Monday, December 6, 2010

Yoga teachers, teach!

A friend posted this article from Susan Piver, on the subject of yoga classes nowadays, and how they can be lacking in instruction.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Teaching and Shadow Yoga

I am sometimes asked by teachers whether they can integrate some of the movements from the Shadow Yoga practice into their classes. The short answer is: it’s not a good idea. Here is a longer answer.

Yoga practice is systematic: each movement has a particular reason for why it is practiced, and where it appears in the course of the practice. This is true not only for each movement, but for each gesture and transition from movement to movement. The Shadow (Hatha) Yoga practice is like a combination lock; one thing follows the next, and the practice is effective because of the efficiency, specific sequences, and rhythm. It has been brought forth with consideration of the vayus, and nadi systems of the subtle anatomy. The understanding of all this can only come from personal experience supplemented by guidance from an experienced teacher. This is true of all useful yoga practices, but not always true in the modern world of popular yoga.

There aren’t very many Shadow Yoga teachers because the school’s founder, Zhander Remete, knows and has guided everyone who teaches it. This is to ensure things don’t go wrong through misunderstanding or confusion. Traditionally, yoga has been taught directly from the teacher to the student. Zhander offered guidance to those of his students who were inclined to teach, but his "program"-such as it is-has been limited to few people, maybe 40 students world-wide over the past 6 years.

Nowadays, there are many one-week or one-month, or 500-hour teacher trainings. In this case, there may be little relationship between the teacher and the student, and perhaps no recourse for the student to have a guide and ask questions after this brief program is over. Having completed this or that program of training, students are automatically given a certificate of completion. Invariably some unprepared teachers hang out their sign and unsuspecting students put their trust in them. The teacher's pride in having to be the teacher and not make mistakes can lead them to hide their ignorance and inadvertently mislead students.

Many young teachers are aware that they need further guidance and do continue their studies, however it is also essential that we eradicate our own unfounded assumptions and unclear ideas, and teach only what we understand at any given moment, and what is practical and helpful for our students. As “teachers” we can also take ourselves too seriously, causing us to becoming egotistical or inflated. This will create a barrier to our own learning. Rather than becoming attached to the idea that "I am a yoga teacher" or even "I am a yoga practitioner" (or any other set idea), an open mind includes the possibility that we've taken a turn in the wrong direction, and allows us to be free. It is through practice and honest observation of ourselves that we may come to this point by seeing clearly who we are and where we are.

I had taken courses from Zhander and Emma Balnaves for a couple of years before I began a more intensive course of study with them, traveling once or twice per year to study with them for 3 to 6 week periods. Out of the group of 25 international students I began this program with, only 9 were accepted into the 'teachers course" at the end of three years. This is because Zhander is more concerned with the state and progress of individuals than churning out 'teachers' who are unprepared. This shows great compassion, since it will prevent the young teacher from getting into more than they can handle, and will prevent the confusion and injury of the innocent people who would come to study with them.

Zhander brings a great deal of energy and attention to his teaching, and to those students he works with over the course of many years. From him I have learned that slowly through practice we reveal a mirror in which we can see ourselves; the way each of us approaches things and thinks and behaves. This allows each person to remain themselves, see who they are, how to respond accordingly, rather than following blindly along and mimicking what our teacher does. Likewise the teacher and student must have some trust and understanding between them. As Zhander has often said, if there is not trust or connection, it doesn't matter how good the teacher is, or how much you try: without a connection, the student won't get much.

As all of us who teach yoga know, it takes greater energy to care and engage with each student and correct things that are not right, than let the whole class glide by. Likewise, sometimes students are happier in class to not be corrected. I have had the experience while teaching of feeling tired, seeing something that is not quite right, and thinking "I could just let that slide." However, it is the responsibility of the teacher to understand a few things, and put forth diligent effort to focus and guide the student. As far as the student goes, it is their responsibility to pay attention, put forth diligent effort, and be receptive. I know from being a student that in the long run it is far more valuable to be corrected and helped even when it is hard work or painful at the time.

It is one thing to understand these concepts, and another to experience them and know them to be true through clear perception and testing them. This is true for all of yoga practice, and is the reason it takes time, patience, and practice to integrate and understand it. Until there is understanding, you must trust that it is not fruitful to take some of the practice out of context and mix it in with something else. The practice bears fruit when worked privately, on it's own, without a lot of fanfare. I was already teaching yoga when I met Zhander Remete, and was arrogant, young, and strong. I didn’t really understand what he was saying when he said "Less is More," and "Practice this for a few years and then we'll see." But I did recognize that he was knowledgeable, was not personally invested in what I did or didn't do, and cared deeply about the practice. So with trust in him I continued to teach what I knew at the time, while practicing and reassessing things in my own practice.

With yoga practice it is a mistake to rush anything, or teach anything you do not understand. Sometimes at first glance we believe we understand something, and it reveals itself later to be completely different. Sometimes practice shows us things about ourselves that we feel in the moment like we would rather not ever see, let alone allow anyone else to see. It is valuable to put your trust in a teacher and not teach or speak about something new, even if your ego suggests that you want to show off, or if your source of income seems to require you to entertain and inspire your students with new tricks. Taking time for ourselves to grow and understand will serve us in the long run. If we are patient, and allow knowledge to take root in us, it will grow and flower and give fruit with time. If we rush, we force the flower to bloom before it is time, and are fooling ourselves and left with nothing.

"In the mid-seventeenth century, Miyamoto Musashi, arguably the greatest martial artist in the history of Japan, wrote:

When you look at the world, the various arts have been tailored to be items for sale. Likewise, a person thinks of himself as something to be sold, and even the implements of these Ways are proferred as merchandise. This mentality divides the flower and the fruit into two and makes much less of the fruit than the flower. In this Way of the Martial Arts especially, form is made into ornament, the flower is forced into bloom, and the technique is made into display: one talks of this dojo or that dojo, teaching this Way or that Way, in an attempt to gain some benefit."

(Musashi quoted from The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts, Issai Chosanshi, translated by William Scott Wilson)

Although written centuries ago, one can see the similarity to yoga today, when the practice is made into a display, and one school or another school proclaims itself to be the best. As young teachers strive to make an income or distinguish themselves, they grasp at things they don't understand, and promote themselves as brands or items for sale, before they've integrated much wisdom.

Requirements for success in teaching, then, include: a connection with one’s own teacher, clear understanding of what is being taught and what you are teaching, and students who are open and willing to work on what is given. Beyond that, our fate, our natures, and the events of life may or may not provide us the space and opportunities to teach, so, again, it is wise to practice detachment from being this or that.

The suggestion that this practice should not be taught by those not trained in the Shadow Yoga School doesn't come from greed, arrogance, or pride. It comes from a respect for the practice and a sincere wish that it be conveyed in a safe, helpful and correct way. This would be to support individuals to evolve and adapt, without injury, misperception, confusion or fear.

I am grateful for the investment Zhander Remete has made in teaching, as well as the immense amount of work put into the Shadow Yoga practice, which he assimilated and put forth after decades of practice and investigation. It is a valuable contribution, and one that deserves respect and care in its transmission through others.

Please do not reproduce this article without permission; intellectual property of Lita Batho, August 2010

Thursday, April 1, 2010

There's nothing more exhausting than having an enemy.

It's April, the trees are blossoming, and this can lead to love and all sorts of complications. I think it's time to revisit Sutra 1.33: the four brahmaviharas.

Although one’s yoga practice is a personal and individual matter, yoga is not a practice for only the ascetic removed from social connections. In fact, as you have surely experienced, it is through interaction with others that our serenity of mind is put to the test.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, before any mention of the eight limbs (which include breath control, yoga postures, etc), Patanjali, in Sutra 1.33 suggests four steps to create a path toward one pointed, untroubled clarity of mind.

  1. cultivate friendliness and goodwill towards happy, friendly people
  2. cultivate compassion towards unhappy people
  3. cultivate delight towards virtuous people
  4. have compassion toward those who are not virtuous and are causing suffering

These four attitudes are called the four Brahmaviharas.

The first starts with being friendly towards those who are already our friends. Easy enough. However, this also acknowledges that we sometimes feel jealous of those who are happy or receive success. Instead, we might cultivate admiration and joy at the success of others.

The second of these suggests we not only develop compassion for those people who are not happy, but refrain from judgment, or from feeling superior because they are less fortunate or successful than we are. For instance, the misfortune of another might just as easily be ours, so instead of feeling superior, or grateful that we have dodged the bullet, reflect upon how easily we could be the person who is unhappy and suffering.

The third brahmavihara is to delight in those who are virtuous. We can rejoice that such people exist and emulate them. Keeping company with people you admire and respect can elevate your own behavior and outlook.

Lastly, and possibly the most difficult, is to have compassion towards people who are not virtuous, including those who have hurt you. A common response to feeling wronged, hurt, or mistreated is to harbor ill will, attempt to lift ourselves up by broadcasting the story of our mistreatment, to dwell upon the shortcomings of the person who has done us wrong, and consider them our enemy, or at least a bad person.

Patanjali here suggests that while it may be a stretch to actually Love our enemies, we can develop tolerance towards them. As Marshall Govindam says, “ Do not judge others. Nor should we disregard those who are suffering, but love them as well. Judging others only reinforces in our own minds the qualities that we are condemning. We generally condemn in others what we harbor in ourselves. The world is within us. To change the world, we change our thoughts. Overlook the lapses of others; do not dwell on their weaknesses. By dwelling on their weaknesses we transmit thoughts to them, which only reinforce their weaknesses."

Or, as Donna Farhi says in her book, Bringing Yoga to Life, The last brahmavihara, practicing impartiality or detachment toward those who have harmed us, is the black belt of all the brahmavihara. The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and to also love our enemies. GK Chesterson once famously added, “probably because they are generally the same people.” If we analyze the content of most of our meditative excursions, we may find them filled with dramatic reruns of arguments, standoffs, and criticisms of our perceived enemies. As the old saying goes, there is nothing more time consuming than having an enemy. We might notice a thorny resistance to changing our point of view because it is so satisfying to be right. Or we play the victim by showing our scars as proof of how badly we’ve been treated. Practicing the fourth bramavihara means we don’t have to hold on to the story and harbor ill-will toward another. By expounding upon the behavior of others, we fortify our ill will and encase ourselves in bitterness.

We can look at how we inflict suffering on ourselves and how we manufacture our own torment by failing to detach from things that we ultimately cannot change in another. Who is suffering when we hold on to these resentments and judgments? We are suffering ourselves. ….we all have it within us to behave in atrocious ways, given unfortunate circumstances. Without condoning the actions of others, by consciously recognizing the same potential in ourselves, and the same qualities, we can develop tolerance, and compassion towards even those who injure us.

Through practicing goodwill, equanimity, tolerance, and delight, we can break the habits of jealousy, judgment, resentment, and bitterness, which ultimately only sap our own energy, poison our happiness, and further disturb those around us.

By cultivating these four qualities, the mind becomes purified, and one-pointed serenity results.

Sutra 1.33 maitri karuna mudita upekshanam sukha duhka punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam

• maitri = friendliness, pleasantness, lovingness

• karuna = compassion, mercy

• mudita = gladness, goodwill

• upekshanam = acceptance, equanimity, indifference, disregard, neutrality

• sukha = happy, comfortable, joyous

• duhka = pain, misery, suffering, sorrow

• punya = virtuous, meritorious, benevolent

• apunya = non-virtuous, vice, bad, wicked, evil, bad, demerit, non-meritorious,

• vishayanam = regarding those subjects, in relation to those objects

• bhavanatah = by cultivating habits, by constant reflection, developing attitude,

cultivating, impressing on oneself

• chitta = mind field, consciousness

• prasadanam = purified, clear, serene, pleasant, pacified, undisturbed, peaceful,


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Your life is wherever you place your attention.

The study linked to the title of this post assesses the way people of different ages use the internet. Basically, a lot.

It might be said that the internet allows us to tap into a cosmic consciousness, fueled and supported by all of us, albeit an electronically created one. I have heard that some pioneers of internet technology see it as a dream come true, if we could all leave our bodies behind, and somehow upload our consciousness into the ether. Doesn't this actually happen when we are, at times, absorbed in using the internet?

Yoga practice acknowledges that our body and breath are our vehicle to stay alive, and engage in this project of life. The apparent natural and built world around us is called Prakriti in yoga philosophy. Although in ordinary life we are occupied by day to day concerns and activities, through yoga practice we may get glimpses--or ultimately an unbroken awareness of-- the basis that underlies this changeable and fluctuating world in which we live, Purusha.

The internet is a world within that world of Prakriti. As the manifest world around us draws our attention from the source that underlies it all, the internet also draws our attention even further out, into a world within a world.

Consequently, the effect may be that excessive absorption in the external serves to deplete our vitality and our sense of center. Of course we would feel less grounded, if we spend a lot of time absorbed in the ether! Considering that the components of the internet necessarily seek to draw our attention for their own survival (who cares about a website that no one visits), they are most often driven to a certain extent by marketing, capitalism, and a desire for power, in the form of attention, prosperity, and gain.

Yoga practice seeks to reduce our complete occupation with the most apparent, physical world, by reducing greed related activity and impulses. Through moderation in all thing, including yoga practice but also eating, socializing, exercising, and whatever else we need and feel compelled to do, we can grasp the earthly world a bit more loosely, leaving room for awareness of other aspects of ourselves.

So while the internet is now essential to modern life, (and so convenient!) it's something to keep in mind: how much are you being drawn off center, or being absorbed in it, rather than feeling your own life experience and spending time being absorbed in that?

Like running: everything in moderation.

Running barefoot teaches you how to run.

Click the title above for an article on a study of how wearing cushioned running shoes allows people to land on their feet in various ways that they would be less likely to do if they were barefoot; in particular, landing on the heel. Note that running injuries have not decreased, despite continuous innovation in footwear.

A person used to running in shoes, though, is habituated to landing heel-first, so if you try running barefoot, be gradual! (and actually, I don't recommend running, in general)...
But I know some of you do it!

More pertinent to yoga practice, we have experienced that working barefoot gives you much more feedback and sensitivity to the structure of your stance and body.
Going barefoot when possible, such as inside your house, and when weather permits outdoors, also help to keep the feet strong and support the body; and you may find it energizing to put your feet on the earth, beach or a smooth path, when you have a chance. Reconnect to the earth, and your feet.