Tag Archives: teaching

A bit on teaching

I don’t write much about teaching yoga. I find it in many ways a completely different skill set than practicing asana and pranayama. Way back when, my initial motivation to teach was to build community. I always saw my actual 9-to-5 job as the way to make money to subsidize my yoga teaching. To this day, that continues very much to be the case.

Fifteen or so years ago, I took over a teacher’s spot at a church in Honolulu. She taught Saturdays with a “love donation.” The church has since gone through many phases of leadership and I am now required to give 25 dollars for each hour I spend in the room. There are some Saturdays that I have to cough up $10 or so dollars to make up the difference. Other days I have found a crisp $100 bill in my donation bowl and nobody fessing up to it. Just like those statistics professors who sadistically make their students toss a coin and record each outcome to eventually reach .50 of even throws, I feel that somehow I have broken even after 15 years.

It is the not worrying so much if I am making money aspect that has given me students who have stayed with me for many of those 15 years. It is very much more of a community than a class. Most of my students tend to be in their 60s and 70s. Many of the young ones don’t stick around as the next door vinyasa studio gives them what they seek.

For most of my Iyengar training, I have fastidiously developed sequences based on the syllabus that I was learning and wrote them down following them to the letter. That all stopped when I didn’t pass my teaching portion of the Junior Intermediate I last year in LA. After that assessment, I was pretty distraught. I decided then that I should really just see who shows up and what they need and some how fit it into the clan of poses our studio is teaching that week (standing, forward bends, back bends, miscellaneous, and restorative/pranayama).

I feel that is when I started making a lot of connections. If capable students come, I give them challenging poses. If students come who are not used to regular practice, I try to give them something they can learn and practice outside of class. I could not have made it to this process without all the years to writing my sequences down however. Just like one who learns times tables, it has to be something that you can recall by rote if needed.

For now I am relieved and content that I have passed my test. I feel I can get back to the basics again. I recall somewhat resenting in my earlier days the basic-ness of the standing poses we had to learn in Intro I. Now I see that those poses are the true foundation of what I am practicing today and will be throughout my life.

 

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Observing the “led” gym yoga class

My non-yoga day job requires me to travel all around the island for various reasons, and one of my clients asked to meet at the neighborhood corporate gym.

While waiting for the appointment, I noticed a yoga class in the adjacent area from the lobby. My “yogaspy” friend Luci would have had a field day with this opportunity, so I took it upon myself to snap a few pictures.

I normally ignore yoga in these type of environments because I just end up getting upset. But out of my peripheral vision, I kept noticing an elderly student at the back of class bending her knee outside the plane of her foot and then getting back up quickly wincing in pain. The class was doing Utthita Parsvakonasana (or some variation of it).

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As you can see, the subject in green has a bad bend in her knee and her foot (which you can’t see) is like the student behind her. That spells major trouble for knee and hip joints. To see correct alignment, see my post.

I went to see what the teacher was doing. The youngish teacher had her back to the class doing her “own practice” while others were just trying to follow along. She was miles away from the elderly student in all aspects. Music was blasting.

A recent study came out stating over 36 million Americans are practicing yoga in 2016, but my inkling is that the majority are practicing under this type of “gym/fitness” level of instruction.

I have colleagues who are Iyengar Certified teachers who used to teach at this gym many years ago, but were told they had to conform to the corporate guidelines for teaching, take a weekend class on how to do so, and abandon their own “style” of teaching. In their ethics, they found teaching positions elsewhere.

This class was packed with over 40 students. And it seemed like they were all doing their own thing. As a teacher, I watch feet in standing poses. That is where 90 percent of problems begin in the pose. All the students’ feet in this class were all over the place. Torsos even more akimbo.

There is a vast difference between “teaching” a class and “leading” a class. “Leading” a class results in the above type scenario, and probably a lot of undocumented injuries. “Teaching” a class means you watch students and make adjustments before the injury-prone action takes place.

The fitness industry is capitalizing on Yoga as a cash cow. If it wants to continue doing this, it could at least show its instructors how to teach!

 

 

Ejecting a student from Yoga class?! Where to draw the line.

soup nazi

Doing Sirsasana during Savasana?! Two weeks, no class for you!!

 

I have an 8 am Yoga class on Saturday morning. That is a tough sell for potential students, but in spite of the inconvenient time, my class has grown to roughly 8 regular students. I am very forgiving when people are late to that class because God knows over the last ten years I have had my share of mornings that I struggled to get there at 7:30 to set up the room.

This was “backbending week” and I had a nice sequence progressing from easier to harder poses. The class started with two students. After the second pose, four students, after the third pose, three more students. That was fine. I knew the students who were my regulars.

Then, a half hour into the class, another new student whom I haven’t seen before comes walking up the steps. “I was at the Church rummage sale and wanted to try out your class, I have 40 years of yoga experience,” she said. I told her that we were already halfway through class and I asked her to come back next week because she was too late. She cursed and left, grumbling to others that she was “not allowed in class.”

It sounds like I was being a jerk, but I was actually practicing Ahimsa. Safety is always my primary concern as a Yoga teacher. The woman looked like she had some health concerns as she had an unsteady gait walking up the steps. She also appeared to lack good judgement by assuming that walking into an unfamiliar class that was already in progress was okay.

Before a new student comes to class, I like to get a brief history of any medical problems they have. I am not a doctor, but I am trained to give students alternate ways of doing the postures if they have certain medical issues. For example, if someone just had ankle surgery, I will not teach them jumpings and give them alternate instructions when doing asanas that require use of the ankle joint. I am not comfortable teaching students until I have this brief dialogue with them.

So what does a teacher do when students act unsafely in class? There was a recent Elephant Journal post about what to do when students do their own practice and ignore the teacher’s instruction. The commenters sided with renegade student behavior and said teachers should  have a dedicated space in the room for those who beat to their own drum. That does not sit well with me. In Iyengar yoga, there are very precise instructions. If the student is not mature to follow them and is doing things unsafely, I would probably ask them to try another teacher and refund their money.

That is easier said than done for many teachers who actually make a living doing yoga. If you teach in a gym/fitness center environment, you’d probably get canned if you showed someone the door. So therein lies the problem: does your teaching space allow for bafoonery at the expense of liability? Does ego win over proper Yoga teaching? Are you so desperate to make money off of Yoga, that you are willing to accept reckless behavior from a student who perceives themselves as more advanced than you? Not easy questions for many.

I used to do group substance abuse counseling. I used to kick people out of group so often for not following the rules, that it was rare when a group went by without any ejections. It is sad to say that it has come to this in the Yoga community. But if you don’t feel that the group is safe because of one student’s dangerous behavior, or if you feel that the student is a danger to his/herself, you have my permission to show them the door. You will gain respect from the true Yoga students. But be careful, you may just get the axe.

 

Eating crow…and cinnamon biscuits

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After officially declaring how teaching Yoga does not make one rich, the universe keeps pounding me over the head with refuting evidence. Today another student brought me homemade cinnamon biscuits and left a note: “Michael you can heat these up and eat with butter or eat them as they are.”

Since when after Mayberry times do people actually bring you home baked goods just of the kindness of their heart? My student who brought them to me was simply grateful I did not turn on the ceiling fan near where she practices because she gets vertigo. She was very worried that I would not honor her request. What kind of Iyengar Yoga instructor would I be if I didn’t listen to my students?

So my official “paycheck” for teaching my new class so far has been one bag of fruit and one tin of cinnamon biscuits. Back in the ancient times, sadhus (wandering Yogi holymen) would receive a bowl of rice by townspeople for their teachings and practices. My bag of fruit and biscuits remind me that I am on that same path…just with updated offerings.

Of course I get paid by my studio for teaching. But if gifts like these keep coming, I may have to call my tax lady to see if I am in compliance with federal income laws. Many Iyengar teachers who are starting out like me remark how the money they make from teaching usually goes back into paying for classes and workshops. I haven’t even made enough to do that much. Perhaps when Kofi Busia rolls back into town, I will give him some homemade ratatouille 🙂

Thank you students for your kind gifts!

New classes going well!

Kombucha pumpkins I am settling into my new schedule of early morning classes. Today I had the same group as Tuesday give or take a few new students. We worked on the hip actions of Parighasana and I related them to the hip work in Vrksasana. The students took well to the instructions. I remember laboring over these poses while preparing for my Intro I back in 2011. It is easy to do a pose like Vrksasana, but to learn how to teach it properly is very difficult.

My classes have been averaging about 10 students. There was a time when I don’t think I could have handled more than 10 students at once. But because of how the Iyengar system is logically laid out, it is easy to organize many more than 10 students if you have a good plan. The shape of the room is critical to where you place yourself as a teacher relative to how many students you have. If I have less than 6 students, I will teach in a different location in the room because I don’t want to seem too far away.

A new challenge for me as a teacher is to make each class unique even though we have the same clan of poses taught to the same students two days apart. My plan is to use the class earlier in the week to go over rudimentary actions of certain poses, and then use later class in the week to add refinements to those actions. That should keep things fresh and interesting for my students.

Another challenge for me is adjusting to the early morning teaching schedule. My wonderful wife is accustomed to waking up at 5 am and is a morning person. As I rouse from my umpteenth snooze, she joyfully helps me get through my morning routine. This week she gave me simple math problems to get my brain moving. I am grateful that she married me.

I wrote in my previous post that the many benefits one gets teaching Yoga are so unique that they are difficult to write about. I will try to highlight these benefits in future posts. The one benefit from this week is that there is farmers market at Manoa Marketplace on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And since my class is early, I have first pick of the fresh produce. Today I bought a Kaboucha pumpkin, slathered it in olive oil,  and roasted it for dinner for my wife and I. It was delicious and caramel-ly. Since I’m sure all of your are tired of seeing the same version of the lithe Lululemon ambassador in the #namasteeverydamnday #bakasanadujour, I instead posted a picture of my beautiful roasted pumpkin.

Enjoy your weekend!

My playlist

my playlist

Yes, there are no songs. No Karsh Kale, no Moby, no Krishna Das. I never play music in my classes because that would detract from the teachings and concentration needed.

On a deeper level, every asana is a song, a story, a melody that can only be heard with the ears of each cell in the body. This is my playlist for tonight’s forward bending yoga class.

It may not be popular with the fitness crowd, but that is not who I want as my students. I want students who come to class to learn Yoga. I want to teach the asanas deeply and sincerely. My instructions are my lyrics, and my sequence is the playlist. The student’s inner voice is the true music.

In Savasana, Pratyahara is the goal. The non hearing of the outside world is a boon to the consciousness. Unfettered by music.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone!

Iyengar will live through his teachings

Dwi-Pada-Koundinyasana-Yoga-Pose-BKS-Iyengar

Twenty four hours ago, the world lost B.K.S. Iyengar. By witnessing the worldwide remembrance of this man who barely stood five feet tall, it is clear that he was a true giant to mankind. I personally have to admit I was pleased to see that he out-trended Nicki Minaj on Facebook.

Today the social media was flooded with tributes and expressed sadness of his passing. We are all mourning his loss in some form. I picked up an edition of Astala Yogamala from my bookshelf as I often refer to the text when I need inspiration. It is one of eight volumes that encompass many of Guruji’s writings. Iyengar immediately jumped out at me as I started reading. It is then I realized he will live on through his teachings and through his writings.

It seems like one of the things Iyengar was both praised and criticized for is his sharing of ancient yogic knowledge to those who were willing to learn. Before it was only transmitted from guru to shishya (teacher to pupil roughly translated). He was the first to teach yoga to large groups of people at once. By teaching this way, he had to innovate not only the way yoga is performed, but the way it is taught.

Through much blood, sweat and tears, he developed a method of teaching that allows the proper transmittal of the ancient wisdom in an accessible and digestible format. This is the method that we have to learn in our teacher training and assessment process that takes years, not months.

When I first started my teacher training, I asked another Iyengar student if she thought the method would die out because it was so hard to get certified. She replied “just the opposite, that will make the method live longer because of the purity of the teaching.” I am just now starting to see the wisdom of her statement.

There are amazingly few certified Iyengar teachers worldwide compared to other styles. There are less than 1000 in the US as of last count. In contrast, Yoga Alliance has more than 40,000 registered yoga teachers in the US. Go to any US city and look up an Iyengar studio, and you will always find it on page 3 or 4 of Yelp.

Iyengar yoga is an obscure and distastful style to newcomers and young people. It requires a discipline that is reminiscent of parochial school. We don’t allow students to “do their own thing” like random handstands and half-baked natarajasanas on their own whim. Furthermore, we don’t burn incense, we don’t use a playlist, we don’t jump around (at least in contrast to other forms), we don’t have mirrors, and we don’t heat up the room. Instead, new students come into a room with strange wooden furniture and ropes on the wall. I have heard the “dungeon” and “medieval” references more times than I care to repeat. Funnily enough, the macho guys who have dabbled in serious marital arts seem to “get it” more than the Lululemon clad women.

Meanwhile across town the Corepower yoga is thriving. People there are complaining that they have been turned away because the large number of people have exceeded the fire code capacity. I have to admit that I have become discouraged at times about this. But then news comes that the teacher everyone loves there has gone away to Wanderlust or some other spiritual-du-jour festival. The students go away too only to be replenished by new students. This cycle repeats itself about 4 times a year.

Then I look at my students. I have about six in my Saturday morning class. Several have been studying with me for over 10 years. Quite a few more over five years. Then there are the ones who try it out. Some stick, some don’t.

Iyengar yoga does not attract the fitness buff. Even in Light On Yoga, you see that Iyengar at his prime does not have a washboard stomach that is much prized in today’s culture. And that is the magic of Iyengar yoga. You see something transform magnificently right before your eyes. You see a five foot man with roundish stomach land and prop up gracefully in Dwi Pada Koundinyasana from Sirsasana II. It is this brilliance that the rest of the world sees that is blind to the Western eye.

So this will be the way of Iyengar’s yoga. You will have a few dedicated students that study for years. You will not have throngs of up-to-date fashionistas breaking the fire code. But 30 years from now there will still be Iyengar yoga. As for Corepower, only time will tell…