Teaching Yoga

Our bodies hold a lot of intelligence.  I did a 10k run on Sunday and it was hotter than any heat i’ve been running in so far this year.  Also, the course was more hilly than i expected. At one point toward the end I was running a hill and then suddenly I was walking.

Cor’s first rule of racing is that you run, you don’t walk.  But after my initial freak out about walking, I heard my breath.  I was panting like a dog stuck in a hot car with the windows closed. Walking was the best thing I could be doing.

I walked a few more times before the end of the race.  I made peace with it because i figured I was better off taking more time than suffer a heat stroke.

I often tell the folks in my yoga classes to check in on their breathing.  Are they holding their breath?  Start breathing again.  Is their breath uneven or labored?  Then they’re doing too much, working too hard, it’s time to back off just a bit and notice if they’re breathing evens out.  If not, back off more.

In yoga we learn how to tune in to our internal world.  That’s the kind of body awareness that helps us tune into our intuition, our gut feelings.  So often we forget how to listen to that intelligence.  We hear about a new job and our gut goes, “i don’t think so”, and then our head jumps in with, “hells yeah! it’s more money!  mom will be so proud!”.  The loudest voice wins.

Before you know it you’re in the job and it’s lousy and all the money and Mom pride in the world won’t make you feel any more sane.

Sometimes following your gut can make you feel like a nutty woo-woo chick in our world that loves rationality and pro/con lists.  I broke up with a nice guy once.  We’d been together for a while and it didn’t feel right.  He just wasn’t right for me.

But i couldn’t put it into words, especially ones that would make sense to my friends.  I remember one said, “but he’s such a nice GUY!!”. I just couldn’t explain it, other than, he wasn’t the right nice guy for me.

It’s funny because sometimes i see him, our kids take lessons at the pool and we’ve talked a couple times.  He’s still a nice guy and would have been the wrong fit for me in the long run.

Sometimes our gut knows before our head does.

I was teaching a Power Yoga class the other night and on the fly taught them how to move energy, or prana, through their hands into their body.  It hadn’t ocurred to me to do it until I saw them relaxed in Legs Up The Wall and thought, hey I know what would give them an extra hit of wonderfulness!

Prana is that really cool blissful energy you get when you do yoga.  It’s not pumped up energy, like if you’ve had too much coffee, it’s more of a calm energy that makes you feel more alive and at home in your body.  It’s the way you feel after you’ve done some yoga but lately I’ve been finding that I can also give myself a hit of prana just in a few minutes of sitting and breathing.  It makes me feel calm and centered and ready to face the rest of the day.  Here’s how to do it:

1. Put your hands on your body.  If feeling grounded is my goal, I’ll put my hands on my belly.  But otherwise I’ll put my hands on my thighs, energy will move through your body to where you need it.

2. Close your eyes and establish a deep breath.  A Ujjayi breath is ideal, just relax the back of your throat so your breath moves slower and becomes more windy sounding.

3. Each time you exhale visualize yourself moving energy from your body down your arms, through your hands and into your body.  This can take some practice but don’t stress about it.  If you’re visual, you might work on *seeing* this happen.  If you’re auditory, follow the sound the your breath.  If you’re more of a kinesetic person, then find an accompanying feeling.

Do this for a number of breaths until you feel that expansive calm energy.  When you feel like you’ve gotten plenty of oxygen slow your exhales down a bit more so you can really focus on moving the prana.

If your hands heat up, it’s just the energy warming them as if you rubbed your hands together and got the energy cooking that way.  If you don’t feel like you’re achieving anything, just trust that you are and have patience.  Remember that anything you do with intention will move you toward your goal.

When you feel comfortable with this you can do it anytime.  When you’re stuck in rush hour try it one-handed.  If you’re waiting for an appointment or standing in line try it with your eyes open.   Try a distance prana hit by sending energy from your hands even when they’re not right against your body.  It’s a much better use of your time than stressing out about things you can’t control.

After you’ve had some practice try doing it for someone else.  When my son is unsettled before bed I put my hands on his torso and give him a hit of prana.  It always helps him get a little more calm.  He says when i put my hands over his eyes for the prana hit it makes him feel really tired. But you know what’s really cool?  However I do it, I get a prana hit too.  It makes me feel calmer and then i’m less concerned about whether he’s going to go right to sleep or not.  And I’m sure if I’m calmer, he is too.

There’s a great interview with yoga teacher Cora Wen in The Magazine of Yoga.  She talks about how when she started doing yoga she was practicing for 6 hours a day.  She went to visit her family for Thanksgiving and was mostly cheesed off that she couldn’t practice like she did at home and she wasn’t really present for her family while she was there.  Then her mother was diagnosed with cancer and died very quickly.  Here’s the rest of the story:

Cora Well, thank you. I mean, it just was this is how it happened. And I remember thinking that that was the last Thanksgiving that I spent with her.

I remember thinking about that. All the times that I couldn’t talk to her on the phone because I was practicing, all the moments that I couldn’t go to a movie with my friends, all those things.

That’s what yoga’s about. Being present with your family. Being present with yourself. Living this life fully, completely, and absolutely and not defining life in search of some practice or some goal or some pose or some memorization of some sutra.

I’m not saying that that’s not good. I love chanting the sutras and mantras and I love going after poses. But how is it changing who I am? Who am I in the world?

And as a teacher, how can I help others? When I have somebody newly coming into my class that is clearly like new, mastectomy, chemo, recovering from cancer, and they’re coming into a class, how do I hold them when the tears come? How do I help them remember how to accept their body?

That’s what yoga’s about. Not whether you can put your feet on head.

 Ecoyogi’s comment on the last post made me think more about how challenging Savasana can be.  I remembered a student from last winter, let’s call her Janice.  She seemed to be wound a little tight.  She was someone who called and emailed multiple times to make sure she completely understood what we’d be doing in class and how it fit with a physical issue she had. 

On the first night of class the first thing she said before we started was that she didn’t think she’d be doing the relaxation at the end of class.  I’d never had someone seem anxious about the relaxation part of class before, often people joke about wanting it first!  I said something lighthearted but was thinking, crap is there any way i can help her at least give it a shot?

So we did the class and as usual I focussed on a slow wind down so people can’t help but feel calmer (thanks yoga!).  And when we got to the relaxation part I had a flash of inspiration for Janice.   I walked over and told her that the floor was a little chilly (it was January) and maybe a blanket would help.  She looked doubtful but she said she’d give it a try.  And i said, i have just the thing.  I went and got Bear. 

Bear is my affectionate name for a King Size black faux mink bed cover.  It’s huge, it’s thick, and it’s warm as toast.  Bear gets dragged out in the depths of winter because I’m a cold person and it is simply the best antidote to the chillies. 

So i drag this monstrous furry black warm thing over to her and she has to laugh.  I say, Janice, meet Bear.  So i covered her up, tucked her in and she did her first Savasana.  She didn’t move.  Bear probably had her pinned to the floor.

I brought Bear out every week for Janice until finally in the spring she said she was warm enough and could go without.  I think she became comfortable enough to do Savasana without props.  Whatever the reason i was happy to have another convert to Savasana.

A woman who’s taken a couple sessions of Power Yoga with me said that my classes are so relaxing.  She said she used to avoid meditation and then she started really looking forward to Savasana in my classes.  Now in her home practice she does it regularly and as a result has been sleeping better.

And it was good feedback to get because I do focus on that in my classes.

It seems that we’re all so good at Doing Stuff.  And the way we do yoga in this culture is to Do Yoga.  It seems to tap into the parts of us that are used to pushing ourselves.  It taps into “getting through long intense day at the office”.  It taps into “running up a hill”. But where is the Simply Being part?  When do we practice just hanging out and breathing? 

That’s why I focus on it my classes.  I want to help people be more OK with just breathing.  And it’s great when i see newbies come into class and they fidget all through Savasana the first few times.  Their body seems to produce itches every 30 seconds.  And they peak around to make sure they’re not missing anything.  I’ve been there.  And then sometime during the session they chill out.  It’s like ahhhhh, Savasana.  They hunker down like they’ve been looking forward to it all week and really relax. 

One of the things I like to have people do, something I picked up in my Kripalu training, is to take in the sensations of their body.  Anything – parts that feel alive, parts that feel numb, their heart beat, the sensations that result from the in and out breath, pain, tension, discomfort – take it all in without judgement. 

I ask them to just notice.  I invite them to see if they can take in these sensations without analyzing or judging any of them.  I believe  it’s called Witness Consciousness. 

It seems like such good training for life off the mat.  When life gets crazy and I get my panty in a knot – it’s usually because I’ve judged events as Really Not OK and I’m resisting them like crazy, making myself crazy as well.  I’m trying to do something new.  When I’m in knotted panty mode I ask myself – what do I need to be OK with this? 

What expectations about life, do I need to let go of here?  Because life doesn’t really ask our  permission before it goes off the rails does it?  Or what expectations of people do I need to let go of?  Because I’ve never had people ask my permission before they do crazy things either.  It all just happens and it’s in my best interest to find a way to be OK with it. 

So I ask myself – where am I rigid that I need to soften?  What have I made my mind up about that I might need to unmake?  What will it take for me to stop shaking my fist at the universe and say “oh well!”?  What will it take for me to find humour in this?  The answers are pretty interesting. 

And what happens is that when I focus on myself and how i’m dealing it totally takes me out of how lousy the people and life events are around me.  I get out of judgement mode.  I’m more likely to look on the people and events with compassion, because that’s how i’m treating myself.

And when I can figure out a way to be OK with it I’m more likely to deal with the situation in a functional way (hopefully) with less stress.   And that makes all that hard navel-gazing work totally worth it.

Byron Katie talks about Loving What Is, regardless of what it is.  Whew.  I dunno if I’m there yet, although I like reading her stuff as a stretch goal.  One day I’ll get there.  Until then I’ll work on dropping the judgements and being OK with what is.

In last night’s yoga class we did the humming breath to start.  You do a regular inhale and then when you exhale you find a nice low note that rumbles around in your chest and belly.  The sound is supposed to dislodge blocked energy and all that.  I love the feeling of  the reverberations in my torso after I’ve stopped.  Last night in the class we were breathing in unison and our hums were in harmony.   We sounded like a choir that had forgotten the words.

After class I spoke to someone who is taking my class as well as another during the week.  She said she was telling her massage therapist that the other class is more strenuous than mine.  They do full Sun Salutations and challenging poses that exhaust people by the end of class but it doesn’t make her break a sweat.  

She said my class is more easy going but she sweats like crazy.  Her massage therapist said that she sweats in my class because it’s “real yoga”.  I don’t really know what that means but I said thanks.  I also said, “maybe my room is hotter”.

I taught my last yoga sessions before my summer break.  Some of the long-timers have stopped bugging me about taking the summer off.  But one of the newish folks has been keeping me informed of her disapointment.  And I’m totally cool with that – who was it that said you should always leave them wanting more?  I’m happy to hear she’ll miss it :-)  But really, if we kept going she wouldn’t be happy with the cranky-ass yoga teacher I’d quickly become.  “I SAID, WARRIOR 1!”  etc.

So she came to class in whites on Tuesday and said, “yeah so I’ve started taking TENNIS LESSONS on Tuesdays because there will be NO YOGA.”  I had to laugh.  We agreed tennis Savasana is not half as relaxing as yoga Savasana.  I’m sure she’ll appreciate it even more when we’re back in the fall.  I will too.

You simply haven’t done Pigeon Pose until you’ve done it with a 35 pound preschooler on your back.  It makes for a great stretch.  He is available to rent as a yoga prop, by the way, but his attention span is short and he requires constant feeding.  So if that’s not an option, breath some life into your Pigeon Pose with these variations.

Let’s say you’ve got your right leg forward for each of these descriptions.   

– With hands supporting you on the mat, twist your right shoulder to the right.  If you want to go deeper, bring your right hand behind you and reach to the back of your left thigh.

– With your left hand firmly on the mat, lift your right arm straight above your head.  Feel how it changes the stretch.

– Walk your hands forward bringing your face to the mat.  Walk your hands to the left and hold.  Pause for a few breaths, then walk them to the right and hold it there.

– Roll onto your left shoulder and bring your hands to a prayer position and hold.

If Pigeon is intense for you anyways, make sure you’re well warmed up for these variations, because you’ll feel the stretch in a whole new juicy way.

I said good-bye to one of my yoga classes.  I taught a weekly lunch-time class to my co-workers for almost 3 years.  It was a great gig, paid for by the company.  We had lay-offs last week and now most of the yogis are gone.  We had our last class and didn’t even know it.

It was a weird gig too, playing the role of yoga instructor to my co-workers.  Going from working on a project with someone to adjusting them in Triangle.  It taught me alot about boundaries.  I wanted to be open.  So I would share stuff about myself and my yoga experiences which could be scary, but I wouldn’t expect the same from them.  They’re professionals, at work after all.

When I asked if people wanted a little massage during Savasana, it was the only class where they didn’t say say ‘hell yeah!’.  The touching could be tricky, but if I felt like the right thing I did it anyways.

It was odd to teach a class where I knew so much about what people were dealing with.  When the lay-offs were looming the classes got really small, but class time was a needed break.  And sometimes during relaxation I reminded people to trust.  I reminded them to trust that the right thing was going to happen in their lives.  To be grateful.  And to breath.  And the best thing is that it reminded me too.

I hear there’s a yoga studio opening in the new year near my workplace.  Maybe I’ll be able to take in some classes with my extra lunch time.  When they ask about a massage, I’ll be the one saying “hell yeah!”.

The yogis who were my co-workers have gone on to the next thing.  Some are going to travel, some are going to take some time, some are job hunting.  And I’m not saying it’s because of my class.  But they’re all calm and they’re all trusting.  They’re looking very well rested. And I hope I’ll see them in a yoga class soon.



I’m reading Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture called Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.  Get it for yourself on video or transcript.  He talks about the value of playing football when he was a kid.  He says the real value is in the head fake indirect learning.  It wasn’t about the dream of playing professionally or really, about playing at all.  It was all the other stuff that had the most value – learning preserverence, teamwork and sportsmanship.

And the head fake bit is what I love about yoga too.  And that’s the challenge for the teacher.  How do you take a room full of newbies who want to ‘get fit’ or ‘touch their toes’ and help them do that as *well as* learn about mindfulness, compassion, yamas and nyamas – in an eight week session?

Well, of course you don’t.  Teaching them the poses injury-free is often a full-time job in itself. 

But the best head fake learning is what we take in from doing the yoga itself.  That a few simple deep breaths can completely alter our physiology and perspective.   That the sweet spot, the eye of the storm, is being in the moment.  That just doing the poses, whether we touch or toes or not, is its own reward.

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