Before beginning my yoga 200-hour teacher training program, I talked with several of my yoga teacher friends about their own training experiences and they all had the same message – be prepared for a transformation. I was almost certain my training, in some way, would be a life changing experience, but exactly how, I was not sure. I tried to release any expectations, although this was easier said than done. Knowing and believing full-heartedly that it is not supposed to be about who can do which yoga poses, I secretly hoped that upon graduation I would enjoy deeply meditating in Padmasana (Full Lotus Pose), and then maybe from there, transition into some crazy arm balance. In a nut shell, I hoped that I would have: 1. stronger arms, 2. more flexible hips, and 3. the ability to focus and meditate.
1. Strong Arms: Well, as life would have it, I had an accident and injured both hands and wrists two days before training started, so arm balances were definitely out of the question for at least two months. This was a very humbling experience and a struggle to respect my body during its healing process by keeping pressure off my hands and wrists, thus practicing the yama, Ahimsa, meaning non-harming. It was also a good lesson in finding acceptance—observing the niyama, Santosa, meaning contentment. This honestly was harder than lifting weights at the gym, but it definitely made me “stronger”!
2. Flexible Hips: After daily asana practices and plenty of hip-openers, my hip joints have become somewhat more flexible, but still not even close to Padmasana-flexible. However, during the anatomy portion of the training, I did learn that there are a number of factors that influence the range of motion of a joint (beyond muscle tightness), such as bone structure—something I never even considered. Therefore, no matter how long I hang out in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), those knees might never touch the floor… but one of the best lessons I learned during training was that it really doesn’t matter! So, is it possible to teach yoga poses without having mastered them myself? …Or without even having the physical ability to do them? – Yes, absolutely!
3. Focused Mind: As for my difficulty in sitting still and meditating on my own… yeah, I am still working on that one. Through, like my hip flexibility, it strangely may also be linked to my bone structure in a roundabout way. Studying Ayurveda and learning about doshas, the three subtle energies, I have become aware of my abundance of Vata energy, which is often the case in people who have narrow bones structures. People with more Vata in their constitutions also tend to be quick and lively in thought, speech and action, and make friends easily. I accept that it is the tendency of my nature to be all over the place, but through the lessons of teacher training I learned how to cope with dosha imbalances with certain changes in diet, lifestyle, and of course yoga.
So in conclusion— Did I transform? Yes, no doubt. Did I transform in the way I expected? Absolutely not, but that’s what made it so beautiful.
I am a neurotic type A personality, a Pitta-Vata dosha. What’s your dosha? I like to set a goal and accomplish it within the timeframe I’ve established for myself. I try to apply that discipline to every aspect of my personal and professional life. And when I take up a hobby, I don’t kid around.
So when I started practicing yoga, my mind was firmly fixed on mastery: mastering the poses, the breath, the quiet mind.
Buy yoga is not a skill to be mastered; rather, it’s a journey to be experienced and it’s never over. Ever. Every time I think I’ve “mastered a pose,” I learn that there’s always somewhere deeper to go, both in the body and the mind.
Think you’ve mastered crow? Try moving into tripod headstand or hopping back to chatturanga. Or engage the bandhas and move into firefly. Or stay put, close the eyes, and meditate on a single point of concentration, dedicating every breath to your beloved.
In yoga, practice doesn’t make perfect. It makes more practice. You might find that the practice itself is a perfect gift.
The 2011 International Yoga Asana Championships were this past month in Los Angeles. Seventy competitors came from 19 countries to vie for the title of World Yoga Champion. The competitors are the winners of regional competitions in places like Western Canada, Mexico and Singapore. Last year's female champion was Brandy Winfield of the U.S. and Kasper Van Den Wijngaard of the Netherlands.
I thought in honor of all the spectacular achievements of these INCREDIBLE yogis, I'd post some photos of last year’s World Yoga competitors.
The participants are required to do five mandatory asanas.
1. Standing head-to-knee pose
2. Standing bow-pulling pose
3. Bow pose
4. Stretching pose
and last but not least…
5. Rabbit pose
Though you probably won’t see me at this competition any time soon, it’s fun to admire the best of the best – normal people have football and basketball players to look up to. We have these guys! It’s amazing what the human body can do!
I am a new addition to the Yoga District family, after recently realizing my week long streaks of cocktail lusting and late night McDonalds runs had finally taken a toll on my once toned physique. I had taken some yoga classes in the past: Bikram, Hatha, and various classes at Washington Sports Clubs. I had at least taken enough to where I thought I deserved my own Yoga mat, even though it would usually end up in the back of my closet after a couple weeks.
When I started taking classes at Yoga District, I noticed how all of the classes had numbers by them (1, 1.5, 2, 3), which I had to admit, threw me at first. Since I had taken some classes in the past, I decided that I was at least a 1.5 or a 2. I signed up for my first class with Caroline D. for Yoga 1-1.5, thinking to myself “The numbers are low enough, maybe I can show off my skills a little bit”. Let me tell you, there is nothing more humbling that being in a class that you think is a very basic yoga class and being almost the only one in the class that is not at in head stand. The class ended up surprising me in all of the best possible ways. After getting over the mild embarrassment, I listened to Caroline D.’s instructions closely and was able to hold poses that I had only pretended to do in the past.
It was at that point that I realized that the Yoga “practice” I had experienced before was obviously very cookie-cutter and lacking the authenticity that Yoga District seemed to offer. After just a few classes, I have noticed my strength and flexibility have increased. I have graduated myself to a 1.5 finally and treated myself to a Manduka yoga bag. Next stop, level 2 and a new mat. Of course, I’ll be donating my old one through the Yoga Activist Mat Donation Project!
A man came to me. He had been suffering from chain-smoking for thirty years; he was ill and the doctors said, “You will never be healthy if you don’t stop smoking. ” But he was a chronic smoker; he could not help it. He had tried — not that he had not tried — he had tried hard, and he had suffered much in trying, but one day or two days, and then again the urge would come so tremendously, it would simply take him away. Again he would fall into the same pattern.
Because of this smoking he had lost self-confidence: he knows he cannot do a small thing; he cannot stop smoking…
He said, “What can I do? How can I stop smoking?” I said, “Nobody can stop smoking. You have to understand. Smoking is not only a question of your decision now. It has entered into your world of habits, it has taken roots. Thirty years is a long time. It has taken roots in your body, in your chemistry, it has spread all over. It is not just a question of your head deciding; your head cannot do anything. The head is impotent; it can start things, but it cannot stop so easily. Once you have started and once you have practiced so long, you are a great yogi — thirty years’ practicing smoking. It has become autonomous; you will have to de-automatize it. ”
He said, “What do you mean by ‘de-automatization’?” And that’s what meditation is all about: de-automatization.
I said, “You do one thing: forget about stopping. There is no need either. For thirty years you have smoked and lived; of course it was a suffering, but you have become accustomed to that too. And what does it matter if you die a few hours earlier than you would have died without smoking? What are you going to do here? What have you done? So what is the point — whether you die Monday or Tuesday or Sunday, this year, that year — what does it matter?”
He said, “Yes, that is true, it doesn’t matter.” Then I said, “Forget about it; we are not going to stop it at all. Rather, we are going to understand it. So next time, you make it a meditation. ”
He said, “Meditation out of smoking?”
I said, “Yes. If Zen people can make meditation out of drinking tea, and can make it a ceremony, why not? Smoking can be as beautiful a meditation. ”
He looked thrilled. He said, “What are you saying?” He became alive! He said, “Meditation? Just tell me — I can’t wait! ”
I gave him the meditation. I said, “Do one thing. When you take the packet out of your pocket, for a moment go slowly. When you are taking the packet of cigarettes out of your pocket move slowly. Enjoy it, there is no hurry. Be conscious, alert, aware; take it out slowly, with full awareness. Then take the cigarette out of the packet with full awareness, slowly — not in the old hurried way, unconscious way, mechanical way. Then start tapping the cigarette on your packet — but very alertly. Listen to the sound, just as Zen people do when the samovar starts singing and the tea starts boiling, and the aroma. Then smell the cigarette and the beauty of it…. ”
He said, “What are you saying? The beauty?”
“Yes, it is beautiful. Tobacco is as divine as anything. Smell it; it is God’s smell.”
He looked a little surprised. He said, “What, are you joking?”
“No, I am not joking.” Even when I joke, I don’t joke. I am very serious. “Then put it in your mouth, with full awareness, light it with full awareness. Enjoy every act, small act, and divide it into as many small acts as possible, so you can become more and more aware.
“Then have the first puff: God in the form of smoke. Hindus say, ‘annam brahm’ — ‘ Food is God.’ Why not smoke? All is God. Fill your lungs deeply — this is a pranayam. I am giving you the new yoga for the new age! Then release the smoke, relax, another puff… and go very slowly.
“If you can do it, you will be surprised, soon you will see the whole stupidity of it. Not because others have said that it is stupid, not because others have said that it is bad: you will see it. And the seeing will not be just intellectual. It will be from your total being, it will be a vision of your totality. And then, one day, if it drops, it drops; if it continues, it continues. You need not worry about it. ”
After three months he came, and he said, “But it dropped.”
“Now, ” I said, “try it on other things too. ” This is the secret, the secret: de-automatize.
Walking, walk slowly, watchfully. Looking, look watchfully, and you will see trees are greener than they have ever been and roses are rosier than they have ever been. Listen. Somebody is talking, gossiping: listen, listen attentively. When you are talking, talk attentively. Let your whole waking activity become de-automatized.
So, there is definitely a yoga body type. It's displayed in yoga magazines and in ads for yoga clothing and gear (which is now sold just about everywhere, including the grocery store!) You know the type, a long lithe body, flat stomach, long legs, shiny hair in a pony tail. I've seen it so much I kind of assumed that's how yoga originated, skinny, fit girls in tight pants and cute tank tops.
But recently I started reading Iyengar's guidebook to yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar is a 92-year-old Indian yoga guru who founded the practice known as Iyengar yoga. It encompasses most of the basic poses used in Yoga District classes.
What really blew me away is the photos of Iyengar's Indian students in his book. They're girls of medium height and weight, wearing big shorts and t-shirts. Their outfits are not form-fitting in the slightest. The shorts look more like men's swim trunks.
It just made me think of how much we have Americanized this ancient practice. And it's not a bad thing, we've made this holistic and powerful practice available to masses of people who would not otherwise encounter it. I only wish to question the yoga body type we idealize.
“For over ten years, Anna practiced yoga and was, more often than not, by far the largest person in her class. Despite being determined to continue practicing yoga, she often faced ignorance and feelings of marginalization. As she sought connection with others who were teaching and practicing with curvy bodies, she found few allies.” (Curvyyoga.com)
I think Anna would have felt at more home at Yoga District. The classes are full of all types of people, and all types of yoga clothing. It's not pretentious or exclusive – it's core mission is to bring yoga to everyone. It saddens me to hear of people who would like to practice yoga, but don't think they're skinny enough, or flexible enough – it's not about that! It's about taking an hour, a class to get in touch with you body and still your mind.
This is the best advice I’ve ever received and probably the best advice I’ll ever give: breathe.
Breathing, it seems to me, is the most basic, most fundamental function of life. The breath bookends our lives: the inhalation is the first and most important task at birth and the exhalation is our final farewell at death. We even communicate through the breath with a wistful sign, a frustrated harrumph, a surprised gasp, a bored yawn, a cheerful whistle, or a longing blown kiss.
It’s a wonder that something so central to life is so easily forgotten.
So breathe. When you can’t keep up with a sun salute, breathe. When you keep falling out of a balancing post, breath. When you can’t hold the pose for one second longer, breathe. And then, we can bring that breath control practice, that pranayama, into our lives off the mat. When our bosses are demanding too much, when our families drive us up the wall, when the to do list keeps growing, when the bill pile up, we breathe.
It’s amazing how much our perspective can change in the time it takes to complete one full breath cycle.
So breathe. Always breathe.
There’s a lot to love about Yoga District, but the main attraction that drew me in and kept me coming back is their awesome mission to bring yoga to the people—all people. Not only are the donation-based classes super affordable, the donations directly support yoga outreach programs for trauma survivors and other communities in need, including the homeless, incarcerated persons, asylees, etc. This mission is so ingrained into operation of the organization that the teacher training program at Yoga District requires its students to provide 5 free classes to a community that would benefit from yoga and would otherwise have very limited access.
To complete this assignment, I set off for a two week trip to teach yoga to a community of menopausal women in a small western Maryland town, about 75 miles outside of the city. I chose this community because they live in a place where no yoga studios exist, and their only experience with yoga has been from video recordings. If yoga helps restore balance, then there are probably very few times in a woman’s life when she could use it more than during menopause, as her entire being is shifting in every way imaginable—physically, emotionally, mentally, hormonally, energetically, and spiritually. Integrating my two passions – yoga and natural health – I was excited to design a therapeutic yoga program, specifically tailored for women who are experiencing menopause.
I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. All the times I had previously taught and/or practiced yoga with a group had been among experienced yogis. Even beginner classes almost always include a few somewhat advanced students, who generally know the ropes and understand the protocols, and new students tend to look to them for guidance. Most of the women in my outreach classes, on the other hand, had never been to a yoga studio, chanted OM, meditated, or met Downward Facing Dog.
All of my preconceptions of what a yoga class is supposed to be were totally knocked down during this first yoga outreach experience. For example, I always thought the number one “rule” was to show up on time, and if you are late, by all means do not disrupt the centering meditation at the beginning of class. Ha! Not so in this situation. In fact, this was when the majority of the class trickled in, and all the other students stopped to greet each other and catch up with the latest gossip around town. That broke the second “rule” — no talking during class. There was plenty of giggling and chatting, but it actually turned out to be really fun! Toward the end of one of the classes, I was excited to teach “legs up the wall” pose, Viparita Karani, because during my training I had learned all about the therapeutic benefits from the pose. I looked around and miraculously everyone finally had their legs stretched up a wall and appeared to be experiencing total bliss… so much that when I gave them the option to move into the final resting pose, Savasana, a few minutes later, no one even budged. They loved it!
Teaching this group of fabulous women, I would not be surprised if I learned more from them than they learned from me. They taught me how to let go of all expectations, have fun with yoga, and truly live in the moment. It is true that our students are some of our best teachers.
“The great thing about improv is that you do a scene – then it's over.”
I recently started taking a beginnier's improv class at The Washington Improv Theatre this week my improv teacher said something that I think parallels a lot of what goes on in yoga. In improv, you improvise a scene and characters to be in the scene. If the scene or a character doesn't work out – don't cling to it and try to make it work – just move on and create a new one.
Nothing is permanent – if you try a pose and it doesn't work out – it's over. Vinyasa yoga is the best example of this as one flows from one pose to the next through the sun salutations. Last week Iin Flow yoga Jasmine encouraged me to try side crow pose. It seemed totally impossible! I tried it, and basically failed – but I had to try. It was over and now I had one more attempt under my belt.
In life – if you're at a job you don't like, it's not forever. If you're experiencing pain or sadness, know that it will pass soon. I just discovered in googling “nothing is permanent” that Buddha said it. And then Charlie Chaplin said, “Nothing is permanent in this wicked world – not even our troubles.” Wise men.
I know my body parts and I know my right from my left, so I assumed that cuing yoga poses would be a cinch. But somehow, when I get in front of a group of eager students, I’m suddenly at a complete loss. What’s that bendy thing that connects the lower arm to the upper arm? What are those wiggly things at the ends of my hands? And which leg is crossed over the other when I’m looking at a twisted mirror image? I don’t know what comes over me, but suddenly, English is a foreign language!
Of course, teaching yoga is more about love and compassion than it is about calling out the poses. But at the end of the day, you can’t have one without the other. So in teacher training, there’s equal emphasis on both the philosophy and mechanics of yoga. Communicating it all clearly, elegantly, and accurately is the challenging part.
Like everything else, it all comes down to practice. Only with practice do the jitters fade away, leaving space for the words to flow more freely and effortlessly; only with practice does the mind begin to calm long enough for the sequences to pour out with grace and eloquence. It takes time, patience, and dedication.
So next time your yoga teacher asks you to place your left head behind your right set of knees and clasp the back of your shoulder with your interlaced forearms, just smile, breathe, and take your best guess. That’s yoga!
The diverse family of DC yoga teachers at Yoga District are dedicated to making yoga accessible to everyone through a huge variety of yoga class types, from vinyasa flow to restorative and beyond. Most Yoga District teachers are graduates of Yoga District’s nationally-attended 200 hour teacher training program. All Yoga District classes focus on coordinating breath with body movement to promote flexibility, strength, and peace of mind. We strongly believe in yoga as therapy, so catch one of our classes whenever you need a healthy dose of self-care.
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The Yoga District 200 and 500 hour teacher training certification programs, registered by the Yoga Alliance are unique in their emphasis on diversity of teaching styles studied, personal attention, and trauma sensitive yoga. It's no coincidence that Yoga District is regularly voted the leading studio in the nation's capital, and that most of its classes are taught by graduates of its training program. As a full time yoga school, small group trainings are led up to eight times a year by a dedicated faculty including Jasmine Chehrazi, contributor to the Harvard Karma Yoga Project teacher training, teacher training faculty at George Washington University, Yoga Alliance Standards Committee Advisory Board Member, Yoga Activist Founder, and Yoga Service Council Advisory Board Member. So take your practice and community involvement to the next level by joining a training. There's a reason why our graduates call the training "transformative."
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