Plants are encouraged to grow; so are people

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It’s an honor to witness a revelation.

After class on Thursday, one woman said she had the best Ashtanga practice she had had in a long time. She said she came into class tired and weary and wasn’t expecting much from herself. But partway through she thought to herself, What’s happening here? The look on her face after class was one of amazement and surprise.

Leading an Ashtanga class is unlike other teaching I do. In the university classroom, I have knowledge about a topic and I try to impart that knowledge unto (generally much younger) students. They look to me as someone who has professional experience in the field, and they have relatively no experience. They are there to learn from someone with more experience.

But in an Ashtanga class, I am not the one with the most experience. Instead, I’m there to cultivate an environment in which students feel comfortable going inside of themselves to reach their potentials. How do I do that?

  • By showing up early, at least a half-hour before class starts. I turn on the lights and make sure everything is in order before they arrive. I don’t want to be rushing around getting things ready as students come in the door. That would set an anxious tone.
  • By greeting them as they arrive and listening to them. If I get there early, I’m ready. So when students talk to me, I can give them 100 percent attention. I’m not distracted. They may tell me something important, like an injury they have or an emotional or mental roadblock they’re facing.
  • By using a calming voice when leading them from asana to asana.
  • By using assists to help them get further into an asana.

It’s like a garden — you don’t make the plants grow, but you cultivate a favorable environment so they have a chance to grow strong.

I’m glad I was able to curate an environment in which the woman was able to achieve a fulfilling practice. I want to hear that and hope to never hear the opposite — that my class is a space in which people feel discouraged or unwelcomed. Her words encourage me to create a space in which she can continue to grow, as well as others.

Unlike Joe Biden, I’m not handsy: Powering through resistance in assists

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Assisting Peter in Marichasana C in Lynn Thomasberg’s assist workshop at One Yoga in Minneapolis on March 31. 

Touch doesn’t come natural to me. I grew up in a family that wasn’t demonstrative with affection — not uncommon in small-town Minnesota, populated by descendants of stoic Germans and Scandinavians.

So providing assists during an Ashtanga class presents a challenge to me. But I look forward to this opportunity for self-development. I will be spending some time contemplating my place of resistance and developing ways to break through it.

I attended my first assist workshop last weekend, led by Lynn Thomasberg at One Yoga in Minneapolis. Lynn focused specifically on the asanas found in the Ashtanga primary series.

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Lynn and me at One Yoga.

Right away, I noticed my discomfort. But confronting that discomfort was exactly why I signed up for the workshop. Prior to this, my only experience with assists was at David Swenson‘s weekend workshop last September. We paired up with each other, and I felt challenged by having to put my hands on strangers.

Lynn told us we’d be changing partners for every asana so we’d get a chance to work with all body types and all abilities. Wow, I’m going to be putting my hands on a lot of strangers today, I thought. But that’s why I was there, so I might as well dive right in.

I did what Lynn told us to do, pushing through my resistance. I was beyond my comfort zone, but that’s where growth occurs. At home at the end of that first day, I reflected upon the work I did and readied myself for the second day.

When I got to the studio the second day, I was feeling a lot more comfortable. That was a good sign! Knowing that I’d have to assist again wasn’t giving me anxiety; I was excited. I think I felt more comfortable on the second day for a couple of reasons: 1) I was more familiar with my classmates — they were no longer strangers; and 2) we worked on seated postures.

For some reason, assisting people while they were seated felt more natural to me than assisting in standing asanas. Hmmmm! Maybe I was just more comfortable in general and if I had assisted standing asanas on the second day, I would have felt natural, too.

Today is when I get to put the assists into practice in my class at SunMoon. I feel excited rather than anxious, so I’m relieved about that. The people in my class aren’t strangers — I know them all, so there’s a level of comfort there that I didn’t have on the first day of the workshop.

I think my resistance isn’t necessarily about touching people. I like to hug people (though I often wait for people to make the first move), and I will touch people on an arm when I’m talking to them (if I feel it’s warranted). I have warmed up considerably from where I was as a young person!

My resistance comes out of fear — I don’t want to hurt people. Even in the workshop almost everyone I worked on said I could push further — my touch was too light. I know that people will let me know if I go too far, but I worry about the people who might not say anything. Or the people who don’t realize I made them go too far until after practice, when a pain or soreness sets in. Or I am spotting someone in sirsasana and they tumble over on my watch.

I’m so grateful for the opportunity to teach a led class so I can confront areas of resistance and learn more about myself. If I were only practicing on my own, this world would not be opened to me.

How do you feel about assists in a yoga class, whether giving or receiving?

Yoga can cause injuries — so be mindful!

Yoga is not without its physical risks.

Yes, I want more people to check out yoga classes. But for yogis to promote yoga as a cure-all and as a way to prevent injuries is irresponsible. Of course I believe the benefits outweigh the risks, but new practitioners should be mindful going into it.

I liked an article (posted below) from the Washington Post that was reprinted in the Dec. 23 edition of the Minneapolis StarTribune. I thought it had a lot of good tips.

Yoga injuries are likely going to come from overuse and overstretching. But I believe that listening to your body is going to be the most important way to prevent injuries. I think a lot of yoga injuries result from people looking at others in a class and trying to do what they’re doing. They forget that the person on the mat next to them may have been practicing yoga for many years. Letting go of ego and letting go of competition will go a long way in keeping yourself healthy on the mat.

Starting yoga

 

In order to write, read. In order to teach, watch.

Flickr/Creative Commons photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/grahamking/.

In yoga teacher training we are learning all the things that you would expect you’d learn in a teacher training specific to yoga. We learn poses, how to cater to all levels, how to modify poses, the different styles of yoga, as well as things like energy fields and chakras and essential oils.

But what was the very first thing I encountered in the very first class I taught?

Oh, there’s someone walking in the door! Oh, I’m so excited! Oh, what do I do now?

Obviously they just walked in the door. I knew how to teach poses and cue music. But what was going to set the stage immediately?

Thankfully I had been attending yoga classes as a student for about 17 years. I quickly thought to myself: “What does Mona do when I come into a room? What does Melanie do?” Every teacher I’ve had greeted me with a big smile, welcomed me into the space, called me by my name. So that’s what I did. I introduced myself, welcomed them into the space, shook their hands, asked their names and mentally noted the names for next time.

You learn by doing, of course. But you also learn by observing.

I tell my writing students that the most important thing they need to do to become better writers is not to write, but to read. Read EVERYTHING. Read every day. Read books, magazines, anthologies, web articles. Read fiction, read poetry, read plays. Listen to podcasts, watch vlogs, watch documentaries. The only way to write a good story is to read or listen to good stories. See how the masters have done it. Identify what you love and work on replicating that.

It struck me over this last teacher training weekend is that in order to become a good yoga teacher, you have to watch other good yoga teachers. What do they do, what do they say? How do they create a welcoming space? How do they cultivate the type of energy that you want to be around?

I try to expose myself to as many good yoga teachers as possible. I have my roster of teachers I enjoy in Mankato. When I travel, I like going to yoga studios. I’m always watching and observing the style of the teacher, noting what I like and don’t like.

Is there someone you consider your yoga teacher mentor, whether you are teaching now or whether you hope to teach someday?

Silence in the yoga studio

Creative Commons image. Artist information at http://www.andreminduka.com/

Today I made what is becoming a monthly trek to 815 Yoga in Rockford, Illinois. It’s quickly becoming my away-from-home studio.

I attended the beginner flow class but there at 815 I think they approach it right — it’s a class great for beginners, but experienced yogis get something out of it, too. The instructor, Nicole, tailored her directions to beginners, but verbally offered modifications for more experienced students.

What I really enjoyed about today, though, was the quiet. The building had experienced some problems lately, including the absence of heat. Nicole told us the heat had been restored (as we could tell), but the electricity was out in part of building. That meant no music today.

I have always attended yoga classes with music, and I run music in my own classes. But I’ve never thought much about it. The music has always been mellow, not jarring, and I like background music. Today it struck me that this might have been my first yoga class without music.

I loved it! Nicole offered constant verbal cues so it’s not like there was complete silence. But the absence of that additional sound created a more meditative atmosphere. Instead of taking me a few minutes to settle into my practice, I settled in right away. Perhaps it was because my mind has been spinning lately and the previous 24 hours had felt rushed and anxious and stressful. Today I got exactly what my psyche needed and I know it’s going to serve me well through the rest of the weekend.

If music is always running in the background of your classes, even if it’s super mellow, try it once without and see what you think.

A beginner class? Sure, why not?!

I seem to find myself in Rockford, Illinois, every few weeks and I enjoy stopping by 815 Yoga! This morning I attended a class labeled “beginner flow.” Don’t let labels turn you off! I’m not a beginner — I’ve been practicing yoga on and off for about 17 years. But I chose this class today for a couple of reasons. For one, it was at 8:30 a.m. and that worked well with my schedule. The other option was a 10:15 a.m. hot yoga. I haven’t yet tried hot yoga and I didn’t think I was ready for it today! But someday…

Since 815 is not my home studio, I don’t know the teachers and their styles. So in that sense, something new is brought to my practice. And also, I generally practice and teach a vinyasa flow or Ashtanga style. So being able to settle into poses and really think about them from a beginner’s perspective offered a welcome break and shook things up, so to speak.

I quickly settled into the practice. I enjoyed the slower pace and the ability to pay close attention to my breathing, posture, and alignment. The studio was slightly warmer than I was used to, and that warmth combined with the focus helped me get into the best-feeling wheel pose I’ve had in quite a while. My spine arched back effortlessly, whereas in the past few weeks it’s been pretty tight.

My yoga teacher training at Sun Moon Yoga Studios is helping me to embrace different styles of yoga and teaching me the importance of “letting go” of routine (as well as “letting go” of other things holding me back). I embraced this morning’s practice and if you get a chance to step into a different class or different studio, please give it a try!

Visiting new yoga studios

Only in the past few months have I made it a point to find a yoga studio when I travel, if possible. When I went to Duluth in August, I took two yoga classes at JEM Yoga: one was a yoga/moonlight paddleboard, and the other was a noon vinyasa class at the studio.

On Saturday I went to 815 Yoga in Rockford, Illinois. I meant to take photos at the studio when I was done with the class, but forgot…sheesh!

I will admit I like my comfort zone. I’ve been going to Sun Moon Yoga in Mankato for 15 years and it’s such a comfortable, warm, inviting space. I sometimes think, What if a different studio doesn’t have that same vibe?

But that’s a negative way of thinking. No two yoga studios are going to have the same vibe. And if I find a studio with a totally horrible vibe, well, then I won’t go back.

Both the Duluth and Rockford studios were wonderful places to practice. I was able to settle in quickly and pay full attention to my practice. It’s also fun to see what other yoga instructors come up with for a flow. I’m always challenged when I go somewhere new!

Going to a local business while traveling is also a great way to feel part of the community. You might see a part of the town you wouldn’t normally see as you make your way to the studio. It’s also great to chat with the locals, especially if you need recommendations for places to eat/sights to see/local shopping to do, etc.

God willing, I’ll be back to Duluth and Rockford before too long and I will return to JEM Yoga and 815Yoga. And when I travel to other places this year, I will make it a point to take a class at the local yoga studio. Wouldn’t it be cool to take a yoga class in all 50 states?