Yoga for Gardening

Recently while doing some work outside on the farmhouse property we are renting in the Hudson Valley, I was struck by the parallels between creating personal Yoga practices and gardening.

I put together a short video that captured those thoughts and which sets up a Yoga for Gardening practice that I’ve created.

What Kind of Practice Do You Want to Cultivate?

(If the video doesn’t play in your browser, try going directly to this link to it.)

A Multi-Dimensional Yoga for Gardening Practice
Here is the Illustrated Yoga for Gardening (PDF) practice that includes instructions for asana and for pranayama in asana, as well as a poem (“Garden Sanctuary”) that you can use to frame your reflections during the practice.

I look forward to your comments and encourage you to share this post with your Yoga and gardening enthusiast friends.

An Extra Set of Eyes: Kinesio Capture

I have had the privilege of being introduced to Dave Gottfeld and Kinesio Capture over the last several months. Dave and his collaborators are Fellows of Applied Functional Science and graduates of the Gray Institute and as such are at the leading edge of movement education. Their motion-capture iPad application is being used by top-flight athletic trainers working with Olympic and professional athletes, by rehabilitation specialists and personal trainers and by teaching professionals.

I was grateful to be given a copy of KCap to play around with and think it’s going to help transform how asana is being taught, particularly when it comes to encouraging personal practitioners.

Rather than teaching ‘poses to people’, Kinesio Capture is another tool that both teachers and practitioners can use to help reveal who the practitioner is and to help us understand more about his/her current condition, including:

  1. where mobility needs to be encouraged,
  2. where (and how well) new and existing movement patterns can be controlled,
  3. whether those new movement patterns are strong enough to meet the demands of the environment they’re in,
  4. whether they have the capacity to endure for long periods of time, and
  5. to the extent that they have the stamina to effortlessly maintain a particular direction for an extended period of time, what further actions are necessary to encourage their resiliency.
Here’s a quick look at Kinesio Capture in action:

I’m Allowed…! Or, How You Practice Informs What You Practice, Part III

Practicing Yoga by yourself is a very different experience than practicing in a group.  Whether you make the financial investment to work privately with a teacher to develop a personalized practice or you confidently launch into one you craft yourself, recognize that you are doing something special and something that’s different than what occurs in a led group class.

Practitioners’ Responsibilities: In a personal practice, many of the responsibilities that fall to the group class teacher become the practitioner’s concern to:

  • select an intention for the practice,
  • develop a strategy for realizing it,
  • choose the elements for the practice (among and including body practices, breathing practices, attention practices) that will support that strategy,
  • create the sequencing of those elements,
  • make decisions re: the sensual environment for the practice (eg, music or not, lighting or not, incense or not, etc.),
  • keep track of the time,
  • keep track of her/his attention,
  • practice those techniques, and
  • remain open to surprises, broken expectations, new directions and unintended learning/teaching opportunities.

One of the great benefits – and one of the bigger challenges – that comes from creating a personalized practice is that you get to shape your expectations of ‘what’ a Yoga practice ought to be.

It doesn’t have to be 60, 75 or 90 minutes long just because that’s the typical length of a group class.

It doesn’t have to follow the structure of a group class. You could work on one posture, you could work on 50. You could do pranayama practices the whole time. Or chant. Or meditate, then write, then move, then write, then chant, then write. It could look exactly like what your best friend, mentor and favorite Yoga teacher prescribes. Or it could look nothing like it – and not at all reflect poorly on your relationship with your best friend, mentor and favorite Yoga teacher

Sequencing can be taught. Techniques can be taught. Perspectives regarding the use of music or incense or where in the house one might practice, etc. are easily debated.

The biggest leap a practitioner often needs to make is the one we might caption “I’m allowed” and that’s a barrier that must be overcome internally.

Nude Beaches & Down Dog Quotas: How You Practice Informs What You Practice, Part II

Long hair and a touch of scoliosis made more visible by an on-shoot thoracic disk slippage. Beautiful backdrops and nude bathers off-camera.

Many moons ago I taught Yoga on a nude beach in Jamaica to pretend people who weren’t there. I was paid several hundred dollars, given a round trip ticket from New York to Mo’ Bay, received complimentary ground transportation and was put up in bartered accommodations at an all-inclusive resort. The videos and DVDs from that shoot (and ones filmed the next two years) generated millions of dollars in revenue for the distributor. I received no royalties, alas.

As a commercial venture they were deemed successful, but as teaching aids?

I was reminded of those shoulder season visits to Jamaica while visiting my parent’s house with my then 8-year old son. My mom played one of the DVDs, took out her Yoga mat and began practicing “with me” as my son and I watched the 14-years-younger version of me instruct her through cat posture. Before long, my son plopped down next to Nanny and tried following the instructions for downward-facing dog. The live version of me supplemented Al-the-younger’s efforts with some hands on assistance and additional verbal encouragement.

It was a weird split-screen: having memories of teaching pretend people while nude, overweight, sunburnt German tourists looked on and looking on this present moment as my mom and son watched  the younger me giving them instructions while the older me looked on.

My son thought the DVD was cool enough but his real interest was hearing more about the nude bathers (Could you see their butts and everything?). But my mom, God bless her, remains a big fan of those Yoga Zone videos.  I don’t think she’s just saying that because I’m her son (though that’s surely a part of it). She finds ‘just enough’ in them: they are the right physical challenge, the right time length and the commute to the family room sure beats the drive to the health club.

What’s interesting about pre-recorded led practices (for tv, the internet or mobile applications) is how much the medium drives the content. The other teachers who created practices and I were collectively on a downward-facing dog quota. Because it’s a position that requires a viewer’s head to be down (and thus away from the screen), the producers didn’t want us using that posture very often. If we taught it going into a commercial break and invited the home practitioners to maintain it through the break that would be all right

There were other postures that likewise were deemed not so great for tv because they either lacked visual appeal or they came across as too sexual. I seem to recall that reclined cobbler’s pose (supta baddha konasana) was ruled out because of that – or perhaps it was shot from a distance.

That I was tall helped me secure one of the teaching spots. But that I had a touch of scoliosis was deemed problematic. I was asked to sit in such a way that both of my shoulders appeared to be on the same level in order that I looked like ‘a proper Yogi.’ When, while demonstrating during another video, I was accidentally rotated a bit too far which knocked a thoracic vertebrae out of whack, the task of ‘covering up’ my postural imbalance was even more challenging.

Besides our physical presentation and the visual aesthetics of what we were teaching playing a role in the choice of content, how that content flowed was equally important. Just as a half hour sit-com is divided into acts, so too were the video tapes (which later became DVDs).  There was a formula to introducing the postures (sharing some details about them and adding a bit of personality and encouragement) and to how the flow was sequence.

On the one hand, that formula worked: while the videos never sold at Rodney Yee levels, they certainly sold well enough.   Or perhaps that formula didn’t work and all of the videos/DVDs that were purchased gathered dust in people’s media towers.  Or maybe the instructional videos and DVDs gave people ‘just enough’ to work with on their own. Maybe they served as a “good enough” substitution for group classes, or as a brain break from the responsibilities of creating and following their own self-guided practices.  Maybe some flipped off the tv and went out in search of a real, live instructor who gave them what they really needed.

In the years since, I have bumped into other teachers who were making their own DVDs or creating videos for their YouTube channels. Many seemed confident that their’s were going to be unique and/or different from the rest. I’m sure part of that confidence was rooted in the belief each had about the material s/he was going to share.

But I wonder, in retrospect, how each felt about the final product and about the trade-offs involved in sharing instruction in this way.  And I wonder what your experiences of practicing with or creating Yoga videos, DVDs and other recorded media has been. I look forward to hearing your stories.

How You Practice Informs What You Practice, Part I

There are different models of teaching and learning open to those who want to practice Yoga. Each one invites a particular kind of learning and requires a different skill set for the practitioner and (if there is one) for the teacher/facilitator.

In writing this and other blog posts, I can toggling between ‘visual’ and ‘html’ modes. The ‘visual’ is the pretty, end product mode. The ‘html’ is the behind the scenes innards of the page which is less sexy to look at but gives you access to the infrastructure that underpins the site.  This post will err on the un-sexy side; it will be more ‘html’ than ‘visual.’  In thinking about some of this ‘behind-the-scenes stuff’ I hope we can identify areas that we want to enhance, modify or augment.  We might also see more clearly the differences implied in each form of practice and identify ways to better help practitioners navigate from one practicing environment to the next.

I’m sure I’ll miss key aspects but hope that you’ll help me see that; together we can fill in the gaps.  Let’s dive in to the deconstructive deep end with the most prevalent format, led group classes.

Led Group Classes

Led group practices, which are more or less uniform practices, typically involve groups of 2 to 50 practitioners following the lead of a teacher.

Teacher’s responsibilities: Setting aside thoughts about the pre-requisites we might hope a teacher has completed before standing in front of a group of students (some  of which are implied in the list that follows), here are some of the responsibilities she has in a led group class:

  • assess the readiness and interests of the assembled practitioners,
  • select an intention for the practice,
  • develop a strategy for how she will lead the group towards her intention for them,
  • choose the elements for the practice (among and including body practices, breathing practices, attention practices) that will support her strategy,
  • create the sequencing of those elements,
  • cue the individual techniques,
  • demonstrate techniques as needed,
  • provide hands on assistance (when appropriate) to facilitate getting into/out of the various elements of the practice,
  • shape the practice environment (provide encouragement, provides a broader philosophical, historical, and/or practical context for the practice,
  • make decisions re: the sensual environment for the practice (eg, music or not, lighting or not, incense or not, etc.),
  • manage the flow of information shared and absorbed,
  • keep track of the time,
  • remind people why they are there and where attention ought to be directed, and
  • remain open to surprises, broken expectations, new directions and unintended learning/teaching opportunities.

If she can sneak in a joke or something sage without disrupting the flow of attention or drawing too much focus on herself, that is sometimes appreciated, too.

Practitioner’s responsibilities: Most importantly, a practitioner needs to show up. By showing up a few minutes ahead of class and intentionally shifting gears from whatever activity she has just concluded, a led class practitioner is ready to ‘show up’ for her moment-to-moment responsibilities as a member of the group which asks her to:

  • self-assess her overall condition and readiness to practice,
  • alert her teacher of anything that would hamper her ability to pay attention or to carry out the practice the teacher may have in mind,
  • share with the teacher any hopes, fears or requests she has for the practice,
  • accept the presence of others in the room with her,
  • establish intentions to be mindful of the teacher’s directions and to honor her own needs and condition,
  • pay attention to the verbal and visual cues of the instructor;
  • quickly translate those cues into kinesthetic responses that mirror (to the best of her ability) those verbal/visual suggestions,
  • attend to thoughts, emotions, sensations and her internal storyteller which in analyzing, reacting, responding or developing narratives will keep her from being present,
  • negotiate the other sensual stimuli present in the room (moving bodies, smells, sounds, lighting) which has the potential to both distract and sharpen her moment-to-moment awareness, and
  • accept the possibility that unintended learning opportunities will emerge throughout the experience.

This gives us a good-enough jumping off point to start looking at the various ways Yoga is taught and to reflect on what is needed in each environment and what is needed to transition between different models.  I look forward to your feedback and insight.

Practicing (Which is Different Than Following)

Recently, I watched a YouTube video of three teachers (each with several decades of teaching experience) demonstrating a sun salutation together.  One of them, a  warm, humble, thoughtful person, cued the other two through each part of the sequence, as if the two associates were encountering it for the first time.  Of course this is the norm; it’s how most, if not all of us, were taught to teach.   But for whatever reason, it struck me as odd and triggered two related memories.

The first took me back to the late 90s when I inadvertently annoyed a group of students who had been regularly attending a Sunday morning Yoga class I taught.  I asked them to complete three sun salutations by themselves, without me guiding them, and then I promised to pick up the proceedings from there.

Two students walked out (‘they didn’t come here for this’).  Those who remained begrudgingly went through the motions – or some of the motions.  Even though many of these students had been led through 100′s of sun salutations in their lifetime, more than half practiced hesitantly: repeating a left or a right side, skipping portions of the sequence and/or mixing up their breaths and their movements.

I hadn’t meant to offend anyone.  And I didn’t expect I’d mess up the flow of the class either. I figured everyone would have welcomed a 5-minute respite from me yakking at them and I didn’t think I wasn’t asking them to do something they couldn’t do.  Not wanting to hurt my all-important class numbers, I went back to teaching the ‘regular’ way: calling out the posture names and noting a few details about each one, regardless of whether the students in front of me were hearing that information for the first or the five hundredth time.

I also remembered encountering a similar situation a year or so  later. I joined two hundred other participants taking a workshop with T.K.V. Desikachar at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.  Some of my fellow retreatants had been students of Yoga for a few months but many were accomplished practitioners and teachers with years of study under their belts.

To kick off the first session, Mr. Desikachar drew a stick figure of dvipada pitham (bridge pose) and asked us to create a short practice using it.  Many went to work on the mini-assignment nonplussed but the reaction in the room also included a mix of panic, frustration, confusion, and annoyance (‘we didn’t come here for this.’)  The discontented faction tipped the agenda.  The assignment was scratched and for the remainder of the weekend Mr. Desikachar led us through group practices.

These days, it’s rare that I talk clients through postures, breathing or meditation techniques. I mostly work with individuals who want encouragement or guidance in crafting a personal practice. Together we create practices that the client will explore for days or weeks at a time. So, naturally, one of our objectives is to make sure they feel confident and safe working on their own. When we meet up again, they share their observations on their practice and sometimes show me sections that they have questions about or want feedback on. Their feedback, our discussion and whatever their current condition is, drives the next iteration of their practice.

But I don’t work exclusively with individuals.

In fact, moments after watching my colleague’s video, I popped into one of the two group classes I still teach. For the next hour I lead and they followed. I took this group (a group I have worked with for fifteen years) through various postures and breathing techniques that each of them already knew. In the process I probably repeated instructions or reminders they had heard hundreds of times.

In many respects, I think it’s a balanced, thoughtful class. I try to be smart about the movement palette we use (we liberally adapt classical postures to make them relevant for this diverse group whose ages range from 45 to 80 and who are tasked with sitting in chairs most of the day). I encourage them to maintain their focus on the quality of their attention and on the feel of their breathing. And I regularly receive feedback from the participants about how supported they feel and how appreciative they are that our class has continued for so many years.

So it’s a balanced, thoughtful class that tries to meet the participants where they are, is appreciated by them AND it all takes place within a context in which I lead and they follow.

Doesn’t that ‘I lead, you follow’ piece strike anyone else as weird? The more I’ve thought about why I was giving instructions to people who already knew what they were doing – and why they’d want me in that role – the more it makes me wonder why most group Yoga classes embrace this teaching structure. It’s a bizarre strategy that seems even stranger when applied to other contexts:

  • Imagine playing a round of golf with a teaching pro who talked you through every aspect of your address, backswing, downswing and follow-thru..  And can you imagine if she – or her teaching pro in training – did hands-on corrections to you during every putt?  What if ‘playing golf’ really meant ‘being talked through a round of golf’?
  • Or what if you and your friends took a baking class with a chef who directed ‘cracking the eggs,’ ‘opening the bottle of milk,’ ‘scooping out the flour’ and ‘sifting it into the bowl.’  Would you expect those kinds of instructions on day one?  Would you be surprised to be receiving more or less identical instructions three weeks, three months or three years later?  How confident would you feel making a birthday cake on your own?  Would you feel as confident using a recipe other than the one you were taught?

When my son learned the alphabet, there came a point when his teacher stopped saying the letters with him, when he and his classmates were left out there, all alone, with the task of identifying the letter that followed ‘K.’  Like all of us, he may have hesitated or fumbled at first, but eventually, he confidently arrived at ‘L’ and thus, was one step further on the path towards a lifetime of reading and writing.

True, some group exercise classes are also ‘led’ but in many other movement forms (dance and martial arts, e.g.) the teachers don’t provide, nor do the students ask for, such an extended period of verbal or visual codling.  Instead, those teachings are shared in environments that embrace ‘not-knowing’ as part of the process and that encourage their students’ bumbling along towards mastery.

And of course, I’m sure the language in most group Yoga classes embraces ‘not-knowing’ so what I’m wondering is whether the structure of the learning environment undercut those heartfelt words? With the exception of Mysore-style astangha classes where each student is tasked to work on (by herself) whatever part of the first, second or third series she is up to, every other group class I am familiar with features an instructor leading the students through a series of postures, breathing techniques and/or meditation instructions.

On the one hand, teachers tend to suggest that the students should feel free to tune out what they are saying and only take in whatever’s relevant. But do our preferences lie with ‘do what I say’ or on ‘pay attention to yourself’? When students liberally deviate from the given instructions for an extended period, what comes up in you (as the teacher or as a fellow practitioner)?  Is it really okay?  Or does it detract from the overall experience? If it was my expectation, as the teacher or as a practitioner, that we’d all be more or less working on the same things (with a little variation here) and then and someone broke into a flow practice in the midst of a restorative class, I’d be totally distracted.

But what if everybody coming together and doing their own thing – even if it was radically different mat to mat – was the expectation. What if that was the new norm of a group class.

In my 1-on-1 sessions with clients who expect to leave with homework, they don’t expect for us to have a ‘Yoga experience’ together. They expect they’ll emerge with things to work on for the days/weeks ahead. If they don’t leave with essential oils or sweat (or both) on their forehead or a post-savasana or post-meditative glow that’s fine with them because they can construct those experiences on their own (if they even want them).

What would happen if, instead of leading our next group class, we turned over more of the direction and flow of the class to the students and focused our energies on creating a supportive, safe and encouraging environment for them to begin developing an individualized practice?  What if the 7pm class was still wall-to-wall practitioners, but suppose each practitioner was there working on his or her own thing, in their own way.  The collective group could still draw support from one another’s energy and focus but instead of being a class where ‘they’ followed ‘us’ it would be one where individuals practiced together.

As teachers our preparation would need to be quite different from what it is now.  We would probably need to prepare jumping off points for class attendees, greeting each participant with a menu of options for them to practice. Or we might, as Mr. Desikachar attempted to do, post on the wall a posture, or a series of postures, and invite the attendees to construct and practice their own sequence for the next twenty minutes. Afterwards, everyone could reconvene and share what worked, what didn’t and what they might do differently the next time. Over time, clarity about what each person needed to include in her practice would emerge.

As practitioners, more would be asked of us, too.  Along with the freedom to practice what we wanted, would also come the responsibility to take closer care of our practice and of our attention during it. We wouldn’t be able to rely on someone else’s charisma, energy, shakti, or creativity to get us through.  We would, however, get to tap into and cultivate those very same qualities within us.  And I believe – and the clients I have worked with concur – that the benefits and the sense of empowerment that flow from crafting one’s own practice would far outpace the initial challenges.  I imagine that a room full of personal practitioners would be inspiring.

I’m not naive enough to imagine that it would eliminate Yoga-derived injuries or that it would prevent power imbalances between practitioners/teachers but perhaps a more collaborative model would give practitioners a greater voice in announcing why they are there and what their hopes are.

Of course, in shifting paradigms, I’m sure we’d annoy some people. I’m sure some would announce ‘they didn’t come here for this.’  But I bet many others would happily bumble along with us.