Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Every year around this time, I get a little wistful as our yoga teacher trainees prepare for their graduation. After almost 10 months during which my co-teacher Sharon and I guided and supported these fabulous people in delving into the aspects of yoga that aren’t typically addressed in a standard yoga class, I feel compelled to write a love letter of sorts. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be co-leading this exploration, and I’m amazed that though the point of the program is for us to teach them, I always learn so much from working with our trainees.

So here’s my love letter to our trainees (current and past), a thank you for just a few of the things I’ve learned from watching such dedicated practitioners grow into teachers.

This yoga business is so much more than stretching and strengthening: it can change your life

It’s been a long time since my first teacher training back in 1998, and every year when I watch our trainees discover all the other aspects of the practice and tradition that go beyond poses on a yoga mat, I’m reminded of how life-changing it can be to delve into the introspection and self-study that are imbedded in the larger philosophy of yoga. Our trainees excitedly share how their daily interactions with friends and family have changed since exploring the yamas (ethical guidelines for relationship to others) and niyamas (personal practices/observances), they talk of their new appreciation of the koshas (sheaths or layers of being) and how they’ve begun to observe themselves on more subtle levels as a result.

As a new practitioner and budding teacher myself almost twenty years ago, I remember how thrilling it was to realize that by contemplating these new concepts I could better recognize my own habits and patterns both in relationship with others and towards myself. Having always felt myself to be a self-confident person, I was blown away when we’d explore meditation practice and it was like someone had cranked up the volume on the self-hate radio station in my brain. Those first few years of practice was all about turning the volume down and eventually changing the channel altogether. If letting go of negative self-talk isn’t life changing, I don’t know what is.

I practice for my 80 year-old self

Yoga’s not just for the young and fit (thank goodness!). Each year when we ask about our trainees’ future plans to teach, more and more of them express a desire to share yoga with an older population with more limited mobility and different concerns/goals. This, to me, is such a huge victory. Of course it can be fun as a young, fit person to sweat your way into some crazy arm balance or backbend if that’s your thing, but that’s not what has kept me interested in yoga all these years. I practice for my 80 year-old self. I practice to give myself the best possible chance at staying active and healthy as I age, despite whatever life may throw at me. I’m proud that our amazing trainees are emerging from the program with a broader view of yoga for the long run and I know they’ll make the yoga world a better place as they offer the practice in an accessible way for people of all ages in a variety of environments.

Start small and keep your friends close (and your books closer!)

Over the past few weeks we’ve asked our trainees to reflect upon their teaching journey thus far and where they see themselves going from here. When I finished my first teacher training, I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the subject I had just scraped the surface on (my first training was a one month intensive!). I knew there was so much more I had to learn, but wasn’t sure where to go next with my studies and practice. I just wanted to consider myself done and move on because I didn’t have a clear direction.

Our fun-loving 2014-2015 trainees!

Our trainees are studying the same vast subject and have identified both the aspects of the practice they’ve started to become more familiar with (for many of them it’s pranayama and meditation), as well as the places they know need time for further exploration (for most it’s the rich philosophical study of yoga that we’ve been working on them with consistently over the course of the program). They all have their own strategies, but there’s a consistent theme of being patience, starting small, picking one or two areas to dive into next, and repeating for the long-term. They’re so wise – it took me years to figure that out and I’m grateful to be reminded of this sensible and practical approach. Wouldn’t life be better if we looked at everything this way? Just start with one small step, research, explore, then move to the next thing when you’re ready. Imagine how much you could grow if you always had a subject you were studying. Though our trainees are sad to see our twice weekly sessions come to a close (as are Sharon and I!), they know that they can continue their yoga schooling on their own because they have each other for support (their group picture says it all - they're pretty awesome folks!).

The community they’ve built is amazing. They hang out socially, share favorite new yoga books and websites, and support each other in times of need. The further away from teacher training you get, the harder it is to maintain this community and support. But our trainees in years past are still going strong, encouraging and inspiring each other, and I know they are better teachers for it. They inspire me to reinvest in my own community of yoga teacher peers and to seek out new resources to continue my own growth.

To all of our teacher trainees past and present, thank you for trusting us to guide you in this adventure and for bringing your full selves to our work together. I am a better teacher for knowing you all!

The journey starts again this fall for a new group of trainees. There’s still time to join us! Learn more about our 200 hour hatha yoga teacher training on our website or reach out to me directly.

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It was one of those late-May days where you just want to whistle back to the birds. The breeze balanced out the warmth of the afternoon perfectly, gardens were just coming into their own, and I smiled and waved as a neighbor approached on the sidewalk.

“Isn’t it amazing?” I said, thinking that just weeks prior I would have been waving with mittens.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m happy because it’s summer, but I’m sad because it’s almost over.”

I chuckled and assured him that summer hadn’t even officially begun, but I understood what he was really saying.

It’s easy to think this is simply the curse of the Chicagoan – coming off of the brutality of a long, difficult winter, one can’t help but remember that despite the appearance of things when sidewalks are slapped by cheerful masses strolling in their flip flops, in a few short months we’ll bid farewell to those sweet evenings spent lingering on the porch while a cold beverage sweats in your hand. Big, bad winter looms over every lush corner garden.

But this isn’t just a Chicagoan’s problem, and it isn’t just about weather.

When my five year-old daughter cuddles up in my lap and asks me to scratch her back, interspersed with the sweetness of our connection is my disbelief over the fact that she grew almost an inch in the last few months and I can barely carry her anymore.

As I sigh into the incredible comfort of an exquisitely propped restorative yoga pose and feel that one stubborn tight spot in my neck begin to release, the next inhalation comes in a little more shallowly because my thoughts have inadvertently shifted to how bummed I’m going to be when it’s time to come out of the pose, put the props away, and get back on my computer.

Endings are hard. But like in a good story, there’s always a beginning, a middle, and an eventual end. The fact that summer or childhood or yoga or life ends isn’t the problem, the problem is when a worried mind focuses so much on the end that there’s no room to appreciate the middle.

I used to think that were I not so moved by the tragedy of endings, that would make me a cold and unemotional person. It seemed to me that the best way to appreciate a beautiful moment was to wallow in the sadness I’d feel when it was over.

Then in my second yoga teacher training 12 years ago as I explored my relationship to yoga’s philosophical concepts, I was fortunate to have the chance to really come face-to-face with my own natural tendency to simultaneously cling to the past while constantly anticipating the future.

What was missing in that picture?

The middle, the now, the what is.

Summer ends every year, but I don’t need to suffer that loss before it arrives. When my mom used to tell me, “Don’t wish your life away,” I’d nod but wonder how else to spend my time other than thinking about what was next.

good.jpgAfter years of yoga practice (going on 18 years now….wow!), the poses, conscious breath, mindfulness, and relaxation have helped me find what was missing, what was standing between me and the moment. Turns out it was just my busy little mind all that time!

Like Dorothy in her ruby slippers, it seems silly to have been unable to see I was standing in my own way. Yoga practice became my Glinda, and though it was a much less instant shift than a click of the heels, I’m forever grateful for the sparkly dose of clarity that set me on the path.

Once my neighbor and I passed on the sidewalk, there wasn’t too much more to say. The day spoke for itself with my not-yet-sunscreened skin soaking up the rays that managed to beam between leaves, and his sweatshirt, a holdout from the previous day’s cool, wrapped around his waist.

I turned to look over my shoulder once more and had the urge to tell the back of his head, to tell myself, the best we can do is to enjoy it while it’s here. But when I saw the spring in his step as he walked towards the train I shifted my gaze back to the sidewalk ahead of me and kept walking, one sidewalk square at a time, until I eventually arrived home.

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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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