Finding my inner teacher

I’m currently in California, away from my usual, well-organized life. “On holidays” before my thesis defense, though actually still arranging things for the defense and writing my second first-author article.

It’s the first time in a very long time that I not only keep an hour-long daily practice minimum, and probably the first time ever when I’m not going to or following classes. And it’s definitely an interesting experience.

This week is the third of the month, so I’m practicing sitting poses. I think it’s the first time I’m spending so much time sitting on my mat. In a way it’s not as difficult as I expected (for beginners – which I’m still somewhat part of, at least in the Iyengar system – sitting poses are the most difficult to stay in). On the other hand, it is sometimes very confronting to be only with yourself.

I was thinking how incredibly hard it must have been for Guruji to keep on practicing and exploring in the beginning after he moved to Pune. I do realize that his relationship with his Guru was very different from the one I have with mine, however he learned so much from Krishnamacharya. It must have been so challenging to move to a town where he didn’t know anyone to teach something that was considered “stupid” at the time, notwithstanding continuing his own practice and exploration of all that yoga has to offer.

In a way we have it so easy, being able to regularly follow classes and learn from amazing teachers who sometime travel from a different continent to get to us! If one feels a bit down, unmotivated or uninspired, it is very easy to just go to class and get energy from the “flow” of the class. Of course on the other side, I’ve noticed that I can be pretty drained energy-wise after teaching a class.

Anyways, this is a good lesson which I hope to keep with me for a while. I feel that we humans are often attracted to the opposite of what we need. For example people who would benefit most from staying longer in poses will be attracted to more flowy styles of yoga. Self-practice, though very beneficial, is rarely done by students. It’s actually really hard for many people to get started with a home practice, yet it is where there is most room for growth.

Do you practice at home? What have you learned from yourself-practice? And how do you keep practicing when you can’t go to class?

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A parisian adventure

I spent last week in Paris, visiting my brother and sister in law. And as the obvious Iyengar-fanatic I am, I found a way to go to the Iyengar institute in Paris. I have to say it was quite the adventure. First, it was my first Iyengar class in French, ever. Second, my own teacher had told me that she was a little “impressed” by Corine Biria, one of the senior French Iyengar yoga teachers who teaches at the institute, so I was a little apprehensive – for Hiske is not one to be easily impressed.

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Corine Biria in Sheffield in 2002

Actually getting to one of the “high” level classes requires calling or dropping by the Institute beforehand, to check on your level. Even though they are clearly advertised as being tough classes on the website, I guess they had bad surprises beforehand. The class I ended up going to was a Level 4-5 2 hour class on Thursday morning. On the website they require that the practitioner is able to hold head- and shoulderstand easily for 15 minutes before attending. They have a Level 5-6 class for which the requirement is 20 minutes. While I felt relatively confident I would be able to hold a 15 minutes headstand (though probably not easily), I thought 20 minutes might be an overshot so I applied for the Level 4-5. When I called, the secretary asked for my level and I was like “huh, I have the Introductory certificate” – secretary: “I or II?” -me “huh, I-II?” -secretary “ok, are you aware this is an intense class?” – me, nervously laughing “huh, yeah?!” -secretary “alright well send me your name and birth date by email and I’m checking you in”.

 

Even though I had gone through the prescreening, when I actually got to the studio, I had to wait until Corine actually OK-ed me before I was in – a couple of minutes waiting that seemed very long… So I was a bit apprehensive about the class, as you can imagine.

 

If you’ve never been to the Institute in Paris, it’s in the XVIth arrondissement, aka the most expensive and chic part of Paris. It is located in a Haussmanian building, with amazingly beautiful wooden floors and murals. However, the practice room is small, even for Paris. Especially now that I am used to the immensity of the studio in Utrecht, it was a real change. I don’t know exactly how many people were attending the class, but I guess around 30, and every single inch of the floor was used. Mats were all touching and almost overlapping. I have to say that during balancing work I was quite afraid of falling over my neighbor and ending up in a domino effect.

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The practice room of the parisian institute

It was the first week of the month, so we practiced standing poses. Starting with wide stand Utthanasana, focusing on activating the feet and legs, especially the inner knee, then Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana, another Utthanasana this time with feet together. From there, classical sequencing of Trikonasana, Parvritta Trikonasana, Utthita Parsvokonasana via Virabhradasana II, Parvritta Parsvokonasana, Ardha Chandrasana and Parvritta Ardha Chandrasana. We did most poses twice, especially the Parvrittas, with what seemed like very long timings. The main focus was the buttocks, and we especially spent some time on the buttock use in Ardha Chandrasana and Parvritta Ardha Chandrasana.

 

NB: practice note for myself: I was corrected in Uttanasana because my right leg was not working as much as the left one.

 

I’ll try to describe the different actions. First, there are two planes of actions, which I will describe as being perpendicular or alongside the spine. In the perpendicular plane, the buttocks action can be separated into three components:

  • The lower part of the buttocks should go downwards and connect to the hamstrings. Corine insisted that many of us didn’t learn how to use our hamstrings yet (and I have to say I am having a hard time with this; since I injured my left hamstring I have realized how much I wasn’t using my hamstrings, which are long, but not strong. Working on it since, but it’s on and off).
  • The middle part should go inwards (towards the tailbone). This I find relatively easy / have learned to do during YTT.
  • The top part should lengthen upwards. Now, this I also sort of learned to do in teacher training, and it helped correcting my anterior pelvic tilt – but old habits die hard, and if I don’t pay attention or if the pose is a not-so-often practiced (thinking of you, vrikchikasana!), I end up losing the control on my abs and start crunching up my lower back again.

I think I have already referenced this article before, but there are some more details about these three components here.

Now for the spinal plane, I had never heard the instructions before. We looked at the pelvis of different people performing the pose and Corine pointed out which parts were open and which weren’t, after which we had to work on our own “issues”, with the instruction of getting both buttocks laterally away from the spine, so that the left buttock and the right buttock were both evenly giving space to the spine to stretch. We also practiced this with the help of the wall in the Chandrasanas, for more stability but ease of movement due to the wide angles between the legs and the trunk.

 

Thinking back, it was a very lateralized class, as I (and my side ribs) also remember the instructions of moving the breasts away from the sternum, and the right breast away from the left breast (with even more detailed instructions during the parvrittas).

 

Anyways, after all these we went on with Virabradhasana I and III, before Sirsasana finally got called up (we did have a couple of Utthanasanas and Prasaritta Padottanasana to recover in between some standing poses, and there was one Downward Dog at some point early on). I don’t know if Sirsasana was genuinely 15 minutes, but I stayed up the whole time and it didn’t feel so long; I think it is because 10 minutes without instructions is mentally exhausting whereas I most likely have the strength to hold longer headstands. Anyways, Corine said something incredibly poetic which I hope to translate properly: “In Sirsasana, think of the shoulder blades as of the wings of a bird beginning to fly”. Beautiful way to describe the outward rotation of the shoulderblades, isn’t it?

 

Finally, the class ended with Shoulderstand / Halasana, followed by Chatuspadasana before the final Savasana. I have to say I was surprised to hear the class was over; as often with great teachers, time flies (and yoga happens; it was two hours of living in the present moment).

 

In any case a very interesting experience, would definitely recommend going if you get the chance. I did have few vocabulary issues, but if I really didn’t get it Corine would point out what she was talking about on my body. And I gotta say that everyone in the class was incredibly nice and welcoming; they even gently made fun when I said I lacked some vocabulary after class and let me know that it was also “Corine words”.

Post-certification practice

I was recently reading this article from Fanny and her doubts about the “after” of certification. My own “after” brought a lot of change into my life, since I did not only graduate from YTT, but I am also getting my PhD soon, and leaving Utrecht. I actually already have left Utrecht and will only get back there for my PhD defense in November.

So it’s not only a question of maintaining a practice, but maintaining a practice away from my routine. I’m gonna be on the road a lot in the next few weeks, with little space to practice, and no classes to give or follow (except for one exception on which a post is coming soon).

In the first few weeks after the exam, I started practicing a lot “for fun”. Poses which were not in the syllabus, different ways of practicing, finding the initial “wow” again. The training to become a certified Iyengar teacher is hard and very regulated, and I needed this breath of fresh air, outdoor practice and arm balances.

After that, I moved to a new place where I couldn’t practice at home, and I was very busy, so my practice suffered a little. I still managed to go to classes about twice a week, but didn’t do any home practice. But now that I’m “on the road”, I’ve funnily managed to get back into a structured daily home practice. I’ve been working on building up strength and time in inversions. At this point, I practice headstand and shoulderstand/halasana for ten minutes each, but I want to build up to 15 minutes and ideally 20 minutes. I don’t think I will ever manage to go longer than that, not physically but simply because I don’t think I can spare more time than that during my day (it’s 40 minutes of headstand + shoulderstand without any other practice), especially since I would like to further my pranayama practice as well.

Anyways, I don’t really know where I’m going with this, and it’s probably different for many people, but I think that after getting certified, it’s perfectly normal to practice a bit less or a bit less seriously for a while – but it’s highly unlikely that you will stop practicing altogether. If only because you know what practice brings to you, and even without the guidance of a teacher, there is inspiration everywhere, in books, the internet, and your own body.

I don’t know whose credit this is… But I often feel like the Hulk!

Workshop with Manouso Manos – Day 2

After ~40 minutes of Q&A (Manouso mentioned one should always have at least 20 minutes of break between Pranayama and Asana practice), we moved on to Asana. It was a very long session (I believe around 5 hours, from 11:30 till 16:30), so I’ll try to stick to the main points. I think they were two main messages which were : dare, and have fun doing it. And a possible addendum: no props! We started with jumpings, which was killing us, but also a lot of fun, and took the seriousness out. Then we did standing poses (Trikonasana and Parsvakonasana), repeating them many many times, with a focus on rotating the chest to create a backbend. Ultimately, he has everyone get their palm flat on the floor. Many times through the class he was getting back to Light on Yoga and/or Art of Yoga to show us details of Iyengar’s poses. In this case, I learned that in Parsvakonasana the hand on the floor is actually behind the foot, with the thumbnail touching the middle of the heel. We also did Ardha Candrasana, and he had us move our hand from being in line with the little toe, to being in line with the big toe, to setting the palm of the hand flat on the floor. Challenging to say the least; I could feel my leg muscles burning – at that point he mentioned that strength is required for balance : working on it!

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Iyengar’s Parsvakonasana – notice how the hand is much more back than what we usually do!

We then worked on the pose I always forget to teach: Prasarita Padottanasana. He used this pose to learn more about inversions, so we did twice in “reverse order”, so that the first time we did the forward bend with head on the floor “headstand-style”, then we did headstand, then we did Prasarita lifting the chest up “shoulderstand-style”, then we did shoulderstand. In both Prasaritas he had us line the wrist with the heel.

In the first version, he used the side picture in Art of Yoga to show exactly how round the back has to become, so that not only the crown of the head if on the floor but also the back of the crown of the head is on the floor. Manouso demonstrated the pose and showed us not to lift the shoulders up with all our might, and not to bring the elbows too much towards each other (and writing this I can really see how much of an advanced group of students it was: it’s the exact opposite instructions to what we give to beginners!). He also mentioned bending the thumb slightly to extend the part of the palm at the root of the thumb and the hand line.

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“headstand-style” prasarita padottanasana

But as I already mentioned, this was to explore Sirsasana. We didn’t stay long in any of the inversions, as he said he’d rather have a good 1 minute headstand than a bad 20 minutes one where we only stay in the pose out of willpower. Once again, I already mentioned this was a workshop for advanced students. With that out of the way, he instructed us to start bearing more weight on our head and less on our arms and hands. Manouso explained that as a beginner, 90% of the weight should be on the arms, 5% on the hands and 5% on the head. However, with practice, as the neck muscles grow and become stronger, the weight should gradually increase on the head until 90% of the weight is on the head, 5% on the elbows and 5% on the hands. Ultimately, in the headstand variation where you are standing only on your head, you have 100% of the weight on your head, and apparently Guruji said to him once about this variation that he was doing it to “balance the four lobes of the brain”. Manouso explained that we can only stay in longer headstands if we can move the weight to our head. Interestingly, this is something I had somewhat gathered myself from self-practice, as I now regularly do 10+ minute headstands. While I still carry a considerable amount of weight in my arms and hands, I started doing regular arm variations in the middle of the room, and this forced me to bring more weight onto my head as I need to move the arms around.

For the second Prasarita, he had us line the heel of the hand with the heel of the foot again, and straighten the arms even if the heel doesn’t touch the floor anymore. The focus was on lifting the chest and creating a back bend in the thoracic area from using the arms – and yes, it was hard. But not as hard as what we had to do next.

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“Shoulderstand-style” prasarita padottanasana

For coming next was shoulderstand, which we did three versions of. We started with the regular shoulderstand. Then he had us partner up to use more blankets under the shoulders, and had the partner place a rolled blanket under the elbows. This was all so that we would learn to lift from the upper back and come more on top of the shoulders, and use less of our hands. Manouso said the hands are just there to give an upward direction – and not the whole hand, pretty much only the index finger. He had us remove the hands from our back as well. This felt very much like unsupported shoulderstand, which I prefer, so it was great. For the third version, I’d like to remind everyone once again that this was an advanced class. He had us remove all props, even the mats, and had us do shoulderstand with no support, with the fingers interlaced in the middle of the back and thumbs to the sides of the chest. We didn’t stay long, but I felt it was surprisingly great for the neck, and Manouso confirmed a short hold of this pose and help lengthen the neck.

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No belts, no mats, no blankets 

We finished the class with forward bends and twists, and to be honest I was getting exhausted by that point. We did multiple versions of paschimottanasana and janu sirsasana – for that one I learned that the buttocks of the bent leg is actually lifted up -which, again, you can actually sort of see on the Light on Yoga pictures. We were instructed to open up the legs in Upavista, then bend the knee so that the heel is at the inner groin. From there, using our thumbs, we rolled the heel out. Then press the hands down in front of you to lift the buttocks up (I had no strength left by that point and I felt very heavy!), and only let the straight leg buttock go down to the floor.

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Notice how the buttock is slightly lifted up and how far back is knee is?

We did a couple of other things, but I can’t remember anything else sticking out, and this post is already very long so I’ll stop here. Overall a great workshop where I could see just how much more depth there is to yoga, and it was both instructive and motivating to keep me studying!

Workshop with Manouso Manos – Pranayama

On the second day, we started with pranayama. And I have to admit I was completely out of my depth here – I don’t have a regular pranayama practice (yes, yes, I know I should). So I’ll try my best to describe what we did, but if by any chance a senior teacher reads this please please please comment and correct me. I’m also writing this without Light on Pranayama nearby as it is already back to my parents’ in prevision of my moving, so I have no way to check what I am writing. And obviously in the Iyengar tradition it’s not allowed to take notes during the workshop – which I actually is a good thing, as you then only remember what you understood IMO – so my descriptions might be relatively less detailed than if I had written down things.

The first thing we did was Shanmuki mudra to calm down the brain. It’s a different version from what is described in Light on Pranayama. We did this sitting (actually I did it standing because I couldn’t see the instructions otherwise and Manouso asked us not to move) as he explained that he cannot do it lying down. The main reason for this is that it’s very heavy on the shoulders. It goes like this : introduce both thumbs in your ears, palms down (you don’t want to have to turn the palm around in the ear). Then place the index finger on the eyebrows. The long fingers then go to touch each other and both sides of the nose. As you do this, the index fingers have to move slightly out to make place for the long fingers, but you’re not pulling them out, it’s just a natural movement arising from the positioning of the long fingers. Next, comes the ring fingers which gently pull the upper eyelid down. Once again, for this to happen, the first two fingers have to move slightly. Finally, the pinky finger touches the cheekbone. Anytime one finger is added, the rest of the fingers have to readjust. This is so heavy on the shoulders because the elbows have to be very much up in order to place the fingers! Finally, there should be no pressure on the pupil of the eye. It should not be the tip of the finger which is pressing down, but the first knuckle from the tip.

This is the closest exemple I’ve found, if this lady’s index finger was onto her eyebrows.

After this, we lied down in savasana over two trifold blankets lifting the chest. We did some Ujayi breaths while trying to touch all diaphrams: the pubic plate, lung diaphragm, up to the throat diaphragm. To help touching the pubic plate he instructed us to let the breath spread from the center of the belly to the sides. To exhale, let the flesh of the abdomen go down to the floor and let the skin follow.

The trifold blanket setting, also see this post by Iyengar home practice

Finally, he taught a short nadi shodhana or alternate breathing (only three cycles, sitting in simple cross-leg). I had really a hard time with this one, even though I have done it multiple times before, this time I had the feeling I could not draw in enough air on the inhale, and had to breathe quite fast as a result. This might have come from the positioning of my hand on my nose. As a result, I don’t want to give any indications on how to do this as I’m too unsure of if I’m doing it properly.

Workshop with Manouso Manos – Day 1

My last weekend in August was spent at a workshop with Manouso Manos, where I also got to receive my Iyengar teacher certificate.

On the first day, he went back to basics: the feet, especially the heels, and how a different weight division influences the rest of the body. While I had often heard about the four corners of the heel, he told us to visualize a circle around the heel and try to get the whole outer circle down to the floor in Tadasana. We did quite a few repetitions of this Tadasana throughout the class, without mats – feet on hard wood. I realized that it is very hard for me to feel the front of the right heel and the back of the left heel.

Then we worked on standing poses (Trikonasana, Parsvakonasana) with a focus (Aparigraha) on getting the back outer heel down, and keeping it down as we move the chest or the arms. It was difficult for me to keep my attention there, as I was trying not to overextend in my front leg – I’ve just discovered during self practice that I need to press the front of the front foot more in order to do that. Manousos brushed upon this as well, as he said in parallel to “the weight of the back foot tends to go to the front of the foot as we move the chest down” (since the focus point was the back outer heel), that the weight of the front foot tends to go to the heel.

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The outer heel

We did Parivrtta Trikonasana as per Light on Yoga, so with a very short distance between the feet. Here, the focus was on the lower back – overall the whole class was designed to help with lower back issues. Manouso said that in Parivrtta Trikonasana, the lower back should be rounding like in a forward bend, and this opened a new window of understanding for me. He said that we often go down from stiffness or compactness and grinding of the hip joint, while the lower back should not be so rigid.

He also taught Downward Dog with a shorter distance, trying to get the inner heel to go to the outer heel (without moving the feet) so that the point under the ankle bone would go in, creating wrinkles there. Jury’s still out on that, I felt like it was a “touch and go” experience for me. However one thing I clearly did not understand was to bring the groins down towards the knees. Gotta revisit that instruction in a couple of years, probably.

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Between the finger and the ankle bone the skin should wrinkle 

We then moved on headstand and backbends, but I can’t remember anything really sticking out there. In headstand we were still working on the heel / ankle thing. For backbends we worked on getting the little toe and ball of the little toe down (Ustrasana and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana).

More noticably, we did a version of Setu bandha I had never done before, with the block not under the tailbone but rather in the lower back – so that the buttocks are not on the brick but falling over, and the other end of the brick touches the lower ribs. Very intense pose, especially since he made it very clear that we should feel either one edge of the block or two but not the middle, for if our lower back was heavy on the middle of the block we would be assured of getting lower back pain. NOT an easy variation, which I felt was even harder for me because we were also doing this pose without mats in order to be able to slide the feet, but I then had no resistance from my feet to be able to curve over the block. #sweatyyogi

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Classical Setu Bandha position where the block is under the tailbone. Credit

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More like the position of the block we used, with the buttocks falling over the block. But we had legs straights – Manouso instructed us to keep the legs hip width though.  Credit.

From Setu Bandha we moved to Shoulderstand, and finished the class with a Supta Padangusthasana II variation, first with the belt, then holding the bone just above the heel on the outside of the foot.

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Part of the foot we had to hold for Supta Padangusthasana II

 

 

The teacher’s dilemma

Since I passed my Introductory level assessment, I have been subbing quite a few classes since most teachers at the studio are or have been on holidays. This is ideal for me as I am planning to move to New York by December, so I don’t want to get a regular class when I will leave in a couple of months.

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Even though I genuinely enjoy teaching at the studio, I oftentimes find subbing an ungrateful job. Some people are clearly surprised to find you instead of their usual teacher, and many are reluctant to even give you a chance at teaching them something. Because my style is different from their regular teacher (as is everyone’s teaching style at the studio, which could be surprising considering we all teach Iyengar yoga, sometimes thought to be so strict and codified!), the students become impermeable to any learning experience. And sometimes they make their discontentment very visible.

This is usually when my true yoga experience starts; when I have to let go of wanting all of the students to like the class (and by extent, me!). It’s hard work for me. It’s hard work to enforce my own instructions, I find it awfully difficult to know whether a student is not doing what I’m asking them to because they know their body better than I do, because they think they know better than I do, because they don’t see the point, or because they don’t even want to try. And the bigger the class is, the more difficult it gets to tend to everyone.

I usually try to adapt my style of teaching to the teacher’s of the class I’m subbing. Oftentimes it works quite well, and it enables me to explore different styles (even though I’ve been teaching for two years, I still feel very much like a rookie teacher). But in a large group, I often have to let go of all my plans for the class because said plan and students clearly don’t fit together. Some students are then disappointed that the class isn’t challenging enough. For now, I’d rather play safe than sorry, but I’d definitely like to get better at giving different options for different levels. That said, as a student I often learn a lot from “beginner level” classes, and I wish “advanced” students would pay more attention to the explanations rather than start doing whatever I’m demonstrating immediately.

I definitely need to learn to care less about what students think and be a bit more authoritative. I have to say I now understand way better why Iyengar teachers are seen as strict by other styles. It’s not that I want to be strict, but I am trying to teach something here, and if the students don’t listen, best case scenario they will miss on understanding the teaching point, but worst case scenario they might hurt themselves and I will be responsible.

That said. I’ve been told by my teacher I often look like I’m really angry when I’m practicing in a class setting. And it really is my “what-is-the-teacher-talking-about-I-don’t-get-it” face. Nothing to do with me being annoyed with the teacher. So I need not only to be more authoritative and enforce my teaching, but also be less self-centered and take everything personally. So subbing might be frustrating at times, but it’s definitely bringing its blessings in the form of personal growth as a teacher*.

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Anyhow, if there are teachers from the US and/or more specifically NYC, I’m wondering what the best course is to start teaching once I am there. I will likely be on a scientist visa (probably J-1) so I am not even sure I would be able to teach for-profit, but I guess donation-based / non-profit classes are ok. Currently wondering if the US Iyengar yoga association helps moving teachers? Any tips welcome.

* During YTT, my own teacher once talked about how she wanted us to become yoga teachers, not instructors. She said that instructing someone to turn their feet and arms in different directions was easy, but that was only instructing. The teaching starts after, once you get students to go inwards.