Sunday, March 15, 2015

Teaching Puzzlers

Who are you? Teaching Truly

We live in a celebrity-driven culture. Some people get famous for what they can do (talent), others for anybody could be famous without necessarily being able to do anything.
their ability to make others do what they want (power), and still others for their knack for accumulating lots of $$ (wealth). Reality TV introduced the at-first refreshing, gradually nauseating idea that

As yoga teachers, we put ourselves in the spotlight daily, sometimes many times a day—whether in a crowded Equinox class or a private lesson in someone’s home. So it’s worth asking yourself, calmly, deeply, curiously: Who am I?

Too many well-intentioned teachers flounder on the twin rocks of:
  1. Self-Doubt: Lacking confidence, these teachers constantly self-efface, apologizing, speaking too softly, giving physical adjustments too tentative to make an impact. And/or they strive to be as impersonal as possible, and end up disconnecting not only from themselves but from everyone in the room.
  2. Self-Indulgence: These little darlings assume that because students came to their class, they are interested in every little detail, every up and down of the teacher’s personal life. They say too much, get too personal, and don’t realize (until their classes thin out) that maybe not everyone what they think about Breaking Bad.

Ideally, teaching yoga is neither purely personal nor completely impersonal. We want to share the teachings (impersonal) but in a way that is authentic to each of us. Without the teachings, which we did not create but received from the tradition, no yoga. Without personal conviction, nothing we say matters.

The trick is to scan the surface of your life and notice what stands out, what matters to you. Then plumb the depths of your mind and heart and ask why? Down there you will find the common ground that allows you to connect with your students. An example from my own life:

I like living in New York City, because every day I get to encounter all different kinds of people. But sometimes I also hate living in the city, because navigating all that variety can be exhausting and confusing.

To be human is to live the paradox that we are all similar yet each unique. Sometimes we savor the exotica around us, sometimes all we see are the differences, and we feel alienated and apart. Tantric yoga teaches us to see the sameness under the differences, so we don’t wash over difference but also don’t lose connection.


So, in class today, I’d like you to remember that as you move through a wild range of poses, it is still always you doing the yoga. And as you look around the classroom, look first at how the same we all are (human bodies doing the same pose at the same moment), then take in what makes each of us unique. As my local tailor says,
“If we all looked alike, how could we fall in love?”

Monday, February 9, 2015


Yoga for Stiff Guys


It happens all the time. I’m at a cocktail party, a guy (yes, it’s usually a guy, but once in awhile a woman) asks me what I do for a living, and I say I teach yoga. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to try yoga but I’m not flexible.”

At which point I offer that one reason to practice yoga is to become more mobile.

Still, it’s one thing to say that, and another to make that stiff guy feel at home in a class full of bendy ladies and the occasional bendy man. Throw in a teacher who can pretzel his/her way through a sequence of back-of-the-book poses, and you’re sure to send the poor man running to spin class or Cardio Fit.

So what’s a stiff guy to do?

First, we need to define “stiff.” Are we talking about shortened muscles, tendons, or ligaments? Which parts of the body are we talking about? (No one is uniformly stiff throughout his/her body.) Americans are obsessed with being able to touch their toes, but the hamstrings are only one of many, many muscles that can impede range of motion.

Second, we need to create classes that work for stiff guys, that:
  • Get students warmed up with a flow of basic poses that’s easy on forward bends (which can pull on the lower back)
  • Keep the poses simple enough that everyone can get into some stage of each pose and hold it successfully while still breathing
  • are challenging enough to break a sweat
  • Use props to make up for shortcomings in bendyness
  • Show that strength, stamina and balance are as important to fruitful yoga as flexibility
  • May well be taught by men

And by the way, nowhere in 2500 years of yoga scriptures does it say that yoga is about stretching. That’s a modern, Western misconception. Hatha yoga is about facilitating the flow of energy through the body. Period.

Monday, February 2, 2015



Students say/ask the darndest things! Here’s a brief sampling, with some suggestions for appropriate responses:

1. Why do we have to chant in Sanskrit?
A: Sanskrit was created by sages who believed that certain sounds generate “good vibrations” in the
chanter. Specifically, they were fond of “s” and “sh” and “ay” and “ah” sounds, among others.
2. What do you think of hot yoga/ashtanga yoga/aerial yoga/yoga kickbox taebo/TRX/PDQ?
A: I teach alignment-based flow yoga because I believe that an anatomically sound, dynamic practice strengthens and opens the body, facilitates the breath, clears the mind, and lightens the heart. Since I don’t teach those other forms of yoga/physical activity, I recommend you try them out for yourself. I can direct you to teachers I know in some of those disciplines
3. How come I can’t bind my arms?
A: We bind the arms in some poses to help open the chest and shoulder/arm muscles. Your body may not be flexible enough yet to clasp your hands behind your back. Or you may have broad shoulders and short arms (in which case you may never be able to reach). Either way, hold a strap in each hand to bridge the gap.
4. I don’t do headstand.
A: Why? If the student has a sound anatomical reason (high blood pressure, detached retina, a previous injury/trauma to the neck or head, bulging or herniated disks), offer them a safe alternative that shares some of the benefits of headstand. If they are just scared to go upside down, stay with them and guide/adjust them into a safe stage/preparation of the pose for their body.
5. I’m menstruating. Can I do inverted postures?
A: Huge topic of much debate within the yoga world. No consensus in the field of anatomy either. Briefly supply what you know about the topic, including if relevant your own experience, and urge the student to make her own choices and observe how it goes.
6. What’s a girl with a Ph.D. from Princeton doing teaching yoga?
A: I have two siblings, and the evidence is in: not a straight arrow in the bunch. But we are all happy.
7. Are you a Buddhist?
A: Yoga and Buddhism are two related, but separate paths. And both yoga and Buddhism further split into many intertwining streams. Buddhism’s core teachings align most closely with the early Classical Yoga of Patanjali, though Tantric Buddhism connects to later Tantric Yoga. It’s complicated.
8. Are you a vegetarian/vegan?
A: The classic yogic diet is lacto-vegetarian (dairy-based, no meat, fish, or fowl), which was both hygienic and healthful in India at the time of its origins. Since then, we’ve made such a mess of the planet that there’s really no safe diet. Stay informed, and find a way of eating that keeps you thriving
with minimal damage to planet Earth.
9. Is yoga a religion?
A: No. It is a “spiritual technology,” a toolbox of practices that can be used by people of any or no faith.
10. Can I keep running marathons?
A: Yes, but please run with your feet parallel, in good shoes, and back off if you started “feeling things” in your knees.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Yoga Teacher Training: "Nevers!"


Most yoga teacher training courses are full of good advice on what to do in your classroom, but they can be a little short on the don’ts. Not sure why. Maybe teacher trainers are reluctant to preempt new teachers’ creativity by setting limits. Or maybe they’re embarrassed to admit the dumb things they’ve done and had to learn the hard way. In that spirit, I’m offering a list of things I hope I’ll never do again when teaching. I hope it spares all teachers and students going forward!

1. Never ask your students, “What would you guys like to do today?” Come with a plan. That’s your job.
2. Never muscle through your plan when it’s clearly too hard/too easy/too intricate/too whatever for the students in the room. Adapt.
3. Never underestimate a student’s intelligence. Lack of yoga experience is no gauge of IQ.
4. Never assume that students share your views, your opinions, your likes and dislikes, or anything beyond a love of yoga.
5. Never assume that students are going to like the way you teach yoga.
6. Never take it personally if they don’t.
7. Never turn your back on anyone when students are practicing handstand at the wall.
8. Never assume that teachers who take your class have come to scrutinize or criticize how you teach. Usually they just want to take class.
9. Never assume that teachers don’t want physical adjustments. We need them!
10. Never share personal anecdotes, stories, information unless you can make it relevant to any student in your classroom.

Friday, July 18, 2014



Hopefully in your yoga classes, you are learning something about how to move and carry your body in healthier ways. Good teachers give specific alignment instructions to guide you into your best form.

Thing is, many students don’t realize that they’re also supposed to be applying those postural cues the rest of the day. That’s the whole point of my Everyday (and Every Night) Yoga video series, which will help you to type, drive, and sleep with minimal damage to your body. Honestly, I see people walking down the sidewalks of New York, jogging by the side of the road, or strolling down the beach in such scary bad form that I want to yell out, “Please, Stop! You’re wrecking your body!”

But since unsolicited commands from a stranger might not be too well received, I keep mum. I am happy though to share a few pointers to those of you primed to listen to me.  All will help you to preserve your physical frame for as long as humanly possible!

Today’s focus: 


Through years of evolution, humans have never really adjusted to standing upright (remember, we humble creatures did start on all fours!). We balance by turning our feet in or out, we prop ourselves up on one hip and then the other, we round and slump and let our heads hang forward and down.

Remember, the body is fundamentally lazy. It will always let gravity win. You have to choose to stand upright. Why should you bother? Because if you don’t, all of your weight settles into your joints, and you’re well on your way to knee surgery, hip replacements, lower back pain, frozen shoulders, tension headaches, and more.

So, learn to stand tall!

  1. Get your bearings: stand up (yes, now!) and walk over to a wall that has no furniture or other obstructions. Stand with your back to the wall, your heels a few inches away from the wall, your feet parallel and just a couple of inches apart. Have all of the following touching the wall:   
  • Your buttocks
  • As much of the back of your ribcage as possible
  • The back of your head 
  • The backs of your shoulders
If this doesn’t feel like the way you usually stand, get used to it! This is where you belong.

  1. Now, lift and spread your toes and press down through the four corners of your feet evenly. Notice that the more you press down, the taller you get. This is a good thing—it takes much of the pressure off your joints. With your head further back, your horizon line will be higher. Adjust to your new line of vision.
  2.  Put a book or yoga block on your head, and practice walking around the room keeping that lift and length.
  3. Repeat daily (or whenever you can) until this becomes habit. Note: it will never feel “natural” and yes it takes work. But hey, aren’t you worth it?

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Twelve Days of Christmas -- Day 12

January 6   twelfth day

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
my true love gave to me
twelve drummers drumming

The twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed. Absolutely fitting, as we come to the finish line of our twelve-day sprint through theology, philosophy, and recovery. The Church fathers (doubtless while the Church mothers were tending the kids and the shop) itemized the Creed in 12 bullet points so that said kids and anyone new to the faith could remember them. Don’t think I want to list them here, but basically the Creed declares Jesus to be the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, and our rescuer and our protector.

This might be a good time to mention Step Eleven, which I forgot to bring up yesterday. It’s my favorite step, because it links recovery’s essentially dualist theology (God’s up there, you’re down here; God’s perfect, you’re far from it;
God can save you, you can’t save yourself) with one of nondualist Tantra’s main tenets: the Divine is always there/here, we just need to remember/recognize Him/Her/It:

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

In other words, the sun is always shining, just open the blinds!

gandhiStep Twelve follows up by asking us to carry the message to others and be a power of example in our own lives. Gandhi would feel right at home. Think your little words and deeds don’t matter? Remember that diminutive man who rocked a continent and an Empire.

As for drumming, turn to Shiva Nataraj (see Day 9), Godshiva drumas frenzied dancer. In his upper right hand he holds a drum, whose beat brings the world into being. A grown-up, Hindu, slightly deranged version of the Little Drummer Boy. Drums may be the one instrument that figures in every musical tradition worldwide. We all follow the upbeat, the downbeat, the beat of our own drums, our heartbeats.

As we close in on the Epiphany-the arrival of the three wise men at the manger-it’s time to step back from the story and ask:

How Awake am I?
What is my source, my light, my truth?
Which unwavering star guides me through the darkness?
How long and how far am I willing to travel?

You are every character in the story: the Virgin Mary, the humble wise men whose wisdom pales in the light of Christ’s simple insights, the baby Jesus, and God the Father. Even the Holy Spirit, if that counts as a “character.” You are Judas and the faithful apostles, Pontius Pilate and the Jews who became Christians and those who stayed their course. 

You are capable of great things and small, of awesome destructiveness and astounding creativity, of selfishness and generosity, of abysmal darkness and blinding light. The rest of your life has yet to be written. Let’s enter this new year and this new age where we began twelve days ago, with our sights on the Highest!


Mazel tov!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Twelve Days of Christmas --Day 11

11th day 

January 5   

On the eleventh day of Christmas,
my true love gave to me
eleven pipers piping

Well, if you can make “eleventh” fit the beat when you sing this out loud, you’ve got one over me. Eleven is an awkward, a prime number, and outlier, so I guess it’s no surprise that it also claims an extra syllable and muddles the rhythm.

The pipers are the eleven faithful Apostles, meaning the whole
gang ‘cept Judas Iskariot, best known for going down in infamy. 

Question: How many can you name? Thought about Bartholomew or Thaddaeus lately? Thank God (or Jesus, or Allah, or Shiva) for Google, or I’d be well adrift on the seas of religious ignorance by now. So don’t be fooled, I’m looking this stuff up as I call it, having been raised in a household where the closest I ever got to church was an hour of silent Meeting at my Quaker school. For those of you who don’t know, Quakers eschewed the Bible and all scriptures, believing that God speaks directly to each of us. What a concept.

Anyway I just can’t find myself getting excited about eleven of anything. Didn’t even enjoy being eleven and was glad when it was over.

krishnaAs for pipers, we’ve got Orpheus,whose tunes tamed the wildest animals. We’ve got Krishna, who my friend Julie tells me is kind of a Hindu Christ, yet 
whose best known for seducing the gopis (see Day 8), and closer to home
 we’ve got the Pied Piper, who led little children astray (or at least beyond the ken of their parents). Hell (oops!), let’s throw in Huck Finn and his harmonica, Bob Dylan as an Angry Young Man sucking the life out of his, windpipes and bagpipes and steampipes
and tobacco pipes, the longwinded and the full of hot air (my maternal grandfather being both, a dedicated pipe smoker and a windbag who loved to tug hard on my nose and call me Shnoogie).