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Is yoga teacher training right for you?

I‘ve been getting a lot of questions about my yoga teacher training from friends thinking about becoming teachers. I learned a great deal by going through the process, much of which I wish I had known before I threw down the money and made the commitment of time that I did.

Looking at some of the resources I found on the internet, I am frustrated that they fail to distinguish a yoga teacher training from, say, a physical therapy certification or any other western higher education equivalent. Doing so encourages a teacher-student relationship that can easily lead to victimization and abuse – because a yoga teacher training is so different from western, intellectual learning we’re familiar with that we enter unawares. It is a wholly different beast that requires a very different frame of thinking and its own kind of preparation.

The biggest challenges may not be what you expect, but no one should have to go into yoga teacher training program blind to what happens inside, or into a teacher-student relationship ready to give up our agency and safety because we’re unprepared for what lies ahead. Yoga teachers are not infallible, as I’ve written about before, and students should not give up the right to hold them accountable or hold to their own limits.

Obviously, my recommendations and my knowledge of the field of yoga teacher trainings cannot be comprehensive or complete. But this is what I have learned in the past year and I hope it serves others. I’ve overlooked the usual questions, like “if I can’t do koundinyasana yet should I do teacher training?” (The answer is yes.)  All of that stuff – complicated backbends, anatomy, Sanskrit, cueing, and hands on adjustments – will sort itself out. I’d love any feedback.

Advice for those contemplating yoga teacher training:

1. Prepare for a commitment

All yoga teacher trainings are different, but here are some basics: 1) You’ll spend a lot of money ($1,500-15,000 unless you work out a work-study arrangement or find a free teacher training – they do exist!); and 2) You’ll spend a lot of time (anywhere from 5 weeks meeting a few times a week to a month-long intensive meeting everyday to nine months meeting every few weeks). I ended up funemployed for the last 4 months of my 8 month training, and managed to devote 20 hours a week to the training and my own study.

I chose my teacher training program because it was local and convenient.  Now, my fellow trainees in the local DC program I did stuck around the city, unlike me, and are moving right into teaching in the studio in which they were trained. This can certainly be a big benefit of training locally.

But since I moved right after training ended, I’ve realized that I would be having an easier time marketing myself as a brand new teacher in a new town if I had trained with a teacher local studios had heard of.  Something for us nomads to think about.

If you’re ready for the necessary commitment of money and time, read on.

2. Know that yoga is much more than just asanas

There may be teacher trainings out there that skip the history of yoga altogether and only train people in how to teach postures (asanas). But in order to qualify as a Yoga Alliance certified school, a teacher training will spend at least some time, if not a great deal of time, on the historical and spiritual/philosophical underpinnings of yoga and its many practices (yes, there are many).

Yoga evolved as a system of practice to put people on the path to Enlightenment – the complete uprooting of the egoic personality structure – not just to stay fit or reduce stress. Regardless of the goals of popular yoga practice today, a Yoga Alliance certified yoga teacher training is going to endeavor to produce teachers who know the system’s background and can expound on it when necessary and integrate it into their practices and teaching.

The time spent on these topics will not just be academic in nature – i.e., reading books – but will emphasize experiential learning through meditation, chanting, mantra, pranayama, kirtan and other devotional practices, mindfulness exercises – even sweat lodges sometimes. This can be especially challenging for those of us who aren’t ready to embrace or dip our toes into a new religious system or hermeneutics – including the skeptical, but also atheists and anyone with a devout religious belief that’s not Hinduism or Buddhism.

In Buddhist parlance, those who’ve embarked on the path of self inquiry through study and practices that still the mind and calm the body – with or without the final goal of Enlightenment – are called “stream-enterers.” And, yes – the stream is wet. And cold. And the water rushes by and sometimes catapults branches and logs along like weapons.  These various mind and body practices have the potential to bring you hip-deep into the stream and, once there, you may learn things about yourself that surprise you. You may come face to face with memories, judgments, and habits rushing at you with surprising and unignorable speed that you’ve happily not seen or repressed. It can literally be like splashing cold water on your face. Or getting hit by a log traveling at 35 mph.

Wet, clammy, and forced to see how the mind and body are not separate systems but part of a whole will likely considered part of your training – trainings that do this go beyond the Yoga Alliance requirements but it’s definitely to be expected.  Furthermore, you’ll likely be asked to share your realizations with your fellow trainees and the instructors.

When it comes to sharing, it’s critical to know your own limits and go in knowing what you’re ready to talk about.  Yoga teacher trainers are not likely to be trained psychoanalysts or social workers. So 1) it’s important to be prepared to be asked to participate in group sharing about your own process, which may be dark, raw, and dizzying; and 2) it’s even more important to set your own limits and boundaries in sharing because your instructors may not be equipped to create a safe environment for this kind of work.

OK. If you’re still on board, here’s what to do next.

3. Get to know the field

Not unlike applying to college or grad school, it’s important to know your options and how they’re regarded in the community.

Again, I chose my teacher training program because it was local and convenient. But I knew nothing of who my instructors had studied with, their personalities, or the extents/limits of their knowledge and practices.  If I could do it again, I would opt for a month-long intensive with a well-known teacher after doing some shopping (through YogaGlo or workshops, and a subscription to Yoga Journal).

Let’s start with the major lineages and traditions of Hatha yoga being taught and the best-known teachers in each of them:

Ashtanga – This yoga style popularized by Sri Patabhi Jois is often described as a modern-day version of the classical Raja yoga.  I know little about Ashtanga, to be honest, but have heard Richard Freeman‘s name come up again and again as a foremost teacher and admire his writings and talks.

Iyengar – This yoga style was popularized in the west by B. K. S. Iyengar, who studied with the same tacher as Sri Patanhi Jois, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, in India. Most Iyengar schools do not offer drop-in classes but require several weeks-long introductory courses, so I am wholly unfamiliar with the school and its teachers.

Bikram – Also known as hot yoga, Bikram Choudhry’s sequence is more popular among athletes and young men than other schools. Bikram leads all teacher trainings himself and requires adherence to his trademarked sequence and teaching style.

Vinyasa – Where to begin? There are a ton of western yogis who have adapted yoga for western audiences, many with great success. These include but are not limited to Power, Prana Flow, Baptiste Power, Jivamukti, Om, Forrest, Yee, Liquid AsanaAnusara, Kundalini, Budokon, and Insight. Follow the links to find those teachers. Some other teachers who have not branded their styles to the same extent (and that may be a draw for you in itself) are Jason CrandellMichael StoneNatasha Rizopolous, and Donna Farhi.

4. Get to know your instructor(s)

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of familiarizing yourself with your potential training instructor. But the most important thing is getting to know him or her and his/her ethical commitments,which can be done by taking just one or two classes and asking questions of the instructor after class. Doing so will at the very least set up accurate expectations.

Against the backdrop of #2 above, I recommend spending at least 90 minutes observing your potential instructor in his or her interactions with students and others, inside and outside of a classroom setting. Here’s what I recommend looking for:

– What has the instructor done to address his or her own contributions to violence – structural as well as direct – in the world? (I address this here.)

– Does the instructor speak and act in a way that is kind, honest, and appropriate?

– Is there any suggestion of flirting or sexual innuendo in his or her interactions?

– Does he or she act with selflessness and generosity?

– Does he or she have a sense of humor? Is it one that you can work with?

– Does he or she demonstrate and maintain clear boundaries? Are they ones that make you feel comfortable?

– Is he or she present with you (making eye contact, listening, making time for you) when you ask questions?

– Does he or she delegate responsibilities to others well? I.e., day-to-day operations of a studio and subbing

– Can he or she relate the practice of yoga to the real, everyday lives of working people?

– Does he or she have any additional accreditation aside from being an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT)? i.e., social work, psychotherapy

Now, nobody is perfect. But many of us reside somewhere on the spectrum and inspire more confidence and trust than others – and the questions above are linked to the very philosophies and ethical principles your instructors will be teaching (i.e., the yamas and niyamas from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra).  It’s important to trust your own gut, t00, to help you find a trustworthy and skilled guide as you head into unfamiliar territory.

5. Beware the yoga bubble

The rise of Buddhism and Yoga in the West has two very interesting characteristics that set it apart from the systems as they exist in Asia – an emphasis on personal experience and an abundance of lay practitioners (as opposed to monastics). A thorough engagement with modern science and practice, as opposed to faith in meritorious acts or rituals, undergirds much of this.

These are good things for Westerners, and important to cultivate in our own personal practices and at large. And a necessary by-product of these is a re-investigation of the traditional teacher-student relationship in meditation and yoga, and what it means to have a deep personal practice.

Some yoga teachers maintain occupations as psychotherapists, businesspeople, teachers, etc in addition to teaching yoga.  Many don’t. And while a full-time commitment to yoga allows for deep practice and a lot of teaching experience, it can also give rise to what I call “the yoga bubble.”

The Yoga Bubble can result in unrealistic expectations on the part of the instructor regarding how much time and energy you can devote to your training – either because they’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a fulltime job that has nothing to do with yoga or they don’t really care.  Or it can mean that they’ve forgotten how to act professionally on their obligations to those who have engaged them in a business transaction, which is what a teacher training also is – such as keeping to schedules, respecting your time, and making sure you know exactly what will be expected of you before certification (e.g., completing extra teaching hours outside of training hours and written homework, participating in extra workshops (at extra cost), or passing a final exam).

Many full-time teachers are mindful and humble enough to remain cognisant of the demands of everyday lay life long after they’ve left the rat race behind.  Others forget real fast.

When yoga teacher trainings advertise themselves as opportunities to deepen one’s own practice (as well as learn how to teach), boy are they right. It’s an amazing opportunity to learn about oneself and the path, and maybe even get a taste of Enlightenment.  But any path has its perils and obstacles, and the above are the ones I think matter most – but remarkably, that have the worst signage.

Anyone interested in pursuing a yoga teacher training should go for it – even if you don’t necessarily want to teach afterward. The important part, and the reason why I’ve laid this blogpost out as I have, is to go in with your eyes wide open.

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#openpractice

Having just moved to Bloomington, IN about a month ago, I find myself lonely of sangha quite often. The meditation room (with altar) helps a great deal, but it’s certainly not the same as having a group of sweet friends who help you stay on your meditation game by meeting every week or swapping realizations, insights, and jokes.

It turns out that I’m not the only meditator feeling this way in the world, though – as evidenced by the many meditators on Twitter (Tweditators?) using the medium to create a virtual sangha.  Folks are posting musings, sharing, and quoting favorite passages.  But they’re also encouraging each other to sit, and sitting together through hashtags like:
#openpractice
#OMCru
#wannasit
#sitwithme

It’s so lovely to send a tweet out to the #OMCru at 6:30am letting folks know how long I plan to sit, and inviting people to join me.  And then finish up and see that a few folks from all around the world (!) have checked in alongside me.  After a lonely sit in which I’ve been nodding off or getting distracted, it warms me greatly to feel less alone in my practice.  Sweet.

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SUNDAY SCHOOL: Bowie

I’ve been wanting to start a series of posts with Sweetheart on music for a long time.  His knowledge of music, past and present, is really encyclopedic – and full of awe and appreciation.  He is the best of rock music history teachers, full of enthusiasm and heart.

So here is the first installment of a Sunday series to educate all us brash Millennials who think we know all about music because we listen to lots of indie bands (aka SUNDAY SCHOOL (w/ SWEETHEART)):

It’s hard to know where to start.  But one place we could start is with David Bowie.  Because the music that people are so infatuated with now, the stuff they’re going crazy about today, pretty directly comes from this guy’s brain.

From the arrangements to subject material to key signatures and gender politics, you can hear echoes of Bowie everywhere – it’s just a matter of listening.  One of the hallmarks of Bowie’s music is the big sound and dramatic effect he creates with just a few instruments.  It’s something you can hear in Spoon, for example, today.  Another hallmark is in his subject material, specifically his ambivalence about modernity and change, which you can really hear in the two selections here from 60s and 70s Bowie but also, say, in Radiohead and Hot Chip.

The most amazing thing is just how crazy Bowie was getting and how much of an impact he had in a short, short period of time.  He’s been making music for 40 years, but the 60s and 70s were a time of upheaval that he definitely played a huge role in fomenting.

The one thing we don’t want people to come away with after reading this post and listening to these two songs is to be like, “OK, that’s interesting.  I see what you’re saying.”  It’s almost an injustice to not have a stronger opinion about Bowie’s music, given how world-changing it was in its time, and the impact it continues to have today.  His records are so intense, if you really listen, that they can’t be consumed in a neutral fashion.  A milk toast reaction is not acceptable.

It was really hard to pick a track off of Ziggy Stardust that encapsulates the whole album and 60s Bowie.  We ended up choosing Five Years (as opposed to Ziggy Stardust, Lady Stardust or Starman), because it’s so incredibly evocative and tells such a story.

Five Years is about a Britain in transition.  It’s about race, sex politics, the cult of celebrity in a mournful, simple song.  We thought it was harpsichord in that shit, but it’s actually a 12-string guitar.  But that’s the sound – almost idyllic.  The thing about this song is that it’s about shocking violence, new technologies that people don’t know how to deal with.  It’s all this weird shit that Bowie (or Stardust) doesn’t even know how to deal with – even though he’s actually at the helm of that revolutionary change and the record’s all about modernity.  He’s young, untethered and adrift – quite unsure about where things are going.

Oh You Pretty Things, on the other hand, reflects an older Bowie.  It’s like a wake-up call – and literally begins “Wake up, you sleepy head”.  The world just changed overnight and Bowie’s singing this song to let everyone know. What’s changed is that, almost without anyone noticing, a nightmare of strange golden-faced children is walking about, driving their parents insane.  He tells this story while also warning an older generation that they’re about to be out-competed and pushed out by a younger generation, an almost Darwinian evolution of man (homo superior).  Bowie also speaks to the youthful naivete of this new generation of children because they don’t even know the threat they’re posing and the upheaval they’re bringing.

This song was also the soundtrack to watching the Northern Lights from an airplane window on a redeye flight from London to NYC when I was 16 (Little 900).  Everyone on the plane was asleep and I just kept rewinding the tape on my walkman to listen to this song over and over for as long as we were south of Iceland and could see the lights.  Epic.

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Little 900

is an affectionate nickname my sweetheart gave me.

I have toyed with pseudonyms, pen names, and nommes de guerre in the past, but like this one best.  It may not be as romantic as some of the ones I’ve come up with in the past – Yuzina and Yemin, for example, traditional Burmese names – but its balance of diminutiveness and strength in numbers feels right.  I am timid – though I aim to be humble – in presenting my ideas, dreams, and memories in writing. But I hope for a robust and engaged discussion as a result.

I am writing under a pen name for several reasons:
1) I am going to write about very personal things.  I’m ok with some people knowing these things about me, but not every netizen in the world being able to confront me with my own truths at every turn. Similarly, I’m comfortable frolicking in a bikini in front of some people – and even baring it all with one person in particular – but I’ll usually opt for a fashionable cover-up when visible by the general public.

2) I am wary of encouraging pridefulness and seeking praise. This is a big thing with me, as I’ll get into in a later post. I would like people to read my blog, and comment a lot. But I know that to do so, I’ll have to promote it a bit.  I’m trying to assuage my own concerns about praise-seeking by promoting Little 900, and not myself/my self. We’ll see how it goes.

3) I am committed to a cultivation of anatta, a Buddhist principle of many definitions and descriptions.  For some, it is easily encapsulated in ‘non-self’.  For others, anatta is more about an ineffable interconnectedness and interdependence; therefore, there is no separate and permanent self like a soul or God. Writing and spending time in front of screens are activities that make me feel isolated and individuated. Playing outside, soaking up the air and sun, and being present to what is around me makes me feel interconnected – humming in tune with the solid, accepting ground of being. Again, because Little 900 will hopefully be less explicitly tied to my sense of self (atta or Atnam), I aim to be able to write and live present to the world at the same time.

A warning to my readers (right now, just myself): I have started and abandoned blogs before, and this – despite the months of touch-and-go thought that have gone into it – may turn out no different.

You are duly warned.  And I thank you for reading anyway.

With metta, Little 900