I am often asked for advice in what to do in different yoga teaching situations. It still surprises me, but I am always honored that I am seen as someone with something valuable to say. I have been teaching for 10 years, so I guess I know something. I don't know everything, I will readily admit.
Tonight I received a call from a teacher, not new to yoga or to teaching, but new to the teaching environment she was in. She is teaching a class that is open to the public, in a hospital setting. She is struggling because of the range of ability in the class. Some are quite able to do the poses, while others need a chair or the wall.
First of all, that is quite a challenge, as a yoga teacher! That means, you might need to demonstrate a pose three ways. And, remove any opportunity for "vinyasa" transitions between poses. You are pretty much teaching poses as individual poses.
All that is fine, but you have to be clear on your expectations.
This teacher is fully capable to do this. Her frustration seemed to be more with finding a way to motivate the students. Especially the ones with limited mobility.
This is a challenge to any teacher! What I rely on is:
1. create community
2. name the elephant
3. set expectations
To create community, you need an introduction. When I am teaching a class with an obvious difference in accessibility to the poses, I like to ask each student to introduce themselves, then to comment on how long they have been practicing yoga.
This serves to level the playing field. One student says "this is my second class," and the person across the room who is also in their second class now wants to make a connection. Also, because a few might say, "I've been practicing for 10 years, and enjoy honing in on my practice," the newer students now have a perspective on how they might progress, and will not be as susceptible to comparison.
Naming the elephant... this one, after the introduction, is easy. State simply and matter-of-factly, "we have a class of diverse levels." You can ease any tension by saying, "none of you are new to life."
Finally, set the expectations. By this I mean, tell your students what you will be doing in the class. I.e. in this situation, perhaps stating that you will be demonstrating various levels of the pose. One with a chair, one at the wall, and one on the mat. That the pose is the same, no matter the level. You will demonstrate the pose, then ask them to choose their variation. Then you will proceed to offer cues that will guide them into a deeper experience of the pose. Here, you can iterate that the depth of yoga is not the depth of the pose itself, but the depth of experience within the pose.
It is always a challenge to teach a class with multiple levels. Even more so when some of the people are feeling defeated in their bodies and abilities, even before the class has begun. While I am extremely aware of the sensitivities a student my have in entering a yoga class, I have found that the less I allow my own insecurities to get involved, the more I state what I observe in a matter-of-fact manner, the better able my students are to accept their bodies and their practice, at whatever level they find themselves.
I hope this has been helpful! Please leave a comment, or contact me directly with whatever thoughts you may have.
Love to you all!
In October I attended a month-long intensive training with Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. This is just one quarter of the complete training, I am currently seeing clients with the guidance of a mentor, as an intern with the program.
One of my assignments is to tell my story.
So here goes...
Telling my PRYT story is something I do differently in each conversation. I teach at a large Yoga studio in Denver, so I am in contact with a wide variety of people.
I begin with listening to the person I am speaking with, and to what they are saying, the language they are using, and what story they are telling me. What is present?
Then, I choose from the depth of my experience as a human and as a yoga teacher, to tell my story.
Often I share that I have been teaching for a long time, a decade to be exact. I share that Yoga has sustained me through some very difficult times. And profoundly so. Sometimes it was only when teaching yoga that I felt "out of" my own misery and anxiety. I share that I have always been aware of the power of Yoga to heal, but through my own experience, I have come closer to knowing.
I acknowledge all the healing that is happening in the public yoga classes that are attended by so many, and remain curious to why. In that curiosity, my desire to know more and to offer more deepened. I wasn't sure yet where I would find it.
One day last spring, I attended a workshop with a PRYT practitioner (Liz Keltner) that was being offered to the teacher training team at Kindness Yoga, and what she taught use so resonated with the knowing I wanted to bring forth, that I immediately looked up the Phoenix Rising program, and signed up for the very next training!
The techniques I am learning in Phoenix Rising have changed my yoga teaching in the studios, by giving me new insight and approach to what is happening for my students, or clients, right there on their mats.
The techniques I am learning have also given me a framework to help my private clients to explore what is happening now.
I am truly excited and inspired to continue this path, with the acknowledgement that so much healing is already happeneing, and that some will have a similar desire as I had, to explore deeper, to seek more, to see how Yoga can truly offer them the space from which their inner wisdom can arise and become their own guide, where stories can be completed and processed, and true healing can come to being.
My kids have experienced Trauma. Capital T. (Surprised?) I removed myself from the situation 1.5 years ago, but they continue to be exposed. While they both show the signs, it is my son who is particularly noticeable. No, my children are not rude or misbehaving, they are just dealing with too much to be polite to you. They have a deep distrust.
This scenario is more common than you know, and its effects are more detrimental than you want to hear.
It's true. And it happens. To people like me and you. This is not just the uneducated, the "lower classes" (god I hate that concept) the poor. It's in the high conflict homes, everywhere.
Hurt people hurt people. Period.
So why am I posting this picture?
Because my son's childhood was taken from him.Not by war or death or rape. It was taken even though we had that ideal nuclear family. (And I accept fault as well even as I may seem to accuse.) Because his playfulness disappeared.
But the miracle of children is that they can still heal.
Step by hesitant step, his playfulness is returning. It still must be tempered, the fine edge between playful and the disrespect that he has learned, from modeling, and as survival and perhaps cowardice.
But when he plays, when I see him as a 7 year old, I am happy. His childhood isn't lost. It exists in drawings of superheroes. In silly jokes. And in fantastical comments that he'd like to marry Annie, his nana's dog. In these childlike fantasies, I know my child is still there. I just need to keep loving him in the best way I know how, and helping him to heal.
I rarely make anatomy posts... mainly because I am not an anatomy expert. Though I do heavily consult anatomy in preparing my yoga classes. I have an understanding of kinesiology (how the body moves) from my experience as a dancer, which also informs my teaching. I try to work with concepts that I can easily pass on to my students.
For the past few weeks I have been teaching flexion and extension of the thoracic spine in all of my yoga classes. Not in an obvious way, and not that everyone gets it, but in a way that the ability to move the thoracic spine plays a role in every yoga pose. The thoracic spine is key in posture, and underlying every yoga pose is posture.
We start every class with a block (or blanket) under the thoracic spine to bring openness and awareness to this area. To stretch through the chest and pecs, to reverse, or rather bring more pliability to the kyphotic curve of the thoracic spine. Throughout class I bring the students' attention back to this space in various poses.
What we all know about posture, but try not to listen to is, through the aging process, and accentuated by our western culture, working at desks, driving a car, sitting, and not moving, our thoracic spine over time rounds forward. Forward head posture. A rounding of the upper back, a flattening of the low back. Tightness in the shoulders, pecs. And, weakness in the muscles of the thoracic spine.
Now, how does this relate to yoga? In every way!
* Strength, and extension, in the thoracic region plays a role in Tadasana. Posture, baby!
* In Backbends, especially if you are going to bring the depth of the bend out of the lumbar spine (low back) where we tend to dump and it hurts. A misconception of backbends is that people who go deep are "just flexible". That is onlyhalf the answer. And many are not as "flexible" as you think, because if they are truly bending safely, they are using muscular strength - yes, strength in the upper back too - to extend the spine to the back!
* Twists! A tendency in twists is that we compensate for lack of mobility by bending, essentially curving the spine. I use the analogy of the spine being like a Maypole, straight and strong, and we want to twist like the ribbon around the pole. This is by no means an anatomically correct idea, but it is a visual that seems to make the connection. So, the area where I most often see this bend happening is in the thoracic spine. When We make this connection, lift and elongate through the thoracic spine, we strengthen the muscles of the upper back, and are able to twist more deeply and safely.
* Forward Folds... want to get into those hammies without compromising the lumbar spine? Did you know that people with tight hamstrings (especially those who cannot sit on the floor with a neutral pelvis with legs extended in front) are at greatest risk for lumbar disk hernia because of the pressure put on the spine? Yea. So, if you are that tight, first sit on a folded blanket. Then, use your core strength (yes even here!) to sit tall. As you lean forward with a straight lumbar spine (IF you lean forward) keep your chest lifted. That means, use the strength of your thoracic spine to lift up! This keeps the stretch in hamstrings, not in the spine. (And yes, if you are lengthened in the lumbar spine, and not pulling yourself deeper, then you can round forward, but notice how the stretch changes. Not so intense in hamstrings, perhaps really intense in the upper back and neck!)
Pay attention. Awareness. Know thyself. That is all. In my lifetime of study and 8 years teaching yoga, if I were to whittle what yoga means to me and what I teach in each of my classes down to the essence, that would be it.
And in paying attention, so much wisdom is available to us.
Now I go from this philosophical concept to a very real-world, tangible thought:
June 26, 2015 - the Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage nationwide.
WOW! What a landmark event in American history! Yay US!
This is not what I mean by paying attention... here it is.
Facebook created this splendid little App where all of us could click and change our profile picture to rainbow colors to show our pride in this landmark ruling.
I did it. My friends did it. We all celebrated how our newsfeed was showing up rainbow, how proud we were of this! Yay US! Yay support of all people in LOVE! The world felt GOOD!
Then today, July 1, 2015 - this from the Conservative Post:
Everyone Who Changed Their Facebook Photos To Rainbow Just Got DUPED
Which states that, "Over a million people changed their facebook profile pictures to a rainbow filter in support of gay marriage. New reports reveal that the “Celebrate Pride” tool may not have been the best idea… According to Daily Mail, this tool was actually Facebook’s way of performing psychological testing on their users."
And people are offended by this!
Why be offended? We can only be offended if we aren't Paying Attention.
Facebook is a gigantic social experiment, and it's the largest ever. If I were a social scientist, I'd damn well be using Facebook for research. So for me, it comes as no surprise.
Then the question is, was I harmed in this?
Again, Pay Attention. If I am aware, and if I know myself, then I can easily say, Ahhh, No.
What changing my profile picture did was show my alignment with people of all colors and identities to find, feel and seal the deal of love in whatever way is meaningful to them. What it did was, allow me to see - visually see - my tribe. We are after all a visual culture. Seeing my newsfeed fill up with profile pics decorated in rainbow colors, wow, that was grand!
What it might have done was, piss off a few of the non-supporters, and well, because I Pay Attention, I weighed out the pros and cons of changing my profile picture, and then I made the CONSCIOUS CHOICE to change it, because, well, I want the few non-supporters I know to see clearly that I do not agree with their stance. Not that I wish to cause a debate or alienate them, but I am also not here to please them, to placate their fears. And, I align with equality on all fronts.
In the end, every action has a consequence. The more we Pay Attention, the more we become Aware of the consequences of each action, the more we Know Thyself, the more CONSCIOUS CHOICES we can make. And conscious choices are usually the better choices.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.
This quote reminded me of the Hindu story of Hanuman. Hanuman, the monkey god, was so devoted to the Lord Ram and his wife Sita, that when Sita was kidnapped by the demon King of Sri Lanka, Ravana, Hanuman made the "great leap of faith" across the ocean to rescue her.
In this way, Hanuman is a great friend, a "masterpiece of nature". But there is another angle.
Hanuman, lost in his monkey-mind, often forgets his gifts, his power. There is another character in the story, a man called Jambawan. Jambawan to Hanuman is like Samwise Gamgee to Frodo (for all you LOTR fans out there!). When Ram asks Hanuman to make this great leap, and Hanuman says "oh gee, Ram, I don't know if I can!" Jambawan is the one who says, "Hanuman! You have all these great gifts! You are strong, you are flexible, you are powerful, and you CAN do this!"
Jambawan is, in this way, his own masterpiece of nature, by being the one who reminds Hanuman of his greatness, while remaining humble. But, Jambawan, by reminding Hanuman of his greatness, allows Hanuman himself to become the masterpiece of nature. To live in the fullness of his powers. To do the thing most challenging, yet most awesome.
Who in your life is your Jambawan? Who reminds you that YOU yourself are a masterpiece of nature? Who is your reflection?
#meditationmonday for Yoga Mamas!
Without going into great detail of Hindu mythology, the Hindu Trimukti (trilogy if you will) is Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu. Brahma is the Creator. Shiva the Destroyer (read: Transformer, but NOT the toys your kids play with). Vishnu the Sustainer (read: Nurturer).
The trimukti represents the cycle that is ever-present in our lives. From the physical realm to the experiential and spiritual.
At any given moment, we can see all three within our selves, or we might identify more closely with one.
When I teach Prenatal Yoga Teacher Trainings, I tell the students that the act of becoming a mother is Creation - a Brahma state. (We probably all agree with that!)
In order to make the transition from Woman to Mother, takes an amount of Destruction of our former self - Transformation, if you were. A Shiva state.
Being a Mother is essentially a Vishnu state - a state of Sustaining, or Nurturing.
So as mothers, we embody all three. And all three are necessary to maintain balance. Neither being better or worse, yet too much of one creates imbalance as well. Shiva stands between Brahma and Vishnu to represent the
Destruction that creates room for Creation.
Take a moment to consider these three deities, and what they represent. Does one stand out to you more than another? Are all three present for you in this moment?
Take 5 minutes to sit and ponder. Is that aspect in balance for you?
In my own life, and reflecting back a few years, I have realized that I recognized most with Vishnu, the nurturer, in too much abundance, to the point that the relationship I was nurturing became harmful.
So I called in Shiva, some destruction power, to open up the path for new creations.
Just one way to look at a challenge!
I'd love to hear your thoughts as well. Sharing in vulnerability is a beautiful way to acknowledge that sometimes life is difficult, and that we are not alone.
My daughter's teacher once said, "My role is not only to guide your child, but also to carefully place obstacles so that she may overcome them."
This thought has stuck with me for years, literally, and it is one I come back to time and again. For my self, but also for my children.
6 months ago I left my husband. I moved out. We have two children.
Divorce is not easy, in fact I could say it is downright hell. However, it is not something that we all, as a family now apart, cannot overcome. And in the process of doing so, we will be stronger.
I have watched this play out in my daughter over the past 6 months. She has always been a sensitive child with an internal strength, yet also easily overwhelmed and likely to give up when faced with a difficult challenge.
Recently though, I have seen her stepping up to challenges, taking control of a situation where she would have usually turned to me, becoming more independent.
This development, some would say, is sad - the loss of innocence, the growing up before we're ready. Yet, I am not abandoning her. I am still her mother, here to guide, to nurture, and yes, to place obstacles.
She is almost 10. I see a resilience in her that I knew was there, but I had not seen shine as it does in recent weeks.
Yes, she still becomes overwhelmed. Yes, she still is easily frustrated. And yes, she is still quite angry. But this too she will overcome. With some gentle guidance, and some careful placement.
In my life and in my practice I have been learning to slow things down, to be patient, to allow my strength to grow from within the pose - within the situation - within the relationship - and from there to move forward with the practice - with life - with love.
It has been an interesting progression for me, one for whom flexibility has always seemed to come easily, yet as I entered my 5th decade (yes, 5th! I'm 40) on this planet in 2014, has come to hurt my body.
In my young(er) life, I was a free spirit, go with the flow, vinyasa till your head falls off type of yogi.
In recent years, I have become more and more fond of the slow flow, the alignment-based, the do-this-so-you-can-do-that-better style of practice and of teaching.
Interestingly, in my life, I have also taken a stronger stand, I have aligned more solidly with ME, I have taken some scary steps forward. I live the do-this-so-you-can-do-that-better lifestyle. Step by step.
Who knows if there is a connection between my strength in my physical body and my strength in my life. Yet, as I have explained to many a friend and fellow yogi, I was before a dancer. I am still that artist. Just as dance is a physical expression of a thought, feeling, story, my yoga is my physical expression of the same.
As with all things, what I experience in my life is a story told through my teaching. Through the postures, the sequence, and through the themes I bring to those postures and sequence.
When we move slowly, we engage more, we build strength. We are able to cultivate a deeper awareness of our body, which translates to the deeper layers (the Koshas) of our being. And, in the space that we create between the poses, we give ourselves time to experience the pose, to allow the pose to work on us, and to learn more clearly and more fully about who our true self is.
Sometimes we need to roll around in the mud and the muck with Kali, in order to embrace our own transformation. It is especially true in this season, the darkest time of the year, this time as we approach the Winter Solstice. When we actually remove ourselves from the glaring lights of the city, of department stores, of holiday frenetic cheer, when we find some space of isolation, we realize that the darkness is there too. When we accept the darkness, we are more ready and able to turn our gaze toward the light.
Kristen is a certified Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapist and Life Mentor. She offers online and in-person healing sessions. She lives and teaches in Denver, Colorado