Friday, May 28, 2010

Yoga Thought Bubble 3: Location, location, location

I am generally a non-confrontational little yogini. I am more comfortable bathing in the light than embracing the shadow. I am frequently attached to my rose-colored glasses.

As such, I am often hesitant to speak my mind when I perceive that what my mind wants to speak might be disagreeable in the slightest. Partly it's my desire to play peacekeeper; partly it's my insecurity & fear in speaking my truth.

This is all particularly true when I am in teaching mode.

I remember one of the very first classes I taught at Pure Yoga. It was a Hot class in the combined studios 3 & 4 in Causeway Bay, for those of you familiar with the location. For those of you unfamiliar, this is a fairly big space that fits 60+ mats (although by Santa Monica standards, we'd squeeze in at least 100 mats). At all Pure Yoga studios in Hong Kong, the mats are already laid out for you so when you come in, you just pick a mat and plop down. On this particular day, the side that is studio 4 was pretty full, and the side that is studio 3 was pretty empty and people had randomly chosen mats that created funky gaps and scattered energy in the room. There was one woman in particular who was way over yonder, and I asked her in a friendly manner if she would like to move in closer, assuming that she would respond as I would if I were the student. To my utter shock, she simply, firmly, and audaciously shook her head NO.

Oh. Ok.

I walked away with my tail between my legs and later told my colleague Janet about the incident. She told me that next time, I should just make the student move. I was befuddled! That would be so confrontational. But she insisted that I ought to insist. I am the teacher afterall.

Over the next two years, I luckily did not have similar incidents occur (or perhaps I subconsciously chose not to see them). On the one hand, the students got to know me and there's always a certain amount of trust and respect that grows in time. On the other hand, I became more self-confident. Rather than hiding behind my fear of seeming disagreeable, I learned to more clearly stand in my truth.

Fast forward to a packed Hatha class one Saturday morning. We were on hands and knees, flailing our way into Bryan Kest's infamous Awkward Airplane pose: one leg out to the side at an attempted 90 degree angle at hip height and the opposite arm out to the side at an attempted 90 degree angle at shoulder height. After a 10-year relationship with this pose, I'm still more "Awkward" and less "Airplane". I think it is probably pretty challenging for almost everyone. As such, I noticed that half the room wasn't really in the pose, and I teased the class about it, "I know you're all pretending you suddenly don't understand my accent..." or something like that. Most people chuckled, but one woman blurted out, "It's not because we don't want to do it, it's just too crowded in here, there's no room!"

The less self-assured me would probably have turned beet-red, apologized, and stammered my way through the rest of class. But my actual response was to tuck myself in between two students and do the pose by lifting my leg over one student's hip and by lifting my arm over the other student's head. As I was demonstrating, I said, "If the conditions are challenging, find a way to make it work!"(or something else of absolute brilliance, I'm sure.)

I then went on to talk about the classes I attend in Santa Monica, where we squeeze in twice as many mats. Bryan's classes have been known to be so crowded that mats overlap and someone practices on the landing of the stairwell; Ally Hamilton's classes often overflow into the second room and she has to stand in the doorway between the two rooms in order for everyone to hear her. I said, "You all have about a foot of space circumventing your mats. This is not that crowded." (Hopefully they weren't still in Awkward Airplane as I was rambling on, but I can't be sure of that.)

After I finished my mini-lecture, I felt really bad. I thought maybe I had lost my temper. I was afraid that that student would go and complain about me to the front desk (like the time a student complained that I was text messaging for 40 minutes of a 60-minute class, a completely preposterous claim) (I was only texting for like 5 minutes) (Just kidding! I have never used any mobile device in class!). But to my surprise, at the end of class, that student came up to me and introduced herself. She said that she really enjoyed class and that it was exactly what she needed. I was so surprised! And relieved.

All of this makes me think about our attachments and expectations when it comes to our practice space.

I took Wendy's class at Pure Yoga in Central today. When we stood up from Uttanasana, I brushed hands with my neighbor yogini. During a supine spinal twist, my extended arm rested on the mat next to mine. Is this really that big of a deal, worthy of complaining? For someone who comes from the crowded studios of Santa Monica where I have gotten hit in the head by someone's foot going up in Dog Splits, no, it's really not that big of a deal. And actually, if you think about it, it's a pretty beautiful thing that so many of us have all come together to share space, breath, and energy. What a blessing to be a part of this union, this yoga.

I also often hear the complaint that people don't have space in their apt to practice. Considering how small and squishy HK flats can be (cool, relevant video here), I do understand that it's challenging. But I have practiced in a 250 sq ft apt that I shared with my friend, where I was completely surrounded by furniture. It is doable.

Bryan once said it best. When I was his assistant, I would answer emails on his behalf. Once there was this question: "How much space do I need to practice yoga?" Bryan told me to reply, "The amount of space you need to unroll a yoga mat." So true. So simple.

Of course it would be ideal to have space in abundance, and no one wants to be whacked in the head by someone's foot (especially a sweaty one!). But sometimes these external conditions are out of our control, and what we think is ideal is not a present reality. How will we choose to respond to this? How can we dance gracefully with all the so-called challenges in our practice and ultimately our life? If we're being difficult and attached to what we deem to be our righteous space when we're on the mat, what's happening off the mat? This is especially relevant for all of us living in crowded cities where our bodies and energies are constantly overlapping with others. Does it really serve to race each other to get to the showers first? Is it really necessary to cut people off on the freeway? Can we try to be more generous and compassionate?

Let's be more focused on creating space in our heart, and less attached to external conditions.

Let's remember what a blessing it is to even have a studio or home to practice in and a mat to practice on. What a blessing it is to touch the hand of a fellow yogi as you both reach up towards the sky. What a blessing it is to know yoga at all.

And look, next time you're in a crowded class, in a space-demanding pose like Awkward Airplane, just rest your floating (read: floundering) leg on your neighbor's hip. I'm sure they won't mind. ;)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Yoga Thought Bubble 2: How do I become a yoga teacher?

This is definitely one of the most FAQs I am asked, and I love it because the more people we have in our world really dedicating their lives to sharing and spreading the yoga, the better. As with all things, there are many different pathways you can take. I'll share bits of my own ever-continuing journey, offer some additional suggestions, and include some other related thoughts.

I think it's pretty safe to say that first things first: practice. For me when I was first preparing to teach, this meant an asana practice for at least a couple hours a day (with an occasional, sometimes reluctant day of rest, insisted on by my teacher), reading lots of books (from the ancient to the current) and a daily (often less than super successful) attempt at meditation. I also enrolled in a Yoga Studies program at a nearby university (UC Irvine), which served as a wonderful introduction to various yoga-related subjects including philosophy, subtle energy, Sanskrit, and Buddhism. I was so fiercely in love with my practice that I saved some money and quit my job (at the time I was in investor relations) so I could just do yoga all the time. I loved my studio so much that I started volunteering there (sweeping the floors and emptying the trash), which eventually led to working in the retail store, managing the studio, and becoming Bryan Kest's assistant. Talk about "immersion".

Next up: find a main teacher that you can practice with on a regular basis (addressed in Yoga Thought Bubble 1). This is particularly true for those on the teaching path. Again, it doesn't mean to only ever study with one teacher, but having one main teacher will be immensely helpful. She will get to know your physical practice and be able to guide and support you better. For example, I had a major fear of Tripod Headstand. I couldn't even figure out how to approach it. After months of shying away from it, my teacher helped me after class. She didn't physically support me, but just through her words and because of my total trust in her, I got into it and was laughing at how much easier it was than I'd imagined. And, ask your teacher what his yoga journey has been like, and discover which of his footsteps you'd like to follow. Dare to ask beyond "Who have you studied with?" because I bet there is so much more to why he is the amazing teacher, yogi, and person that he is.

And of course: attend a Teacher Training. I urge you to put a lot of thought into the Teacher Trainings you will attend (yes, trainings plural, as there will likely be more than your first one). Know that TTs are a huge business within the yoga industry, and oftentimes you're asked to commit thousands of dollars and hours upon hours before you'll be deemed worthy of using their brand name, and this almost never comes with any real guarantee that you'll find teaching jobs. I admit that I am biased when it comes to the so-called official certification process, but rather than get into it right now, I will paste the words of Bryan Kest (, who addressed this brilliantly in a recent newsletter:

"We are not associated with Yoga Alliance. If I were to follow their guidelines I would not be able to follow my own guidelines. Their guidelines have no place in my training and should have no place in anyone’s teacher training other than that of their own. I am not an advocate of systematizing the dissemination of love. Yoga has always been passed down freely from teacher to student, in any format the teacher chooses and according to the teacher’s experiences and how the teacher feels they can best give their knowledge to the student. This beautiful practice, that has been happening for 6,000 years, does not need Yoga Alliance’s blessing or anybody else’s.

I am actually not sure why Yoga Alliance exists. Maybe their intentions are benevolent but the result is a fucking bureaucratic mess, tons of red tape and loads of unnecessary paperwork, not to mention more money!"

So I'm just saying to choose wisely. Listen to your gut and intuition as to what is most right for you. Are you really inspired by the teacher leading the TT and are you really interested in learning more about that particular style of yoga? Or are you more drawn in by the number of hours and credibility the TT boasts? Just make sure it will serve to nourish and nudge you forward in your practice.

As for when you're ready to attend your first TT, it's really personal. If you don't know Tadasana (Mountain Pose) or if you haven't yet experience the bliss of Savasana, it might better serve you to practice a bit more first, just so that you can get more out of the TT. But don't worry about not being able to stand on your hands or levitate (yet).

I started doing my own home practice after my first TT (with the magnificent Erich Schiffmann), and it really helped me to understand how to sequence, how to verbalize the body's movement and experience, and how to access my own voice. I enlisted (ok, maybe coerced) my loved ones to be my yogi guinea pigs and taught them classes in my living room. I practiced eliminating "uh" and "um" and "oops, sorry!" and nervous laughter.

For me, all of this was the perfect foundation for teaching. With the help of my teacher, I got my first job at a gym, and I kept expanding from there, to other gyms, small studios, private clients, and my home studio. I said YES to every teaching opportunity that came up, and in a few months time, I was teaching 25 times a week. It was great practice and got me into the groove of really becoming and being a teacher. But that many classes proved not to be so sustainable, so I pared it down to about a dozen (only to move to HK and teach an average of 18 classes a week, half of them in a heated room, which I swear makes teaching 1 class feel like 2!). This again is really personal; you'll figure out what's perfect for you.

Finally, know that there will always be more to learn and be open to all of it. I have dabbled in different styles and I attend lots of workshops and trainings with different teachers. Since moving to HK, I also make it a point to go back to my yoga home of Santa Monica once a year and snuggle back into my roots. It is all "continuing education", a beautiful process of always learning, receiving, practicing, and then offering it back out.

So, in short: practice, find a main teacher, attend a TT, do your own practice, teach loved ones, and say YES!