Monday, February 28, 2011

A Modest Proposal

With this title, I tip my hat to Jonathan Swift. I may not be as eloquent or as skillful in my presentation (or as purely sarcastic), but we will arrive at a similar place:

Yoga studios, please stop making babies.  Just for 1 year.

You know the ones I mean.  The ones who pay the year’s rent.  The one’s who fill up the senior teachers’ classes to make the numbers look good.  The golden children who lose their luster as soon as the new crop’s checks clear.  The Teacher Trainees.

You are hurting us all.  Every last one of us that teach.  Including yourselves.

Teacher trainings look good on the surface—hey, I know how expensive it is to rent, how much time is spent worrying about who is coming through the door, and I would want a little extra insurance too.  Except it does not really work that way, does it.

Because if it did, studios should be packed with graduates taking classes with their teachers.  Studio schedules would be packed with teachers who graduated their program.  But they are not. 

Every year studios are left to coax a new group of trainees (and students) in the door to replace the consistent, paying, students that they converted last year, who now have taken all that you have to offer.  Why would they come back?  To learn something new?  They just paid a handsome sum to (presumably) learn all you have to offer.  Because they have the opportunity to teach?  Really?  You think that?  Look at your schedule.  Do you only have your grads teaching at your space?  Look at your graduates’ bios.  Are they promoting your training?  Are they sending students to your training?

Our teeny tiny market is flooded.  Not just overpopulated; build me an ark ‘cause God is p__ed flooded.  And the “teachers” don’t have their own practice (I know, I have them in my classes), and their understanding of the philosophical components of this practice are exponentially more dwarfed than their understanding of the physical practice.  Because no one taught them or encouraged them to teach themselves.  “Juicy” is not a term to describe a practice.  Lotus ALWAYS leads with the right leg first, left on top.  There is a reason for it.  A fundamental one.  Look it up. 

Yes, it makes a difference.

It makes a difference because all the students out there are so bombarded with crap that they cannot even recognize good teaching.  When they are challenged, or a teacher uses Sanskrit (there is a reason to use Sanskrit.  A fundamental one.  Look it up.), or God forbid mentions <gulp> God, they run away.  Mentally if not physically.  Or worse yet, they think “Oh, I can touch my toes and say Krishna, I’ll teach yoga,” and sign up for the next training.  And the market becomes more saturated with less talent because studios are too afraid of loosing the immediate gain to turn away unqualified potential trainees.  Or to fail an embarrassingly unqualified student and have to give that money back.

Every inspiring teacher I have known (as a matter of fact, enter any profession here) has 2 things in common:  They continue to practice, and they continue to study.  Those 14 new teachers that were just ushered out the door with a wave and a smile, who is pushing them to continue to practice, to study?  Who is supporting and mentoring them?  Making sure they are REPRESENTING YOUR BRAND and driving more business your way?  They are not doing it themselves.  How could they?  They don’t know what they don’t know, they are new at this.  These graduates just invested thousands of dollars with you.  It is reasonable that they expect some continued support as they start out. 

If you are doing this, I applaud you.  But are you ? Really?

A yoga studio is a business, and there is lots of competition.  Business grows a whole lot quicker if you keep the current paying customers coming.  Business grows if you utilize your trainees to promote and grow your business.  Give them a class.  Each one.  Let them grow it. More money for you. 

Make them beg for an opportunity, they will hurt your business. They won’t come back for classes; you are now out a long term paying student.  They won’t refer people to you; you are out the best source of free advertising you have. They will try to take your students away; regardless of if they succeed or not, it looks really bad on you, not on them. 

Just one year.  Reach back out to your past trainees and grow them during that time.  Do something to let them know you care about them, their effort, not that their check cleared.  It takes time to learn to teach.  Show your grads you remain committed to their success and their development as teachers.  Grow them and you will grow.  Just one year. 

You are the expert, be the example.  They will copy you. 


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Because I am that kind of teacher.

Hi, my name is Ron, and I’ll be leading the practice.  Whether you have arrived here purposefully or have just stumbled in, it is important that you know what to expect.  Because I am that kind of teacher.

  • I wear to teach what I wear to practice: scrubs or shorts and a baseball shirt, faded from use.  The covering does not matter.  Effort matters.
  • I will not list my “teachers” in my bio.  I stood next to Gregory Hines once, but that does not make me a tap dancer.
  • I have not been to India.  I am blessed to have people in my satsanga who have, and infinitely blessed that they have generously shared their experiences with me. This does not make me unqualified.
  • I have not been to a temple.  I carry my temple with me where ever I go.
  • I do not have a guru.  Practice is my teacher.
  • My mat and mala are not ornamental.  Both are well used.
  • I have practiced everything that I teach, and will teach nothing that I do not practice.
  • I have not conquered fear, anger, doubt; have not cultivated infinite patience, nor the ability to see God in every being and situation.  I am a student, and have faith that with continued practice, these things will come.  I will never claim that I have mastered anything.
  • I am not a vegetarian.  I practice giving thanks at meals to the offering set before me.
  • I will not put you in a pose, and do very few hard adjustments.  This is your practice.  You need to find where you are going to work.
  • We will chant OM and the Mangala Mantra (at least).  You do not have to chant, I will chant for the both of us. I will provide a sheet for you with the chants which you can keep if you want.
  • I will mention God in one form or another.  This is a spiritual practice, an act of adoration to the Lord.  Please feel free to substitute any name that I use for one that works for you.

Because I am that kind of teacher.

If you are in my class, I have only two requests:
·        If it hurts, stop.  You are doing it wrong.  Not every pose is appropriate for every student.  Let me know, and we will find a more appropriate pose for you.  It is difficult to accept, but we all must come to the understanding that our practice is our own—not the next person’s, not the teacher’s, not the me of yesterday/last week/last year. 
·        Be open to “maybe.”  Everything was impossible once, and evolution is a long, slow, continuous, and non-linear process.  With practice all is coming.

Because I am that kind of teacher.

If you are a teacher attending my class, I expect more of you.

  • I expect that you do the method I prescribe, how I prescribe it to the best of your ability.  I will give you this same respect when I am in your class.
  • I expect that you are practicing on your own, that you are studying on your own.  That you are aware of the general themes in the Bhagavad Gita, The Yoga Sutras, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika.  If not, I will give these works to you.
  • I expect that you know that the Bhagavad Gita is a tiny part of a very long work, The Mahabharata, and that that work and the Ramayana encompass and illustrate all the teachings of the Vedas.  Study these works and you are studying the Vedas.
  • I expect that you know I.2 and II.1 of the Yoga Sutras, in Sanskrit, because they form the basis for everything we do in Hatha Yoga.
  • I expect that you smile while you are sweating.

Because I am that kind of teacher.

Because I am that kind of teacher, I offer my practice to you.  Not to show you how YOGA I am, but to show you that someone like you, with a family, working 2 jobs, can find a consistent practice which works for you:
5 am:  Gayatri and Japa  of mantra (every day)
5:15: Chanting, pranayama (6 days)
5:30: Asana (6 days)
Lunch Hour: Reading (Gita, PYS, or HYP most often) or listening to audiobook or kirtan (as possible, and during the commute (listening not reading))
Nightly: Chant the Hanuman Chalisa to my son, from memory.  I have memorized a little more than half the prayer over the course of a year.

This is all I have to offer, and I give it to any student who comes.

Because I am that kind of teacher. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The First Movement is Up

IX.27 Yatkaroshi yadashnaasi yajjuhoshi dadaasi yat;
Yattapasyasi kaunteya tatkurushva madarpanam.
Whatever thou doest, whatever thou eatest, whatever thou offerest in sacrifice, whatever
thou givest, whatever thou practiseth as austerity, O Arjuna, do it as an offering unto Me!
(tr. Swami Sivananda)
"tatkurushva madarpanam" replaces "Lookout Below" in the banner
 My favorite quote from the Bhagavad Gita.  Let's not get caught up in the "unto Me" part, rather let's focus on "as an offering." Krishna instructs that all actions, both common (eating) and sacred (performance of austerity) are to be done as an offering, without expectation of reward.  If we can first dedicate our actions to something larger than ourselves, we are acting correctly.  This has to be done at the beginning.  This is the reason why texts and practice sessions commence with an invocation: we are recognizing that our efforts are a part of something larger, and we are focusing our coming actions outward instead of keeping the results to ourselves.

This is difficult.  

I have seen students who think that "going deeper" in their practice involves advanced contortions and feats of strength.  I have seen over zealous students push to the point of injury because their ego is driving them to compete with other students.  I have seen students cut off from the practice because they feel that they cannot progress physically to where other students are practicing.

Advancing in your practice truly means learning to perform all actions as an offering.  

This is difficult.

It will not happen all at once.  Or even in a straight line progression.  I often describe this practice as a Mobius strip wrapped in a double helix--inverting and twisting, both close and far at the same time.  Can't figure it out, just have to buy the ticket and take the ride.

Many students begin to see some change in their practice when they begin to change their thinking.  Take the transition from Downward Facing Dog to Dandasana.  On first view, it is a forward movement.  But if you try to take it as a forward movement, gravity rapidly takes over, and you land earlier that you wanted to.  You can be po'ed at gravity, your "inability," etc, etc.  But, if you begin to see this transition as primarily an upward motion followed by a forward motion, the movements make a bit more sense.  Same applies to jumping back.  And bending forward, backwards, or to the side.  Lift up first, then you are free to move in any direction.

Didn't I just say it wasn't about the physical?  How do you lift up to go deeper in other ways?  Start with Om.  Hold Om.  My practice changed immensely when I began to apply mantra with each breath.  Letting the mantra and breath initiate the movement, rather than letting the physical movement lead. Doesn't mean I can bend further forward or backwards.  That is not the point of the practice.  It does not matter where the body goes, it matters that remembering wherever the body goes that is your offering.

This is difficult.

I have not succeeded in doing this with every breath during every practice.  I have not succeeded in bringing this to every breath outside of practice.  In this way, my practice is as Zen Master Dogan described his practice: "One continuous mistake."  But I keep practicing.  Lifting little by little.  With faith.  And mula bandha.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Process

"It's not about the process; it is about what you do with the process." was the introduction at a workshop I attended yesterday (non-yoga).

Our practice is a process.

We can do many things with this process.  If you follow the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, our Hatha Yoga practices (any yoga which is focused on postures and breath is Hatha Yoga, regardless of the brand/style name attached to it) is to prepare us for Raja Yoga--the 8 limbed system found in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.  I practice in the Ashtanga tradition, so the process is delineated, pre-set in a time tested way to deliver the student to Raja Yoga.  Even within this method, there are a myriad of ways to approach the process.

Are we practicing for the physical exercise?    Adjusting as needed?  Maybe we go deeper and can also focus on the quality and length of our breath.  Even deeper by focusing on the bandhas and the dhristhi (looking place).  How about further, mentally chanting mantra with each breath. 

Sometimes we are just following along, doing what we are told while we go over the day's to do list, or creating the day's blog post (I have always said I am a student, that I have no mastery).  Are we ok with that?  Beating ourselves up when we aren't focusing where we think we should, or are we acknowledging where we are with this particular practice right NOW and starting from there. 

Both practice and process are fluid.  Working with the ups and downs, the changes, the challenges to find a practice which works for you as an individual is the goal.  It is through practice that  process becomes relevant. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Very excited to read this week that there may be a new planet (not Pluto's reinstatement.  I still call you a planet Pluto!). Apparently there is a theory that this is actually a dwarf companion star to our sun, and was responsible for mass extinctions on Earth.  Originally referred to as Nemesis, it is now called Tyche, who was the good sister of Nemesis.

R. Sharath Jois in kandasana
In our practices, we all have poses that are our nemesis.  Not those which are so out of our current reach, like kandasana (my knees aren't there yet, but it obviously can be done), that it is not worth getting upset when we cannot do it, rather those poses that we think should be within our current grasp yet consistently elude us.

Mine is urdhva dhanuarasana, upward facing bow or full wheel. I have toiled with this pose for as long as I can remember.  I should have the strength--drop from handstand to crow, no problem! Press up to handstand from navasana? 5 times? Where do I sign? It is an intense back bend, but if I can hit camel, I should be open enough in the upper back/shoulders, and if I can lay flat in supta virasana, I should have the mobility in the hips.  Right?  Right?

It has taken me years to come to terms with this pose. The block may be physical.  It may be mental--I am comparing my pose to others, and comparing my pose now to my perception of where I think it should be.   It may be spiritual--for some reason I do not want to open my heart in an inverted position.  Regardless of why, for many, many years I have dreaded this pose.  Have to psych myself into it, scream at myself to breathe through it, and resist the urge to be angry or disappointed if I try and nothing moves.

When I committed to practice in the Ashtanga tradition, I committed myself to face this pose every time I am on the mat.  It is part of the finishing sequence, so it is done every practice.  No way around it.  On a mental level, this has helped--the pose is there as a matter of fact, it will be faced every day.  I am finally at a point where I can (occasionally) self observe and analyze what is moving and what is not.  I can accept that the first one is horrendous, but the third feels better.  Most importantly, on occasion, I can see through this pose how I handle difficult situations.  Get mad or try to avoid are the defaults.  How does that change? By facing it again and again.  Even if nothing moves, if the pose is a complete ball of awkwardness, it has been successful.  Maybe if we face our nemesis over and over again, it will become Tyche.  Just maybe.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Arjuna's Chariot

I beg forgiveness from Vyasa for my very liberal interpretation and retelling....
After the Great War has finished and the Pandavas emerged victorious, Arjuna and Krishna step down from their chariot.  As they do, Hanuman, who had been represented on their standard, leaps off the flag roaring, and the chariot falls to pieces.  Arjuna turns to Krishna and says  "Lucky that didn't happen earlier."  Krishna replies "The chariot had been destroyed for some time.  I alone had been holding it together."

I thought of this scene after this morning's practice.  A practice filled with pops, creeks, and the wish that someone would come along with an oil can.  Generally, I get more out of this type of practice.  When everything hums, moves with grace, and comes easily, it can be easy to check out.  When my standing forward bend is more like a squat to be able to get fingers to the ground, I have to pay more attention--how am I moving, where is my breath, bandhas, dristhi.  Has राम been replaced with %$#&?  Can I do one more one more one more instead of giving up?

A brand new Ferrari and an '81 Pinto will both get you to the same place.  Just takes a little more faith to ride in the Pinto.  Faith and mula bandha.

Friday, February 11, 2011

All I ask is that you say "Maybe"

In our practice, we have two options of thought: "Really?" and "Maybe." 

"Really" closes our minds and shuts the door on our practice.  We think "He is asking me to do what?" "No way," and "That's impossible."

Everything was impossible once.

On May 5 1954 it was widely accepted that the human animal could not run a mile in under 4 minutes.  Records have been kept since July 26, 1852.  The closest anyone had come was 4:01.3 in July 1945.  On May 6 1954, Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3:59.4, breaking the 9 year old record, and doing what had not been done in 102 years of recorded history.  It took only 46 days for John Landy to break Roger Bannister's record (3:57.9).

Did mankind suddenly evolve more leg strength or super powers?  No.  By doing "the impossible," Roger Bannister inspired the belief in others that the 4 minute mile was a possibility.  If one did it, others can as well.

Wikipedia does not tell me this, but I will assume May 6 1954 was not the first time Mr. Bannister strapped on a pair of Nikes (or whatever runners wore in those days--maybe Chuck Taylors?) and decided to go for a mile long jog.  It took many years of consistent, steadfast, intelligent training and effort to do the impossible.

Last spring a story was circulating about an Indian man who has taken no food or water for almost 70 years.
He was studied by the Indian Military, and for 2 weeks he was constantly monitored. Indeed he took no food nor water during that time.  Doctors kept saying this is not possible, and came up with some far fetched theories to explain how this man survived, rather than accepting that this is possible and happening right in front of them, even though they do know know how or why.
Everything is impossible when you close your mind and say "Really?"  But if you can open your mind just a tiny bit and say "Maybe"--maybe if one person has done it, even though I don't understand how, maybe another person can do it.  Maybe I can do it.  Now nothing is impossible.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What does it mean to you to teach?

I was asked this question by a teacher trainee, who was participating in a training program which irresponsibly claims to advance students to "masters."  [Aside--I have said many, many times before: if you meet anyone who they themselves claim to be a master, or who claims that they will make you a master (if your check clears), turn and move in the opposite direction at the highest possible rate of speed.]

My answer was quite simple, and obviously not what this person wanted to hear: PRACTICE.

When we lead a yoga practice, it is our jobs to cultivate the seeds of practice in our students.  We should want our students to take something from the class and practice it at home--in short, our goal is to help students cultivate the discipline of practice in their own lives.  We cannot do this if we ourselves have not cultivated the discipline we are expecting of our students.

On the surface, if we teach asana, then we need to have a steady home asana practice.  Read again: steady home asana practice.  Great to go to classes, but discipline comes from figuring out how to motivate ourselves to get our sorry butts on our mats.  When no one is there to do it for us.  When no one is there to take control and tell us what to do or offer praise or correction. Until we take charge of our own practice, we have no business teaching others.

Remember, teachers, that asana is only a fraction of yoga.  The Pradipika states right away that the goal of Hatha Yoga (yoga focused on asana and pranayama) is Raja Yoga (the 8 fold system of Patanjali). As teachers we have the responsibility to also practice svadhyaya and isvara pranidhanani.  Svadhyaya is the study of scripture.  My recommended reading list for all teachers is: Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Ramayana, and Sivananda's Self Knowledge.  For those teaching Vinyasa, Yoga Mala is also a requirement.  All of these are available for free on line (with the exception of Yoga Mala). I will show you where if you would like.  This is a bare bones list, a foundation.  Now, I will not say that you should postpone your classes until you have read these works (NOT understood.  If you meet anyone claiming to have understood these works, execute the same action as if you meet someone who claims to be a master) but....

The quickest way to begin cultivating isvara pranidhanani is through japa mantra practice.  Once you have a mantra, stick with it.  Do not change it.  Every mantra is as good as any other mantra.  Swami Sivandanda counsels that the repetition of any name of God, said correctly or incorrectly, with or without feeling, will lead to the desired result.  As an example, Valmiki was a rogue. A scoundrel.  He was told by a monk to say the Ramnam, but he was in such dire straits that he could not say the name correctly--the syllables came out backwards: "Mara, Mara." Even saying the name backwards he was liberated, and eventually composed the Ramayana.  

Turns out the guest speaker meant "Jump Back!" like the 80's expression.  Oops
It does not matter what you practice, it matters that you practice.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Cooking Your Practice

PYS II.1: Yogic action consists of three components: Discipline, Self-study (of scripture), and devotion to the Absolute.

This sutra provides a barometer for us as students: are our actions yogic? If they include these 3 things, then yes. Tapas is often translated as discipline, austerity, or burning zeal in practice.  It comes from the root tap, which means to cook.  Interesting image.  When we cook, we transform one thing into (presumably) a better form.  Sometimes this means we combine parts to make a new whole, or we can be altering the basic form of one thing to make it a better expression of itself.  Cooking can be done with heat and mechanical force (and with chemicals, such as acids, but that doesn’t fit neatly into my metaphor).   

Let’s look at our humble egg—mostly because it is high in protein (like us).  When protein cooks, it goes through some very distinct stages.  At first the protein molecules are tightly wound and do not interact.  When heat or force are applied, the coiled up molecules begin to unwind—called denaturazation.  These formally compact and independent molecules now move about and bind with one another creating a matrix of protein, called coagulation—turning the clear white part into an opaque white.  If the egg continues to be cooked, the matrix becomes tighter and tighter—aggregation, until it becomes so tight that trapped moisture is expelled—synerisis—and we are left with an unpleasant curdled mess.

Tapas requires two major components.  First, consistency.  Second, self awareness.   One must dedicate themselves to the practice to achieve long term results.  There also needs to be a feedback loop—if we do something which prevents us from consistency, we must alter what we are doing. If we are doing something that causes injury, turning the body into an obstacle, we need to change what we are doing.  Both are totally our responsibility.  All the teachers in the world cannot do the practice for you—they can give options, offer feedback, encourage, and give insight, but it is all wasted if the student does not have the self awareness to do the practice.

Going back to our egg.  We need a hot pan.  Initially.  But if we keep the pan screaming hot, part of the egg will burn, part will be underdone, and all of it will be uneatable.  But if we focus our senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, we can make adjustments as we go.  Yes, we do need to be shown at first, and probably need a refresher once in a while.  But we are responsible for that egg.  If we mess it up, burn ourselves, etc, because we are trying to go to hot too fast for too long, we have lessened the chances that we will keep up with the practice.

The purpose of yogic action (PYS II.2) is to disarm the causes of suffering, not to create more obstacles.  Use all of your senses, and the feedback from your teacher, to determine the practice which is right for you. It is your practice.  Not your teacher’s, not the person on the next mat, not the Yoga Journal model’s.  Be consistent, be aware, and your practice will grow.