Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Spice Up Your Yoga Sequences

spice up your yoga sequences
By Kathryn Boland

When most people think of yoga practice (well, at least those without direct experience with it), they think of Warrior Postures and sustained stretches to “touch your toes”. To the contrary, we yoga instructors and enthusiasts know that asana practice can be quite dynamic and fluid. This is easy enough to understand with Vinyasa–style practice, which itself means “flow” in Sanskrit. Hatha-style practice can be dynamic as well, however. By adding this type of vibrant movement in your sequences, you can lead your students to develop more refined proprioception (the sense of body parts relating and working together in space), coordination, balance, and spacial awareness.

Seeing as we live in a largely sedentary culture, those developments can enhance our students’ long-term holistic wellness. Along the way, each practice can be more intriguing and enjoyable. If we can combine breath, movement, awareness of the body and its possibilities, and a bit of creativity, we can allow any type of asana practice to be a bit more interesting – and just plain fun! This will keep our students coming back to our classes and otherwise remaining committed to their practices. As a choreographer, dancer, Registered Dance/Movement Therapist and CYT 500, I’ll offer the following guidelines for adding some “spice” to your sequences. 

1) Play with levels in space. 
For instance, after cueing your students to reach upwards in Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute), instruct them to fold forward into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) or to step back into Anjaneyasana (Runner’s Lunge) from there. Just had your students experiencing upwards, expansive energy in a Warrior I Pose? Try taking that to a Humble Warrior variation, to bring that energy into something more rooted and grounded. Sun and Moon Salutations variations have these level changes, of course – but we instructors can use that wise approach when we create fresh, new variations on these sequences. Through that, we can help students move their bodies through space more efficiently and safely – as well as simply have a little more fun. We instructors should ensure students don’t move their heads to drastically different levels too quickly, however, which can create dizziness. 

2) Play with tempos. 

We can also make our sequences more interesting and enjoyable through combining slower and faster tempos, just like a composer creating a musical score. For example, after a flow such as Cat-Cow, or Runner’s Lunge-Pyramid Pose, cue a sustained stretch, core-supported pose, or restful posture. From Cat-Cow, that could be Spinal Balance (more active) or Thread-the-Needle (more restful). We can also offer guidance on pranayama with this approach; the type of breath that best supports Thread-the-Needle has a slower rhythm than the one that best supports Cat-Cow, of course. Additionally, this is a place when we can coordinate the music we play (if we do) in our classes with specific postures and flows. Creating playlists can be an art form, so be creative and have fun! Building their abilities to move and breathe at different tempos can enhance students’ enjoyment of living and moving in their bodies every day.  

3) Take joints through their full ranges of motion. 

For instance, in the twisted variation of Crescent Lunge, cue students to take “Rock Star” swings (like a guitar player making big arm circles) with the raised arm. That’ll bring the shoulder joint through its full range of motion. For the hip joint, try a sequence such as Standing Single Leg Balance to Airplane to Standing Split. Moving joints through their possible ranges in these ways can help students feel energetic and expansive - like dancers offering optimal energy in performance, in beautiful flow. A key goal of asana practice is to bring energy from one’s core to the body’s peripheries. Guiding our students to move their joints through full ranges of motion can help achieve that. It can also help make every-day functioning smoother and more efficient, as well as contribute to improved long-term joint health. Students most likely won’t be thinking about that, however, when they’re having a good time moving freely in our classes!

4) Move around the mat. 

In asana classes, the default is facing the same direction the entire class. Just like with inversions, sequencing so that students face different parts of the room can offer them fresh perspectives - literally and metaphorically. This could be through single postures, such as facing the sides of the room with Parighasana (Gate Posture), Warrior II, Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and Extended Side-Angle Pose. You could create different facings (the directions they face) for your students in even more intriguing, flowing ways - you can (and maybe you have) created full sequences that do just that. For instance, this week I'm teaching a balance sequence of Dancer's Pose into Airplane, which then grounds into a Runners' Lunge, shifts to Goddess Pose, switches to Runner's Lunge on the other side and ends in Tree Pose at the other side (you might call it the "back") of the mat. The whole sequence goes back to the other side (the "front") of the mat on the other leg. There are even ways to switch facings mid-posture. When I'm a student, I really enjoy when my instructor cues switching sides in Gomukasana (Cowface Posture) or Half-Lord-of-the-Fishes Pose by spinning to face the other side of the mat and then back to the front with the other leg on top in the posture. It can be a fun little trick that adds further joy and a sense of personal empowerment to asana practice - certainly things we want to help guide out students towards!

Please stay tuned for a following article where I’ll offer further tips for creating these sequences in our busy teaching schedules, and then delivering them to different types of students. Om Shanti!  

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Sunday, June 05, 2016

Prioritizing in Yoga Instruction

By Kathryn Boland 

Have you noticed that you have “priorities” when you teach – as in focusing on some aspects over others? Do you find this to be helpful? In a class that I recently took, the teacher would offer cues and then say "Priorities". I think that framing yoga instruction around the ideas of priorities, of certain things being more important than others, can be an effective teaching tool. When I was an Undergraduate and Graduate Writing Tutor, I was trained to see these things as "higher" and "lower" order concerns. 

In this view, writing higher order concerns are clarity of meaning, flow of ideas, and the strength of the writer's argument. Lower order concerns are grammar, syntax, and paragraph organization. In the same way, there are "higher" order concerns in yoga practice - safety and quality of experience, I’d say. Lower order concerns, in my view, include moving on to increasingly advanced postures and depth of expression in different postures. 

That's not to say that those things aren't meaningful - they are, just as good grammar means something when it comes to writing. It's just that strength of argument and content, and staying safe while having an enjoyable experience in asana practice, mean more. If students injure themselves attempting postures that they're not yet ready for, then it doesn't help them progress on their journeys towards achieving those postures. In fact, injuries can cause delays in asana practice because we need to give our bodies time to recover (or else they won't). And none of that is enjoyable, to say the least. 

As we all also know, asana practice isn't about twisting our bodies into pretzels or balancing all of our weight on our hands - it's about what we learn about ourselves, and how we grow as people, on the way towards those achievements. If we remind our students about "priorities" in their practices, we'll help them to stay connected with that very important truth. They might then come to practice more for their overall well-being than for getting into "Instagram"-worthy postures.

On another level, framing things in "priorities" can help them to practice their asanas in a way that most effectively targets the goals of a particular posture. For instance, a key "priority" in Plank Posture is engaging the low belly and energizing the whole body so that the heels travel away from the head. For Triangle Posture, it's keeping length through the spine by finding the appropriate depth of expression as well as establishing a firm base from the feet to the hips. There are countless other important aspects to these postures - but we'll only overwhelm our students by trying to deliver all of those to them. Key into what will help your students practice asanas in the safest and most effective possible ways, and guide them in those.

This approach can also make our hours teaching a bit more manageable. You may have taught classes wherein you felt like there was so much you wanted to adjust with each individual student that it began to stress you out! I suggest taking it back to priorities. Us writing tutors would try to focus the time in sessions on the "higher" order priorities - for instance, letting a grammar mistake go in favor of improving clarity of meaning. There's only so much time in each tutoring session, and only so much time in each yoga class. 

And any kind of student, be it a college student with a writing assignment or a yoga student, can feel discouraged if whomever is instructing them keeps telling them about things that they need to improve. As instructors, it can help us to notice things that could use work, and then - if safety isn't an issue - let it go. Prioritize. You'll likely have many other things to discuss and work out with your students. It can sometimes also be nice to just have silence, just the sound of breath. Students can savor that even if they're in a Triangle Pose that's not classically "perfect". Practice makes perfect, but - with the question of whether or not perfection even exists - practice makes better. Let that be enough. Prioritize. And then watch your students, and yourself as a teacher, blossom and flourish.

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Saturday, June 04, 2016

Making Yoga Cueing More Accessible to English Language Learners - Part II

English Language Learners
By Kathryn Boland

In a prior article, I discussed how we yoga instructors will likely find ourselves teaching English Language Learners at some point in our teaching careers (if we haven’t already) – and will therefore have to make certain adjustments in order for them to have the best possible practice experiences under our guidance. Here are some general guidelines for doing just that.

1) Minimize the use of images, analogies, and energetic cueing.

As a teacher, I love to use images and analogies. I think that they offer nearly all students an accessible way of understanding how they enhance their practices. They can be less accessible to ELLs, however, because they often involve idioms - those ways of saying things that are unique to a certain language or regional dialect. Or there are just simpler ways to say the same thing. Being slightly more complex or colorful in how we verbally cue is normally not a problem, and can enhance how students experience their practices.

For those who are learning the English language, it's usually more of a hindrance than a help. Keep it simple and straightforward. For instance, instead of cueing such students to put a "stamp on the wall behind you" when flexing the feet in poses like Three-Legged Downward Dog or Half-Moon Posture (a fine cue that I do use often), simply say "Flex your toes a lot". They won't have to take up mental space thinking about the object of an ink stamp and how one uses it.

And then there are energetic cues, such as "Feel your hands and feet hugging together" in Plank Posture and "Hug muscle to bone" to engage muscles generally. These types of cues can very effectively guide students to the next, more advanced level of asana practice. On the other hand, I know that I personally have at times struggled to understand and implement these types of cues.

For someone just learning the nuances - or even the basic vocabulary - of the English language, that's a far greater challenge. By all means, explore using all of these types of cues, but be prepared with alternatives. Again, in this globalizing world you'll more than likely teach folks who - because they're learning English - will need something more straight-forward.

2) Speak loudly, clearly, and at a moderate to slower pace.

Good diction, volume, and pacing of speech are important, in general, in yoga instruction. ELL students need those things even more from us, however, to make the most of their practices. Be prepared to repeat things if it seems like these students aren't understanding you, or if they directly ask you to (not always the case, so try to stay as perceptive as possible).

To assess the clarity and strength of your verbal instruction, a good technique is to listen to a video or tape-recording of yourself teaching. As with all aspects of our teaching, seeking feedback on the matter - from mentors, fellow teachers, and students - can be enlightening and helpful. If it's the content (rather than quality) of your speech that's contributing to the confusion, again, be prepared with alternate cueing

3) Help them help you teach them in a more accessible way.

If you can decipher what the language gaps might be in these cases, you can get closer to bridging them with a little patience and some mindful questioning. If everyone can be open about what is and isn't translating, then interesting and helpful cultural dialogue can occur. For instance, ELL students can tell you how they say certain things in their native languages. You and other students can then learn some interesting things, about ELLs and about their cultures. At the same time, such conversation can stamp that English language learning in ELL students' minds. Everyone is then practicing more fully, more to their potentials, while supporting one another.

That kind of openness, from all involved, most often takes active prompting from instructors. If there are language barriers, you can ask mindful, sensitive questions about what it is that they're not understanding, and if there are ways (that they might be able to describe) that you can be more understandable to them. All of that will help those students more easily follow, and then benefit from, your instruction in the future. Everyone is also more culturally aware and sensitive at the same time. If yoga is about union, then that's truly yoga!

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Friday, June 03, 2016

Making Yoga Cueing Accessible to English Language Learners

English language learners
By Kathryn Boland

Do you teach English Language Learners (ELLs)? Do you find this challenging? Rewarding? Intriguing? All of those things at once?  In this article, I'll be using that title to refer to those individuals who reside in English-speaking nations, yet whose native language isn't English. In my opinion, that term is more respectful and accurate than the term English-as-a-Second-Language Learner (ESL) - given that many of those individuals speak not two, but multiple languages quite competently (if not fluently)!

I completely understand if you’re bristling at the idea of labeling living, breathing people with three-letter acronyms. Truth be told, I don’t actually enjoy doing so. On the other hand, such shorthand is standard in educational literature. It contributes to flow and ease of conversation, which can allow more productive conversation to happen. That’s certainly a plus in my book!  In any case, there has been much recent talk in the yoga world about increasing diversity amongst students, teachers, and supporters. Much of that focuses on race, gender, and socio-economic status. That’s a crucial focus, but ethnicity and cultural background are just as important when it comes to creating greater equality and inclusivity for all.

I'm remembering how a former roommate of mine - a Bulgarian who is fluent in both English and Bulgarian - shared on social media  a very funny, yet also smart internet meme. It said "You think my accent is funny? Well, I speak two languages!" Surely, English Language Learners (ELLs) have commendable skills, knowledge, and gifts in many, many areas. They face significant challenges in adjusting to a new culture. Like steel welded in fire, such challenges can make them stronger, smarter, and more resilient.

Even before facing those challenges, taking the leap to uproot one’s life and place it into a new culture takes incredible bravery, faith, and trust in life and people’s goodness. In addition, English is notoriously one of the hardest languages to learn (if not the hardest) – because there are many rules, with many exceptions to each of those, many of those without logical explanation. The only way to remember all of that is often practice, persistence, and patience. All of that considered (as I'm sure that it goes without saying, for you dear readers, but here goes), it is not right nor fair to discount ELLs (consciously or unconsciously) simply because of a foreign accent or occasional grammar mistake.

Nevertheless, given our task of offering a healing, life-enhancing practice to all who enter our classes, this is a truth that is certainly important for yoga instructors to embrace. And we will certainly teach ELL students at some point, given the rapid diversifying of our nation. For instance, some demographic analyses predict that Hispanic will cease to be a minority by mid-century. Any feelings about that aside, it will be the reality of our nation. It's a shift that we yoga instructors will have to adjust to - or see our student base, and our potentials to spur positive change, dwindle.

Even so, communication barriers are real. At the best efforts - and at no fault - of both ELL students and teachers, some things that we offer as teachers just don't translate. This can be frustrating for both students and teachers. Thankfully, there are mindful, accessible, and simple techniques for minimizing these communication blocks. It's possible to break down the barriers.

With that, we can enhance the practice of all people involved with yoga, learn more about other cultures and the world, and simply live fuller lives! In a following article, I’ll offer some recommendations for making our verbal cueing more accessible for ELLs. I hope that they can be useful for you! All the best to you readers in your work offering the benefits of yoga to all types of people, of all languages, ethnicities, cultures, et cetera!

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Thursday, June 02, 2016

Teaching Yoga - Getting Injured and Making the Best of It

teach classes
By Kathryn Boland 

Have you been injured in another activity, but still had to teach classes as a yoga instructor? Did this teach you something valuable in the long run? Getting injured can be irritating, frustrating, and even stressful - considering that we heavily rely upon full functioning of our bodies as yoga instructors. You may have to find alternate ways to teach beginners and more advanced postures (those ways apart from demonstrating). You might find you need to reduce your teaching schedule, to give your body time to heal. These, among others, can be challenging adjustments to make. On the other hand, getting injured can offer invaluable learning - if we can remain open to that.

New Ways of Understanding Asana

Except in severe cases of injury, it's usually fine to continue practicing - if done mindfully, slowly, and cautiously. It's best to consult your medical doctor to be sure, however. And if your body is telling you to take a break, please do so! If you do continue practicing, there will certainly be sensation arising when you begin to access the injured area. It's essential information to guide your practice, just like any other sensation. Of course, listen to the sensation and don't "push" further into any particular asana. Instead, stay at that edge, or back off a bit, and take a breath or two to observe where that sensation is really coming from. 

That could help you learn (or re-learn) what muscles are working or lengthening at any given point. For instance, with a tight hamstring I came to see that's it actually the bottom leg's hamstrings that’s more significantly stretching in a Standing Split - because, with the knowledge of which hamstring was recently torn, I compared the sensation of the two sides in that posture. Sensations from a tender area can offer a bodily-felt sense of what is happening in asana practice, and thus another powerful layer of learning about it.

Refreshing Other Skill Sets 

Demonstrating postures and moving sequences can certainly be an instrumental teaching tool. But so are verbal cueing, physical adjustments, and guidance in using props. If we as instructors have limited ability to demonstrate, we might just have to more significantly call upon those other skills. As they say, sink or swim! That could help us see that we over-rely on demonstrating, at the cost of our other teaching tools remaining undeveloped. Or it could help us see how those other tools work more effectively with certain students, in some practice situations. 

You might also use the experience to focus more closely on yoga practice apart from asana - teaching on the Sutras, meditative techniques, deeper pranayama exercises, et cetera. The options are infinite! Not being able to demonstrate as fully and often as you once did could lead you towards those explorations, or return to those non-asana aspects of practice that you haven't shared with your students in some time. Thus, your current injury could lead you to meaningfully explore other teaching territories! 

In Our Student's Shoes

Getting injured can sometimes lead us to take a step back in asana practice - to less advanced postures or less deep expressions of postures. That can bring us back to "beginner's mind", that enthusiastic mindset of being ready to learn and take on new challenges. Even short of such a shift in mindset, we might be able to relate more authentically to our students who can't quite "reach their toes" in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold) or lift up a foot in Crow Pose preparation posture. 

While recovering from injury, we might experience their same occasional feelings of self-criticism and frustration. From there, we might be able to more effectively guide them in the yogic processes of releasing such negative, unhelpful energies - with non-attachment, satya, ahisma, and of course breath! From students' perspectives, it could be very validating and refreshing to see that even yoga instructors face those challenges! Getting injured is an initially unfortunate event that can reap such beneficial effects.

All in all, yes, injury can be frustrating and anxiety-provoking. But all is not lost. Remember your practice, and the Sutras’ values. Try to be patient, give your body the time it needs to heal, and see what lessons the experience can teach you. See how you might be able to make lemonade out of lemons. Your teaching and practice might never be the same

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