Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Forward Bends and Reflections on Teaching and Practice

We had a great forward bend practice tonight at Castle Hill. I thoroughly enjoyed the time with everyone and working toward deepening forward bends. It was nice to work on some basic and familiar poses yet to get into them with such freedom and depth.

Since we had some new folks in class tonight and since I was new to some folks as well, we started class with introductions, which was fun and seemed to create a nice bond to go forward through the practice with. I always like it when the group energy gels and a class is not just a bunch of individual people practicing in a room but when it feels cohesive and unified. Tonight was like that and even though we laughed a lot, the asana took me to a very deep, relaxed and yet joyous space. It was lovely and a perfect counter practice for the crazy back bends I did yesterday with Gioconda and Sam.

Here is the sequence in case you want to try for yourself!

Child's Pose
Down Dog
Surya Namaskar 5X
Surya Namaskar 5X
urdhva hasta bandhagullyasana (hands interlaced over head)
urdhva hasta badhagullyasana (non dominant clasp)
Hands clasped behind back shoulder stretch
Hands clasped behind back (non dominant clasp)
uttanasana with hands clasped behind back
uttanasana with hands clasped behind back (non dominant clasp)
Clasp elbows behind back, both sides
prasarita padottanasana, with hands clasped behind back
prasarita padottanasana, with non dominant clasp
pascima namaskarasana (reverse prayer)
parsvottanasana, classic form with hands in reverse prayer
Vira 1, hands in prayer overhead
gomukhasana arms
garudasana legs with arms in gomukhasana
gomukhasana legs only, classic form with shins very close together
gomukhasana, classic form, arms and legs
adho mukha virasana
supta padangusthasana variation with forehead to shin
urdhva prasarita eka padasana
triang mukaikapada pascimottanasana
baradvajasana 1
ardha padmasana
ardha badha padma pascimottanasana
baradvajasana 2

I was thinking about a question that got raised on my last  blog entry about the difference between developing one's teaching skills as a yoga teacher and deepening one's practice.

Here is the comment:
As usual your blog gave me an opportunity to mull over something that has been on my mind for a while…how my teachers try to evolve. I teach Danish to foreigners, I have taught for 35 years and I try to improve as a teacher still and all the time. I do it by sharing with my colleagues, reading, experimenting, thinking, consulting elders and betters, writing, but not by improving my Danish. My investment is in improving my teaching methods not my practice. When I learned to dance Argentinean tango the best teacher I had was not the best dancer but the best pedagogue. When I talk to my teachers they always talk about improving their practice not their methods. They are already light years ahead of me, and if we spend the rest of my life together they would already know enough to keep me busy till then. Don’t they need to work on their teaching skills and not their practice? If the practice is so important why not concentrate on that, get an easy day job and evolve as yogis and leave the teaching to people whose focus is not their own process but others’? I know I am a bit provoking here but don’t I have a point?

For the record I am a very skill-based teacher and  teacher trainer. I actually believe that the more we refine our teaching skills the more effective we can be as teachers. I think that when our skill set is honed then we are actually less dependent on inspiration and we can be consistent in our offering regardless of how we feel on any given day. Good teaching skills are like knowing the scales as a musician. This is how I train teachers, as many of you know. I am convinced that good teaching is not haphazard or random. It is a dynamic fusion between skill and inspiration, ability and creativity, and the more practiced one becomes at the foundations the more intuition is free to inhabit the effort.

When I write a statement that says something like "I care more about being a yogi than I do being a yoga teacher" I am in no way saying that I do not care about being a yoga teacher or that I think teaching skills are not to be honed and cultivated. I take the craft of teaching very seriously and I am very committed to increasing my efficacy as a teacher. I studied education and have a Master's Degree in experiential education so, as an art form in and of itself, I am way into teaching. (Like big time.) I think the structure of teaching is very  important and our skills as teachers are key. Also, keep in mind that we can have great teaching skills but not actually know alot about the body, the asanas, the lifestyle of yoga, and/or the philosophy. We may have great charisma, but no inner discipline, etc.

My point had more to do with a bold statement that as much as I love teaching yoga, I love the practice even more. I think of myself as a yogi and devotee first and a teacher second. And, as much as I think yoga teaching has a set of skills that can be taught, those skills are applied to a subject matter that is, at essence, experiential in nature. I do not think we have to be enlightened to teach yoga. I do not think we have to be flexible and strong and be able to do every pose in the book in order to be a good yoga teacher. But I do think that the more mastery we have in any domain- whether with asana, pranayama, meditation, self-inquiry, compassion, etc.- the stronger, deeper and richer the foundation is from which we can teach others.

Obviously, its not all outer mastery, like performing showy poses. It may be (and often is) more about inner mastery. It may be courage in the face of hardship and perseverance through tragedy that is at the heart of what we teach as yoga teachers. So please don't write me an email, ya'll, worrying if you can't do advanced poses that you are not "good enough" to teach yoga. Seriously, I am not saying that, just so we are clear. We all have gifts to offer and a song to sing, so to speak. I mean it.

Nor do I think that being a good practioner necessarily means that we are good teachers. I know plenty of people whose natural ability in asana actually hampers their ability to teach because they do not understand the average person's experience of being in a stiffer body. However, not growing one's practice is not the answer to that particular situation either. (Developing teaching skills is the answer to that dilemma.) Plenty of great practitioners with amazing levels of attainment have learned to be great teachers. And plenty of them have no interest in teaching at all. Lee used to say that not everyone who is enlightened becomes a spiritual teacher. Not everyone who loves yoga or is good at it should teach it either.

So, all that being said, I personally got on to the path with teachers who had high degrees of personal mastery in the asana and in their inner lives and I wanted them to teach me because they had achieved things I hadn't. I still want to be taught by people who know more than me. There is nothing better to me that being with at a senior teacher with a lifetime of wisdom knowing that there is an inexhaustible well of information is right in front of me and no matter how hard I might try, I won't be able to learn everything they know because they are also continuing to learn. That is my bliss. Seriously. I find it inspiring when that level of mastery meets great teaching skills and I have been fortunate enough to have several teachers for whom that has been the case.

So, since we do not have to be perfect or enlightened or anything to teach, we might consider what is it we are actually teaching with these great skills we are developing? When it comes down to it, for me, I am teaching practice.  As a yoga teacher,  while I am ostensibly teaching trikonasana or uttanasana and such,  I am also hoping to inspire people to establish a practice for themselves.  Even if I say that what I am really into has more to do with inspiring people to live authentically then it does with "yoga" still, no matter how inspiring I am, no one is going to be able to live authentically without some kind of personal, ongoing relationship to practice. My belief is that practice- formal practices like asana, meditation, pranayama and inner practices of self-awareness, compassion, self-observation are invaluable tools to help us achieve what we want out of life.

Even if what we want is simply to lose weight and keep it off, we are going to need some discipline and commitment. College degree- same. Marriage- same. Raising a child- same. And we are just talking about mundane examples, not things like inner harmony, compassion  for others, serving a vision, serving people or enlightenment! No matter what we want, the going is going to get rough at some point in the journey and we are going to have to practice what is difficult and challenging if we want to meet our aim. Period.

So, while there are plenty of poses I can not do and like I said, I do not believe we have to be perfect to teach well, I do think we should keep deepening our studies, our personal relationship to the path and to the subject matter we are teaching. Since what I think I am teaching is practice itself, if I am not practicing, and if I am not deepening interiorly, no matter how good my teaching skills are, I am going to feel a lack of integrity.

Also, that last post was not about teaching as an art of integrity like I am writing about tonight- it was about how easy it is to get lost in the business side of being a yoga teacher and become identified with popular trends in yoga rather than growing the self-inquiry side of teaching and the skill development side of increasing one's efficacy.

Thanks for the conversation. Have a great day.


kwajnman said...

What a pleasure it is to throw questions your way! Thank you

Mary S said...

What about the advertisement for tonight's class at Castle Hill?
I'll do it for you: come to Castle Hill tonight for a class at 6pm with Christina. Bring $30, get asana and a book.

Christina Sell said...

Thanks, Mary! You are hired!

April said...

I love this post. That is all.

Liz said...

thank you for this christina. as a budding teacher --- i got back and forth with this A LOT. and your words provided some clarification and encouragement into what is happening already. much respect. :)

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