January 29, 2011

Calling All Yoga Teachers: Practice, then Preach!

Creating an Insightful Home Yoga Practice

Photo courtesy Tiny Tall

From the austere, storied and often downright quirky studios of Manhattan to mountain retreat centers, from ancient texts to glossy magazine pages, we yoga teachers wander far and wide in the never-ending pursuit of the next “ahhhh” moment. We seek out gurus, we rack up teacher trainings, we sit until our feet go numb and wash out our nasal passages with teapots, all in the name of inspiration. But like so many things in life, after years of searching it often turns out that what you were looking for is right underneath your nose. That’s right, look down. And in. There. Pulsating from deep in the folds of your heart: all the inspiration you need.

As a yoga teacher, every day  of my week is different, but each day without exception I unroll my mat at home, step on it, and do something. There is often sweating and grunting involved as my arch nemesis Handstand and I battle it out to the death. The occasional victory cheer erupts from my mouth as I high five my feet to the sky in the inexplicably friendlier Pincha Mayurasana (forearm balance). Since I made my pledge to conquer  Hanumanasana (splits) before my next birthday, we meet most days and offer one another a cordial grimace. But many times I simply spend five minutes breathing in Child’s Pose, meditate, lie down, or write in my journal. In less than two years I have successfully worn a hole in my mat. That’s how much time we spend together. However, rarely do I come to my mat with a plan. Instead, I show up and meet myself. And never do I cease to amaze myself.

Now based on my description of the goings on of me and my yoga mat, you may be thinking to yourself that my practice sounds neither amazing nor particularly pretty, and to the naked eye you’d be quite right. It’s what goes on inside, just under the surface of my skin, that’s changing the world. Yes, my practice is changing the world. There’s subtle ripples there, you see, electro-magnetic pulsations emanating from my heart that manifest as the juiciest, most innovative yoga sequences I’ve ever done. Then I go and teach them! These impulses find me holding a pose for 15 or 20 minutes that I can’t even remember the name of, sometimes uunsure whether it’s a real pose at all. You know my students are doing that pose today! This divine vibration, shall we say, deconstructs everything I’ve ever learned and then recreates it again in a voice that sounds, well….quite like my own! The truth is, more than any book, teacher or workshop, my greatest insight comes straight from my own practice. As long as the list of yoga teachers I’d like to thank is, my best classes always start here on my mat, occasionally with a grunt.

Was it always this way? Hell, no. Instead, I used to while away my exhausting commute planning lessons on the train while my mat stayed home, rolled up in the closet. Brow furrowed with concentration, I meticulously drew up senseless lesson plans that I had never actually practiced and if I had I certainly would not have taught. These early classes, which I’m humbled to say I did teach, were zealously detailed, wildly sequenced, and delivered amazingly with not a hint of tongue in cheek. Understand, it was not that my teacher training was lacking; it was solid. The knowledge was there. But my enthusiastic desire to come across to my students as unique, wise, and innovative totally overshadowed any sense of the power of my personal insight. And I’ll be the first to admit it: in those first few months, I sucked. And I have the documentation to prove it.

A few weeks ago I came across a collection of my old, much scribbled in notebooks. Curious to see what I might have once jotted down in excitement and never looked at again, I took a seat and began flipping through them. Seeing my old lesson plans written out in breathtaking detail, I alternately cringed and laughed aloud as I was transported back in time to my first few months of teaching. Many of the sequences I know I’d copied from my favorite teachers, but an embarrassing number of them are a mortifying attempt to reinvent the wheel and I cannot pass them off on anybody else. I apparently went through a phase where I wanted every sequence to start in Vrksasana (Tree Pose). In another horrifying attempt at innovation, I took to what appears to be a zoological grouping system where I’d try to cram all the bird poses into one salutation, all the serpents into another, you get the picture. Rarely did I give consideration to such a thing as evolving towards a peak pose, a technique which is the foundation of my classes today.

The worst part is, I vividly remember simply thinking up sequences without actually ever experiencing  them in my body. I’d write them down, memorize them, and then teach them.  The ‘insight’ I offered in the early days was without exception never my own. I’d loftily recite Sutras and quote mystical (and possibly mythical) sages in a naïve attempt to create theme and structure. It’s as if I wanted to distill the 6,000 year history of yoga into every 90-minute class.

Mercifully, those days are long over. After taking the plunge and throwing myself into teaching yoga full-time, the notebooks were evidently deemed no longer necessary and stored away in case I ever needed guidance on how to step back to Warrior 1 from Tree pose. Somewhere along the line, I realized that in order to be just like the many teachers who had inspired me, all I needed to do was be just like me. I became confident enough in my own skill as a teacher and my own insight as a lifelong student to teach from the heart. Most importantly, I formed a lifelong relationship with my yoga mat.

While the journey wasn’t always pretty (or the sequencing artful), my own practice has become my greatest teacher. The most incredible sequences emerge when I engage in my own unfolding, and honor my tight hamstrings, long legs and oddly short arms. More often than not I discover that the way I have always done things doesn’t necessarily make sense when I actually do them. So instead of recalling acquired teachings, I listen closely. I learn. I close my eyes and bow in towards my beating heart, and see what sweet wisdom she has to whisper today.

These days I arrive in front of my students notebook-free, an expressive articulation of that whisper. Not coincidentally, when I started showing up to myself, so came the students. I’ve learned that as a teacher, the greatest gift I can offer my students is not a recital of a scripture they can read in their own time, but that of my own unique insight. And that comes from a devoted and thoughtful engagement with myself on the days where I feel light and fluid, and the days where I repeatedly land on the floor with a thump and a groan.

A few Do’s and Don’ts for Creating an Inspired Home Practice:

Don’t practice straight from a book or a predetermined sequence that you have memorized. While this is a great way for our students to develop a home practice, as a teacher you have a responsibility to be inspired and inspiring. Own your knowledge. Step onto your mat and see what happens!

Do practice before you teach whenever possible. When I do, I teach from an experience that is still percolating within my own skin. My classes come alive as I transmit my energy and experience (not just a sequence of poses) to my students in a style that is intimate and unique.

Don’t just practice your favorite poses. In the spirit of inquiry, play around with the poses that don’t fit you so well, or the ones you ‘can’t’ do. Consider why you don’t like them (hint: it’s usually because they’re hard!), and experiment with what preparatory poses and alternate sequencing might help. Your students are most likely experiencing the same blocks. Think of the doors you might open for them!

Do create a sacred space. Whether you have a home studio or squeeze your mat between the bed and the dresser, take the time to energetically prepare your space for your practice. Light a candle, incense if you like it, put on a soulful play list, dim the lighting and whatever you do turn off your phone.

Don’t undermine your own experience. A practice consisting entirely of falling out of arm balances, self-recriminations and the occasional curse word is as powerfully human an experience as you can get. In the midline of challenge and frustration will you meet many of your students. If you’re frustrated, chances are your students are too!

Do share the hard parts of your journey with your students in an artful way. Teaching yoga isn’t about perfecting something and then offering it to your students when you’re sure you won’t fall on your face. Your students will learn just as much from what you did wrong as how you got it right.

Show up. Engage. Inspire yourself!

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