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The Importance of Connection & Community

touchingWeeks 7 and 8 of Yoga Teacher Training

In our last week of teacher training a quote by psychotherapist Irvin Yalom comes to mind.

He said, “It’s the relationship that heals,” and he was referring to the therapeutic relationship between a doctor and a patient as being a powerful catalyst for healing. That it was more the human connection than the technical therapy that contributed largely to the healing process.

We’ve learned a lot these last 7 weeks about yoga. We’ve learned about anatomy, philosophy, asana, pranayama, and how to be more mindful yoga practitioners and teachers.

What is also becoming inescapably obvious is that we have learned each other as well, and this has been a subtle but significant aspect to our learning process.

What started out as a group of strangers is now a supportive group of friends. We’ve seen each other’s personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, and have come to admire each other for continuing to show up to our individual and collective practice.

We each bring different histories and struggles to our mats every day. We’ve brought these since Day 1. The only difference is that we now appreciate where we are coming from.

This is the beginning of community and this is the essence of connection.

One of the teacher trainees is a man named Kim. The first week of training I had the opportunity to work with Kim, and I noticed he rocked back and forth on his feet quite a bit while standing. When I asked him if he had difficulty in standing poses, he said yes. When I asked why, he said simply that he had some nerve damage to his feet.

The last few weeks I’ve seen him quietly use multiple props and the wall for support in many poses. He always has an easy smile and while some poses seem challenging to him, he never seems to be overefforting.

It was only when Kim shared with the class how he had fallen off of a second story building onto a two-by-four and become paralyzed from the waist down that I began to appreciate the true beauty of his yoga practice and the powerful potential of yoga.

Doctors told him he would never walk again due to his spinal cord injury.

After having surgery he was told in order to be eligible for physical therapy he had to be able to wiggle his toes. His determination to commit to this first step, wiggling his toes, allowed him to take the next step to recovery. After two months he left the hospital in a wheelchair. Month by month he progressed from a wheelchair to a walker and eventually was able to walk with crutches. From crutches he progressed to using two canes. After a year on two canes he was able to walk with only one cane.

A friend taught him how to meditate and provided both hands-on and distant healing that supported Kim as he reentered his new and different life.

It was 5 years until he began practicing yoga. He has mindfully deepened his practice over the years and continues to see steady progress. He’s been practicing about eight years now and this picture of him in headstand with a headstandsmile on his face really captures his strength, grace, and determination.

Kim still deals with what he calls “sensation,” otherwise known as pain.

Seeing how he works with his sensation and challenges is a humbling example for those of us who take our health for granted or who get disappointed about seemingly “slow” progress in our yoga practice.

In Kim’s words, “Things will never be the same. But that’s okay.” While many therapies and people have assisted him on his path, he mostly credits his progress to his “will to survive.”

Kim taps into his will to survive every day. It allows him to do what many people would call impossible.

It makes me wonder, Are we tapping into our will to survive? Are we even tapping into our will? What are we calling impossible that would become possible if we stopped limiting ourselves?

When we tune into our potential instead of our pain, we find our current limitations are merely a starting point.

This is just one example of how we have learned from each other through this training. We’ve learned to be sensitive to other human beings, whether it be through the words we choose or our physical touch.

As I disembark from this life-changing journey, I feel supported by a community of friends and teachers and well-equipped to follow my own yogic path.

The amount of knowledge and wisdom our teachers have shared with us will be sinking in for months to come. The words of Abraham Lincoln sum up my attitude as I step out of the world of teacher training and into the world of teaching yoga:

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.”

*****

This is the last part of a series.

Week 1: My First Week in Yoga Teacher Training
Week 2: Confronting the Unknown
Week 3: Learning to Lead by Example
Week 4: The Practice of Transitioning Mindfully
Week 5: The Beauty in Being Imperfect
Week 6: Redefining Attitude & Attention

photo by: maessive

Redefining Attitude & Attention

Week 6 of Yoga Teacher Training

Patience is my work this week.

Being on my mat more than ever before is giving me lots of opportunities to work with this concept. Right now there is not that great yoga session after a few days of no yoga, where my body and mind are craving it. There is yoga every day and sometimes twice a day. My body and mind are not necessarily craving it, but this is where it gets interesting. This is where it gets new.

This is the “deepen your practice” aspect that teacher trainings promise. I’ve never been here before. This is a unique kind of “deep” that involves revisiting the same foundational poses in my same body and learning something new every time.

Learning to stretch my patience and sit with patience, both in myself and in my process is a little uncomfortable. As I settle into it more and more, I’ve started to notice a freedom that didn’t exist before. A little more space within the tightness. A relaxing into the discomfort. An acceptance.

A seeing where I am and a growing ability to not have to run from that or to that. Not into a deeper pose and not into a better place.

Since I’m working through the same postures multiple times a day, I get to observe my attitude and attention (or lack thereof) each time. I am seeing my limits reached and then asking myself what I need to do to last a little longer, to dig a little deeper, to honor my present moment more fully.

Surprisingly, there is something new and untapped every time I return to my mat. My legs are tired, but my standing poses have never felt more solid. My body is achy, but every down-dog feels like the first one ever. My mind is so alert from the accelerated learning that stillness has never been more clearly defined, and when there is silence I hear it more loudly than the sounds.

And so it happens that Patience invites me into my own body. Have a seat, she says. Everything you need is here.

Perception & Perspective

A spring daydreamer.

This is a concept I was reintroduced to this week. During class when a teacher was using a student to demo a particular asana and the rest of us were gathered all around, she pointed out an aspect of the pose. One student commented, “It doesn’t look like that from here.”

Her angle didn’t allow her to see what those of us at a different angle could see; and unless she got up and moved, she would never get a true visual of what was happening.

Thus I was reminded to take a closer look at my apparent perspectives. When I change my angle or my attitude in life, how quickly my perspective shifts and how profoundly what is perceived changes shape.

The Path

Through this teacher training I’ve come to appreciate on a new level that yoga is not about how it looks on the outside. It’s about what’s happening on the inside.

To this end, one of our teachers pointed out that as teachers we will often need to give different people different instructions to get to the same place.

The path we take to a pose is our own. The so-called end result is more about how we inhabit it than how we form it.

Throughout our lives we will find at times we can access our asana or meditation practice easier than other times. Our bodies and our minds change as our lives change. It will always be slightly different conditions we travel in, and our path will never be the same as someone else’s.

To travel our own path with our eyes and hearts wide open delivers us to our pose or our place of choice fully alive and fully lit up. We will all arrive at the same place through different processes. The place we arrive at is called Here.

Once we get Here, all we have to do is breathe. It doesn’t matter if you got here faster or slower than anyone else or what you look like on the outside. We are all breathing on the inside, and we are all Here.

Welcome. Take your seat. Settle in. Light It Up. This is it.

*****

This is the sixth part of a series.

Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4 
Week 5

photo by: graftedno1

The Beauty in Being Imperfect

Minding the Mind: Week 5 of Yoga Teacher Training

Things are starting to get intense. I knew it would get here, but I wasn’t sure how. We’re learning anatomy, new poses, practicing yoga five to six days a week, doing homework, practice teaching, and trying to stay present for all of it, not to mention our lives and jobs outside the training.

There is so much learning happening that my mind feels like it’s on overdrive. It’s so stimulating that it can be very challenging to keep an internal balance and perspective. Interestingly enough, just when I feel maxed out on yoga, I then go to yoga and feel refreshed. The irony makes me laugh.

Wabi-Sabi

One of the highlights of our anatomy training is when we learned about the spine. We looked at each others’ spines standing erect and folded forward. One of the physical therapists teaching us anatomy spotted a student who had scoliosis. We all gathered around to take a look. As the student bent forward, the uneveness in her spine became amazingly prominent. Many of us were so focused on the apparent “wrongness” of her spine that we were gasping in awe.

The therapist looked around and started to point out what we had missed. “Look how beautiful and even her hips are. Look how even her shoulders are.

Le Grande

It was true. She was perfectly aligned. We had failed to notice all that was right with her pose because we were looking at what appeared to be wrong.

Our anatomy teacher commented on the beauty of scoliosis, marveling that, “The body will do what it needs to do so you are upright in the world.”

This reminded me of the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi. The idea that the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete are beautiful. And not just in terms of physical imperfections. Wabi-Sabi goes much deeper and is more of an “aesthetic consciousness that transcends appearance.”

A growing interest in anatomy is one of the reasons I’m in this training in the first place. The more I practiced yoga, the more I became curious about my own muscles, bones, and how they function. The more I saw how body movements affected my state of mind and being, the more I wanted to learn the how and the why.

Every week I have fascinating experiences that confirm my choice to make this investment. We are just scratching the surface of anatomy and how it relates to yoga, but I feel like a clear path of learning is being laid out for me to travel in the years to come.

The Why & The How

I had a really beautiful experience in class this week. We partnered up to assist each other into handstand. My partner was a wonderful yogi I hadn’t worked with yet. She expressed doubt about whether she would be able to come up before we started. As she set up I reminded her to press into her hands firmly, hug into her own strength strongly, and trust herself as I assisted her up.

She came up strong, stayed up strong, and exited the pose strong. The smile she had when she came out of the pose was so authentic, sincere, and clearly lit up from the inside out. I knew then that this is why I will teach yoga. Not to force people into a pose, not to give them a workout, but to support them as they challenge their doubts, face their fears, and experience their own power and being.

The strength we experience in challenging yoga poses is, in my opinion, not our true strength. It is merely an external reflection of our true internal strength. We sometimes don’t know it in our head until we feel it in our body.

If standing on our hands teaches us we can stand on our own two feet, that’s the deeper value of our yoga.

We can stand our ground in yoga and in life. We can commit to difficult processes in yoga and in life. We can grow in many directions as we root firmly in yoga and in life.

At the end of our day my partner expressed gratitude for my help; however, I really felt like I was the one who had been helped. Helped to remember my intention for teaching, my responsibility as a teacher, and the value of supporting each other as we grow.

The Starting Line

When things get challenging in yoga, it forces me to focus even more. The more tired I am, the more I need to be present. So it is with where I’m at in the training and going forward. I breathe in my poses as best I can. I stay present as best I can. It’s the same thing we need to do in life when things get intense or tiring.

Breathe. Stay present.

I try not to get overwhelmed with the process or the practice because both are more than an 8-week program. This is a lifelong practice and process of learning to teach, and I’m just at the beginning.

*****

This is the fifth part of a series.

Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4

photo by: wildxplorer

The Practice of Transitioning Mindfully

“Life is one big transition.” -Willie Stargell

Week 4 of Yoga Teacher Training

I’m at the halfway point of this journey, and it’s an interesting place to be. Like any unknown process, you can never tell from the outside what it will look like from the inside. Where I came from is no longer in sight and where I’m going is a speck on the horizon.

It’s a free place to be. There is nothing to hold onto here except this moment.moon-in-phases

Transformation

We are playing a lot with sequencing lately. Sequencing of a class and starting to put together everything we’re learning. It is where form and movement meet, and it is much like watching a flower open. Slowly but surely and with grace and beauty.

Within the aspect of sequencing, we are spending a lot of time discussing and practicing transitions.

Transitions. The moments between the poses. The times we often disengage and disconnect because the pose is “over.”

Transitions are interesting because they often require more attention, balance, and presence than the poses themselves.

To transition is to “passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another.”

It is to transform.

It requires movement, a destination, and a way to get there. In life or in yoga, mindfully transitioning takes patience and focus.

In the restorative class I attend the teacher instructs us to “relax fully in the transitions.” I find this reminder so helpful because usually in a transition we are anticipating what comes next instead of inhabiting where we are. Our minds are already guessing, Where are we going?

It has become my practice to stay simultaneously engaged, relaxed, and present in my transitions, be they simple or complicated, be they yoga transitions or life transitions.

This will be a lifelong practice.

Looking in the Mirror

Expressing how a teacher had showed him a different way to get into a pose that made it much more accessible for him, a student in our class commented, “It was right in front of me all the time.”

We have all experienced this moment of clarity. Someone points out a strength or a perspective or a stability we didn’t see. They haven’t given us anything necessarily. They’ve just shown us what we already have.

This is one of the many gifts yoga teachers (and teachers of any kind) give their students. Showing them what is within their reach, what they are capable of, and allowing them the experience of being in their body as never before.

While helping a student into a deep backbend, our teacher commented, “She can do that. She just isn’t that familiar with it yet.”

And so it is for all of us. The expansive world of what isn’t familiar yet. Our untapped potential, our unknown strength, our unimagined lives.

When teachers see their students, it’s like they’re holding up a mirror. The student can look into the reflection and see, sometimes for the first time in their lives, a true reflection of themselves.

This clarity is what keeps us coming back to our mats week after week, year after year. At least it’s what keeps me coming back.

The opportunity to unveil who I think I am so that I can see, if only for a moment, who I really am.

*****

This is the fourth part in a series.

Week 1
Week 2
Week 3

photo by: Spirit-Fire

Learning to Lead by Example

“Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow.”
Chinese Proverb

Week 3 of Yoga Teacher Training

The dust is starting to settle. If my yoga was a house getting remodeled, the clearing out has happened and the rebuilding has started, from the ground up. I am starting to realize, as I suspect many ofYou're in Good Hands us in the training are, that the yoga we’re learning is much different from the yoga we thought we knew.

This is necessary. This starting point, this unlayering, this seeing clearly where we are. As our teacher pointed out, a map is no good if you don’t know where you are.

In this third week I’m starting to get a clearer visual of where I’m at and a clearer vision of where I can go.

This part feels so grounding. This placing my feet with care, pressing into the support of the earth, blending my energy with gravity and receiving the earth energy in exchange. Setting my foundation both figuratively and literally.

How do you define “There”?

This question was posed to us in the course of discussing how to get into a certain pose.

Isn’t this always the question? In yoga and in life. Where are you trying to go?

The answer is different for everyone, but for me there is no there. There is only here. Here becomes there, but it is always really here. I forget this often because it sometimes seems like there is a “there.” A pose, a success, a peak, a result.

In my heart I know time only exists in my head and that everything is fleeting. This reinforces to me that yoga is not the culmination of a class or years of practice or getting stronger. It’s every moment, transition, movement, inhale and exhale along the way.

In the words of our teacher, “Yoga is a how, not a what.”

When I step into my own skin, the container for my own spirit, and listen, this is yoga.

As much as we mentally comprehend that yoga is not about a pinnacle pose or pushing through to the end, we can often lose sight of this higher truth when we get tangled in patterns of perceived truth. The perceived truth of, My hips should be more open. I should be more balanced. I should be better at this by now. As if our practice and the poses were something we need to conquer.

I am learning to listen the voice that asks, How does it feel instead of How should it feel.

Backing Up & Diving In

These are two concepts I’ve started to appreciate on a new level this week. Although they seem mutually exclusive – to back out of something (such as a yoga pose) versus diving deeper into something – I’m starting to see them as two sides of a whole. As is often the case, two opposite energies create the balance, not just one alone.

When I back out of my deepest version of a pose, I have a chance to reexamine my alignment, my breath, and where there is freedom and tightness in my body. This cultivates in me a deeper connection to then unfold from. Perhaps the final version of my pose isn’t the one I’m used to doing, but it’s a truer, fuller version of it.

And that’s what I want to offer. True and full. It’s only from that place of true and full that I actually have something to offer.

I once heard a teacher say in Paschimottanasana (intense forward fold), “You work so hard to reach the floor only to find that the floor gets in your way.”

Just as in life, backing away gives us perspective, time to reconnect, and a deeper place to reengage from. This is sustainable opening. This is planting roots that will support us as we grow.

God vs. The Universe

We dove a little deeper into yoga philosophy and history this week. All of us in the class come from different religious backgrounds, and it’s a fascinating experience for me to sit in a roomful of people and be able to hear differing concepts and questions on spirituality aired in a nonjudgemental way. In a world where conversations on religion usually result in a heated debate, the curiosity and investigation of my fellow teachers-in-training is refreshing.

This openness is something I hope we all carry with us off our mats and into our lives. This respect and curiosity for the new, the different, and the difficult.

Leading by Example

I’ve been blessed with exceptional teachers on my yoga path, and they all have one thing in common. They lead by example. They are imparting as much knowledge by their actions as through their words.

I am learning so much about how to teach yoga by how they are teaching us yoga. How they relate to students, to each other, in and out of the classroom.

I believe leading by example is the invitation for all of us. I believe we are all leading by example, whether we intend to or not. People are learning from what we do and how we live. Our words are just the icing on the cake.

*****

This is the third part of a series.
Week 1
Week 2

photo by: MikeBehnken

Confronting the Unknown in Teacher Training

Breath Meets Body: Week 2 of Yoga Teacher Training

As I navigate my way through Week 2 of Yoga Teacher Training, it feels a lot like I’m walking through my house in the dark.

Walking blindly through a space I know well from having lived in it for years, it seems to change shape. In the dark I can’t walk quickly unless I want to bump into things.welcome new light

So I walk slowly. I feel with my hands the smooth wall, the ridge where a mirror juts out, and anticipate the drop-off where the wall ends. Between the walls I blindly walk through dark, empty space, trusting my instinct and my familiarity to guide me to the next wall.

It’s the same with this learning process. This relearning process I should say. In order to stay truly open and learn fully, I’ve turned off the light of what I think I know. Now I must feel my way through new concepts, old concepts, and have an altogether new experience of yoga.

Breath, Meet Bones

One interesting aspect we’ve been spending a lot of time on is the breath. Ujjayi breathing, different kinds of diaphragmatic breathing, and pranayama practices.

We all know the breath is a big part of yoga. We hear it in class all the time, and we can probably turn on our breath at will.

But letting the breath lead the body, this has become my practice.

Sure, I can keep up with a vigorous vinyasa class. Yes, I can make my breath loud enough for my neighbor to hear. And I routinely write on the importance of breathing.

But when I tried to actually let my breath (instead of my mind or body) lead me through every single pose of a simple flow class, I struggled.

I would be halfway into the pose and then begin my exhale.

This is the first step of yoga, linking breath with body. Since I don’t always do this, I came to the realization that, to my surprise, in much of my practice I haven’t really been doing yoga.

This revelation my mind calls “interesting,” because I don’t know what else to call it. I know it isn’t good or bad. It is just a process of rebuilding a stronger foundation, of reviewing what I think I know, of revisiting the home of my body in the dark, feeling my way around my breath and my bones and introducing them to each other.

Breath, meet bones. I thought you’d have met by now.

Parallel Processes

This breath-leads-body concept parallels interestingly with the bigger picture of the training. With so much mental focus and thinking, physical practice, and interaction required, it feels like a real-life vinyasa flow. Meaning you only get through it if you take one breath at a time, one step at a time.

If I let my head lead in this process of learning, I will become unbalanced. If I let my body lead, pushing it too hard, I will become unbalanced.

It is only by staying present and focused on what’s right in front of me that I will stay in sync, maintain balance, and enjoy the amazing process I’m involved in.

Although on the surface we are covering many nuts-and-bolts of yoga asana and philosophy, under the surface there is a refining going on. I think this is true for all of us in the class.

I’ve begun to treasure restorative yoga and the powers of resting, finding in it a wonderfully complementary and rejuvinating counterpart to intense flow practices.

As the new moon peaks on Saturday, its astral process seems to parallel mine. An erasing of what is visible, of what appears to be clear, of an obvious guiding light. A returning to the source, a deep introspection, an unlayering, a finding of an internal sense of balance, and a learning to see in the dark.

*****

This is the second part of a series. You can read Part 1 here.

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photo by: AlicePopkorn