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.


Business as Usual?

I returned to live teaching at a local pain clinic two weeks ago and it’s been joyous. The only ‘connectivity issue’ is attempting to teach while wearing a face mask. Other than that it has been a joy to see people from the waist down, no longer backlit, and with the clarity that can only come from being face-to-face. It’s been a joy to hear them breath. A joy to hear them complain when I ask them to stand up.

But my community classes on Zoom will continue because Zoom classes are joyful, too, for a different set of reasons. 

Over the past sixteen months we’ve built a community on Zoom and at the same time we’ve built a practice that is truly our own. The privacy we’re gifted by COVID’s forced isolation means competition with others has been eliminated. All we’re left with is how our body feels in the moment, the guidance of our teacher and the space we’ve created for our practice.

Pre-pandemic, and acknowledging that space in my home is a limited commodity, creating room for yoga was far down the list of priorities. But COVID has forced us to do just that and, in a rapidly approaching post-COVID world, why would we give that up?

When I practice at home the practice stays with me. In my body, in my bones and in my heart. As soon as I click ‘end meeting’ I sit back for a bit. There is no urgency to race off. I’m content to let my body and my mind rest for a few more minutes.

But the moment my teacher ends a studio class – and I’m pretty certain I am not the only one who does this – I’m rolling up my mat, stacking my props and racing out to my car to beat the traffic on my way to the next thing on my ‘to do’ list. Along the way I might check my phone for important texts or gossip with a friend about what happened the night before. Where is my practice then? Did I practice at all?

In my little corner of the world we enjoy a very high vaccination rate – 72% of adults have at least one dose – and that has returned to us some of the life we enjoyed before March, 2020. The Delta variant is waving a yellow caution flag but that hasn’t stopped us from moving toward our New Normal with open restaurants, gyms, hair salons and yes – even a few open yoga studios.

I wonder, in these sixteen months of practice, how we can hold onto what we’ve learned about ourselves? Can we carry it with us when we return to studio classes? 

Here’s something else to think about. How has the studio system changed? Have studio owners adapted their business model to the New Normal or is it business as usual?


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.


For the New Teacher: The Business of Yoga

IMG_0168Sometimes it’s hard to think of those two words together: business and yoga. But yoga is a business. It’s a very big business. In fact, it’s a $27 billion dollar industry. And as yoga teachers we have a choice. It begins with asking the questions, “What does success as a yoga teacher mean to me? Is it about money? Fame?” Maybe it is. Maybe that’s your dharma. There’s no shame in being a yoga rock star who travels the world leading workshops or lands the cover of Yoga Journal. But what if your dharma is leading one class a week for seniors at the local recreation center? Or teaching underserved populations? Or not teaching at all?

I think for most of us there’s a middle path. I think most of us envision teaching three, maybe four classes a week, taking on some private clients, teaching a few specialized workshops and finding a local studio that holds space for our work and encourages us to grow. A studio we can call our yoga home.

It won’t happen over night, but if that’s what you want there is some groundwork you can put in place that will support the journey:

Join Yoga Alliance. Your 200-hour certificate will allow you to register with YA with the designation “RYT.” As you begin to teach you’ll keep track of your hours and you’ll be able to upgrade your designation. In time you’ll also qualify as a Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider (YACEP). This is a good thing. It means that, eventually and with enough experience, you will be able to offer workshops through which students can accrue continuing education units. As members of YA we are required to continue our education. This can include contact hours like workshops or additional trainings or it can include non-contact hours like research and publishing. Joining Yoga Alliance won’t make you a better teacher. But it’s a great resource. There is a yearly membership fee involved but there are also member benefits. Explore the Yoga Alliance website to see if it’s a good fit for you.

Have adequate insurance. Some studios will have policies that will cover you but if you intend to rent space to teach or to see private clients in their homes you must have liability insurance. The Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance websites will have information about how to find low cost insurance.

Continue learning. Attend classes, take workshops, read the latest research. Practice what you teach.

Cultivate a professional reputation:  Show up for classes on time, start class on time and finish on time, be present for your students – be an active listener, do not speak disparagingly of fellow teachers or studios, take the Yamas and the Niyamas to heart.

And that’s pretty much it. Almost…you may want to consider having a professional headshot to use for marketing purposes, creating a basic website to list your classes or, if you’re up to it, creating a blog.  Social media accounts dedicated to your practice and teaching are a nice idea, too.

What about taxes? It’s not as tricky as you think.

If you are an employee at a studio it is like any other job.  You’ll receive tax forms at the end of the year and you will file as usual.
If you are an independent contractor you will need to fill out a Schedule C when you file your taxes.  So keep good records of everything you earn and everything you spend for your yoga business. You might receive 1099 Forms from places you work. You most likely won’t receive these from private clients.
If you are an independent contractor and therefore self-employed, remember that you will owe not only income tax but self-employment tax (Social Security & Medicare) therefore you should pay quarterly estimated taxes.

 

 


Subbing Season is Early This Year

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I’m helping out a few friends over the next few weeks by teaching their classes while they:

  1. attend a wedding
  2. take an unexpected business trip
  3. recover from an injury

And so, in addition to my regular studio schedule…

  • Monday Evening Yin at California Yoga Center/Palo Alto from 7:30 to 9:00
  • Tuesday Morning Flow at Samyama from 7:00 to 9:00
  • Tuesday Morning Iyengar at California Yoga Center/Palo Alto from 9:00 to 10:00
  • Thursday Morning Flow at Samyama from 7:00 to 9:00
  • Friday Morning Iyengar at California Yoga Center/Palo Alto from 9:00 to 10:00
  • Friday Afternoon Yin at Samyama from 1:30 to 2:45
  • Saturday Afternoon Flow at Samyama from 4:00 to 5:30

…I’ll also be teaching these classes:

Saturday, June 8:

8:30 – 10:00 AM at Samyama for Bethany

12:30 – 1:30 PM at California Yoga Center/Palo Alto for Candy

Monday, June 10:

7:00 – 8:30 AM at Samyama for Bethany

Wednesday, June 12:

7:00 – 8:30 AM at Samyama for Bethany

11:30 – 1:00 PM at Samyama for Amy

Saturday, June 15:

8:30 – 10:00 AM at Samyama for Bethany

Sunday, June 30:

8:30 – 10:00 AM at Samyama for Clive

Wow! I’m going to be one busy yoga dog! I better stock up on Scooby snacks!

Looking forward to sharing our yoga journey.


Sit. Stand. Breathe. Live.

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Sometimes we forget. We forget we’re not teaching yoga. We are teaching asana. And we forget Patanjali’s teachings: that asana is just one of the eight limbs. Most classes called yoga focus their intention on asana. Pranayama receives a cursory mention. The other six limbs – yama, niyama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi – are left dangling in the breeze of our ujjiay breath.

I think that as asana teachers we find ourselves caught in trends. From practicing postures on paddle boards to holding shapes in slings, fitness trends are fine but they are like rainbows. Beautiful, fun and illusory. As fast as one trend disappears another arcs across to fill the sky – or the yoga industry – with light and color.

I’ll be honest. There’s a part of me that would love to be that teacher who enthusiastically embraces every trend and explores its possibility. But you won’t find me practicing asana on a paddle board – even though it looks like fun. And you won’t find me hanging in a sling or holding dhanurasana while balanced on the soles of my partner’s feet.

More than anything I would like to begin a new trend. I want to begin the trend that sees asana teachers coming back home to yoga. I want those of us who call ourselves yoga teachers – including me – to be yoga teachers.

A few nights ago I attended a class. A yoga class. You read that right. Not an asana class. A yoga class.

When I told fellow teachers and friends I was going to John Berg’s Intro to Yoga class on Tuesday night at Samyama they looked at me a bit funny. “Don’t you mean his Vinyasa class?” Nope. I meant what I said. After thirty years of practice and nineteen years of teaching I was a beginner. And, as a beginner, I wanted a beginner’s class.

In ninety minutes we sat, we stood, we practiced vrkasana, we breathed. In between we reviewed the eight limbs. We listened to a brief talk on yama and niyama. We spoke of intention. And forgiveness. I spent that hour and one half in a state of moving meditation, grateful to John and his teaching but equally grateful that I followed my heart through the studio doors of Samyama.

I believe, as teachers and as students, there are times for expansion. Times when focus on heat building asana is the right path. But I also believe that we abandon ourselves when we fail to listen for the quiet times. The times when we need to step back – contract –  and remember that as much as yoga is about the body, it is about so much more.


We Have a Date! Samyama will Open its Doors in March

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Samyama Yoga Center, the new studio in Midtown, Palo Alto that I’ve been harping about for the past six months has Grand Opening Date officially set in stone. Following a celebratory Grand Opening Party on Saturday the 9th and an Open House on Sunday the 10th, classes will begin on (drum roll, please):

Monday the 11th of March

(Update…Our opening date has had to be pushed back a few weeks.  No, we won’t be opening on March 11th but when we DO open, and it won’t be long after our original date, Midtown will light up with Yoga Joy!  We’ll keep you posted…)

I’ll still be teaching:

Gentle Morning Flow:  Tuesday and Thursday from 7-8:30 AM

Yin Flow:  Fridays from 1:30-2:45 PM

   Hatha:  Saturdays from 4:00 to 5:30

    If you haven’t checked out the Samyama Facebook page yet, click here.

      Give us a look and then give us a ‘like’.


How the Faux-Grinch Made Christmas All Her Own

yogaI’m not really a Grinch. I’m just one of those folks who love winter not for the shiny tinsel but because their’s nothing quite as cozy as a cold winter day burrowed under the blankets with a few good books and a hot toddy.

Too much burrowing, however, does not a festive yogi make.

This year I’ve decided to celebrate the season doing what I love. Yoga.

And I hope you’ll join me. Over the holidays I’ll be teaching these four classes at the California Yoga Center:

Monday 24 December – Christmas Eve

7:00 – 8:30’ish PM (please note earlier start time)

Yin Yoga

Donation Based

Tuesday 25 December – Christmas Day

9:00 – 10:30 AM (please note extra half hour)

Hatha Flow

$18 drop-in

Monday 31 December – New Year’s Eve

7:00 – 8:30’ish PM (please note earlier start time)

Yin Yoga

Donation Based

Tuesday 1 January – New Year’s Day

9:00 – 10:30 AM (please note extra half hour)

Hatha Flow

$18 drop-in

CYC Students – Please note the time change on the Yin Yoga class.  We’ll be starting at 7:00 and NOT 7:30.  Also note the extra half hour added to the morning classes.  

I think we deserve a longer savasana on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  Don’t you?


Samyama

 

The term samyama refers to the combined practice of dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (union). It is a technique we can utilize to cultivate deeper understanding of the qualities of an object or a person or a concept. It’s said that the yogi who successfully practices samyama will experience the lightness of being freed from the mental constructs – the kleshas – that bind us to the ‘real world’. In other words, samyama liberates us from obstacles, hindrances, troubles and suffering.

Samyama is also the name of the new yoga studio opening in Midtown, Palo Alto in October (just in time for Diwali).

Samyama isn’t your ordinary yoga studio. It’s one man’s vision manifested. To read the history of how Samyama began, click here.

Two months ago John Berg and I met for coffee at Philz – John’s office until the new one is built. The following week he invited me to teach at Samyama. I’ll be joining local yoga master Anirudh Shastri plus Louis Jackson, Annika Williams, Hillary Easom and Bethany Sala. One or two others have yet to be confirmed but the truth is John is keeping the teaching staff small for a reason – he’s not creating a yoga mini-mart with 48 available flavors . He’s creating a yoga home.

And I can’t wait to move in.