Staying True to You

Finding Your Own Truth

I desire to emulate the teachers who've had the most impact on me, and in turn offer my own experiences to my students in the yoga classroom. But occasionally I find myself in a yoga teacher struggle. Should I emphasize (perhaps even require?) strict + precise alignment in myself and my students at all times, or should I allow for them to explore sensing/feeling/joy of movement/freedom in their bodies? I know I have an obligation to keep people safe, which to my mind means aligning well. But is it restricting for the feeling body or the subtle body to tinker with alignment non-stop, while holding a pose? 

Everyone's body is a little bit different. Even if I have a similar body shape/type/medical history/athletic history/injury history as someone, their experience is always going to be a bit different from mine. And I can only teach from my own understanding and knowledge of how a pose feels in my body + mind + breath. I'm sure you all know that one teacher who just loves backbending or forward-folding and you always seem to be doing it in their classes? They have a felt experience which happens to be their favorite, and also which they are excited to share with you. But just because it feels a certain way to them, doesn't mean that you'll have the same experience. I think it's fascinating that a single class can land differently on all 15 people in the room. 

One way that I try to keep it fresh and applicable to everyone is to teach a different direction every week. In my new workbook, I outline the "planes of the body" or five ways that the body can move. They include side-bending, forward-folding, backbending, twisting + core engagement.  One benefit to working in a new plane each week is that it encourages me as well as my students to be comfortable with all the ways of moving. Full range of motion in the spine is a worthy ideal, achievable through working with all the ways of moving. There are seemingly endless possibilities of exploration within each plane. For example, forward-bending can focus on the feet, ankles, calves, hamstrings, hips, spine and neck. Within forward folds I can work with straight legs, bent knees, balancing, inversions, arm balances, seated forward folds, supine poses, and standing poses. See? Limitless possibilities. 

an excerpt from Sequencing + Stick Figures, The 5 Planes of the Body

an excerpt from Sequencing + Stick Figures, The 5 Planes of the Body

Teaching Alignment Yoga

From the beginning of my own yoga experience, the principles of alignment-based yoga have always resonated with me. To me, refining your pose to create optimal structure for the bones/muscles/connective tissue is a no-brainer. Why shouldn't we want to make our poses more integrated, more expansive?

To keep alignment in mind, I always encourage the use of props. Some people think that props are just a crutch and only for people who can’t work in the full expression of the pose. I call bullshit on that. For me, props encourage deeper integration, strength building, integrity in the spine, and safety in asanas.

Let’s consider a shoulderstand (sarvangasana) and its need for props. In the full expression of shoulderstand, one stands on their shoulder blades with shoulders deeply tucked under. The hips stack directly above the shoulders and the chin draws in toward the chest (jalandara bandha). For many people, this extremely beneficial posture is just not accessible without props. Common misalignments are too much pressure on the head/neck, splaying elbows, pikeing at the hips, and sagging in the upper torso/spine.

How can props help?

To keep weight out of the head/neck and the neck safely in flexion, I encourage at least 2 if not 3 blankets stacked under the shoulder blades. This allows for maintenance of the cervical curve and the weight to stay primarily in the support of the upper-body skeleton. It takes a boatload of strength to get the hips over the heart in the position, so using a block as a “launchpad” can help some people by creating a sense of lift. This way they are less likely to “fling” themselves into the pose, sending pressure into the neck. The shoulders have a difficult time staying tucked under, so belting the elbows encourages that a shoulder-width distance is maintained. With the shoulders safely held in place, it is also easier to keep the weight balanced and to open up through the frontal hips. Other options for safe support are to place a chair under the sacrum and also to put the feet on the wall rather than trying to extend fully. None of these props diminish the integrity of the pose, they simply improve one’s capacity to hold the pose longer and with greater emphasis on safe alignment. 

how can props help your alignment?

how can props help your alignment?

Accepting Your Truth

So, while I can understand the potential for joy in free movement and dancerly-style yoga, what feels most true to me is to stay the course. My teaching style is heavily based in prop-usage, clear and concise cueing of body alignment, and progression to a peak pose for a reason. It's what feels the truest to me. I know that it won't land on everyone, I may not be the right teacher for you. But if you're looking to keep things sharp, safe + aligned, I just might be your gal. 

Yoga in Action: abhyasa, diligent practice

Daily practice is challenging. Especially if you aren't comfortable with a home practice, have a long commute to and from work, have a regular work-week, have children, etc. Carving out the time to get on the mat and get on the cushion may not fall high on the list of priorities. I feel really grateful to have established my yoga practice at a time when I didn't have a lot of responsibilities and I could make yoga and meditation a daily priority. It just stuck and now it's in there for keeps. 

Wild Thing. Practice, practice and all is coming.

Wild Thing. Practice, practice and all is coming.

The good thing about coming to practice regularly is that you end up practicing through the ups and downs of life. When you are rooted in a regular routine of morning meditation or evening asana you can't help but do it even when things are really bad, or when things are really good. When I think back over the past decade of my practice, I think of practicing through break-ups, through moves, practicing on vacation, making it to the mat in India, practicing through health issues. And a great thing about the versatility of a yoga practice is that you can always practice something, no matter your state of mind, state of body.

Some days I seriously don't feel like it. And not always, but sometimes, those are the most fruitful days of my practice. 

Now I know that some of you are probably thinking that I obviously practice every day because yoga is my job and that's what I do and so I have to. But it isn't that simple. I think about my personal practice, my personal spiritual quest as somewhat separate from my teaching. I incorporate a lot of my findings into my classes for sure and my training is usually translated right into my teaching. But, my time on my mat and my morning meditation is mine. It's work that I do for me, it's work that I do to actualize my potential, it's work that I do to fulfill my dharma. Being anchored in regular practice is the key for me to living in the middle ground.

In the Yoga Sutras the sanskrit term for diligent, continuous practice is abhyasa. (The following translations and explanations are taken or adapted from Nicolai Bachmann's The Yoga Sutras. It's a great resource with a workbook, flashcards and several cds explaining the philosophical concepts. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of yoga philosophy)

There are several sutras which explore the concept of abhyasa

The most commonly cited is sutra 1.12:

abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah
The stilling of the vrtti-s (mind-chatter) is due to diligent practice and vairagya or unattached awareness. 

Sutra 1.13 goes on to further explain abhyasa:

tatra sthitau yatno 'bhyasah
Diligent practice is the effort put forth to maintain a point of focus. 
Ganesh, rooted in practice as the lord of the root chakra.

Ganesh, rooted in practice as the lord of the root chakra.

Nicholai goes on to list the qualities of a yoga practice that represent abhyasa. They are effort of focusing on a point, over a long period of time, uninterrupted, with sincerity and firmly grounded. The following sutra 1.14 suggests that abhyasa becomes firmly established when pursued with eagerness, sincerity and continuity for a long time. 

Whether it's good news or bad news, there is opportunity to practice yoga all day every day, even when you're not on the mat. The work of the yamas and niyamas is never ending and can be put into action with every interaction with another person, in your daily routine and each time you find yourself aware of your thoughts. 

Mr. Iyengar (R.I.P.) translates abhyasa as practice and about the everyday work of yoga he says:

"I have said that the cure for our inherent flaws lies in sustained practice of the eight petals of yoga (here, understood as the eight limbs). Knowledge of yoga is no substitute for practice. Since the difficulties lie within ourselves, so do the solutions." —Light on Life (pg 94)

And so, we must practice. The more often we confront our difficulties, the more likely we can create solutions to them. If you find yourself struggling to commit to regularity on the mat or the meditation cushion, what can you do to encourage yourself to get there? How can you make greater lasting changes by incorporating your yoga work with regularity?