workshops with visiting teachers as they bring new insight into my practice and are current with Iyengars. But as I reflect on what I am getting from my mentoring teachers compared to any teacher I have come across in a workshop, I am finding that I have learned vastly more and progressed much further from the steady stableness that they provide.

Yoga wasn’t set up to be a discipline taught by a cadre of superstar visiting teachers. It was set up for one teacher and one pupil in an intensive tutelage format. The more I study with my original mentoring teachers, the more I see the value in the original guru/sishya format.

There is a widespread attention span disorder in our world. I feel that the yoga community is not immune. You hear people say “oh this teacher is coming, did you go to Wanderlust last year? I can’t go this year because I am going to this teacher in LA….blah blah blah.”

My question is what exactly are you learning from these visiting teachers that you are not learning from your regular teacher? You may learn a few cool tricks about how to extend the heel this way or use the prop that way, but are these profound life changing skills? Probably not.

I am not saying to abhor workshops or visiting teachers. My question is by attending all these different teachers, are you muddling the waters of discernment? Are you confusing yourself? Are you a workshop “habitué?”

My advice in my lowly Intro II status is to pick two or three workshops a year where you feel the teacher will provide you some benefit, or answer some question that your regular teachers have not been able to answer. But stick to your regular teachers. They are the true gold of your practice.

 

 

 

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The Devil’s Dilemma: Is Sustaining a Major Injury Worth It If You Are Playing In The “Big Game?”

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My wife and I have been enjoying the World Cup. We do not watch sports that often, so when we come across something we like, we are hooked. When watching the Brazil vs. Colombia game this past weekend, I was dismayed to see 24 year old Brazilian player Neymar get injured. He suffered a fractured vertebrae when a Colombian player landed on him during a heated play.

I had similar feelings when watching last Winter’s Olympiad in Russia. I was alarmed to hear that one of the mogul competitors had 9 surgeries on her knees by the time she was 30.

Lastly, during the OJ Simpson trial, I noticed his gait when he would walk in and out of the courtroom. It was obvious he had arthritis in most of his joints and ambled like a man twice his age. Please withhold any commentary whether he was guilty or not!

These three scenarios illustrate the great dilemma of professional/competitive sports: is it worth in to trash your body in your youth for the sake of the glory of one or two major events? Are million dollar contracts and endorsements worth suffering greatly in your later years? Most would say “yes” and that the money can buy comforts that would compensate for the injuries.

When I was young, I wanted to be in the Tour de France. I was a competitive cyclist in New Mexico and got the bronze medal for the State Championship Road Race, and the Silver Medal for the State Track Championship. Luckily, I survived that phase injury free. It was normal for people to break collar bones from crashes.

In teaching yoga, I am aware that the body’s joints have a certain “shelf life” that can be greatly lengthened by yoga practice. But any injury on those joints reduced the shelf life drastically. Even some of my most esteemed yoga teachers have had to have hips replaced after years of “correct” practice.

From a life span development point of view, having glory early in life is a perilous road. You read daily about the young stars who have aged and become addicted to drugs. OJ Simpson has fallen tremendously despite shattering football records, being well endorsed, being in movies, and having millions. He is currently serving a prison sentence unrelated to the deaths of his wife and her suspected lover.

Yoga allows us how to experience a bit of the glory every we practice without the “agony of defeat.” On a long enough timeline of uninterrupted practice, one no longer feels the need to experience glory as he or she becomes glorious independent of outside factors.

 

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Study: Many would rather shock themselves than to sit in silence

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Here is some disturbing news from the Western front: many people can barely tolerate to be alone with themselves. At least those were the findings in a series of research studies done by Harvard and the University of Virginia. In one case, subjects had preferred to give themselves an electric shock break to tolerate the silence of having to sit for 15 minutes without any form of stimulation.

Should this be alarming? Some may argue that this is the consequence of the electronic age. Even I have a hard time not checking my WordPress stats a few free moments in the day. But on a deeper level, this means that many people are going the exact opposite direction to knowing their true selves, which is the lofty aspiration set out in the Pantanjali Yoga Sutras.

First we must ask what the value is in sitting alone without interruption. Most of my regular readers would gasp at that question, but for the lay person in the Western world, this is a perplexing question. As a yoga teacher, I have to “sell” the idea that sitting for prolonged periods is the only way one can get to “know” themselves truly.

Yoga practice cultivates not only the ability to be alone with yourself for prolonged periods, it makes it so you have a hard time tolerating that which keeps you away from that silence, then transcends that “intolerance” into being peaceful and silent inside no matter what the world throws at you.

My mentoring teacher took this picture during her last trip to India. She said this man sits here daily for hours on end and “disappears” into the bench. This man has not only embraced his silence, he may have even attained the Siddhi of turning himself invisible!

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Some tips on how I survived assessment…and passed

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Next month starts the assessment season in Iyengar yoga. There are still less than 1,000 certified Iyengar teachers in the US. This low number reflects how difficult it is to get though the whole assessment process. Since I am not as keen in my practice as others, it took me four years once I began my apprenticeship.

Getting certified in this style requires one to be a student in the Iyengar for at least 3  years. Then, the student has to find a mentoring teacher and a recommending teacher that are at least Junior Intermediate level. One then has to apprentice with those teachers for at least two years and not mix styles.

There is a syllabus of poses one has to adhere to. The Introductory I syllabus has 32 poses that initially look mockingly simple compared to other styles. But they are not. In the apprenticeship, one has to learn everything there is to know about those poses and how to teach them to somebody who just walked in the door without every attending a yoga class in their life. You cannot get away with instructions like “feel your breath as you fold forward…” You have to instruct how to get into the pose classically from the base up.

After a year of apprenticeship, there is the first assessment. This does not mean you are certified. Passing this means that you are now eligible for certification. It is a two day assessment.

The first day there is a demonstrated practice where you are observed by senior teachers. An official just says the name of the pose in Sanskrit, and the assessors watch what you do. You are rated on the quality of your practice. If you are injured or cannot do a pose, you have to show how your are working in the pose to your capacity. After the demonstrated practice is a demonstrated pranayama practice which is observed in a similar way. There is also a one hour written exam which covers the required readings from the syllabus.

The second day is the teaching skills portion. IYNAUS has recently revised this for the Introductory I from 40 minutes to 30 minutes. When I took the assessment, I had to teach 6 poses in 40 minutes from my syllabus that were given after day one. The only sure pose will be Salamba Sarvangasana (supported all body pose, or shoulder stand).

If that is passed, you have two years to complete the Introductory II portion. Passing this means you will be certified as an Iyengar Yoga Instructor. The Intro II syllabus has 42 poses with Salamba Sirsasana (supported head pose, or headstand) being the one sure thing on the teaching skills portion. The intro II is the same two day format with a 40 minute teaching skills portion.

For those who are approaching this daunting task, here are a few things that helped me survive…

1) Teach to what is in front of you, not what you are thinking in your head. In such a high stress situation, you have to remain focused. It is best to focus on watching your students and instructing them based on what you see, rather than trying to rely on your “script.” It is actually very grounding to tell someone to move a certain way, and having them do it.

2) Do a “props drill.” On days when you are too exhausted to practice, go through your syllabus and just arrange the props as quickly as possible for each of the poses. Some officials read quickly in the demonstrated practice and that does not give you much time to set up. By continuing these drills, it helps you set up without going through a mental brick wall.

3) Research your venue site, and notice the shape of the room and the types of props they use. Some studios have vast wall space, some use only wooden blocks, some use only Pune blankets, some have weird chairs, get to know the peculiarities and practice with those props.

4) Get to your venue site early, and take some classes at the studio if allowed. This will give you a good idea of how to use the space for certain poses and get to know the props better. The more familiar you are with the surroundings, the more comfortable you will feel during assessment.

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5) Most importantly, try to get enough rest each night before the assessment. This may be an impossible task, but sleep is very important for your level of performance. It is better to sleep than to cram.

Best wishes to all candidates!

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Making the leap from the studio to a home practice

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The other night I was subbing a class and asked some of the students if they had a home practice. These were students who have been practicing for years, and their responses were a bit surprising. “I don’t know which poses to do,” one said. “I prefer just doing yoga in the studio,” another said.

I am finding that not practicing at home because of these two reasons is very common. Doing yoga without a teacher is very much like studying Spanish for 10 years in a classroom and being asked by someone from Spain where the bathroom is and drawing a complete blank. And then when the Spanish guy leaves and finds the bathroom on his own, you come up with a beautifully crafted sentence with agreeing tenses on how to find the loo.

Making a jump from studio practice to home practice is tantamount to that scene in 2001, A Space Odyssey where the caveman throws the bone in the air and it jump cuts to a large spaceship. You get a much richer experience trying it on your own! I remember when I started supplementing my classes with a home practice, my yoga experience increased exponentially.

A bit of history about my own practice. I was one of those people who picked up “Light On Yoga” got inspired, and tried the courses at the back of the book…the kind with 40-50 poses for a single practice. I remember those days. I would blast Coltrane while trying to do Parsvottanasana which I thought was a backbend in stage I because Iyengar’s chest was so open.

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Of course Parsvottanasana is actually a forward bend and the prep as seen above is to open the chest. To get to my point, I had to do the manual labor of those courses and fail miserably in my own practice before I could appreciate what my teacher was actually trying to tell me. But a magical thing happened while I was trying out those courses and could not make it past week 16 in Light On Yoga…I developed some type of internal discernment about how to sequence poses.

One of my top posts is to do Supta Padangusthasana if you cannot think of any other pose to start your practice. To develop that idea a bit further for seasoned students, I would start doing a home practice by first selecting a clan of poses on which to focus. There are Uttishta Sthiti (standing poses), Paschima Pratana Sthiti (forward bends), Purva Pratana Sthiti (Backbends), Upavistha Sthiti (seated poses), Viparita Sthiti (Inversions), Udara Akunchana Sthiti (abdominal poses), and Visranta Karaka (restorative poses). Each clan has it’s own personality and effects.

Standing poses are vigourous and are the “donkey work” of yoga. It is said that raw beginners should do at least 6 months from this clan before proceeding if their practice is regular. I would say more like 2 years for the practitioner who does yoga twice a week.

Forward bends are considered “cooling” as they calm the nervous system when done properly. However, if you have tight hamstrings, parsvottanasana (see above) is anything but “cooling” and that is why you need the prerequisite foundation of standing poses.

Seated poses are “quieting” and allow the practitioner to learn how to build time in poses. With a strong earth element in the pose, they ground the practitioner. With experience, one later uses this clan for pranayama and dhyana.

Backbends are approached with caution. The are “heating” and energizing, but you can blow a gasket (or a vertebrae) if you don’t respect this clan. It is best to start with the “baby back bends” like salabhasana before getting too adventurous.

Inversions are also approached with care. They have an assertive effect on blood circulation. If you have any blood pressure issues, you should consult your teacher and your doctor. It is also not advised for women not to do this while menstruating. Once that is out of the way inversions should be a daily practice and advised to do in the evening as they contract many of the ill effects of sitting throughout the day.

Abdominal poses can be treated more like a garnish, more than an entree and can be interspersed between poses in certain sequences. These are poses like Paripoona Navasana, and Supta Padangusthasana. However, I have been to many classes where all we did was abdominal poses.

Lastly, restorative poses are done for several reasons. I like to think of them as “repairing” myself for any mistakes I made in my other clans. In the Iyengar style, women who are menstruating should adhere to restorative practice during their cycle and omit inversions. Yoga in the West nowadays is turning into a glorified aerobics craze, and this clan allow the practitioner to start focusing on the inward aspects of the practice.

To start one’s own practice, I would chose a clan according to experience and energy level. Yoga is an art, a science, and a philosophy. By doing your own practice, you practice the art. You construct what you need to do. You explore concepts that you are curious about. You will fail. You will succeed.

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Why I only teach two classes per week

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My most viewed blog entry certainly isn’t one of my “great” writings about asana or insights into my practice. It’s my teaching schedule page. I’m sure an equally shocked reaction is “he only teaches two classes per week?! Why should he have any merit in his writings for teaching such a low number of classes?”

First of all, I deliberately choose NOT to make a living by teaching yoga. If I had to make a living by teaching yoga, I would be forced to do things that would attract masses of students, like play music, do some type of group vinyasa flow, or advertise. I would have to teach to what students wanted to learn and not what they need to learn. I would teach poses that I have not myself fully mastered because that is what all the other teachers are doing.

If I had to make a living teaching yoga, I would probably be begging Lululemon to mention my studio and would sell my soul to just maybe become an ambassador. I would be begging Wanderlust to have me as a guest teacher and would “do the circuit” like a circus performer.

I am always flattered when I have more than 6 students show up for class, but not disappointed if I don’t. The church I rent a space from has a nice arrangement with me, and I end of giving all my donations away to the church anyway. I have a day job that pays me enough.

My mentoring teachers are great. They allowed me to take over their Friday afternoon class which is a traditionally bad time for yoga attendance as most are through of the week and want to relax. That class is not as well attended.

The one phenomenon is that my students who stay are die hard. I have had some students for more than 10 years. They have gone through all the vicissitudes of life and still come back week after week. I thoroughly enjoy watching those students change and evolve.

But by far the largest reason why I don’t teach yoga for a living is that it allows me to practice my own yoga. Some of my greatest insights have come from my personal practice and from attending classes and trainings with my mentoring teachers. If I were too busy managing a yoga business, I wouldn’t be concerned with my evolution as a practitioner, I would be concerned about rent.

Lastly, not teaching yoga for a living allows me to be at hand when my teachers need me to sub. This allows them to continue their training and allows their students to continue their practice when they are away. It is a form of Bhakti I practice.

Down the road I may add a third class to my weekly rotation. One day I may even be good enough to have yoga pay a few bills. But for now I will keep my day job. Yoga in America is trendy now, and if Lululemon’s stock price in the past year is any indicator of how yoga in the West is heading, most who are doing it for a living will quickly find some harsh realities.

I am not criticizing those who do make a living teaching yoga and I am sorry I if this post offends some of you. I am actually quite awed in how you do it. I just don’t have the charisma or business mind to make it work for what would make me feel good about myself.

 

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Use part of your lunch hour to add a daily pranayama practice

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Yoga must have been very different back in the day. Imagine if you had joined a yoga school in India around the time of Patanjali. You would have left all of your earthly belongings to study yoga. A portion of your daily practice, aside from learning Sanskrit, doing asana, practicing devotion to your teachers, writing japas and cleaning the temple, would be a regular practice of pranayama in preparation for meditation.

Fast forward to 2014. There is no temple. There is no renunciation. You have bills and if you are lucky you have a job. To top it off, yoga is becoming now a fad with “rock star” teachers being paraded around in a glass box in Manhattan slinging hotel chains. Had enough? Perhaps you can reclaim some elements of the past by finding a quiet place, shutting off your devices, and doing 10 to 15 minutes of pranayama. That is not much to ask considering 15 minutes is only 1.042% of your day.

Pranayama is an extremely subtle practice on the nervous system, and the esoteric yoga anatomy. In the Iyengar system, pranayama is kept separate from asana practice. It requires total concentration. For beginners, pranayama is learned in Savasana (corpse pose) with support that expands the chest cavity. I would highly recommend getting Light On Pranayama and studying with a certified teacher before getting too “experimental” with pranayama. Iyengar strongly suggests it could be harmful if done improperly.

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I have found lunchtime to be optimal for my pranayama practice. It corresponds nicely to one’s natural circadian rhythm around “siesta time.” I can find a quiet place, set up my blankets, do 15 minutes of pranayama/savasana, and then eat my lunch. Since I am a case manager, I usually have the freedom to choose where I can do this. If you are in an office you can find an empty room or quiet area.

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My preferred pranayama setup

Today, I did pranayamas with a “breathing out” emphasis to reduce my job related stress. I did Ujjayi II, Viloma II, and Bhramari 2A and 2B (see Light on Pranayama). Afterwards it was like hitting the “reset” button. I was able take on my challenging daily tasks with a clear mind and and a sense of hopefulness that had been absent for the previous part of the day.

Another advantage of doing pranayama is that you don’t need any special workout/yoga clothing. Just make sure your clothing does not constrict your breathing. Having a regular pranayama practice is nowhere near as flashy as the ubiquitous #instagramyogis that swarm the interwebs, but true yoga is done for the inward experience.

 

Posted in BKS Iyengar, Home practice, Iyengar, Pranayama, Yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Look Twice!

Look Twice!

A photo is worth a thousand words. This one left me speechless.

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