Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Simply Hatha

I had a class this weekend for Triathletes. I'm always glad to introduce people to yoga, so I designed a sequence that focused on core strength, lengthening thru the torso and using the breath to help maintain difficult positions. The students seemed responsive and I even had one sign up for my regular class. I had to keep reminding myself not to "leave the yoga out," even tho the crowd was there more for a workout than centering. By the end of the class everyone was more open, but they also seemed calmer and relaxed. Was it the simple work of the sequence or my teaching? I'm never sure...

My classes tend to focus mostly on the body; what is being worked or stretched, how the pose affects other actions, what should be aligned/relaxed/engaged. It's not a Yoga Workout, but it is asana-centered. We do a little bit of pranayama, but mostly as simple breathing exercises to help calm the mind. We don't chant or do intense breathwork or even vocalize Ohms. I like that stuff in other classes, with other teachers, but I would feel like a big phony teaching it. I don't do it much in my own practice and I haven't had any training aside from a few workshops.

Sometimes I feel kind of guilty about not wanting to include more of the "beyond-asana" elements in my classes. Iyengars tend to leave that study for advanced students and, since most of my crowd is pretty fresh, I don't include it either. Maybe it's my Midwestern tendency avoid other people's spirituality. I'd just assume they get there under their own steam...if the practice wants to move in that direction, they can pursue it with some one more qualified. Or maybe they are moving beyond the physical, just by coming to the class regularly and using some of my cues at home. With my regulars, I get the feeling they are beyond-asana, just by watching their faces in release poses or seeing how they cope with tougher positions (Gomukhasana tends to separate the wheat from the chaff).

When the dust of motherhood starts to settle (if it ever does) maybe I will add a more spiritual element to my practice and, eventually, my teaching. Until then, I guess it will have to be a subtle undertone for the most focused students. Even just sitting straighter becomes more than just sukhasana--there's something of the divine in that floating feeling you get when the upper body is exactly aligned over the lower...


11 comments:

Jenn said...

Brenda, Thanks so much for your lovely post. For putting into words what so many of us feel as teachers of yoga. For me yoga does go beyond the mat, beyond the physicality of asana, but I too am shy to bring those more spiritual elements into my practice. I worry about offending someone, of seeming a bit kookie, of turning someone away from a practice I think most everyone needs on some level, even if it's just physical.

But I also think we can find peace in our awareness not to take things too far too fast for the sake of seeming like a "real" yogi. I don't teach anything I don't know, haven't experienced for myself, or don't practice myself. Yes, someday I'd like vocal Oms, but first I have to become comfortable with that practice myself. Some day I'd like to more pranayama and meditation, but I feel I need some self study before I can bring that to my classes. We have time. The practice is a journey and I think, no I KNOW, the individuals who come to our classes are benefiting on many levels because they are taking the time to be present with their practice and we are taking the time to be present with our teaching.

As I prepare for the upcoming YJ conference in March I've often thought of you as I trace my drive through/past Beloit. I do hope you are planning to attend. I would be so honored for a chance to meet.

Kristin said...

Very interesting post. We have similar philosophies toward teaching...Perhaps it is a Midwestern thing?

I tend to focus on the flow and technique (ujjayi breath, drishti, alignment).

I keep pranyama as simple breathing exercises - often to ground and center at the beginning and end of class.

I don't chant unless I am introducing the Opening Invocation.

I forgo the Oms and do three deep closing breaths.


In the workshops I have attended where we DO do the traditional chants and pranyama, and I am fine with that for the most part, but not comfortable enough to bring it back to my students. If it doesn't sit comfortably with me, I won't teach it comfortably and the students will pick up on that.

But I've also had the experience in workshops where we do 20-30minutes of call and response chanting and I end up feeling uncomfortable because a) I have no idea what I am chanting, b) I am mangling the pronunciation and c) it just keeps going...

I also feel that I am but a low rung on the yoga ladder and there are others who are more experienced than I who would be a better teacher IF the student wishes to pursue more indepth studies. I *really* don’t want to turn someone off of the wonderful experience of yoga if aspects of it don’t jive with their personal beliefs.

Loved your closing sentence:“Even just sitting straighter becomes more than just sukhasana--there's something of the divine in that floating feeling you get when the upper body is exactly aligned over the lower...”

Abby said...

Just wanted to echo the other commenters on a wonderful post. I'm just beginning my teachers certification and still uncomfortable with the idea of bringing too much spirituality into the practice. It's not really my thing, though I embrace the fact that for some it's the main thing.

This post made me feel a little less alone as there are clearly others out there who are also reticent with the more spiritual aspects of yoga.

Jen said...

Loved your post. So funny that several of us consider it a "midwestern thing." While I practice chanting and pranayama at home, I don't feel comfortable teaching it to my students who are mostly beginners. Sometimes I need to remind myself to teach what THEY need, not what I want. Sometimes there is a big difference there. But on rare occassion that I have introduced chanting or a new pranayama technique, I've had positive responses. So maybe I underestimate my students????

Jen said...

p.s. Yours is one of my favorite yoga blogs. It's always so thought provoking for me. So I've given you a little award over at: http://mcsmithley.blogspot.com/2009/02/these-are-few-of-my-favorite-things.html

Barbara said...

I agree. Wonderful post and wonderful comments.

I would love to incorporate more spiritual aspects into my classes, but I teach at a gym and don't feel it is appropriate. The most that I hope for is that asana leads my students to something more.

Thanks for this post!

heather said...

Echos my style as well. I grew up a Methodist in upstate NY and we didn't flaunt spirituality. I live in the South now and am always uncomfortable with other people's fervent expression of their religion, but down here its as prevalent as talking about your weekend...

Melissa Garvey said...

Hi, Brenda. Thanks for stopping by my new site. I've been simplifying my life lately, so my blog had to follow suit. I kept Grounding Thru The Sit Bones in my blog list because I appreciate all of your thoughtful, wonderfully written posts.

My main teacher focuses on asana with Iyengar-style attention to detail. But her spirituality comes through even though she rarely says anything about it. I bet you're teaching more than you realize.

Kristin said...

I'm still thinking about this post and have been following everyone's comments.

I wonder if the discomfort(?) comes from the fact that we here in the States, coming from mostly a Christian background or influence, are not as comfortable with the Eastern traditions since we haven't grown up in that particular culture?

We only see part of the teachings in our workshops and readings and so we never really get a feel for the philosophy as a whole. And it's hard to convey or even teach something you only know parts of.

Just some idle thoughts....

Brenda P. said...

Thanks, all, for your thoughts. I'm still thinking about this, too, trying to craft a YJ pitch. I wonder at what point a physical practice does become mental/spiritual, and if it happens unconsciously (I suspect it does). Ponder, ponder.

Christine said...

I'm a beginning yoga student in the Seattle area, blessed with a wonderful studio (Seattle Yoga Arts). My teachers are certified in the Anusara tradition. And yes, in each class they invite us to sing a Sanskrit invocation, chant Om 3 times, and end our practice with an Om following the corpse pose meditation.

The teachers seem to have a very authentic spiritual grounding, and a wonderful way of connecting with us -- even folks like me who are somewhere between "agnostic" and seekers. What works is that they speak their truths in plain English, and don't try to connect (in class at least) to spiritual traditions that are foreign to us.

I've been to a retreat where a guy who came out of the California surfer tradition tried to retell his interpretation of the Indian mythology, and failed miserably. His teaching of the asanas, however, was superb.

The class in Seattle is always full -- crowded with mats each week. For a beginner like me it's sometimes too crowded! Some of these students have been returning to these Sunday classes for years.

Perhaps people in Seattle are more open to trying something new, but I can say that, done delicately, the principles of yoga can indeed infuse a practice even for students who thought they were just seeking a more balanced form of exercise.

Good luck to you all!