Any fellow yoga dorks out there will know that being posted on elephantjournal.com is like sticking crow that first time around! Beyond exciting! Check out the post from Kristin here:
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Pura vida :)
How do you connect within the depths of serenity and stillness?
It’s so easy to lose the point of it all when I’m elbow deep in a puddle of sweat, when I’m flowing freely to the sound of some world drum beat, just me, my mat, my practice, my movement. And then all of a sudden it hits me, “why exactly am I doing this again?” I’m quite sure the point is not to have sore abs tomorrow or to sweat myself into a state of dizziness. Meanwhile I’m sitting in a pretzel shape, limbs all intertwined and my mind is stuck on that annoying client I faced earlier in the day, the friend that unloads her drama onto me, the dog that ate my shoes. Now, I admit I may not fully comprehend yet exactly what “it” is, but I’m relatively sure that this experience is not why I came to the mat the first time around. This cluttered, active mind is not “it”. Somewhere along my journey into sun salutations I’ve lost sight of my ultimate goal; of Yoga’s ultimate goal.
Immersed deep in the study of The Art of Flow and within the grand potency of the Pavones Yoga Center, our teacher, Indira, posed a question: “What does Flow mean to you?” I wrote previously about our collective agreement that flow tends to bring a sense of “all-connectedness” when you find yourself within it. I explored the meaning of surrender, a word that tends to conjure up an image of movement, of a sinking, a floating, a seeping down into what Is. Letting go. Go. That word in itself invokes action. But it was the answer from one particular classmate that struck me hard, an answer which I’ve carried with me all of this time. Chris raised his hand and said “for me right now, flow is stillness”. Well, this is me: Mind. Officially. Blown.
Stillness and Flow. Are they one in the same? Related? Brothers from the same family unit? Could it BE? I have continued to explore stillness in my personal practices on and off the mat. My flow has slowed. My awareness has deepened. My priorities have shifted. It’s a phrase I use in my teachings all the time, but now I’ve begun to see how much I needed to integrate it into my off-the-mat life, too: Yoga prepares us to be still. Paul Grilley says that this sense of heaviness and inhibition of movement which accompanies a Yin Yoga practice is “a desirable state and…a perfect prelude to meditation…Many people are so nervous they literally cannot sit still.” Teachers, have you ever observed the difficulty students experience while remaining in savasana? Grilley suggest that an “immobilizing inner calm” is really the ultimate goal. Stillness. Tranquility. Oh. Right. Sure glad I’ve put in about 3,000 chaturangas over the years…
On that note, let’s get back to the poses. Yes, the twisty, turny, upside down shapes we find ourselves in. Asana. I hate to break it to you (and to myself), but postures are only one (tiny) part of the yogic path. 1/8 of the yogic path to be exact; 1/8 of the path that I happen to adore. Many find themselves exploring already the yamas (behaviors) and niyamas (observances). Every student has at least scratched the surface of pranayama (breath practice) with their ocean breath. Each limb helps prepare us perfectly for the next. Step-by-step we develop until further up the tree trunk we find the final four limbs: Pratyahara (withdrawal/detachment), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (bliss). These are the most challenging limbs, reserved for the bravest and the most disciplined: those that are quiet and still in body and mind. None of these limbs require me to wrap my leg around my neck. In fact, in complete contradiction, as I creep towards these higher limbs I am asked to sit my bum down and stay. Sit. Stay. Breathe. Be Present.
Oh brother, could this get any harder?
And all of this time I’ve been worried about my backbends, when I should’ve been perfecting my savasana…
Finding this state of in-action is the ever present challenge that I face within myself. I always have and always will love a good sweaty vinyasa but, over the previous few years my mind has shifted me towards a solid Yin Yoga practice. I’m ready for some stillness in my life. I’ve prepared for a long time. I’ve been thinking lately that a lack of activity (both physical and mental) creates the same sense of all–connectedness which we seek through yoga practice, that sensation we describe when we find ourselves in the “flow”. I feel it, I observe it, I embody it. And I know my arrival at the point of stillness will be fleeting. That’s why I keep coming back to the mat. Until I can stop shifting thoughts toward the grumpy client, the needy friend, the spoiled dog, I will keep coming back to my asana and use it as a guide into the world of quietude. Two steps forward, one step back. Mine is not a leap into stillness, it’s a tip-toe. And I’m okay with savoring each step along the way.
Yoga teachers: you might have thought you got off the hook after seeing my previous rant on proper yoga ritual. I contained it to students only, but to be honest I did so for the sole purpose of reserving an entire piece to our own blunders as the leaders of the pack. Yes, we do boo boos, too.
Instructors can be culprits of the strange and inappropriate; float around in the ethers living off of sunshine and rainbows, a bundle of macramé so thick you can’t find their wrist. Or teachers can come across as militant dictators, sporting black spandex from head-to-toe, catwoman-like, not one strand of hair out of place…probably because they’re as rigid with their beauty regimen as they are in their practice. Hey, there’s a flavor for every type of student and it’s important to stay true to your own voice both as you teach and as you choose a teacher. With that said, guidelines do exist in helping us steer clear of offensive, bothersome and just plain annoying behaviors. As teachers we can also step into ritual, a sacred cycle, one that sets us up to remain accessible while, of course, leaving room for our own personal flair.
· Show up and start on time. As a yoga instructor “on time” means 15 to 30 minutes EARLY. Set the stage! You are about to share what you love with the world so act like you mean it. Now not all of us are fans of candles and incense, soft music and smudging, but at least leave yourself time to get centered, go over your plan (if you have one) and be ready to greet the students as they come in. Nothing like kicking off a yoga class with students waiting at a locked door, or seated in an empty studio –looks of confusion written on their faces. If you run in last minute stressed to the max, like a bat out of hell…well, don’t act surprised when it rubs your waiting students the wrong way. And apologize to them without interjecting your excuses for tardiness.
· End your class on time. It’s not that an extra 8 minutes in savasana doesn’t feel good, it’s just that your student’s also have a life outside of yoga (the ODACITY!). Especially if running over the scheduled time slot is due to your own late arrival…beware! With children to pick up, a doctor’s appointment to make, a job, a home, a commitment, a LIFE, it’s not every student that will be ecstatic about your extended mantra chanting. In addition, many studios are running a tight schedule. If the following class begins 15 minutes after your own high tail it out of there to be considerate and respectful of your co-workers. Leave the next people ample time to transition into their yoga yumminess by wrapping up your own class punctually.
· General time awareness. Are we noting the trend here yet? What is it with teachers and our loose relationships to linear time? If you’re thinking about taking a 10 minute ramble while shifting your students into a balance pose well…don’t. Monitor your holds. And then try to make them consistent. If you hold for 10 breaths on one side, don’t hold for 1 on the opposing side. Trust me, they notice! And they’re all watching. And judging. And sweating. And scowling.
· Don’t over share. And on the note of general time awareness…teachers: how much time do you spend talking about yourself during a typical yoga class? Yes, there are supportive comments which we can use to humanize ourselves and avoid falling into the false role of the “guru”. I like to share things like “when I started working on this pose…” or “one of my teachers once told me…” But please teachers, please, remember that no one dropped in on your class to hear about your ex-boy/girlfriend, about your sick cat or your financial woes. This might come as a shock, but as far as your students are concerned, this class is NOT ABOUT YOU. So zip it, alright? If it doesn’t directly relate to what you’re demonstrating, teaching or the intention of the class think twice before letting it slip out of your lips.
· Don’t be a doormat…or a dictator. One of my personal pet peeves as a student is when I have to strain in order to hear what the instructor is saying. If you don’t have a microphone and speaker system, be prepared to project; not only project the volume of your voice, but in turn projecting your confidence as a leader. If students are craning to see what you’re doing and hear what you’re saying they cannot fully focus on their practice and they just might feel a lack of confidence resonating from beyond your meekness. Aaaand on the other side of the coin we have the screaming, yelling, military style instructor who thrives on intimidation and submission. Yuck. I personally don’t go to yoga to get yelled at like a child. It’s tough, I know, but try to find balance. Aim for supportive leadership by guiding AND witnessing, speaking AND listening. This is our task and our challenge as the teacher. If your students are scared of you, soften up. If they take advantage of you, toughen up. And have the with-it-ness to notice when either situation is upon you.
· Practice mindful adjustments. Ever had an instructor put their hands on you and it just felt….icky? Or weak, or timid or weird, or it hurt you? A note to all instructors: if you don’t FEEL creepy touching then your touch won’t come across as creepy to the receiver. And if you can’t get over being weirded out then maybe you should hold off on jumping into the world of physical adjustments for a bit. When you do begin touching bodies watch for a physical response: if they twitch or jump it’s probably safe to say you’re touching too firmly or are on an uncomfortable spot; good sign to back off. If the student sighs or deepens the pose, chances are you’re doing something right. Seems pretty logical right?
· Watch your words or your lack thereof. Again, focus on the type of guide you wish to be. I’ve been a student in both extremes. You have a.) the teacher that lists off the names of the poses and not much else for the entire duration of the class (not so bad for the seasoned yogis but a total nightmare for the newbies unfamiliar with the pose names) and you have b.) the teacher who makes you work the entire class at drowning out their pointless ramblings. “Why am I in Warrior II and this guy is talking about his grandmother’s new iguana? How is this related to the pose?” If a helpful anecdote, commentary or joke seeps in then by all means share it…but get back on track efficiently, too. Find balance between not enough or too much detail.
· Name calling is not nice. Try not to call students out specifically by name across the entire room. If someone is in need of a specific adjustment try a more personal approach like speaking to them one-on-one (approaching them closely). Students can easily misconstrue and feel hurt by your “targeting” of their pose; especially newer students. A yoga practice is such a deeply personal experience and nobody wants to feel picked on. On the other hand – don’t hesitate to sling out positive reinforcement by name! That always feels good.
Here you have it folks, my admission that as a teacher (and a human being) I’m naturally, beautifully, exactly and precisely imperfect. As we all are. So students: take it easy on your teachers because it’s hard to be centered, peaceful and balanced as we come face-to-face with you each class. We also get hit with life’s curveballs. We battle the same challenges off of the mat as you; we are ecstatically celebrating the same triumphs. We are not emotionless, enlightened and perfect but merely fellow yogis on this greater path of learning and life. We commit to trying our hardest in leading you on a worthy yogic journey. If you accept us for who we are and where we are within our own practice (even with all of our quirks and through all of our human-ness), I promise it’ll be one hell of a trip!
OK Yogis, I get it.
Carefree and flexible in both body and spirit, we go with the flow, move like water, have open minds, open hips, seek to love and appreciate ourselves for who we are, see the light in all beings and sometimes we wear balloon pants and flowers in our hair. Yogis have become synonymously associated with granolas, the earth mother/father archetype, those that you see flocking to music festivals with face paint and third eye crystals, the ones who make funny shapes with their bodies to some music that others “just don’t understand.” That’s us, yep. The yogis. We’re probably off somewhere participating in a massage circle or looking for the newest brand of local, fair-trade, organic, raw, vegan…anything. Yes, that is us. Now I say this all with love and only partially in jest because yes, I am one of you! You are all in me! I see your light; you see mine, yadda yadda yadda, Namaste and all that jazz. BUT….
Wake up! While you were frolicking around in the air and the ether some of your beloved yoga teachers have worked hard to set a sacred space for your yoga practice. And then YOU stormed in covered in sand and salt water, having bathed in a puddle of patchouli and demanding a group hug. Earth to yogi! Calling your feet back down to this green planet! I have an important message for you all: guidelines DO EXIST (“ew we HATE guidelines man, don’t box us in!”). There IS a protocol to being a conscientious and respectful student in a shared studio space. Now being a buzz kill is not my desired role, but you know what else I dislike? I dislike starting a class and then watching Henry Heavy Feet stomp his way in 15 minutes later. I dislike witnessing the ensuing eye rolls from those already deep into their Surya Namaskaras when they have to move their mats to accommodate him. I also dislike that he missed the entire intention by being so discourteously unpunctual…and while I’m on a roll, I dislike that I have been put in the compromising position of erroneously acting like it’s all good. With a smile on my face I provide warm-up poses to someone that couldn’t be bothered to even arrive in time for the actual warm-up.
Now, come on, you don’t want to be Henry Heavy Feet, do you? No? Well, that’s what I thought.
If “guidelines” or “rules” don’t sit well with you, look at practicing yoga etiquette as part of a beautiful ritual. Rachel Pollack says “Ritual helps us acknowledge the important moments in our lives…we place those moments outside of the ordinary flow of events…The break from our ordinary lives heightens our senses and reminds us of who we are.” [The Power of Ritual]
For me, arriving to the mat as a student is a much welcomed break from the ordinary flow of my life events; one that I cherish very much. The entire experience is my ritual, from unrolling the mat at the start to exiting the studio at the end. Are you mindful of this experience for yourself and for those around you? Or did you get too caught up in whether or not your turban matched your tube top and your tinctures?
I’m going to give you the real etiquette low down, the one that doesn’t mince words, not the watered down peace-and-love response. Yes, I’m talking disgruntled yogini style because I’ve seen it all. Let’s figure this out together people once and for all.
Tips for appearing mindful during the sacred ritual of yoga practice:
· Take off your shoes BEFORE entering the yoga studio. Maybe even rinse your feet. In particular, if you are borrowing or renting equipment from your studio, show some respect! Especially for those of us living in the tropics, no one wants to unroll a mat and find it full of sand and salt. It’s one of the Niyamas, Saucha meaning cleanliness and purity. Have you ever come down to a child’s pose and scanned the ickiness on your community mat or studio floor? Yeah, pretty uncool if that ickiness is not your own. So keep it to yourself. Shoes off. Clean feet. Capicé?
· Arrive on time. And by on time I mean 5 to 10 minutes early. Don’t unroll your mat during the opening breath work and intention setting. You are robbing from the focus and dedication and discipline of all of those around you who made the effort to get there. Now, given the reality of schedules for school children, life’s little curveballs, un-planned obstacles like traffic jams, red lights or monkeys in the house; if you must arrive tardy then walk lightly and set up with minimal disruption. There are people who have already begun class. In creating distractions you are energetically blasting their experience. You were not invited on their journey. And your own journey is no more important than theirs.
· Avoid wearing strong perfume or cologne. Although you may adore the smell of your own Sandalwood Musk or essence au natural, you cannot predict the olfactory reactions of your classmates. Some people are very sensitive to smells or have allergies. Nothing like a pounding head-ache to take you out of your Warrior mode or a sneezing attack to topple over your Tree. Ever had an overpowering body odor shove you headfirst out of your quiet mind? Yeah, well I have. Not cool.
· Minimize conversation. The ritual begins from the second you step foot into the studio. Try to avoid nervous chatter and consider the practice as having begun the moment you roll out your mat. Please don’t rehash last night’s party scene while sitting in your sukhasana. Sit quietly, come into a private breath practice or explore some asana independently. Respect that others around you are likely seeking peace, quiet and inward focus. If the instructor needs to converse with the students, he/she will. Within reason you can always ask questions during practice if you need direct assistance in a pose. However, while upside down, head between your legs DON’T ask the cute girl beside you what she’s up to later. No weather chit-chat. No gossip. Just pure presence.
· Do not bring your kids. Do not bring your kids. Do not bring your kids. Do not bring your kids. Unless the sign on the door says “Daycare”, “School” “Mommy/Daddy & Me Yoga” or “Children’s Yoga” do not bring your kids. I know, I know, your child is an angel. Yours is special. Your child already does yoga (I know this because you’ve masterfully slipped in a demonstration of their trikonasana followed by a dimpled smile). Your child is well behaved. I know. Yours and everyone else who has ever asked to bring their child to an adult yoga class. Do yourself a favor: dedicate the hour or 90 minutes of practice to YOURSELF and allow the others that have arrived to do the same. The only thing worse than having your practice derailed by your own child is having your practice derailed by someone else’s child. Be prepared to stave off the dagger eyes on your way out if you dare to skip this part of the ritual.
· Wear comfortable and (a-hem) appropriate clothes. I’ve seen my fair share of wardrobe oddities by way of running a yoga studio on a tropical beach, but unless you’ve signed on for a 105°F (≈ 40.6°C) practice in a sealed up room (or a nude colony class) please people, cover it up! I didn’t sign-in on the registry of a burlesque performance and don’t need to see a dozen who-haas or hooters from my down dog. And that goes for you, too gents! Group class is not the place to display your plumage, fine as it might be. Sport some skivvies under those loose fitting fisherman pants, ok?!
· Follow the sequencing of the class. If you prefer to do your own independent practice then why are you paying money to be guided in a group class? Not only are you creating a distraction for all of the students, but newer ones don’t know what the f* is going on! They don’t know whether to follow you, the actual teacher or just give up entirely and walk away. You’re in a full split; we’ve just arrived at Tadasana. Come on. Get it together! Join the class you made the conscious decision to join, or don’t come at all. Take modifications and variations as needed while respecting your own bodily needs, but also respect the practice and the time of those around you. Likely, a lot of planning went into the sequencing of this class. Personal practice is the time to show yourself just how fancy you can be, to admire your own inhuman expressions of back flexibility…don’t do it during the level 1 yin class.
· Turn off electronics. Duh. I do yoga precisely to get away from my computer and cell phone, what about you? So guess what? I don’t want to be around your computer or cell phone either. Check it at the door. Not to mention the effect that electronics have on the energy of a space and its electromagnetic field…don’t get me started! If you’re so busy that you can’t be without your cell phone for 60 to 90 minutes at a time, consider booking a private yoga session – one where you will be the only one to cringe at the sound of your awful reggaeton ringtone.
· Observe silence in savasana. Ok, so you’ve got somewhere else to be and some other people to be there with, all of which take precedent over the most important pose of the practice. Ok, I get it, I won’t judge (much). You think…what? Lying on your back like a corpse is too easy or something? Well, welcome to the toughest pose of the practice: try staying there for 5 or 10 minutes with a clear mind and connected breath. If for whatever reason you absolutely must go, don’t shout to the teacher across the room announcing your departure, don’t walk directly over the bodies staggered around the space and DON’T activate your cellphone before you’re well out of earshot. This is the culmination of the entire practice – a good (or bad) savasana can throw off or accentuate the rest of our prior work – don’t blow it for the rest of us, buddy!
Okay, so here they are: the basic steps in the ritual of being a mindful yoga student. Is this all asking too much? Maybe so, but remember: following this ritual is part of the discipline of a dedicated practice. It’s not about touching your toes, right? There is something deeper to it. And part of that “something deeper” includes fine-tuning our yogi manners.
And as an added bonus, you’ll stop being greeted by sour faces at your local studio, trust me.
You can thank me later…