Sunday, November 12, 2017

Yoga Instructor Tips for Subbing - Getting Over the Learning Curve

tips for subbing
By Kathryn Boland 

Have you ever “subbed” (substituted classes) at new locations and gotten confused with logistics? Have you been unsure of what questions to ask to be better prepared? Teaching in new places (new to you as a teacher, at least) comes with many details to learn. This can sometimes all have to happen quite quickly, such as if you’re stepping in to help a fellow teacher in an emergency. 

Other times, the process of communication necessary to make sure “subs” (substitutes) have what they need to succeed sometimes breaks down, for varied reasons. What can you as a teacher do to facilitate communication? Let’s look at some basics of understanding. Asking certain questions, if what you need to know isn’t explicitly stated, can also show potential future (longer-term) employers that you’re knowledgeable, conscientious, and thorough. 

1) The Where

You can’t teach if you can’t get there. And, with the benefit of the doubt that unfortunate travel situations happen to everyone at one point or another, it’s not acceptable to be late as a teacher. If you’ve never been to the location, if possible, take a trial run to there. If you’ve made it there before, you’re a lot less likely to get confused and lost. If you get lost on your trial run, and you manage to figure out what went wrong, you can avoid that happening when you actually have to be there to teach. 

Even more detailed, make sure you know where in the main location you’re teaching, as well as details such as where all the props and the music system is. If possible and permissible, try playing your music before class. Again, if you can iron out any issues then, you won’t have to do so while teaching (which, as many of you readers have experienced, isn’t pleasant for anyone involved). 

2) The Who and What 

At the very least, ensure that you know the style that you’ll be teaching. That seems obvious, but in some stressful emergency situations sometimes all teachers (or administrators) say is “Can you teach?”. Sometimes schedules say “Vinyasa”, but that could mean different things; we could say there’s a Vinyasa spectrum with classical Hatha that flows on one end, and “Power”/very Westernized Vinyasa on the other. Perhaps ask about the pace of the class. That will help offer students what they’re more used to - though new offerings and perspectives for them are never a bad thing! The key is balance. 

On that note, ask about the students you’ll likely be teaching (perhaps a group of “regulars”) - general ages and physical conditions, typical number, et cetera. Sometimes those things can greatly vary in one group of students. Classes of varying ability levels are challenges for us teachers, as well as a growing trend - and perhaps a discussion for another day. For the purposes of this here discussion, if you know that you’ll have a very mixed-levels class, you’ll be better prepared with a sequence, and varied options, that can offer all attending students - no matter their level - something special. 

3) The How 

It’s also helpful to know more about the qualities of teaching that the students are used to. This aspect can be a tricky balance, because we teachers have to draw from our own authentic truth in order to succeed - yet there are small adjustments that we can make to that in order to offer students what might feel a bit more familiar and comfortable for them. Another tricky balance is that it can spur growth to experience something new, yet we don’t want to introduce too much novelty all at once.

If at all possible, take class at the location where you’ll be subbing. Even if it’s not a public class offering, you may be able to arrange to take the class under the condition that you’ll be subbing it in the near future. Even better, if in any way feasible, take class from the teacher for whom you’ll be filling in. One step further, take the actual class you’ll be subbing (if ongoing). These are all levels of possible experiencing of what typically happens in the class that you’ll be covering, and something is better than nothing.  


While in such a class, regard aspects of the student population (as described), sequencing, pacing, asana style, the teacher’s general demeanor and personal teaching signature, type and volume of music (if used), and atmospherics (such as lighting, open or closed curtains, if candles and/or incense are used). If nothing else, you’ll likely learn a thing or two from the teacher for whom you’ll be subbing (or whichever teacher is teaching at the same location). 
Subbing - even if quick and unexpected (and therefore maybe a bit stressful for all involved) can be a wonderful learning experience. As with anything else in our teaching, we can grow if we remain open to the wisdom of fellow teachers, owners of where we may teach, our students, and our own inner voices. Shanti to all! 

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Pranayama by Another Name - Ways to Include it Anywhere

settling into practice
By Kathryn Boland 

Do you recognize the benefits of incorporating pranayama into yoga classes, but are wary of how some students may receive it - if offered in strictly classical form? Are you seeking methods for transmitting it that will appeal to all students? Pranayama is one the yogic Eight Limbs, and therefore just as important and worthy of focus as asana.

Yet at some locations where yoga classes happen, students may find it overly esoteric or even spiritual (when, perhaps devoted to their own faith backgrounds, that's not something they're seeking from yoga class). Here are simple ways to include breath work in classes that can accessible to all students. As one first tip, cultivating your own semi-audible Ujjayi breath will remind students to come back to their own breath, as well as cultivate a sense of calm in class.

1) Imagery to Build Yogic Breath

A primary step in asana practice is to create the full and consistent breath that supports us through the physical demands of the practice. That is in itself pranayama. That can be done with imagery that most, if not all students, can relate to and appreciate. They can then go forth to have a more enjoyable and beneficial practice - one they'll one to keep coming back to their mats to rediscover. It's useful to offer the following images in the quieter moments of settling into practice, at its start, so that the breath then established is something they can continue throughout practice (and maybe beyond).

Such imagery could be filling up the lungs like balloons, which then empty. Others are like bellows that fuel a fire or an accordion that consistently go in and out - two analogies that additionally layer on a sense of yogic breath's rhythmic consistency. Another rich breath metaphor is to imagine filling up the torso with breath, like it's a cup, from the pelvis to the throat. This image guides students to use as much space as possible for breath, setting that as a precedent for the remainder of practice. The cup fully empties on the exhale, and so on in rhythm.

1) Group Inhale and Exhale

I often include this periodically in my classes. Verbally cue "Breath in together" and follow with your own audible inhale. Then say "Breath out together," and audibly sigh out. This brings students back to breath, them perhaps realizing that they've stopped breathing and then guided to re-establish deep and rhythmic yogic breath. As everyone hears each other's breath, they can feel a bit more united with everyone else in the group.

Breathing together, in its simplicity yet power, is a powerful force for bringing people together. Students can perhaps feel a little less out of place, perhaps behind fellow students in capability, and more together with their peers. This method works well in periods of standing rest between vigorous standing sequences, such as balances and Sun Salutation A or B variations. It can fill space in those times, when rest is called for yet students might feel a little strange just standing and breathing.

2) Kriya Breath with Moving Flow

This method has all the stated benefits of students knowing that they are breathing, and together with their fellow students - yet can take on a different emotional purpose. In bent knee standing poses (Warrior II works particular well for this), have students straighten the front knee and bring arms up, then audibly sigh out as they lower back into the pose with its classical arm alignment. With that breath out, they can add a "Hah" or "Huh", a sort of releasing of aggression that might be held inside.  
I sometimes even have students loop their hands behind their heads and lower back to Warrior II with flexed palms, and say "Imagine that you're pushing away something that's annoying you!" Yoga class can be a safe space to release pent-up aggression or annoyance, such that students can go forward more beneficially in whatever they may need to handle. It can also help students to know that they're not alone in such feelings in the face of difficult situations, seeing fellow students also having that release, even if only recognizing that subconsciously.

Pyramid Pose (a variation of, with the back foot slightly up) to Runner's Lunge and Pyramid to Lizard Lunge also work well for this breath-and-movement type sequence. Be sure to look out for dangerous knee alignment (such as caving in, winging out to side, and traveling past the ankle) through these flows, and advise students accordingly. This is yet another way to offer pranayama that can be useful and appealing for any type of student (of course, allowing for inevitable exceptions) - with an additional emotional purpose. Why not give it a whirl?

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Sunday, November 05, 2017

Yoga Sequences - To Change or not to Change

new sequence
By Kathryn Boland

Have you wondered how often you should change up your sequences? How much? Does that seem to vary at different places where you teach? Some styles of yoga, such as Bikram and Ashtanga, have a set sequence that students practice every class. With Hatha and Vinyasa, however, teachers have the freedom to vary sequences class to class. In a way, that becomes an obligation, because students start to expect it. Offering new poses, transitions and flows also gives students places into which they can grow. It helps them to drink a few more drops of the vast ocean that is yoga practice.

Yet there is such a thing as changing sequences too drastically, too quickly - for instance, offering a calming “slow flow” one week, and then coming in with something much more high-energy, fast, and with many new poses the next week. It could also be heading straight into complex arm balances, binds, and the like without first going through the baby steps to these more advanced poses. How do we find the best balance, that “sweet spot” that we seek in yoga practice?

First, objectively regard your students and where you’re teaching. A “healing arts"-type studio (offering services such as acupuncture and massage) might very well draw students who are less interested in experiencing a new sequence every week than those who attend classes in a gym/athletic club; it’s more likely that they’re there for healing and relaxation than for fun, a sweaty workout, and feeling stronger. Of course there can be exceptions to that. Regard also what seems to the “brand" of where you’re teaching - fun and fast flows, gentle and particularly mindful movement, or focus on anatomy or yogic philosophies.

All of this being said, avoid making assumptions. Things aren’t always what they seem, at least not always consistently, and we can be wrong. Start with all of that as a baseline and then see what you see, hear what you hear, and remain open to feedback and needing to adjust. In fact, try proactively asking questions - including how students and/or administrators feel about what you’re offering, and if they have any changes they’d like to recommend to better suit the site and its students. Those things make up the transparent behaviors and humble, yet confident attitude of a true professional.

It's also wise to take stock of the students in class overall. If you're taking over a class, for instance, try to attend a class or two of the prior teacher’s. If more than once, notice how much the classes differ from one another. However many may be able to attend, it's helpful to have a discussion with the prior teacher and discuss this matter, among others. If you're starting a new class, begin with a balance of change and some consistency (with the exceptions of styles such as Bikram and Ashtanga, as mentioned, or a site’s particular brand of offering a unique class every time).

Watch for clues from students that they may seem confused or overwhelmed, or conversely are desiring more variety and challenge - just as practice teaches us to be open to, and more experience teaching shows us how to do. Then be sure to respond accordingly. Ideally, this adjustment can be done before students feel the need to speak up about their desires, but certainly adjust if they do (within the bounds of safety, reason, and majority opinion).

Achieving balance in variety of sequencing week to week is also an advantage, among others, of both practicing and writing down new sequences week to week. You have a record to look back at of the past week’s sequence (if it’s all not already in your body) and ones older than that. When you write the sequence down, you can write things that you’d like to include the following week (what you’d like to keep, and things you didn’t include this week). These notes, and note-taking process, can take on whatever level of formality that you may find works best for you. Just as with most things about this work, it’s all about balance, noticing what is, and responding accordingly. Om Shanti!

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Saturday, November 04, 2017

Yoga Foot Fundamentals and How to Achieve Them

foot fundamentals
By Kathryn Boland

Have you noticed that the feet we want in Mountain Pose are the ones we want for much of the practice? Do you remind your students of this? My students might be starting to get just a little bit tired of me talking about Mountain Pose (Tadasana) feet. I believe that the stability of many poses, and all standing poses, begins at their base in the feet. The stability of a house begins in its foundation, of a tree in its roots. Let's first look at what these Mountain Pose feet fundamentals are.

Have feet parallel and hip-distance apart, and heels slightly apart and toes together. Ground down through big toes, yet feel a lift through the insteps. With those actions is also a natural grounding down through the outer edges of the feet. Simply by the way muscles fire together, that creates a natural spiraling of the thighs. The tailbone is heavy; if an arrow were hanging from it, it’d be pointed straight down at one’s mat/floor below. Let’s now look at how these feet are ideally present in a few particular poses. 

Warrior II Pose (Virabhadrasana II)

There are many complexities to this pose, at its base those essential Mountain Pose fundamentals. Though the angle of the back foot is different, it is still important to ground down through big toes and lift up through insteps. The result will be a spiraling of the thighs that helps keep joints safely aligned and the pose stable. The angles that will result from these actions in the feet, combined with the shape of the pose, can bring a deep stretch through many muscles in the legs (particularly in the calves and ankles). 
That’s just one more reason to fully warm up before practicing such poses, as well as to take things slowly and mindfully, and modify if necessary (such as making a shorter stance or placing soft yet supportive props, such as blanket or wedge, under one or both feet). A grounded Warrior Pose can bring feelings of strength, stability, and empowerment - as well as being great for the body in many ways. 

Wide-Legged Forward Fold (Prasarita Padottanasana) 

This pose calls for a slight pigeon-toeing-in, so in terms of relationships of body parts, it's similar to a Warrior II foot. That same pushing down through the big toes, lifting of the insteps and pushing down through the back edge, is important here for ensuring that the knees to not collapse in. That allows for stability of the pose, as well as avoiding any strain on the involved joints. 

What's also key here, as in every forward fold, is is to keep a gentle bend in the knees and to slightly engage the abdominals. That allows for one's weight to mainly stay on the balls of the feet, therein avoiding straining hamstrings or other involved parts. That established, students can enjoy all the benefits of forward folding as well as a mild inversion. They can breathe deeply and soften any tension they may notice in the face, teeth, jaw, or shoulders.

Gate Pose (Parighasana)

This pose has a Warrior II foot in the extended foot, not in the one behind the bent knee onto which one is kneeling. On the other hand, that foot is ideally parallel rather than at an angle from heel to toes, because of the straight forward facing of the hips in relation to the legs - versus in Warrior II, where the front leg is facing at a different angle from the hips. Much of the stability of the pose, apart from an engaged core and a heavy tailbone, is in that stable Warrior II foot to the side, with Mountain Pose fundamentals (as described).

From that stability, a wonderful side-body, abdominal, and chest stretch is available. Remember that length through the side body is more important than depth of side bend; encourage students to not bend as deeply if the under-side of the spine is curved. As just another basic reminder for this pose, if there’s any sensitivity in the grounded knee, a folded blanket or a rolled mat under it can help. 

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