5 Ways To Be A Better Yoga Teacher

Yoga training concept

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?

It’s on. Bring it.

Today is April fool’s day. The first day of the Yoga Challenge. A rainy, cold, and crappy day.

I had to get up and get going. I had to be “on.”  Lots of “on.” First-day- of-Yoga-Challenge “on.”

Class started slow, then amped up.  With lots of breathing.

Breathing is hard. Harder than it should be, given that we do it all day long and should be experts at it by now.

But we’re not. It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating.

After class I sat at my table in the window at Night and Day and played with my Feelings and Needs cards. From the Feelings Deck I picked: Calm, Comfortable, Hopeful, Relaxed, and Open.

From the Needs deck I picked: Authenticity, To Be Seen for Who I Am, Freedom, Balance and Power in My World. Those were the needs that were met, resulting in Calm, Comfortable, Hopeful, etc.

I have a pretty good life. I know it. I appreciate it. I designed it this way. I protect it.

It’s not like it just fell in my lap. It comes fairly easily now, and I get a lot of support to sustain it, but at the same time, I designed it this way. I made certain choices: Partner (huge), and friends, primarily. But also the choice to care, to give a shit, and to support the people around me who are doing good things in the world.

So I sat at my table and felt mellow. And grateful.

And then went home and took a nap.

Because of all the “on.”

The Yoga Teacher As Skunk

Skunk in Backyard Patio

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.

Doing the April Yoga Challenge as a Project or a Streak

Empty studio

You can do he April Yoga Challenge as a Project or a Streak.
I make the distinction between the two in my book, The Project-Driven Life.
A “Project” is persistence toward a goal.

A project requires a commitment.
You’re excited about it, yes, but you also know there’ll be hard parts where you’ll just need to suck it up.
The payoff for completing a project is an intense feeling of self-mastery which inevitably catapults you into your next project.

A “Streak” is just a game you play with yourself. Commitment is minimal to none. You streak because you just want to see,

How long can I go before I bonk?

When you do the April Yoga Challenge as a streak, you’re telling yourself that you’re not sure, but you’d be willing to bet you can’t do it for 30 days.

But who knows??

Maybe….

So on April 1st, you start the Streak.

So what’s it going to be: Project or Streak?

Something to think about…

The Sugar Project is Over

Boomer sleeps

I really thought it would take longer, but I am here to report that the sugar dragon has been slain. At least for now.

I started this no-sugar project on the 10th thinking it would take me at least 2 weeks to get a handle on this addiction. But no. It’s done. I don’t have any hankering for sugar any more. I don’t crave it, or miss it, or want it.

Done. I feel more in control of my self and my life. (But to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t that big of a sugar freak to begin with.) But I did have certain triggers: Chocolate with wine, for instance. Gelato for creamy comfort when I had a lot of hard work to do. Midel Ginger snaps when I wanted something with tea. Like that.

As soon as I broke the chain reaction and noticed I was perfectly okay with just a glass of wine, or just a cup of tea, and as soon as my brain didn’t associate sugar with reward anymore, I got free.

I’m not saying I will never eat anything with sugar in it ever again, but when I do, it will be a treat, I will have just a tiny bit, and then go off it.

I really don’t think it is going to be like an alcoholic’s one drink and totally off the wagon. I really don’t.

It is also consoling me that I am going to be doing a Purification cleanse with Jennifer next month, so if there is some teetering or backsliding, I have a program in place to address that.

G is in Myrtle Beach with her team this weekend. I don’t know how she is doing, but I suspect it is still hard for her (she really misses her mochas!) but that she is staying clean.

So here’s my advice, for what it’s worth.

You’re going to feel like shit for awhile, that’s a given. You’re going to want to bail. Don’t. There is going to be a moment when the shackles will just magically fall away and you’ll be free, and you’ll feel positively giddy.

Give yourself as long as it takes to get there, knowing that it WILL COME.

Because when at last you are free, you’ll  feel powerful and amazing. You’ll stop peaking and crashing. Your energy will return and you’ll feel Zen and  even-tempered.

Eat healthy fats instead of sugar. Butter, coconut oil, and avocados saved me. Try the Bulletproof coffee. If the butter sounds gross, start with a just teaspoon of coconut oil in your coffee. It’s very calming and soothing to the nervous system.

Take it as a given that you’re going to be tired and grouchy. Get lots of sleep. Whenever you can, indulge in slothful inclinations.

Then take a bath. Do your laundry. Clean something small. It will cheer you up.

Do some yoga. If you can hack it, make it Power Yoga. The endorphin boost will make you feel sooo much better.

I hope you liked reading about this little project, and aren’t sorry it didn’t last the full month.

I must say, once the crappy parts of this no-sugar experiment ended, I’ve felt an up-tick in my cognitive energy, and am hatching a new book project.

Stay tuned!

Thanks for following this little adventure.