What Better Time is There to Practice?

What would happen if you gave yourself this gift of stillness? What would happen if you let the world take care of itself while you take care of yourself for these few, brief moments?

It’s out of character for me to ask questions during those last ten minutes of class, when we assume our final pose for the day, savasana, and prepare for guided relaxation. But at the end of a recent class, and even though my guided relaxation style leans more toward a body-scan sort of script, that’s what I did. I was hoping the questions might open everyone’s heart toward the idea of it being all right to rest without judgement of what’s happening in the body or with the breath.

Some might disagree but I’ve always believed that those final moments in our asana practice are the most important and the most difficult. We are asking ourselves to balance stillness with presence. We are letting go of the expectations we place upon ourselves. We are doing our best to not think about what we’re having for lunch.

But when we feel agitated and when we know we have a long list of projects waiting for us after that final namaste’, assuming savasana and resting in present-moment stillness is challenging. Yet what better time is there to practice? 

When we are in a brick and mortar studio the idea of a practice feels somehow more available. There are few distractions and the quiet, intentional atmosphere of the studio offers a focus not always available to us when we are rolling our mat out on the living room floor and sharing a virtual class with fifteen others. And while we count the dust bunnies under the bookcase from downward dog and find cobwebs between the paddles of the ceiling fan our mind wanders and our ability to hold our attention on the sensations in our body and the movement of our breath wavers. 

And so I ask again: what better time is there to remain present in and with our practice?

By the way, I understand this challenge because it’s my challenge, too.

There’s a level of loneliness to the online class that doesn’t exist when we’re together in a studio. That’s why I believe it is important to treat our virtual yoga space with the same reverence that we treat the studio yoga space. To remember that we are sharing our practice with others and that while we apart physically we are united energetically.

What would that take to make that shift? 


Holding Space for Others in a Virtual Yoga World

When we made the shift from in-person to online yoga classes in 2020, our hearts were full of gratitude that the technology existed for us to continue to gather together, if not in real life then at least virtually. Nineteen months in, however, and our online yoga classes are no longer a novelty we are thankful for. They are what we do. They are the routine.

As a yoga teacher, I find building an authentic sense of community in the virtual classroom challenging. The fact that we are communing together from different locations means it is necessary for me to mute participants to eliminate dog barks, background conversations and the errant ring of a telephone. Pressing ‘mute’ puts us each into our own separate, soundless vacuum. Added to the challenge is connectivity. When bandwidth falters – fortunately a rare occurrence – there is a break in continuity and we are reminded again of our separateness. 

Sharing our yoga practice in a virtual world can never match the camaraderie we feel in the studio space but, with all of us working together we might experience camaraderie in a new and unique way.

Because when we practice yoga as an online community we are together energetically even as city streets, miles and time zones keep us apart. The absurdity of our physical distance, even as we practice together, is itself a distraction. The fact that each one of us is in the familiar environment of our own home makes it more so.

What would happen if we began to acknowledge that the energetic space we create when we come together to practice yoga is a sacred space? Something special. Would our practice deepen? Would it become less an hour of exercise and more an hour of self-care and reflection that we share with others?

Maybe I’m a fool for believing that can happen. How can it when we’re practicing trikonasana in our kitchen or living room? When the dog wants to go for a walk, the cat wants to curl up on our yoga mat, the phone rings or the people we share our homes with can’t find the coffee? Sometimes, on some days, it seems impossible.

Or maybe I need to remind myself of how yoga came into my life and why I practice. Maybe I need to remember the gifts that yoga offers to me each day I’m alive.  If I can do that then maybe I can, as the facilitator of our group practice, create the conditions that allow us all to be present not only for ourselves but for everyone else in our virtual world.

What else is possible?

During our practice let’s treat the space where we roll out our mats as we would our studio space. I don’t think we’d have our phone with us in the studio so why would we during our home practice? Is it alright for us to be unavailable to others for sixty minutes?

I think we can limit other distractions, too. We can orient our mat away from the dishes that need washing or the books we want to read. The cobweb on the ceiling fan and the dust kitties under the bookshelf (my personal distractions) can wait. When setting up our device for class we can choose ‘Gallery View’ rather than ‘Speaker View’ as a reminder that we are part of a whole. If we need to take a phone call, or leave the virtual space, or have a conversation with someone or for heaven’s sake TEXT (you have no idea what my eyes have seen in nineteen months of Zoom yoga) we can turn off our camera as a courtesy to the community.

It’s easy to think we have two choices: the studio space or the virtual space. But what about the space in between? What about the liminal space between apartness and togetherness? Let’s meet there.


Will Western Yoga Change When We Return to the Studio?

What makes a yoga teacher? Pieces of paper? Letters behind a name? I’ve plenty of both and yet I hesitate to call myself a ‘teacher’. A facilitator? Sure. A guide? Maybe. But twenty-eight years – almost to the day – of standing at the front of the studio for the first time I recoil at the thought of using the word ‘teacher’ to describe what I do when I roll open my mat.

A conundrum forms when we try to codify unregulated practices like yoga. Codification helps set standards the consumer should trust but it also transforms a time-honored practice into an industry. It binds yoga to an unnatural list of rules and expectations that, the longer I lead classes, the more I want to push against.

The post that follows is little more than a frustrated vent. I know I have a point in there somewhere. I mean, I really do believe we need to question the current system. What I don’t know is how those questions take shape and what are the answers they reveal?

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an online advertisement for a new yoga teacher training program created by a well-known leader in the yoga therapy community. Since then one question has been simmering in the back of my brain. Why does this training exist? And why does its existence vex me so?

I think it’s because I’ve over-stretched my tolerance for the Western Yoga Industrial Complex (WYIC). Does the world need another yoga teacher training program? Instead of trainings maybe what the world needs are yoga teachers who are dedicated to serving their students, and the yoga tradition, more than they serve themselves. I know they exist, but they’re hard to find in all the noise and bustle it takes to transform a tradition thousands of years old into a billion dollar industry.

That’s why I hope one of the silver linings of these extraordinary times is a forced reckoning in the WYIC studio system.

The Western Yoga Industrial Complex is a system that forces a surfeit of studios to design 200-hour yoga teacher trainings in order to keep their coffers filled and their doors open. Some of those trainings, in turn, become human puppy mills. Every few months they produce a new litter of smiling faces posing for photographs with pride and holding teaching certificates fresh from the printer. They send a copy of these certificates and their hard earned cash to Yoga Alliance (YA) who then allows them to add the designation RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) after their name. These eager graduate RYTs are giddy with excitement about their future. But after investing thousands of dollars in their training, most graduates will not go on to teach. And the ones that do often feel they’re in over their heads because the three months of training they received did not provide the experience they needed to feel competent. 

Doesn’t it seem odd and a little arbitrary that two hundred hours of study is all one needs to call themselves a yoga teacher? Ludicrous, actually. How did this happen? In an attempt to codify teacher trainings, and with what I believe was good intention, a YA committee created a list of competencies and sub-competencies deemed important for yoga instructors to understand. These are the recently revised competencies:

  1. Techniques, Training, Practice
  2. Anatomy & Physiology
  3. Yoga Humanities (formerly Yoga Philosophy, Lifestyle, & Ethics)
  4. Professional Essentials (includes merged Educational Categories of Teaching Methodology and Practicum)

Each competency has a minimum number of hours in which it must be taught. There is a heavy emphasis on the first two. Studios create a training program based on these hours and competencies, submit the written program to YA – along with payment, of course – and wait for approval. Once that approval is received YA allows the studio to use the designation ‘RYS 200’.

Given the absence of accountability – meaning there is no check to see if the studio’s program is following the curriculum submitted to Yoga Alliance or, for that matter, if the lead trainers meet Yoga Alliance’s approval – the studio is somewhat free to do whatever they like. Unless, of course, an enrollee in the teacher training is dedicated enough to look at the YA standards for RYS 200 trainings and to call the studio on it if the training they are receiving has strayed.

 If 200-hour teacher trainings weren’t necessary to keep a studio open and if we understood that the Yoga Alliance seal of approval holds no weight, what would happen? Would we forget about trainings and certificates altogether and transition to a mentoring protocol, where those who might feel a flickering call to teach study under a mentor until the flicker becomes a flame?

Or what if we flipped the yoga teacher training model around and instead of placing an emphasis on the physicality of yoga began trainings with a deep dive into the philosophy of yoga?  What if entrance exams were required? Or proof of a personal practice? Should personal practice – something difficult to define – be a requirement? 

My guess is that there would be fewer teacher trainings, fewer individuals wanting to train in the art of teaching yoga and, ultimately, fewer studios. 

Am I wrong to think that would be a good thing?

I guess maybe I’ve seen too much of the bad and ugly. Like the studio that boasts about the number of students it pushes through the trainings it hosts multiple times per year, taught by teachers flown in for the weekend and never seen again. And too little of the good. Like the pre-natal yoga teacher training that will hold back a certificate from a trainee until all assignments have been received and passed.

The yoga industry needs less of the former and more of the latter. Maybe, as we begin to return to our studios, that will happen.


A Sacred Space

I’m often reminded of my yoga ‘origin story’ – how, for years, I studied with Iyengar instructors. How, back then, my practice was informed by hard-edged alignment principles and yoga mats placed in perfect rows on the studio floor. I loved it.

But things change. My body changed. My practice changed. I changed. Over the years those hard edges have softened. I’ve even been known to teach a class with mats placed in a circle like the petals of a flower. Gasp! Quelle horreur!

But have I left all of my Iyengar sensibilities behind? I don’t think so. It’s true that I traded hands-on adjustments for precise verbal cues a decade ago. And I stopped expecting cookie cutter correctness once I gained a greater understanding of human anatomy. My hope for students is that when they step on their mat they let go of expectation, judgement and agenda. When a student steps on their mat I hope they are also stepping into the present moment and meeting their body where it stands.

The yogasana I’m interested in practicing now – the yogasana I’m interested in teaching – is not about doing. It’s about sensing. The yogasana I’m interested in is not about pushing through forms. It’s about noticing the sensations that rise in my body as I move through those forms. It’s about noticing my breath, my thoughts, the attitude I bring to my practice. The yogasana I’m interested in is about paying attention. It’s about discipline.

But then again, it has always been about discipline. I learned that studying Iyengar yoga all those years ago.

Discipline is not my strong suit. Except when I am on my mat. When I am on my mat I am in the practice whether I’m teaching, practicing on my own or attending a class. 

I think Zoom challenges our ability to remain present and focused on our practice. I think it makes sustained discipline difficult. We have the challenge of finding dust kitties under the bookshelf in downward dog, the aroma of coffee as our partner prepares breakfast for the kids and our animal companions demanding a morning cuddle. At the same time we don’t have the energy of a purpose built studio that feels like a sacred space. We don’t have the energy of a living, breathing community gathered together for one purpose. 

In the best of times it takes effort to sustain a yogasana practice with diligence, discernment and discipline. But now, when our yoga community consists of tiny, flat rectangles on a laptop screen, it can feel impossible.

But it isn’t impossible. 

Practice with intention. Remember why you practice in the first place. For the hour you are on your mat, find the strength to maintain your focus. Treat that little rectangle on the floor – your yoga mat – like the sacred space it is.


Change and the Hope of Being a North Star

fullsizeoutput_596My favorite sweatshirt is from The Lost Whale, a bed and breakfast near Trinidad, California. On the front, in bold blue Times New Roman, is the word ‘lost’. On the back, of course, is the word ‘found’. 

I was much better at being lost when I was younger. I thought nothing of exploring foreign cities or wandering off marked trails when hiking the hills near my childhood home.

I now prefer leaving the getting lost to others. I want to believe my resilient and brave self of the past now clings to safety – clings to what is known – because the world has changed.  But as much as the world has changed, so have I.  My fearlessness has been tempered by sixty years of life experience. It emerges from time to time but for the most part I enjoy cheering others as they take great leaps of faith.

Months ago I had a conversation with a student weeks away from graduating from a 200-hour yoga teacher training about how it feels to be lost. This student was filled with deep uncertainty and considered leaving the teacher training and abandoning his yoga practice. Reading a recently published book about yoga in the West triggered deep self-doubt and distrust in a tradition thousands of years old. He felt lost.

My advice? I counseled the student to stay true to himself. I told him to read more books and to embrace feeling unmoored. To trust the unknowing and to not be afraid if he found himself wandering from a well-trod path.

I don’t know if my advice was sound but I can empathize with his dilemma. How do we continue to teach yoga when the practice we love evolves into something that feels far removed from what we understood yoga practice to be when we first began? Change is constant. Are we obligated to be carried along? It can be a positive force but change can be detrimental, too. So how do we discern the difference between change that elevates our practice and change that dilutes the power of our practice?

polaris-2-15-2013-Ken-Christison-NC-sq-e1463582304603Remaining true – living authentic lives – leans against the change that arrives unexpected and uninvited. It leans against the change that is slow and stealth*. Leaning against the latter – against the change that can’t be felt until we look behind and see how it all once was – requires a steadfast awareness of who we are as individuals and what we offer as yoga teachers.

We’re encouraged to ‘be the change we want to see’. That’s nice advice. But what if we turned it around. What if we decided to be a North Star? What if, as teachers, instead of riding change and trends what if we became a shining light? I guess what I’m trying to say is this: be true north for your students. Keep studying. Keep learning. Understand the depths of the tradition we teach.

*the rise of the YIC (Yoga Industrial Complex), the need for yoga teachers to also be adept at creating mix tapes, the presumed need for Yoga Alliance, the glut of factory-like teacher training programs, the focus on asana at the expense of seven other limbs, the revelations of teacher misconduct and the assumption that if you see the words ‘guru’ or ‘master teacher’ in front a name then it must be so, the loss of humility…


How Do We Know How to Teach?

CIMG0701There are yoga teachers who prepare for each moment of each class with intention and crystalline clarity. These are the teachers who write a script and a set list of poses. They’ve chosen a pranayama practice, cued a playlist on their iPad and have bookmarked a Pema Chodron quote.

Being prepared for the roomful of students we are about to teach is absolutely necessary and this type of teacher is, if anything, prepared. But is that truly being present for your students? Or is it the means to an entertaining end? I don’t know the answer to that question. Perhaps it depends on the collective intentions of the individuals in the studio – the expectations we have for the practice.

I’ve just stepped into my third decade of teaching and there are still times when my confidence takes a hit. Perhaps my attendance has temporarily faltered or a student unfamiliar with my teaching style offers criticism. No matter. Out of some misguided belief that all good yoga teachers create detailed lesson plans, I will find myself writing a set list of asanas. I’ll maintain this routine for a few weeks before realizing that I am not that teacher. It’s not how my asanas roll.

It has been my experience that teaching from a script inevitably results – for me – a less successful class. While this won’t be true for all teachers, my scripted classes lack connection and the seamless organic flow that I enjoy and believe are a necessary component of all good yoga practices.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not prepared.

While I have a set of intentions for each and every class I teach, it’s not until I arrive at the studio and can feel the energy of the room, the energy of my students and the energy contained within me as the teacher do I decide on the direction the class will take and the sequence of poses.

My decision is based on intuition and instinct. The trust I have in my teaching intuition took time to manifest and it is something that I now value and hold near to my heart.

I don’t believe it is something that can be taught. The qualities of intuition and instinct we develop are nurtured through our successes and our failures as teachers. And I’ve had plenty of both.

But – and as teachers we know this – intuition and instinct or the ability to create a great playlist are not the only qualities on which we should rely. As long as we teach we are also and always students. As long as we teach we are also and always beginners.