Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Teaching Yoga Classes that Dissolve Anger: Relaxation Breath

Dissolve Anger
By Virginia Iversen, M.Ed

Although it is snowing today, the spring season is one week away and with the advent of a new season; many Yoga practitioners and teachers will be starting new projects, courses and various training programs. As the pace of life begins to shift from season to season, many of us can easily become overwhelmed with the increased number of items on our to-do list. As anxiety levels begin to escalate with the increased pace of life and number of daily obligations, irritation and even angry feelings may begin to arise.

When this happens, many people find that they are holding quite a bit of stress and tension in their bodies, including breathing in a shallow manner. By offering your Yoga students a balanced and comprehensive practice of postures, breathing exercises and relaxation techniques, you will help them to maintain an inner state of equilibrium. The more physically challenging and vigorous forms of Yoga is wonderful for relieving stress and tension from the body and increasing the flow of vital life force energy throughout the entire body-mind complex.

Some of the more vigorous forms of asanas that help to wring deeply held muscular tension out of the body are the Ashtanga and Power Yoga systems. These systems are based on linking the postures together by continually flowing through a series of Sun Salutations.

This long, dance-like flow, which usually that lasts up to an hour or longer, leaves little room in the body or mind for holding onto physical tension or focusing on distressing thoughts in the mind. Flowing, vinyasa-based Yoga practices are especially powerful when they are performed in conjunction with pranayama exercises.

During the physically active portion of a power or vinyasa Yoga class, the postures are usually performed in tandem with Ujjayi Pranayama. This ocean-sounding breath is both energizing and relaxing. It also effectively stokes the inner fire that nourishes our vital life force energy. At the end of a Yoga class, a very effective breathing exercise for promoting deep rest is the Relaxation Breath.  Essentially, the Relaxation Breath shifts the body from being propelled by the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is also known as the fight or flight nervous system. Yoga practitioners as high levels of adrenalin and intense activity often experience this. For instance, imagine that you have just enjoyed a double espresso at your favorite coffee shop. As you start to feel the caffeine elevate your mood and your energy level, you probably feel like you could take on the world! This is the more positive side of the sympathetic nervous system. However, this heightened level of energy can also quickly swing into impatience, irritation and anger, which is the less attractive aspect of the “double-edge sword” of the sympathetic nervous system.

In order to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems during the course of your classes, it is important to guide your students through a comprehensive practice of both active and relaxing Yoga postures, as well a few well-placed breathing exercises. The Relaxation Breath is a very simple breathing exercise that is optimally practiced during the final portion of a Yoga class.

Practicing this calming pranayama technique is a wonderful way to lead your students into a deeply restorative Shavasana. When you are ready to teach Relaxation Breath, ask your students to sit in a comfortable seated position or to lie down in Shavasana.

You may wish to offer your students Yoga bolsters to place underneath their knees if they are resting in Corpse Pose. This additional support will help to relieve any accumulated tension in the lower back. When your students are ready, have them breath in for a count of four and exhale for a count of eight. Continue the practice of Relaxation Breath for several minutes in a continuous fashion. By elongating the exhalation, the body naturally shifts from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system, which will allow anxiety, impatience and anger to naturally dissolve from the body and mind.

© Copyright – Virginia Iversen / Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division

Please feel free to share our posts with your friends, colleagues, and favorite social media networks.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Common Dangers in Backbending and How We Cue to Prevent Them

how we cue
By Kathryn Boland 

Do you see students practicing backbends in similar potentially dangerous ways? Do you have strategies for working against this - proactively and/or retroactively? Backbending has incredible benefits- contributing to strength-building, stretching out various muscles, and offering energy boosts. We're dealing with the spine, however, so the potential for significant damage is very real.

Let's look at four common misalignments in back-bending, and how we can help students avoid them (both proactively and retroactively). This accomplished, your students can enjoy the benefits of these poses without the dangers. As part of balanced yoga practice, the results can turn around one's day, one's week, and even one's life, for the better. Om Shanti, dear instructor colleagues!

*Note: Ideally, we prevent our students practicing poses potentially dangerous ways, but the truth is that will happen, and it's best to have strategies for those cases as well - a "plan B", if you will.

1) Going back before lengthening the spine upwards or outwards

-Seen in: backbends from standing poses, Camel Pose (Ustrasana), and Bow Pose

-Proactive cues: for standing pose backbends and Camel Pose, "Before letting your head and shoulders go backwards, lift up from your bottom ribs all the way up through your torso."; for Bow, enter the pose from Locust Pose (Salabhasana) and guide students to keep the same length and lift (emphasis on the former) of Locust throughout the practice of the pose.

-Retroactive cue (for all the above cases): inform students that practicing this way might very well lead to back pain, so please come down, then guide them through properly lifting upwards or outwards (depending upon the pose) for a second attempt at the pose

2) Losing the pose's anchor

-Seen in: hips shifting backwards in Camel Pose; releasing necessary abdominal engagement in Bow Pose; losing the grounding of the feet and stability of legs in standing backbends

-Proactive cues: In Camel Pose guide students to engage the front of the thighs to keep the hips from moving backwards; in Bow Pose instruct students to pull their bellies into their spines, up and away from their mats; in standing pose backbends remind students of Mountain Pose feet and the outer thighs wrapping outwards (away from each other) yet the inner thighs squeezing in towards each other

-Retroactive cues: all of these cues can be offered, and their effects created, at any point, and thus solve the aforementioned potential dangerous action in these backbends

3) Progressing more deeply than the body indicates is safe for it

-Seen in: reaching back to touch the heels in Camel Pose, despite pinching feeling in the low back; the same with raising the legs and/or touching the big toes in Locust pose or taking full Bow, or reaching for the ankles rather than the tops of the feet in the pose; going from Bridge (a perfectly effective backbend) into full Wheel and remaining there even with pinching in low back and a struggle to stay up in the pose (leading to potential strain or a dangerous fall) *mostly evident to instructors only in students' sudden shortening of breath, grimacing facial expression, muscles tensing up, misalignments, and other similar non-verbal cues

-Proactive cues: in Camel Pose cueing students to keep blocks by their sides and/or dig in their toes to raise their heels, which are closer reaches than all the way to the heels with the feet flat; guiding students to progress into those further steps in Locust, Bow, or full Wheel only if there's no pain or significant struggle, to think honestly about how they're feeling and if it's best for their bodies on this particular day

-Retroactive cues: guiding prop use, digging toes under, lowering legs in Locust or Bow (or reaching for tops of feet rather than ankles in Bow), or coming back down to Bridge Pose from full Wheel with any notice of struggle (look for any shaking or misalignments, observe quality of breath and facial expression)

4) Letting associated joints move into unsafe alignment

-Seen in: knees going wider than hips in Bow and Bridge poses; front knee going past same-side ankle in standing backbends

-Proactive cues: have students place a block in between their inner-upper thighs in Bridge Pose, imagining they're doing so in Bow Pose (in a private lesson or very small class, you could place a block there for students, but it's very cumbersome for students to attempt doing so themselves); asking students to make sure their front knee doesn't go past their ankles in standing backbends

-Retroactive cues: squeeze inner thighs towards each other to draw the knees to hips-distance apart in Bridge and Bow; have students lessen their deep bend into the front knee in standing backbends (options to help with is to lengthen stance or take the grounded version of the pose, dropping back knee and untucking the toes)

© Copyright – Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division

Please feel free to share our posts with your friends, colleagues, and favorite social media networks.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Teaching Yoga by Example: Gratitude

teaching yoga by example
By Virginia Iversen, M.Ed 

As a professional Yoga teacher, you have the opportunity to positively impact the students in your class on a daily basis. Although you might feel initially that the most important aspects of teaching a Yoga class are correct cueing techniques and offering appropriate modifications, over time you will find that helping your students to cultivate an optimistic outlook on their own life is just as crucial as maintaining the correct alignment in Triangle Pose. Of course, being comfortable and familiar with guiding a group of Yoga students through a balanced sequence of postures, breathing exercises and meditation techniques, is one of the core aspects of being an effective teacher.

However, many experts agree that the vast majority of our communication occurs on a nonverbal level. In the context of Yoga class, this means that the way that you interact with your students, and even the quality of your own inner state, will be directly communicated to those around you, whether you like it or not! If you have had a particularly difficult day, or are in a negative frame of mind, many of your students will pick up on this negativity. As part of your preparation for teaching a Yoga class, taking a few minutes to cultivate a peaceful mind and a grateful heart will go a long way towards truly supporting your students in the process of cultivating their own inner joy. 

A very effective and uplifting way to cultivate the awareness and feeling of gratitude in your own being, is to simply take a few moments before your students begin to arrive for class and mentally review 3 to 5 aspects of your own life that you are grateful for on that particular day. These “gratitude items” may include certain people in your life, beautiful places out in nature, or even hearing a favorite song on the radio on your way to the studio. The items on your gratitude list are not as important as the feelings of gratefulness that remembering them creates in your own heart. 

When you prepare to teach your Yoga classes in this way, your students will feel the positive energy that you are creating in the class, and will be nourished by the uplifting environment in the studio, while they are practicing with you. In addition, you can also share this gratitude exercise with your students during the course of your class. For instance, you may want to begin your Yoga class by asking your students to sit in Easy Seat on their mats, while they take a few deep, full breaths. In order to facilitate an awareness of the many blessings your Yoga students have in their own lives, you can suggest that they take a few moments to bring into their conscious awareness several different items, people, places, or experiences for which they are grateful on that particular day. 

In this way, you will be facilitating the deeper aspects of a balanced Yoga practice, both in the way that you comport yourself and through the introductory or closing exercises that you offer to your students, in order to help them become more consciously aware of the many positive aspects of their own lives. By focusing on gratitude within the parameters of a comprehensive flow of Yoga postures, pranayama exercises and relaxation techniques, you will create a beautiful, serene and uplifting environment in your classes, which will offer your students a place of refuge and restoration for the hour or so that they spend with you on the mat. 

In addition, by embodying a sense of peace, equipoise and gratefulness in your own being, you will nonverbally communicate the higher virtues of Yoga to your students. If you find it challenging to sustain an optimistic and grateful spirit on a daily basis, keeping a gratitude journal will help to highlight the aspects of your life that bring joy and peace to your own heart and mind. By doing so, you will naturally begin to embody the higher aspects of a dedicated and committed Yoga practice, which will inspire and elevate the hearts and minds of your students.

© Copyright – Virginia Iversen / Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division

Please feel free to share our posts with your friends, colleagues, and favorite social media networks.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Chinese New Year and Resolutions

By Michael Gleason

Happy Chinese New Year!  And Nihao if you are celebrating Chinese New Year!  The change in the calendar is very often a time to start anew, namely starting resolutions.  Anyone with a resolution will have a reason, or reasons, to hit that [REFRESH – F5] button of life.  Yoga as a New Year’s resolution, or part of your regiment of reasonable, attainable resolutions, is a great way to address the heavy foods we just consumed over the holidays and football season. Yoga as a New Year’s resolution also gets us back in touch with everyone in your immediate surroundings instead of using hand-held devices.

Sally Susinno, RYT-200, of Wellesley, Mass. Cautioned that “resolutions can be wasteful [and that] there’s no past or later, there’s always now.”  Susinno did encourage students not to wait but start with something specific vs. striving for the unattainable.  She also voiced her concern that “we live in a diet culture…[and we] binge before dieting.”  The best approach to Yoga as a New Year’s resolution then is to find a practical, productive intention such as, “May I be right with myself.”

Overall Susinno likes to see people take a more meditative approach making yoga as a New Year’s resolution such a relevant opportunity.  Other helpful, healing mantras she likes are, “May I forgive the people who imposed upon me” and “What does health mean to me?”  Furthermore, this could mean watching to make sure we did not have a donut for breakfast vs. oatmeal or anything else that keeps us full longer.  Yoga for New Year’s resolutions can also mean getting away from the ceremonial aspects of the time of year.
A way to avoid any drudgery with Yoga as a New Year’s resolution is to open ourselves to the different yoga poses and to experiment with that broad spectrum of yoga classes.  If time or money is a challenge, consider learning one yoga asana per week for 52 weeks.  While doing so spend January through August to explore the eight limbs of yoga, one per month.  More often than not most New Year’s resolutions come to a crashing halt before Valentine’s Day.  So focusing on one pose per week (one breathing exercise, one sitting exercise, one standing exercise) is the chance to stop and embrace when Susinno talked about the now vs. past or future.

With all this embracing of personal strengths and weaknesses, this recognition to forgive ourselves and others it is good then to focus on the best yoga poses for New Year’s resolutions.

[1] https://www.artofliving.org/yoga/yoga-benefits/reasons-yoga-new-year-resolutions
[2] https://chopra.com/articles/5-new-year%E2%80%99s-resolutions-to-expand-your-yoga-practice
[3] https://www.doyouyoga.com/5-yoga-poses-get-ready-new-year/

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Practicing Asteya as a Yoga Instructor

yoga instructor
By Kathryn Boland

Do you recognize the truth that you lead yoga students in practice, but you don’t “own” their practices? Do you remind them that it’s “their” practice? Does your manner of teaching bear this out - do you “talk the talk” and “walk the walk”? I began to think about this issue more deeply when an instructor friend posted a - well, we might call it a rant, but it was measured and wise - social media post starting with “Get off my asana.” 
The post mainly centered on an encounter with a fellow practitioner, rather than an instructor - who admonished her (politely enough, but that’s what it was) for doing her “own thing” many times in class. She ended on a note on how this relates to yoga instructors, and to reach out to her if we teach in a way that allows students to have true agency over their own practices. With many other instructors commenting, the discussion moved to focus on that last topic, yoga instructors acting similarly to that fellow practitioner or refraining from doing so. 

I personally, as a student, have experienced instructors affirming their belief that we should shape and create our own practices - in the framework of the instructors’ guidance. This is my personal belief as a yoga practitioner, instructor, and enthusiast. I’ve seen instructors acting in ways that demonstrate a lack of belief in - or at least lack of awareness of - this perspective. These actions include pushing students deeper into poses without student consent, admonishing students for taking their own variations, and demanding certain prop usage (with scolding a choice to not use a prop). 

I’ve seen some teachers doing both, saying they believe in personal agency in practice and acting as if they don’t - which, to be frank, is hypocrisy. It’s at least cognitive dissonance. For instance, I had one instructor (who I very much admire, as a teacher and as a person) who guided us to make it on our practices that day, modifying how we need to, but then gave me a very deep modification into Lizard Pose without first obtaining my approval. Another instructor talked about how he liked to call students’ poses “your poses”, because “they are”, he affirmed. Later he cued a particular mudra hold with a bind that significantly deepened it. “Lengthen your spine!” he said to me while practicing this, in a tone that was a small step away from scolding. 

I don’t doubt any genuine intentions, or suspect any malice. By and large, yoga instructors enter the work to help people feel better and live fuller, more empowered lives. That contradiction most likely comes from lack of continuing education (and/or quality initial training), objective observation of one’s own teaching, and mindful reflection upon it. Quality initial and continuing education offering tools for providing students with the kind of practice they can modify to what they want and need on any particular day, and is still safe, healthy, healing, and empowering. Objective observation and mindful reflection upon one’s teaching can allow one to see the type of contradiction I’ve described. 

Practice of yogic values also certainly comes into play. Ahimsa guides we instructors to not harm our students by attempting to dictate their practices, to the point wherein they do something that they know (consciously or subconsciously) isn’t best for them. Satya helps us in those steps of objective awareness and mindful reflection. And, as referenced, asteya guides us to refrain from taking something that truly isn’t ours - our students’ practices. Once we offer it to them, it should be truly theirs. 

On another, but related note - something that came up in that discussion following the Facebook post was the idea of instructors coming to feel a sense of control over their students’ bodies.  Again, I don’t mean to imply anything like intentional malice. It just seems to be something that can emerge if we are not truthful and mindful. Relating to this idea, Seanne Corne has also spoken to why we teach - for the adulation, for the celebrity, or - on the other hand - to come into contact with the pure soul within our students. 

If that soul is to fly free, it cannot be constrained by we instructors’ ideas of what our students’ practices “have” to be. It’s important to make our students aware of what we know is best in yoga practice, and attempt to bar them from anything unsafe, but beyond that - once that enters into control, that which students can sense - we are impeding the free, soaring flight of that soul. All of this is something to be mindful of and improve upon as we progress as instructors - myself included! Om Shanti on the journey.  

© Copyright – Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division

Please feel free to share our posts with your family, friends, colleagues, and favorite social media networks.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Post-Holiday Yoga - Get Creative with Twists

post-holiday yoga
By Kathryn Boland

Do you get frequent requests for poses and flows to ease digestion after the holidays? What do you offer students in response? Yoga practice overall can ease and facilitate digestion - through increasing oxygenated blood flow, stretching muscles throughout the body, and releasing tension within them. Twists, however, can specifically target these effects in the abdominal cavity. 
The holidays, for most people in the Western world, are filled with abnormally large quantities of rich food. Big belly laughs alternate with socially stressful situations. Pepper some travel into the mix (“hurry up and wait" - rushing to meet certain departure times and then remaining static body positions for a long period of time). It’s a perfect recipe for abdominal issues. 
It’s great to offer students twists to help ease these effects - yet we don’t want to offer the same kinds of twists throughout class or over subsequent weeks. Many students nowadays, particularly fitness-minded Vinyasa enthusiasts, want variety. There’s also immense competition amongst the many certified instructors out there looking for work. We most often need to offer that separates us from the pack to obtain and maintain teaching work. Finding new ways to twist during the holidays is a great way to go about all of this. Keep reading for ideas! Namaste! 

1) Vary mudras.

One might not automatically associate mudras and twists, but you do already use mudras with twists - because mudras include the relationship of the hands and the body. In a lunged twist, a front arm can either have its hand on the back of the front thigh or lengthening forward to create a “T" shape. Perhaps use one in sequences one week, and then the other in a following week. 
Another option is to have fingers interlaced and palms facing the sky, and twisting while keeping the shape. Yet another is while holding Garudasana (Eagle) arms - if students are warm and open enough for that in any particular class. These two options also work in seated poses such as Dandasana (Staff Pose) and Baddha Konasana (Tailor’s Pose). In Half-Lord-of-the-Fishes Pose, you can guide students to start with the tricep of the front arm outside of the higher (opposite) thigh.

After a few breaths, after adding more twist and length through the spine, cue students to bend the elbows and take fingers to the sky. This helps get deeper twisting into the upper back. Throughout, if students cannot reach the floor behind them, and are leaning back to reach it, it’s best for them to put a block underneath the hand in back in the twist. As in all twists, cue to find a bit more spinal length with breaths in and a bit more twist with breaths out. Added together, these tiny adjustments result in a deep twist around a long spine - created safely, on the body’s own time. 
2) Vary levels, twists in different types of poses. 
Students will most likely appreciate twists this time of year, but even more so if you can offer them at all different levels in space and in different types of poses. These include standing poses, seated poses, kneeling poses, and supine poses. You could start class on the back, and cue a Supine Twist. A bit later, in Tabletop, include a Thread-the-Needle pose (which also helps loosen the shoulders, which can get rather tight this time of year). In Anjaneyasana, in a following grounded sequence (with the back knee down), cue any of the twists offered above for standing poses. 

Do the same in higher-level sequences with High Crescent Lunge and Warrior Poses. You can vary up these twists in different sequences and in different poses, or carry one or two through as a consistent thread in the class. Help students increase the twisting effect present in poses like Trikonasana (Triangle) through cueing refinements of alignment. In Triangle, for instance, the top hip drops while the underside lung tries to spin up to the sky. These actions together help create the twist, while there’s a lean back behind the heart to make space for it all. 
In the typical progression of a class,  seated poses follow grounded poses. Use the variations listed above for twists here, again continuing with one or two or mixing them up. There are also many different options for supine twists, from one-legged to stacked knees to with Eagle (wrapped) legs to with legs in a “Figure Four” shape. As always in teaching, let your students’ needs, capabilities, and desires - filtered through your own voice as a teacher - guide your choices. Post-holiday season, twists can be a great outlet for all of that!    

© Copyright – Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division

Please feel free to share our posts with your family, friends, colleagues, and favorite social media networks.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Should You Teach Yoga More? Full-Time?

unrealistic expectations
By Kathryn Boland

Do you crave teaching more yoga than you presently are - even full-time? Have you crunched the numbers and thought out the logistics, to see if that might be possible for you? Teaching can be fulfilling and magical like nothing else, but it’s not exactly an easy career path. Our bodies, bank accounts, and free time can take a hit. It often requires sacrifice. Let’s break this down into things to consider in your decision whether or not to teach more. 

1. The why - what do you really want with more teaching?  
Looking at this question, with non-attachment and honest objectivity, can help to better understand what the shift will most likely look like for you - both in how you plan it, and if it will be genuine (and thus most likely successful in the long run). Are you compelled by the magic that happens in the classroom? 

Not to be negative, but only realistic - the life of a full-time (or semi full-time, perhaps with one other part-time position) yoga instructor is not all that magic. It’s a lot of travel, planning, managing logistics, and handling not-so-pleasant things like the politics of competitive studios. Take into account that the ratio is a small bit of magic for a lot of work. That magic might just be enough to carry you through. For many, it is. It’s just something to consider, to also not come in with unrealistic expectations. 
If you’re thinking it will guarantee a comfortable income, think again. Many yoga instructors do make a comfortable income, but that is after many years of building private clientele, student following, workshop themes and content, retreat contacts, and teacher training syllabi. It doesn’t happen overnight. 

If you want to gain for fame and notoriety, just keep in mind how many instructors there are out there (not all who graduate from teacher training actually ever end up teaching, but the competition is still fierce). Some become well-known, but far more others don’t. Again, just things to keep in mind. A general note: people, by and large, can, sense inauthenticity. And they most often aren’t drawn to it (to put it mildly). If, however, you want to teach more because you want to make a greater difference in the world, wonderful! 
The hard truth of it is that all has to come with concrete steps. Are you passionate about social justice and bringing yoga to the underprivileged? How about looking into funding for programs for at-risk youth? Have a personal connection to cancer survivors and those undergoing treatment? Look into programs at oncology centers - where yoga is practiced more and more nowadays (and more and more verified by empirical research). 

Maybe you want to make a difference in your own community. Where are the studios and other locations around you that are doing that work, which you can engage in and strengthen? The point is to find the work that matters to you, and go for it. It has to be realistic and sustainable, however. Let’s look at that next. 

2. The how - Can you make it work? 

As mentioned, yoga instructors can make quite a comfortable living, but it takes a lot of hard work and time (which can’t just be bypassed) to get there. If you’re already in a tenuous financial situation (such as with debt, college tuitions or newborn children on the way, or a medical issue that will require funds for treatment), financially speaking it might not be the right time for the leap into teaching more. Perhaps you have a spouse or other family members who can help financially for a time. Perhaps not.  
This is all somewhat under the assumption that, presumably, in order to teach more you’d have to scale back (or leave entirely) other employment, or bypass searching out and applying for perhaps more financially stable work. This is a cold, dispassionate look at financial realities.

Of course some things are worth more than money, and teaching yoga offer gifts that more stable employment can’t offer. But we all need to eat, have a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and attend to our overall health and wellness. If we sacrifice healthy diets, adequate rest, and other ways caring for ourselves out of financial need, we won't be at our best as teachers. It just all won't be sustainable.     
Other things to consider in this hard look at  whether or not increasing your yoga instruction is tenable in your unique situation, are transportation and opportunities within your regional area. If you do not have a car, and rely on public transportation, is it widespread and reliable enough to get you to a variety of teaching locations on time? Are there a good number of potential teaching opportunities close to you, or will you have to travel through several towns in order to make it all viable? 

There are many other elements to consider according to your unique situation. These are just examples of ways to ask questions about the viability of increased teaching - before you may have to learn the answers the hard way. To look at the situation with aparigraha (non-attachment)  and satya (truthfulness).  
If you may try teaching more, and you find that it’s not sustainable, that’s okay too. Every experience, “good” or “bad”, is a learning one. In a following article, I’ll discuss ways to sense when too much is too much, and those for stepping it back. Please stay tuned! 

© Copyright – Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division

Please feel free to share our posts with your family, friends, colleagues, and favorite social media networks.