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.  

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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!    

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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

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