Practice What You Teach: Keeping Teaching Real through the Evolution of Your Personal Practice
-By Sam Jacobs
In 2015, after teaching part-time for three years, I decided to make the leap and become a full-time yoga teacher. While I loved the shift in focus of my life, by the end of that year, I was disenchanted with teaching and found myself robotically, mindlessly, offering sequences and intentions for practices that felt more like doing what I had to do to make ends meet instead of laboring with passion and love. I dropped back to part-time teaching, aiming to develop my own practice and uncover more pieces of myself that might expand the horizon of what I could offer my students. It worked. I typically did yoga five days a week, at a wide array of studios and for myself at home. I took bigger breaths. I read more about yogic philosophy. I travelled. Teaching began to feel like a privilege again. Now, I find myself with an incredible opportunity to teach-full time once more, and as I begin down this familiar road, I am trying to learn from my past mistakes.
As a full-time teacher, one of my biggest challenges is keeping things on the mat fresh and interesting not just for my students, but also for myself. Despite a principle that I (and most teachers I know) embrace: yoga is a lifestyle that embodies growth and self-care, when I lead ten to twenty classes a week, the first thing that goes out the window is taking the time to concentrate my own practice. With a packed teaching day ahead, I’ll glance at my mat rolled in the corner with a sense of reluctance; I’ll start to envy my students’ opportunities to practice and lament the circumstances that are keeping me from my own. In short, I can easily stumble into behavior that runs counter to asteya, or non-stealing. I take from myself: time and opportunity to let my passion thrive, and in turn, take from my students because the practices I lead can often become speckled with my own jealousy and desires. In order to confidently make the transition back to full-time teaching, here are some concrete strategies I have implemented, and I hope they will be of use to both part-time and full- time teachers who might resonate with challenges I have faced.
Part of My 40-Hour Work Week Includes My Own Practice
As most of us have heard in one training or another, you can only teach as far as you yourself have journeyed. I hope to lead dynamic, inspiring classes, that aspiration is realized most fully when my own practice is growing. For me, this means giving myself permission to carve time to practice. Part of my schedule now includes time to do yoga; I look at is as part of my job (and I am very lucky to teach at a studio that also considers the development of my personal practice a vital component to my teaching). The more diverse the set of practices and teachers, the better, and returning to a studio “home” that is not a place I am a teacher has been immensely beneficial. When I practice at a studio where no one knows me as a teacher, I experiment more. I don’t worry about leading by example. I have the space to find my yoga with a pure and burning curiosity. When scheduling does not permit, I practice at the studio where I teach. While I do see students alongside me on the mat who know me as a teacher, it revs up my own mental practice to stay in the moment, in my own head and my own body. And, when a day is simply too booked to take a studio class, I am finding the disciple to unfurl my mat in my apartment and hop on. Even if only for fifteen minutes first thing when I wake for a few Sun As & Bs. Because there are lessons my body and breath teach me every time that can help me to find nuggets of inspiration for the teaching day ahead.
I Honor a Day of Rest
I won’t rehash all the unfortunate phrases said during yoga classes that lend credibility to the troupe of yoga (as practiced in Western countries) as emotionally overwrought and scientifically unsupported; a little too much heart and not enough head (if you want a primer and a laugh, find them here: https://www.doyouyoga.com/8-phrases- that-yoga- teachers-can- stop-using-now- 15627/). Hearing that I was supposed to breathe into the deliciousness of a pose and release my inner toxins kept me from coming back to the mat for what must have amounted to a thousand days. I remember enough from my pre-med undergraduate courses to know that when I go upside-down, I am not “reversing the blood flow” in my body. So, what of this emotional release that is said over and over to come from hip openers?
Before I get too analytical, a disclaimer: I believe that there are intangible, immeasurable, and simply mystic elements to an honest and authentic yoga practice. Part of yoga is faith. There’s no set of data I need to prove to me the how real it is when my mind becomes still after I’ve spent over an hour paying attention to my breath, trying with my whole heart, and releasing any attachment to the results of my efforts (yes, that’s roughly Sutra 1.12).
Now, back to the hips and that time you found yourself bawling in Sleeping Pigeon Pose after ten minutes. Okay. The hips are home to the largest ball and socket joints in the body which interact with seventeen to twenty-five different muscles depending on who you ask. Sitting for long periods of time (as many of us are want to do these days) shortens the hip-flexor muscles including the psoas, rectus femoris, and sartorius as well as the hip-rotators including the piriformis, and gemellus and obturator muscle groups. Muscles that originate from the hips attach at the pelvis, lumbar spine, sacrum, and all the way down to the femur. Tight or underdeveloped muscles can cause chronic pain, spasms, and knots, and reduce blood flow and oxygenation. Make no mistake, tightness in the hips can destabilize the spine and negatively affect core strength. From a simple mechanical perspective, regularly stretching the hips has indisputable benefits whether you are trying to maintain basic mobility or training as an elite athlete.
Now the emotional release? Western medicine is slowly wising up to the reality that the body and the mind are inextricably linked, and that manifestations in the body correlate to emotional and mental well-being. This makes sense. At their most basic level, emotions are chemical reactions that take place across the entire body, not just in the brain; an emotional experience is followed by an almost-instantaneous physical response. Existing studies on the matter do support that feelings of negativity activate muscles in the jaw and around the eyes, and people who have experienced chronic stress have shortened neck and shoulder muscles.
People also tend to understand their emotions as taking place within the physical body. When asked, research subjects associated the neck and shoulders with pride, anger, and shame. The entire body was linked with happiness and love, but unsurprisingly, the chest area near the heart was considered the most highly activated. The chest was also the repository for anxiety and fear. Like love, depression and sadness were envisioned to spread throughout the entire body, but with emphasis in the arms and legs. And the hips? There is little scientific research that correlates the storage of negative emotions and the hips. See https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/urban-survival/201505/5- ways-stress- hurts-your-body-and- what-do- about-it.
Indeed, most of the observations regarding hip openings and emotional release originate from the yoga community. See https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/emotions-in- motion. If you have experienced a breakthrough or particularly charged episode after an extensive session working into the muscles of the hips, no one is here to tell you that you are incorrectly associating the physical and mental release. The hips are large and complicated structures central to how we move.
Yoga is about the yoke that forms the connection among mind, body, and breath. Once you start diving into yourself, there is no limit to the realizations you might have and the very real emotional responses that occur. The hips as an emotional storage site is a fairly uncontroversial premise within the yoga community, but I wonder how many teachers repeat what they have been told without their own research, and how many students feel pressure to seek emotion in a space in the body where it just might not exist for them. As a yoga practitioner and teacher, I try to honor not just my own experiences, but to be as educated as possible about the experiences that may or may not be evoked in others. Not everyone’s experience with hip opening need be deeply emotional. Sometimes, it’s just really, really uncomfortable in the moment, and that perspective also needs to have room in a practice space to be enough.
I get uncomfortable when yoga teachers describe feelings and sensations that stray into the outer stratosphere of the reality of human physiology. I will not breathe through my left pinky toe, thank you. Some students love this approach and many teachers thrive on creative metaphors to make people see and feel themselves with a little more clarity and a little more heart. That’s the beauty of yoga. There is room enough to come at it from as many different angles as there are people who practice it. But the next time you are in a class, teaching or taking, perhaps give a thought to the idea that stretching the muscles of the hips might evoke an emotional response, and it might not. The science is still out. Your experience is your experience. How can you invite exploration without being prescriptive about out ever-evolving understanding of how the mind and the body work together?
Benefits of yoga and exercise in the morning are consistently proven through empirical and anecdotal evidence. If you are concerned about exercise for purely health-related benefits, studies have shown that up to 20% more calories are burned first thing in the morning, that the metabolism is boosted for the duration of the day, and appetite is tempered or even reduced. Morning exercise has also been found to lower blood pressure, a metric associated with the prevention of heart disease and diabetes. There is also tradition. Ashtanga yogis are often seen rising before the sun to practice at 6:30 in the morning, six days a week. The rigor and consistency of doing yoga at dawn are thought to encourage discipline (tapas) and deeper engagement with the physical and mental aspects of the practice. The world is still, the mind is still, and the yogi has a blank canvas upon which to craft the hours of his or her day. Practically, the morning might be time of day least likely visited by the unexpected, and where the fewest justifications (other than the snooze button) exist for skipping a session. Starting the day with yoga can encourage calm, mindfulness, and attention to the breath for all the waking hours that follow. Not to mention, sleep benefits have been associated with early morning exercise regimes.
Studies suggest that most bodies living in the western world are at their most alert, and within peak performance states from approximately 2pm-6pm. This window is when flexibility, endurance, and strength are naturally at their highest capacities. There is less risk of injury and the body is primed to explore challenging postures or transitions. Yoga over the lunch hour or into the late afternoon and early evening might be just the infusion of endorphins needed to make it through the rest of the work day. If you have the flexibility at your workplace, schedule yourself “unavailable” during a favorite afternoon class a couple of times a week to minimize the chance of circumstance keeping you from the mat. Stash an extra set of yoga clothes at the office so there are no excuses. Prioritize yoga over happy hour. Make choices to make it to the mat if that is where you want to be.
After a long day, sometimes there is nothing sweeter than an evening decompression session to let it wash away. Yoga in the evening can help eliminate the stress that built up throughout the day as well as encourage corrective strengthening and stretching to undo the ergonomically unsound situations the body experienced prior to making it to the mat. A word of caution regarding a vigorous evening practice: know yourself. While some studies suggest that rigorous exercise to the point of exhaustion may disrupt sleep cycles, this is not true of every body. Furthermore, savasana and/or meditation prior to sleep may actually encourage restfulness in a way that other forms of exercise do not. Later evening practices at many studios are choreographed with the end-of- day crowd in mind. Late night, consider a restorative, yin, or therapeutics class. Furthermore, many studios are less crowded in the evenings which might mean the venue you seek for practice is less chaotic.
Yoga before bed can be a satisfying way to reclaim and reprioritize yourself no matter what might have come before. The take away? Unique schedules and wonderfully diverse lifestyles make it impossible to be intelligently prescriptive about when the “best time” to do yoga might be. Any time can be the right time for yoga. Like any good practice: listen, meet yourself where you are, do it with honesty and integrity. Morning, noon, or night.
When I first started practicing yoga, I treated it like an all-or- nothing physical experience and approached it the same way I approached ballet and running: I had not satisfied my purpose until I was beat up, exhausted, drenched in sweat, my feet literally bleeding through my shoes. Being barefoot on the mat, making unfamiliar shapes slowed me down, but yoga was another physical, exercise-oriented activity. I did not conceive of yoga as a counterpoint to my rigorous routines; it was an additional source of passionate heat to add to my athletic fire.
After a couple of years of practice, one teacher training, and some major life transitions in my relationships, my habits, and my career, I lost the joy of making it to the mat. I kept up with yoga because I felt guilty for not doing my “good” exercise to balance all of my chaos. If I had not fallen out of love with yoga, we were certainly in a chilly, distant place. I practiced before or after I taught, but did little to cultivate any creativity in my own movements or meditations. Then, another late night at the office kept me from taking a class, and I found myself on my mat, alone in my living room, not quite sure where to begin. It was in that meandering solo practice, where I moved without being directed, where I listened to my body asking me to slow it down, that my love affair with yoga was reenergized. Yoga became a conversation. I did not get to dictate all of the answers, and in releasing that fierce control and desire to reach a hot, rigorous practice every time, I started to listen to the seasons of my body.
Turns out, yoga, like any relationship of length and depth, goes through cycles that echo the lives of its practitioners. Keeping committed over a lifetime means honoring the gentle moments of familiarity as well those blissfully spicy moments of discovery. In this companion piece to the December post, I asked the same yogis who spoke about making it past the one year mark to talk about their commitment to yoga for the long haul. Here’s what they shared:
I used to force myself to practice asana every day and I hate to say it but it actually did create some gaps in other areas of my life. Avoiding things that needed to be done in exchange for some time to sweat. I have since learned that the practice is so much more than being on my mat so I designed other yoga practices. I have a daily ritual of Saucha every morning, created a warm and inviting meditation area in my home to draw me into meditation, I observe my thoughts and realize when I am choosing judgement over acceptance and attachment over non-attachment.These days I simply trust that yoga is not a PART of me rather than something I DO. You don’t wake up every day and say, today I will be a woman, you simply are. That is my new yoga practice.
~Lindsey Kaalberg, Founder and CEO Ritual Hot Yoga, San Francisco CA
The primary reason that I have been able to have a sustainable practice for 10 years is routine. The regularity of Ashtanga allows the practice to exist independently of the weather, time of day, season, personal and world events, things which throw most people off. I don’t rely on creativity to keep myself engaged in the practice, nor do I need to constantly re-invent what I’m doing on the mat; I simply show up and go with the flow. The fact that the routine is established doesn’t mean that I can’t deviate to accommodate curiosity or different levels of personal energy, and I’m not so fanatical that I can’t take a break for even weeks at a time without feeling guilty. Yoga is not a lifestyle or an identity for me, but simply one powerful tool that I have to keep my cool in a world that is constantly insisting on me losing it.
~Steve Pyka, Founder, Asta Yoga, San Francisco, CA
Seeing the benefits of health & well being (physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually) that a consistent yoga practice provides, especially in an older body, is very motivating! Prior to taking my first yoga class, I was very physically active on a year-round basis with running, hiking, bicycling and cross country skiing. Now, almost 40 years later, I give credit to a regular asana practice as a big reason I am still able to enjoy all these other lifetime “sports.”
~Michael Robold, Co-Founder Yoga for Health Education, Traverse City, MI
Yoga heightens awareness and nudges us to keep “waking up.” Yoga opens us to deeper layers of the body mind. As I have grown in my knowledge through studies and experience, yoga has just become a way of life for me and self-sustains.
~Libby Robold, Co-Founder Yoga for Health Education, Traverse City MI
Once upon a time, in a land far far away a daily practice meant going to a studio and unrolling my mat every day. After becoming an instructor, my practice became a combination of self-practice and faithfully attending my favorite teachers’ classes. In the past few years, life has changed tremendously and has shown me a whole new realm of light, color and faith (opening a studio, marriage, opening a second location, pregnancy). In this time, my ideas of self-care, self-love and self-acceptance have become more refined; and now my practice has rooted itself in space contained within the 8-Limbed Path.
~ Adesina Cash, Founder, Hot Spot Yoga, Oakland, CA
The practice will look different in every body, and the path of its unfolding will be as unique as you are. And that’s the thing about love. You can only see it for what it truly is from the inside out, as a participant in the heartbreak and passion, the lulls and the torrents. What makes yoga work for you will not be what makes yoga work for me, but we can learn from each other. We can learn from the wisdom of those yogis who have made their practices sustainable through all the seasons of their lives. We can be inspired by the sparks they feel and the challenges they have faced. We can explore within, with open honest eyes, and choose to commit (or not) to a lifetime of this yoga love affair.
This Yoga Love Affair: A Collage of Views on How to Keep Your Yoga Practice Sustainable Over One Year
As the chill of December ushers in the close of another year, it is a fitting time to reflect on habits, routines, resolutions, and aspirations. Where did your yoga practice take you this year? What were the elements that kept you coming back to the mat? If you are just beginning to explore yoga, what have you found that makes you curious about cultivating a regular practice? Even after seven years of practicing and teaching, my relationship with yoga runs hot and cold. I know that I love it, that because of yoga I see my life through lenses that were previously unavailable to me, and that I would not be the same person without it, but I still resist my mat. There are times when I want space from my practice in the same way I crave space from a lover: Baby, I want you, but I just don’t want to play today. I don’t have it in me to work this hard right now. I am still exploring what it means to keep this practice sustainable – for one year, and yes, for a lifetime.
To help offer some strategies for the rest of us, I asked several amazing yogis who make the practice their livelihood how they keep faithfully coming back to the mat in the 365-day cycle of a year:
Trust your Inspiration: Teachers, Communities, and Whatever Else Moves You
The call to practice comes from my physical body, yearning for harmony. The call from my mental/emotional body craves the centering engagement of yoga which cultivates a calm state of mind. The truth is… my practice is not confined to the mat. It is sustained by the call to pay attention to my interactions, choices, responses, and my words. Some days my practice is just being present with those around me and learning to honor all beings whatever their perspective. Other days, the call is to help others, or to be present in discomfort of body or mind, or simply, to live in the mystery. I try to remember that when I keep my consciousness elevated that I help to elevate the consciousness of all beings at some level.
~Libby Robold, co- Founder, Yoga for Health Education, Traverse City MI
I make it a priority to make it to my teacher’s class as often as possible. I’d love to go once a week, but sometimes it’s less than that. But practicing regularly with one teacher has helped me keep my practice sustainable and she also helps me to feel inspired.
~ Torrey Mansur, RYT 500, Berkeley/Bay Area
Over the course of the year, my practice is sustained by being in community with strong people who show up no matter what. I started practicing at It’s Yoga with Larry Schultz in 2008, which was the first time I had been turned on to a regular practice, and what I found most captivating was the complete lack of what I would call “yoga bullshit”, which needs little explanation. It was completely practice-oriented and the effects of regular practice were evident all around me in the regular members of the community. When It’s Yoga was winding down their presence in SF, I knew Rocket Yoga and the community which emerges from it formed such a lifeline that we would have to re-create it ourselves.
~Steve Pyka, co-Founder Asta Yoga, San Francisco CA
I give myself permission to have a practice that doesn’t look the same every day. At one point in my life, I was very attached to doing a vigorous asana practice that needed to be a certain amount of time to “count” as a practice. Now I feel great when I can do whatever practice nourishes me that day. I do different practices depending on my menstrual cycle, which is much more sustainable to me than having an active asana practice daily. Also, I just had a baby, so my practice these days has mostly been a seated meditation for 1-5 minutes, a simple pranayama practice and restorative yoga. This type of practice really supports me right now, making it very sustainable.
I take it easy on myself to be quite honest. On days I am called to my mat, I practice; on days I am not, I do not. I take time to observe patterns and do a bit of inquiry as I know when I am in my optimal state I am called to the mat. When it has been more than 3 days, I attempt just rolling out my mat and stepping onto it. If I am there for 5 minutes fabulous, 55 minutes fabulous.
~ Lindsey Kaalberg, co-Founder and CEO Ritual Hot Yoga, San Francisco CA
I am attempting to let go of my attachment to progress in my practice, and I am enjoying the process of sitting and centering every day. I am enjoying the discipline and regularity of a daily practice more than advancing in a certain direction. Progress does happen, and I enjoy that, but I am trying not to be so attached to it.
Self Discipline is key, of course. At the heart of Self Discipline is an underlying attitude of “I am responsible for my health & welfare and, I am worth the effort for I am here to be of service to others, especially those I love.” Naturally, it helps to have at least one other person who offers their support and encouragement to stay the course. And, teaching classes at a yoga studio mandates, from my perspective, a requirement to sustain an ongoing practice.
~ Michael Robold, co-Founder Yoga for Health Education, Traverse City MI
My practice could be a good sit in my bedroom before I start the day, sometimes my practice is unrolling my mat alone in the studio and just moving my body, sometimes it’s a 6:30AM Primary Series at my local Mysore studio, sometimes it’s slapping down my mat and taking class with one of the amazing instructors at my studio. I say this to my students all the time, the practice will always meet you where you are. You just have to show up. In order for me to maintain an honest commitment and connection to my practice I just have to show up, sit down and listen.
To participate in a practice of mindfulness means there is a constant shifting of perspective, the invocation of empathy, and the demand for honest examination of the body and the mind. And, damn, it’s hard work. It can be as overwhelming and frustrating as it can be beautiful. It’s messy. There’s not one answer. There’s not even a correct answer. For now, I take solace in the journeys of the folks who have been walking this path with sage wisdom for years, and find hope in those whose eyes gleam with the fresh excitement of a new romance. I am inspired by everyone brave enough to try. The journey is not going to be perfect, not even close. It is gloriously human in all its individual facets. I believe that this love is worth fighting for. I believe that, sometimes, love in all its mystery has to be enough.
To Be Thankful Without Grasping
And Real Without Apologizing
by Sam Jacobs
Gratitude is a remarkable sentiment to incorporate into our lives every day. With Thanksgiving, a day of graciousness and gluttony fast-approaching, now is a fitting time of year to reflect on how we as teachers hold space for giving thanks. During the holiday season, it is easy to get complacent and teach from obvious, well-intentioned metaphors that are beautiful to say, but more complicated to present authentically. I cannot help but reflect on the many Thanksgiving-themed classes have I attended wherein the teacher tells me to open my palms to the world, to give and receive, and then follows with a practice seeped in heart-openers. Yes, I get it, and perhaps I am just contrarian, but I honestly do not remember the last time I took a holiday-themed class that was not a cookie-cutter presentation of the unique and messy process of being grateful. As I prepare my classes for the week, here are a few of the themes and ideas I will wrestle with as I try and hold space for gratitude, for my students, and for my honest self.
Returning to Foundational Texts with Fresh Eyes
Rather than reading someone else’s take on the yoga sutras, I will be returning to the original text again this week, reading and interpreting the language for myself. It sounds obvious, but I can get lazy and rather than giving myself the space to think original thoughts born from my present circumstances, I am often tempted to use a catchy quote about gratitude that substitutes for my own work analyzing and acknowledging how I am putting into practice the Yamas and Niyamas (I started this post with a now-deleted quote from William Blake, that while beautiful, was not at all reflective of what I mean as I sit and write about gratitude). This week, I will dust off my book of sutras and spend time reconciling my own relationship with contentment (Santosha) and non-grasping (Aparigraha). Currently, I am wrestling with my ability to honor and recognize everything in my life for which I am grateful and my ability to let go of things that do not belong to me, those fleeting gifts that are not mine to possess but only to witness. Holding close what it is to honor and what it is to release is part of my process of being grateful, and it’s the personal struggle that I can most authentically share with my students.
I will not be complacent and allow my occupation as a yoga teacher to suffice as the sole means through which I show my thanks or offer a contribution to the world around me this week. There are times when, mentally and physically spent, I let myself off the hook with the rationalization that my yoga classes suffice as my contribution to the greater good. While teaching yoga is a form of giving, it is also how I pay my bills. While I am so lucky (and grateful) that teaching is enough to sustain me economically, and that I believe that my occupation can and does change lives for the better, I want always to be giving when there is nothing I get in return. I will do the real work of renewing my commitment to give back to the community where I live and teach. This week, I will be volunteering, and visiting friends, acquaintances, and total strangers who are in need, and providing meals and company. When I hold space for others, I will not need to talk about what it is to give in the abstract; I will be teaching from concrete examples as a way to inspire generosity in others.
Teaching Strength Not Guilt
How many times have I also heard after a pre-Thanksgiving class: Now go enjoy your turkey or tofurkey, you’ve earned it! Yoga is not a karma credit for gluttony. With the body consciousness that accompanies holiday season and soon-to-follow New Year’s Resolutions, I will not contribute to what I perceive to be a potentially unhealthy, guilt-inducing, dessert-shaming culture of trading exercise for self-permission to eat a celebratory meal. I understand that a Thanksgiving of beers, pumpkin pies, and backyard football may not be every hard-core yogi’s idealized notion of a holiday of gratitude. But surrounded by people I love, it’s mine. Rather than my yoga classes being a get-out-of-jail-free card for unbridled calorie-consumption, I want my classes to invite mindfulness and strength, but most importantly, joy and celebration. It is my intention to teach classes that will challenge my students. We will sweat. We will do core work followed by more core work. We will steep in long, deserved savasanas. I will ask students to practice not as a preemptive penance for whatever might follow, but as an act of gratitude for the moment, and an act of thanks to the wonders of the body itself.
The Holiday Class
I will not take the easy road this week, and teach about gratitude that I do not feel, or that does not stem from the hard-earned emotions of my own experiences. Especially during the holidays, students come to the mat seeking solace from the pressure and frenetic energy of the holidays. Do not feed them from the cornucopia of well-meaning but trite generic teachings on gratitude. Keep digging deep. Keep showing up for yourself. Teach from your place of messy truths and contradictions. That’s where I will be, teaching from mine, and sending you gratitude that we are in this together.
When Burnout Knocks: The Struggle of Keeping Teaching Healthy, Honest, and Vibrant
By Samantha Jacobs
I have heard most yoga teachers I know, at one point or another, say something along the lines of, “I have been teaching so much, I haven’t had time to practice.” This statement usually precedes weeks or months of the dreaded but all-too- familiar malaise of yoga-teacher- burnout. In professions in which holding space and giving to others is paramount, such as teaching of all kinds, caregiving, public interest work, social justice, medicine, counseling, and so forth, the threat of offering so much there is nothing left in the tank is a constant occupational hazard. When burnout happens among yoga teachers, however, there are additional layers of expectations and stereotypes that must be overcome. Just because yoga fosters calm, relaxation, and balance in students does not mean that teachers reap the same benefits simultaneously. Second, just because a person teaches yoga does not mean it is easier for that person to recognize and confront the signs and symptoms of burnout.
The term “burnout” was coined in the mid 1970s, and refers to a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. While burnout can occur in any profession, yoga teachers, like social workers, have self-selected to engage with especially vulnerable populations. Many yoga teachers specialize in working with those recovering from both physical and emotional trauma, eating disorders, and other conditions, but even during yoga classes open to all, students come in carrying the stresses and pains of their lives looking for relief and respite. The yoga teacher, tasked with holding space, often is presented with students’ intimate stories over the course of any given teaching day, and interacts with and responds to students’ traumas and stresses. These interactions, wholly appropriate, can nonetheless lead to compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma, not only because of the nature of that which is shared, but also because many yoga teachers have backgrounds that include emotional and/or physical trauma themselves. (For a parallel analysis regarding social workers, please see SaraKay Smullen’s wonderfully insightful article “What I Wish I Had Known: Burnout and Self-Care in our Social Work Profession,” available at http://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/field- placement/What_I_Wish_I_Had_Known_Burnout_and_Self-Care_in_Our_Social_Work_Profession/ ) As yoga teachers, we are not trained mental health professionals, but nonetheless, are presented with highly charged aspects of our students’ lives that we must integrate and incorporate into our own regimes of self-care. In addition to all that holding space entails, the physical demands of leading practice and adjusting students, commuting, choreography, scheduling, self-promotion, and other business considerations are stressful. So, what can yoga teachers do to recognize symptoms of burnout and practice what we teach?
Most teachers ask their students to take an inventory of how they are feeling and what they notice about their physical and mental state before the start of practice, yet in guiding students through a practice, it is easy to neglect to bring that same self-awareness to ourselves. I know I often sweep my own feelings out of the way in the interest of taking care of others. This idea of ‘giving’ is actually a taking from myself, and it denies students a practice that is led with honesty. It is easy to claim to be too busy to be self-reflective, but if we ask it of our students, we need to constantly turn that same gaze inward to ourselves. This first step – noticing – may help us see the signs of burnout before they overtake us. Some helpful questions to pose to yourself might be: Am I having trouble sleeping or eating? Am I feeling angry without an immediately obvious trigger? I realize I stopped getting excited about making playlists for classes – why? Does it seem like inviting an intention for class is just going through the motions?
Ask these questions and others of yourself. Carefully examine your answers.
Most yoga teachers I know, myself included, have at one point or another, found it difficult to set boundaries with students. While many student-teacher relationships easily cross over to friendships, it is still possible and often necessary to set limits on these relationships. While a teacher cannot control what a student chooses to disclose, most of us are not mental health professionals. Making ourselves available to be the regular ear for a student working through divorce, or having thoughts of self-harm, for example, may do more damage to the student and the teacher than setting clear limits on the interaction. When invoking limits, it can help to objectively explain what your specific training and level of experience is, and your accompanying the limits, and to encourage students to seek additional resources beyond that which you can provide.
Sometimes, we cannot see the forest through the trees, and we will not be able to recognize the symptoms of burnout in ourselves. It is incredibly helpful to engage with a network of other yoga teachers to talk about the challenges faced in the given geographic area where you teach, or perhaps even at the same studio. Engaging with similarly situated professionals fosters understanding and a shared vocabulary; it normalizes the fact that yes, even yoga teachers work in highly stressful situations, and provides an environment for sharing and creative problem solving. By engaging with a community of teachers, and learning from the experiences and strategies of others, we also remind ourselves that we are constantly occupying the roles of student and teacher. Additionally, professional counseling and support are often vital to a complete and holistic regime of self-care. Teaching yoga is a balance between giving and allowing ourselves to receive. We must remind ourselves to make room enough for both.
Sound therapy has been used to relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety and a number of other ailments. It’s also a way to help your students meditate and relax during class. Let’s discover how sound therapy can enhance your class — and your life — in some amazing ways.
Many yoga teachers use some form of music and sound in their classroom. Whether you’re providing additional rhythms to help with breathing or using music during Savasana to help students relax, sound and yoga are deeply related.
Sara Auster, a sound therapy practitioner and meditation teacher, understands how music and sound fit into the yoga continuum. She experienced it firsthand while recovering from a traumatic accident, and is now helping yoga practitioners and teachers learn more about the therapeutic benefits of sound.
Before we dive into Sara’s story, let’s take a closer look at sound therapy.
What is Sound Therapy?
Sound therapy, which may also be referred to as sound healing, uses overtone emitting instruments, often tuned to particular frequencies. These instruments can include tuning forks, gongs, Himalayan and crystal singing bowls and the human voice. The particular combinations and patterns of frequencies affect our brain waves, thereby altering our consciousness, and can be used to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia and other ailments.
Has Research Been Conducted on the Efficacy of Sound Therapy?
There have been a variety of ongoing studies in a number of different fields.
The National Institutes of Health has been studying vibroacoustic pain and symptom reduction since 1995, treating over 50,000 patients per year. This study by Dr. George Patrick found over 50% reduction of pain and symptoms in one study. (Source: NaturalResonanceCenter.com)
In 2008, the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine published a review of 20 studies of brainwave entrainment and patient outcomes. The outcome showed it was an effective tool to use on cognitive functioning deficits, stress, pain, headaches and premenstrual syndrome. (Source: SpirtualityHealth.com)
Here, Sara Auster shares with us her firsthand experience.
A Back-Breaking Fall Through the Floor
Sound therapy didn’t just drop from the sky for Sara Auster. It would be more accurate to say that it found her because Sara dropped through a floor.
Fourteen years ago, Sara was working as an artist and a musician in New York City. She was in the midst of a project in a building on 42nd street, when the unthinkable happened: The floor beneath her feet collapsed. She fell 15 feet from the second floor to the first.
The fall broke Sara’s back, and she was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Miraculously, her body healed itself, and she was able to walk out of the hospital with a back brace and a walker.
However, there was one small problem. “Everything hurt,” Sara said. “So I began a quest to find relief.”
Helpless and Hopeless, the Skeptic Looks for Solutions
Sara began a relentless quest to relieve herself of pain. Self-described as being skeptical of “alternative” approaches, she nevertheless experimented with chiropractic, acupuncture — virtually any treatment she could find.
“When you find yourself helpless and hopeless, you try everything,” she said.
Sara’s training and treatment included many different modalities, including thousands of hours of massage therapy, yoga therapy, Reiki, cranial-sacral therapy, and more. The pain-relieving benefits were significant, and when she discovered something that worked well, she received training on it.
As her expertise grew in these areas, Sara felt like something was missing. Her pain was subsiding, but her spirit was still hurting.
Connecting a Musical Background With Sound Therapy
“I was living a separate life,” Sara explains. The artist/musician in her wasn’t taking care of herself like the yoga teacher was. A piece was missing — a connection.
When she discovered sound therapy, Sara found what she’d been looking for. She loved playing music and performing, and how this creative expression can bring people together. Teaching yoga also generated a similar feeling, so she slowly began to combine the two.
She started by playing live music at the end of class, and people responded. Her class began requesting the music, and soon she delved into sound therapy.
“It’s a perfect way to integrate all my interests and passions,” she said. “I understand the power music has — the ability to have a profound effect on people.”
Sound Healing Occurs During Deep Relaxation
Sara prefers not to call herself a “sound healer.” The term “healer” implies that one person is doing something to another person, she says. “I believe that the body has the ability to heal itself. By creating a safe and comfortable environment and holding space for people, I am setting up the conditions for natural healing to occur. When we downshift to our parasympathetic nervous system, we can access deep relaxation, and that’s when we heal,” she explains.
According to this article in Spirituality & Health, much of the sound therapy is based on the research of biophysicist Gerald Oster:
Oster showed that when a tone is played in one ear and a slightly different tone is played in the other ear, the difference causes the brain to create a third, internal tone, call a binaural beat. The theory is that this syncs the brain waves in both hemispheres, a process dubbed ‘brain-wave entrainment.’
“Entrainment” is how we’re affected by the sounds of external environment. For example, if you take your pulse in New York City, with all the jackhammers, sirens and city noise, it would be faster than if you were lying on a beach listening to the waves.
Sound impacts your physiology and psychology, so Sara’s goal is to create environments designed to support rest and deep relaxation.
A Stress-Free Way to Meditate
That relaxed state is the goal for many who practice mediation. Sara believes the use of sound aids meditation because it “takes the pressure off.”
With any practice of meditation, there is typically something you’re invited to focus on, be it your breathing or a mantra. With sound therapy, all Sara is asking is for people to listen. “It takes away all the judgments, like ‘am I doing it right?’” she said.
Sara uses the analogy of climbing a mountain to explain. Instead of climbing up a mountain to get to the peak, sound acts as a vehicle that lifts you up and carries you to the top.
So what types of instruments does she use to help her students climb that meditative mountain?
Sara uses instruments that are tuned to specific frequencies, and she plays them live in class. Instruments include:
These bowls are actually a type of bell. They are referred to as Himalayan singing bowls or crystal singing bowls.
A tuning fork is an acoustic resonator. It’s a two-pronged fork with prongs made from a U-shape.
Sara plays these instruments in a variety of locations, and she integrates the sounds with the surroundings. “Many of the spaces where I facilitate sound experiences in New York City have other external sounds, so I respond to the environment,” she said.
Here’s a sample of Sara playing:
Integrating Sound Therapy Into Your Yoga Practice
So how would Sara recommend a yoga teacher integrate sound therapy into their practice and teaching? “Nada Brahma – the world is sound. Just realize that sound is a big part of yoga,” she said. From there you will begin to understand where and when to weave sound into your classes.”
Sara recommends adding sound and music in the appropriate places through your yoga session. For example, you can use sound to help your students achieve a deeply relaxed state during Savasana.
If you’re interested in using Sara’s music during your yoga sessions, you can find her compilations for purchase here: http://saraauster.com/store/soundmovements.
All photos courtesy of SaraAuster.com.
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Making It to the Mat:
What Yoga Teachers Need to Know About the Most Difficult Part of the Practice
By Sam Jacobs
How many times at the beginning of a class has a teacher stood up and said, “You made it to your mat. The hardest part is over.” Yes and no. Many barriers to students finding a steady practice schedule are practical: time, cost, and convenience. There is a growing body of research to suggest, however, that the key to students finding a sustainable practice runs deeper than managing logistics; it cuts to the heart of what differentiates yoga from other exercise choices. Students are more likely to return to class when they find a connection to a teacher’s holistic presentation of the mental and physical aspects of yoga.
Why Do Students Choose Yoga?
A 2013 study, “Yoga in the Real World: Perceptions, Motivations, Barriers, and Patterns of Use,” authored by researchers at the Boston Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and Yoga Yoga LLC, and published in Global Advances in Health and Medicine (available at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.7453/gahmj.2013.2.1.008), attempted to quantify why people practice yoga, and what keeps students coming back to the mat. The study was conducted over a one year period in five different studios located in Austin, Texas. Many of its findings are intuitive, and support what many instructors observe and report anecdotally. When asked what yoga is, 92% of respondents considered yoga a form of exercise; 73% viewed it as a spiritual practice; and 50% considered it a way to manage a health condition. The top three reasons students began to practice yoga were for general health and wellness (81%), physical exercise (80%) and stress management (73%). 37% of respondents sought a spiritual experience, and 28% turned to yoga to alleviate a health condition. For students seeking therapeutic benefits, the most common conditions reported were anxiety, arthritis, back pain, depression, diabetes, and high blood pressure. The first take away: students choose yoga for reasons as diverse and varied as they are, and there is a perception among most class-goers than yoga provides both physical and mental benefits.
Barriers to a Regular Yoga Practice
The most common reasons students fail to maintain a regular yoga practice are scheduling, cost, and the location of classes. These logistical barriers are true not just of yoga students, but of American adults seeking to begin any regular physical exercise regime (see, for example this survey by the Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/fitness/art-20045099?pg=2, and a recent study of barriers to exercise among college students https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/EbbenJEPonlineOctober2008.pdf).
What is unique to yoga students is that their reasons for ceasing to come to class, like their reasons for attending in the first place, encompass more than purely physical factors. Students are more likely not to return to a class if they do not connect to the instructor, the style, or the class environment. These findings reflect a potential double barrier between students and their mats: it is not just the difficulties of creating time for a practice that prevents newcomers from becoming regular practitioners, but also how they perceive the openness of the space, the tenor of the class, and their personal level of comfort with the invitations for physical and spiritual exploration.
A Teacher’s Role in Holding Space
Not every teacher will be the correct fit for every student. Teachers should be mindful of balancing their desire to create an inviting class where all feel welcome, and holding true to the foundations of their individual style and approach to class; the most effective teachers teach from what they know. The balance comes in inviting students into the practice in a way that honors their individual motivations and goals with the integrity of the offering. A few suggestions on how to invite students into a regular practice:
Recognize the effort it takes for students just to show up. The desire to congratulate students for making it to the mat aligns with the research: logistics are often the hardest part. Not only is it almost universally applicable praise, that recognition helps motivate students to do it again.
Be honest about what grounds the teaching. When teachers are transparent about what drives them – whether it be their overall style, or the theme of a particular class, students are empowered to think for themselves; a lesson is not thrust upon them uninvited, but carefully considered and presented as one way to look at things. Such an approach honors the diversity of reasons students have for practicing yoga.
Explicitly recognize difference. The more teachers talk about the varied reasons people might practice, and the diversity of people’s experiences, the more they are able to build community across difference, and keep students coming back. Currently, the demographics of the majority of those who do yoga (white, college educated folks at the mid to upper levels of socio-economic standing) do not reflect our greater communities at large. Yoga has the potential to benefit so many people. Be the change you wish to see by talking about what is happening in the communities in which you teach.
Be open to helping students find a practice that is right for them, even if it is not in your class or studio. Make yourself available to students after class; seek out those who appeared to struggle through the practice, and speak with them. Educate yourself about other studios or home practice tools that might help students uncover the benefits of a yoga style that could be right for them if the one you offer does not resonate with their expectations or abilities.
Students overcome a host of logistical barriers to make it to a class. To eliminate that final potential barrier – lack of connection between the instructor or practice style and the students – teachers must remain mindful of the diversity of their students’ motivations for doing yoga. In the end, the yoga does the work and the students create their own power. Open, honest teachers can provide that little extra nudge between a day without yoga, and someone deciding that it is worth it to hop on public transport or sit through traffic, leave work a few minutes early or come in a few minutes late, juggle family and relationship obligations, for the pleasure and solace that comes from the union of breath and movement on the yoga mat.