Friday, November 11, 2011

Signs of the Times

So, let's see. What to write about... I was remembering how, a few years ago, this blog was full of updates about how I went to get a mani-pedi before class with my sister and then taught a few classes and wrote about my theme and sequence. See 2007/2008 blog entries-- they were full  of simple, sweet stuff with an occasional rant thrown in. Seems like as of late I am pondering large issues and making big sweeping declarations here. I suppose its a sign of the times. In fact, I have been thinking a lot about how the times are changing and how the culture of yoga has been shifting over the years.

I was struck by the interest and comments around heart-based themes on my last entry both here on the blog as well as on Facebook. (Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment and offer their insights and perspectives. They were all so interesting.  One trend in the comments in particular had to do with the beginning level teacher vs. the experienced-level teacher.  Elizabeth commented how she suspected in the early days of Anusara, the teachers John were training actually had teaching experience and so teaching them to weave a theme was a different kind of endeavor. (Not her exact words) I think that's an astute perception and it helps us understand a lot, I think.

In fact, I have been think about that very thing a lot over the last several years as a teacher trainer. (And so we are clear about where I am getting these ideas, I am not just blowing smoke here. I have been training Anusara teachers since 2005 and I actually have a Master's Degree in experiential education so I am not making random guesses here, although admittedly I am basing my opinions on my own experience. Anyway, I have observed the trends and challenges over many years and with hundreds of people.) So,  to Elizabeths's point-- simply imagine and compare a teacher 's knowledge base who is relatively new to Anusara yoga but was already a certified Iyengar yoga teacher v. a teacher who may have practiced yoga for several years but without the firm boundaries of such a system behind them. The first teacher is going to know what I call "pose architecture" and be very schooled in the outer forms of the postures and how they relate to one another. They are going to be skilled at prop usage, modifications, progressive teaching strategies, demonstrations skills, verbal and hands-on adjustments and they would have already received training in anatomy, verbal articulation skills, etc. For that teacher, learning how to language loops, spirals and weave a theme is still not going to be easy. (BE CLEAR- it is not easy to pull this off well!) However, it will be manageable and will be an appropriate level of challenge.

So, what is really clear is that as yoga has become more popular, and as  teacher trainings have become more accessible and as more  people have entered the field of teaching yoga, we have more people learning to teach yoga who have not been practicing yoga very long at all. I used to rant about this a lot (check back through those old blogs, in fact) and somewhere a few years ago I got over it. I accepted that this was just how it was and regardless of the pros and cons that are inherent in the situation, it is simply how it is.  Having made my peace with reality as it is, I soon realized that I, as a teacher trainer, had to develop ways to train teachers that took this reality into account.

See, not only are more people getting into teaching earlier in the life of their practice than they were 15 years ago, the climate of public classes has gone from small, intimate, personalized classes to larger, less personal, flow-based, mixed-level classes. I began to realize that so many of the teaching methods I was using as a trainer assumed that the teacher-in-training would leave my training and go back to teach at an all-Anusara studio where there were clearly designated levels of classes and ongoing, committed students. (In fact, I think a lot of the manual assumes this if you read it carefully. Just an opinion.)

Anyway, it began to dawn on me that almost NO ONE in my training taught in such a scenario as the one I just described. Most teachers-in-training (or teachers in my trainings) were teaching in what I call "ecumenical" yoga studios-- studios with a variety of styles and methods being taught throughout the week with open enrollment and mixed-levels.   In fact, I, myself, had gone from running an all Anusara studio with clearly designated levels and ongoing, committed students to teaching  in a larger urban studio that met the ecumenical yoga studio definition to a "T". So, after years of teaching Anusara yoga in one way, I had to learn a completely different set of presentation skills in my new environment. And my ideas of how to train people naturally evolved. And what I looked for and enjoyed in asana classes changed as I worked within this broader, more-inclusive community of yogis and yoga teachers.

I think a huge change we have seen in culture and climate of yoga over the last 15 years has been the rise of the vinyasa methods. "Back in the early days" if you did a vinyasa practice you did Ashtanga Vinyasa. nd anyone who has tried that style of yoga know that it is a rigorous, methodological approach to asana practice with its own set of parameters, conventions, tools and understandings which would give a new Anusara teacher a solid platform upon which to place the skills of teaching loops, spirals and heart language kind of like the afore-mentioned Iyengar yogis. Anyway,  along with the rise of the vinyasa practices, there was been a increase of more movement in classes, more creativity, more fluid expressions of the asana, less outer form emphasis, more emotional expression, more music, breath emphasis, ritual environments and also, athleticism. (And don't even get me started on that, please. Since when is it such a  bad thing to want to get a little exercise out of an exercise class? Keep in mind, we come to asana wearing gym clothes not tweed blazers with leather patches and not with a shawl and a cushion for meditation. Okay the kundalini folks have the cushions, but they are a slightly different clan than what I am talking about. So,  yes, we have a bigger message and yes there is a lot philosophically going on behind the scenes of the asana and more is involved but yoga class is primarily--dare I say it--an exercise class! There. I said it. Whew.)

Let's face it- yes, asana is a spiritual practice. I get it. Asanas hold within their forms potent transformational power. We all know that. Ever feel like crap at the end of day and strike a pose- any pose- and immediately feel the shift in your state of consciousness? That's the power of the shape. That the magic of the asanas themselves. The Lords of Yoga smiled on us when they gave us this practice and I am not selling it short in anyway. Its a full package deal for me. But all that reverence, respect and awe for its spiritual power does not mean that I do not want, need or enjoy a conditioning effect for my body when I roll out a mat. I mean I come to asana class to, well, do asana! I want to get stronger and I do not want to lift weights to stay fit. (Although if you like lifting weights, by all means lift weights. Again, fine by me. Again, I digress.)  I also want to see my flexibility improve. And I want to do poses this year I couldn't do last year. That's me. You may be different. I am cool with that. I really am.

And personally, I meditate every morning. I do pranayama every morning. I study scripture. I chant. I personally come to asana class to do asana. Is that so wrong? (And look, before anyone feels hurt and send me an email about it, I have to say that I have no problem with anyone teaching anything else in their classes. I get that asana class is a doorway to the contemplative practices. I get that we have an opportunity to educate and contextualize the asana within the scope of the larger tradition from which it hails. I am into that also. I am just saying that all of  that work  is not "required" in my mind for an asana class to be effective. Not at all.  Do it if its important to you. Hold your head high if that's your message. I will sing your praises from the rooftops. I see the value. I really do.)

Anyway, one of my favorite things about most good vinyasa classes is you actually get to do close to 90 minutes of asana in 90 minutes! It's a wonderful contribution to the yoga conversation. Does it have flaws? Yes. Are there pitfalls? Certainly. But, come on everyone, since when is wanting a little exercise out of the deal a bad thing?

And this movement-based approach has changed the learning landscape as well so that while the conditioning effect for the body is getting actualized, the learning and cultivation of the knowledge of the poses and such may be getting cut short a bit and this phenomena effects the new teacher-in-training. They do not come in with the same knowledge base they used to have because what is being offered in the average public class has changed over the years. The average public class doesn't prepare people for teacher training in the way it used to. It's doing something else quite valuable, just not necessarily prepping teachers.  I think I still manage to teach and educate the intellect a whole lot in a 90-minute public class and no one has ever told me my classes are not hard enough physically but that takes a fair amount of experience and practice to pull off. And I am always working on that balance. What often happens is the  new-to-alignment-teacher slows things down to such a degree that the class momentum/interest is lost, the conditioning effect doesn't take place and/or the students are not actually warmed up to do the harder pose that the demo was all about anyway because they spent all that time watching not doing.

I think set postural sequences solve some of this problem nicely. Take the Bikram series- there are a handful of general cues for everyone. (Okay, truth be told, more than a handful of cues- its sort of rapid fire instructions for 90 minutes actually.) But my point is that everyone gets the script. And the cool thing is that poses stay the same so within that structure the students receive individual help. Newer students get personal modifications and advanced students receive refinements and no one has to learn everything about the pose today because you are going to get another two tries on it tomorrow. And the next day and then next day. No need to slow the class down to demo- listen as best you can, give the pose a go, come back again tomorrow. Are their pitfalls? Surely. Are there problems that arise with that approach? Certainly.

So -where is all of this ranting heading tonight? Nowhere, really, I suppose. Do I actually have a point? I think so but maybe it's not so crystallized.  Mostly I am sharing some of my reflections on the trends within the yoga culture over the last 15 years and suggesting that the best thing we can do as teachers and especially as teachers-who-teach-teachers is to know what is happening out there in the world beyond our class and beyond our chosen method, if we have one. It will help us understand out students and when we understand them better we can teach them more effectively. Simple, really.

I never give "assignments" here on this blog but here goes--I dare you to- (so actually, its a dare and not an assignment) no matter what method you practice and teach by preference- and its really cool with me that we all have our preferences- go and  take a few classes somewhere else. Not just one. Take several. In some style or studio you rarely do or go to. Best case scenario would be to find a really popular class in town, go to it with a very open mind and heart and ask yourself, "What is it about this class that is appealing to people?" And don't be snarky. Really look to see what that class and that teacher are offering to the people in attendance. Look beyond your bias and see what is truly being provided for the students. It can teach you a lot.

And as we see--and I mean, really see-- the beauty that is being offered out there in yoga classes everywhere and in so many different ways, absolutely wonderful things will happen. We will feel more beautiful ourselves. We will start understanding our offering within the larger scope of our community. We will see walls of division between studios, methods and teachers dissolve. Competition will subside. Fear will diminish. Confidence will increase. We will actually be in community rather than in the process of "cultivating community". We will be in the Light of the Teachings sharing the joy of the practice with people who are committed to The Path which is what all of this is aimed at anyway.

Have fun and thanks for reading. Let me know how it goes.


Anonymous said...

" What often happens is the new-to-alignment-teacher slows things down to such a degree that the class momentum/interest is lost, the conditioning effect doesn't take place and/or the students are not actually warmed up to do the harder pose that the demo was all about anyway because they spent all that time watching not doing."

This has been a topic of conversation between a few of us lately. As an Ashtangi/ Vinyasa person I wondered how people were ever able to get warm enough to try advanced poses and thus develop a so-called advanced practice without having had a background in other forms of yoga. What is the "asana" trajectory of a person brand-new to yoga that starts and stays with Anusara in terms of a balanced practice? {And perhaps part of my problem is that I am viewing it in relationship to other styles of yoga, which I can't help but do}.

I have only taken about 10 Anusara classes, and all but one didn't generate enough tapas for me to feel like I could safely try the more advanced postures, or they didn't offer them at all.

And I get that is not all about "attaining" asana, but i feel like we are just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of seeing what asana can do and be in our lives. I must add that there are some things that I really love about Anusara (i don't want to come off as super-critical!)

Thank you as always for such stimulating conversation, and I can't wait for you to come out to CA!

hjb said...

back when i did the anusara immersion, which feels like ancient history now, i was inspired to go out to ashtanga and iyengar clases becuase of what i learned of our lineages. perhaps it's time to bring out the beginner mind and go visiting again.

there are many meaty things to think about in this post.

Andra said...

Christina, thank you for this wonderful blog. I love your "dare" and I always tell my students to go out "in the world" and try as many styles, teachers and classes as they can. I think I was lucky to start my yoga practice at a very early age (16) and in a very different environment than the current Western model. I think that being brought up in a Eastern European Integral Yoga school based on Tantric philosophy allowed me to stay open and explore different styles of practice. Curious by nature I really did dive deep and as time passed I've been able to filter through and keep what resonated with me most. I think there are lots of factors when choosing our path and so, as a teacher and teacher trainer I hope that at least three things will always stay with my students - having an inquisitive mind, an open heart and learning to ask good questions. I've never been interested in having students who just listen and follow. I'm interested in creating an environment that empowers and extends past our yoga mats, into the reality of our lives, into those places where we can connect and share the beauty and richness of it all.
Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and heart.
Much love!!!

Dale said...

Wow :-). Yep. There is fulfilling yoga to be done in many classes. But I always take my practice with me, because it transcends the activity that I am doing. So in Ashtanga, the internal alignment of my poses is Anusara, even though the poses of Ashtanga look a little different. And my transitions in Anusara classes look a whole lot like Ashtanga, because that is where I learned to move with a modicum of grace and power. And my Shiva Rea groove is showing up everywhere (except in Ashtanga - it's a little too scandalous :-).

Ya know, wherever I go, there I am :-).

Relatively inexperienced yogis are not going to become subtile masters of the practice thru teacher training (except possibly yours, of course :-). Their own journey and years of practice will give them that insight.

But I think that more experienced yogis do not look to most teachers to teach them yoga - I know that I don't. I'm not saying that I learn nothing from less experienced teachers, but that is generally not why I go to their classes.

I'm there for the party, dude! I want you to lead me on a magical mystery tour of something - a journey to an opening or a posture or a killer workout or maybe a new style of yoga that I can play with.

I want to party with my kula, to celebrate the awesome yoga happening around me, to dive deeply into my physicality and skills, to become better stronger faster harder (and softer :-).

I want you to create the experiential space for me, in the same way that you hold the physical space of the room for us.

So anyway, I'm just here for the beer. It would be awesomely cool to make a shirt with a juicy yoga pose and that saying in sanskrit in flowing script :-). How is this said in Sanskrit???

Dale said...

Oh, the other thing - I want to talk more about the "there is magic in the shape" idea, because from a historical perspective; from the perspective of the huge diversity of shapes, movements, and practices that are called yoga around the world; from my personal experience; and from a theoretical perspective; I contend that the magic is all about the work that we do in the pose, not the shape of the pose.

Sure, some poses are more efficient tools for producing certain changes in the body than other tools, but that doesn't make them magic.

I think that would be a really fun discussion.

carol said...

Your last few posts have given me a good understanding of why the theming has been so difficult for me.
I can hold all the other balls in the air, the sequence, the alignment, the actions, the observation, but really struggle to keep that last ball in the air. The theme.
Normally, I beat myself up for this after class. I think now, after reading your last few posts, I can stop being so hard on myself.
Thanks for that!

kwajnman said...

I am so relieved to see that the heart based themes , which have never really worked for me, also don't work for others. It always made me feel a cynical and cantankerous old woman , and very different not experiencing great things with themes.
Another thing is demos which I have always complained about. I am not trained to look at poses, I don't learn well from them, I never see myself in poses the visual clues are just not helpful, and on top of that I have to stand around not doing anything and pretend to pay attention to something which for me is basically a waste of time. I am an old stiff woman, there are many things in class I can't do, and I really need to participate in as much as I can and the to have the demos......

JayaKrishna said...

Love your thoughts and honesty Christina:) I have enjoyed you 1st book as well. So, I met your dare and took the most popular class at my studio(cos it's free for me:)). I am an Ashtangi/Jivamukti by practice and a teacher. I usually have the harumph about taking "other" classes, so I took the afternoon Vinyasa Flow without jugdement. I actually enjoyed myself, played a little and let it flow(no pun intended) although, it's really not my cup o tea, I did see the appeal.:) Thanks for the dare!

Christina Sell said...

@Emily- I think a lot of the answer to your question has to do with how individual teachers teach Anusara yoga and not so much the method itself. One of the things I was/am actually known for is preparing people extremely well for the advanced postures, even in the 90-minute public class. So, the method is not limiting in that way but people's ability to teach the method while still creating the heat and preparing the body adequately while also teaching alignment and so forth may be where the slow down is. When its taught well, you should be finding yourself in deep poses, wondering, "How did I get here? That was easier than I though it would be!"

@hjb- How fun that the Immersion made you curious about "your roots". Excellent. I love Iyengar yoga and Ashtanga so much.

@Andra- Thanks for sharing. I love reading your insights about Integral Yoga and how is shaped your perspective and established such a profound base of practice and it sounds like, discernment. Your care for the students and the practice really comes ringing through your words.

@Dale- Always a pleasure, dude. I get what you are saying about why we come to class. I know I also go to some classes more to play and to hang out and yet, even though I am reasonably proficient in the asana, I still LOVE learning and improving them. I think you are right though about being clear within ourselves what we are likely to receive in any situation.

As far as the shakti and shape scenario- its not black or white, but a continuum. Keep in mind that it really wasn't until BKS came along (Well, within the krishnamacharya lineage) that ""how we work in poses" moved to the forefront of the conversation. Take a look, for isntance at some of the early pics of Krishnamacharya or Pattabhi Jois and look at their form. Iyengar really evolved the majesty of the form and elevated alignment to its own means of contacting the Self. His writing is exquisite on the subject, in fact.

So- we know that any old down dog makes us feel better. Think about a beginner who is totally shifted after class even though they are not in great form and they are not even very aware of actually any actions within said form. they are holding on for dear life! But they feel the shakti. AND on the other end of the continuum is the power we receive from moving deeper and deeper into the forms with good alignment and skillful action. Action is one part of it. Form is part of it. And its not black or white, static or limited.

Let's take scorpion, for instance, the closer I get to the form with my feet on my head, the harder it is, the more action is required, the deeper the experience and the stronger the "energetic aftermath" is when I release the pose. Sure, working the actions is key but a whole different thing happens when I actually get my feet to my head than when my feet are hovering in mid-air. So its is not action or form, in my opinion, it is both. They are not at odds. They are in a dynamic relationship with one another. Also at play is our starting shape and capacity.

@Carol- I think we should teach from the heart, not for the theme. That is what;s important to me! Glad this helped.

@Karen- You make me laugh! (even if you are a cantankerous old woman!) I am kidding. I always find your honesty, curiosity and insight refreshing. I think you make a good point about demos. One thing we have to do as teachers is train people how to look at what we are showing them so they can, over time, learn how to see what we are actually talking about. However, we forget that a lot and leave our students feeling bored, blind and befuddled! And, obviously you are not alone on the heart-based theme sentiment!

@jayakrishna- You took the dare! YAHOO! I know what you mean- we have our preferences and our cups of tea for sure. I think that's how it should be. I know for me that visiting other styles and really seeing what was good helped me incorporate certain elements that I found beneficial into my own teaching.

themanatee said...

wow- there is soooo much here to discuss. You pretty much rule Christina. I have been challenging myself over the last few months to get out to more and more classes of different styles other than Anusara (I am really really in love with Anusara and beginning to assist Sianna next year). But it so life ehancing ( : ) ) to go to other classes and watch my mind judge at first, lets be honest, it happens! But over the course of a class I will soften into the class and the judging softens and I will take away a learning experience. Its soooo good for me.

Then your point about heart theming for new teachers! This is one of my MAIN things with Anusara, which remember, I am fully devoted to at the moment. Teaching new teachers to incorporate heart themes ends up being tooooo much for new teachers. When Anusara started, as you said, teachers were coming from an experienced place already. Not so much know. I truly believe teachers should not START with Anusara. I feel very fortunate that I did a foundational yoga TT, (two actually) before diving into Anusara. This background has been so helpful in simply teaching Asana first. You must feel solid in this before you can begin to weave heart themes into your class. What we are seeing out there too often is Anusara inspired teachers who simply don't have a strong enough foundation and their heart themes simply sound scattered and they don't land in class IMO. This does not help build up Anusara, in fact, students become a bit disenchanted when they hear students regurgitating heart language that they know they "should" be teaching but they don't have enough of a foundation to do so skillfully.


Christina Sell said...

@themanatee- yep, I agree. I can feel your love for the system and all if has given you. I feel the same way. I am happy to hear your perceptions and ideas. Thanks for stopping by. (Oh and HOW MUCH FUN will you be having next year assisting the Goddess Sianna? what a great opportunity for you.)

Kathy O'Rourke said...

I'm going to go to a Baptiste Power Vinyasa class as part of your Dare -- there's a new studio in LaCrosse, WI opening there near a 30-year super-classical Iyengar studio. It's great to see that pairing of offerings. Letting go of attachment to "OUR" style of yoga is very freeing. Today, someone asked me 'what style' do I teach and for the first time I thought, I teach hatha yoga -- all this branding is a little out of control. Moreover, I love my teacher, who is my guru, but how he teaches is in HIS voice. Finding my voice (and using direct languaging I learned from you, CS) is really at the heart of my personal evolution as a student, a teacher, a 44 year old, a mother.... I finally feel like I can really jump in the conversation now that it's not 'strictly' anusara -- though, really, I love it and it is foundational to my practice and always opens new doors. I love having the ceiling open to the sky now.

I'll let you know how my trips to the Baptiste 'gym' yoga - super hot exercise yoga goes. I've had the intuition to try it and appreciate the nudge.

Angela said...

What I love about your blog posts, Christina, is that you are on the precise page I find myself upon. Your dare was one I gave myself not too long ago ( Upon becoming Anusara-Inspired, I realized I hadn't taken any non-Anusara yoga classes in years. I loved becoming a part of a community and building the connection I'd built with my primary teacher, but I lacked exposure to any other perspective. I think this is a terrible risk we run, not just in our yoga practice but in life, generally. I'd challenged myself to try out 30 different yoga classes with 30 teachers I'd never practiced with before. The results? Astounding! It inspired my personal practice, my teaching, my entire life. And it helped me to find something I felt lacking for some time.. connection to the greater community of yoga teachers, beyond my brethren of Anusara yogis. I still teach Anusara-Inspired yoga and find it the method that speaks most clearly to me and my heart, but I have learned to pay MASSIVE respect to any teacher that walks this path. I'm experimenting with a teachers' practice that is style-agnostic. It's my hope that each will be open to whatever the other is offering. Rather than cultivating community, I am hoping we can simply and open heartedly participate in community. Thank you again for your clarity, integrity and passion, Christina. You rock!

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gocutego said...

Asana- a tight ass and so much more

Christina Sell said...

@Kathy- Now that is going to be a great field trip. Can't wait to here about it. From Para Yoga to Power Yoga. Sounds like a journey to me. Thanks for sharing.

@Angela-- 30 different classes in 30 days is a great assignment. Sounds like it bore a lot of fruit. How awesome. thanks for your enthusiasm and support. I think you rock too!

@gocutego- funny. now there is a tag line if someone wants it! Lee used to say things like that- he would come up with slogans or business ideas in the middle of a talk and tell us "here's a million dollar idea for the taking..." and then launch into his idea. usually they were hilarious. So in His spirit- I am shouting out, 'here is a tagline for the right yogi to use!"

Thanks for chiming in everyone.

Anne-Marie Schultz said...

snarky. not a word that has ever come up in our yoga conversations. love you have a great time in AZ.

Doug said...

My two cents: both asana and philosophy (and pranayama/meditation) have their place in yoga (of course!). The mistake has always been to try to do both at the same time -- through 'heart themes' -- which means you never get a chance to really experience either, since your attention is divided and diluted.

It's a fundamental mistake, and always has been. The result is that mixing the two fails to do justice to either, and is thus understandably frustrating.

Yoga can have a 'Zen' approach: when doing asana, really do asana and appreciate it; when contemplating philosophy, really contemplate it, and appreciate it. Both (AND pranayama and meditation) are essential to the full experience of yoga.

Doug said...

My two cents: both asana and philosophy (and pranayama/meditation) have their place in yoga (of course!). The mistake has always been to try to do both at the same time -- through 'heart themes' -- which means you never get a chance to really experience either, since your attention is divided and diluted.

It's a fundamental mistake, and always has been. The result is that mixing the two fails to do justice to either, and is thus understandably frustrating.

Yoga can have a 'Zen' approach: when doing asana, really do asana and appreciate it; when contemplating philosophy, really contemplate it, and appreciate it. Both (AND pranayama and meditation) are essential to the full experience of yoga.

A heart theme can be a nice touch that sets the tone and connects the teacher with the student. But that's about it, and when the connection 'fails' (especially when 'forced') it causes a disconnect instead. The best connection in an asana class is through asana itself.

Jocelyn said...

Wow, thank you! my first time to your site thanks to your interview with Tal.
You have released me from my feelings of inadequacy!
I dont do the whole shabang in my classes.
(meditation, pranayama etc) We MOVE. I want folk to get into their body and to 'feel' it. I give lots of metaphor and get them to identify inwardly what it should maybe feel like. My most hilarious metaphor so far according to my class is to "imagine you have been thrown from a moving train and have rolled down hill and landed like this... making sure you have avoided dog poo".
My classes are mostly flowing vinyasa in nature but I love the use of alignment as a student progresses so they can feel into the pose more deeply and enjoy the form and advance the action. My classes are strong but not fierce. I see the possibilities for my students but encourage them to go for more because that is why we have a body. We can theorise till the cows come home, but we have got to get into action and help our students counteract the effects of living in an information age.
Its use it or lose it!
So much rich stuff here on your blog that I have only said a little...Thank you