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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Have you ever been in a yoga pose that was so unbearably uncomfortable you started to resent your teacher for making you stay in it, only to look around the room and see a handful of other students who seemingly could happily nap in the same pose? 

I’ve definitely been there, and in my early days as a yoga student I always just thought discomfort in a pose was something I had to work through and that it would get better once I was stronger or more open. After almost 20 years of yoga practice, I now realize there’s another way to approach these sorts of challenges on the mat and I’m incredibly grateful to find that principle following me off the mat as I prepare for a very big year personally.

Some yoga poses just don’t feel right initially. This week with in teacher training we were exploring upavistha konasana, seated wide angle forward fold. Upavistha is a “love it” or “hate it” pose, one that either clicks for students or doesn’t, and when it doesn’t it’s exceedingly unpleasant. b2ap3_thumbnail_BloomYogaForwardBendSeated.gif

One of the themes we harp on over and over again in teacher training is the fact that every pose is completely different from one body to another. Your experience of loving or hating a pose is often a result of a variety of factors, including bone structure, limb length and proportions, and a lack of mobility in certain muscle groups.

Upavistha will give you lots of trouble if there’s any restriction in your hip flexors, groins, inner thighs, or hamstrings. Tightness in these muscle groups can rock the pelvis backwards in a way that causes overwork in the low back and makes it nearly impossible to sit up straight, despite your best yogic intentions and your teacher’s encouragement.

Here’s the cool thing – if you find yourself in this sort of struggle with a pose, upavistha or otherwise, there’s something you can do about it. That’s a relief, right? Many students just assume that uncomfortable poses are meant to be that way. Challenge has its place, but I’m a big believer in learning to distinguish between necessary and appropriate challenges, and those that can be alleviated, both on and off the mat.

My husband Zach and I have a very big year ahead between preparing to welcome our third child into the world this summer and renovating our home to accommodate our new family of five. Though upavistha and project New Baby/New Home present me with completely different challenges, I know my handy dandy yoga toolkit can help me in both cases. 

Rather than letting myself get overwhelmed when faced with a challenge, I can take a deep breath, choose to look at things rationally, and ask myself a few basic questions:

1.What IS NOT possible for me to change in this moment? 

On the mat answer - “My hips and legs are chronically tight.”

Off the mat answer - “I’m having a baby and doing a home renovation simultaneously!”

2.What IS possible to change in this moment? 

On the mat answer - “I can sit higher up to lessen the hip restriction I experience in the pose, or I can place my hands behind me and lean back instead of forward folding.”

Off the mat answer – “I can delegate more to my wonderful and very capable staff, and my husband Zach and I can commit to simplifying by saying no to any additional projects or commitments that are not absolutely essential right now.”

3.What is the impact of the proposed change? Did it help or hurt?

As a yoga teacher and teacher trainer, I’m always trying to model a willingness to be curious with my students and to acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes a suggested change makes the pose feel worse, sometimes it makes it better. Only the individual in the pose can know the difference, and my goal as a teacher is to empower students to honestly evaluate the impact of the change. If it didn’t help, we can always try something else.

In family life, acknowledging a busy time by making real changes in schedule and commitments is almost always a good move. But knowing that I can be a bit reactionary at times, I’ll have to pay attention over the course of the next year and make sure I don’t withdraw from everything and just head into the isolation of our baby-renovation bunker. Stay tuned for more news on that as plans (and my belly) develop….

Every Thursday night when I come home from teacher training I’m all smiles and chattiness. I tell Zach about some great new insight a trainee shared or something funny that happened in class, and I just gush about how grateful I am to have the opportunity to work with such fabulous people over the course of 10 months. I love empowering these dedicated yoga practitioners and teachers-in-training to trust what they already know and make changes that make the practice work for them. There’s nothing better than seeing the look on a student’s face when a “hate it” pose turns into a “love it” pose (or at least a “tolerate it” pose!). Thank you, upavistha and fabulous trainees. Thank you, project New Baby/New Home. Thank you, yoga.

 

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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.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Teacher-Training.jpg

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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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'm pleased that the wonderful, positive online community MindBodyGreen posted my article "Fear No Yoga" this week. The article examines the myriad of responses the yoga community has had to the recent NYT article "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body." But it looks at them from a new perspective: how fear influences our relationship with yoga practice.

In the article I talk about an exercise on fear that my colleague Sharon Wentz led for our teacher trainees this fall. The process of uncovering and better understanding our fears can be informative and empowering, particularly in relationship to our yoga practice.

Check out the article and let me know what you think!

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