As a teacher, there are few skills more useful than the ability to modify postures to fit the needs of an individual student. In sheer value it rivals the ability to lead a class, but modification requires significantly more knowledge and patience. After all, each classroom is filled with individuals who have different strengths, weaknesses and injuries.
THE PURPOSE OF THE POSTURE
Modifying any yoga posture or practice requires two things. The first is knowledge of the posture: What is its purpose? What are we trying to accomplish through its practice? Second is understanding how to adjust a posture to bypass a student's injuries and limitations while maintaining its primary function.
Each posture is nothing more than the sum total of its benefits. Does it build strength, flexibility, massage the intestines, affect the blood pressure, etc? Each posture has a unique combination of benefits that defines its purpose. To know these benefits is to understand the posture.
Of course, some benefits are more important than others. In general, benefits to the spine, torso, abdomen and circulatory system are more important than the extremities like the arms and legs. Coincidentally, many of the limitations that yoga students have are in their extremities: knee replacements, tight shoulders, painful feet, shaky balance.
This means that we can often improve a student's ability to execute (and therefore obtain the benefits of) a posture by removing the extremities and focusing on the center.
As a teacher, it is easy for time spent teaching to cut into time that used to be for personal practice, as if both endeavors draw from the same “yoga time.” With this system, as teaching time increases, practice time necessarily decreases. This leads to trouble, because the two are not the same.
Teaching, even though it is rewarding, is a service that draws from our well of energy and strength. Most of us begin as teachers with an overflowing well, so we can continue for some time without noticing, but eventually our work will suffer, we will become repetitive, uninspired and uninspiring. We will be drawing from an empty well.
Personal practice fills the well. It inspires and fulfills our curiosity, propelling us forward and directing our progress.
The more powerful we want our teaching to be, the more powerful our personal practice needs to be. Otherwise teaching is unsustainable and can even be detrimental to us personally, sapping our energy and will. Not to mention we are not serving our students, which is our most important job.
We all have a dilemma each time we open our mouths to speak. Do I say what I know or do I ask about what I don't?
We may say what we know to express our opinion in a conversation, to convince, to teach or simply to reinforce our own reality by saying it out loud. As yogis, we should be careful of this. Every time words come out of our mouths, their reality is solidified in our minds, and we become more rutted in our version of things.
When we ask what we don't know, two important things happen in our minds. We acknowledge that we don't know everything, a humility that is absolutely essential for growth and human connection. And we open ourselves up to new information and knowledge.
How will we get smarter and better, how will we make progress if we think we are at the pinnacle of knowledge and understanding?
This is why I love to be wrong and to admit that my knowledge is incomplete. Only during these moments can I learn new things and make progress in understanding. This benefits me by making me smarter and more complete, and more so by maintaining humility and flexibility in the "reality" that is my mind.
How many times have you heard a yoga teacher tell you that deep breathing "oxygenates the blood?"
It isn't true. At the very least it is misleading.
Our nervous system forces us to breathe at the necessary rate to fully oxygenate our blood at all times. This is true when we're resting as well as when we're running a marathon. The body's oxygen requirements are different depending on our activity, and the nervous system automatically adjusts to oxygenate the blood fully. Normal blood oxygenation is 95-100%.
When we are at rest, we breathe slower since the body's oxygen demands are less. Breathing more or deeper while the body is at rest does not "oxygenate" the blood. It hyper-ventilates, which is just a way of saying breathing (ventilating) more than necessary.
Anytime we breathe more than the body requires, the big change we are causing is the removal of carbon dioxide, one of the body's metabolic wastes. Hyperventilation removes more carbon dioxide than the body produces, and this leads to a whole host of physiological effects. Most significantly, the blood vessels in the brain constrict, limiting blood flow to the brain. This makes us light-headed.
So that light-headed feeling you get when breathing deeply isn't energization or "oxygenation," but constricted blood vessels in the brain. Your brain is actually getting less oxygen than if you were to breathe normally!
Most of the meditative, inward-looking spiritual traditions of the world agree that we overlook our true nature.
Our misunderstanding comes from the active (sometimes hyperactive) nature of the mind, which is constantly on the lookout for danger and opportunity. When these things are missing, the mind finds other activities: daydreaming, pondering, obsessing, discussing, watching TV, etc. There is an endless number of things we do to keep our minds busy. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that our busy minds give us things to do.
Our identity problem comes when we mistake these mental activities for the true nature of the self. We don't realize that our emotions and mental activities are separate from us, and we identify ourselves with each emotion and thought: "I am angry," "I am happy," "I am hungry," "I am thinking."
It can seem like splitting hairs, like an unnecessary distinction to make. But, are you your emotions? Are you your thoughts? Are you the breaths that you take or the beats of you heart? Are you the pain in your body? The more we explore these questions, we find that the "self" is not to be found in any of these elements.
Nowhere is this concept stated more clearly than in the Yogasutras, "the Self appears to assume the form of thought's vacillations and the True Self is lost." (1:4) (1)
The practices of yoga are many, but they all point to this issue. Every single practice of the body, breath and mind is designed to point us toward the true nature of the Self.
1. Stiles, Mukunda, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2002, p2-3.
We become teachers for many different reasons: to improve our understanding, a sense of duty, the need for income, to be a leader, to have power...
Once you are teaching, the story can change quickly. You have to work around schedules, maintain time for your own practice and deal with frustrating students. It is easy for the grand vision of teaching to turn into a slog that is fraught with resentment.
It doesn't take much to resent your students. They don't work as hard as you ask them to, they don't take your advice. How many times have you told them to keep their hip down?! Why don't they do it?! Sometimes it seems like it's not even worth the effort you put in.
At times like this, when you feel frustrated by your students, try to approach them and their practice with kindness and patience, not resentment, impatience or anger. Especially when you correct them or adjust their posture.
It is tough, because anytime we correct a student, it comes from dissatisfaction with their performance. They are doing something wrong enough that we notice and feel compelled to intervene. This means that every "correction" we give a student begins with our own irritation and has the potential to bloom into frustration or even anger.
Is it possible to turn our dissatisfaction with a student's performance into something more generous? How can we serve them and make them understand better? (Because let's face it, nearly every mistake comes from misunderstanding.)
Above all, we (the teachers) are here to serve the students. They are not here to serve us. Sure, it is important to honor the purpose of the practice and be sure to do things right, but this is actually in service of the student, not the teacher.
When you teach, and when you correct your students, do it out of service, generosity and kindness.
Don't do it to get something from them. Do it to give something to them.
Don't do it out of frustration or anger. Do it out of love, to help.
A teacher's patience is infinite, because the goal is to teach the student. And the goal hasn't been achieved until the student understands.
Most yoga teachers begin teaching because of the benefit and transformation they've undergone through their practice. They want to share that tool of transformation with others.
We must hold tight to this purpose and inspiration. It is so easy for it to fade as we deal with the logistics of teaching. We get tired, we get frustrated, our own practice loses its immediacy and passion, we struggle to find time for teaching, practice, our day job, our family, etc.
Teaching of any sort is a high responsibility. What you teach will inform the minds and lives of your students. Don't brush it off, thinking "I'm just a yoga (or any other subject) teacher." Don't push the responsibility for understanding onto the students. Sure, it is vitally important that a student be passionate, curious and discerning. But those qualities brought them to your class, and you have the power to put thoughts in their head for the next hour or so.
The role of teacher is the highest in the realm of learning. Only a teacher has the ability to lead students where they can not go themselves. A student's own knowledge will not take them there, even personal study may be insufficient since it relies on the indwelling logic and structure of the student's mind. Only a teacher who has greater knowledge and experience can open the student's eyes to things they are unaware of. This is not to be taken lightly.
We are excited to announce a new book that will be out early next year: "26+2 Modifications."
Bikram's beginning class of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises is a great class. There are lots of teachers and students of this method. Its one-size-fits-all style is at once its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
Lots of students struggle due to injuries, lack of strength or mobility, and it can be extremely useful for teachers to have a tool-box full of small modifications to the postures to serve this population.
The new book will include discussions of each of the 26 postures, including the fundamental purpose and other secondary purposes. This helps to clarify our intention as teachers and inform our interactions with students. It will include several modifications for each posture, directly addressing the primary function of each exercise.
A lot of the exercises and modifications are drawn from therapeutic exercises in the Ghosh yoga lineage, which ideally treats every student individually and uniquely.
All of the postures and modifications in this book are intended to function within the context of a dialogue-driven class of the 26+2. They are simple and focused, so that the teacher can help specific students while keeping the rest of the class on track.
26+2: Modifications will be available February 1, 2018. All of the attendees of the week-long immersion "Teaching 26+2" will receive a copy with their admission.
All of us have been taught incorrect information at one point or another.
Sometimes it is because new knowledge has come to light since we learned it, either through scientific progress, new historical research or some other method. It is common for knowledge to become outdated.
Sometimes it is because we or our teachers have made false assumptions to fill in gaps in knowledge. Believe it or not, there isn't verifiable information about every aspect of every discipline, so a certain amount of deduction and inference has to occur. Sometimes these turn out to be wrong.
Sometimes our teachers mislead us about the breadth of their knowledge, filling in gaps with plausible information, distraction or personality.
An example: I was recently reading a notebook from a class I took a few years ago. I had written that one should not drink water while eating, as it dilutes the digestive acid in the stomach. A few days ago, I asked a friend of mine who is a doctor if she knew whether this is true. She said she thought it unlikely that drinking water is detrimental to digestion, but she wasn't sure. So I looked it up. Mayo Clinic, one of the foremost institutions of medicine and research, says that drinking water while eating does not dilute the digestive juices. It actually has a positive overall impact on digestion and elimination.
HOW TO DEAL
It is still written there in my notebook: "don't drink water while eating." Do I write "untrue" next to it, or cross it out? Do I fact-check everything in the notebook? Do I disregard everything I learned from this teacher?
Any system is made of hundreds of separate (but related) pieces of information. One or several of the pieces of info can be wrong without necessarily making other information worthless. And the system may hold up as a whole even if some of its foundational information is incorrect.
It serves us, our students and any system to have as much correct information as possible.
For the most part, realizing that we have been wrong about something has a wonderful upside: we know something correct now! Our knowledge has expanded!
It gets complicated if we feel tied to a system as it was passed down to us. Sometimes we are tempted to avoid any information that changes the system or contradicts it in any way. The same is true if we feel tied to a teacher or his or her inherent personality or value. It can seem that any instance of misinformation, ignorance or outdatedness nullifies the teacher's validity on the whole.
Allowing our knowledge to change is complicated. It requires a reassessment of what we know and believe. As new knowledge comes to light, it is of vital importance that we accept it, and not deny it for the sake of tradition or personality.
The next Ghosh’s Yoga College teacher training starts next Monday in Kolkata!
This time there will be students attending from the US, Sweden and Taiwan. This is the fifth training since Ghosh’s College opened its doors to Westerners in an official way. Those coming for training will live at the school in the heart of North Kolkata for three weeks.
They will study one-to-one prescriptive yoga with Muktamala Mitra, granddaughter of Bishnu Ghosh. Most of the curriculum is focused on therapeutic exercises, and what to prescribe to “patients” looking to yoga for physical therapy. It’s a complete change in perspective for those of us used to a Western 'yoga class' setting.
Along with getting the attendees settled into GYC, I (Ida) will be using the week to continue helping with research. I will be there with Jerome Armstrong, who has been diligently researching the Ghosh lineage for the past several years. (Side note, for the past 6 months I’ve been editing his book Calcutta Yoga which will be out in the next few months! Stay tuned!) We plan to visit people and places we’ve been before, as well as explore some new territory.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
- Understanding Chair Posture
- Lock the Knee History
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- The Oxygenation Myth