On the Mat

Subbing a class is not my most favorite thing to do.
In fact, it’s my least favorite.
This is one of the reasons why:  Last week, I went back to one of my classes that I had a sub for the week prior.  On walking into class I heard this “Oh good you’re hear.”  Suffice it to say, the sub that had taught my class had not lived up to the expectation.  And while there are many reasons for this, which I heard about later and agree with the dissolutionment about, some of it comes down to one key idea:  the teacher did not live up to my expectations of what a yoga class should be. 

Being a teacher for a couple years now, I’ve learned a lot along the way.  And have much more to learn.  There are so many practices of this thing called yoga.  So many blurred boundaries.  And yet, so many “right” way to do things.  There is a swing happening at this moment, an abundance of places to practice yoga, and yet limitations on what is offered.  An abundance of people practicing yoga, an abundance of yoga teacher trainings, an abundance of yoga teachers and things are a little, let’s just say sticky.  A blog that I have recently found and get a kick out of is Recovering Yogi, which does a lot more poking and pointing at some of these problems in the current state of yoga here in the U.S.  But really, it’s for people who have gone down that path and found some not so enlightening things.  Which, are enlightening, surprisingly. 

I find myself not wanting to teach so much at the moment.  Because I’m shifting perspectives.  Coming from a “power yoga teacher training background” and not being so hip on that at the moment, I find myself in another teacher training, “Hatha” with a teacher who has taught Iyengar for over 25 years.  Why, do you say, am I doing this?  It’s my opinion, but going back to what I consider the origins of yoga in the U.S. and going back to these traditions is enabling me to become a better teacher.  Specifically, my teacher, studied directly with Indra Devi and B.K.S. Iyengar who both learned from Krishnamacharya considered one of the main lineages of yoga as we know it in the U.S.  (Don’t ask me how to pronounce Krishnamacharya anytime soon, it’s just a bad, bad, bad job coming from my mouth.)  Another of Krishnamacharya’s students is Pattabi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Yoga.  And later in life, Krishnamacharya’s son, TKV Desikachar, studied with his father, emerging with Viniyoga.  So learning from a teacher from this lineage is going back to basics and fundamentals and decades of experience.   There’s been a refinement to the original teachings, which is where Iyengar and Ashtanga emerged and then more with Viniyoga.  The evolution has brought many blessings and greater understanding of the practice.  I can trust more of what I’m being taught here because there is this vast experience and greater understanding behind it. 

So I go back to the why of my own study.  I had a very false sense of being able to teach when I first started.  It was all about cueing the postures.  “Lift the right leg as you inhale, step the right foot forward as you exhale.”  It’s great, I can do it all day long, there’s an art to it.  But knowing WHY you’re doing it, or where the foot should be besides between the hands when you bring it forward, well, those were things that I’ve learned over time.  And continue to learn.  And above all else, what the hell should I do with a student who can’t swing their foot between their hands on the first try.  What’s stopping them?  And how is it that I should help them. 

My teacher, I recommend finding one that works for you on a regular basis, explains in his very first class to students who are taking yoga with him for the first or hundredth time,  he’s there to learn from his students as well.  His words “we learn from you.”  His humble approach to the practice, to what his role as a teacher is, and his vast knowledge makes him a gem in this world.  But here’s the snag:  If I only allow myself to learn from him, I will limit myself.  I am picky about who I take classes from, but again, if I’m not willing to allow myself to be teachable, I’m pushing away all possibilities. 

Let me take you back a few years ago to when I completed my Yoga Teacher Training.  I just have a few pictures to paint for you about this particular studio setting:  chain, completed the training within 3 months, they complete trainings every three months, about 30 participants at $2000 each, you do the math, the teachers I learned from had about 3 years of yoga teacher experience from what I can gather.  Drink the punch please.  As soon as I figured out that certain members of the teacher training were then selected to become teachers themselves,  I started to see a clearer picture.  This was employee training.  That they were essentially getting the employees to pay for themselves.  Even if you were “selected” to teach, you had to put in 20 hours of free teaching, which essentially was 40 hours, coming in 1/2 hour early and staying 1/2 hour after class.  This was considered “apprenticeship.”  If other teachers took your class, often they did, they would provide you feedback based on your class.  This was considered mentorship.  And while modifications were discussed during the training, what I soon learned is that if you had an injury, limitation or just needed to modify, the class was not modified for you.  While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, imagine going into a class and having the whole class changed because of one person.  But if you have a group of people with bad alignment, you were to stop, give no more than three clear adjustments verbally, and continue on at the same pace. 
And for those of us that weren’t picked, well, we were “qualified” to teach at any gym or health club a power style of yoga.  What was common was a few things:  a few of us continued to go to these studios and then give our feedback either to the teacher or talk to each other about what we liked and didn’t like; those who started teaching elsewhere (like me) soon realized that what I was taught to teach wasn’t accessible to anyone besides females between the ages of 18-35 with no injuries or limitations.  Step into a gym environment and see who is taking those classes.  Everyone.  Every-body.  With all of their “flaws” and their “limitations.”  And who really has the limitation.  Me.  As the teacher, if this is the style that I’m choosing to teach, how can I safely and effectively guide a student through the practice.  I’m not saying that the style that I was taught to teach was bad, but learning to guide someone through the practice beyond cueing, beyond repeating the poses over and over again without giving options isn’t effective.   And this particular style of yoga, coming from ideally the practice of Ashtanga, is a powerful and dynamic practice.  But it’s not for everyone.  So can I make it for everyone?  How can I do that?    And so I started to question what it was that I was taught to teach.  And how it was presented.  And I went on to dig deeper, take classes from outside the punch bowl.  I started looking elsewhere. 

So back to my subbing.  And how I don’t like it.  And what do any of my ramblings have to do with anything.  My biggest teacher is myself, my own practice.  Navigating on my own mat.  Second, my teacher, who is familiar with my body and can guide me in my practice.  Third, other teachers but essentially those who hopefully have taught for a long time.  I have found them in yoga studios and I have found them in gym chains.  And surprisingly, if I allow myself the opportunity to take a chance on a teacher I haven’t found before, I may learn something, good or bad.  But when I walk into a room, even if it’s a room I’ve taught in before or teach regularly at another time, and it’s not my class, this is usually when I run into a former side of myself.  The one who thinks that yoga should be this way, and not another way.  If you’d like to hear that side, click on Stacia, who will help you understand what I’m talking about.  There is a large number of people in the room that don’t want to be taught any different than what the normal teacher does.  Their experience with X, Y, Z yoga makes them experienced.  I remember one student specifically say to me “Well __________ at _______ says that I should do _________.”  And me saying to her “Well that is not what we’re working on today.”  Needless to say, she never came back to my class.  And I don’t blame her.  I pushed her buttons and contradicted what her teacher said.  Never mind the fact that she had taken the pose that I had her in, converted it into what she thought was the “more advanced expression” of said pose, but really missed steps 8,9,10, etc of the original pose, missing the emphasis on alignment that was necessary for the next three postures.  Ooopssssssssss.  I’ve done it too.  Oh, then I can do this and let me do that, why is the teacher going on to something wait, uhhh. 

So when I’m stepping onto my own mat in someone else’s territory, I’m not there to reinvent the wheel.  But I also am bringing myself, what I have to offer, my limitations and my strengths.  I’m not there to imitate what so and so does, nor am I there to make it harder for you to practice because I am an insensitive and mean person and want to make you suffer.  New teachers challenge in ways that are more mental than physical, in my experience.  I’m not saying there aren’t bad teachers because there are and I definitely was one of them.  But ultimately, where I am now, is specifically using what I’m being taught by my teacher and sharing my direct experience with the pose and hopefully the benefits of the pose.  And hopefully I’m responding to what I’m seeing in the room, a room full of people mostly keeping up with the pace of the class and those that are modifying being supported by me to achieve their expression of the pose.  This is different than saying “just do what you can.”  This is specifically looking at an individual’s body, assessing what they need to do in the pose, and helping them understand what the pose is doing and what they need to be working on.  This is a skill that I need refinement on constantly.  And this is why I’m in another training with my teacher.  After 25 years of looking at human bodies, seeing where they need help, sometimes mentally, he knows a few things.  And I don’t think after 2 years of studying with him, I’m going to have that knowledge.  Maybe a thimbleful.  It’s going to take me a long time to refine.  Decades.  But I’m willing to stay the course. 

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