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10 Key Values the Best Yoga Teachers Possess

First, a shameless plug: Registration for my 2018 Teaching Trainings is live! If you want to move your practice and teaching forward, this training is the place to do it!

I’m driven and ambitious when I train teachers. I’m ridiculously passionate about yoga. And, I’m opinionated about the need for education to have clarity, consistency, cohesiveness, and practicality.

And so, I drill technique and teach alignment and philosophical details that will help teachers become better at teaching asana classes: I want them to graduate having a more detailed understanding of how the body works. I want them to know more accurate verbal cues and precise manual adjustments. I want my graduates to create sequences that follow a logical, progressive arc and educate their students. I want them to understand the philosophical container of yoga, where yoga comes from, and how to communicate the ancient wisdom of yoga to students in a modern setting.

But, if I’m being honest, I aspire to teach my advanced trainees more than that. I take it for granted that my graduates will be able teach a kick-* class. For a yoga teacher, this is just being good at your job.

And so, there are four questions that tug at me throughout each and every training I conduct:

– What are the core values and essential skills that I want graduates of my programs to embody?

– What type of teacher and professional do I want to help my graduates become?

– How are my graduates different after my programs than before my programs?

– Am I just adding to their bank of knowledge and technique, or am I imparting qualities that go beyond the ability to teach a good class?

To answer the questions above, I’ve come up with the essential values I hope to convey to my advanced training graduates. I believe these values honor the practice and teaching of yoga.

Speak Up—Not Down—To Your Students

Your students are not just in class to workout. Yes, they want to move and use their bodies. It’s undeniable that they might even want to workout and sweat. But, your students have taken their shoes off and they’re in a yoga class. This means that they also want to learn to move more skillfully, safely, effectively, and intelligently. Your students want to learn how to manage their anxieties, fears, and other stresses. They want to learn how to pause, reflect, and find happiness in the life they are living.

Treat your students as though they are teachable, sound people who are capable of learning from this tradition. Assume that they are in your class to learn about themselves, to feel embodied, and to improve the quality of their lives. So, speak up to your students, not down to them. Teach them yoga while you work them out (if that’s the type of class you teach). Students who aren’t interested in learning these dimensions of yoga will simply move on and find a different practice that meets their needs.

Be Critical Thinkers and Engaged Practitioners

I share this passage with my trainees in every setting. It’s from Chogyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. He writes:

“There is a saying in Tibetan Scriptures that ‘knowledge must be burned, hammered and beaten like pure gold.’ So, when you receive spiritual instruction from the hands of another, you do not take it uncritically, but you burn it, you hammer it, and you beat it until the bright, dignified color of gold appears.”

I remind my graduates—nearly every day—that they shouldn’t take my teaching as singular or infallible truth. I want them to be critical thinkers. I want my students to listen, test, and experiment. If what I teach my students is true and accurate, it will stand up under scrutiny. If it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, then it’s my job to reconsider and revise the teaching. I want my graduates to have the confidence to maintain this spirit.

Continue to Grow and Revise

I didn’t know everything about yoga twenty years ago when I started teaching. I don’t know everything about yoga today. In twenty years, I won’t know everything about yoga. No one—not guruji this or panditji that—knows everything there is to know about the massive scope of yoga and the human experience. We need, as a community, to embrace the reality that many teachings—from time-to-time—need to updated based on experience.

Do we get rid of the ancient teachings that have stood the test of time? No. Let’s continue to uphold and cultivate everything that stands up to the test of time. But, let’s not continue to do Triangle Pose a certain way if it’s hurting our sacrum simply because that’s the way it was taught to us. No. Let’s stay up to date. Let’s learn along the way. Let’s be open, honest, and willing to revise our teaching based on our deepening understanding of this tradition and how it affects modern practitioners.

Keep Your Teaching Real and Relevant

The vast majority of the yoga-practicing population is never going to press into Handstand. That doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate this work into your classes, especially if you’re passionate about inversions.

But, Krishnamacharya had a saying: “Ninety percent of the benefit of yoga comes from the simplest ten percent of the practice.” To me, this means that in addition to the big, challenging stuff that’s engaging and exciting and Instagram-worthy, we need to remind our students that doing foundational postures with skill and focus creates a long-term, valuable impact. Let’s continue to build content that is relevant and accessible for our students—not just show the content that is inspirational.

Develop a Point of View Without Minimizing Other Points of View

I believe that everyone has experiences and beliefs that shape their values, worldview, and point of view as a teacher. I also believe that having a point of view as a teacher is natural, normal, and necessary. I have a point of view about, well, just about everything in yoga from the rotation of the bottom arm in Triangle Pose, to the motion of the inner-border of the scapulae in Down Dog, to the components of Patanjali’s teaching that are most relevant to a modern yogi. My beliefs are substantiated by experience. But, this doesn’t mean that my point of view on any given topic is the only valid point of view.

If you take professionals from any trade, you will find that they disagree on countless particulars. If you take ten economists and show them the same data, they may each come to slightly different conclusions. I want my graduates to have the depth, discernment, and confidence to stand behind what they teach without condemning other perspectives.

Be an Advocate For Your Students

I believe that yoga teachers should always have their students’ best interests in mind. And, when appropriate, we should advocate for our student’s wellbeing by encouraging them to find support outside of the yoga tradition.

Suzuki Roshi, the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, said, “Teaching Zen is not like training dogs.” I believe the same to be true when it comes to teaching yoga. If someone may benefit from therapeutic modalities that are not part of yoga, we should advocate for them. Some students may benefit from physical therapy and orthopedic attention. Some students may benefit from various forms of psychological support. Some students will take medicine because medicine helps them be well.

We should be opening doors in students’ belief systems, not closing them. We live in a modern world with many different forms of help. Let’s embrace them, not diminish them.

Do Not Make Prescriptive Claims

I want my graduates to understand the importance of these three words: “I don’t know.”

Is yoga super good for you? Yes.
Do we want everyone to practice yoga forever and always? Yes!
Do we know why your back hurts, why your shoulder hurts, or why you’ve been having trouble getting out of bed lately? No. No, we don’t.

Yoga teachers should not put themselves in the position of making claims, performing a diagnosis, or creating prescriptive practices, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. Yoga is inherently therapeutic, but this doesn’t mean that we’re conducting therapy.

Our job is to teach students yoga that works for their body, not fix an ailment. We want to help our students be well. We want to understand how to minimize injuries through effective technique and sequencing. We want to see and understand bodies so that we can help students modify and avoid future suffering. We want to teach good, solid yoga that is relevant to our students’ needs. All of these things often produce a therapeutic effect. This is how yoga works. And, this is very different than telling someone with knee pain and dysfunction that all they need to do is strengthen their quads. We need to understand and respect this boundary.

You Are a Teacher and You’re Teaching a Subject

Yoga is a subject. It’s a body of work. It’s a living tradition. It’s a discipline. It includes anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, philosophy, educational pedagogy, sequencing, manual communication, verbal communication, content creation, and more.

Yoga teachers deal with every component of the human condition and the timeless drive toward transcending the human condition. This means that your job is not as simple as showing up for 60, 75, or 90 minutes and helping people feel better. Sure, this is part of the job. But, there’s something much bigger at play here: Yoga teachers are educators, not just facilitators of flow.

If you were teaching math, you’d want people to learn math. If you were teaching history, you’d want people to learn the themes, concepts, and experiences that different communities have undergone for various eras. If you were teaching photography, you’d want people to understand light, shadow, and composition. As yoga teachers, we’re helping students gain depth, insight, and skill in every facet of the human experience that yoga touches.

Develop a Curriculum

It’s difficult to teach if you’re not clear what you’re trying to teach. Similarly, it’s difficult to learn if you’re not sure what you’re trying to learn. This is why teachers of every single subject under the sun have curriculums. This is why teachers of preschool, kindergarten, primary school, middle school, high school, and university have curriculums. This is why I believe that graduates of my programs should be developing a curriculum. I believe that yoga teachers are accountable to their students for providing them with an education. Developing a curriculum helps clarify the learning and skill development process for our students. It also helps teachers refine and articulate their values and beliefs.

You are Part of a Community

You are not alone.

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How to Teach Yoga Transitions

First, a shameless plug: Registration for my 2018 Teaching Trainings is live! If you want to move your practice and teaching forward, this training is the place to do it!

Transitions in yoga—and life—can be choppy, unstable, and erratic. Below, you’ll find five essential concepts that make all transitions in yoga more smooth and skillful. You’ll also find three transitions to incorporate into your practice and teaching in order to refine your mindfulness in the space between your postures.

Essential Concepts for All Transitions

1. Slow Down

Slowing the movement between postures will helps you tune into the subtleties involved. In particular, you’ll observe which muscles have to engage in order to maintain your balance as you make your transitions. I encourage you to take an extra 2 or 3 breaths in your transitions on occasion—especially in the more accessible transitions like in between standing postures.

2. Pick Transitions as Your Class Theme

Focusing on transitions may change the pace of your class, which might feel challenging for students who are accustomed to a faster pace. A skillful way to get students onboard is to make it the theme of your class on occasion. Let your students know that transitions will be your theme and you’d like them to pay particular attention to the space between postures.

3. Focus On the Transfer of Weight

The key to making a skillful transition is to focus on the movement of your weight. This will help you counterbalance your body where its necessary. Essentially, you want to limit the weight of your body from moving too quickly in any one direction. Bringing your attention to your core (specifically your pelvis and lower belly) is usually the most effective way to tune into your weight as it is transitioning.

4. Take Time to Stabilize and Land

One of the challenges with transitions is that they can undermine the quality of the posture that you’re moving into. I always tell my students that they need to land on the note, not bulldoze their way through it. Each pose in a flow—or each pose within a transition—should have its own individual resonance. So, when you transition into a pose, don’t rush. Take your time and land. Stabilize and maintain the pose that you’re transitioning into.

5. Exhale

Most transitions are done on the exhalation. Remember, your muscles are usually contracting more strongly between the postures (when moving slowly) than they are in the postures. It’s hard to take a decent inhalation when your body is more tensile. You can, however, take a nice, long exhalation through the course of most transitions. Exhaling during transitions may also help you settle and focus your attention.

Transitions to Explore and Practice

Warrior II to Half Moon Pose

This is such an important set of transitions because it’s common and accessible—and, even more, it lays the foundations for transitions between all of your standing postures.

The key instruction for moving into Half Moon Pose is to place your bottom hand on the floor or block and step your back foot much closer to your front foot before taking off moving into Half Moon. Once you do this, simply lean weight forward so it is split between your bottom arm and standing leg. The key to transitioning back to Warrior to is to slow your movement down by continuing to lean the weight of your upper body into your standing leg and arm while you very slowly step your top leg back to the mat.

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Transitioning into Handstand

There are a few tips that can make the transition to Handstand more effective. First, practice the transition without trying to get all the way into Handstand. Think about the transition into Handstand as it’s own practice—it’s own set of variables to develop without the stress of trying to make it into the pose. This will free you up to learn the technique of the transition.

Second, imagine that your standing leg—the one that you’re jumping up with—is like a pogo stick. You want this leg to feel like it’s pulling straight up when you jump instead of swinging backward. The motion of pulling the leg straight up will help move your pelvis forward instead of flinging it backward.

Third, press your fingertips very firmly into the floor. You should grip the mat with your fingers in order to give you a larger base to balance on—and, because your fingertips are instrumental in keeping your balance. Yes, there are many more details involved in transitioning to Handstand, but these will get you moving in the right direction.

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Malasana to Bakasana

This transition focuses on transitioning your weight from your feet to your hands. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. Students often make the mistake of trying to lift their feet up in the posture, but the real transition here is forward not up.

From a deep squat with your hands on the floor, focus on shifting your weight from your feet forward into your hands. Instead of having your students do Bakasana only once and stay as long as possible, have them practice moving in and out of the pose 5 or 6 times in a row while focusing on the transitions.

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Essential Sequence: Winning in Warrior III

WHY THIS SEQUENCE WORKS

I spent my first two years of yoga avoiding Warrior III. Then, I spent another year avoiding it. Finally, after avoiding it for an additional 15 years, I’ve made it a mainstay of my practice. What can I say? I guess it takes me a while to warm up to things that expose my weaknesses, knock me off balance, and frustrate my ego. I have to admit, I actually like it now.

Part of the reason I avoided the pose was that I didn’t feel that I should struggle with it nearly as much as I was. The degree of difficultly that I experienced didn’t seem commensurate with the challenge of the pose. After all, standing postures like Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, arm balances like Eka Pada Galavasana, and balancing in inversions like Forearm Balance and Handstand weren’t very difficult for me. But, three seconds into Warrior III and I would topple over.

Now that I’m no longer avoiding the pose, I’ve figured out a few things that make it much more accessible and effective. Go figure, now that I’m not avoiding something, I’m actually learning about it—shocker. What incredible insights yoga teachers have, right?

Here are the things that I’m focusing on in the pose:

1) Strongly rooting down through the base of the big toe.
2) Strongly adducting both thighs toward each other like I’m squeezing a block.
3) Engaging the spinal muscles and hamstrings (of the top leg) like I’m doing Locust Pose.
4) Firmly pressing my hands together in Anjali Mudra for a few breaths to help me feel the midline of my body before reaching my arms forward.
5) Holding my breath, thinking about the future, judging myself, and assigning blame to others.

Here’s a quick sequence to help you build up to Warrior III. I’ve been enjoying this sequence quite a bit lately.

POSES 1-2

Simple, straightforward reclined Hamstring and Adductor lengthening to prepare for the upcoming demands of Warrior III.

POSES 3-4

Paripurna Navasana and Ardha Navasana pair perfectly to strengthen your core. Bringing your attention to your center early in this sequence will help you keep your attention focused on your midline when you get the wobbles in Warrior III later.

POSES 5-6

These two poses help you transition from the reclined and seated postures to the upcoming standing postures.

POSES 7-9

This is a progression of standing balances with the legs abducted and externally rotated. These postures will get you tuned in to standing balances and they’re typically easier than the upcoming standing balances.

POSES 10-12

These three postures shift the orientation of the legs and hips into the same orientation as the upcoming Warrior III.

POSES 13-15

Parsvottanasana gives you one more opportunity to prepare your hamstrings for Warrior III. Many teachers transition into Warrior III from Warrior I. I prefer transitioning into Warrior III from a high lunge. I think it makes more sense for the hips. Check it out and see what you think.

Want to practice this sequence at home? When you sign up for our newsletter we’ll send you a free printer-friendly PDF of the sequence!

AND, if you want to feel more confident and knowledgeable about your sequencing skills, check out my e-course, The Art of Yoga Sequencing. It’s great for yoga teachers and students who want to better understand how the body works and how to stretch and strengthen effectively.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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10 Creative Ways to Inspire Your Yoga Practice This Summer

When summer rolls around, yoga practice can fall by the wayside — the longer days mean we spend more time outdoors, we travel, those of us who have kids deal with changing schedules. So, to keep you inspired, Jason and I are doing a six-episode summer podcast series!

For episode 1, we offer 10 creative ways to inspire your yoga practice this summer. You can listen to the episode by clicking here. And, we took notes for you, which you can find below.

1. KEEP IT SHORT AND SWEET

Most of us are accustomed to a 60-90 minute studio practice, so it’s easy to feel like a 15-30 minute practice isn’t worth it. But Jason makes the point that doing a little bit every day can have a big impact and he uses the slightly gross but still apt metaphor of brushing your teeth. Is it better to brush your teeth for a few minutes each day? Or better to go to a dentist once a week for 90 minutes? Bottom line: Take advantage of and value short practices!

2. FOCUS ON WHAT YOU LOVE

If you have a consistent, longstanding home practice then it makes sense to work on poses that challenge you. But if you’re new to home practice, emphasize poses you love. You want to make doing yoga something you look forward to and something that’s fun, not a chore. Another Jason metaphor: If you’ve never cooked at home, would you teach yourself to cook by starting with your least favorite dishes or your most favorite?

3. BE FLEXIBLE WITH THE TIME OF DAY

There’s a longstanding recommendation to practice yoga in the morning. And for most of us, this makes sense — we start the day off feeling clear and the day doesn’t get away from us. But when your schedule changes, it’s important to be flexible and fit your practice in when you can. Jason almost exclusively practices at night when his schedule is throwing him a curveball. If he’s teaching weekends or trainings, he does light evening practice to stay connected.

4. BE FLEXIBLE WITH INTENSITY

If you typically practice in a studio, you’ll probably normalize a certain degree of physical intensity and a different intensity won’t feel as valuable. But if you want your practice to be “portable” and accessible to you when life throws your curveballs (like when you’re traveling or when you’re sick), then you have to be willing to do a moderate intensity practice from time to time. Remember that a key component that differentiates asana practice from other physical endeavors is that it’s not just about pushing through — it’s about tuning into how you’re feeling and creating an appropriate response.

5. DON’T THINK YOU HAVE TO REPLICATE A STUDIO CLASS IN YOUR HOME PRACTICE

We’ve touched on this in the previous tips, but think of it this way: The difference between going to a yoga studio and practicing yoga at home is like the difference beteween going to a Michelin-star restaurant and eating a home cooked meal. You’re not only going to eat at fancy restaurants and you wouldn’t judge a home-cooked meal on a standards of a well-trained chef.

6. TRY AN ONLINE PROGRAM

YogaGlo has a new series of online programs that are amazing (if we do say so ourselves). You can select a program that you want to do and then schedule the weekly classes into your calendar and it will email you reminders. Jason and several other teachers like Amy Ippoliti, Stephanie Snyder, Claire Missingham, and all have programs on YogaGlo that you can check out.

7. USE YOUR YOGA PRACTICE AS A COMPLEMENT TO YOUR SUMMER ACTIVITIES

Spend more time outside hiking, biking, or swimming in the summer? Then use them as a muse for your practice. Instead of working toward peak poses, do poses that balance out the hunched position of the upper back while you’re on a bike or the tightness in your quads from hiking.

8. PRINT OUT SEQUENCES FROM OUR SITE

Find inspiration around you! Here are sequences from our site that you can download and practice with:

FOUNDATIONAL SEQUENCES

Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar A)
Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar B)
30-Minute Whole Body Sequence
30-Minute Morning Sequence
Evening Wind Down
Immune Booster
Two Core Yoga Routines
Ease into Urdhva Dhanurasana
Open into Hanumanasana

SEATED POSES

Quick Hip Openers
Fold into Lotus Pose
16-Pose Sequence to Help You Progress in Compass Pose
Parivrtta Janu Sirasana

INVERSIONS

The Perfect Shoulderstand Prep
Refine Your Headstand
A Shoulder Opening Sequence to Forearm Balance

ARM BALANCES

Twist into Eka Pada Koundinyasana I
Pigeon + Chaturanga = Eka Pada Galavasana
Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose)
Bakasana (Crow Pose)
Parsva Bakasana (Side Crow)
Build Your Vasisthasana (Side Plank)

9. VALUE CONSISTENCY

The most important component of a physical or fitness regime is consistency. You truly don’t need to do big huge intense practices; you just need a consistent ongoing relationship with your body and breath. You need to come back to it time and time again.

10. TRY SOMETHING NEW!

If you’re practice is feeling stale or stuck, try a new class or a new teacher or a new studio! It can really freshen things up and give you a new perspective and rekindle your interest in the practice.

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Mastering the Art of the Well-Paced Class

Every day during my teacher trainings I give my students time to practice on their own—at their own pace. The practice period is only 15 to 20 minutes, but it gives everyone a little quiet time to integrate the work we’ve been doing as a group. And, it gives everyone the opportunity to work on whatever it is they need at the time. I’ve watched hundreds of students practice in this environment and one thing that stands out: No one goes fast. No one. I’ve never seen one person choose to move at a pace that outstrips their breath. I’ve never seen someone go so fast that they get winded. I’ve seen people choose to practice quiet, restorative poses. I’ve seen people choose ridiculously demanding poses. I’ve seen people choose everything in between. But, I’ve never seen someone move so fast that they can’t breathe deeply.

In the modern world where everything has gotten faster and faster—including most styles of contemporary yoga—how do we pace a class so that it’s physically satisfying and mentally engaging without sacrificing important details that keep yoga safe and mindful? How do we make sure that there’s still some yoga in our yoga class? As teachers, how do we trust that we don’t have to make our mark by being teaching the fastest flows in town?

These are all important questions and they’re admittedly hard to answer conclusively in a 1,000 words. To be fair, we also have to acknowledge that pacing is somewhat subjective. One student’s “fast” is going to be too slow for another student. One student’s “slow” is going to be too fast for another student. So, like other aspects of teaching, teachers have to let go of the idea that they’re going to strike a perfect pacing balance for everyone.

It’s best to think about pacing as a tool to communicate what you are teaching. If you are teaching a mellow hip-opening class, you want the pace to be slow and soothing. On the other hand, if you’re teaching an invigorating sequence of standing poses, you may opt for a strong, steady pace. In both of these scenarios, you have to consider the experience you are aiming to give your students and tailor the flow accordingly.

The following three considerations will help you pace your classes skillfully:

Pace and momentum should facilitate—not detract—from awareness

Imagine that you have just arrived in a foreign city and you’ve decided to do a walking tour. But, well, you just want to get so much done on the walking tour that you run as fast as you can from scenic point to scenic point. Kudos to you, you completed the walking tour in record time! (Wow, what an accomplishment!) But, what did you notice about the scenic points? What did you notice about the sights, scents, and sounds? Did you notice any subtlety and detail or did you just get so much done?

The whole idea of sprinting through your vacation is, well, ridiculous. So, why would you sprint through your yoga practice? Is your practice just another thing to get done in order to have a sense of accomplishment? If so, what exactly do you feel you’re accomplishing?

In general, the pace of a vinyasa practice should be in direct proportion to a student’s ability to focus on the details that are present in their body, breath, and mind. This means that sprinting through a vinyasa practice to do 400 postures is unnecessary and ineffective because very little is understood in the process. That said, doing six poses in a 90-minute class isn’t the best solution either—at least not in a vinyasa practice. Other practices work this way to great effect, but this isn’t in keeping with the heart of vinyasa yoga.

Practice observing your students as they glide from pose to pose and notice if they are moving with awareness and skill. Notice if the pace is helping them focus on their practice. If not, notice if are you lulling them to sleep or accidentally teaching a spinning class (not that there’s anything wrong with spinning). Find the middle ground that captivates your students’ attention and provides them with a strong, satisfactory experience without making them run on fumes.

Pace your class like a bell-curve

It is helpful to imagine the pace of class as a bell-curve. You start class slowly and gently pick-up the tempo until it has a strong, yet sustainable tempo. Once you have hit the apex of your class, you can begin to slow the pace and settle in. This doesn’t mean that the peak-pose or crescendo of class has to be paced intensely. In fact, you may decide to slow things considerably as you work the most difficult postures in your sequence.

The important thing to take away is that pacing transitions should not be abrupt. Instead, students should be taken from a quiet beginning, through a substantial adventure, and brought to a relaxing finish. The pacing along the way should accelerate and decelerate incrementally and in proportion to the intensity that you want to deliver in any given class.

Keep with the theme of class

As previously stated, pace is one of several tools that you have at your disposal to communicate the essence of your teaching. It’s in the same toolkit as sequencing, adjusting, demonstrating, verbalizing, and so on. This means that the pace of your class should not be taken for granted or assumed. Instead, it should be a mindfully implemented instrument of your teaching. As such, your pace should be in-tune with your sequence and the teaching points of your class. Of course, your pacing—like the other elements in your teaching toolkit—is subjective and open to exploration.

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