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10 Things I Learned at Yoga Teacher Training

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Once upon a sticky mat, you could teach yoga whether you had two weeks or 20 years of experience. Now, you shell out a few thousand bucks to a Yoga Alliance certified school--a shift that's bunched many organic cotton panties. Yet it's pretty much accepted that it's not nuts to semi-regulate a practice that can deeply change lives as well as tear ACLs.

As an old-schoolish yogini who's been practicing and writing professionally about yoga well before it sold Audis, I've yearned to teach for more than a decade. My burning got especially hot during moments when barely trained or cranky teachers barked erroneous instructions ("You'll get no benefits from this unless your forehead touches your knee!") or "assisted" with the gentleness of a PMS-ing drill sergeant (one actually kicked my foot into place).

So a couple of months ago when I got laid off from my cubicle-based editing job, teacher training topped the How to Spend My Severance list. I soon packed myself off to Kripalu Center's renowned, 30-year-old, intensive month-long program. Of the zillions of choices out there, it was a no-brainer for me because: A) It's got a great rep as a well-honed methodology rooted in compassionate spirituality; B) It's in the pretty, pretty Berkshires with fab food and a lake; and C) It's where I did my first yoga class as a 20-year-old college student many half-moons ago--an experience that set me on a bumpy yet gratifying journey to be more authentic, aware and loving. No mean feat for a native Manhattanite weaned on Woody Allen and the Ramones.

But what exactly happens at yoga teacher school? Downdog 101? Mat Placement for Dummies? How to (Really) Breathe? Yoga Butt Basics? Rumi for Ruminators? I really had no idea. Turns out it was kind of all of those things plus much more. After 27 relentless and wonderful 14-hour days, here's some of what I learned:

1) Atha Yoga Nushasanam. Bless you! But really, it's a sutra from Patanjali, one of the first documenters of yoga, which roughly translates as: "Now, the inquiry of yoga." On the first full day our co-teacher Devarshi (a.k.a. Steven Hartman) explained that yoga is less about getting anywhere than learning to embody our questions with full presence and awareness. Kripalu teachers are big on rhetoricals like: "What's that feel like?" "Where's your pelvis?" "What's your mind up to?" So rather than blindly follow a teacher and ignore the body, students are empowered to observe all that's going on, clamber back into the moment, and be kind to themselves when they get there.

2) Breathe. Though it may seem the most cliché of all yoga clichés, in the intense NYC vinyasa classes I'd been attending breath usually got lost with the compassion. But in my training breath was everywhere: "Surround every movement with breath," said our flow teacher Coby. "The best way to teach a safe class?" asked Devarshi. "Get them to breathe." It's because, he said, most injuries happen when the mind has wandered off to plan dinner or fret about that thing. Breathing makes you present. Being present brings you into your body. Then you're safe. And bonus: Being aware of being in your body allows you to delve into the essence of yoga, where all the juicy, relaxing, spirit-enhancing goods live.

3) 'Don't Pet Your Students.' That was from our co-teacher Priti, a.k.a. Robyn Ross, during our first lesson on assists--on drawing the lines between "creepy" and helpful touches. A little light petting is actually fine with me as a student, but yanking, pushing, twisting, forcing--and, perhaps worst of all, completely ignoring, not so much. We learned about six kinds of assists and to think of each less as "correction" and more as support. As Devarshi pointed out, 2,000 years ago yoga poses were fluid, not the frozen versions of the perfect posture we push our Western minds to aspire to now. Meaning, it's impossible to get an asana "wrong," but it is possible to do one unsafely or just not optimally for your body. And that is where a confident yet gentle, anatomically informed assist can transform Tadasana into Ta-Dah!sana!

4) Your Ankles Are Not My Ankles. Watching Paul Grilley's "Anatomy for Yoga" DVD during one of our movie sessions forever altered my hatha yogic view. Grilley's side-by-side comparisons of people show how anatomical differences affects their yoga. After you've been practicing about a year or so, he says, your flexibility will not change dramatically; you're down to skeletal basics. Heels don't touch the floor in a squat? That's simply your anklebones. Does headstand always hurt? Your arm/neck ratio might just not be conducive. Downward dog all about your shoulders? That could be compression on your acromial hook. All of which is to say: Whew! I can be so much nicer to myself--and my future students--when I think less in terms of muscular deficiencies to be overcome and more about skeletons to accept, love and adorn with the right props and suggestions.

5) Props Don't Equal 'Wuss.' Kripalu is all about conscious language, which is especially precise when it comes to props, a.k.a. to many as "ego-zappers" or "no I'm fine dangling/angling/crunching just like this, thanks!" The key is NOT to say, "If you're feeling weak, grab a block." Or, "Can't reach? Get a blanket." Or, "If you really can't balance like every other competent physical being then use the wall." But rather: "Even if you're feeling strong today, use a block if you like." Or, "If it feels good, try a strap." Or, simply offering specific guidelines, "If your hip is off the ground in pigeon, use a blanket to stabilize the pelvis." Ahh ... body supported, ego intact.

6) Watch Your Language! As a writer most yoga classes are a lesson in getting my mind to drop the red pen. So it was such a relief when Danny Arguetty, author of "Nourishing the Teacher," hilariously taught our class on common languaging missteps (yes, I know, languaging isn't a word, but I accept it as useful jargon). The methodology espouses positive, clear, direct, supportive speech. Barriers to that include: disempowering words (e.g., "What I'd like you to do is raise your arm"); filler words ("So from here," "Just," "All right"); projections of experience ("Really enjoy the feeling," "Don't worry, it's almost over."); and my personal tic, adding "ing" to every damn verb ("reaching," "stepping," "ripping your hair outing because you can't stop talking like thising").

7) 'Be Kind. For Everyone Is Fighting a Hard Battle.' That's Plato, from a quote hung in a Kripalu hallway that I recalled during our Conscious Communication sessions. As every teacher knows, students ask questions--about the topic at hand and everything else. So as non-therapists, it's key to listen in a way that helps people feel heard. As we practiced this and my fellow yogis spoke of intense life struggles, from torrid to tragic (and often both), I remembered that no matter how serene we seem, we all are fighting a hard-ass war--especially if we aim to emerge with our hearts intact. The least we can do is deeply listen and authentically acknowledge each other--without offering fix-it advice or launching into our own tale of woe.

8) It's All About the Prana. Not just the clothing line, but the essence of the Sanskrit word, which means "energy," or "universal life force." The next time someone at a party asks me how yoga is different from Pilates, this is how I'm answering (with thanks and apologies to Priti, Devarshi and all future hosts): "Take your hand, place it on your chest. Breathe quick and shallow for 15 seconds ... How do you feel? Anxious? That's likely how you usually breathe. Now, put your hand on your belly. Breathe three slow, full, deep breaths through the nostrils ... Feel calmer? That's because you soothed your sympathetic nervous system. You also tapped into prana, the life-force energy. Breathing like that in yoga you'll soon physically sense that you're enough as you are--infinite, eternal and whole. A creature made of ever-changing energy, surrounded by the same. And once you notice the noticer, your witness consciousness, you'll bring compassionate awareness to everything you do, enabling you to embody and give your true self--a divine being of love and light. [Pause.] Stuffed mushroom cap?"

9) Ride the Wave, Dude. They gave us a visual for this, a wave and some arrows, but really all you need to know is: BRFWA! That's for Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow--a method to sink into a yoga pose, experience a burst of rage, or sit through a dicey family dinner. It helps you respond rather than react, to feel a feeling all the way through so it doesn't get stuck in your mind-body craw, and to generally become a kinder, more emotionally generous person. And it's fun to say: BRFWAhhhhhh.

10) Always Wear Underwear. Toward the end of an afternoon anatomy session, our guest teacher Grace Jull said, apropos of nothing anatomic: "When teaching yoga, always wear underwear." Laughter. She went on to tell a harrowing tale of an unnamed male teacher and some splitting pants seams. It was a fitting bit of yoga wisdom to add to what I'm now realizing is a canon for lifelong journey, similar to life, but with lots of breath, awareness and motion. It's a life in which you still might forget to wear underwear while teaching 60 students and have your pants split, but then, instead of being only mortified and red-faced, you might also remember to breathe, relax, feel the embarrassment, watch the feelings and allow for it all to exist as an essential part of being hilariously human and uproariously whole.

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