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.