A Philosophy and Guide for the Intuitive Yoga Teacher

An excerpt from the book by Craig Perkins and Amiee Hughes

Welcome to the Path.

Teachers of yoga are intuitively tapping into something mysterious and profound.

A transformational life force.

One that’s present within each and every one of us.

When we practice yoga, we gain access to a wondrous system of physical movement that transforms us in infinite ways. Yoga changes our bodies. It changes our minds. It even touches our souls.

The exciting thing is this: all the tools of yoga are at your disposal and ready for the taking.

With a deep respect for the yoga tradition, and a heartfelt intention for your work, you can bring real health and happiness to your students. You can inspire. You can change lives. You can be this teacher. In fact, you will. Because…

The path is graciously unfolding before you.

While most of us are aware of the transformative effects of yoga, do we really understand the why and how of its inner workings? New yoga teachers typically become inspired by a gifted mentor or teacher. They proceed to emulate their teacher’s style in some way, in hopes of providing a similar experience for their own students.

However, without understanding how and why these results are achieved, they often miss the subtle influences that create the beneficial experience of a yoga class. These writings will explain in western terms how yoga works, because we need to understand all aspects of yoga in order to be the best teachers we can possibly be. We are endeavoring to achieve the balance of body wisdom, awareness and sensitivity with classic alignment and queuing. We have developed this based on years of observing what is most effective in terms of safety and moving people effectively into poses that will be most beneficial for them.

Practice What You Teach: Keeping Teaching Real through the Evolution of Your Personal Practice

Practice What You Teach: Keeping Teaching Real through the Evolution of Your Personal Practice

-By Sam Jacobs

“Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”
~ Anton Chekov

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

At least one day a week, I do not practice, nor do I lead a practice. While the yoga happens every day now that it has become part of my life, taking space away from the physical practice is a cornerstone of my self-care. I find within this window of twenty-four hours, my body has time to integrate the lessons of the week and my mind has time to clear to make room for new ideas and inspiration for the next set of classes. I used to worry that if yoga was not a constant, daily fixture, I would somehow lose it. Now, I focus on aparigraha, or non-grasping. Rather than pressuring myself to find yoga every day through asana, I am starting to let it wash over and through me. To believe that it is in me. Like any healthy relationship, space is essential. Rather than holding on to it so tightly, like sand slipping through a tightly clenched fist, I give myself a little more room to breathe.
I Am Learning To Be Honest With Myself and My Students When I Encounter Burn-Out
Lastly, rather than pretending I am some kind of mutant super-human, I am trying to integrate more satya, honesty, into my teaching. When I can admit to my students that I am frazzled, tired, or I have been teaching a few more classes than is ideal for me and feeling the reverberations of my own practice slipping, I find it invites conversations after class about self- care for all of us. I am trusting that the lessons I offer are beneficial when they are not just about my strengths, but also my struggles. Although I have set goals for myself about how I want to teach and take care of myself, I don’t meet them every day or every week. I fall into old patterns. I still push myself harder than I should. I don’t always see myself clearly. Saying these things aloud, owning them, and teaching from where I am gives me and my students permission to dismantle the pressure of perfection. When I openly bring my fully-flawed, constantly evolving self to the mat, I take on the dual roles of student and teacher. Occupying both spaces at once is the most certain path I have found towards a sustainable teaching career.

It’s All in the Hips, Or Is It?

It’s All in the Hips,
Or Is It?
By Samantha Jacobs

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?

Day or Night? Body and Mind Considerations for Scheduling Your Yoga Practice

Day or Night?
Body and Mind Considerations for Scheduling Your Yoga Practice
By Sam Jacobs
Once you have answered the question: to yoga or not to yoga in the affirmative, the next consideration is when. Busy lives, hectic schedules, and the knocking of the unexpected on the door of your carefully cultivated calendar should tell you anytime you can make it to the mat is the right time. Your body and mind will reap the benefits of a practice no matter when you do it. That said, morning practices have different benefits than evening practices both physiologically and mentally. This doesn’t mean you can only choose one. Perhaps your schedule is varied. Consistency is the key to sustainability, however. According to one study, it takes about two months of repeated behavior for action to root in the body as habit. So, reach towards your ideal schedule, let life happen, and stay flexible. When you are considering when to practice, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind:
Morning Practice
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good Morning.
~Maya Angelou

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.

Afternoon Practice
I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay

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.

Evening Practice
All day I’ve built 
a lifetime and now 
the sun sinks to 
undo it. 
The horizon bleeds 
and sucks its thumb. 
The little red thumb 
goes out of sight. 
And I wonder about 
this lifetime with myself, 
this dream I’m living.
~Anne Sexton

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.

This Yoga Love Affair (Part Two): Making it Last a Lifetime

This Yoga Love Affair (Part Two):
Making it Last a Lifetime

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:

See Yoga in Your Life Beyond the Dedicated Time of the Physical Practice

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

Know What Yoga Does for You

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



Recognize the Long-Term Benefits of Your Commitment

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

Trust the Process

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



Honor the Roots of Tradition and Seasons of Change

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

This Yoga Love Affair:
A Collage of Views on How to Keep Your Yoga Practice Sustainable Over One Year
(Part 1 of 2)

By Samantha Jacobs

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

Allow Yourself and Your Practice to Change

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.

~ Torrey Mansur

Meet Yourself Where You Are

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.

~Torrey Mansur

Ask Yourself to Make It Happen

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.

~Adesina Cash, Founder, Hot Spot Yoga, Oakland CA

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

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.

Giving Back

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

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?

Awareness

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.

Limits
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.
Other areas where setting limits can be critical is the number of classes we take on per week, managing travel and commuting, and other logistical considerations. Of course, these limits will also be based on economics, and the reality is that yoga as a profession means making it financially as well as emotionally sustainable. We must be in dialogue with ourselves about the emotional as well as economic costs of our teaching schedules. Making Room for Inspiration In the grind of maintaining a regular teaching schedule, one of the most obvious but also most easily bypassed avenues to avoid burnout is making time for ourselves by taking yoga classes at new locations, or just taking days off from taking yoga classes; building in opportunities to read, attend lectures, listen to podcasts, and seek out other humans who inspire us; getting outside. We have a responsibility to ourselves and our students to diversify the range and options we have for self-care, to know what these options are, and make the active choice to engage in self-care every day without room for excuses.
Professional Networks
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.

The true healer lets go of the senses
And moves from the center of intuition;
Blameless, she gives herself permission
To be exactly who she is.
~Haven Treviño

Living Yoga Off The Mat

Living Yoga Off the Mat
By Sam Jacobs
Think back to why you first took a yoga class. To rehabilitate an injury, perhaps, or as way to counter stress? Because you needed some exercise? Because it just sounded fun? What was your “aha!” moment in which you realized there was change that lasted long after the practice was over? What are the transformations that keep you coming back to the mat? In India and other Eastern countries, the physical and mental benefits of yoga have been lauded for centuries; yoga is understood primarily as a spiritual practice that integrates the totality of human experiences through concentration. In the United States, unmistakably Western versions of yoga become more popular with every passing day. Here, the physical benefits of yoga are marketed and exalted over the subtler and more difficult to measure internal transformations. Nonetheless, the benefits of mindfulness practices are becoming more widely understood thanks in large part to an increasing number of scientific studies that offer data to back up what dedicated practitioners already know: yoga changes us. Modern technology’s ability to identify differences in the chemistry of the body before and after yoga – in cortisol levels, alpha wave activity in the brain, neural hemispheric activation, or the presence of the neurotransmitter GABA, for example – has provided near irrefutable evidence that mental and neurological benefits of yoga carry forward into our lives off the mat. Yoga might be tapped to increase generally a person’s quality of life, sense of calm, and serenity. With focused dedication and direction of attention and energy, however, a regular yoga practice may translate to growth in specific areas of our professional, personal, and creative lives.
Yoga as Muse
Yoga not only teaches us to problem solve more creatively but the ways in which pranayama (breath) and asana (posture) manifest change in the body’s chemistry may facilitate greater artistic depth. Certain portions of the brain thought to be active in the creative process have also been shown to be stimulated during a physical yoga practice. Furthermore, the speed of brainwaves during which artists are lost in creation or athletes are in their so-called zones typically occur when the brain is operating at alpha wave frequency. When we are stressed, absorbing new information, and processing everyday life challenges, brain waves oscillate at the beta frequency, a fast-moving rate that reflects the brain’s multi-tasking. When the brain slows to alpha wave frequency (about half the speed of beta waves), the pattern is indicative of a relaxed but fully present state mental. Advanced yogis who participated in one study were able to take their brain from a typical beta pattern to alpha waves in a matter of a few minutes. The mental discipline that is developed through a regular yoga practice, therefore, may allow us to more readily drop ourselves into a state of singular focus required for artistic endeavors like writing, painting, or composing music. Persevering on the mat and the sense of accomplishment that follows primes us to work through difficulties such as writer’s block or lack of inspiration as we come to creative work off the mat.
Yoga as Peacemaker
Yoga demands equanimity. To persevere through a class, there is usually one moment when we attempt a pose we find unbearable and are asked to hold it longer than we want, or realize that we do not have the strength or flexibility to maneuver our bodies in the fullest expression of a posture that the yogi next to us makes look effortless, or we hear words from a teacher that annoy rather than resonate, and we carry on to the end anyway. It is a practice of learning to let things come and learning to let things go. It involves dialogue among the body, the breath, the mind, and the class environment (or if self-practicing, whatever potential distractions of the private space), and most practices one of these elements does not behave as we would hope. The challenges inherent in stilling the mind on the mat are the same challenges that arise managing harmonious relationships off the mat. The people in our lives – family, work colleagues, lovers, friends – can at moments appear as strangers to us, behaving in ways we would rather avoid and do not see how we could possibly change. The practice of yoga, however, trains the body and the mind in measured persistence; in staying when things get tough and breaking difficulties into component parts until solutions appear. Yoga also trains us to have humility and acceptance for our own minds and bodies. When we harness these attributes, the challenges in managing our relationships with others can be played out in the familiar patterns of a yoga practice in which we find stillness and ultimately, peace.
Yoga as Liberator
As the yoga progresses, we find ourselves doing things we thought would never be possible from sticking a handstand to sitting still and breathing consciously for ten minutes. We see the transformations in our bodies and minds with marvel and wonder. We set goals and meet them. We become the change we wish to see. The mat is a safe place to experiment, and the small successes there can help us give ourselves permission to take more risks off the mat. Whereas in yoga, the consequences of our failures are mediated (ideally) by the safety and encouragement of the environment in which we practice, the more we make a habit of taking risks and accepting failure and success, the more we are able to meet challenges in less hospitable situations when professional advancement or matters of the heart are at stake. The yoga practice demands evolution, if not because we have a fantastic teacher who sees our potential and helps foster growth, then because the practice itself is strong enough to allow us to see more potential in ourselves. When we get in a yoga rut, we find a different style, or try a new variation of a familiar posture, or look to take meditation longer and deeper and are rewarded with new challenges, successes, and failures. The clarity and confidence that comes with seeing ones’ self as a creature worth taking risks for frees us from the limits and expectations that the mind can impose.
Patience with the Seeds of Change
This is not to say that yoga is the ultimate solution to creative blocks, that yoga inherently makes us more empathetic and able to take the high road when navigating relationships, or that we will ultimately be stronger and feel more empowered to face every challenge life tosses at us because of yoga. There are practices that don’t feel like anything other than going through the motions. There are times off the mat when no matter how far we feel like the yoga has come, we still disappoint ourselves. Change is a long time coming. It ebbs, flows, and refuses to follow a linear progression of advancement. We watch. We breathe. We keep trying. Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves why we come to the mat in the first place and honor those first seeds of inspiration – the muse, the peacemaker, the liberator, the whatever-it- is for-you – that continue to guide us forward as we change.

Tuning Up Mind and Body: How Yoga and Sound Therapy Work in Harmony

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.

Sara Auster

Sara Auster

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.

She fell 15 feet.

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.

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.

Sara Auster - gold bowl 2.jpg

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.

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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 Auster - crystal bowls.jpg

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?

Sound Instruments

Sara uses instruments that are tuned to specific frequencies, and she plays them live in class.  Instruments include:

Singing Bowls

These bowls are actually a type of bell. They are referred to as Himalayan singing bowls or crystal singing bowls.

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Tuning Forks

A tuning fork is an acoustic resonator.  It’s a two-pronged fork with prongs made from a U-shape.

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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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