The Means We Use.

When I asked on the Applied Psychology For Yogis Facebook page why people taught yoga, the responses were lovely, heart warming and frankly, as I suspected. Mostly those who responded, reported wanting to 'help' others. They reported wanting to 'offer' or 'pass on' the health, healing and discoveries that changed their lives. The ‘change that people  Yoga it seems, is a way people can transmit their message.

What I find ironic is that no one said specifically (two of them were close to the notion though) that they teach yoga because they love asana. Perhaps this is a given. Perhaps the love of this kind of movement is just assumed in the question. But the fact that everyone chose to write something yoga offers rather than the yoga itself, leads me to believe (or rather I should say, confirms my hunch) that those commenting all see, realize and know yoga asana is a vehicle for something more.

It seems we can agree that yoga is a method of change, expansion, shifting, creating self-love, etc. It seems though that the skills needed to transmit and share the teachings listed above is different in some ways than teaching asana.

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe a lot can get done through the asana practice itself. The shapes have potent medicine for us when we open to their possibilities. At the very least, teachers of yoga should know when to stop preaching their teachings and let the simplicity of the shape be the profundity of the practice. There are the teachings of yoga, which everyone is free to receive through asana. And there are your teachings. Or I should say perhaps, you as a teaching. In my book these are linked but different. I believe we should know when to offer which. I also believe teachers of yoga need to know when to steer their students to qualified professionals in other complimentary fields.

This leaves me with some earnest questions for my colleagues.

Why do you teach yoga? If the answer to the why is something underneath the asana's or something the asanas may afford, then do you have the skills to transmit THAT? Do you think you learned those skills of transmitting and transformation in your teacher training when you took it? If not, did you get them elsewhere? Do you think you need other skills?

I see many teachers wanting to use asana as a method or vehicle to some other end. It is that saying ‘Its not about the pose’. Teachers know that asana is the beginning, not the end. It seems teaching great asana is half the issue. It is a big part of the picture obviously, but not the whole picture. Good asana teaching skills are absolutely necessary because you need your technique or vehicle to be strong. It needs to be strong to carry the teachings you have inside them. The stronger you make your vehicle and the technique that built it, the more powerful and sustainable your teachings carried by it are.

So lets say you are good at teaching asana and you want to really teach self love. Let’s say self-love is your core value and at the end of the day it is what yoga is about for you. What are the skills then that you are using to teach self-love? It is not only the asana itself. If you try to incorporate this into a theme by saying 'love yourself' that is not teaching. That is talking.

Teaching is giving someone an experience of the topic so that it becomes their own. Talking about it might land at the intellectual level but experience lands in the cells of our bodies not to mention stimulates the emotional centers of the brain. Our brains pick up the emotionality or the context of a sentence before its content? Teaching is creating an environment for the embodied actions of the topic to arise. If you say 'love yourself', sorry, you aren’t teaching self-love. You are teaching asana and talking about and around self-love.  But if you emanate self-love, if you are the teaching of self-love, if you create an environment where the experience of self-love is more likely to occur, then the person learns.

But of course the difficulty here is that self-love is an individualized experience. It’s presumptuous to assume we have what a student needs. So then we come full circle.

Perhaps it is better to teach plain asana. Perhaps it is better to let the experience of good ole’ fashion asana practice elicit whatever it is going to for each particular student. Perhaps it is better to let each student glean their own teachings from the practice, whatever they may be. You learn self-love through asana practice. You do. You do not need a teacher to knock you on the head with it always. I mean, sometimes maybe, but not always. As teachers how do we be overt enough and clear enough with our teachings and core values without being overbearing or suffocating? It is grand to be on a mission but not at the expense of a student’s own path.

Even if we only taught straight up asana for the sake of itself and let the teachings unfold student to student, you still need skills to help students regulate themselves. Obviously I do not think yoga teachers need to be their students’ therapists. I just think that sometimes teachings come to us, and its actually not some joyful experience of pleasantries. Sometimes those teachings come to us and it hurts like hell. The student-teacher relationship gains much of its preciousness through the power of witness. Students pay not only to learn, they pay to be witnessed. As teachers we need to remember the great weight we carry, the great honor really, of being a witness. The witness needs skills to hold space and keep the container of a class or session safe. Otherwise, why have a witness?

So lets take away all the theme-ing in the world. Even then, we still need skills to be good witnesses of what happens in asana. And anything can happen in asana. I think the psychology world would say these witness skills are called ‘psychotherapeutic’ skills. Frankly, all psychotherapeutic skills are simply being-a-good-human skills. Many people conflate psychotherapeutic skills with analysis.

While analysis is one skill required in psychotherapy, it is about 5% of the entire picture. The majority of psychotherapeutic skills are things like, listening, unconditional positive regard, witness, etc. I am not advocating for yoga teachers doing psychoanalysis. I am advocating for the usage of psychotherapeutic skills because although yoga is not psychotherapy, it is inherently therapeutic. A lot of these skills you do actually learn in yoga teacher trainings but certainly not all of them. And I think if we want to be good teachers. And I mean like really deep amazing teachers we need those extra ‘psychotherapeutic’ skills.

I think there should be delineation between asana pedagogy and training teachers how to use the asana technique as skillful means to teach their core value. Asana teaching skills is one part of the pie. It is a huge part. But what if the person wants to use asana as a vehicle? We may actually need to take them through a process that helps them know and understand what their core value is. This process is really what rites of passage work is all about. What is your core value? What is the thing you must give back to the world?

Once someone goes through this threshold, skillful means must be trained. This is where yoga asana pedagogy comes in. It is also where psychotherapeutic skill training comes in.

So I say we need to ask ourselves what is it we want to teach? Is it asana for the means of asana? Is it asana for the means of a core value teaching? Is it a combination of the two?  You could teach asana. You could teach asana and have good application of psychotherapeutic skills to maintain the health and safety of the room. You could teach a core value through asana. The trainings for these might overlap but they are different.

We now have an oversaturated market of yoga teachers who teach asana. Mostly because we keep putting people through the same kinds of trainings regardless of their intentions. Most teachers though, are desperately trying to make a difference in peoples lives through asana. Few of us, as leaders in the field, are asking them (let alone ourselves) what their core value is and giving them the skills (a combination of yoga and other things too) to teach that through yoga. We keep using the same hammer of ‘yoga teacher training’ to meet a whole variety of needs. I think its time we choose some other tools. Like maybe some of us need to be leading rites of passage. Maybe some of us need to be teaching pure asana pedagogy. Maybe some of us need to be teaching the psychotherapeutic skills. 

its just a thought.

Swimmy

It seems as though there are teachers of yoga whose aim is to get more people doing yoga period. I call these folks the yoga evangelicals. And I don’t mean it negatively at all. I use it to refer only to the active conversion of the population not doing yoga to the population doing yoga.

We need these kinds of teachers.

These kinds of teachers help others cross over the threshold onto a path of wakefulness. It is an important job these Bodhisattvas have. The great boon these teachers have is that they are constantly pulling from a large pool of people. The population not doing yoga is still larger than the population doing yoga. So the yoga evangelicals or bodhisattvas or whatever you want to call them are lucky in the sense that they always have the opportunity to contact new people, new clientele. You can make big business actually out of this market.

Then it seems there are teachers concerned with some percent of the population already doing yoga. These are the choir leaders. These are teachers like myself, who want to help along the path once the person is already converted and committed. The difficulty with this kind of teaching is that our pool is inherently smaller by sheer number. But at the end of the day, an active five members is more powerful than an inactive fifteen members.

Once you get into the pool of people already doing yoga we come into the sea of competition. I will tell you, competing is a waste of time, money and energy. We all have stories around this word ‘competition.

“Little Suzy wouldn’t play with me.”

“I was the best at soccer.”

“She stole my idea.”

And it goes on and on.

The sea can start to feel pretty crowded rather quickly. So if you are a preaching to the choir kind of teacher, how then do you find your specific choir?

For me I always consider the natural development and progression of a yogic path. We need guides for each developmental stage of our practice. We also need those special ones who can help us cross thresholds. The teachers that are best within a particular stage itself are not always the best thresholds ones. But they can be.

Once we are committed—once we are born onto the path—we need a nurturing teacher to carry us through yoga infancy. We need a teacher who will show us the magical nature of this practice as young children on the path. In our adolescence we need a teacher who can challenge us and tolerate us challenging them. We learn how far away can we go and still feel connected. As we move into young adulthood on this path we need equality, companionship, mentorship. We need time for self-discovery and asking questions. Teachers becomes like touchstones rather than those whose hand we hold. We then move into a place of older adulthood where we stand in the truths of our experience. We stand next to our colleagues with pride. We are humble and magnanimous as we begin to give back to others what we have gleaned, digested and made unique. In our old age on the path we are wise from being sculpted by the teachings and from the experience of actively teaching. We are full and empty. We hold all but hold onto nothing.

In this spiral I lay out above, please remember that psycho-spiritual development in regards to yoga specifically does not always match up with our physical development. Many people start yoga when they are already adults. So in some ways we are going back to go forward.

No one place or juncture on this map is better or worse than the other. In fact, each part is necessary for the next.

Think about the baby that doesn’t crawl and just starts walking. That might be amazing at first, but it can create sensorimotor hiccups down the road. Just like yoga poses, sometimes we have to go back to go forward.  If you don’t learn the basics well and have the imprint strong, eventually it will bite you in the ass.

The yogic path is a path of spiritual development that involves the development of motor skills in conjunction. It is one of the reasons asana is so powerful. Its also why we say all asana does is prepare us to sit. Asana is preparing us to give and receive wisdom when we can no longer do asana. But we can sit, in stillness, shining radiantly.

The pool is crowded. Yes I know. Many people do yoga now and many people teach yoga. But we are not a dime a dozen actually. How does a fish find its way through? It looks for the openings where another fish is not swimming. And it also is willing to swim in a school. It is willing to swim next to and in conjunction with its mates. One fish leads and the other follows and they switch. Its actually really simple. You cannot go where someone else is already standing. Go where they are not standing. And you have to be willing to follow sometimes. And you have to be willing to lead sometimes. There is more than enough room. I learned this metaphor and teaching from my teacher and I truly do believe it is pure truth.

Personally, I am really awesome at teaching the adolescent yoga practitioner and transitioning them to adulthood. It’s just my natural inclination. I can teach people newer to yoga, and I am okay at it. But I am not as good at as I am with helping people through the push and shove of growing up. Also, I am not the wise quiet one in the corner with the mysterious twinkle in their eye. Well, not yet at least. I’m not good at working with people in that stage. I may remind them of their youth, but I bow humbly at their feet. I don’t pretend to be at a stage in my development I know I am not.

Anyways, the point is this; if you think the sea of teachers is crowded and the pool is too small, shut up. You are not helping the problem. You are creating the problem. The truth is that the yoga evangelicals are not going to stop converting people into yogis. Which is awesome because we need the converts! It’s a great thing! They are helping us. It means our pool is always renewing itself. So don’t dismiss those teachers pounding the pavement to get people into the pool. They are working hard for all of us.

Furthermore, us choir leaders are invaluable to the evangelicals. Converts need a place to go once they are committed. People will always seek out their like-minded friends. They will want to find where they belong and fit so they can best harmonize. So the way in which we are teasing out and finding openings is actually crucial to the sustenance of the whole yoga ecosystem if you will. If we have a huge sea of people wanting to do yoga and there is no place for them to call home then turning them onto yoga is a disservice.

We need the choir leaders.

I guess from a ‘business’ perspective it would be good to have part of ones yoga business be in the converting and another part be in the support and development of current practitioners and teachers. I honestly believe  though that its fine to choose as well. If we do the things that seem like they will make us money, we often miss the very thing that naturally produces income because it is our birthright to be sustained by it.

Lastly, I don’t have a neat and tidy way to wrap this post up because development is rarely a neat and tidy process.

Neither is yoga. 

Assessing Genius

In my ten plus years of teaching yoga, I have taught in many different places. Boulder has by far been the most difficult in which to build a following. I must say though, over the five years being in Boulder I have managed to build and sustain a mighty Saturday class that pulls about twenty five to thirty five students on any given week. I feel like this is a huge achievement in this town. NOT because of the number but because of the number of regulars. People have a plethora of great classes to choose from along with teachers who are considered institutions in this community. So if you get people coming back for more, its good thing.

I would say I see about four or five new people to me in class each time. The vast majority though come like its church/synagogue etc. They come every single week. Frankly that makes me so proud.

When I love something I devote myself to it or that person fully. I might take a long time to warm up but once you have me, I am yours. Similarly, I might be an acquired taste, but it seems once people get over the brashness, the blunt truth-ness, the outrageousness, and intense social awkwardness they realize I am alright after all.

I am a student who believes in resonance. I believe in the power of learning through being with and hanging out with. So for me to have helped build a crew of people, who express their devotion by getting out of bed come rain, shine, hot or freezing temps, this is a high achievement. 

I share this not to boast but rather to say that what I wish studios and teachers looked at more closely was retention and attrition. The student who has ten students might seem low on the list. But, if eight of those people come each time, that’s really great. It is worth a whole lot. If you have someone pulling twenty or sixty people but they loose them quickly or have a low ratio of retention and thats your goal, maybe its time to reassess. if your aim is pure numbers. If your aim is to introduce as many people to yoga as you possibly can then retention will not matter as much. In fact, new student ratios will be more valid. 

I want us to consider deeply what we want as teachers and studio owners and whom we are teaching to and what our aims actually are.

My aim has always been to build a community, to collect a tribe, to form a movement. I used to be really shy about this because I felt like it was ostentatious and who the hell would want to be part of the group? But more and more I am celebrating that deep knowing in my bones, blood and cells that my aim actually is in reinventing modern yoga and psychology culture to encompass the old and create the never before seen. As you can probably tell by now, I am not so shy about it anymore. That is all a little off topic.

The point here is the need to make our goals measurable with appropriate standards.

My goal is not numbers. My goal is quality of numbers. So why should I be assessed by amount of people? The instrument for measuring success towards my goal should be retention should it not?

Furthermore, if someone is teacher-shopping they will still reap tremendous benefit from my class. But the person who is looking for depth and breadth and someone to follow through with, then they really see great benefit in my class. My Saturday classes are each individually unique and make sense unto themselves. You could come once, have a nice schvitz, learn a few things and never come back. When you come over time though, you get a sense of the deeper current of my 'body of work'. My teachings are a little more time-release if you will.

So again, the assessment tool for success should be appropriate. Like are people emailing from years ago that something made sense to them finally? If so great! That’s a measure of success. Do I pay particular attention to the comments that are highly polarized like “I LOVE your class” or “That was just completely inappropriate”. Well, no. do I notice when you show, week after week, month after month. Yes. 

So the long and short of it is I suppose, what are your goals? What is your aim? Who you are serving? Is your assessment tool valid?

It is like Einstein said: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Every teacher has their genius and every studio has its sense of purpose. But if we rate them based on attributes that have no meaning and bearing on them, they will always fail. I was taught yoga was a way to unlock, celebrate and express my genius. So why hold myself and ourselves to standards that perpetuate neurosis, psychosis, and falseness?

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What We Are Up Too.

Sometimes people critique my approach to educating yoga teachers on the intricacies of psychological processes behind yoga practice and teaching. People say I am giving all the credit to the therapists. I get admonished for 'turning yoga teachers into therapists'. I get hammered for thinking yoga teachers should ‘do more’ and that good yoga asana teaching should take care of itself.

1) To be clear, I do believe that much of what we see in neuroscience is originally found in yogic texts. Patanjali is speaking much like a great therapist would. The field of psychology is simply illuminating scientifically what we know to be true anecdotally. This is actually really great because we live in a scientifically oriented, emotionally sterile society. So in this way perhaps these findings will continue to draw people back into the source of these understandings, such as back into yoga or meditation.

When you do yoga long enough and it is working and your smart, don’t you sort of want to know what the hell is going on? Why some things work and some things do not? If you have been doing yoga a long time and you still really aren’t that nice, don’t you think its time to clean up your act? Do you not find it curious--all that shame blame guilt and jealousy we do to each other as teachers--not to mention our poor inner selves? Learning some key elements of psychology will, I believe whole-heartedly open your practice and teaching to new dimensions. It will only serve to clarify.

2) I am not in the business of turning yoga teachers into shrinks. Nor do I believe if you are a yoga teacher you are qualified to give psychological advice. But what I do see rampant in our yoga culture is one in which the teacher gets hammered with projections, and transference and they do not know how to effectively and skillfully use a very important god-given process called somatic countertransference. This one teaching I support the cultivation of in teachers is a complete game changer. This is the one skill we have taken for granted as teachers and it supports the whole shebang.

Furthermore, I teach and advocate 'scope of practice'. One pitfall in yoga teaching is in believing you have the skills to counsel someone. When I was 24 I had student after student coming up to me and asking me if I thought they should leave their marriage. To this day I still believe that they simply saw some young spirited free-bird yoga teacher who could pack all her belongings into her car. (She was also a sad, lonely, terrified, rage-aholic but of course all behind closed doors). For whatever reason, this bohemian carefree character I represented was appealing to those students. They saw something in me that they missed in themselves. Well look, was I in a position to tell someone with children that they should leave their marriage? No way! And even now, if someone came to me I probably wouldn’t give advice one way or the other.

In my days in Anusara yoga I saw the big kahuna giving lots of marital advice, for better or for worse. I am not saying the actual advice was wrong. Maybe for some people it was the thing they wanted to hear. And maybe that was supportive and healing. The point is that when you are a leader, when you are seen as a teacher, people will come to you with so many questions. You will represent something to them.

When I got married who did I ask to perform the ceremony? My yoga teacher! And you know why? She and her husband have a relationship I admire and live up to. So it wasn’t her down dog and side angle teaching skills that I wanted that day. I wanted HER. I wanted the presence of her yoagfied authentic self to bare witness on that day. So yes it was the yoga I had learned from her. And no it wasn’t the yoga at all.

So in regards to teaching about “scope of practice”, we spend ample time in my courses talking about what it means to be a teacher, what happens for students when they see you in the light of teacher, mentor, or spiritual leader. Oh you better believe that students may see you as a spiritual leader. And look, if that’s what you are up to, if that’s your intention--to be a spiritual leader and your message comes through yoga asana—great! Hallelujah! You better have the chops and integrity though to support that role.

Some teachers are actually quite good at offering a supportive listening ear and so why not cultivate further skills to support that natural offering unfolding out of that person. Does that make them a therapist? No. But it makes them an effective teacher with listening and reflective skills they wouldn’t otherwise have. This comes in handy especially in regards to teaching privates.

One of my mentors used to say, “if it smells like therapy, its therapy”. And so one of the things we need to understand as teachers is our listening and supportive limitation. We need to know when we really need to hand over our students’ issues to a therapist. We are so eager to help and please, us yoga teacher folk, that we get stuck too often in a cycle where we are covertly doing therapy. Lets stop this. Lets let the therapists be therapists and lets allow ourselves to be the teachers. Now there will be some overlap always. This is normal and fine and appropriate even. But we need to be educated enough to know when enough is enough. This education really isn’t happening in other places.

Lastly I will say in regards to this topic, that we have lots of rules and regulations about physical safety in classes. But not many have a pulse on psychological safety in classes. It’s not a requirement in teacher trainings.  The process of teaching whose who and what’s what helps the yoga teachers be yoga teachers and the therapists be therapists. When someone works with me they are under no obligation to believe what I say or apply what I teach. It’s a perspective, an opportunity, and an application of curiosity. That’s all. Sometimes people realize in working with me, that really they just want to teach yoga. Straight up yoga. To that I say AWESOME! Sometimes people are like “Wow, I want to be able to help people through the emotions that come up for them when they practice.” To that I say, amen! Hallelujah. Sometimes people realize they got into teaching yoga because they wanted to be in a helping profession and guess, what? The yoga really isn’t all the important to them, so they go back to school to be come a counselor. Again, that’s amazing and awesome! So in this way I am helping to weed out and separate these professions. I believe this to be a good thing.

It is far far to easy to become a “yoga teacher” these days. Many people get into it not because they actually want to teach. They want to be transformed. They are seeking a rite of passage. They want to help. They want to support. There are many avenues through which to channel your yoga teaching ‘skills’. If you are teaching yoga for the long haul, you better be dammed sure you are up for it. The long haul yoga teacher is a dying breed in my opinion. So is the long haul therapist by the way. So lets get clear on what we are doing, why we are doing it and for whom we long to serve.

3) I believe in the power of asana. I really do. I have fought with many a somatic therapist advocating the fact that yoga truly is one of the original somatic psychology methods. If you put yourself in those various shapes, something deep happens. Trikonasna is not just good for your hamstrings. There is a whole other element that we experience in practice that has everything to do with the asana and how well you line up that asana for your body and then letting the so called ‘magic’ happen. Asanas are medicine. I believe that. I know it to be true.

I also know that not every teacher of asana is for everyone. We are attracted and averse to different teachers teaching the same shapes for a whole variety of reasons. This then leads me to believe that there is something about the way one might teach, and how one is that is just as important to the thing they are teaching.

Now of course you can eliminate this factor by not having a teacher and just doing asana at home. But look, sooner or later we need a teacher. It might not even be a yoga teacher. But we need teachers.  Why do we need teachers? We need them because we need examples of how to be. We need people to respect and emulate so that we might grow into our own self-respect.

Our parents are our first teachers. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. In the cases where the parenting was not the most successful teaching in human beingness, we need to find non-parent teachers to assist in the learning. Good parenting teaches us something about the world and ourselves. Good teaching re-parents and repairs us well. That goodness, those successes, is psychologically healthy and healing. So a great yoga teacher affords us the opportunity to receive healing simply by the act of being a great teacher, and person.

Like I teach all the folks that come my way, YOU are the greatest asana in your class. YOU will be the greatest indicator of your student’s success. YOU are the teaching. I realize this puts tremendous pressure on the teacher. But I am challenging all of us to consider that we can no longer live double lives. I can no longer be Livia and then Livia the yoga teacher. It’s the same. If you see me at whole foods I am me. if you see me at the studio I am me. If you see me on a date with my husband, well, I might be tipsy from my cocktail but I am myself nonetheless.

Many teachers feel that because they have become visible pillars in their communities, when they go out they are in a fish bowl. Their moves are observed and commented upon.  My challenge is that this fish bowl does not actually exist. We are now in an age where we are all in the sea. We can comment upon our lives globally through twitter and facebook and we can instagram our entire personal sphere. Either the fish bowl no longer exists or we are all inside a giant one together.

In this manner, we must be integrated as teachers. We must be fluid in our authenticity. For me it seems that one of the greatest gifts we can give students of yoga is our authenticity as human beings. So yes, this is a mighty tall order I am calling for from my colleagues. I am advocating for a kind of transparency that we have yet to see. Being a good person, helping people when you are called, honoring yourself deeply, these are all vitally important at their essence and they are at the core healing to everyone.

It is possible to teach healing poses. It is also possible to BE a healing. And I am in the business of teaching people how to be a healing. How to be their own healing and healing for others.

We all come into this life with the capacity to offer medicine. The medicine person is no longer reserved for the tribal shaman. We are all medicine people. Its just that some of us are gathering our tools to make our healing salve and some of us are not into that quite yet. What I am suggesting is that there are a plethora of yoga teachers out there who are willing, able, and totally ready to be those healing salves for this world.

It is important to also understand that “this world” might be 25 people in your community. “This world” doesn’t mean the entire planet. It doesn’t mean 500 people at the Wanderlust festival. It means being a healing for your people, which has nothing to do with amount of people. Your medicine will be unique. The way you teach yoga will be unique. Those teachings are custom made for the ears and hearts of certain people. In some cases it is few in numbers and in others it is many in numbers.

To the yoga teacher trying to build their class numbers or teach at a yoga festival, I ask you this. “Is what you are trying to offer, communicable in a large number? Is what you are up to suited to dissemination through a large or small number? If your medicine is best offered one by one or through small groups, then why are you wasting your medicine on a mass? That would be like throwing away an epi-pen in the vital time of need. Don’t do that. Just don’t.

So yes, my critics are correct then. I am asking yoga teachers to buckle up, and giddy up. News flash: the world is not starved for asana anymore. The world is starved for YOU. It is starved for healthy whole and embodied people. So yes I am expecting a lot of yoga teachers these days. Healing is no longer reserved for the therapist’s office. Healing must happen everywhere and all the time. In a world gone completely mad we must take ourselves up with the highest respect and curiosity so that the more integrated, whole and healthy we become, that solid ground and rich healthy sea of BEING translates out to support the whole.

In the end, BEING HUMAN is a tall order. 

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