Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On Teaching...

Today is officially one month since I completed my yoga teacher training.  Hard to believe, feels like it's been longer!

I am still not teaching right now.  But, I have noticed more and more lately this desire slowly rising in me to share what I have learned.  And there seems to be more and more opportunities thrown in my direction.  There are a couple of people at the studio I clean and practice at saying that they want to take my class and two of my teachers from college have said the same thing.  My roommate just sent me an email that her sister (who I've only met a handful of times) sent to her, to let me know about a well-known yoga studio that has openings for yoga teachers.  I have had around 5 people at the condo I work at who have told me that I should teach a class there at the building.  A young couple that I talk to regularly in the building want me to teach them privately.  If anything, that last one feels like the one that I am feeling most drawn to and would feel most comfortable doing.

I've also been doing more "sporadic/spontaneous teaching" to people.  Usually it's just one pose, maybe 2, or a concept...something they have a question about.  It's getting easier and feeling very comfortable.  Words just come out of my mouth easy and I don't even have to think about what to say.  I also feel like a lot of the information from the training is starting to integrate in my head, but only when I have someone to apply it to (outside of myself).  I noticed it a few nights ago when one my roommates asked me, "Do you know anything that could straighten my back?"  I told her that it depends on why her back isn't straight, lol.  Basically it's just because she has "desk syndrome:" her back is in a permanent hunched position and is weak.  One, because of the desk job.  Two, she has a very thin body frame and not a lot of muscle tone to support it.  The conversation turned into this whole mini-session where I showed her some basic poses that could help, broke out my anatomy book and explained what muscles were doing what and how that effected her body.  It was actually a pretty amazing experience.  First because I was stunned to hear those words coming out of my mouth and to see all the information actually coming together.  Second, because I was learning a lot too.  My roommate is what my teacher trainer, Jennie, would call a "brand new, baby beginner."  I had never seen someone who was brand new to yoga and not already athletic!  I was trying to explain how to put weight in your hands just from an all-4's position (on hands and knees) and that was hard for her!  I was originally going to show her how to do a Sun Salutation and immediately realized that it would be very hard for her.  And, suddenly, as we kept talking, I started drafting a sequence for her in my head!  I suddenly realized why YogaWorks sequences things the way that they do and why beginners have to start out with a lot of standing poses--because putting weight in their hands right at the beginning is to hard.  Jennie used to say, "you have to learn how to stand on your feet before you can stand on your hands."  I told Tamara (teaching assistant from my training and someone I also practice with in the Mysore room) about the experience and she said, "you're going to have to start figuring out your hourly rate!"  I said, "I'm not charging her!  She's teaching me!" 

It's like I couldn't really understand everything I had learned until I actually had someone specific to apply it to.  And that's one reason I feel more drawn to teaching privately right now rather than teaching publicly.  I have a lot to learn about how to teach and more than a couple of people feels like too much to take in and to respond to.  For example: the young couple that wants me to teach them.  The husband wants me to teach him "how to not die in a yoga class" and to help make downward dog less strenuous on his shoulders.  The wife wants me to teach her Crow Pose/Bakasana.  They are in two different places!  I've always known that yoga was originally taught on an individual basis--actually seeing the reasons why just emphasizes it.  Although, I feel like if I were to teach anything publicly it would be Ashtanga, because I know the sequence and, for a large part, it makes sense (minus not doing much of anything to stretch the hip flexors and quads in preparation for the back bending and not doing much of anything to open the outside of the hip in preparation for all the lotus positions--just a little reminder that the Primary Series was designed for a young, athletic boy (a.k.a Pattabhi Jois).  Which, again, is why YogaWorks sequences things the way that they do.  In the training, they said that both Iyengar and Ashtanga had their own extremes and were meant for the the very serious yoga student, and not someone who does yoga once or twice a week.  Again, after the session with my roommate, I really understand why.

So.  Here I am.  I am now really starting to feel a desire to actually teach and share what I have learned.  But what do I teach?  How do I do it?  The how part kind of relates to the what.  Where do I start?  What do I teach after that?  I feel like I need someone to teach me this part.  When I practiced karate, once you got up to the higher level ranks/belts, you assisted your sensei in the lower level classes and taught portions of the beginning of the class.  There are no lower level classes and yoga isn't taught this way--at least not at this, or the great majority, of yoga studios.  There is at YogaWorks studios...which we don't have in Boston.  Which is why teaching Ashtanga is appealing--there's a method to it, a set system of poses to work with and progress to.  And then there's that feeling that bubbles up whenever I think about actually doing it.  Whenever I think about teaching publicly, it kind of makes me feel like vomiting.  But, at least the desire is actually there now and I feel a little more confident about what I know.  That's a start.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fear and the return of drop-backs

My practice took another fun turn this week.  I'm still on my Ashtanga roll, not wanting to do much of anything outside of this practice.  After all the different styles and teachers that I've bounced between, it actually feels really good to settle on one for this long (yes, 2 weeks is a long time in MY practice, lol).  There's really not a lot of that "itch" to check out another class or another teacher or do something different that is usually present.  I'm a little worried about losing the precision that I learned and the endurance that I gained from holding poses for much longer than one does during an Ashtanga practice, but I also know that it doesn't take me long to get back whatever I think I've lost.  Plus Kate has been really good about catching me on some alignment issues, especially where my backbending is concerned.  Speaking of back bending, Kate returned standing up from and dropping back into Urdhva Dhanurasana (a.k.a, full backbend/upward-facing bow) to my practice!  I had been doing them for about 4 months before I had my foot surgery last October.  They've been on a hiatus since then, largely because I aggravated an old back injury/tweak by attempting to stand up from them before my foot was strong enough to help support the movement.  Because of that, my lower back (already shaky because of a previous injury) took all of the bend and back-bending had been rough since then.  Add in subsequent shoulder and wrist injuries and back bends were almost completely gone from my practice for quite some time.  But, the training I just finished spent a lot of time going over how to back bend properly.  I've done a lot of work on them and since I returned to my Ashtanga practice after the training, they've been improving and feeling really good.  Apparently, Kate noticed.

It actually shocked me when she told me to try standing up!  She just gave me Setu Bandhasana last week, I didn't expect her to put those back in too!  On the next back bend, I started rocking on to my finger tips in preparation of standing up---and I was shocked to feel how scared I was!  Not to sound like I'm boasting, but there are very few things in the yoga practice that actually invoke fear.  But this one was suddenly doing it and I was shocked at how vivid it was.  My breathing was shallow, it felt like my heart was racing and I felt like I was shaking on the inside.  I was really scared of hurting my back again.  But, if there's anything I've learned from the injury (aside from waiting until an injury is fully healed and regained its strength) is that if you don't fully commit to whatever you're attempting then you will end up hurting yourself.  If I only half-heartedly attempt standing up, then my legs won't do the work that they need to and the lower back will be forced to take all of it because that's the path of least resistance.  So, I focused my whole effort on making sure I was engaging my legs and that my hips were over my feet as much as possible before I stood up.  And, I did it.  I couldn't believe I actually got back up--or that my body remembered how to do it.  I had to just stand there for a few moments before I could start attempting the drop-backs, which were equally terrifying.  I was literally shaking when I stood up--from the fear of possibly hurting myself again and from the effort of trying to stay calm.  I kept needing to let air out through my mouth instead of through my nose.  Kate kept calling from across the room, "Tara, breathe through your nose."  Nod the head, yep, working on it.  That whole time I kind of felt like I was hovering on the verge of a panic attack.  By the time Kate came over to do them with me (for those who don't know, in Ashtanga you do at least 3 drop-backs on your own and then at least 3 more with the teacher) it felt hard to keep my breathing steady and I was feeling very light-headed.  I didn't feel like I could do anymore.

However, the funny thing about this system of yoga is that you don't get to run away from something that scares you.  Nor do you get to skip out on the poses that you don't like (like purvottanasana, my once long-time nemesis who is now more friend than nemesis).  If you've been given that pose in your practice, you do it.  Your attitude towards it and how you approach is where the real lesson comes in and where you can really start to change your habits and how you react to things.  What I might have done in the past with a pose like this that scared me would be to ignore the fear, let my mind check out and just do the pose without thinking about it.  Which is likely to get me injured because I won't be thinking about what I'm doing.  The fear is a guide.  I'm afraid that I'll hurt my low back because that's what happened last time.  So, if I pay attention to the fear and make sure I do the pose and movement correctly (using the legs, and the breath and keeping the bend in my upper back, etc) then I am less likely to repeat what caused the injury last time.  So, with Kate's guidance, we worked very deliberately and very slowly and gently.  She is giving me more time than I have seen her do with other people to collect myself and steady myself before going back.  After we finished I felt like I was going to pass out from all the mental energy I was having to put into it.  Thankfully the very next pose in the Ashtanga sequence is Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) and the best adjustment in the world--the "paschimo squish," where the teachers lays over you and presses your chest towards your legs.  And now I really understand its purpose.  Those drop-backs can be really scattering for the mind and your emotions.  Having weight on your back helps to ground it all down and calm your nerves. 

The next day, the drop-backs were much smoother and my fear was much less vivid.  It's still there though, I have a feeling it will be for a while.  Aside from being afraid of hurting my back, I'm also afraid of passing out.  I tend to get very light-headed when I do drop-backs in this practice.  I normally have fairly low blood pressure, and yoga is known for lowering your blood pressure.  I actually got to see evidence of this last week.  I went to my doctor for an annual physical right after doing my morning practice and my blood pressure was 98 over 56.  The nurse kept asking if I felt ok or if I was feeling dizzy, lol.  I said, no, I'm fine, I just did yoga this morning, lol.  Anyways, one of the drawbacks to low blood pressure is getting light-headed.  I also think my blood sugar might be a little screwy, so that's probably not helping.  Kate is trying to get me to engage the bandhas (energy locks), specifically mula bandha (root lock), but I haven't figured out exactly how to do that yet--or at least not consciously.  And I'm kind of curious how that is supposed to decrease the light-headedness.  But, Kate knows what she's talking about, so I'm going to trust her on this one. 

Ironically, the fear that I'm feeling in back bends now almost feels like a gift.  As I said before, there isn't much that scares me in my practice.  Natasha (teacher from my training) likes to say that your practice is like a mirror for how you are in your life.  And I've always wondered how I could be so seemingly fearless in my practice but so fearful in life.  I guess I just hadn't found it in my practice yet.  And it's really amazing to get to watch the process happen.  Because my usual reaction to fear is disassociating, or ignoring it, I'm not fully conscious of what actually happens in my body when it first shows up--which, I'm told, is key to changing it.  I'm pretty sure this is the same fear and the same reaction to fear that kicks in whenever I had to teach during the training.  I'm getting a pretty good view of it: there's a small "catch" at the bottom of my throat, making it feel hard to get air in or out (which may be why I feel the need to breath in and out through my mouth and not my nose), my chest tightens and my heart starts racing and I feel like I'm shaking from the inside out.  Now I understand why it's so paralyzing and why it's so hard to think clearly.  This is going to be a really good place to work on this.  Thus far, as always, the most important part and first step is remembering to breathe, lol.  I'm working on the rest :-)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ashtanga Days

It's been just about 3 weeks since the end of my first yoga teacher training, though it feels like a lot longer.  It's pretty amazing, it feels so distant now that it almost feels like it was a dream.  Part of that is because of the nature of my mind.  Not only is it heavy on the Vata side (Ayurvedic term, one of the 3 "doshas," or energies, found in the body that consists of air and either.  For a better definition go here), which means that as quickly as I learn something, I tend to forget it just as easily.  But that's also how my mind has learned how to cope with unpleasant, intense or stressful situations--forget that it happened.  Which is why I made such an effort to write about what I was thinking and feeling immediately afterwards: I wanted to remember it.  Not necessarily dwell on it, but remember what it felt like and what I learned.  So, I gave myself enough time to rest and just process what I went through.  I'm actually very proud of myself for handling it the way that I did.  I didn't spend a lot of time just sitting and crying and throwing myself a "pity-party," but I didn't ignore what I was feeling either--which is how I used to handle situations like that.  Close off, don't feel anything, do anything to keep moving and not feel or think about it.

Not this time.  I let myself feel it for a bit--the sadness at the training being over, at not seeing my fellow trainees (who I was just starting to get close to) every month and not getting to practice consistently with the teachers from my training, the frustration, disappointment and intensity of the practicum, the fear of the uncertainty of the future and the "what am I supposed to do now?"  There was a lot going on in my mind and I knew that I needed to feel it and process it.  But I knew that I also needed to let it go and move forward.

That's where the Ashtanga came in.  I went back to the Mysore room and my Ashtanga practice last week and the first practice was pretty incredible.  It was mildly exhausting because I felt like I was still recovering from the training, but it was as though someone had flipped a switch in my brain.  I felt calm and grounded for the first time since the end of the training.  It was like a total system reset.  For this entire past week, all that I have done is my Ashtanga practice.  Not only has it been calming and grounding for my mind and emotions, but I also realized that it has given me a place to integrate what I learned during the training.  A lot of what I really learned in the training were very subtle things--alignment points and subtle actions that you can't really see from the outside (like consciously using certain muscles to move you, literally using the breath to move the body, the famous "root-rebound" action that Natasha and Jennie emphasized throughout the training...and many more) but make a huge difference in how the practice feels.  I used to think that I couldn't practice these things in the Ashtanga room because the sequence had to be practiced in a certain way.  True, Ashtanga is pretty specific about certain things.  But all of those things are subtle enough and universal enough to practice in any class.  Jennie used to talk a lot about making students take responsibility for their own practice.  I think this is what that means.  I know how to do these things now.  It's up to me to actually use them and practice them, without a teacher telling me when to do it.  And let me tell you, the Ashtanga feels amazing when you have everything lined up right and are actually present and working in the poses--and not just holding them.

This past week of Ashtanga has felt like so much longer than 1 week--I think because of the way I've been practicing.  It has almost felt like I've been re-discovering my practice, and I've enjoyed every second of it.  I've also made some pretty big strides in the practice.  I'm starting to find more ease in my jump-throughs (from down dog to seated) and am starting to actually find a sense of the jump-back (from seated to chaturanga).  My back bends are also starting to feel better.  For some reason, in this practice, back bending has been feeling difficult.  In other classes they're very accessible, but in Ashtanga, it's a little harder to find.  I haven't tried to bring back the drop-backs (lowering down into Urdhva Dhanurasana from standing) yet, but I feel like I'm getting close.  Also, this last Thursday, I finally found the full bind in Supta Kurmasana--no towel necessary for the hands!  Here's a pic for those who don't know what it looks like (this is most definitely not me in this picture, this is courtesy of a Google search):
This is pretty huge for me, I've been working on this pose for probably close to a year because my shoulders have been so tight.  I usually can't even get my fingers to touch and need a towel to hang on to.  And then, suddenly, there it was.  Cara (Ashtanga teacher and Kate's assistant in the Mysore room) squeezed the outside of my legs together, so that my shoulders could wiggle underneath even more.  I clasped my hands and reminded myself what Erin (a teacher that subbed for Kate) told me when she was working with me on this one: "don't let go."  I kept my fingers clasped tight, Cara crossed my ankles in front of me and, there it was: Supta Kurmasana.  And, shockingly, it didn't feel like a struggle to hang on to the clasp and my breathing was still pretty steady!  I stayed in the pose longer than the required amount of breaths, after Cara had walked away, to make sure that I actually had it.  Yep, still there.  I was shocked, I couldn't believe it actually happened, I never thought I would be ever be able to actually bind in that pose! 

There was another huge stride in my Ashtanga practice that day.  Kate, my Ashtanga teacher, gave me the last pose of the Primary Series: Setu Bandhasana

I know what you're thinking.  "What the hell?!  That can't be good for your neck!"  That's what I thought whenever I saw people do it.  I didn't even play with this one on my own because it looked so crazy.  But here's the cool thing, it actually feels really good.  Opens up the throat and the chest and it actually felt like it helped me get more air into my lungs than other back bends.  I actually got it on the first try!  I thought that she would have to walk me through it a few times because the placement of the feet and the head looked confusing.  Nope.  She showed me how to place my feet and talked me through the prep part where you put the top of your head on the floor and start the bend in your back, just like Matsyasana.  Then she said, "now straighten the legs," and there it was.  No fuss, no struggle.  Just keep the legs straight, the hips lifted and the breath moving up to your collar bones.

After I finished the pose, it felt like I had just got a huge energy boost.  My back bends felt great, I did 6 of them.  I layed there after the last one trying to decide whether or not to do more.  I wanted to, but I also felt like I probably shouldn't push that pose because there's still something odd going on in my lower back.  But I still had so much energy!  I rolled up and went into Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) and instantly wanted to come out of it--like it was restricting the energy that had just been released and I just wanted to keep moving.  I even had to make myself stay in Savasana!  For those who don't know me, forward folds are usually some of my favorite poses and I enjoy staying in them for much longer than 5 breaths.  And Savasana--in my Ashtanga practice I'm usually in that pose for at least 10 minutes, sometimes I relax so much in that pose, I even fall asleep (which, aside from the anesthesia-induced sleep from surgery, is the most restful sleep I ever get).  So, for me to not want to stay in a forward fold or to have to consciously make an effort to stay in Savasana is saying a lot!  It just felt like this huge accomplishment--like, in running when I had been working towards a goal time for a long time and then finally reached it, such as the first time I broke the 6 minute mark in the mile, or the first time I broke 2 minutes and 30 seconds for my 800 time (half a mile).  It feels like, after breaking that mark or accomplishing something like this, you just reach a whole other level of whatever you're practicing.

Kate actually told me the morning before (Wednesday) that she was going to give me the last pose.  She actually was going to about a month before the training started, but then the shoulder and wrist gave out and my Ashtanga practice took a back seat to the teacher training.  So, when she told me she was going to give it to me, I just kept my mouth shut.  Even though I was as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve, I didn't tell anyone--I didn't want to jinx it, lol!  But the Ashtanga gods were on my side that day.  No injuries, no over-sleeping the alarm.  Now I am practicing the full primary series.  It's amazing.  I've been practicing and working on this series for almost 2 years (1 year and 11 months to be a little more precise).  Sometimes I've been at the practice 5-6 days a week, other times it fell down to 1-3 days a week.  But it's always been there.  I've was able to use it and adapt it after my surgery and through all the different injuries that I've had over the last couple of years.  It's been confusing and frustrating at times, but I feel like it's finally really become my practice.