Class Notes, Week 52: Musings on my second apprenticeship

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.

For my second required apprenticeship as part of the Moksha teacher training program, I assisted in Carolyn Dale’s candlelight vinyasa class.  This class was held on Thursday evenings in the summer.

I selected this class because 1) I admire Carolyn as a yoga teacher, as she cues and sequences with clarity; 2) I aspire to teach candlelight yoga classes and knew that I could benefit from observation and assisting her; and 3) It worked nicely into my work schedule.

The class size would range from six students to more than fifteen.  I noticed that on particularly gorgeous summer nights, the class size would shrink.  Given it was summer (nice weather, longer days), an evening candlelight yoga class isn’t as big a draw as it would be in winter months — I presume.

Some of my take-aways include:

Establishing an authentic theme or intention sets the tone.   While the physical poses we practice in a yoga class might be soon forgotten once a class is over — how you feel, and what the teacher has said — that’s what can really strike a chord, and ultimately what may stick with many students.  It certainly does for me.  I recall a bunch of eloquently put “lessons” and themes from various yoga teachers over the years.  I may not recall the sequencing or what we did in class.  But I remember those themes.  Because of this, it’s something that I’ve consistently incorporated into my own teaching.

One of the things that has drawn me to Carolyn’s classes is that she always has a story or theme prepared.  Each one has been unique, and typically plucked from something in her life, which makes it authentic.  I remember so many of them!  These themes are shared at the top of class, usually during a guided meditation, and then woven throughout the class.

The beauty of a candlelight yoga class, however, is that there is a flickering metaphor for that intention or theme in front of your mat — for the entire class.

Before each class began, Carolyn would ask me to place two tea candles in front of each student’s mat: one was lit, the other was not.  At the top of class when we’d be setting our intention as a group, students would then light their unlit tea candle — their sankulpa candle — using the other lit candle.  That new flame would represent their intention, or sankulpa, throughout practice.  The flame provided a dristi, a point of focus, and a reminder of why they were on the mat for the next 1.5 hours.

I thought this relatively simple act was a beautiful ritual.  It really set a mindful tone for the rest of the class.

Gage students ahead of a class starting.  Carolyn always introduced herself to the new students.  It’s a simple thing — but then it allowed her to use their names during the class.  It makes students feel special, feel paid attention to, feel loved.

On top of this, she used this time before class began to assess how to architect the class.  If students were coming in and resting on their backs, that “low energy” might inspire her to keep the practice more chill (as it was just before bedtime).  If there were a bunch of Groupon students coming into their first yoga class, she would keep the sequencing more basic.

Bottom line: Carolyn never had a completely planned-out class.  She might have a general idea of what to work on or incorporate — i.e. heart openers or moon salutes — and it was often tethered to the seasons or the moon cycle.  However, Carolyn more often developed the sequencing on-the-fly, based on the abilities and energies of the students who turned up.

Allow students to flow during a candlelight class.  Students come to a candlelight class to mellow out and decompress.  It’s a time for them to experience the present in their own bodies, in a tranquil environment.

Walking around and giving adjustments isn’t necessarily appropriate — unless there are safety or alignment concerns.  It’s a class to just “let the students be.”

To teacher trainees who wish to practice giving adjustments: Candlelight yoga is not the place to do it.

It’s more challenging to be mindful of students’ bodies when it’s dark.  As an apprentice, I tip-toed around the room to get different angles and adjust students accordingly — just whenever I spotted opportunities to improve alignment or help a confused student.

It was hard to see what everyone was doing without getting really close, especially if they were wearing black.  At first I was concerned about invading student space.  Carolyn assured me that the students were in the zone, paying attention to their practice, versus where I was in the room.  I realized after a few classes that she was, of course, right.  It was just my own insecurity.

Be clear and slow in your cuing, and don’t be afraid to repeat cues.  Carolyn speaks slowly and clearly.  There’s no “garbage” in her cuing, which makes it easy to follow her direction without needing visual demonstrations.  She could probably teach an entire class standing against a wall without demo-ing the pose.

While Carolyn actually does participate in the practice during the candlelight practices, she does repeat cues whenever she notices students not following her lead.  And she gives students a heads up about this at the top of a class — that when they hear her repeat  something, it means at least one person isn’t following directions.  Sometimes Carolyn will stop a flow completely to demonstrate the proper technique for a pose.  I appreciate these mini-lessons, as do her students.

Coordinate the music, anticipate what’s next on the playlist.  Carolyn plays music in the candlelight class.  It ranges from country to reggae to kirtan to classical to pop.  The music helped to create a mood.  There are, of course, disagreements about when/where to use music in a yoga class — but I am a fan.  I’d be a hypocrite not to.  It’s what initially kept me coming to yoga class as a new student, knowing that I’d be flowing to groovy tunes.

When incorporating music into a class, however, you have to use it wisely.  Carolyn called it a juggling act: sequencing and cuing … while watching the students and reacting accordingly … while anticipating the next song and deciding if it would work into the developing sequence.

Bring the garbage can to the expired candles.  I learned this the hard way: Picking up a wax-dripping candle and carrying it to the garbage is a bad idea.  The wax spills over your hand and can burn.  It’s much easier to just bring the garbage can into the studio, walk around to each mat and dump the old candles in.  It’s a simple thing — but it can save you a burn, and save you from cleaning up melted wax on the studio floor.

I should have known this from the few freebie candlelight yoga classes that I taught in late winter.  But alas, I made the same mistake on my first evening apprenticing with Carolyn.  Let’s hope that I don’t make the same mistake again …

Overall, I am very grateful to Carolyn for the privilege of working with her and her students.  This was the thing I looked forward to most each week.  She has been a wonderful mentor, even before I began this apprenticeship, and I still consider her one now that it has completed.

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