Friday, September 11, 2009

Teaching Yoga: Body Awareness

Over the next couple of months my blogging will be focused on the topic of “Teaching Yoga” and is especially geared towards Yoga Teachers. However, any person interested in self-growth and/or a regular student of yoga should not hesitate to read further. Looking through the lens of a teacher (of any subject) can be illuminating and enlightening. Enjoy!

All of the topics to follow are excerpts and/or summaries from my forthcoming book: Teaching Yoga—A Definitive Guide.

In my last Blog I outlined three fundamental ingredients essential to the experience of Yoga.

They are:
Body Awareness
Breath Awareness
Mind Awareness

When these three things are cultivated something special happens. You become present. Presence is the seed that springs forth yoga. Yoga is an experience of Ultimate Truth.

If you break down any tradition, practice, or style of yoga these three things lie at the foundation. Although they are often covered up with fancy words, elaborate practices, and other distractions of the 21st Century Yogi.

When you begin to shift your intention, as a practitioner and/or teacher, to the cultivation of these three foundational ingredients YOU begin to arrive. Instead of doing Triangle pose, you BEcome triangle. This occurs because you are not focused on how the pose “looks” or the outer shape but rather how it feels. Every pose then becomes a different expression of the self—body, mind, and breath. When you realize this you realize the Self and it is quite amazing.

In yoga philosophy the body, annamaya kosha (veil or sheath) is often perceived as the first and densest layer of the self that must be illuminated on the journey inward. Most yoga classes today are working on this layer of discovery.

Teachers--Here are three simple ways to actively facilitate Body Awareness in your yoga classes. Try them out in your practice as well and notice the impact on your overall state of being.

1.Encourage being in the feeling mode.
As a teacher a certain amount of your verbal script must address how to “do” the pose. This is especially the case in beginner classes where new students have no asana knowledge. However, a posture can usually be executed with about three or four instructions. Once the basic outline of the posture is established (don’t expect perfection!) guide your students to feel.

2.Give reference points for feeling
The action of feeling is much different than stretching, reaching, pushing, relaxing, etc. To feel is to openly allow yourself to experience “what is” in the moment, in your body. Although it is an action, it is a “being” action versus a “doing” action.

To get students into their bodies and out of their heads you must invite them to feel. But it is extremely helpful to offer specific guidance as to what they should feel. Our bodies tend to have numbs spots that our nervous system avoids interaction with. It is these areas that hold the potential to awaken us from our dormant lapse of true self knowledge.

Reference points for feeling can reinforce outer alignment, but from an inner place. Here is one point to explore. Focus on it throughout an entire class (or practice) and note the effects.

Feel the foundation—the foundation of any pose has the ability to create steadiness and alignment throughout the rest of the body or not. Often times our foundation is skewed. This can create serious distortion throughout our body that causes imbalances that lead to injuries and chronic pain.

One of the most basic ways to cultivate awareness of the foundation of a pose is to actively explore how weight is shifting down through it.

For example, in Tadasana--Standing Mountain Pose, you can ask your students to place more weight on the pinky side of their feet. Have them hold it and feel the sensation of it for at least seven seconds. This is the minimum amount of time required for the nervous system to fully register the excess weight and make a clear interpretation of it. Then have them roll inward. Finally have them center the weight between the inner and outer edges of their feet. Although this may seem very elementary, it is deeply complex.

When you focus your attention on your feet (or whatever part of your body is in contact with the floor/earth) you are “grounding”. Being grounded takes you out of your head, into your body, and makes the support of the earth available to you. When the body feels this support it releases excess tension and lifts upward towards the sky with ease.

3.Slow down and give space to feel
As mentioned above, feeling specific things (like the sensation of equal weight in the feet) takes time. Of course certain things we feel instantly like those tight hamstrings in a forward fold. But there are many numb spots in the body due to chronic stress, injuries, repressed emotions, trauma, etc, that remain beneath our radar. Renewing sensation in these areas fosters greater body awareness and thus more presence.

As you teach don’t shy away from quiet pauses after a feeling point is referenced. You may notice uncomfortableness in your students as they greet their deadzones. This is ok and often a necessary step along their path to self realization.

Happy Exploring! I welcome your responses!

Next Blog post I’ll be writing about Yoga Ingredient #2—Breath Awareness.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Teaching Yoga: The Foundational Elements

Over the next couple of months my blogging will be focused on the topic of “Teaching Yoga” and is especially geared towards Yoga Teachers. However, any person interested in self-growth and/or a regular student of yoga should not hesitate to read further. Looking through the lens of a teacher (of any subject) can be illuminating and enlightening. Enjoy!

All of the topics to follow are excerpts and/or summaries from my forthcoming book: Teaching Yoga—A Definitive Guide.

The Foundational Elements of Yoga

What I have observed in teaching over the years is that there are so many angles to teaching yoga. There are so many styles, belief systems, philosophies, lineages, and “best” ways to align the shoulders, and breathe deep, and, and, well, you get the idea.

I see teachers who strongly adhere to the “one way” perspective and those that float from idea to idea absorbing as much information as possible. Neither is good nor bad. It is useful to go fully into one style or system of yoga to embody that path. It is the attachment to that “being the only way” that can create an obstruction to moving forward. Likewise, dabbling in many different styles and/or yogic ideas can also be beneficial affording you many choices and possibilities for teaching and practicing. However, sometimes the constant “seeker” is simply distracting him/herself from just being and learning from the teacher within.

I am always curious about what lies at the base of any organized and/or structured system or philosophy. I wonder, what are the key ingredients needed to educe the final product. I am most interested in the ‘product’ of healing. My definition of healing is, “the way we return to our essential state of wholeness”. This innate interest within myself is why I was drawn to Yoga and to all of the other body-mind modalities that I have studied.

Yoga to me is the end product obtained by doing all of the practices that we refer to as Yoga. Yoga is not asana, pranayama, meditation, chanting, etc. Yoga is the embodiment of our Essential Self. It is a state of being.

So, I have asked within my own practice and in teaching; what are the key elements that elicit Yoga? Yes, there are so many books filled with endless techniques to get me there. There are many teachers that “know” the way. And yet, what is beneath those practices, those teachings?

The Body seems to be one of these key ingredients, for it is here in the present moment. It may carry energy from long ago, but the physical manifestation of body is right here, right now and the vehicle in which we experience our Essential Self.

Ingredient #1: Body

The body cannot exist without the breath (at least not for very long) so it to must be a primary ingredient for this experience of Yoga to be had. Like the body, it is only here in the moment. Also, like the body, the breath may reveal the past and/or the projection onto the future, but it only expresses in the Now.

Ingredient #2: Breath

What else I have wondered can be in this moment as it is my belief that Enlightenment or Yoga can only be experienced in the present.

Mind. Another word that could be used here is Consciousness. There are many layers of the mind that can add or subtract us away from the moment. It definitely is primary to existence. Whether we are awake or asleep, consciousness is with us and impacts are state of being.

Ingredient #3: Consciousness or Mind

These first three ingredients: Body, Breath, and Mind do not = Yoga. Just like eggs, flour and sugar do not = cake. This is where you must actively choose to engage with yourself—to become aware.

Through yogic practices you start to develop body awareness, breath awareness and awareness of your mind. When you cultivate enough of each and mix them all together into alignment you achieve presence.

Being present precedes being enlightened, but it does not = Yoga.

A prolonged period of presence however does promote self-knowing. When you are in the present moment it is easier to be objective and to have clarity about the truth. When you are present your body, breath, and mind are aligned. As you become familiar with this state of being, you will realize more easily when you are not in the moment. You can begin to observe what it is that takes you away from the moment. All of this is information that can be useful on your path to enlightenment.

Being present gives you more choices about how you expend your energy, what you give your attention/energy to, and a place of orientation to navigate the world objectively.

You might choose to utilize your presence to go deeper into the experience of Yoga. Meditation can take you there. When this takes place your body, breath, and mind become expanded. Limitations are removed and there is a great sense of being at One with All That Is. The little body merges with the Big Body. The little breath unites with the Big Breath. And, the little mind becomes the Big Mind.

Then what?

My next post will dive deeper into these foundational elements of Yoga and how we address them in Teaching.

Stay tuned and please leave comments, thoughts, ideas that you have to share!

Thanks for reading.