On Teaching

I really enjoy watching my kids at gymnastics, and observing the happenings in the gym. One thing I appreciate is that in this environment, the objectives are clear: it's the coach's job to teach the students how to do gymnastics. There are certain drills and skills in the curriculum, and the expectation is evident for both teacher and student regarding progress.

In my job as a yoga teacher, I consider my role also pretty clear: I teach people how to do yoga. But it does not seem that the expectations are clear across the board. For example, students don't always come to yoga class to learn how to do yoga. Sometimes they come for a workout. Sometimes they come for emotional healing. Sometimes they come for that weird back pain they can't figure out, or because their doctor recommended it. I hear from many that they come for community. Sometimes they come for a playlist and a foot massage.

Also, the expectations from studio to studio vary. Some studios make sure their yoga teachers use physical touch, some prohibit it. Some encourage alignment instruction, some intentionally avoid it. Some want a heartfelt message accompanying the postures, some want postures only, some want music, some want pose names only, some want oils and incense, some don't allow any scents...there are so many considerations beyond "teaching yoga" that have rippled into a yoga teacher's job.

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Hence we end up with a situation where saying "I teach yoga" isn't enough, because what that means from studio to studio, town to town, person to person, comes with quite a bit of room for interpretation.

I have spent a lot of time this summer in the observation deck at the gymnastics center, watching the coaches work with their students. I hear clear instructions, see clear demonstrations, observe clear feedback given, and watch skills be repeated continuously until they are learned. It looks like a school.

In this environment, it seems that the path of learning is clear for student and teacher both, and that at least you know what you're getting when you sign up. I'm certainly not saying this doesn't come with it's own set of problems. Yoga gets to say it's inclusive; I don't think gymnastics can say that. So the ever-morphing, indefinable slippery slope state of 'what yoga is' is not necessarily or entirely a bad thing. Room for interpretation can lead to freedom, and allow for a lot of humanness. We can adjust and modify the curriculum for varying needs, and not just needs, but desires. It's like a candy shop for movers: everybody gets to grab what they want.

When I train new teachers, I usually suggest they get out there, teach wherever they can, and gain experience. When I mentor teachers who have circled back around to me after getting some experience, I start to ask these questions: What do you want to spend your time focusing on when you teach? What do you value in the student/teacher relationship? Who do you like to teach, specifically? This is really step one -- step two comes in learning how to take your answers to those questions and apply them to your teaching choices. When teachers get clear about why they're there and what they're hoping to accomplish, and can learn to communicate that to their audience and be consistent in their aim through delivery, then fewer misunderstandings like "Oh, but I came for the foot massage" occur.

There is room and space for the variety. And with a market which still continues to grow even as many communities are saturated, the best road to success is through honing your aim down to every little choice you make, from your marketing through your student interactions. I heard a friend refer to this one as the "tyranny of small decisions." The small moments of conscious choice will build your brand, so you might as well make them intentionally.

As we grow, we change (thank all the thankable beings!) and then so can our aim. Knowing why you teach doesn't fix you or adhere you to one way. But knowing why you teach helps you know yourself. And then, you can watch yourself change, and make intentional choices as you need, in order to stay caught up with yourself.

An Approach to Urdhva Danurasana - in two parts

The difference between preparing for a back bend and not preparing for a back bend = all the difference in the world!

Yoga teachers, sequence thoughtfully for Urdhva Danurasana and see greater success in your students with this quintessential and satisfying pose. The first video takes you from zero to Urdhva Danurasana in twenty minutes, focusing on stretching your hip flexors and shoulders. The second video emphasizes strengthening drills to help improve and refine the pose. Enjoy!

Pelvic Stability, or Why You Want a Strong Butt

Gluteal engagement and yoga have had a tumultuous relationship this decade. Like that brief period in the 80's when we all thought margarine was healthy -- until we saw the light (and pure, lustrous goodness) of real butter -- yoga teachers have had to retire the misdirected 'relax your glutes' cues that were commonly instructed in back bends.  Strong gluteal muscles are a lot like real butter: they make everything better.

How can you strengthen your glutes within your asana practice? Watch this short tutorial to work these big hip extensors in Virabhadrasana III.

The why behind the margarine cue has to do, I believe, with the fact that gluteal muscles will externally rotate the legs at the hip joint, something we generally want to avoid in back bends, especially symmetrical back bends like Urdhva Danurasana. However, the solution isn't to take these powerhouse muscles out of the equation all together; in fact, it's impossible to practice Urdhva Danurasana without firing your glutes. This is because in addition to external rotation, your glutes are responsible for hip extension: a key ingredient in back bending.

There's a really great article that addresses an approach to Urdhva Danurasana by yogi anatomist Ray Long, which you can read here. For today, I'm going to dial back from the back bends, and highlight on how to strengthen the glutes specifically for hip extension (see the video).

Your glutes are the family of mighty movers on the back of your pelvis, and made up of three muscles: gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. I'm going to focus on the glute max.

the glute max is the largest muscle in this image, on the lower left hand side.

the glute max is the largest muscle in this image, on the lower left hand side.

A primary mover in hip extension, glute max is the largest muscle in your entire body. You want it to be strong. If it's not, then the smaller, secondary muscles try to do its job, leading to all sorts of imbalances that can ripple throughout your body. In addition to hip extension, your gluteus maximus also play a key role in external rotation and abduction (this is where caution to avoid too much of these actions led to our well-intended, but misleading, margarine cue).

You can practice strengthening glute max in Virabhadrasana III. This is a great pose to also focus on keeping your glutes firing with the action of hip extension, and limit the external rotation. This way, you're mimicking some of what we want to achieve with back bends. A common misalignment of Virabhadrasana III is to externally rotate the lifted leg. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and you could certainly do that intentionally as a variation. But you can get that sort of abducted, rotated leg in Ardha Chandrasana, so, I like to use Vira III more traditionally, and keep the lifted leg from turning out.

Yoga is notorious for streeeeeeetching our hips and hamstrings. All of which is quite productive, if you can't touch your toes or sit cross-legged on the floor. A lot of humans need that. For those of us who have a fair amount of mobility in the lower half of our bodies, however, we need to prioritize balancing our flexibility with strength. It makes sense that lots of regular yoga practitioners either arrived naturally flexible to their first yoga class, or have developed their flexibility with years of practice.

In addition to supporting your asana practice,  strong glute max helps prevent low back pain, and avoid pelvic imbalances including SI Joint Dysfunction. Often, symptoms from weak gluteal muscles don't show up immediately. The best treatment is prevention. So, here's to keeping your butt toned, and your pelvis in one piece!

Thanks to Noah Maze, Paula Gelbhart, and Rocky Heron for teaching + inspiring me.

Teaching Tips

Here's a few friendly reminders for those of you out in the wild, I mean the field, of yoga teaching:

1. Know your strengths.

The good news is: there is not one way to teach a yoga class. The more intimately you know your own strengths, the more confident you'll show up for your students. It's good to make mistakes and reveal your whole self, too, but for the sake of yoga education, it will help your career and your students' growth if you offer them what you know.

Don't try to be another yoga teacher. Be the yoga teacher that you are.

2. Teach asana progressively

Teach the key actions of complex postures in the simpler poses that come before it. When you arrive at the complex pose, remind your students to perform each action the way they did in the simpler pose(s) that came before it - this will help diminish the tendency of your students to force themselves into complicated shapes with old habits or poor technique.


3. Connect with yourself to connect with your students.

Don't abandon yourself to be with your students. Hone your skills of self awareness, and stay observant of yourself as you teach others.

The result? Your teaching will make sense. It will be comparatively unhurried, and clear. You'll be able to teach without feeling depleted, and your students will feel like you were really there.


4. Teach what you know.

Don't teach what you don't know. If you're not sure: ask for help.


5. Observe your students.

Notice what they need. Cue to that.

Then:
Observe whether or not your cues make a difference. If not, change your cues, or find another way to get your point across.

Remember:
You're the teacher.

Shapes of Embodiment

In 2008 I published a book about my recovery from anorexia and compulsive exercise. For years, my work was focused on education, advocacy, and recovery support, specifically for eating disorders. If you glance at my life now, it might look like I'm on a different career path. Most days, I teach straight asana. But my over-arching mission is really very much the same. My approach, though, has shifted distinctly.

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My ultimate aim as a yoga educator is embodiment: my work is to help students land in their bodies and have a working relationship to where they are in space, an understanding of which limitations are real and which are perceived, and to see more clearly what is true and what is not so true about who they are as and in a physical body.

In case you want to know, my curiosity about my body's limitations is no less than it was when I was exploring starvation. The difference is that, now, I use the information and make life-affirming choices. In other words, I get very curious about the limitations, and I honor them rather than stubbornly destroy them. I honor the real limitations, and sometimes I honor the perceived ones too, because, fuck, I'm human, and it's hard to be human.

Via asana practice, I learn what is real and true in my body. I learn how my body can move, and I learn to adjust and adapt day by day, season by season. In this, the work of recovery continues, though I don't think about it as 'recovery' anymore. I think about it as coping with being human. Some days, I think about it as being at peace with being human, or even (!!), being happy being human.

Via teaching asana, I commit to helping my students accurately sense their bodies in space. Through my verbal alignment instructions, they have an opportunity to hone in on specific actions that give them tangible feedback about...being human. Feedback such as: This hurts. This doesn't hurt. Now I can bend more. When I do the other thing, I can't bend as much. And so on.

This is in stark contrast to the voice of an eating disorder, which completely ignores all sensory physical signals, and thrives in a distorted mental realm. In that realm, all sorts of stories get made up, stories which have little or no resemblance to the truth.

All that said, even in the yoga world, there's a fair amount of body distortion happening. The work doesn't always work. We get side tracked or lose our way. We forget what we're in it for.

I am still plugging away advocating for recovery and educating people about being well in relationship to their flesh, but my approach, like I said, is quite different. I don't have to always talk directly about anorexia to do my part.

But, once in a while it seems right to look it in the eye. And because in fact I do have a lot to say about this, and because my dear friend and strong voice, Livia Cohen-Shapiro does too, we are dedicating some time to this topic this winter and spring.

Learn how what you're already doing in your yoga practice can be healing for body image. Investigate why it doesn't always work. Uncover what's coming up for you when you practice. Dissect the shadow voices of body image, and expose yourself to images of embodiment. No agenda to get any certain 'thing,' but a supportive curriculum and framework to help you do the inner research.

Please join us. The course has already begun, but we are keeping registration open for a few more days. The link to enroll in the online webinar is here. Listen in your own time. Join the conversation as you are ready.

http://www.ecstaticunfoldmentonlineschool.com/enrolme