Well, I am a few days post-Teacher Training here in Sydney and I have taken a few days to unwind and relax and to continue to enjoy the city. The training was a great success on so many levels. I tried some new techniques and strategies and implements some tried and true exercises and in general, had a great time being with the students and staff at Preshana Yoga to dive into the basics of teaching yoga.
One of the things Noah Naze and I have been talking about a lot as teacher trainers these days is that there are several different types of skills we need for effective yoga teaching. Both Noah and I were trained in Outdoor Education at Prescott College(several years apart, however) and in the training programs for being a wilderness instructor, they categorized the skills into soft skills and hard skills. Hard skills were things like tying knots, navigating with a map and compass, pitching tents, starting stoves, setting up climbing routes, etc. Think techniques for helping others navigate the outer experience. Soft skills were things like interpersonal communication, the conscious use of metaphor, facilitating group process, etc. Think: techniques for helping others navigating the inner experience.
Noah and I got to talking in a recent training about how yoga teaching is similar to outdoor leadership in terms of a hard skill set and a soft skill set. There are the hard skills of yoga and the soft skills of yoga. Make no mistake, both domains involve skill. Hard skills include but are not limited to knowledge of the postures, sequencing strategies, modifications, contraindications, pacing, verbal articulation skills, observation, demonstration, etc. Soft skills involve conveying compassion, empathy, the conscious use of metaphor, being inspiring, the use of humor, etc. And in teaching yoga there is also a “business bucket” where we have to be able to market ourselves, charge accordingly, etc. which is an often overlooked aspect of doing this for a living, but that is a different post.
So, in our trainings we are doing our best to speak to the different skills sets and to make sure we are consciously in one or the other at any time. I think a lot of yoga argument could be avoided if we were simply more clear about which skill set we were prioritizing at any given time. Method to method, and teacher to teacher, if we look we can see that there is a variable degree of emphasis on one domain or the other. Some use themes, for instance to sell the alignment. Some will use alignment to sell the theme. Some will say “the posture itself will shift you” while others will say that a posture in and of itself has no meaning and so we have to infuse it with meaning or it will become stale or dry. Some folks will say as long as the heart is touched it is good yoga while others will say that the practice itself is what is the transformational agent.
I think its about perspective and preference more than it is about anything so absolute. We talked a bit about this over the training relative to themes. I kept saying that I do not really find them necessary. I think I am usually misunderstood when I say such a thing-in fact, one woman asked why I taught Anusara for so long if I didn’t like themes. It’s not that I do not like themes, nor is it that I minded teaching with them. A good theme is great. I am great at teaching with a theme and I honed that skill quite nicely if I do say so myself. I also excel at helping other people learn to weave a theme into a class. All I was saying is that I, myself, do not personally do not require them to be inspired in a yoga class.
For instance, when I first met Desiree Rumbaugh and learned about Anusara Yoga in 1999, I thought she was inspiring. Her knowledge, her passion, her practice, her ability to connect to students, her unwavering dedication to her growth were inspiring to me. All of that hooked me- not that she linked an adjective up with a key action and threaded it through a class. (And yes, I know themes can be much more than that.) My point is simply that she was inspiring and so all that personal work she did for herself showed up in her teaching. She embodied the inspirational message and it worked for me.
Same when I first met John Friend. The teachings he shared at the time were inspiring and he was still very juiced up from his leap of faith out of Iyengar Yoga and into the founding years of Anusara and he was inspiring. He was knowledgeable, his practice was intense, he was funny, he helped me do postures I never dreamed possible and in those days themes looked nothing like “linking a key action with a feeling word” but were simply more about pouring your heart into the postures as a means of devotional offering.
Even now I have the opportunity to practice with some of the Bikram Yoga champions and to learn from them and I find them very inspiring. They are dedicated, passionate, committed, crazy-knowledgable about their method and they have helped me a ton with their insight and precision. But not a theme in sight. Occasionally during one of the 20-second savasana interludes they mention some nugget about a larger lesson from practice. Done. Great. Love it.
So- I see themes as a skill or as a tool for bringing inspiration to life in a yoga class but not as a requirement for a good class. And a poorly executed theme is worse than a straight alignment class or a straight breath-based class, in my opinion, but that might be a bit of a scandalous line of inquiry to continue with. And while I am on the topic, I do not think themes equal “bringing philosophy into a class” as a lot of times a theme is more geared to the emotional center, not the intellect and its not really The Teaching as much as it is a pep talk or an emotional appeal that is being offered. Again, nothing wrong with that either, just saying that we have lots of tools in this domain. So we are clear, I love hearing some good philosophy in a yoga class but one or two tidbits, relative to the actual challenge at hand is great with me and I do not think it weakens the teaching if it is not carried through the whole 90 minutes. Just my opinion.
So its not like I felt “out of integrity” to teach with a theme. I think it is a great skill to have and many a day I talked myself into a good mood by weaving a theme into class so I appreciate it a lot. I am pondering these things a lot these days and while I just outlined my own feelings about themes I have no problem recognizing that some students love them and find them an invaluable source of inspiration and insight during their class experience. I have no problem at all with other people liking them, using them and so on. I am even happy to help teachers with the skill set involved, like I said.
Also, while I am on the topic of scandalous topics, I am also thinking that there is a shadow side to trying so hard to make yoga so freaking inspiring all the time. Okay, do not get me wrong, I know we all need to plug into a source of inspiration and I know we need time and occasions to recharge so we can keep going. And yet, I think about my own asana practice. It's not mind-blowing every day. Many days, I roll out a mat, I breathe, I move and at the end I feel better. I do not always feel great at the end but I generally feel better for simply moving in a way that gets my stuck prana unstuck. To me, practice is very ordinary. It is boring a lot of days. (Yes, I can work up a big thing about how the body is amazing and every day exploring its intricacies is a thrill and all that but honestly, for me, a lot of it is simple, boring, repetitive and not entertaining whatsoever and therein lies its value as we live in a society that has always seeking what is new, what is shiny, what is bright and entertaining, as opposed to what is stable, enduring and so on.) If every class has to be so inspiring, I actually am wondering if I am doing a kind of false advertising. Like maybe part of the reason so few people can’t get a personal practice going is because all of these inspiring classes gives them the impression that practice is going to be thrilling when, in a lot of cases, practice is going to be pretty dull. Maybe we actually need to be training people to deal with boredom instead of always inspiring them. Just a thought.
(On a personal note, the thing is I do love to practice asana but its the familiarity of the shapes, the predictability of the openings and the way it feels normalizing that I value, not the way it is entertaining and far out, although I appreciate those days also.)
At any rate, I find this time of reflection to be quite intense, rapid and productive. As far as the whole “theme issue” I feel a shift of interest away from the theme as such and into what we called in outdoor education “the conscious use of metaphor”. The thing is that asana is embodied philosophy so the lessons we need are living inside the practice itself and the more we can simply make what is implicit explicit, the more seamless our teaching becomes and the more inspiring and ordinary it is. Like so many things, one lives in the other right? As soon as I paint a context for dealing with boredom, all of a sudden that task seems less plain and more inspiring. Ironic.
The teacher training was great. I am so happy to know the group will be in Noah’s capable hands the next two sessions and I will get to return in April 2013 to finish the program. We talked yesterday about scheduling some future trips to Sydney and if all goes well, I will be coming back in 2014 as well. I am excited to have Sydney be a bit of a “home away from home” where I can visit but also be part of helping Preshana Yoga establsh itself here and to contribute to its vision.
All in all, good times.