5 Ways To Be A Better Yoga Teacher

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I’m a sucker for  Advice-driven posts like this. I cannot resist, “3 Ways to Achieve Enlightenment in Your Lifetime,” or “10 ways to Stop Cravings.”. I bite every time. So here’s my own “list post”  giving myself the Yoga Teaching advice I need.

Number 1. Don’t close your eyes when you teach.

This is really hard for me. I see so much clearer when I my eyes are closed.  But when I am a student and I am looking at the teacher and the teacher has her eyes closed I feel disconnected from her. I think (and rightly so) that she is in her own world, and what she’s saying has nothing to do with me. Selfishly, I want the teacher to be there for me. I want the teacher to be present.

When I am teaching and tell the students to close their eyes, that doesn’t give me permission to close MY eyes. I need to remember that. Teachers close their eyes because students are really distracting. Their behavior  can really throw you off.

But I must train myself to keep my eyes open at all times. And look at them. As individuals. Not as a “class.”

This is really hard.. I am still, after all these years, terrible at it. I need to force myself to do it, especially when I am centering them. I think the reason I close my eyes is that I am trying to center myself at the same time I am centering them. And that’s a mistake.  I need to remember to keep my eyes opened. All the time. Never close your eyes if you are a yoga teacher.

Number 2. Don’t be afraid to touch your students.

I am really bad at this, too. Every yoga teacher is taught how to assist. Some are way better at it than others. The ones who are good usually have had teachers who have assisted them really well.

I am afraid to touch my students because I am afraid that the touch will be wrong. The way to get over this is to just touch lightly at first. Just give a fingertip touch. The very lightest of encouragement or tweak.

This is hard to get over if you don’t know how. And sometimes students will take the touch as a correction rather than a cue. So you think maybe not to touch is just better. That is a mistake.  People are starved for touch. Even the lightest touch is a moment of being seen. That’s why everyone in a class should be touched at least once.

Number 3. Don’t talk too much.

Oh boy. This is what I really need to learn. It is okay to have a lot of silence in a yoga class. You don’t have to fill up all the space with chatter. I have to remember this because I am a very chatty teacher.

A few  well-chosen cues, widely spaced, can go a long way. I need to think of words as spices. You don’t want to over salt the dish, you want to go easy on the cayenne, the cumin, the curry.

Let there be space for emptiness and breathing and contemplation. Don’t talk too much. Err on the side of silence.

Number 4. Don’t forget to smile.

You don’t have to crack jokes or smile the whole time like a ninny, but learn to put a smile in your voice. If your students are deep in their practice, breathing and listening for the next direction, if your voice has a smile in it, it is really wonderful.

In oder to put a smile in your voice you have to have a smile on your face. You need to practice this. You know how nice it is when you’re on the phone with someone in customer service, and they seem to have a smiley voice? When you can hear something friendly in their voice, it makes the whole interaction go much better.

That’s what you should aim for in the yoga room. Not jokes, not inauthenticity, just warm friendliness. This takes some mirror practice. Work on it.

Number 5. Don’t pretend to know what you don’t know.

If you don’t live the yamas and niyamas, if you don’t struggle to live them in your own life, don’t bring them up. If, however, you do try to adhere to them in your non-yoga-class life, then by all means bring them up.  It’s like talking about weight-loss when you’ve never had a weight problem. Just don’t.

If you don’t practice handstands, don’t teach handstands. If you don’t have a daily practice, don’t preach daily practice.  Don’t preach about virtues you don’t aspire to, or struggle with, or have. If you’ve never had a chakra awakening, don’t talk about chakra awakenings. Stay honest. Stay in your lane.

The Yoga of Kettlebells

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I won’t pick up a kettlebell here at home and swing it. I will only swing a kettlebell or do a squat or a push-up or a sit-up if I pay someone to watch me.

Lifting weights and all that jazz is not something I will do here at home, alone. Even though I have weights here at home, and even though it’s good for me.

But once I get into the gym, I’m okay with swinging a kettlebell, but I want to swing it my way: the yogic way.

I want to notice everything. I want to block out distractions:  the babble of my trainer, the bad music he’s blasting.

I want to focus on what’s happening. And not just bodily pain, but the color commentary running through my mind about this pain.

I want to hear myself tell myself the story of how I can’t do this, how much I hate this, how much this barbell stinks.

I want to listen to this whole narrative. And then I don’t. I whine. I  look at the time.

But some days I can drop in. Some days I hit this groove in my brain, and my eyes roll back in my skull and I get this creepy look on my face.  My eyes appear to be looking at you, but I’m not looking at you at all.

Kind of like the Children of the Dammed.

I’m in that gym but not in that gym at all.

I’m on the path to failure, watching myself with a curious detachment.

I know it’s coming, that failure moment, but I don’t know when. My trainer, he’s the one  waiting for the end; me,I’m into the journey.

I’m involved, and not involved. I’m checked in and checked out. I’m watching the movie of me: Me doing squats. Me lifting a 50 pound kettlebell in a “dead.” Me on the rings doing push ups, wondering how many more before I can’t push back up.

I’m watching myself walk the path of failure. Just waiting.

I like that someone witnesses me as I do this. I like to have an audience.

Sometimes he gives me form cues: “Feet wider, sit back into that squat, do just one more.”

He said the other day: “I’m just here to watch you do what you want to do.”

And what I want to do is walk the path to failure. With eyes wide open.

Even though, sometimes, I need to roll them back in my skull to see where I’m really going.

Ireland Rocks

 At first, Ireland looks a lot like northern Pennsylvania, albeit with a few more sheep. But then suddenly, smack-dab in the middle of this sheep field, sits a castle.The brain goes: Wait. Castle?

It’s huge, this thing, and it’s standing here in this sheep meadow, and I’m looking at it from the window of a tour bus with wifi.

Ireland has so much history. Which sounds stupid to say because everything has history, but this history involves Vikings for goddsakes. Vikings, and invasions, and competing god-stories, with the whole mess needing to be fortified and defended and protected.

And rocks are involved. Many rocks. From what I could see, Ireland is basically rocks. Rocks and stones and sheep.
And they’re old, these rocks. And the people of Ireland still have this smell of old on them. Even the millennials with their cigarettes and tight hipster clothes. There’s something sheepy and rocky about them. They seem shy and polite on the outside, but I always thought I could hear something a little edgy, and pointed, and don’t-mess-with-me underneath their lilt.
There’s this constant push-pull of past and present in Ireland. It’s in the road signs in Gaelic, and the narrow medieval streets with their lines of colorful chock-a-block houses, and then out of nowhere, a Tommy Hilfiger store.  Constant reminders of battles, and the urgent need to fortify and moat things, and then: Modernity.
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But there’s never getting away from the rocks.
Rocky meadows, and grassy fields defined by them, and cliffs made from them. Abrupt stone castles erupting, without warning, out of the soft grass on top of them. Green grass, soft and sheepy.
Herds of sheep sleeping together, surrounded by low, sharp borders of rocks to keep them in and protected. And maybe to keep other things out? What other things? I don’t know.
So all week, we zoomed around in a big bus with our foreheads against the glass  listening to guides tell us what we were seeing. “Coming up on the left, you will notice a field.” (That was a guide joke.) Many stories of Vikings and invasions. Many cemeteries with graves marked with those ubiquitous rock Celtic crosses.
celtic cross
Whole families buried together. And lots of those graves had new flowers, and signs of recent attention and love and tears and pain, still clinging to them.
sad grave
We toured the ruins of many things made of ancient rocks. There were places where we were asked to imagine that this was the cooking area, and that the latrine.
We went to the castle where the movie Braveheart was filmed.
trim castle

I’ve never seen Braveheart, but it wasn’t hard to imagine that this place would be a casting director’s wet dream. Old. Authentically old. No power lines or any anachronisms to fuck up the scene. You could easily imagine the tips of arrows peeking out of the little slits in the castle wall, or see a right-handed soldier beheading the enemy at the top of a spiral staircase. Blood everywhere. Fires for signals, and cooking, and pyres.

And then, back in town, battle won: whiskey. To toast the dead, to celebrate victory, to numb pain, to douse memories. Memories to be remembered in songs sentimental and dripping with pathos. Songs sung loudly, full-throatedly, drunkenly.

Ireland is old. The food is basic, the sweaters warm, the streets narrow, the vibe friendly. It was pleasant to be a tourist in a place where tourism is the cornerstone of the economy and nobody forgets it.  Tourists are not put up with, they are thanked, desired. Free shipping! Send those bulky sweaters home–on us! We realize you don’t have room in your fancy luggage–no problem!
But in the end, when I remember Ireland, I will remember the rocks most of all.
“And now we are returning to the medieval city of Galway,” announces our tour guide as we roll our ridiculously huge bus down a street that can barely contain it.
I suddenly hear the word “medieval” as if for the first time, and all the images of Ireland I’ve been collecting all week, fit into place in my mind like an ancient puzzle coming together. A puzzle like an ancient stone wall.
stone wall

The Spirituality of Whimsicality

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(This is an older post)

As a yoga teacher, the hardest and most terrifying class for me to teach is the first day of Beginner Yoga. The students walk in pale, fat, worried, neurotic, clutching their little bottles of Dasani like they’re some totemic objects that will protect them from weird, patchouli smelling Hindu spirits, and me.

I don’t claim clairvoyance, or clairaudience, but I can hear their thoughts as clearly as if they’re coming through a bullhorn:“I won’t be able to do this because I can’t even touch my toes for goddsakes. What the hell was I thinking??!! What am I doing? I’m sitting in YOGA for cryin out loud ! How do I get OUT of this??”

They don’t understand the activity, or me.

Yet.

At the opposite end of the yoga teacher “fright spectrum” is the day I walk into Day 27 of the April Yoga Challenge. OMG. Soooo easy!

What do we need today? Block? Strap? Are you going to kill us? Please don’t kill us? Oh shut up! I want to be killed! Kill us! Kill us! Can we do savasana for an hour?? I’m still aching from yesterday!”

Sometimes I wonder what a person eavesdropping on the other side of the door to my yoga room would think is going on in there. It certainly doesn’t sound very spiritual, that’s for sure.

When students step into my yoga room and encounter my style, which is slightly kooky, oftentimes irreverent, and frequently playful, they might mistake this approach to yoga as “not very spiritual,” when in fact, what I am doing is setting up the yoga room to be spirit’s playground.

I think when you follow your inner promptings, your intuition, your body’s wisdom, that is the act of honoring the spirit, the soul, the non-material part of your nature.

And this is a very hard practice. And a deep practice. And a self-revelatory practice.

When you are allowed, and encouraged, and truly supported in the act of giving yourself over to whimsy in your yoga practice and can throw away the script, ignore the cue cards, and disregard all social conventions that say you should act a certain way because you are “this old” or have “this important responsible job,” you open up a Pandora’s Box of Crazy.

A whimsical approach to yoga does not mean you deliberately set out to defy all conventions or act the rebel. I’m not saying that. It just means that you are permitting something deeper inside to come out. And in letting it out, you are honoring it.

Because this thing is dying to be expressed. It has been repressed and smothered and tramped on and beaten and thrown water on and shoes at. Whimsy has been conditioned the hell out of you.

Outside the yoga room, whimsy is not always well-received. Whimsy blurts. Whimsy can be juvenile, unseemly, and downright silly.

Whimsicality in yoga postures steps away from strict adherence to form or architecture, and may look a bit chaotic from the outside, but that’s just because whimsy has different rules, rules not fully understood from the outside, but completely known and understood from the inside.

The spirituality of whimsicality is the practice of allowing spirit out of the box. It’s the antithesis of liturgy. Liturgy is comfortable, predictable, reproducible, whereas whimsy is like letting a 3-year-old loose in a room full of balloons. Yeah, a few will break. Yeah, there’s going to be moments of startle, and tears, and mess. But man, it’s going to be a blast!

Tragically, whimsicality is one of the first things to get kicked to the curb in the process of maturing. And then, when we get older and realize what serious damage we’ve done, and what a huge a mistake it was, we then spend the rest of our lives trying to CPR some of it back into our lives, with variable success.

But if we can come into the yoga room and have somebody guide us into a whimsical practice, tell us to shake our tail feathers, and make horse sounds with our mouths, and jog in place and let our arms and legs go all loosey-goosey, what would happen?

If we are permitted the uninhibited freedom to snort like pigs, and breathe through alternate nostrils, and pump our stomachs like we’re trying to hork up hairballs, and go into our turtle shells, and kick away all the stuff that’s not serving us, and sigh out all our tension with a big, fat, audible ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh…..

Maybe, just maybe, the dying embers of what little whimsy is left in our bodies, hearts, and lives can be coaxed back to life.

And what if it turns out that this whimsicality is the deepest practice of all?

Don’t Let a Yoga Class Hijack Your Yoga

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Tonight there were a few people in Power Yoga that were anxious about it. They signed up for the Yoga Challenge but they were leery about this particular class. One of these people was Liz. So I wrote this post to her, and to anyone who has found themselves in the deep end of the pool in a yoga class.

Dear Liz,

Don’t let the Power hijack your Yoga. Don’t let other people in the class hijack your yoga. In a big class setting, you have to own your practice.

You are responsible for keeping your own attention on your own body. Do not not let a yoga teacher, or that student on the mat in front of you, hijack your power, your brain, your intention.

It’s really hard.

Everyone around you is, or seems to be, rocking it. And you?  You’re falling and sweating and struggling. Everybody else is in the pocket. And you? You’re panting and flailing, and questioning the point of this, and your place in this scene.

Because this IS a scene. This is the “Power Yoga” scene and you are feeling like you are clearly NOT cutting it.

The “Power Yoga” has hijacked your yoga.

But here’s the thing: at any moment in this sweat fest, you can reframe it. You can, if you remember to do it, switch glasses. You can put on those magnifying classes right there on your mat, and focus them inside. You can pause, and put yourself in slo-mo for awhile.

You can work on precision and focus. You can breathe in. You can breathe out.

You can be calm and human.

You can make conscious choices, seek flow, extend your abilities.

Then, when the storm is over, you can restore yourself.

So don’t do what you’re told, do yourself. Your best self. Your perfectly imperfect self. Your alive self.

Anyone can do Power Yoga. As long as they stay in their power.

Love you,

Kath

Manatee Yoga

It’s not that I don’t like Yin, I do. I like it too much. But I feel like a manatee when I do Yin.

I’m an unrepentant flow-hacker and there is no way to get into flow for me during Yin. Yin is like therapy, or a massage.

Yin is for an off day.

I understand that there is a time and place for passivity, but only when the body is broken down from activity. And that’s not where I’m at now. Or yet.

I think once my challengers have a whole week of yang under their belts, then the yin will be welcome.