Monday, January 30, 2006

Third Class

Sunday afternoon we reviewed cues for Integration and Sun A, different students presenting each posture.

We started with a discussion of what it means to lead a group.

- Keep it simple
- Less is more
- Name pose and breath
- Concise

What does the teacher represent to the student?
- An expert.
- Everything that the student wants to get from yoga.
- Ease, knowledge.
- Relaxation and peace

You have to get those things yourself before you can offer them to others. The best way is through your own yoga practice -- notably, not such practice as you may be able to derive while teaching.

If you walk into class not feeling those things, fake it til you make it.

In practice, every student hears different things from the same words. In yoga, as in life, students only hear instructions they're ready to hear. Accordingly, if a student doesn't get an adjustment with an instruction you provide, don't just repeat the same instruction, but louder. Give a different one. If a verbal instruction doesn't help, try a visual cue.

On feedback: In the training, think of feedback as a constructive exercise. Don't provide meaningless platitudes. Substantive criticism allows improvement. Two principles should guide the feedback exercise in training: satya and sankosha.

Satya means "truth." Truth is not only embodied in speech, but also in action and thought. Satya need never be harmful. If a particular aspect of feedback could harm another, find a different way of expressing it until you find one that does not harm.

Sankosha means "contentment" or "equanimity." It is the manner in which we should receive feedback, rather than taking something personally. In receiving feedback, keep silent until the other person is done providing it. Abandon excuses or explanations. Find a way to understand and benefit from the feedback. Internalize whatever you can from the feedback. Avoid reactivity. Absorb the feedback. Take responsibility/credit for it.

On affecting students: Most students can't absorb more than three different instructions, so limit the number of verbal cues you offer. No teacher can convey everything she knows in 60 minutes. Don't try. Teaching beginners is hard. You need to figure out how to make every student succeed every time. Many students are intimidated about entering a studio in the first place. Simply walking in the front door is very difficult. In the practice, yoga immediately challenges the student's ego in some way. And everybody has bad days at some point. The students come to yoga seeking something. How their pose looks from the outside is a dim indicator of what it feels like or what it's doing on the inside. Especially with beginners, just keep them coming in the door. Establish that the studio is a solid, good place for them. Your objective should be for them to walk out the door thinking, "even though I fell over in X pose, I liked it." Student poses might look bad, but they could love it, anyway.

The teacher's job is much bigger than simply leading others through a series of postures. The teacher is a leader. Consider the effect of a leader who does not look the part -- perhaps one who has just finished a hot yoga session herself, walking in to teach a core power session. Be aware of the effect of hygiene and appearance. The external appearance affects the students' perceptions and experience. Teaching involves looking at a student and knowing what they need, whether it is to be left alone, a verbal suggestion, a physical adjustment. The teacher needs to see more than the mechanics of a pose. Will touching the student at that moment be the right thing? One on one teaching is easier. In class settings, there is little time to adjust your approach, and you need to respond to one student's question with a response that assists the entire class. Fundamentals are a way to do this: keep them breathing, stack the joints, maintain neutral spinal alignment.

Notes on specific poses:

Balasana: Child's pose. (Kneeling on mat, bring knees to the outside edges of the mat, toes together, hips on heels, forehead to floor, arms extended to the front of the mat, palms down) This is the first pose of the series, so even though it seems a passive one, in this series, it's active. The body and mind are engaged in the stretch and slight inversion. The pose is not a function of disengagement, but rather one of engagement while prostrated and passive. It allows students a time to disengage from everything other than yoga. And it provides a situation in which they can focus on the breath. Start them in ujjayi breathing, inhales and exhales to the same count (whether four or six or whatever), slightly constricting the back of the throat to make an audible sound similar to the sound of soft waves on a beach. Though it is not presented to the class in such a fashion, this is prostration, and some students will dislike it because it will present ego issues to them. It embodies a release of ego, and an acknowledgement of other (or Other), whether that is the teacher, the class, a concept, existence, Brahman, or god. This is one of the most restful postures, and teachers should emphasize to students the permission (and responsibility) to return to child's pose whenever they need to during the practice. Moving into child's pose when overwhelmed by other sensations (including exhaustion) honors the practice, and maintains the balance between working at the edge and doing no harm.

When teaching, watch for your own negative body language -- crossed arms, hands on hips. As you teach, make an effort to fill the whole room -- avoid standing in one place. Above all, though, be sure that you have a purpose for every action, every word. Do nothing that is not essential. When you walk around the room without intention or when you touch a student without intention, you're just engaged in an ego power trip -- "I'm doing these things because I'm in charge and I can." The truthful response to "why" regarding anything you do in class should be an uplifting answer.

In cueing this, as with all poses, start with the name of the pose and let the cues start from the ground and work up.

Adjustments: some students find their faces flat on the floor, crunching the nose. Have them move their knees in, providing a higher support for their belly. Some students will have difficulties with the deep bend of the knee. Let them keep their hips higher, off their heels. Also consider putting a rolled blanket or mat at the bend in their knees to limit the depth of the bend.

Downward facing Dog:

Values: gravity traction on spine, decompressing; discs neutral; eases disc compression

Training errors: failure to stabilize shoulder blades down back.

If student has shoulder issues, pose can be difficult. Students may need to approach the pose a little at a time to counter the constant collapsed-forward position that most people use all day in front of computers -- head forward, neck down, spine curved, shoulders rolled in. All of those are countered by Downward facing Dog. We shouldn't be surprised that students find the pose difficult at first. Let them approach the ultimately neutral alignment of Down Dog as they can. It would be pretty extreme for them to shift from curled in and collapsed to open and neutral all at once.

Rag Doll:

Values: Calms the mind; relieves mental stress; stretches hamstrings

Samasthitih (sp?):

(Note: I can't begin to represent in these notes the beauty of watching E (I try not to use other's names here without permission) demonstrate the posture as another class member cued her from Rag Doll to Samasthitih. Watching the fluidity of E's spine unrolling from a deep forward bend to vertical was the high point of the day for me.)

Details: in setting the pose, roll your feet from front to back to front, from side to side, feeling for the center of your feet. Then place the balance of the pose at that center point. As you chant OM from this pose, feel the vibration fully. There are elements of this pose in every other pose we do. As we learn this pose more fully, we will enhance those other poses, as well. When this pose is perfect, only two muscles are engaged.

Tadasana (I didn't take notes on this discussion -- though this is one of my favorite poses. Go figure.)


Calms the mind and cools it as you unroll out of the pose.


Creates a tension between forward and back. The forward fold to a flat back engages, automatically, mula bandha (sp?) and uddiayada bandha (sp?). It hollows out the belly, drawing it to the spine, and both prepares the body for and relieves the body from the exertion of the jumps forward and back in the vinyasa flow.

Chaturanga Dandasana:

Do anything incorrectly enough times, and you'll hurt yourself. This pose is both difficult and complex. Alanna then walked us through a number of demos of aspects of this pose. My recollection (no notes) is as follows (perhaps someone else has a better recall than I -- please feel free to post): Watch for shoulders dropping below elbows -- shoulders should be no deeper than level with elbows, and having them higher than elbows is fine. Elbows should be flush against ribs -- not beneath them supporting the torso, not out to the side in the manner most guys learn to do pushups. For this reason, sometimes it's better to avoid calling this pose "low push up" because you may inadvertently get a lot of elbows wide. This pose causes many "ashtanga shoulder" and "ashtanga toe" injuries. It can also, when done incorrectly, cause many lower back problems. Any of these problems can take you out of practice for a long time. They're worth avoiding in your practice and in your students' practice, as well.