In conversation with my friend and assistant, Kim, I started dipping into teaching principles I've drawn on for decades. Some come from my former dance teachers. Some from high school teachers I had. Some are ideas from my yoga teachers, Roger and Kari, and some from other yoga and movement colleagues.
So here goes. A few thoughts on pedagogy and yoga that I've adapted over 23 years of teaching:
Finally, I have taken a former dance teacher's ingredients for what makes a good dance class and transformed them for my yoga classes:
I have no idea if this list of ideas about yoga and teaching is of interest to you. But I have so many recent failed blog attempts because I had to get all this out of my head.
NOTE: Related blog post on my heretical yoga thoughts can be read here:
I often talk to my classes about taking what your learn on the mat off the mat. This has layers of meaning.
1) Discovering a movement pattern that is leading to/feeding an imbalance.
If you pay attention on the mat, you just might discover habitual movement patterns that are preventing you from recovering from an injury, causing an injury, or are creating an imbalance that may in time cause an injury. This information can be used in your outside of class time. Once you know that you externally rotate one foot, you might well spot that rotation in how you walk or how you stand when you are waiting in a line. And you just might be able to make changes to your physical habits that go beyond what you do in class.
2) Discovering an approach to your practice that may be reflected in other areas of your life.
Do you push hard through pain? Do you constantly readjust your pose? Do you move gradually toward a challenging pose? Do you poo-poo "gentler" work? Do you compare yourself to others? How much do you want to bet that you do that in other aspects of your life? (I personally wouldn't bet against that if I were you.) It's simple: If you are busy watching what everyone else is doing on the mat, you are probably doing the same in other spheres of your life. If you are pushing past your physical limits on the mat, overriding pain warnings, you probably take on too much and neglect your health off the mat as well. It is worth noting your approach in class and seeing where that same approach is showing up in the other arenas.
3) Cultivating self-awareness of one kind fosters self-awareness of other kinds
As you become more honest with yourself on the mat, don't be surprised if that spills over into your entire life. I'm not saying practicing yoga/alignment/movement will solve all your problems. It won't. But becoming clear about a fear you have or a catching a limiting way of talking about yourself can give you opportunities to change what no longer serves you on and off the mat.
Changing what no longer serves you.
That's the whole point of getting on the mat, isn't it?
A few weeks back, I responded to a blog about "three exercises to do for back pain relief." There was no information about what kind of back pain would be helped by these exercises. As I read it, it was also clear that some back pain might even be aggravated by this work. So I commented saying as much.
Next thing I knew, I'd been invited to be a guest blogger. My piece was published today by Dr. Stefano Sinicropi, MD, and you can link to it here.
Every once in a while, I am brought so swiftly into the present by a moment. It can be a moment of great joy (a wedding or a birth) or great sadness (the loss of a dear friend). It can be a moment of quiet stillness (the sunrise shimmering over new snow). Or a time of celebration (when my son sets a personal best at a swim meet). But sometimes, it is as simple as a piece of wrought-iron.
Yogadate 2005, Detroit and vicinity
I am stuck in terrible traffic on the way to teach my first class at the Detroit Zen Center in Hamtramck (and yes, I spelled that right). I had really been looking forward to this addition to my schedule, but after having driven 1 mile in 20 minutes, I call the Zen Center to tell them I will not be there to start on time. Should I still come? Or should we cancel? "No, no, come. We'll wait for you."
They've told me not to worry about the time, but it is my FIRST CLASS there and I am not happy about being so late. When I finally arrive, it takes me a while to find parking, and then a while longer to figure out where to enter the grounds. A beautiful, tall wooden fence surrounds the outside of the old building and I find the gate. I am loaded down with a bag of yoga blocks, my mat, my bag, and I am still feeling pressure to somehow turn back the clock since it is now 30 minutes past when class should have begun. I set things down so I can open the gate and BAM!
The gate is framed by wrought-iron and there is a shin-high bar across the opening. I know it is shin-high because I just slammed my shin into it. Much cursing ensues, and I pick up my stuff and start moving slowly into the garden. Who knows what other traps lay in wait for me? I pay close attention as I walk a narrow brick pathway, careful not to snag something on the prickly thorns of the raspberry bushes, making sure I don't accidentally trample a flower or vine. At last, I get to the door.
My cautious walk through the garden has slowed down my racing heart. Yes, they had waited for me. One of the residents, Yasodhara (previously known as Hillary and later to become Myung Ju) with her shaved head and warm radiant smile, greets me and shows me where to put my shoes. She brings me into the beautiful hall where a roomful of buddhists sit on yoga mats. We start class. A very short class, but class nonetheless.
Afterward, I sit with Sunim, the monk who founded the Detroit Zen Center, and Yasodhara, and I retell my story about rushing to get here and then being called to task by that wrought-iron frame. "Once I hit my shin on it, I knew I had to pay attention," I said. Yasodhara laughed and said, "That's what we call it: the Pay Attention Bar."
Yogadate 2104, Minneapolis and environs
I've been rushing around trying to take care of too many people's schedules including my own. Too much schlepping, coordinating, cooking meals that I don't even eat because I cook then leave to teach. My sitting practice has waned with the cold weather and the crazy hours. I don't even have the long meditative walk with the dog because I will freeze if we're outside for more than 4 minutes.
I am heading downstairs to bring Q-tips to the lower level bathroom, and BAM! I find myself on my back several steps down from the landing where I just was. Q-tips are everywhere. My shin is banged and my elbow hurts from smacking the wrought-iron hand rail.
It's the Pay Attention Bar all over again. I have to slow down for the next several days as my aches appear (I puzzle over certain bruised areas, never knowing how I possibly hit my shin). I have to teach differently, and move more gently. And in slowing down, I not only get more accomplished, I become aware of my surroundings and am truly present for more of my day.
I would like to say I live in the moment every day. But for now, that is a goal, not a reality. The experience of slowing down and becoming more aware, well, I could certainly use more of that. I just hope that I don't have to experience bone-against-wrought-iron again anytime soon.
Maybe I can just pay attention ... without the Pay Attention Bar.
Students in yoga classes generally want to succeed. They want to try and do what is being taught. And culturally, we accept that in a group setting, we should do what the group does. But sometimes, trying to do what the group does is not in the best interest of the student or the teacher. Recently, I have discovered folks were holding poses that caused them great discomfort. This is a safety issue that frequently stems from trying to be a good student.
If you are that "good student," if you really want to please the teacher, here are a few thoughts. (Caveat: My Eischens Yoga classes often appeal to those with injury or limitations. I also encourage an informal environment in my classes. Some of the opinions presented here might not be pleasing to a teacher of another kind of class.)
Ways to Please the Teacher Before Class
Ways to Please the Teacher During Class
Ways to Please the Teacher After Class
So the next time, you are in class and you think you shouldn't be in a particular pose, stop doing it. Ask questions. Get help. Find other better ways to work. If a teacher doesn't respect you respecting your limits, find one who does. The annoyed teacher will probably be happy to not have you in class; the teacher who knows how to work with your issues will be glad to have you; and you will happily find your way to better health and self-care.
Your yoga is supposed to be YOUR yoga. So always, always remember, do as the teacher says ... except when you don't.
Today, I am a guest blogger on the MN Physical Medicine Blog. I'm very excited to know what you think, but you will have to go here to read it.
September. I love this time of year. It always feels like an opportunity to renew and reinvent myself. School starts and with it comes all the new notebooks and pens that still excite me with their promise of a fresh start.
These are quickly followed by Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur. The Jewish High Holidays include a period of 10 days of reflection on the past year. During this time, you are supposed to seek forgiveness from those you have wronged. By becoming aware of how you may have hurt another, acknowledging your part in the difficulties you may have experienced with someone, and asking their pardon, you are repenting in order that your name be inscribed in the Book of Life. And you begin a new year, intent to do better.
My yoga practice is similar, although I do not grant myself one specific period in which to look back at my previous actions. Rather, every time I am on the mat, I am met with the results of my years of dancing in a body that wasn't built to do what I asked of it. I am aware of the multitude of injuries I sustained that have limited my movement or changed it entirely. I cannot remain blind to the truth of my constitution (tight joints, short tendons, poor endurance, poor circulation, short fuse). All of my history is present in every forward fold, every Virabhadrasana, every Savasana.
I look to the repetition of practice and meditation to find peace and understanding and acceptance. You see, reinventing cannot happen without awareness of what you are carrying. Only when you see your habits, your patterns, can you begin to see which ones are still helping you and which ones no longer serve a purpose as you take your next steps. If all I do is mourn my loss of ability to move in a certain way, I am trapped in the past. And if my response is to blame all that dancing and wish I had never done it, well, that is a wish that cannot come true. And honestly, I don't wish I had never danced. Something in me needed that form of expression. Some part of me had to follow that passion and it led me to incredible adventures and an accumulation of friends and experiences that I am so lucky to call my life.
But I cannot move forward toward a more healthy, respectful treatment of my body if I hold on to memories and continue to dishonor my body. I ask its forgiveness as I learn how to move the body I have now. The missing cartilage and bone erosion in my right ankle. The inflexible spine, and tight hips. The sacrum injured during childbirth ... twice.
When driving on a road, if you come upon a lake, you do not drive into it. You leave the car, and find a boat. The car is not suddenly bad, nor is the boat a more superior mode of transportation. One is simply no longer appropriate. This is how I see my practice of learning about my body and figuring out what to use next on the path forward. I cannot blame or long for what got me to this place. I can see my past as something to set aside as I learn new ways of moving on.
The Jewish High Holidays begin this evening with Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish New Year. In this year 5774, I will keep learning on the mat about my personal challenges. But I will take these next ten days to look just as closely at my life off the mat. My interactions with the people in my world. My past behaviors that are no longer necessary in my future. I hope you can find time in your life to just sit with who you are. Honor what has brought you to this place in your life. And be willing to let go to move forward.
Roger Eischens always asked us to figure out what we couldn't feel and then we'd know where the work was. To figure out what I can't feel, I usually have to start by taking inventory of what I can feel: Where is my weight on my feet? Which muscles are engaged? And so on.
The next step, once you recognize that areas of your body aren't being stimulated, is to change the pose to start waking up what's sleeping. Changing the pose is often the hardest aspect of yoga for many students. When we're in a pose, we want to look like the rest of the class, like the teacher, like a magazine photo of somebody else doing that same pose. But if my shoulders lock up and I can't engage my arms in an overly flexible Downward Dog, maybe I need to back out of the pose to where my arms remain engaged and the shoulders don't lock.
And now, ego gets involved. We really want to do what every one else is doing. But the point of yoga is to practice with integrity, using our own imperfect bodies as the medium toward finding balance. Teachers will tell you to listen to yourself, but no one wants to go the wall to have the stability they need to do a more grounded tree pose, not if the rest of the class is standing and balancing in the middle of their mats. I watch students struggle to bend deeper in a fold, even as they have lost all extension of the spine and later tell me their back hurts. Doing what serves your body can be humbling, and humility is not what many people are looking for when they approach the mat.
This idea of looking at yourself closely and critically, and then making the changes you need to make is one of those on-the-mat/off-the-mat yoga teachings. Recently a friend asked me (apropos of my teaching) what I would do if I had five bazillion dollars at my fingertips. I didn't have an answer for her which surprised me. The next day, I heard myself say to a class "Figure out what you can't feel, and you know where the work is." I made what at first seemed like a strange connection to my friend's question. I couldn't answer my friend because I hadn't given that question any thought. I couldn't feel for an answer because I had none. And THAT, dear reader, is where my work is.
I've spent the past two and a half years just trying to create anything resembling a teaching career after uprooting myself (and family) to a new state. Struggling to make ends meet, I took on other work. My husband had a second job. The kids went without most extras, and I was grateful for in-laws who took them school supply shopping or I don't know how we'd have provided that either. Now, with my husband in a better job (no longer jobs), and with my teaching finally picking up to the point that I finally quit my barista job, we have achieved the goal of functioning economically. Not great, but not scrambling from paycheck to paycheck. And I realize I don't have idea one about what the next step will be for my teaching.
But since last Wednesday, I'm bringing it into focus and I know a few things:
• More classes for not much more money isn't the ticket.
• Workshops (local and out-of-state) require serious planning and research, and I now have time to devote to that.
• Teaching teachers is something about which I'm passionate.
• I am way behind the learning curve in using technology to expand my reach.
It is time to change the pose, and I can't approach it like anyone else. I'm not anyone else and I come at this from where I am today, not from where my mentor is, nor where my friends are. It is humbling to recognize where I've fallen behind, where I'm limited. But it gives me direction.
So, Suzanne, if you asked me that today, my answer is still vague, but I know that one thing I'd do with that five bazillion dollars is hire professionals, purchase equipment (laptop with a webcam, lighting), rent studio space or create it at home, all with the purpose of using the internet to teach and reach a wider audience. Another is to commit more resources to my workshops. And lastly, there are numerous avenues where I could be teaching teachers here in MN that I have yet to explore, and I hope to participate in some of them very soon.
It's a start. And a good one.
Step your feet wide and parallel. Turn your front foot out 90º. Turn the back heel out just slightly. On an exhale, bend the knee bringing it directly over the front ankle. As you hold this pose, ask yourself this: What muscles are working?
If I told you that all of your legs muscles and your lower belly should be firm, and your upper body should feel light and easy, is this true for you?
Standing poses such as Virabadrasana II are intended to wake up the legs. Frequently, people in my classes are surprised to find they aren't using their leg muscles much at all. And once those muscles wake up, the next surprise is that they can't hold the pose as long as they usually do. Most surprisingly, even though the legs get tired while in the pose, is the feeling of energy flowing through the legs when the pose is over. Effort in the pose leads to effortlessness afterwards.
The kinds of feedback given in this pose range from shaping the feet, to aligning the front knee, to getting the legs to work differently above and below the joints, to finding a way to create ease and openness in the chest and collar bones, to engaging the abdominals. Much of this work is very hard to describe. Verbal and written instructions often confuse the brain and get people even more stuck in their heads. So we work with hands and blocks, using resistance to wake up the body and get out of the brain. Touch and resistance are elemental in understanding the poses in Eischens Yoga (See "Don't Try This at Home" from May 2013).
One day, I hope to have photos that can display this kind of feedback. For now, it is the hands-on teaching in workshops and classes that demonstrate most clearly how to work in this pose.
See you in class?
Whenever I get the chance, I love to substitute teach a yoga class. Seeing as how no one else is teaching Eischens Yoga in the Twin Cities, I sub for classes that are normally much different from mine. I wouldn't presume to sub for an Ashtanga or Vinyasa class because, having once taught Ashtanga, those students are there for something that is very far from what an Eischens Yoga class is. But a class listed as Open or Hatha or Beginners can hold a variety of teachings and I consider it fair game to bring my practice to the class. This is usually a person's first introduction to Eischens Yoga and I take full advantage.
The first shocker is the use of the block between the feet. In an EY class, that block serves several purposes. One purpose is to bring the feet into parallel position in Tadasana (mountain Pose), lining up the inside edge of the foot against the long edges of the block. Many teachers use the outer edge of the foot to find parallel. Using a block to line up the inner foot can be disconcerting if you're accustomed to slightly turned-in footing. I can't say my way is right or the other way is wrong. It just is the way of Eischens Yoga to use the inner edge. (I do find some people have taken that turned-in footing too far and occasionally a person's knees might be pointing inward from too much inward rotation. A block can be a way to lessen that extreme positioning of "parallel.") Having a block between the feet frees the student from having to look down to check their feet. You can feel the block at your heels and toes. The block is parallel. The feet are therefore parallel.
I prefer the 4" x 6" x 9" wide blocks that are becoming more common these days. Given that the femurs (thigh bones) insert into the pelvis around 4 to 6 inches apart, placing the block on either its 4- or 6-inch side between the feet will give most people a sense of their legs being stable underneath their torso. The leg bones will stack up more parallel than if the feet were brought together. Such a narrow footing, with feet touching, creates a Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with legs that taper to a small point of balance. Not only does that create less ease for a beginner who is just learning yoga, but it is a nearly impossible stance for someone whose knees touch and feet are still apart. (We called that knock-kneed when I was growing up, but that has negative connotations and I prefer to say that the legs bow in.)
So we have a block between the feet in Tadasana. It teaches parallel footing and aligns the legs into two parallel towers of bones. But wait! There's more! What about the student who suddenly discovers their feet can't come in to the block because their ankles are collapsed in? Or one who asks if the ankles are supposed to touch the block but their legs bow out and the ankles aren't anywhere near the block? Congratulations! Those students have just learned about imbalance in their own body. That right there is worth the price of admission. "Why?" you ask. It is possible the students never knew that about their feet and ankles until this moment of interaction with the block. Now they have valuable knowledge about a part of their anatomy. Even if they already knew this imbalance to be true, the block will serve as a tactile reminder as Tadasana is returned to again and again within the class. The student can observe if the relationship between feet, ankles and block changes after any part of the practice. Do certain poses make the ankles collapse more? Do other poses bring lift into the joint, allowing the feet to approach the block? Are the ankles coming closer to the block in the case of the student whose shins bow out? All this learning from one prop in one pose.
As we move through the practice, some students have trouble accepting that we are going to use the block in any pose besides Tadasana. During Uttanasana (Forward Fold), folks leave the block in place, but then we come to Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog) and suddenly the feet step into a wider stance. Someone somewhere may have told them to do that, but I've never understood that instruction (except in the case of pregnant women who need belly room). In part, DWDog is a variation of that Forward Fold they were just in. They didn't need to widen the feet then, so why now? I ask the class to try bringing their feet back to block-width. Adductors (inner thigh muscles) begin to fire. And then I mention glancing back at their feet for a moment. Are the inner edges of the feet parallel? What if you bring them to parallel? Suddenly, as the class adjusts their heels back in line with their toes, everyone finds they haven't been using the outer hamstrings until just this moment of bringing the feet parallel. And yet, they've been told this pose uses the entire leg. The too-wide stance and the rotation in the legs have unintentionally undermined the use of the muscles that are supposed to be working. The block becomes a feedback loop. Find the block, discover muscles that have been neglected.
When it comes to lying down on the stomach (Prone Mountain) or kneeling (Table, Camel), students are convinced the block is no longer applicable. They promptly remove it en route to the pose. Apparently, it doesn't occur to most folks that the feet need to remain parallel here, too. It's tricky; you can't see your feet behind you in these poses. But most of us sickle the toes in, drop the ankles out (or some variation of that) when the tops of the feet are on the ground. And we don't know we're doing it. Why should that sickling matter? Imagine the feet curving inward at the toes and ankles rolling out to the sides. Now picture it from an aerial view and see what effect that has on just the lower leg. The shin bones are no longer parallel to each other. The outer muscles along the shins are getting pulled longer, the inner muscles are shortening, and the calf muscles are in disuse. Put a block between the feet (we usually turn it to 6" wide for the entire group), and bring the inside edges of the feet to the block. Funny how far your feet moved to come to parallel. That is how out of alignment your lower legs probably were. (I've seen it. I've also done it. I know.) Now keep your feet hugging that block in Bhujangasana (cobra), Salabhasana (locust), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward facing dog). Suddenly your legs are part of the pose. The legs are there to support the spine, but if they are disengaged from the work, the arms will take over; the spine may collapse; the lower back get pinched. Just because you're lying down, don't think the legs aren't supposed to do anything. Finding the block will help you begin to engage your legs.
Supine poses are another place to help keep the feet and legs aligned with the use of a block. While lying on the back, the feet and legs often externally rotate, rolling onto the outer edge of the heel. Placing a block between the feet here is similar to using it in Tadasana. You can feel when the feet are parallel when you can feel the block between your feet. Maintaining that connection of foot to block on the supporting leg when coming into poses that are one-legged (Supta Padagustasana, for example) reduces the possibility of rotation in the supporting leg. As in Adho Muka Svanasana, bringing the feet to parallel will also begin to engage the legs. Just because you are lying down doesn't mean the legs stop working.
Another place to use blocks while supine is in Setu Bandhasana (bridge pose). When setting up, place one block between the feet to keep them parallel, and another between the thighs. (I usually have students place the block 6" wide at the feet and 4" wide at the thighs. Sometimes I will suggest a 3" block if the knees are still wider than the ankles.) Most students lift into this pose using the inner thighs. The knees splay out to the sides, taking the feet out with them. Not only does this deprive the outer thigh muscles of their proper work and continue the strength imbalance between inner and outer thigh, it increases pressure on the lower back at the sacrum. Using blocks as described, rotations in the legs and feet become noticeable. Especially if that thigh block drops. By hugging the thighs to the block between them, you will start to use all the leg muscles in a more balanced manner, and ease tension in the lower back.
There are many more uses for the block in an Eischens Yoga class, most of which are not introductory and require a greater knowledge of the Transformational Work we do. But I hope this primer gives you ideas about how to begin playing with this simple tool. Many teachers and students use blocks underneath the hands in certain poses, or for supporting the pelvis while seated or kneeling. But when you begin to use them as a source of feedback about how your body functions in your yoga, blocks can become another teacher.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.