"When your are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds; your mind transcends limitations; your conscious expands in every direction; and you find yourself in a great, new and wonderful word"
Stevie Ray is an international Yoga teacher who has been primarily stationed out of Rishikesh, India, the capital and birth place of Yoga. He has been a lead methodology instructor and asana teacher at Himalayan Yoga Academy and Rishikesh Yog Peeth’s teacher training courses, along with retreats and workshops in the States, Nicaragua, Thailand, and Ukraine.
As a teacher, he is dedicated to the development of the connection of breath and the body in his students, and utilizing the tools of our physical practice as a bridge to meditation and higher states of consciousness.
He has trained extensively with the top Hatha and Iyengar teachers in Rishikesh, and his workshops primarily focus on structural alignment and building a physical and intellectual understanding of postures, expanding awareness in his students’ practices.
His classes range from dynamic flow sequences, hatha yoga, and restorative yoga, all with a focus on proper alignment. “Yoga is an ancient art of self-healing that must be discovered by experience. We attempt to explore the body to bring awareness to dormant portions of our physical being while bringing light into the dark corners of consciousness.”
“With all of these instructions—tuck my tailbone, roll my shoulders back, keep my chin slightly tucked—how am I supposed to relax in Savasana? I don’t feel relaxed.”
The words were slowly translated, from Russian to English, from across the Yoga hall at Kriya Ashram in Rishikesh, India. The 200-hour teacher training course was in its third week of five, and I was holding an applied lecture on verbal cues that could be used as an instructor, while leading asana classes.
What I have learned by living in Rishikesh—the birthplace of yoga, and now the hub for teacher training courses in India—is that yoga’s beauty comes from one’s experience. This experience brings wisdom, and this wisdom cannot be taught. These last words may seem odd coming from a yoga teacher, but as yoga practitioners, we must begin to understand that some things are not teachable from an external source—it must be learned from the inside out, from experience.
The lecture I was holding wasn’t intended to be a philosophy class—or a discussion, for that matter. We were short on time, with 53 students taking notes—first waiting for me to speak, then waiting for Katya to translate the words into Russian—but nevertheless I felt inclined to respond to her concerns, as they had been my own, when I was first studying Iyengar style yoga.
I remember the words, echoing inside my head, from the lips of many of my teachers in Rishikesh—words that had been drilled into their consciousness from the senior Iyengar instructor, Rudra, they had all studied under, “You all want to just do yoga, but we need to learn yoga.”
Yoga is a means to self-healing, bringing light into the dark corners of consciousness and illuminating the true self which lies within us all. At its heart, it is a path of liberation and a gateway to higher states of consciousness. But as a culture consumed by consumption, distracted by dubious desires, diseased by malnutrition and warped by poor posture—we must learn to walk properly before we begin to sprint towards spirituality.
There is a very catchy phrase running through the mouths of yoga teacher trainer students in Rishikesh, mimicked from philosophy teachers across the Ganga, and it is that, “Yoga is much more than asana—and asana is just a very small piece of yoga.”
While I completely understand the statement, and know its origins, asana is much more than it appears—its depths are as deep as dark water. Yoga, as a form liberation to the spirit, begins at the gates of asana—as a liberation and exploration of the body. Just as in the realms of consciousness, asana sheds light into the dark corners of our physical being, awakening portions of the body which lie dormant. What we first must accept, as yoga practitioners, is our sickness—physically and spiritually—and that this disease can only be overcome through our struggles and discipline.
“Yes, it is very difficult—not only savasana but all asanas,” I said with a smile.“Our bodies are not ready yet for asana—or yoga, for that matter. Due to our lifestyles, there is time and love that need to be spent in the rehabilitation of our bodies, to our breath. And for a long while, learning the proper rotations and actions of the poses will be accompanied by struggle, but we must love ourselves enough to be disciplined. And through experience, these foreign actions—these rotations—will begin to occur in the body, and they will no longer be words alone, but they will be felt.”
I am not exactly sure how well all of this translated into Russian, but to me, this is the core of what asana is. It is self love. It is a means of self-healing, because it is a gift that comes from within. Our teachers can lend us their knowledge and lead us to the bridge of transformation—and I feel truly blessed for these teachers throughout my life—but only I can cross this bridge alone.
This is the wisdom that cannot be taught from outside. Through this connection of the breath and body together, we explore ourselves, as if for the first time. We find our unity with the universe, through stillness within ourselves. Asana is what we do on our mat when no one is watching.
YOGA FOR BEGINNERS & THE STUDENTS WE LOSE
“I TRIED YOGA ONCE, IT JUST WASN’T FOR ME.”
As I take a short vacation from holy cities and small Asian towns filled with TTC students, I return home to visit family and friends in Morgan Hill, California. A small town suburb absent of posh yoga studios and vegan cuisine, it is a side of California most who live outside of it will never know. The antithesis of Venice, a mirage of mile long beaches, and the city of angels, we sit surrounded by small mountains in the Silicon Valley.
As I am introduced as a yoga teacher to new acquaintances and friends of family, two re-occurring narratives seem to constantly approach me.
The first is an odd yet somewhat humorous confession,
“I really should do yoga,”
Followed quickly by the question,
“It’s really really good for you, right?”
A somewhat anxious confession and question as if I were some sort of Catholic priest at East Sunday service meeting faces I only see but twice a year. The sociological implications and observations we could explore in this first narrative may fill its own article elsewhere.
The second narrative, which I think is more important to address as yoga teachers and for our growing community is the statement which reads at the top of this article. One which I have heard countless times, “I tried yoga once, it just wasn’t for me.”
More often than not this comment comes from men around my age group, from late 20’s to early 30’s. Ranging in body types from completely out of shape to athletic, but the sentiment is the same, “I tried yoga once, it just wasn’t for me.” After inquiring over the years about their experiences on the mat, I empathize with the alienation that was felt in this space that many of us feel as a sanctuary.
Stiff shoulders, short hamstrings, matched with sporadic breathing sometimes in a heated room, he looks from left to right for a reference to match these foreign terms to the postures they represent. A slow yet dynamic sequence, indicated on the schedule posted online, “Intended for all levels,” he bends down rounding his back in Utanasana unable to touch his toes, and before he is able to dwell on the fact he’s moving back through a “flow” which leaves his head suspended on all fours in the one pose he knows by name, “Downward Facing Dog.”
He hears the statement repeated from the first flow, “And come to our resting pose, Downward Facing Dog.” Sweat drips off his brow onto the mat as he fights desperately clenching into the rubber trying not to slide forward or collapse into himself. Thirty minutes in and his shoulders start to ache as his knees are bent and thighs are inactive as his weight shifts forward into his hands.
Over the last 8 years I’ve heard this story retold over and over. Different faces, locations, studios, and teachers, but a similar experience with the same result. With anything new and challenging, especially in the physical spectrum, the advice assumed to be given is that it’ll get easier, don’t give up, it’ll get better.
However, in this response, we assume the problem in the equation is the user and not the program itself. We rarely ask ourselves, is this sequence (Surya Namaskar or some flow similar to it) serving the populous who is receiving it? We assume Utanasana, Virabhadrasana, and Adho Mukha Shvanasana are for everyone. These 3 poses, standing forward fold, Warrior 1 & 2, and downward facing dog are essentially synonymous with yoga. But do these asanas actually serve a purpose for growth and understanding of the body and a reconnection of the breath, body, and mind connection for our new practitioner? Or let us ask it in another way, are these postures linked in dynamic sequences actually beneficial for students who have yet to learn the proper alignment and actions of these postures?
It is a dilemma which I have made a priority to address when running yoga teacher training courses and how new teachers should approach the teaching beginners. It seems the path of how a student progresses from the very beginning of their practice is inverted. The new student takes an array of led studio asana classes with little to no knowledge of what they should and should not be doing. Once they become accustomed with the bureaucracy of lead led classes, the names of postures, the tendencies in patterns of sequences their favorite teachers use, they become more comfortable in this space. Now invested in these new technique which leaves them feeling vibrant and euphoric they eventually take workshops or trainings where they usually find that their understanding of asana and yoga as a whole was quite limited and what they have been doing over the last year or two is not only incorrect but quite possibly causing more damage than benefit.
They begin to observe and understand the priorities in a posture, proper weight distribution, and tendencies they have in asanas to be aware of to avoid injury and create a sustainable practice. But for our beginners, attempting to blindly survive this ‘slow-flow’ 8 a.m yoga class at their local studio or the YMCA, would it not be more beneficial being with presented with this knowledge and understanding prior to these dynamic sequences which do not provide the space for new understanding? Many students, including myself became initially infatuated with the practice of asana due to its difficulty, and studio classes were seen as something that we must get through for its benefits. And although the feelings after class may appear positive, this approach is can quite dangerous.
What I have been promoting for my new yoga teachers to attempt is to move away from only running these led studio asana classes and creating 2-4 week programs which are designed with the intention of creating the proper foundation for a new student to begin their yogic journey. In these programs introducing them to breathing techniques and how asana can be used as a vehicle for pranayama and breath awareness, along with structural alignment workshops in order to analyze and understand each posture form the ground up with the hope to avoid many of the injuries us as yoga teachers have acquired and carry with us. We can also create an asana practice which is designed for their specific limitations, focused on breath connection and safely creating space and flexibility with floor based asanas where gravity and weight distribution are less of an issue in order to avoid unnecessary injuries. Allowing students to learn standing postures in the safe space of structural alignment workshops, in a static setting prior to experiencing dynamic sequences.
Dynamic Vinyasa flow classes are not inherently bad, and are how many of us were first introduced to yoga. However, they are problematic for new practitioners, as it does not allow the necessary space to learn and understand, simply do, as we move from shape to shape. It is, in my opinion an advanced practice, Surya Namaskar and flow based yoga sequences, which should only be practiced by a yoga practitioner who has begun an examination of their body and proper alignment of core asanas. Dynamic sequences can be very powerful in cultivating energy and preparing us for Shavasana through the connection of breath they create, and the physical impact they demand, but for our beginners in order to avoid them abandoning their practice before it has a chance to begin, I ask our community as a yoga teachers to reconsider how we share this practice we have grown to love.
“Tomomi is the fire starter, lightworker and nurturer of Flying Elephant Yoga located in Pulau Weh, Sumatra, Indonesia. Her yoga journey started when she first moved to Canada as a teenager. In her almost 20 years of practice, 10 years of teaching and 8 years of teaching yoga teachers, she has been an integral part of extensive yoga teacher training programs both at 200hr and 500hr level trainings in various parts of the world.
With the background of vinyasa, power vinyasa, yin, pre- and post-natal yoga, she encourages her students to observe their minds while nurturing their own individuality. She likes to challenge her students to question their own habitual patterns in their minds to remove their barriers for ultimate freedom and growth. Her classes are about honoring both traditional and modern, physical and mental aspects of yoga. Her skills and talents shine in connecting yoga practice on the mat with the real life challenges, seeing people’s strengths, and changing their perspectives.
She has been featured as a writer for elephant journal, yoga expert for a popular Taiwanese diving TV show, Salty Mask, and a Lululemon Ambassador Alumni.
Beach bum at heart, believer of the Force and the power of the one ring, she loves to enjoy time with her traveling family exploring the world.”
Claire Green – Yin Teacher Trainer Senior Yoga teacher, yoga therapist and passionate yin yogi, from her first encounter with yin yoga she was hooked, and fell in love with the pure raw healing potential of the practice and the contrast between the strength and power of a yang practice compared to the grace and surrender of a yin practice. Passionate about how yoga empowers people in the healing process; rather, than being a passive recipient of treatment, the student is actively engaged in the path to their own well-being. Claire sees her role as guide you to listen to your own subtle messages your body gives and directing you as to how to respond offering tools for re-balance and teaching you the way to implement these tools within your own teaching. Claire has over 1,200 hours of teacher training and 15 years of teaching experience; completing 500 hours with the British Wheel of Yoga in 2005; Birthlight pregnancy yoga training in 2009. She gained the British Wheel of Yoga Foundation Course Teacher Trainer certification in 2011 delivering British Wheel of Yoga training. In 2014 she completed Forrest Yoga Advanced Yoga Training before furthering her training by completing 500-hour with Maggie Reach studying yin yoga therapy, yoga philosophy, chanting, and Ayurveda, co-run with Neil Pearson, a specialist in physical therapy and chronic pain in 2015. In 2019 she completed further Yin Yoga training with Jo Phee and Joe Barnett.
Nickyy- Vinyasa Teacher Trainer International teacher of 13 years with over 1000 hours of Yoga Teacher Training. After falling in love with the practice of yoga 16 years ago, she gained an Advanced Diploma at the Academy of Yoga Learning, Melbourne, Australia. She has deepened and enriched her understanding and practice over the years with Advanced Vinyasa Sequencing, 75 hours Yoga Therapy Training, 100 hours Level 1, Anusara Teacher Training, Human Anatomy, Human Physiology and Functional Anatomy as part of a Bachelor of Honours undergraduate course in Occupational Therapy (University of Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia). She has studied meditation extensively in India, including Zen Buddhist and S.N. Goenka Vipassana silent retreats. She is absolutely honored to share her experience and deep love of yoga with those just starting on the path of teaching or those wishing to deepen their knowledge. Her main desire is to create a safe and loving environment where teacher trainees can be totally authentic, dive deep, and connect with their own inner wisdom and beautiful hearts.
Uk Trained Osteopath, New Zealand trained pilates rehab instructor and international anatomy teacher Rachel Ellery specializes in sharing her knowledge of human anatomy and movement principles to yoga students and body-workers from around the world. Her mantra “educating and moving the world one body at a time” stems from over 26 years of hands on experience and 17 years of teaching functional anatomy, bodywork techniques and movement. Her passion to heal others through touch and movement began while practicing sports therapy in the UK and Caribbean. Rachel naturally progressed into further education at the British School of Osteopathy graduating in 2000. Rachel has also continued training in Cranio-sacral Osteopathy, Garuda mat, dry needling, pediatrics and shown interest in Eastern medicine healing modalities Wuo Tai, Zen Thai Shiatsu, Thai Vedic Yoga and the Thai Massage Circus. Rachel educates yoga students in the importance of human and functional anatomy encouraging them to develop their alignment, self-awareness, teaching skills and to educate others in the wonders of the body.
Imogen trained in Melbourne, Australia, graduating in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science (Biomedical), Bachelor of Clinical Science and a Masters in Health Science (Osteopathy). Upon graduation, she worked for an Orthopaedic Hospital in Mumbai, India, focusing on knees, hips and shoulders. She worked alongside fellow Osteopaths, Physios and Surgeons in achieving optimal results for their patients. Imogen has been practicing yoga for the past few years and has found it to be greatly enriching her Osteopathic practice. She enjoys treating people from all walks of life, aiming to improve peoples’ relationships with their health, body, mind and spirit. Imogen uses a combination of hands on therapy, dry needling, kinesiology, taping, exercise, lifestyle modification and stress management. Imogen holds particular interest in the areas of improving biomechanics, the bodies capacity to adapt, neuromuscular control and ultimately getting the body to work smarter, not harder.