Thirty years of Teaching Yoga

I was driving through Pearse Street in Dublin the other day, and I passed the building in which I took my first Yoga class, more than 35 years ago. I pointed it out to my daughter, who was with me, and during the rest of the journey through the city we talked about other places we were passing, which had played a role in my life over the years. The first flat I lived in in Dublin; a recording studio where I did voice-overs (I still sometimes do) when I was acting full-time; and several pubs I knew all too well! Many memories were evoked and later, I was prompted to reflect on how things change.

I taught my very first Yoga class in the same place I had taken my first class. That was 30 years ago this year! When I think about the changes in how and what I teach in my yoga classes now it is interesting to see the evolution over time. It is a natural process and one we should welcome. As we age and evolve physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, it makes sense that our yoga practices should change alongside everything else. As Yoga teachers, we incorporate this evolution and refinement of our own practice into what and how we teach.

A mechanic of Asana

In the beginning, I would say I was less of a Yoga teacher and more what I call a 'mechanic of asana (postures)’. Although in my training I had been introduced to some yoga philosophy, I didn’t understand it and couldn’t relate it to life in 1990’s Ireland, or anywhere else! Yoga was a mat and postures, nothing more. I taught occasional classes in community centres and church halls, as we all did, and lived life, with all its ups and downs, moderate phases and excesses, joys and sorrows. Yoga was an adjunct, a ‘sometimes’ practice, usually when I was trying to recharge after some particular set back, or low. I could only teach what I had experienced and, honestly, that was very little. It took many years, before I began to notice and understand the impact of the periods of sustained practice. I began to look after myself better, and the excesses became fewer. I began to look into the Yoga texts again and some stuff began to resonate with me. I realised that this was powerful stuff and set out to commit to it fully. (Thanks to Bandha Yoga for the Trikonasana image and 3D4Medical for the Psoas one.)

Letting go of rigidity

When I started teaching, I was prone to be quite ‘black or white’ in my thinking. I liked things to be clear-cut and have simple ‘rules’, to have a system that you could plug into and get a specific and knowable result. (Possibly a throw-back to my time in science. Yoga was to become my third ‘vocation’, after science and acting!) Over time I came to understand that Yoga is not about teaching a system, it is about teaching people, and people are all different. Everyone is a unique complex Being; a body, a bunch of feelings and emotions, of beliefs, ideas and hopes. What we, as teachers, try to do, is to use our experience to guide each student to find the most useful practices for them, the safest way to do these, and thereby achieve the best outcome for them on their individual Yoga journey. Flexibility of mind (not just body) is a key component and adhering too strictly to rules (as Swatmarama points out in Hatha Pradipika), is an obstacle to progress in Yoga.

Guiding principles and their modification

Having said all that, there are certain common characteristics we all share as human beings and certain principles we can apply while acknowledging and accommodating the specific make up of each individual. We learn to modify how a particular principle is utilised for a particular student. For instance, we can make general observations about human anatomy. We can know how the hip articulates, the bones, ligaments, muscles etc that comprise the joint, and which muscles do what. Then we need to accept there is a great deal we do not know. How long is the neck of their thigh bone? What angle is it at? How might the shaft of the thigh bone be rotated? We have to work with the individual to find the best alignment, which provides them with stability, comfort in the posture, and the space to release . And that’s just thinking in terms of the physical practices. Then we have to get into the breath, the psychology, the thinking.

Deeper skills of a Yoga Teacher

The experience gained over time allows us to know our students more deeply, to sense how their energy is, to read signals from their breath, their demeanour, their voice, their eyes. These are capabilities acquired over a long time, by experience and through exposure to many students, but also through deep study of ourselves. We are our own laboratory, as Mr. Iyengar so brilliantly put it. We have to ‘see’ more than our students’ bodies. How are they today? Is there stress, sadness, joy, ease, discomfort? How is the balance in their lives, work-life, family, etc? Naturally, we can’t know this in a first meeting, but you do develop a capacity to recognise and intuit much, and as you build a relationship, you know how to offer them the guidance they need.

Practice, Breathe, Meditate, Study

If you want to climb Everest, you need a guide who has done it themselves. You don’t need someone who learned principles of mountaineering theory but has never been to the Base Camp, let alone the summit. You want someone who has been up the mountain, not just once, but many times, and who has experienced all the difficult passes and pitfalls, who knows the many different routes. So, our responsibility as teachers is to make the Yoga ‘climb’ ourselves. We must practice. That is how we learn and experience, how we accumulate understanding and know what to teach. It took me many years to really absorb this truth, but once I committed to it, Yoga revealed itself. The subtlety of the physical practices, the power of breathing, the real freedom and peace that is available to us all through meditation. Studying the yoga texts reveals a profound wisdom, as applicable today as it all those centuries ago. The problems experienced by human beings now are the same as they ever were, despite all the external changes. We all still want to be happy, successful, liked, loved; we worry, we stress, we want. The inner voice is rarely if ever silent. To embody the teachings, time is necessary; it all takes time, and a willingness to let go, to refine, and sometimes to radically change one’s direction. Being open to change is essential, as is another key attribute of a teacher, which again comes with time. That is being able to acknowledge and accept that there is so much we don’t know, and that it’s ok to say that.

Where do we start?

So, thirty years of teaching Yoga has seen me change, as my own practice and understanding evolved. My classes now are unrecognisable compared to what they were. I made many mistakes, and it took time for me to learn, or perhaps to accept and absorb, some lessons. The mistakes of the teacher are good for the student! We can help them avoid the same errors. Sometimes I am asked to offer advice to my teacher trainees as to what to do, and where to begin (before time teaches them more than I ever can. I suggest the following:  1. Do your own practices. 2 Study the texts, ancient and modern. 3. Know your anatomy. 4. Work on alignment with the individual to remove tension and create a flow of energy in the postures. 5. Learn how to use subtle, refined instruction and assistance, again tailored to the individual, so that they feel supported and secure and can release into the posture more readily. 6. Let go of ego. Let go of ever believing we have all the answers. Be open to learn always and embrace change with joy. Here's to the next 30 Years.

A Masterclass for Yoga Teachers

If you would like to work on developing these skills in your own teaching, why not join me on June 12th at 11:30am. I will teach a Masterclass on Anatomy, Alignment and Adjustments in the studio in Blackrock. Remember, this is a masterclass for yoga teachers and is a condensing of the many years of my own development as a teacher. CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS.