Class Notes, Week 11: Hands-on

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 am really excited to begin my apprenticeship with Kim Wilcox.  She is the first yoga teacher with whom I remember taking a class at Moksha — a candlelight vinyasa class on New Year’s Eve eight or so years ago.  As a student in her class, I’ve learned so much and evolved my practice tremendously.  As an apprentice, I’ll get to be a different type of student, observing at how she structures her class through a 100-percent teacher trainee lens.

Kim emailed out pointers on adjustments to all of her winter apprentices this week.  It was really thoughtful.  Giving adjustments — touching a students body to help them deepen the experience of the pose — is something with which I want to get more confident.  I love receiving adjustments in Downward Facing Dog and Extended Side Angle.  And I want to ensure that I can inspire yummy-yet-challenging-yet-safe sensations for my students.  (Patience, Erica, patience.)  I know that Kim will be a good guide in this because she has never given me an adjustment that made me uncomfortable or left me limping from the studio.  They’ve always been great.

Point No. 10 on her “Adjustments Manifesto” (my label, not hers!) really stood out.  While the other 12 points inspired a nod of the head — “OK, I understand why that is so and that is so” — Point No. 10 goes beyond the logistical and functional.  It strikes at the emotional.

10. I like to try to adjust everyone in the class at least once.  Many people can go all day without having another human being touch them.  Spread the love.

The simple act of human-to-human contact.  It’s rare for many.  It is for me.  I live alone in the city, no boyfriend, no dog, no cat.  I think that’s a big part of why I enjoy adjustments so much in yoga class — I get a little something I lack in my everyday life.  When I think about it, however, I know that I’m not alone.  Otherwise, Kim wouldn’t have pointed this out.  We’re a culture plugged into iPods and iPhones and iPads.  We don’t even talk as much anymore, much less embrace or caress just because.  As we’ve become more technologically advanced, we have forgotten what it’s like to be human beings.  Grassroots human beings.  Yoga class can fill that human contact void in a simple, yet profound, way.  Adjustments given with compassion are a way of telling the student, “I want you to be better, I want you to go deeper, let me help you” via the energy of the hands.  It’s a powerful form of energy.

I am going to keep this in mind with my practice teaching tomorrow morning.


“It is not happy people who are thankful /
It is thankful people who are happy.”
~ Anonymous quote

On the eve of Thanksgiving, a friend posted this quote to Facebook.  Normally, I gloss over the bite-sized quotes and stories shared on this social media time zapper.  They usually inspire an eye roll, a giggle, a gasp or a smile — then I move on.  But this quote seized me.

Its power lies in the simplicity of its message: Gratitude leads to happiness.  Focus on the “I am so lucky for A, B and C” instead of the “I wish I had X, Y and Z.”  It’s something we inherently know is the “right” formula for living life.  Unfortunately, it’s not put into action enough.

Most of us, me included, spend time craving, seeking, studying and longing for happiness.  The way “happiness” is marketed, you’d think it is some elusive and challenging thing to obtain, like the Holy Grail of human emotions.  Just consider the abundance of self help books and anti-depressant drugs available!  But you don’t need books or drugs.  You don’t even need yoga.

Just be grateful for what’s in (or not in) your life right now — and positivity should flow from that mental shift in perspective.

My cynical friends will, of course, challenge me on this.  And you know what?  I am grateful for that, too.  I’d challenge them right back: Name five things that you’re grateful for — without being a smart ass, you smart ass — and tell me that it doesn’t lift your spirit just a smidge.  Deep down, I think that challenge would trigger an inner smile, even as the cynical exterior persists.

When I was going through a sour grapes episode in my life recently, I knew I needed an attitude change.  So I started a “positivity journal.”  (I thought the concept was hokey, but I was determined to see if this simple exercise kept me from taking a deep dive into cynical waters.)  Each morning when I woke up, I wrote down one thing for which I was grateful.  Each night before I feel asleep, I wrote down one thing for which I was grateful.

The bouquet of “gratitude flowers” gradually amassed was pretty incredible.  The exercise helped tether me to the positive aspects of life, as I always had something to write.  Sometimes I had to choose from a bunch of things.  Why should I be upset, angry or frustrated when I had so many things for which I was grateful?  I became less “sour grapes” and more “succulent grapes.”

I stopped dedicating time to this journal a while back.  Not sure why.  Guess I didn’t feel like I “needed” it anymore.  I got over my funk, and tucked it away.  But when I get back home from this holiday weekend, I will dig it back out — and pick up where I left off.

Every day can be Thanksgiving.

Class Notes, Week 10: Tias Little Workshop

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.

Tias Little knows the words to Taylor Swift songs.

When he broke out into “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” it became one of the most endearing moments during our four-day “Anatomy of the Chakras” program.  In that moment, Tias wasn’t some celebrated yogi sprinkling a lecture with esoteric concepts learned from monks and master teachers based in far-flung lands.  He was a dad mimicking a song his son played over and over at home.  He became an “everyday” human — no different than the rest of us.

The rest of his program, however, was not as plucky and lighthearted.  I walk away from these past four days in a bit of a whirl.  Tias warned us that the “journey would not be linear” and there’d be some jumping around.  Boy oh boy, he wasn’t kidding.  There was a lot of jumping, but not in the literal sense.

I’ve done two other chakra workshops in the past six months – one with Angie Knight in Mexico, another with Seane Corn here in Chicago.  The lessons delivered in each of those programs followed a pretty linear/chronological path, fused with tangible applications of these interconnected concepts – i.e. a day of silence to contemplate the power of the throat chakra, doing practice blindfolded to plug into the brow chakra, practices that focused on grounding when exploring the root chakra.  That sort of delivery made it easier for me to absorb.  Not to mention, it was organized.

With Tias, however, I am left to make sense of his somewhat scattered and esoteric delivery of information, and integrate it into a foundation built with Angie and Sean.  During these past four days, concepts were tossed out like candy at a parade, oftentimes out of any specific order.  Now I’m holding this bag of candy, trying to decide which to eat, which to save, which to discard.

As I’ve remarked before – and others have cautioned me – the yogic path is neither “easy” nor straightforward.  Just when I think I’ve wrangled a concept, that very thing sprouts another head, ten legs, seventeen arms and a slippery skin.  Oye.

To his credit, Tias did remark in today’s final lesson that the program is the “I-90 approach to the chakras” and encouraged us, especially us newer teacher trainees, to absorb what we could.   Without sifting through my notes and scribbles, here is what I absorbed and enjoyed:

  • The chanting and guided meditation at the start of each day.  The vibrations this sent through my body were incredible, the energy it created in the room was powerful.
  • It is “CH”akras … not “SH”akras.
  • The concept of the Sushuma and how its existence means that we are all truly “beings of light.”  So cool.
  • How the chakras relate to the nadis (sushuma, ida, pingala) and doshas (pitta, vatta, kapha).
  • Creative/effective use of props to deepen poses, i.e. twists and heart openers.  I’m going to remember these for my personal practice, and future teaching.
  • The reminder to soften the jaw, soften the tongue, soften the face – places where we often visibly hold tension.  I liked his expression, “Savasana with the tongue, savasana with the face.”
  • Tias’ penchant for using sound effects when he couldn’t articulate a concept with words.  It was funny, albeit overused at times.
  • The analogy of climbing up a spiral staircase, as we progressed from root to crown chakra.  He referenced the “Miraculous Staircase” in Santa Fe’s Loretto Chapel, a place I visited in spring.

The “Miraculous Staircase” at the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico

While most everyone left “oohing” and “aahing” about this program, I’m not exactly gushing over it.  (I’ll be honest — gotta work that throat chakra, right?)  Perhaps it will all resonate with me over time.  Or, perhaps I’m just having a hard time getting over a single negative experience I had in one of the weekend practices.  It came after one of Tias’ assistants lovingly-delicately-compassionately got me into a modified pose because my knee was acting up.  Seconds later, Tias abruptly grabbed my knee and moved it into a position that was painful.  Ouch, ouch, ouch.  He had given me some delicious adjustments in previous practices, but this one action really startled me, and unraveled some of the reverence I had developed for his teaching style.  Shouldn’t this seasoned yogi know better?  Why did he make that adjustment without asking for my permission?  I, nor the assistance close by, had the opportunity to explain the reason for my alternate alignment.

In “Teaching Yoga,” Donna Farhi writes: “We should never underestimate the impact of our words and actions.”  This single action, for better or worse, impacted me.  I’m sure Tias made the adjustment with good intention.  But it was good intention without delicate consideration.  For me, this memory will serve as a reminder to always be considerate with my future students’ bodies.

Quote: Nov. 18, 2012

“I’m easy like Sunday morning.”
~ Lionel Richie

Sunday mornings are delicious.  It’s the one morning of the week where I wake up without anxiety about work or life drama coloring my state of mind.  I want to snuggle with Sunday morning.  I wish every moment were like Sunday morning.

My Sunday morning tradition has evolved from Catholic mass (like clockwork as a child and a college student!) … to chai + “Sunday Morning” on CBS + yoga.  Even when I was a regular church-goer, Sundays had a happiness factor that the other days of the week lacked.  That happiness factor hasn’t changed, even though my morning routine has evolved.

Thank you, Sunday morning.  I love you.

Class Notes, Week 9: Practicing with an injury

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.

This weekend I overdid it:

Moving around furniture in a fit of feng shui-inspired enthusiasm
Pushing myself at a Saturday morning yoga class
triggered an old gymnastics injury in my lower back

I could barely move during the final Sunday training class of this semester.  When it came time to do handstands against the wall, I was crying inside.  I so wanted to be inverted in my favorite pose, but I knew that it wouldn’t help my body heal.  Pragmatism and patience over ego and desire.  Sometimes that’s a hard pill to swallow.

This injury is an unexpected gift, however.  In the Sunday class, and during these past few days, I experienced what it’s like to have a body that doesn’t move so fluidly.  The aches that come with walking up flights of stairs.  The pain of sitting for long periods of time.  The persistent throbbing while standing aboard the L.  Many people come to yoga with bodies in this condition, or far worse.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to relate.  This is a gentle reminder.

Personal anecdotes, as shitty as they can be, have helped me develop empathy and compassion for things that may not have truly resonated with me before.  For instance, I didn’t really relate to my girlfriends’ painful breakups until I had my own heart broken.  Of course, I don’t want the universe to shower me with challenge and pain — but every once in a while, sure, as I know it should ultimately evolve into something positive.

Challenges, big and small, are a unique opportunity to learn and explore, too.  With my back injury, I’m learning what feels “right” and which poses are helpful.  Laying in Happy Baby pose, directing my breath into my back as I watched TV, was very enjoyable the other night.  And tonight, Triangle pose was heaven on the low back.  Someday, these personal discoveries may help a student.

Not wanting to aggravate my back at Sunday’s class also forced me to practice teach without physically getting into the pose.  That was a good challenge.  It kept me focused on the student, taking the emphasis off me and my body.

I just hope that I heal completely before this weekend’s Tias Little “Anatomy of the Chakras” workshop …

Yoga in front of the television

Watching the election returns on Tuesday.

I don’t watch a ton of television.  The television above my fireplace is more of a modern-looking blank canvas — one that sometimes plays PBS travel shows and episodes of “30 Rock.”  I don’t say this to be snooty.  First, I don’t have cable.  (That immediately limits my channel options.)  Second, I work a lot.  Third, I grew up in a home that embraced books.

But, I’ve decided that when I do watch television … I’m going to get off the couch, and work on hip openers such as double pigeon.

Wow, I’m terrible at chanting

Tonight I attended a lecture on the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.  This (above) is what each student received upon entering.

This slip of paper triggered a combination of reverence … and laughter.  I have a love/hate relationship with rules.  But I certainly understand and appreciate the need for cultural respect, especially considering the amount of traveling I do in and out of countries unlike America.  It’s a requirement to follow certain cultural norms in some parts of the world, otherwise you could get thrown in jail.  Or, at least get an eyebrow raise.

I assume that studio management felt compelled to articulate these seven rules after some students embarrassed themselves (and the studio) by unknowingly breaking them during previous lectures given by Indian teachers.  Oops.

Once tonight’s lecture began, however, my reverence-laughter quickly morphed into one of … pure laughter.  Internal laughter, of course.  The teachers, Jayashree and Narasimhan, had us chanting the yamas and niyamas in Sanskrit.  Cold.  Some of it was call-and-response style.  For the most part, however, I was fumbling with a script that was tough to follow.

You try reading this:

Or this:

And those are just a small “words” within a much bigger chanting script.  I was not prepared for that at all.  I thought it would be a lecture-lecture.  The kind where I would listen and take notes.  Not two hours of laughing at myself attempting to chant Sanskrit.  (Seriously, I was terrible.)  Most of the time, I had no idea where we were in the script.  So I made words up, based on what I thought I heard.  I also tried to apply my lip-reading skills on the teachers.  That didn’t work.

It was frustrating.  But also funny as hell.  Then again, laughter is one of my “release valves” when situations get uncomfortable …

Thank goodness I brushed up on the yamas and niyamas last night, with a quick review of that specific chapter within “Light on Yoga.”  Otherwise, I think I would have been totally lost.  At least within some of the chants, I recognized a few of these key terms:

Yamas (universal moral commandments)

  • ahimsa (non-violence)
  • satya (truthfulness)
  • asteya (non-stealing)
  • brahmacharya (continence)
  • apargraha (non-coveting)
Niyamas (self purification through discipline)
  • saucha (purity)
  • santosa (contentment)
  • tapas (austerity)
  • svadyaya (study of self)
  • isvara pranidhana (dedication to a higher power)

Along with finding special joy in my terrible chanting skills, I also enjoyed an empowering analogy offered by Jayashree.  To paraphrase:

The highest state of consciousness is already within us.  (How great is that!!!)  This light lies beneath layers and layers of “dust and dirt” that we must work to wipe clean.  Just as a shiny floor exists beneath a surface of grit and grime — grit and grime that can be mopped away — so exists this highest state of consciousness within us.  Following the Yoga Sutras help us to mop, mop, mop away.

… and I’ve got some serious mopping to do.

Class Notes, Week 8: Flipping through my notebook

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.

In two months, I’ve nearly filled up my yoga teacher training notebook with definitions, insights, tips and incoherent scribbles.  Going through this notebook tonight has been a fun review, triggering lessons and memories created each Sunday during these past eight weeks.  So much new information gained in such a short period of time!

On the eve of our final weekend training of the “semester,” I thought I’d take some time to comb through this worn-in notebook to extract some of the practical gems:

  • Build poses from the ground up.
  • Dual action cues are great.  They prevent release valves.  I.E. In Garudhasana: “Raise your elbows up AS you move your shoulder blades down.”
  • “Naval to spine.”  The part of the body your cueing is actually three fingers below the belly button.
  • Avoid cueing a concept while a student is in the experience.  “Do a few rounds on your own.”  Then let the students be.
  • Open hip poses: heel to arch alignment.
  • Closed hip poses: heel to heel alignment (or wider).
  • Open hip stretches before closed hip positions in sequence.
  • Side stretches are good preps for: forward folding + backbends.  Why: It creates space in the side ribs.
  • Balancing poses build bone strength.
  • Every pose can be traced back to Tadasana.
  • “Wrap the upper arms toward the ears.”
  • Samscara: impression from a past action.  Samsara: conditioning by people and the world.
  • “Sitting quietly is about becoming awake.”
  • Vinyasa cues:  1) breath; 2) movement; 3) dristi.
  • Asana cues:  1) alignment; 2) action; 3) breath; 4) notice + feel.
  • TLC: Thoracic, Lumbar, Cervical.
  • Keep quad contraction in standing poses, when the leg(s) is(are) straight. It encourages grounding, protects the knees from twisting + pumps energy flow to the heart.
  • Keep the chest up when transitioning from Monkey pose to Plank pose.
  • Look for neutral pelvis in all poses to encourage breath flow to the heart.
  • Making the exhales longer calms the nervous system.
  • “Press down to lift up.”
  • In downward facing dog, keep the traps out of it.  1) Bend elbows to the side; 2) Roll the elbows in; 3) Straighten the arms.
  • Jnana Mudra: Bring the first finger and thumb together. The first finger symbolizes “individual self” and the thumb symbolizes “universal consciousness.” This is the seal of knowledge/wisdom.
  • Smile at the beginning of class.  (Ananda Maya Kosha)