Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Posted by on in Yoga


What makes a yoga teacher "good?"

Acrobatic arm balances and deep backbends?
Mastery of yogic philosophy?
Innovative sequencing and intricate themes?
A magnetic and inspiring personality?

For the past 10 months, I had the pleasure of working closely with the 20 amazing men and women who were Bloom's first yoga teacher training program. During that time we've delved into not only the philosophies and techniques of yoga, but also the exploration of what makes a good yoga teacher.


Many of our trainees started the program with no plans to teach, rather they were looking to deepen their own experience of on the mat. Some knew from day one that they wanted to teach; having been inspired as students themselves, they were now curious to uncover exactly how their favorite yoga teachers worked their magic, how they transformed a sequence of poses and breath into something life-changing. But at the end of the very first night of training when I had them get in groups of two to teach the poses we'd just reviewed, it's safe to say that most were a little nervous and even doubtful that they had what it takes to stand at the front of the class.

As they continued on with their coursework that first quarter, they studied, worked, and integrated the material. Throughout that time they continued teaching each other in small groups to practice using their words to get students in and out of poses safely, to learn how to share what is, in many ways, a very internal practice with others. By the time they began the second quarter, the had both deepened their own experience of yoga and learned instruct students in the basic poses.


What happened in the second and third quarters was an incredible transformation. As the trainees continued to refine their understanding of the basics of yoga and as they taught week after week, both their practice and teaching became more refined. They crafted creative and yet wholly logical sequences, their poses took on a clearer shape, and the tone of their teaching voices projected confidence and joy. Our teacher trainees, who began as very competent little caterpillars, had emerged into beautiful butterflies.

I was amazed at how each one of these brand new teachers brought their own unique personality and spark to their classes. Over the course of the past ten months, our trainees showed up fully and brought bits and pieces of their home life, their work life, their hobbies, and their passions into class. They made the teachings personal rather than just adopting a cookie-cutter take on what yoga is or how a "good yoga teacher" teaches.

There is no one thing that makes a good yoga teacher. Or rather, there is one thing that all good yoga teachers have in common, and then there are infinite variations on that theme. A good yoga teacher seeks connection with students, a good yoga teacher wants nothing more than to share the practice they love with others. But whether a teacher is a drill-sergeant or a philosopher, an entertainer or a nurturer, each committed yoga teacher's approach is valid as long as it is genuine. There is a teacher out there for every student, an approach that will move and inspire each individual practitioner. A good teacher brings not only years of study and practice, but also the ability to be fully present and to connect - first to the deeper part of the self, and only then to students.

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I could feel it building up over the course of the last few weeks, packed as they have been from the time I woke up, dressed, fed myself and the kids, then ran around like a crazy person trying to find matching gloves. The morning routine culminates in me shoving the kids out the front door and then saying 'let's go' 50 times as we walk the five blocks to school and try to make it before the bell rings. It's safe to say, we were in a rut. I was crabby, felt uninspired and short on time, and more than once I wondered if this was all life was about - a series of routines that fill up each day.

You may now be crying out, 'No, no! life can be so much more!' But I maintain that life is, in many ways, a series of routines. The key is figuring out how to move your routines beyond ruts.

And, as my son has been known to say, we just do the same things every day. Routines are important because they allow us to fall into rhythms, to be able to navigate the world more efficiently. Just think if you woke up every morning and spent 20 minutes contemplating how to spend your time before leaving for work or school. Routines ensure that certain important parts of our lives (eating, sleeping, brushing teeth, exercise) will not be forgotten in the midst of the busyness.

But there are routines and then there are ROUTINES.

Last night I was listening to Glenn Gould's exquisite take on Bach's Goldberg Variations, and it occurred to me that life is much like a theme and its variations. Your daily routines are the theme, the consistent base from which you move forth, but within that context there is almost infinite room for flourishes, for creativity, for variations on the theme. The fact that these variations are all tied to or grounded in the theme makes them all the more meaningful.

Lately, I've become more aware of my own routines on the mat. While it's good to have expectations - I will get to yoga class a couple of times this week, I will do a few poses at home or at work - it's less helpful when these routines manifest in the exact same way every time.

When I pay attention, I can identify the points in my own practice where I go on auto-pilot, almost automatically transitioning through a sequence of poses (Hello, Warrior II - Reverse Warrior - Side Angle - Triangle!). Because my typical sequence has felt good in the past and I don't have to think about it, it feels safe and easy to fall back on it. But lately, instead of just diving back into Reverse Warrior, I've been trying to sequence a different pose in next, challenging myself to break out of my yoga rut, and choose a variation on the theme instead. It feels so fresh, so good!

Mix it up on the mat, let go, and see how good it feels to be freed from the routine-ness of your routine. You may feel a little unhinged at first, like you're skipping out on your homework. But yoga is about letting go of attachment and living in the present moment, so hiding behind routines and expectations for asana practice is not really practicing yoga at all. Have your routines and leave them, too. Find a way to exercise both discipline and freedom simultaneously. And let your routines move beyond ruts to become beautiful variations on a theme.

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I’m no yoga renegade. Sure, when I began my practice 16 years ago I was all about deep backbends, elaborate bound twists, and fancy inversions. But as I’ve mellowed with age, and experienced a few too many tweaks on the mat, I now spend considerably more time on breathwork, meditation, and relaxation. And my asana practice more closely resembles what I teach to Level 1 students than any of the pretzel-shaped, gravity-defying poses most people associate with yoga.

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So when I read William Broad’s recent New York Times article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” in which he regales readers with tales of the many ways yoga can just about kill you, I was initially frustrated at the sensationalized title and tone of his article. But as I sat with my reaction over the past week (thank you, yoga!), I realized this was also an opportunity to address the very real risks of injury in a certain approach to yoga practice.


It also made me think now would be the perfect time to pitch NYT a story called “How Food Can Make You Fat” about how everyone should put down their forks for good because a bunch of people have had heart attacks due to a diet of exclusively fast food. Just as “food” can mean anything from a piece of fruit to a bucket of fried chicken, “yoga” means many things to many people. The approach alone determines whether yoga will be a positive, healthy force in your life, or a source of pain and injury.

In his article, Broad cites a handful of horror story cases over the past thirty years in which people spent years performing intermediate yoga asanas in an often rigid and overexerted way and then suffered serious injuries. He uses as an example the story of a man who kneeled in vajrasana (a pose that would normally be held for no more than a few minutes) for an hour every day for a year and then had problems with his knees. Gasp! You mean if you go overboard and ask too much of your body, it will punish you?

As with any form of activity, the ultimate responsibility lies with the individual practitioner. Dedicated practitioners who are on the mat daily could benefit from a reminder to soften their approach a bit so as not to become overzealous. But my guess is that most yoga injuries occur in a different sort of practitioner. Consider the traditional “weekend warrior” syndrome: a person who spends 40 hours a week sitting at a desk then launches into a full-out sprint at the Sunday flag football game is likely to end up at the doctor’s office. Similarly, a “weekend virabhadrasana” who tries to push up into a full backbend in a vigorous Saturday morning vinyasa class is likely to end up paying a visit to the chiropractor.

The problem is not yoga. The problem is us and our egos and our overdone everything.

The first principle of yogic philosophy is ahimsa, non-harming. In order to truly practice yoga, we must not harm ourselves or others. Anything else we do on the mat is just “no pain, no gain” exercise that happens to use yoga poses as a vehicle.

I see it all the time in class: students who are accustomed to the traditional exercise mindset of “more is better” push themselves to get into the shape of the pose at all costs regardless of the hurt it causes the body. When the ego leads the way on the mat, inevitably the focus falls on the pose itself rather than why you originally set out to practice it. As soon as I remind students that asanas are useful but not the end goal, when I suggest that they check in with their breathing and keep a sense of humor about themselves, they tend to pull back.

My job as a yoga teacher is to demonstrate an approach that moves beyond the ego; I must not be afraid to say ‘I don’t know, but I can find out’ if a student asks about a specific injury or condition I’m unfamiliar with, I must encourage them to ask questions and listen to their bodies in each pose rather than blindly following my instructions for the group, and I must not be afraid to slow students down when appropriate even if they clearly want to have their butts kicked in class.

As yoga teachers, we have a duty to educate students about the difference between a stretch and a strain, between work and pain. We have the opportunity and obligation to help students understand both the benefits and risks of the practice, and to show them how to modify (or opt out of) anything that doesn’t feel right for their body. This awareness is invaluable because it can help students make better choices for their health on a day-to-day basis. This is the real yoga, the decidedly unsexy yoga of showing up, being present, and doing what’s right without the help of the latest yoga gadgets, expensive clothing, or props.

The second principle of yogic philosophy is satya, truth. And the truth is that like any other thing you do in an overexerted or excessive way (including walking, running, swimming, or even sitting on the couch), yoga can cause injury when approached from a place of ego and striving. In our culture of blame, liability, and reducing risk, it may be easier to claim that yoga is dangerous and should be given up lest all yogis end up having surgery or brain damage, but the truth is more subtle than that.

I wholeheartedly agree with the quote from yoga instructor Glenn Black who said, “Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.” How you get from that statement to saying people should quit yoga is beyond me. Yoga can be extremely beneficial to people of a variety of levels of fitness and experience when practiced thoughtfully and appropriately for each individual. When the focus is exclusively on asana, the body’s messages of pain or discomfort are overridden, or poses are performed forcefully without proper props or modifications, that is not yoga.

The word “yoga” means many things to many people these days and as William Broad pointed out, a too-vigorous approach to the practice can be damaging and harmful to practitioners. But to simply dismiss the entire tradition based on those concerns is hasty. Yoga is more than just sweating, pushing, and stretching. It’s an exploration of the interplay between body, mind, and breath, a way to systematically peel back the layers of thoughts and ego to find a deeper sense of connection. When the physical practice is approached with an eye to the broader tradition of self-inquiry, pranayama, meditation, and rest, yoga can be a deeply nourishing and healthy practice. With the principles of non-harming and truth at the forefront, yoga practitioners can use this rich practice to get beyond the ego and closer to the true self. And though it can hurt to let go of ego, it’s thankfully not the kind of hurt that lasts (or that wrecks you).

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Posted by on in Health


It's New Year's resolutions time again......Did you spend the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's on a cookie, alcohol, and rich food binge? Then you're the perfect candidate for the "Eat Healthier" resolution! Here's how it works:


      January 1 - eat only raw fruits, nuts, and vegetables, with a rice cake for dessert. You'll feel light, in control, and altogether superior to those around you.



      January 3 - insert a big bag of potato chips after the rice cake.



      January 6 - insert a tub of ice cream after the potato chips



    January 7 - see above re: binge

 


At this point, it's pretty well established that most of the sweeping promises made at the turn of the new year stick for about 1-2 weeks, or a month if you're lucky. New Year's resolutions are typically too broad and require a dramatic change in behavioral patterns overnight, going from one set of habits on December 30, to exactly the opposite patterns on January 1.

I've long ago given up on New Year's resolutions because it feels unnatural to force such dramatic change upon myself. And after many failed attempts of "I will start eating healthier tomorrow" while stuffing a third brownie into my mouth, I realized that just as slow and steady wins the race, small changes always beat out grand proclamations. Small changes require consistent discipline and a certain gentleness with yourself. With the small changes approach, you just keep showing up, holding yourself accountable to your goal while forgiving the occasional slip-up, and continually recommit to healthy choices to the extent possible in each moment.

In lieu of a typical broad resolution like those of the popular "eating right" and "exercising more" variety, this year I'm trying something different as a way to kick start a great 2012. It started off as an idea for our Teacher Training students as a way to motivate them to maintain a daily home yoga practice.

Beginning January 1, we are encouraging all of our trainees to commit a daily practice of some sort to do for 30 days. It could be a brief asana practice, seated meditation, or pranayama practice, or it could just be rolling out the old yoga mat and going with what comes up. The time limit is very flexible - even if it's only 5 minutes carved out of an otherwise busy day, that counts as part of this discipline.

The idea is that, unlike the empty promise of a "get healthier" resolution, picking a specific activity and committing to doing it for 30 days creates the possibility for real, lasting change. If, for example, your resolution would have been to eat healthier, perhaps your practice of discipline could be to eat green vegetables every day for a month.

Hopefully, after the first 30 days the new habit of choosing health on a daily basis will be so ingrained that it will be easier to stick to in the long-term. Just like yoga practice, in which we take it one day at a time, one moment at a time, one breath at a time, so too must we approach changes in habits with the same gentle, but disciplined mindset. Real change does not come with great proclamations made on December 31. But rather with small acts of commitment on January 1, January 2, January 3, January 4, and so on.

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Growing up my mom used to joke that while some people aspired to greatness, her father's motto was 'It's good enough.' She said it like it was a bad thing, like it meant he wasn't aiming high enough. It always made me laugh and struck me as yet another example of my family's self-deprecating humor. But now as a business owner and parent, I have a completely different take on things. Though I have less 'free time' today than at any other point in my life, I'm happier and more productive than I've ever been. I've reclaimed my old family motto and turned it on its head. 'It's good enough' now gives me permission to put work out into the world, rather than perpetually waiting for a few hours extra hours to make it perfect. It empowers me with the knowledge that small chunks of time spent well can lead to something big. Reclaiming 'It's good enough' has been a liberating paradigm shift. Below are 10 ways this philosophy can help you love your life and get more done, no matter how busy you are!



  1. Take on passion projects you aren't fully convinced you have time for (i.e. parenthood, volunteer work, creative pursuits, etc).
  2. Work your tail off because you love the things you're doing and the people with whom you're doing them.
  3. Let go of perfectionism, do your best, and adopt the 'Good Enough' mantra (see Good Enough is the New Perfect, co-written by Lincoln Square resident Becky Gillespie).
  4. Refuse to apologize (to yourself, to others) for things that don't matter; you are living to the fullest, you are accomplishing things that make a real difference in the world, so don't put yourself down with a flippant 'This isn't quite done' or 'I'm glad you could come even though my house is a total mess.'
  5. Give up bad TV and commit to spending more time in the real world and less in the virtual world.
  6. Make time to eat well and exercise regularly; both these things take a little thought and planning, but you'll be rewarded with extra energy to put towards the people and projects that matter most to you.
  7. Think for yourself and don't be afraid to disagree with group consensus if that allows you to stay true to what you believe is important.
  8. Spend time with people who inspire you and mirror the qualities you identify with your best self or the person you would like to become; we tend to rise (or sink) to the level of those around, so be wise about the company you keep.
  9. Make time on a consistent basis for an activity that brings you back to your essential self; for me, it's yoga practice, for some it's going fishing or taking long walks or sitting for meditation or something else. All that matters is that the activity provides a sense of grounding and reconnection.
  10. Be grateful for what you have and remind yourself that the day-to-day stuff is all there is; this life is your one chance to connect with great people and do great things, so you might as well make the most of it!


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