Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

On our daily walk to school, my kids and I pass a stretch of sidewalk on Rockwell that had been crumbling over the past year. More accurately it had evolved into a pile of rubble with a few patches of solid sidewalk. After reporting it to 311 a few times, I’d eventually just grown accustomed to dodging the dodgy parts and held out only a faint hope that someday it might change.

Then on a recent morning that was not much different from the one before it, the kids stopped in their tracks when they saw that the whole stretch had been dug up. The crumbling sidewalk was now a long ditch of dirt surrounded by yellow plastic tape and bounded on both sides by a sign that read, “Sidewalk closed. Please use other side.”

But somehow, every time I walked the kids to and from school for the next week, I’d find myself standing in front of that sign, not having had the presence of mind to alter my usual course before getting there. Judging by the growing rut that was developing in the grass next to the pit, the other commuters who marched this path were doing the same. All of us ignoring, or simply forgetting about, the sign’s plea until it was too late and habit won over. Once the concrete set a week later, the sidewalk was reopened and we all kept on in our usual way, the ruts of our daily walk again hidden by smooth, gray concrete.

When yoga practice becomes just another rut

Because the physical part of yoga requires repetition of the same shapes and breathing practices again and again, your time on the mat could easily become just another of life’s habitual routines. You know the drill: chaturanga, up dog, down dog, repeat. On the other hand, when you go to class and your teacher inspires you to try a different variation or prop set-up for a pose, when you cultivate a certain quality of attention to your practice, yoga can be a tool for uncovering ruts, much like a construction crew’s sledgehammer.b2ap3_thumbnail_Down-Dog-Rut-2.jpg

Down dog is a classic rut pose. Because the pose makes an appearance in almost every class (often multiple times if you’re practicing sun salutes), yoga practitioners often develop habitual down dog routines. Some people are wigglers, foot-pedalers, or sighers. Others are head-nodders, shoulder-hangers, or constant-adjusters.

I have my own little habits, and I’ve been paying closer attention to them this week on the mat. When I move from cobra into down dog in a sun salute, there’s a lot of oomph involved in simply getting my body from a prone position to an upside-down one. With all my attention on the muscular work of pushing up against gravity, hand and foot placement isn’t usually the first thing on my mind. But once I’m back in down dog, upside-down, feet staring me in the face, those little misalignments become glaringly obvious and the recovering alignment-stickler in me almost can’t take it. Is there anything wrong with making a few adjustments to my foot positioning once I get in the pose?

Of course not. But……

Here’s what I learned: my down dog adjustments are pretty much the same every time. A ha! A rut!

If my right foot always ends up a few inches forward of my left, that means my innocent little down dog foot adjustments were obscuring and deepening a rut in a way that has implications on strength, flexibility, and balance from one side of my body to the other. While my foot position in down dog isn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, what I hadn’t been seeing because of this hidden rut revealed something bigger than just my lack of “perfect” alignment.

How to break out of ruts on and off the mat

Breaking out of a rut in your practice does not necessarily involve practicing a new or more difficult pose. It simply involves practicing differently.

Imagine your mat is made of wet concrete so your down dog footprints and subsequent shifting are made visible. How does that change the way you move into the pose?

Check your attachments at the door and instead be open when a teacher suggests a new variation or prop set-up for a familiar pose. What can you learn physically, mentally, and emotionally from a different approach?

If yoga makes you stronger and more flexible, great.

If it helps you to find greater peace and calm, fantastic.

But yoga’s greatest gift may be something else entirely.

What if instead of going on autopilot through chaturanga, up dog, and down dog, you could move consciously enough to discover a long-held habit? What if this simple practice of integrating body, mind, and breath could follow you out of the studio? What if you were able to be more present in conversations with people you love, more aware of the changing leaves on the route you habitually take to work, better able to recognize your ruts (physically, mentally, and emotionally)?

The crumbling sidewalk and slight inconvenience of its repair helped me to see something that had been hidden in plain sight, and it reminded me of why I keep coming back to the mat. Yes, I practice because it makes me feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally. But I don't just want to feel better today, I want to grow and change and become a more fully expressed version of myself. I want to bloom. You can only change what you can see. I'm incredibly grateful to have the help of a mindful approach to yoga to reveal my habits and patterns in a way that’s as plain as a footprint in wet concrete.

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For years, I've had an embarrassing little yoga secret. While I've been a student of yoga since 1996, and a teacher and home practitioner for over 16 years, whenever I'd try to incorporate meditation into my home practice something always got in the way. If you've tried practicing at home, you can guess what sort of important stuff I'm referring to: a dust bunny emergency under the couch that demands sweeping, laundry that must be folded right this instant, a ringing phone that simply can't wait.

More often though, and on a deeper level, what kept me from making time to sit was fear. After years of study it had been drilled into me that there’s a proper order to things on the mat. Since the purpose of the poses, or asanas, is to prepare the body to sit comfortably for meditation, meditation is typically practiced after asana.

But on the mornings when I was lucky enough to wake up at 6am and eke out an hour’s practice before my kids came trouncing onto my mat, my best intentions to carve out those last fifteen minutes for sitting were usually foiled either by an asana practice that overflowed into those allotted meditation minutes, or by my children who think all yoga poses should be partner poses that involve their feet dangling in my face.

About six months ago I was in a fabulous yoga class with the fabulous Dede Fuentes and she knocked my socks off with a simple statement one of her teachers had shared with her. As she guided us into a brief seated meditation at the start of class, she said: “You can’t do this wrong.”

I realized in that moment that I had wasted a lot of time needlessly worrying about the proper yogic order of things. Perhaps I subconsciously feared that the Yoga Police would somehow find out if I did something “wrong” on the mat and scold me. I smiled with eyes closed until Dede cued us to open them, and I knew something had shifted.b2ap3_thumbnail_KM-Meditation.jpg

The very next morning I rolled out my mat, settled into a comfy seat atop two fluffy blankets, and closed my eyes. With my body still a bit stiff from the night’s sleep and my to-do list pressing its way to the front of my mind, I initially chastised myself with negative self-talk that this wasn’t what meditation should look like. But remembering my new mantra, I stepped back from “right” and “wrong” and embraced the idea that any meditation is good meditation. I sat for a few minutes, finished my yoga practice, and went on with my day. And I felt fantastic.

The day after that it was a little easier to sit, and since then my morning practice no longer feels complete without a brief meditation to start. Sometimes I sit for 5 minutes, sometimes 15, but meditation is now neither a chore nor something that causes me to worry about getting hit with a citation from the Yoga Police. It’s not fancy, it’s not overly elaborate, but it works for me.

In my mind, there’s very little room for “wrong” in yoga. What good are principles and traditions if they can't be applied in daily life?

I believe everyone should be empowered to integrate even a brief, simple practice of mindfulness into their day in a way that fits with their personality, schedule, and life. If you're lucky enough to find a tool that helps you to feel happier and healthier on a daily basis, there’s nothing more right than that.

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A couple of weeks ago my family again joined our dear friends on a pilgrimage to Jasper Pulaski State Park to witness the migration of the sandhill cranes. It was a beautiful, chilly Saturday morning, and I was giddy. My son, on the other hand, trudged down the path, completely disregarding the “Sandhill Cranes – True or False?” quiz placards we had so eagerly read together the year before.

He tossed his football so high it grazed the tree branches overhead. “Why can’t we just stay at the campsite and play football?” he said, missing the catch and running after his ball as it rolled erratically through the golden brown carpet of leaves. “They’re just a bunch of birds!”

As we continued up the path towards the observation tower and the familiar sight of 100 or so people perched on railings overlooking a massive field of cranes, I realized I had been pondering the same question. Why do so many of us keep coming back to watch a bunch of birds who are completely indifferent to our presence? What would happen if we were all just too busy with work and family stuff to bother?

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I pictured the tall wooden observation tower empty, the cranes themselves the only witnesses to this natural phenomenon, and was comforted knowing that nothing would be different in that scenario. The cranes would still make their Mary-Poppins-style landings, do their flapping dance, and communicate with their incredibly resonant honks.

As I leaned on the railing and watched these gorgeous animals move and interact, I was overwhelmed with the pure joy of doing just one thing. Emails, status updates, schedules, and everyday aggravations fell away and it occurred to me that this one-pointed focus I had dropped into was not some kind of amazing feat. It was just who I am when I peel back the layers of busyness.

By the time we left I was brimming with the imagery and poeticism of the trees, the fallen leaves, the earth, and the sky dotted with birds and stars.

Back on my yoga mat last week after our return, I practiced a variation of crane pose, balakikasana,to cultivate some of that simplicity despite have been thrust back into the challenges of daily life. After 17 years of hearing yoga’s definition translated as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” as I flapped my wings, moved with my breath, and steadied my gaze, I began to understand it in a different way.

In savasana I imagined a river flowing from my head through my trunk, arms, legs, and out my toes. I visualized that the flow of this river was my true, unchanging self, ease and wellbeing. It’s the part of me that is just waiting to be found if only I can stop distracting myself with things that seem important when I let myself get too busy. Whenever a thought popped into my head, I imagined that thought was a small stick or a golden leaf falling into the river, and I’d watch it float downstream.

Yoga is an undoing. It's not about wishing to stop the thoughts or mental fluctuations any more than a river wishes the sticks and leaves would stop falling into it. Thoughts, those little sticks and leaves, are not the problem.

When I visit the cranes, spend time outside, or simply practice being a mindful, breathing human being on a yoga mat, I’m clearing the river’s pathway so it can flow, as per its nature. I’m witnessing the delicate fall of sticks and leaves, watching the thoughts come and watching the go. I’m not the sticks or the leaves. Rather I’m the river that carries them, I’m the cranes that fly and honk and dance regardless of whether they have witnesses or not. I’m the stuff beneath my stuff, the steadiness beneath my busyness. I am right here, wherever I go, despite the layers of multi-tasking or distraction I sometimes choose to cloak myself in.

In the field beneath the observation tower my son sprints and dodges, clutching the football with a determined grin as he goes for the touchdown with his friends. The cranes honk, the perfect spectators, neither approving nor disapproving of his alternating successes and failures. He’s shed his coat, hat, and gloves, and his cheeks glow red despite my worries that he’ll be cold.

As a kid who’s relatively uncloaked in the layers of distraction, he doesn’t need the cranes in the same way I do. The sunlight fades and my husband goes in for a friendly tackle, then they tumble over each other in the grass, laughing.

I want to tell my son he's right, they are just a bunch of birds. I tell myself, remembering, we're all just a bunch of birds.

 

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Over the past 15 years of teaching yoga, I’ve told my students thousands of times, in thousands of different ways to avoid creating discomfort with the practice. Physically I felt this was the key to guarding against overdoing, strain, and injury.

But a couple of weeks ago I took an Experiential Anatomy workshop with Judith Lasater, and since then discomfort has become my new normal. Judith presented a completely new way of looking at alignment through the lens of kinesiology, and the cognitive dissonance I experienced during the workshop was as unsettling as it was exciting. After 15 years of practicing mountain, triangle, and down dog one way, I’m now exploring what it would mean to do almost exactly the opposite.

Tadasana, mountain pose, my familiar friend, has become this new creature. The shifting of the pelvic alignment, the undoing of ‘sneaky tailbone tucking,’ has freed my belly and low back, requiring much less work while achieving greater stability. Relying more on my bone structure means not needing to do so much work in the poses.

As exciting as these discoveries were, I still wasn’t sure what to think. I felt like an absolute beginner again. While I’m not generally attached to my ability to achieve fancy poses and my practice looks more like a level 1 student’s these days anyway, I was still uncomfortable with this absolute throwback to beginnerdom.

I’m not used to being uncomfortable in any substantial way. Most of us in the US aren’t. I have adequate food, clothing, and shelter. I’m in good health and my yoga practice has been a constant comfort to me, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’m used to knowing what’s what in my practice, but right now on the mat I’m caught in a dialogue between old habit and new. As I make my way into trikonasana with the new alignment cues, my muscle memory protests, ‘But this is NOT how triangle feels...’

At every point in the pose my mind tries to decide whether Judith’s way is good or bad, whether I like it or dislike it, and I can’t help debating whether or not she’s right. But as Judith reminded us, determining what’s ‘right’ demands identifying its opposite, and there’s really not room for ‘wrong’ in yoga practice. All these tiny alignment details teachers offer students are simply ways to encourage paying attention and moving consciously rather than from rote. The mental focus and awareness generated from such details helps you practice yoga rather than just asana.

What do most of us do when we feel discomfort? My tendency is to fill it up – over the years that tool has ranged from stuffing my face with chocolate, zoning out to bad TV shows, or losing myself in work or writing projects to avoid feeling the unease of not knowing. Unconsciously, I must believe that if I do something familiar (even something that causes other kinds of pain and discomfort, like an overfull belly, regret over wasted time, or exhaustion from staying up too late), the weird unfamiliarity will be quelled so I can go on about my nice little life without having to examine what the discomfort really means below the surface.

I’m ready to invite discomfort in for myself and for my students, to play with the balance between knowing and not knowing, between certainty and unfamiliarity. We often visited this world as kids because so many of our experiences were new and uncomfortable, but we were repeatedly told it was an important part of our growth and development.

As adults couldn’t embracing the discomfort of newness be useful in cultivating that same sort of growth?

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I’ve been refining my definitions. Yes, discomfort is a warning sign. But sometimes rather than a red light, it’s a flashing yellow. ‘Hey, you! Pay attention to this and decide – do you want to hit the brakes or proceed with caution?’

Discomfort and pain are distinct experiences on the mat. Discomfort is the unfamiliar, like when Judith asked me to shift my pelvis forward and down in triangle rather than trying to spin open as I have done so many times before. My body was confused, my muscle memory jostled, and I experienced emotional discomfort because I felt like a complete beginner again. On the other hand, some of the things Judith suggested did not quite feel right in my body and bordered on pain. In those cases I listened, pulled back, and asked for help. But for the most part, when I managed to stay with the unfamiliarity long enough to undo my habitual asana patterns, I experienced a new lightness, steadiness, and ease in the poses.

While I want to play with discomfort and encourage my students to do the same, I’m still a firm believer that pain does not belong on the yoga mat and you need not push through it to achieve a breakthrough. I also don’t feel I’ve unlocked the key to the one ‘right’ way to approach alignment, but rather have reinforced for myself that the value of asana practice lies in its ability to help us pay attention to small details and sensation. I look forward to inviting students to pay closer attention, undo habits, and explore their discomfort with newness in asana. And I hope that when they step off the mat and back into their day the exploration they’ve done will open them to the growth possibilities that exist within cognitive dissonance, with the questioning of patterns without need for determining ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’

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Investing your time and money in a yoga teacher training program can be an effective way to deepen your understanding of yoga in order to share it with others and possibly move towards a career doing what you love. Finding the right program can make all the difference between a mediocre experience and a life-changing one.

Down dog adjustment with Sharon Wentz and Kerry Maiorca

In the past 5 years, there’s been a boom in yoga teacher training programs in the US as yoga has become big business. It takes a significant amount of experience, dedication, and time to craft a quality program. However, for some schools teacher training programs are primarily viewed as a source of revenue, and in those cases the program’s quality may reflect those priorities.  Asking the right questions as a prospective student will help you determine whether a program will prioritize your education and personal development, or whether they’re more interested in your participation for financial reasons.

If your teacher training experience is just a fast-track to certification, you’ll graduate feeling only vaguely familiar with the material. A quality program will provide repeated exposure to key concepts, adequate support and feedback, and plenty of time to absorb the information so you’ll feel confident and practiced enough that you could teach any yoga pose or philosophical concept to your grandmother. 

Will you be ready when a student in your first post-teacher-training class asks how to modify for their back issue or wants to know what that Sanskrit term you’ve been throwing around really means? 

Get an insider look at what's really important by asking these 10 questions: 

1. Is the program an RYS? Over the past year, Yoga Alliance has become the essential player in the yoga world, to the point where it’s hard to get a teaching job if you don’t attend a Registered Yoga School (RYS) and obtain the Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) designation. Yoga Alliance offers valuable member benefits such as health insurance, liability insurance, educational webinars, and more. Even if you aren’t sure you want to teach, it’s wise to invest in a program that will enable you to get your RYT because if you change your mind and want to teach after graduating you will not have to spend additional money on a second RYS program. To ensure you can get your RYT designation upon graduation, verify that a prospective program is listed as an RYS on Yoga Alliance’s website so you know the program is in good standing.

2. What is the style of the training and will it make you a versatile teacher? While demonstrating respect for the broad tradition of yoga, the program should focus on one particular approach (that resonates with you) rather than providing a survey of 10 different yoga styles. On the other hand, consider whether the program’s teaching certificate will make you a versatile instructor who can teach in a variety of settings, or whether you will only be qualified to teach a branded class in a particular location or for a particular company.

3. How experienced are the primary teachers? To become a skillful yoga teacher, you need to learn more than just the basics of alignment and a bunch of Sanskrit. You’ll learn most from the insights your primary teachers share based on their years of experience practicing, studying, and working with thousands of students. With teacher training programs cropping up everywhere, it’s important to find out how long the primary teacher has been teaching. The depth of what you can learn from a teacher who been honing her craft for 10 or more years is significantly more than someone who just graduated from her own teacher training program 2 years ago. 

4. How many trainees do they accept? Consider how you would feel being in a class of 20 versus a class of 60+. Smaller teacher training class sizes allow for more personalized instruction. Ask to talk with the primary teacher about the level of individual feedback provided on your practice, teaching, sequencing, and other assignments. The way you’re received as a prospective trainee will reveal how you’ll likely be treated once enrolled. If the teacher makes time to address your questions, that’s a good indication she’ll value you as an individual rather than just another number on the roster.

5. Is the school fair and upfront with their pricing? The current advertised pricing for teacher training programs ranges from around $2500 - $4000. However, many schools add extra hidden costs for required workshops, makeups, manuals, or in the case of residential programs, accommodations. Find out all fees that are associated with completing the program so you know what your true cost will be, and be sure the program has their attendance, pricing, and refund policies in writing so there are no surprises should the unexpected happen.

6. What do program graduates say? Recent graduates can be one of the best sources for information about the quality of the training. They can share their first-hand experience and give you a sense of whether the program delivers what it promises. The primary teacher should be happy to put you in touch with graduates for a phone or email exchange.

7. How long will it take to get certified? There are many programs that will certify you to teach in a few weeks, often running trainings that last for 8-10 hours, day after day. The average adult has an attention span of 20-60 minutes, so at a certain point excessive information will simply not stick. The key to retention and absorption is learning via sessions that are shorter in duration and that meet consistently (weekly rather than monthly), allowing you to circle back to key concepts until they are second nature.

8. What is the curriculum and classroom format? Yoga Alliance requires RYS to provide a minimum number of instructional hours in six educational categories, but each program can choose to allocate those hours in a variety of ways. Ask the primary teacher to show you the curriculum and book list, and find out the format of classroom hours. According to Yoga Alliance guidelines, teacher training classroom hours must be in a “dedicated teacher training environment (into which others might occasionally be invited) rather than in classes intended for the general public.” If the program doesn’t follow a clear curriculum and your teacher training sessions are open to the general public, the depth of your learning will be compromised.

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9. Does the program prepare you to teach beginners and modify for students with injuries? Teaching intermediate students is pretty straightforward – just call out ‘handstand’ and, voila, up they go! While it can be fun to play with more challenging poses, part of being a good yoga teacher is meeting students where they are. As yoga becomes more popular, it’s essential to know how to safely teach a variety of students (not just fit and flexible yogis) because regardless of what level you plan to teach, every class is really a mixed level class. The program should emphasize learning alternate variations so you can empower students to participate at a level that’s appropriate for them rather than risking overdoing it or having to sit that challenging arm balance out.

10. How much yoga experience is required to apply? If a program requires no previous yoga experience for applicants, this should raise a red flag. It means you will receive a less-thorough education because your teacher trainers will need to spend more time instructing newer students in the basics of alignment and technique. It may also indicate the program values generating revenue over accepting appropriately-qualified candidates. One year of consistent yoga practice prior to applying is a minimum standard for potential teacher trainees.

Having asked the above questions and pondered the answers, you’ll be well-equipped to determine which program will be the best fit for your educational needs while preparing you to become a skilled and knowledgeable yoga teacher. Enjoy the journey!

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