Master Teacher Roundtable: Seane Corn

The Moksha yoga teacher training program requires me to journal once each week about my experience with the poses and assignments + my practice and progress. This is part of that weekly assignment.

Even the most celebrated yoga teachers admit to feeling overwhelmed and inadequate when they first started out.  Thank goodness it’s not just me.

Seane Corn is the latest seasoned yogi to reveal this.  After spending an invigorating two days in her yoga chakra workshop (which I’ll write about separately), my fellow teacher trainees and I got to sit down with the renowned yoga instructor and listen to her story.

Seane has been practicing yoga since the late 1980s, having discovered the practice while living in New York City.  She credits yoga with helping her kick her drug, alcohol and smoking habits.  Yoga made her feel so consistently happy that she realized these vices weren’t desirable anymore.  After moving to Los Angeles and getting involved in its growing yoga scene, a few teachers encouraged her to sign up for a teacher training program — both felt she was destined to teach.

Here is where it gets interesting.  Seane went through her entire 200-hour teacher training program without teaching once.  Not once!  Somehow, she was able to go through the program without getting called on.  How this energetic being faded into the background is beyond me.  But, as Seane says, she was happy about this because she was terrified to teach.

She compared her initial struggles with teacher training to learning algebra: If you don’t understand the first few equations, you’re going to have a tough time keeping up.  Forget about building upon them to learn more complex equations.  And definitely forget about moving onto geometry and advanced algebra.  While the rest of her teacher trainee peers were onto “geometry,” Seane says she was still trying to figure out the “basic algebra” of teaching yoga.

When it came time for her final exam, and teaching a pose on the spot to her classmates, she froze.  Seane used this moment as catalyst — and went on to take four additional 200-hour teacher training programs before she felt comfortable teaching yoga.  She holds no formal yoga certification (since that wasn’t around when she trained), but she is able to certify new yoga teachers.  I love this irony.  And today, Seane Corn is one of the most famous yoga teachers in the world.

However, she dislikes the word “teacher” — thinks that it’s arrogant.  She says her job is to remind and facilitate an opening for people, to help them reveal to themselves what they already know to be true.  (Personally, I like the term “guide.”)

Here are a few other key points I gleaned from Seane Corn’s Master Teacher Roundtable:

  • Say “yes” to new opportunities, even if you’re scared.  (Sean didn’t want to teach her first class or do her first media interview, but forced herself to say “yes” because she knew if she didn’t seize the opportunity then, she might never seize it.)
  • There is no such thing as a “bad” yoga class.  You’ll find a new piece of information within each class — either an interesting take-away from the teacher, or an intriguing revelation about yourself.
  • When teaching, be yourself.  Find your own voice.  Try not to mimic your favorite teachers.  Although, this is likely inevitable when you first start out.  (Seane admits that it was for her.)
  • A “danger” to avoid: Transforming into an insecure teacher trying to give students what they want — so that they’ll either like you or continue coming to your class.
  • Take the yoga teacher vocation seriously.  As seriously as you would any other job.  (Seane was able to build a following, in part, because her students could always count on her to show up for each class.)
  • Be careful fraternizing with or dating yoga students.  You don’t want to exploit or potentially traumatize a student’s healing process — yoga being that healing process.
  • Take risks and bring change into the yoga room.  I loved how Seane considered herself an “artist.”  (Yoga room = blank canvas.  Yoga instruction + sequencing = the colors.)

Thanks, Seane!

The meaning of life

Tonight I attended a TED-like talk hosted by Chicago Ideas Week, which is a series of lectures and labs across the city to inspire intellect, creativity and discussion. The title of this talk: “Meaning of Life: What’s It All About?”

No doubt, it’s one hell of a topic.  It’s loaded.  It’s debatable.  It can be esoteric and abstract.  It had the possibility of evolving into a lecture borrowing from the cheesiness of a celebrity-written self help book.  I braced myself for some of the this.

However, the opportunity to hear intellectual luminaries such as Mitch Albom and Deepak Chopra — two of the night’s six speakers — was too enticing to pass up.  I had faith it wouldn’t be too cheesy.  Especially since “Tuesdays with Morrie” is one of my all-time favorite books with some powerful, yet simple, lessons about life.  (Thank you, Mr. Bartholomew, for making us read that book as part of our Senior Honors English class in 1997.)  Plus, at $15, I considered this an low-cost investment to satisfy my starstruck curiosity.  I could always leave …

But I stayed the entire time.  As did everyone else in the audience at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre.  The six speakers each brought something unique to the table, gifting the audience with a different lens through which to ponder life.

Not just how to exist in life, but how to live it.

Mitch Albom’s portion was the one that resonated most with me.  He borrowed vignettes from conversations with his former college professor, Morrie Schwartz, as his beloved teacher was dying of ALS disease.  These life-affirming conversations ultimately inspired Albom’s now-famous book.  Albom’s narrative approach helped, of course, especially in contrast to some of the other speakers who (as expected) drifted into the esoteric.

Albom said: “You never know the ripple you are causing with a little stone of kindness you share with someone else.”  He then motioned to us, the audience at the Oriental Theatre, saying that Morrie’s teachings and kindness live on, years after his passing on earth.  It was a great reminder to focus on giving while alive — that your fingerprint on the hearts and minds of people can linger long after you leave them.  So often I focus on the receiving and the taking.  “What will benefit me?”  I need to shift this awareness to others more often, and leave positive traces of myself with those around me.

Albom also applauded the fact that we don’t live forever, as this should force us to make each moment precious.  What a wonderful way to view our mortality.  Don’t fear or worry about the time we don’t have; instead, learn how to make the time we do have count.  So true, just not always so easy to put into practice.

Deepak Chopra shared with stage with an insanely brilliant neuroscientist named Rudy Tanzi.  (He’s working on a cure for Alzheimer’s.)  It was an interesting dynamic of Eastern philosophy and Western science.  These guys clearly get along, even though they approach life from slightly different angles — one is a renowned spiritual guide, the other is a world-famous scientist.  (Chopra made funny, self-deprecating comments about himself at times — referring to himself as a “flake” and “witch doctor.”)  For their differences in vocation, however, they complemented each other beautifully.

While much of their focus revolved around individual perception and the brain, including the scientific benefits of sleep and meditation for a healthy mind and body, I really enjoyed something Chopra said at the beginning of his talk: “We are luminous, stardust human beings.”  As a stand-alone phrase, it sounds “flake-like” without more context.  This line came after Chopra referenced our origins to the Big Bang — that every atom in our body has a connection to that event that created the stars.  And as a result, we, too, are a part of the stars.  It’s mind-blowing to consider humanity’s origins going that far back — but it’s even more profound to think that we have such an intimate connection with stars that twinkle in the sky, billions of light years away.

Chopra’s closing line was also quite poetic, and likely found in one of his 60-plus books.  “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience,” he said. “We are spiritual beings have a human experience.”

In sum, here are the three themes I take away from this inspiring talk and plan to put into practice with increased awareness:

  • Give.
  • Love.
  • Let go.

Quote: Oct. 10, 2012

“Adversity introduces a man to himself.”
~ Anonymous

I found this quote online — it’s been attributed to everyone from Seneca to Albert Einstein.  Regardless of who said it, I appreciate the value of what it being said here.  When times are not “easy,” how do I rise to the challenge of discomfort?  Of something new?  Of something scary?  Of misunderstanding?  Of change?  Or pain?  Of adversity, which can come in a million different forms?

How I’ve dealt with adversity, both everyday drama and the big stuff, has been revealing.  It’s been a mirror to reflect my true self.  Some of it’s good; some of it’s a reminder that I still have a lot to work on.  If everything were rainbows and puppies and sunshine, I’d be in a constant state of bliss — not a bad thing, of course — but I likely wouldn’t make the time to dig into myself, discover myself.  I’d have no “reason,” aside from self-discipline and curiosity.  When adversity strikes (or what appears as such), character is revealed.  So are those nasty-ugly-I-can’t-believe-I-just-said-that flaws.  I’ve found that over the years, I’ve grown more patient during times of adversity.  Although I’ve still got the hot temperament of my Irish ancestors, it’s been doused considerably over time.  Thank goodness.

Of course, I attribute my yoga practice for helping me handle life’s curve balls.  Being in tune with my body and emotional/mental state provides an equilibrium when the rest of the world “seems” to go unbalanced.

But even in my yoga practice, something that most people view as “peaceful” and “relaxing,” I find new adversity and challenges all of the time!  I used to hate these mental-physical struggles on the mat.  Now, I love them.  (I wish I could say the same for all of my struggles off the mat — working on this.)

At tonight’s practice, I discovered my latest challenge: peacock pose.  It was awkward.  I didn’t feel comfortable in the position.  I could only lift one leg up.  If I tried to lift the other, I collapsed on the floor.  It was frustrating, to not be able to do this asana.

Adversity on the yoga mat.  Bring it on.

My friend Ryan Patterson beautifully executes my latest asana challenge: peacock pose.

Class Notes, Week 4: Yoga cueing overload

The Moksha yoga teacher training program requires me to journal once each week about my experience with the poses and assignments + my practice and progress. This is that weekly assignment.

My brain is overheating with “yoga cueing overload.”  This is my name for the overwhelming number of cues and adjustments I’m learning, and wanting to cram them all into my practice instruction with fellow teacher trainees.

In these Sunday training practices, we break down each pose.  Daren walks us through the nuance of where the arm, hip, foot, femur, wrist, eyes, tailbone, chest, neck, etc. should be.  We learn how each movement affects specific joints, bones, muscles and ligaments.  And we learn how to best instruct students to get into these poses carefully and correctly — in command language, stripping away all of that “You’re gonna” and “You should” excess that delays our instruction from getting to the point.

While each and every nuance to each pose requires a minimal amount of words for adequate instruction … there are just so many little details to convey!  When you add it all up, it could take a full minute to describe how to get into Triangle pose correctly.  Ugh.  My favorite teacher make it look so damn easy.

For instance, today we worked on hip opening poses: Triangle, Warrior II and Side Angle.  For each pose, we learned that there are six key aspects to consider (and cue) for the stance:

  • length of the stance
  • rotation of the feet (i.e. 45 degrees, 90 degrees)
  • width (where the front foot should be in relation to the back)
  • hip position
  • pelvic tilt (dog vs. cat)
  • quad contraction

… and don’t forget weight distribution, adjustments for injury or limited mobility, how to cue all of these alignments properly and when to cue the breath!

Toward the end of class, I got tired and chucked my notes.  With my final cueing for Side Angle pose, I went off memory and what I was observing with my “student” … and I finally found some fluidity to my voice.  First, I slowed things down.  I guided her into Warrior II from the ground up, focusing on the positioning of the feet then saying, “Bend the knee, keep it right above the ankle.  Meanwhile .. keep that knee facing straight ahead .. while pulling the opposite hip back in space .. opening the hips to the side wall .. as this contrast is happening, keep the tail bone tucked .. and sink a little deeper.”  The words came out cleaner as I watched my “student,” and I saw immediate responses.  I continued, guiding her into Side Angle and performing a few adjustments (hips and wrapping of the arms).  This accomplishment was a small victory to end a very long day.

The instructional thing that still trips me up: mirroring.  When facing a student, my right is her left, and her right is my left.  It might seem easy to just flip things — say “right” when you mean “left,” etc.  But it’s not that easy.  Not at first, anyway.  An assistant instructor provided me with a beautiful tip to combat this trip-up: Write “L” on your right hand (and foot) and “R” on your left hand (and foot) when you start out.  I may try this for the next Sunday training practice …

I’m laughing at myself right now, knowing full well that I’m trying too hard to memorize and recite, rather than absorb so that I’m able to convey with pure understanding and confidence — rather than regurgitate.  I need to allow this “yoga cueing overload” to cool off.

Master Teacher Roundtable: Daylene Christensen

The Moksha yoga teacher training program requires me to journal once each week about my experience with the poses and assignments + my practice and progress. This is part of that weekly assignment.

I attended a Master Teacher Roundtable this weekend.  The featured yogi speaker: Daylene Christensen.

Daylene practices and teaches Ashtanga yoga, a style of yoga with which I’m familiar.  It’s just not my favorite discipline — when it’s a pure Ashtanga practice, anyway.  Perhaps it’s because it’s so disciplined and structured.  There’s none of that free-flowing connection to the breath that I adore about a vinyasa practice.  In Ashtanga, it’s very staccato and systematic.  It’s the same sequencing every time, with no wiggle room for creativity.  The program has already been mapped out, like a runner’s training program for a marathon.  I find this predictability boring, and a little scary.  But, to each their own.

While it was wonderful to hear Daylene’s backstory – especially how she initially hated yoga, and hated Ashtanga yoga even more – I was slightly turned off by subtle body cues revealed when she’d discuss vinyasa.  It was almost a mocking of those who practiced it.  Perhaps she wasn’t aware of the little eye rolls and loosey-goosey rocking of the torso and arms that accompanied her vinyasa anecdotes.  Or, perhaps I was just hyper-analyzing, taking it the wrong way.  While I tried not to judge, I couldn’t shake this observation – and that perhaps there was a small judgment coming from her, seeping into her body cues.

I did very much appreciate Daylene’s honesty, however.  Her matter-of-fact-take-it-or-leave-it style is refreshing, even when it can be hard to swallow.  As long as it stimulates growth.  I asked her, “How do you balance your personal practice and teaching?”  Her response didn’t miss a beat: “I schedule it in my iCal.  Personal practice comes first, and I schedule everything else around it.”  Boom.  No half-answer or something along the lines of, “Find a balance that works for you.”  (Those sorts of answers wouldn’t have been helpful anyway.)  This girl means business.  And she knows her stuff.

A clear advocate of hard work and not taking any short-cuts, Daylene got me second-guessing my aversion to a pure Ashtanga practice.  She said one Ashtanga class isn’t enough.  A few weeks aren’t enough.  Give it at least one month before deciding that it’s not for you.  And commit to that month with regular practice and integrity.

Hmmm.  This got me thinking about all of the other things I’ve stopped over the years, following one bad or so-so experience.  (This certainly applies to men and first dates, too.)  Am I too quick to pull the trigger and say no upon an immediate aversion?  Should I hush my first instinct, and what I believe to be my intuition … to see what may blossom, with extra effort and integrity?  Do I take Daylene’s advice when it comes to practicing Ashtanga and work through the preliminary bitter taste, in the hopes that it will turn into a drink I’ll want again and again?  This is how things jelled with her, after all.  This approach has certainly worked wonders with me, too, in regards to specific poses, such as crow and side crow — poses I used to hate and avoid, but now embrace and seek to improve.

I left Daylene’s Master Teacher Roundtable with this children’s quote ringing in my ears: When at first you don’t succeed .. try, try again.

Quote: Oct. 4, 2012

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
~ Mahatma Gandhi

I attended a candlelight yoga practice tonight.  It began with everyone in savasana, candles flickering around us, while a rap about Gandhi’s life played gently in the background.  The chorus always came back to this famous line attributed to Gandhi — “Be the change you wish to see in the world” — although there is no documentation that he actually said it in this bumper sticker-type fashion.

Nevertheless, the statement packs a real punch and embodies the non-violence that Gandhi championed.  You want people to show more compassion?  You be compassionate.  You wish people could be more patient?  You be patient.  You want people to be more forgiving, more tolerant, more empathetic?  How about you be all of those things, too.

This theme became my intention during tonight’s practice.  This week I’ve been wishing-wanting-hoping that people around me would act a certain way or serve up a different attitude.  Especially at work.  All the while, I’ve neglected to shift my feelings and my approach — to lead by example and reciprocate what I hoped to see in others.  That’s not fair.  And upon reflection, I owe a few apologies.

I need to be the change I wish to see in others.

On another note: As mellow and relaxing as I found this candlelight class, other students found it a real challenge.  While I was putting away my props, I overheard a few people discuss how they found putting their legs up against the wall challenging, holding the downward dogs tough, etc.  I need to be mindful of this when I begin teaching my own classes: Asanas and vinyasas that I find “simple” and “relaxing” may not be so for others, and I need to tailor the practice accordingly.  Slower and simpler can go a long way, especially when fostering an honest intention and focus.

The red string

While on a work trip in San Francisco this week, the red string that a priest in India tied around my right wrist in January finally slipped off.

Is this auspicious?  Ominous?  A foreshadowing of something?  Or just standard wear-n-tear?  After all, given the biology of those cotton fibers, it was destined to come off eventually.

If only I could be so straightforward, and so “practical.”

The entire flight back to Chicago, I grappled with the possible symbolism behind this red string finally breaking.  I kept staring at my bare right wrist.  I was sad.  My wrist felt naked.  That red string was my talisman.  One that I worked hard to preserve during this last month, as the fibers grew thinner and thinner and thinner.  And now, it was gone.

That red string stayed wrapped around my wrist for nearly nine months — the same amount of time a fetus grows inside a mother’s womb, from conception to birth.  During these nine months, I put a lot of time, energy, thought, desire and commitment into pursuing this yoga path.  When I’d start to slip and second guess my intention, I’d look at that red string and remember the inspiration I found while practicing yoga along the Ganges.  I’d then immediately reaffirm my commitment.

Perhaps the string is coming off at the right time — as I give birth to a dream fertilized while in India.  I have the memory of the red string, yes; but I don’t need the tangible thing any longer.