It makes me uncomfortable when a yoga teachers refer to their classes or themselves as ‘Master’. The true masters bow in humility to their own teachers. We don’t understand that in the West. The reference to ‘Master’ is considered an effective marketing skill to entice students to higher learning. It is also reflective of high self esteem and those are character traits we value as they are indicators of our potential success, measured by status in life, size of bank account, etc. The true masters don’t refer to themselves as Masters and honor their teachers. I am lucky to have had these types of teachers. And I have to post this at least once a year because so much of social media is filled with advertisements for Master Classes from Master Teachers.
Humility is an under valued quality at any rate.
About a month ago, I took a two and a half hour Iyengar class from Chris Saudek, who is a Senior Intermediate Level III Iyengar yoga teacher. She has studied and taught yoga since 1981. Here is her web site:
This class included a lot of Iyengar teachers and students like myself who are interested in learning more about the practice, so it was part practice and part looking at poses. The class was approximately 2.5 hours long and was typical to an Iyengar class without demonstrations. Frequently, she would take a pose and then pull out everyone except for maybe two people. We would look and give feedback. (Not me, but the teachers.) It was amazing to me the degree of detail that Iyengar teachers are able to break down asana. One example was in up dog. I thought both students demonstrated the pose very well, until someone pointed it out that the action of the shoulders was moving forward, instead of back. It was a small detail the small shift changed the form and energy of a pose that students often ‘hurry’ through or do not do mindfully. The student changed the action and the pose changed physically and energetically, but very minimally visually.
The thing I always take back from the class, is that we tend to categorize poses as hard or easy, when the truth is if we are labeling poses merely on the level of difficulty, we are not exploring their potential or to the deeper level of the koshas. Even more important is that we are not fully practicing each pose. In “Yoga A Gem for Women”, Geeta Iyengar states, “No portion of the body or mind is left untouched when an asana is carefully and correctly performed.” To be able to teach this form correctly takes the ability to see the physical alignment and energetic quality of the individual student. An example of this was when the teacher corrected a student’s trikonasana and then asked us if we saw something else that could be changed. No one said anything because the pose had just been realigned. It looked visually perfect. I was looking for a micro physical change, but no, the teacher pointed out it was static, lacked interest by the practitioner, and had a general lack of energy. The well aligned pose had literally turned into a statue, rather than vibrant, breathing form. There is no perfect alignment without prana. In vinyasa, breath is the alignment of the pose.
One thing that didn’t strike me until half way through was that we were not using props. In a normal Iyengar class you are constantly gathering and putting away props, yet, if you look at Light on Yoga, the master himself uses none however. The poses demonstrated in Light on Yoga are considered the form we practice to achieve but along the way we use props to practice the form appropriate for our experience. It was interesting to practice that form that way and the way I am used to practicing in Primary Series. I imagine because it was sort of a teacher’ intensive? We used them for sarvangasana though, of course. And in a general class, we use them for most poses.
I was trying to hide in the back row so I could goof off if necessary, but they are sharp and don’t let me hide. The practice exposes everything. Next time I will go in the front row. For some reason I could not do ardha chandrasana that day which is a pose I normally have no problem with. It was a mess my hip kept cramping, maybe due to the long holds in the other standing poses we did to prepare for this pose. So I was allowed props and a wall, which I normally don’t need. I was told to lift out of that compressed hip.
I am attending more of these workshops in March this coming Friday and May and look forward to not only the practice, which I do not seem to be able to replicate on my own and also the observing, questioning, and feedback. The feedback cuing is so subtle but changes the form much more than a hands on assist. The mind has to be listening, put the words in the body, and then then remember it later. This morning I practiced and could barely muster Virabhdrasana III, another form I usually don’t have a problem with.
The practice is so pure and so basic, but it teaches me there is always more to look at. It allows the development of a sharp incisive mind. Practice, like anything else, can become rote and boring. It is why I enjoy Ashtanga too. The focus is on mind and breath quality. And refinement. Refinement is important too.
Yesterday I took it a step further and attended my first teacher training course, mostly as an observer. It was somewhat daunting. We began the day with a 2.5 hour class with Chris.
The first half hour to 40 minutes was spent in seated poses such as Dandasana with arms overhead. For long periods time. The cues were a lot of don’t let your head move forward, lift the arms from the low back. The first cue is to correct our normal bad posture habits. My left hip bothered me during the long Dandasana and found out later it is a similar problem with navasana. I was working more in the hip flexors than the abdominal muscles. We did Supta Padangusthasana, the two navasanas, and then moved into Sirsana. We worked on Eka Pada for Sirsana at least three rounds and then full sirsana. On to standing poses, which were Utthita Trikonasana, Vimhasana, Virabhdrasana 1, and Parvritti Trikonasana. Then it was down to the floor for Chatushpadasana, Urdhva Dhanurasana on a chair, and of course Sarvangasana. So in two and a half hours we are practicing maybe 15 poses? I didn’t count, I am sure I have forgotten some.
In the afternoon about 20 of the ‘trainees’ met with Chris and the experienced teachers, like my teachers were there as observers. I am not sure if I am on the teaching track. The sessions were offered to teachers or those who want to learn more about Iyengar Yoga. We were asked to submit homework. One submission was a paper on Prakriti/Purusa. Easypeasy for me. I know Samkyha philosophy! The second was a sequence for beginners or continuing beginners. When you begin teaching Iyengar, you only teach beginners. Probably for a long time. The people in the group who were already teachers and hadn’t gotten their first level of certification had taught from 0 to 5 years. We also had to highlight one or two poses to teach. I already told them I wasn’t comfortable with that yet, as did others. I wanted to see what it was about. When the trainees took their turn teaching to us, they gave everyone their sequence. Chris and the experienced teachers gave feedback. I learned a lot from this and have a lot of notes. The sequencing is something that is confusing to me but it merits study. I didn’t understand the ashtanga progression and studied it a lot before it made perfect sense.
During the teaching demos most of the critique ended up being more about creating an experience for the student and creating space, over placement of body parts. They all know the alignment of the poses already. She kept insisting that you have to create space for the student. The only trainee who messed up the sequence took them right into ardha chandrasana from parsva hasta padasana. The pose is normally sequenced from Trikonasana. She also reminded them to go back to Light on Yoga. She asked the group what were the benefits and differences between paripurna navasana and ardha navasana. Ha ha. Crickets. She said it is right there in Light on Yoga. (Massive scrambling for the book.) Another great reminder was to understand WHY you are teaching something. She asked that a lot and that is a hard question to answer but comes from practice and study. The correct answer is not that you do it because you LIKE it that way. (Welcome to my world. I hear this constantly or doing it because another teacher does it that way.)
She had a lot of antidotes about her recent visit to India and some good Geeta Iyengar stories. We are very fortunate in the West to have really great female teachers, but Geeta and Saraswathi, Jois’s daughter that are still around. These two are really the most knowledgeable women in yoga and practiced with their fathers for years and years since they were young girls. I recently bought Geetas book, Yoga A Gem for Women. This is a great book and required in the syllabus to become an Iyengar teacher. I might do a blog on these two soon because I just noticed after having the book a month, that there are pictures of a younger Geeta in the back of the book doing the poses!
If there is one thing I took back it is the effect of arms overhead not only to open tight shoulders, but to strengthen the back. My back has felt very open and alive and strong all weekend. I will continue to work on this. This simple action is a preparation for Urdhva Dhanurasana, Adho Mukha Svasana, and many many poses. And then today I read THIS in a blog about why following the progression of poses in Ashtanga is important. This particular section talks bout handstands:
“In Ashtanga, Handstand is more of a transition. Legs straight in the air while standing on the hands is usually a path to another pose. Usually, it is not until Intermediate Series that legs straight in the air with straight arms is worked on as an aid to a controlled drop over into Wheel with straight arms. Some teachers will have a Primary Series student, who is close to entering Second Series do these as well and they will also allow students to add them to Primary Series transitions. It should be noted that, Sharath Jois, the current lineage holder for Ashtanga, has spoken out against the over use of Handstand and it is frowned upon in Mysore. By the time a student starts playing with Handstand, the shoulders are extremely open from all the binds and back bends they have done previously. They have also established strength and stability by Jump Throughs, Jump Backs, Shoulder Pressure pose , Crow Pose, Forearm balance, Fire Fly Pose and other transitions they have encountered on the way.”
This is totally my experience as a teacher and I have seen this in many students. Thank you to whomever wrote this. But it is a reminder that there is a reason for what you are doing. Or not doing.
Yoga works best when it is a system. Just making a hodge podge of movements and endeavoring to do impressive poses will always take you to a point of frustration or boredom. You are likely to quit when you get to this point. I love the Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga practices because they make sense. It take a long period of time before you figure that out though. Holding your arms over your head for long periods of time (took me back to last summer’s Maty Ezraty intensive where I swear my arms were overhead a couple of hour every day), working on tight external hip rotators, etc is not romantic or sexy or even fun. Practice is like our daily life. We have things to do. We have to understand why we are doing them. We do it for a reason
I am going to do teach a pose next session I decided. Just to get my feet wet. It will be along time before and if I ever decide to actually teach this method. But learning is fun and the teachers are for real.