Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Teacher Training Weekend: Saturday Pranayama May 25, 2011

Filed under: breath,teacher training,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 6:45 pm
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This month at teacher training is Breath Month! At Saturday’s teacher training session, we started work on pranayama, which are breathing exercises designed to improve the flow of energy in the body. Life energy, or prana, is what enlivens all of us, what makes us alive. Prana courses through the body, giving us energy, helping our cells do their work, and healing any problems. Breath is the mechanism by which prana is able to move in the body, so by deepening the breath, we can increase the flow of prana, and by practicing other breathing exercises, we can affect our energy levels and our mood and even heal illness.

So far in teacher training, we’ve studied the yamas and niyamas (moral practices), and asana (physical postures), all of which I’m completely on board with. Now, though, we’re getting into the realm of New Agey stuff. I don’t know how much I buy into the prana thing, or the concept that by practicing certain breathing techniques we can heal illness. I know the body is capable of many miracles, and so I’m trying to keep my mind open.

I’ve started on this month’s reading in Science of Breath, and one thing so far has made a lot of sense. In chapter 1, the authors point out that breathing is a unique biological function: it’s involuntary, like heartbeat or digestion, so it will happen automatically no matter what, but unlike heartbeat or digestion, breathing is a function that we can also control if we choose. It’s the only involuntary function that we can control. Ancient yogis noticed that breathing is unique in this way and decided that, because breath is the only function that is both voluntary and involuntary, breath might be the link between the body and the mind and controlling it might be the key to controlling other bodily functions. That sort of makes sense to me: breath is already in a special category, so maybe it does other cool stuff too. More to come as I continue with this month’s homework (see below).

We also had teaching practice on Saturday afternoon. We formed one big class together and J tapped each person to teach a part of the class to the whole group, telling us which poses to teach. I was given sun salutations; I taught the classical version with lunges, which I hadn’t taught before, and I think I did well. It was interesting, as always, to see how my classmates teach and what they say versus what they don’t say.

Here’s our homework for this month:

  • Complete an ayurvedic profile, tally the score, and read the results about your body type
  • Read the book Science of Breath by Swami Rama
  • Start on the book Moola Bandha: The Master Key by Swami Buddhananda
  • Practice daily pranayama exercises: diaphragmatic breathing, three-part breathing, and alternate nostril breathing (I’ll define the types of breathing for you in a later post, but what we’re talking about here is ten minutes or so, ideally twice a day)
  • Keep a journal about the pranayama exercises, my reflections and observances; this will evolve into being my paper to hand in next month
  • Do two posture write-ups on standing poses (choose any two)
  • Suggested: recruit friends and family to be yoga guinea pigs and practice teaching

This feels like kind of a crap-ton of homework this month. Luckily, I’ll be on a train for a good 8-9 hours round trip this weekend, which should help with getting the reading done, and I’ll be traveling to visit with friends who are willing yoga guinea pigs.

I had been upset that last month was Asana Month because I was so busy last month and I wanted more time to actually be able to practice the poses, but I honestly think it worked out for the best: being busy, I had to complete the work when I could, and I couldn’t be a perfectionist about it. This month the homework is less active and more thoughtful, and I am almost as busy this month as I was last month, so I predict insanity to come.


April Training Weekend: Saturday Teaching Practice May 7, 2011

Filed under: reflections,teacher training,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 1:28 pm
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Saturday’s teacher training class also included a round of teaching practice. We split into two groups of six, and round-robin-taught a class to one another. In my group, Tony started with child’s pose and rabbit pose, then I did side stretches, then Joanna half sun salutes, and so on. Each of the six of us got to teach twice.

This was an interesting exercise in a few ways. I kept noticing how as a group we weren’t really structuring a “yoga class” the way we’d actually teach one. Each person, when put on the spot, made interesting choices about which pose to teach next. We did balance poses twice, and sun salutations twice, and skipped warriors until I decided that was what I wanted to teach on my second round – they seemed too important to leave out. Even then, it was tricky trying to figure out how to get into the warrior pose, as each person brought the group up to standing when she finished her part. I ended up making everyone do another sun salutation/vinyasa, because that seems like a more natural way to get into the wide-legged stance for warrior than to just step a leg back (even though stepping a leg back was the way my old teacher Gene taught it – I don’t know, it would have been fine to do it that way, but I didn’t realize it until after half the group was in plank already). I could have just had everyone do a half sun salute and then step one leg back, but I wasn’t thinking and made them go through plank, up dog, and down dog before stepping one foot forward to get to warrior 1. I talked the group through warrior 1, warrior 2, and radiant warrior on each side before bringing them back to standing.

I was pretty pleased with how I did in this exercise, but I think it was more interesting to watch my classmates. This was what really inspired my post on voice the other day: listening to everyone else and hearing each person trying to establish his or her own voice as a teacher. Each person had strengths and weaknesses. Some people repeated the same things over and over; some people didn’t say enough to guide a beginner into a pose, and others talked too much. I’m sure I had similar faults. It’ll be just as interesting to observe my classmates growing as yoga teachers as it will be to see it happen in myself.


Yoga teaching voice April 30, 2011

Filed under: reflections,teacher training,yoga,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 7:50 pm
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As a writer in grad school, I really struggled with voice, trying to write poems that would stand out as MY poems. My thesis advisor would tell me how important it was for my poems to hang together as a cohesive group, with a voice to unify them; he said he wanted my poems to have a voice so strong that if someone dropped a pile of unattributed poems on his desk, he could pick mine out of the stack. At the time, I was 23. I had no idea really who I was as a poet, and was just beginning to figure out who I might be as a person, so when my advisor talked about voice it was hard really to understand what he meant. I didn’t have as much confidence as my classmates did, and that came through in the poems. In the years since then, I’ve made a lot of progress with developing my voice. The poems I’m writing now (or was writing, before teacher training started) have a much stronger voice, a voice that was influenced by many writers I admire but which is still definitively mine.

This teacher training weekend made me think about my voice as a yoga teacher. I don’t mean my speaking voice (although that’s important too), but who I am and what’s important to me as a teacher. I’ve been practicing yoga for over eight years, and I’ve taken classes with a lot of different yoga instructors, all of whom teach differently. The core poses are all the same, but every teacher is going to phrase things differently, is going to emphasize something different. My favorite teachers all live in my head somewhere: Gene in Boston, my friend Lucia, Jennifer Schelter, Adam and Lisie at Enso, now J & N, even the woman who taught my very first yoga class back in North Carolina. When I practice yoga, and even more when I try to teach a pose, I have their words in my mind to draw upon, but it does no good for me to just regurgitate another teacher’s class. That’s not helpful for me, and it’d be dead boring for the students. What I need to do is to synthesize the different voices I hear in my mind and add my own perspective – make my yoga my own. It doesn’t sound all that difficult, but practicing teaching this weekend, it was incredibly difficult! My classmates and I could all hear J’s voice in our mouths as we taught. Each of us needs to develop our own unique voice.

How? The only way to do it is practice, practice, practice. I need to dive deeper into my own yoga practice, not just doing poses but paying attention to each pose, noticing the little things I do to get my alignment right and figuring out how to tell those little things to someone else, how to describe those things in my own way. And I need to practice teaching. The same way I had to practice writing poetry to find my voice as a poet, or the same way that a student in a public speaking class needs to practice before giving a speech, I need to practice giving yoga instructions, practice hearing my voice in this new way, practice paying attention to what the students are doing and finding ways to guide and correct them. I’ll get a lot of this practice through the teacher training program, but still, I think F’s going to be getting a lot of yoga lectures for a while. This issue of voice is something I’d never really considered before, but it’s critically important to explore if I’m going to follow this path.


Teaching a seated twist! April 5, 2011

Filed under: Pose of the Month,teacher training,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 8:54 am
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Last night in yoga class, there were three of us teacher trainees there, and we all got to teach. (I don’t think I’m going to get to relax and enjoy a yoga class for the next 9.5 months, but hey, it makes sense that I actually have to work for my almost-a-year of complimentary yoga classes.) Julia did a balance pose, Nancy did a backbend, and I did a seated twist.

Seated twist.(Hey, check it out, I added an item of visual interest to my post! Thanks to F, special guest photographer, who somehow managed to climb halfway up the wall to get this shot. I went back and added a photo to my Tree Pose post too!)

So here’s the seated twist I chose to teach. And of course, J asked us not to do the pose ourselves, just to talk through it. I understand why he wants us to do it that way, but what I discovered is that this is a difficult pose to tell someone how to get into.

OK, so first, you start out sitting up straight with your legs out in front of you. Easy. Now you’ve got to get the leg bend. What I said was something like, “Bring up your left knee, and then let it drop off to the side, and press your left foot against your right thigh.” That’s how I personally do it, but based on the class response, it might not be the best way ever to tell someone else how to do it (I then followed up that clear and accessible bit of instruction with, “Look, Julia’s got it!”). Not totally sure what the best way would be. Maybe, “Bend the left knee and slide your foot up your right leg”? Or just, “Bend your left knee and place your foot against your right thigh”? But then you miss the bit where the left leg is parallel to the floor, not up.

Anyway, hopefully now we’ve got the leg bent, so next is the twist. What I said was, “Raise your left arm – no, just to shoulder height – and now twist toward your left leg. Let your left arm lead you into the twist, and when you’re at the limit of the twist, drop your left hand to the floor. Bring your right hand to your left knee, and look over your left shoulder” (I’m not looking over my shoulder in the photo, but you should be when you try this at home). In retrospect, I should have brought the right hand to the knee first, then done the twist, because I think the hand on the knee gives you some leverage and helps keep your back straight, which people were having some trouble with. I also might have offered some guidance on where the left hand should drop behind you – i.e., right behind your tush – because having the hand too far back possibly caused people to be leaning back too much. A few people were confused about the whole darn thing and J had to go fix one woman, which I was a little embarrassed about.

Things I neglected to mention: keeping your right foot flexed and right leg active instead of just letting it lay there, and using the breath to deepen into the pose (breathe in and lengthen your spine, breathe out and move a little deeper into the twist). I also neglected to count my breaths as a way of telling how long they’d been in the pose so I just had to guess.

And then, you untwist and do it on the other side, which hopefully is less confusing because you just did it once. It seemed to be less confusing on the other side in class.

Overall, I don’t think I did the best job ever teaching this pose, but it helped to deconstruct it a bit here to see what I can do better next time. (I don’t know that I’ll always post here after every time I teach anything, because that would be a lot considering I’m trying to get to class twice a week. Maybe I’ll post for every new pose I get to teach? Or every interesting and out of the ordinary teaching event? We’ll see.)


Today’s yoga: teaching tree pose April 2, 2011

Filed under: teacher training,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 3:29 pm
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Today J made me teach a pose in yoga class! Before class, as everyone was coming in and getting settled, I was waiting on my mat and J looked at me and said, “Want to teach today?” I said, “No,” but J told me to be ready to teach a balance pose.

The whole first half of class was a struggle for me then, thinking about what balance pose I wanted to teach, trying not to overthink it (I’ve done balance poses hundreds of times, heard balance poses taught hundreds of times, I know this), and trying to actually pay attention to class and be in the moment.  Really difficult.  Plus (and I know everyone must think this sometimes) it felt like J was making the class extra-challenging on purpose.  And then I was scoping out the other students in the class (there were 12 of us) to see if anyone looked likely to have difficulty doing a balance pose, and which of my TT classmates were there (Sarah and Trish were there), and then I reminded myself that I trust all my classmates and we’re doing this together and it’s fine.  And then, oh wait, I’m supposed to be paying attention to Warrior 2 right now.

Tree pose.I was torn on which pose to teach.  My first thought was Tree Pose, because it’s my favorite and because I know it well and my group practiced teaching it in training a few weeks ago.  Then I thought I should challenge myself and do Hand-To-Big-Toe Pose, because that one is challenging for me just by itself before I even think about anyone else.  I started running through the steps of Hand-To-Big-Toe Pose in my head, but then I wasn’t sure if I could do it well, and I couldn’t remember if I’d done that pose at this studio and then I worried that they don’t teach that one here or if they do they call it something else, and then I couldn’t think of any other balance poses except Dancer which I know I don’t want to try to teach.  So I ended up doing Tree, and it went okay.  J said I did well, and I checked with Sarah after class to see if she could hear me in the back of the room and she said she could.  It was still hard, though, even though it’s the easiest balance pose for me to teach – I’ve heard it taught so many times before and yet, doing it myself, I didn’t know where to work in that your gaze should find an unmoving spot to rest, and I didn’t mention the neat little trick I learned at the anusara studio last summer because I figured I should keep it simple.  Here is basically what I said:

Bring your hands to a prayer, and start shifting your weight over to your left foot.  When you feel good and grounded, you can begin to lift your right foot off the floor.  You can press your right foot against your left leg at the ankle, or at the calf, or you can bring the foot all the way up to your thigh.  Start to press your right knee out to the side.  Now when you feel good and steady, you can bring your hands up into the branches of your tree.

And that’s pretty much the basic instructions.  I’m fine with that.  I also remembered to breathe, myself, and to count my breaths so that I didn’t leave everybody hanging for too long or take them out too soon. And I did not remember to worry about my hair or about straightening my clothing, which I take to be a good thing.

J had me come up to the front of the room and teach from his mat, and he stood by my mat like a regular student.  While I taught the right side, I did the pose myself while talking through it; then J whispered to me that for the left side I should just talk and not do the pose myself, which is harder, but which gives you more of a chance to look around and see how everyone’s doing.  Everyone was doing pretty well.  And then I was done and J and I switched back and he told me I did a good job, and I spent the rest of the class alternately analyzing how I’d done and trying to stop analyzing.


Weekend session # 1: Saturday March 21, 2011

On Saturday we attended the morning hatha yoga class (butt = kicked), had lunch together, and then started on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (puh-TAN-juh-lee, apparently, I’ve been saying it wrong all these years).  The Yoga Sutras are probably 3000 years old and contain the ancient wisdom of Indian gurus on which modern yoga is based.  A natural place to start! Each sutra is a brief saying, as concise as possible to make it easy to memorize. The word sutra actually means “a stitch or thread” (where the modern suture comes from), with the sense that each sutra is a single thread of meaning.  There are almost 200 sutras total, but get this: in all of these sutras, there are only a few that are about the physical practice of yoga.  Like, fewer than five, out of almost 200.  This is because the physical practice of yoga is intended to be secondary to the mental, emotional, spiritual practice.  We do the physical practice to make our bodies healthy and well, so they won’t distract us when we sit in meditation.  This is largely counter to the way yoga is practiced in the US (think power yoga at the gym).

We’ll be working with the Sutras over the entire course of our training, but right now we’re starting with Book 2, verses 29-45 (in the Sri Swami Satchidananda translation), which is the part on yamas and niyamas.  The yamas are five practices of self-restraint:

  • Ahimsa: non-violence, non-harming
  • Satya: truthfulness
  • Asteya: non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya: control of sensual cravings
  • Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greed

The niyamas are a set of five observances:

  • Shaucha: purity of body and mind
  • Santosha: contentment, satisfaction
  • Tapas: discipline, austerity
  • Svadhyaya: self-study
  • Ishvara pranidhana: surrender, devotion, faith

You got all that, right?  Don’t worry, I sat in a lecture all afternoon on Saturday and I’m looking at my notes right now and I’m not sure I get it all either.  But not to worry, over the next month I’ll be posting on each of these in detail!

After Saturday’s lecture, we broke up into groups of four and did a little teaching practice.  Each group chose a yoga pose, and one person acted as a teacher while the others were students.  The teacher had to give instructions on how to do the pose, without demonstrating the pose herself, and the students had to do the pose exactly according to the teacher’s instructions.  Then we switched so that each person had a turn as the teacher.   Being the teacher was much harder than you’d think, especially if you’re the sort of person who talks with her hands.  I caught myself with my arms going up into tree pose completely unconsciously.  It was difficult to describe exactly how to do a pose without reminding myself by doing it.  It’s honestly hard to be in a yoga setting and to stay still.  It was also interesting to see how each person’s instructions differed.  I started teaching tree pose, and my instructions were pretty basic since I was the first.  Michael followed me almost exactly, Trish added some new points, and then Joanna added some more information.  Also, as soon as I finished teaching and took on a student role, just doing the pose I remembered all these things I should have included in my instructions on how to do it.  We also taught seated forward bend, which was interesting for me because the others are most used to how N & J teach this pose, and so their instructions mimicked that, while the little yoga instructor in my head is my old teacher Gene, who taught it differently, and so I described it the way Gene would. Neither way was wrong, just different ways to verbalize how to complete this particular set of actions in doing this pose.

Mostly, the purpose of the exercise was to start getting us used to the sounds of our own voices.  It also got us on our feet and moving around after an afternoon of lecture, which was nice, and also got me at least thinking about the essence of what a pose is, what’s most important about that pose, what does a beginner student most need to know in order to do the pose correctly.  Which was a good thing to start thinking about, considering…

Our homework assignments!  Each month we’ll need to do posture write-ups.  This month we’re doing two, on forward bends.  We choose two types of forward bends, and then we write:

  1. Step-by-step instructions on how to practice this posture, in our own words, written as if for a beginner – the bare essentials, in bullet points
  2. The benefits of doing this posture
  3. Contraindications for this posture and who should not do this posture
  4. My own experience with this posture (based on my practice this month, when I should be doing the two postures every day and paying attention to how I feel in the pose and my mental experience of the pose)

Our other homework assignment is to read Book 2, verses 29-45 of the Sutras and to write a reflection paper on the yamas and niyamas as they relate to me in my life.  Since there are ten total yamas and niyamas, and five weeks until our next weekend seminar, I’m thinking that a good way to space this out might be to do two of them per week – which will make this a perfect topic for this blog!

Yes, you, my dear readers, will be keeping me honest with my homework assignments.  Not exactly what I imagined when I conceived of this blog, but a nice side benefit.  After all, this blog exists to document my teacher training journey: my reflections, concerns, joys and troubles along the way.  And if said reflections can then be channeled into homework assignments that I can hand in, so much the better.

Overall, I think the first weekend seminar of the TT was really excellent.  I’m looking forward to yoga class tonight (I’m hoping to get to the studio not just once a week, but 2-3 times), and I’m actually excited about the readings and homework.  Whee!