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 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?

The Yoga Teacher As Skunk

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I walk around the yoga room and everyone I come close to kinda freezes, like they’d do if a skunk walked by them unexpectedly.

Breaths and bodies become refined as I patrol the room. They are either happy or relieved if I touch them. But they are always keenly aware that the skunk is watching them.

When I practice by myself or with a video, I miss having a skunk in the room.  The screen teacher is too predictable, and when it’s just me, I won’t spray myself so there’s no risk, no danger. I have no skin in the game. 

When there’s no skunk ominously parading by to snap me to attention, my mind logs off. With no one watching me I become a test pattern: steady but boring. I have no incentive to make subtle refinements in breath or body, and therefore I have no shot at flow.

And getting into flow is the reason I  practice.  

For me, yoga doesn’t mean “to yoke,” it means “to get into flow.” Flow is a mental state so focused, so grounded in the present moment, so locked and loaded into reality, that nothing else matters, nothing else really exists. 

It’s super-hard to pull off. Mostly impossible, unless you’re into extreme sports.  

But if you ever get a taste of it, you want it. All. The. Time.

You want the “yoga” of running, the “yoga” of skiing, the “yoga” of biking, the “yoga” of mountain climbing, the “yoga” of doing the dishes, the “yoga” of folding the laundry, the “yoga” of doing the taxes, walking the dog, changing the litter. 

 That’s why you come into the room with the skunk.  You come because you want to learn how to make the “secret sauce,” the “yoga,” so that you can stir it into everything else you do.

The skunk in the room may not know a single thing about skiing or mountain climbing or federal tax laws, but the skunk knows the recipe for flow. She’ll scare you a little, make you take a risk, and then goad you to stay in that scary place and wallow in it. She’ll encourage you to watch your never ending brain/ biofeedback loop. She’ll cue this “watching” over and over and over.

She’ll tell you, “Stay still, right there, and let yourself marinate in this a while.”

She’ll say,“Breathe fast.” And then she’ll say, “Breathe slowly.” 

She’ll tell you to breathe long, and then tell you to breathe short. She’ll tell you to hold your breath until you practically pass out.  And then, at the last moment, she’ll say, “Breeeeathe.” 

And you will. 

And you’ll start to notice stuff you never saw before: Mental movies will play out in epic grandiosity in your crazy brain; you’re bodily systems will cook, then braise, then saute, and then transform. 

And if you persist at this long enough and eventually learn this exquisite art of attention; if you don’t flake out,….

Flow will show up.

 Right there. 

In the next breath.

  The room will suddenly drop away. And so will the skunk. 

You’ll find yourself there. Calm and focused. Locked and loaded. In the only place you ever wanted to be:

Here.

Say What You Mean

I was on such a roll this morning! Totally absorbed in my book project, getting places, making connections. It was sweet. I was humming.

But then I had to break to meet a client and all my momentum died. I thought I would come home and pick it up again, but it didn’t happen.

At my meeting with my client, things went differently than he expected, and he said, “I feel like we wasted an hour.”

That’s not what he meant, though. He meant that things didn’t go as he expected and he worried that he had wasted MY time. He didn’t think HE wasted time.

But that’s what he SAID.

So we spent some time talking about how words matter. You can’t say words, and then say: But that’s not what I MEANT. You have to say what you mean.

Which takes discernment and discretion. I think you learn discernment by watching. So we sat and did a guided meditation and then both of us were more aware.

I then reminded him of all the progress he’s made since we started working together. I reminded him of what he was.

And that’s part of my work: to remind people who they are.

And I’m pretty good at it.

 

 

Blessing the Space

There has been a frost warning the last 2 nights. I wore a jacket into the studio this morning and felt happy that I didn’t have any plans to go fishing today with G and her father. (Brrrrr….)

(As it turned out it was a beautiful day for fishing and they caught 5 trout.)

The studio was so warm and cozy this morning. And filled with sun. I took my spot under the skylight and did lots and lots of backbends. Not because I like backbends, or need backbends, but because I was entranced with the light raining on me from above.

Filtered light. Blue sky light. Early May light. The skylight is framed in white painted wood. The windows framed a perfect blue sky. It always reminds me of a lifeguard chair.

My mind suddenly flashed on a line from a John O’Donohue poem about “postponing dreams no longer” so when I’d had quite enough of backbending, I went and found it and copied it onto my mat:

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I haven’t made my Divine Contract yet, but each day as I sit in meditation, I get closer to envisioning who might be waiting for my offering.

Back at home, alone, I set to cleaning and organizing my bedroom, with a heavy emphasis on culling my clothing. My guiding thoughts were: Am I going to look forward to seeing this thing when I pull it out next fall?  And, Kath, You wear 20 percent of your clothes 80 percent of the time. Just keep the 20 percent you wear.

I culled ruthlessly. So proud of myself.

I also changed my bedding from the heavy velvet quilt, to the light, fluffy Zen-inspired duvet. I feel ready now. Ready for lilacs and viburnums and reading on the sunny deck.

Yeah, and I’ll bet money those trout will taste great done in foil on the grill.

A Good Yoga Week

It was a good week. I feel especially happy about my morning practice at the studio. I have a home practice area, but the studio is really sweet. I love the gleaming hardwood floors, the skylights, even the smell which is combination of floor polish, and witch hazel.

I practiced by myself for the most part this week. One day Cheryl joined me for awhile, then changed and left for school (she’s a teacher.)

I sit in the front as the teacher, but I much prefer the back corner for my solo practice. Here is my little setup.

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I light the candle, put on a little soft music and begin. Most mornings I start with some strap stretches for my hamstrings. I looked up and saw my toes sillouetted in the skylight.

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On Wednesday afternoon I taught a Chair Yoga workshop at the University, so on Wednesday morning I  “road tested” my sequence.

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My practice tends to start soft because I am tired and stiff in the morning, but by by the end of the hour I am moving and breathing well and feeling great.

I felt really “glowy” yesterday and took this selfie to remind myself how serene and happy yoga makes me feel.

IMG_1663 (1)After I finish the physical practice I turn the music off and sit meditation for 20 minutes. When I open my eyes, I see this.

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Yeah, It was a good yoga week.

Namaste, everybody.

 

 

The Lone Nut No More

IMG_1638Today I slept in, wrote, took a walk with G and Boomer, taught Happy Hour yoga.

It was a soft day. It is the first of May and the weather is finally, starting to drastically improve.

The Challenge is over and while it was wonderful, it was still exhausting. At the end we sat around eating  Cauliflower Maranca and Kale Quinoa cakes and a Vegan Chocolate Cake and a Gin and Tonic cake. There were also veggies and dip and a variety of crunchy food for grazing.

There was white and red wine, Stella Artois and Guinness draft and Sparkling Cider and a bottle of Maker’s Mark for the bourbon lovers.

It was good to sit around in a circle and talk and listen to my tribe. Vince was there and he said, in relation to my remark that Mansfield is a very difficult place to live, something to the effect that it’s only in difficult places that it is possible to be a pioneer.

He called me a pioneer, and I guess I am. I saw what I thought the town needed (a yoga studio) and made it happen. It took a long time for it to “take” but it did.

His words reminded me of this “leadership” video on my Facebook feed this week. I love the idea of the “first follower.” If you don’t get that first follower, you are just a lone nut. But once you  get that first follower, then you are leader, and from there, if other people join, you can start something pretty great.

I feel so grateful to my first followers: Brynne and Aleta and Judith. Then close behind them, a whole slew of other people who have been practicing at MSY for at least 10 of its 11 years.

It feels very good not to be the lone nut any more.

At least when it comes yoga.

(If you catch my drift.)