The Blog

The Taos of Being

Taos 2002 011For the past 40 years, the town of Taos, New Mexico hosts a Wool Festival for all things having to do with fiber arts. If you’re not into knitting, spinning, and weaving, you’ll surely enjoy the fresh mountain air, music, food, and dogs. Martha and I have been visiting Taos for many years and have attended several wool festivals. This wonderful event is always held the first weekend in October and the weather is always Chamber of Commerce perfect. This year was no exception. Vendor tents are set up around the perimeter of Kit Carson Park on the main street through Taos. Large old Cottonwood trees surround the park carpeted with thick green grass, making the perfect setting for the festival. In the middle of the park are food vendors – tents with tables and chairs for eating – as well as a tent for the many musicians playing throughout the weekend.

Before we experienced the festival itself, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast at a local institution a short walk from the park. Upon entering the park, Martha said, “left or right?” I chose left because of the sun – the morning air was still chilly in the shade. We moved from one tent to another, admiring all the beautiful artistry. About three quarters around the circle of tents, I decided I needed to sit down in one of the chairs under one of the large tents. Martha happily continued shopping without me.

Travelling to Taos, checking into our hotel, eating, and all things associated with these kinds of trips, we end up doing more than being. So much of our lives are spent doing – we rarely have any time to just be. I sat down to rest and enjoy the morning – I didn’t know I would slip into a state of being I have rarely experienced.

After settling for a few minutes, I had the awareness that everything became perfect. Time stopped. There was no past and no future. I had no place to be, nothing I needed to do, nothing I needed to know – I lacked nothing. I did not drift off into random thoughts – daydreaming the morning away. I saw everything and everyone without judgment. I remember thinking how beautiful it was the way in which everyone was getting along and cooperating – and if we could do that here at this festival, why couldn’t we do the same thing in the World? I was completely present, out of my ego and completely in my soul. This is the real yoga we long for, pure awareness looking back at itself.

This state of being went on for a while, until it was interrupted by a woman asking me if she and her friends could sit at my table. I said, “I wish you would!” My writing isn’t remarkable enough to fully describe this event. Reading this, you may not have any idea what I’m talking about, but I hope you do. One way I could describe it would be a lake that is without motion, clear to the bottom, reflective, and completely still.

In every moment of our lives, we are either finding ourselves or losing ourselves. We find ourselves in the being and we lose ourselves in the doing. We always feel we should be doing something, but it’s always better to be than to do. The teachings in the Tao Te Ching tell us “By not doing, everything is done.” For however long I was sitting there in the middle of the festival, everything was done, and I experienced something very profound by simply being.  

Taking the Seat of the Student

Spirit House YogaSpirit House Yoga began a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Certification program earlier this year. Our first of ten weekend modules last February started with, The Seat of the Teacher. We hear this phrase often in yoga, but what does it mean to take the seat of the student? On many different occasions, I’ve had the honor to witness some of my yoga teachers being students. Perhaps the most memorable was in Park City, Utah in 2009. Martha and I went to a training taught by John Friend, and on one of the mornings, my primary teacher, Baron Baptiste (who lives in Park City) showed up as a student. Baron placed his mat in the back of the room and became one of the many students in the room. At one point during our practice, John honored Baron by having him come to the front of the room to demonstrate a beautiful pose with John assisting, on my mat! It was something I’ll never forget.

Another example happened in Estes Park, Colorado in 2008. My teacher, Desiree Rumbaugh was teaching a backbend class and one of my other teachers, Todd Norian was in the back of the room writing down everything Desiree said and taught – two amazing examples of two great yoga teachers modeling to the rest of us how to take the seat of the student.

Martha and I just finished hosting the great Betsey Downing, combining her visit with our eighth teacher training module. The focus for this particular module was on sequencing. As a teacher, owner of the studio, and host for an important guest, I’m well aware of how every word and action is observed by our teacher trainees. Martha and I wear many hats during such an event and it’s important to model how to take the seat of the student. Betsey did an amazing job modeling how to take the seat of the teacher. Her 40 plus years as a yoga teacher set the standard for all in attendance to be inspired by and emulate.

The Sunday session of Betsey’s visit was primarily on sequencing and we opened up and promoted this session in particular to local yoga teachers. Many teachers were in attendance and they also modeled how to be a student. After my Monday night class, the day after the event, one of our trainees asked me about one of the teachers who showed up on Sunday morning, but she didn’t return for the afternoon session. She noticed this teacher being unengaged and not taking notes like everyone else. In every moment of our lives, we are presenting ourselves as a yes or a no. It’s just that simple. This one particular teacher presented herself as a no and everyone in the room knew it.

We can only hope that other yoga teachers coming to class can be a positive influence on the rest of the class – much like Baron and Todd. Too often this isn’t the case and these lessons will be learned the hard way. While some teachers like Baron and Todd set positive examples of being a yes in taking the seat of the student, other teachers set an example of being a no. These moments can serve as a reminder for us all as to whether we show up for our lives as a yes or a no. Which do you want to be?

On Creativity and Yoga

 

jewelrybench

Recently I’ve been exploring a new process, something I’ve wanted to learn for years.  Sliversmithing – working with fine metals and a torch to make all sorts of jewelry, chains, clasps and other components. It feels like the next logical step in my adventures as an artist. Just as I enjoy making recipes from scratch, I enjoy the process of making something useful from basic materials, rather than relying on ready made parts that usually cost more. My husband Ted gave me a strange look the other day when I was in the process of collecting the necessary tools, and I said to him, “You know I’m not doing this because I need more jewelry” (Even though I am a bit of a dragon, hoarding shiny precious things deep within my lair).

Learning something new is a joy for me – a new skill or technique lights my imagination and opens up pathways for new possibilities. I enjoy the challenge of not being able to do something well and having to figure out how to make it work, how to perfect a basic skill and then add onto it. It’s good for my brain and motor skills, using new kinds of tools and not being completely sure about what I am doing, but curious enough to dive in with an open mind.

My first silversmithing class was learning how to solder two ends of wire together and make a linked bracelet. My teacher, Sheridan Conrad (owner of A Jewelers Art in the Paseo), gave excellent detailed instruction on all the aspects – annealing the silver wire, wrapping it around a dowel and sawing through the coiled wire to make the links. Under her trained eye, I bravely wielded a super sharp jeweler’s saw, a fiery torch and molten solder, creating a lovely silver link bracelet that I wear almost daily. I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when I look at it, knowing that I made it, step-by-step – how I love process!

This past weekend Ted cleared a space for me on our old, cluttered plywood workbench in our garage, and I set up my jewelry work area. I set out my tools – my new torch, soldering equipment, wire, all in an orderly arrangement and set to work making jump rings. Then came the soldering, which was an exercise in frustration as I burned through several silver links, ending up with a blackened mess. How, I asked myself, was it so easy to do this with my teacher standing nearby, and why can’t I replicate the ease of soldering links by myself?

I am always looking for metaphor, and I realized how much I appreciate learning from someone with great expertise and mastery of an art or skill. As a yoga teacher, I hear about people who do yoga at home with a video, or students ask me to recommend videos, to which I cannot do in good conscience.  There is no replacement for the skilled eye of a teacher to keep you safe, or to show you a little trick to make something easier, or to save you untold hours of struggle with a simple demonstration. This is true both in yoga and in silversmithing. Both require a great deal of practice, patience, and the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher.

When I pay for a silversmithing class, I know that I am not just paying for the materials. When I make a commitment to taking a class, whether the subject is yoga or something else, I am paying for the teachers’ years of experience, education and personal understanding of the required skills. Breaking down a complex sequence and making it simple for a beginner is not as easy as it might seem, and I want the teacher to be by my side, observing, instructing, and offering helpful advice – not off on her own, making something that is years away from my level of understanding and ability.

Good teaching, of any kind, is a practice in and of itself. The longer I teach, the more gratitude I feel for every teacher who has sparked the light of understanding and awareness within me, and there have been many along the way. Their craft has served me as a source of inspiration and emulation – just today I remembered two teachers who I have been meaning to thank, and it has been 30 years since I have studied with them. Their teaching still echoes and resonates in my heart. Learning a new skill is humbling, just like yoga. I’ll keep practicing, enjoying the learning and unfolding of the process, and hopefully, create something beautiful along the way.

Is Teaching Yoga Your Dharma?

004The word dharma is often translated as truth, duty and purpose. We all have a purpose in life and it’s our duty to figure out what our purpose is. In Oklahoma City where I live, yoga has exploded over the past four years. We seem to have yoga studio on top of yoga studio, which means we have also had an explosion of people teaching yoga. The studio my wife and I own offers a teacher training program. One of the questions we ask on our application is why do you want to teach yoga? People discover yoga, fall in love with the practice and often have a desire to share what they’ve discovered for themselves. There is nothing wrong with wanting to share what you yourself love, but does that mean you should become a yoga teacher? Pursuing our desires often keeps us from discovering our dharma, our purpose in life. For example, I enjoy cooking and sharing good food with friends, but being a professional chef is not my dharma.

     If you’ve been around yoga long enough, you’ve most likely heard of or even read the Bhagavad Gita. The answers to some of life’s most important questions can be found within this text, including who should teach yoga and who should not. One of my favorite quotes is by Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” This one sentence summarizes the entire Bhagavad Gita, the greatest book on yoga, written in 500 – 200 BCE. Emerson first read the Bhagavad Gita in 1843, writing, “It was as if an empire spoke to us—nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of old intelligence.”

     “To be yourself” is a Pandu quality, the side of the war our hero Arjuna is on in the Bhagavad Gita. “Something else” reflects the opposing side of the conflict, the Kuru family. The “greatest accomplishment” is winning an internal conflict – I am this versus I should be that. Not only is the world constantly trying to define who we should be, we also impose such judgment on ourselves. Why is it so hard to be ourselves, completely open, honest and without pretense?

     “I am this – I should be that” comes from our lack of self-worth, desperately trying anything and everything to be accepted by our family, friends and society. The Bhagavad Gita is a how-to book on transformation—which can be understood as letting go of who we used to be—our Kuru-self. Renunciation is a main theme throughout the Bhagavad Gita. Renunciation means motiveless action. My favorite definition for renunciation is dropping the outside reflections for the reality within. The Kurus represent the outside reflections, our selfishness, desires and attachments. The Pandus are the reality within, our truth, purpose and dharma—one of the central concepts in the Bhagavad Gita.

     The Bhagavad Gita can be summarized in to three words – DharmaActions – Destiny. However, there is a huge difference between actions originating from desire or from dharma. One of the first major teachings in the Bhagavad Gita comes in Chapter 2, Verse 47: Never think about personal gain or impressing others. Perform all your actions without being attached to the outcome, whether of success or failure. Verse 49: An ordinary action performed with desire is greatly inferior to an action coming from the guidance of wisdom (dharma). The question we have to ask ourselves, is whether or not our actions originate from our desires or from our dharma?

     The Kurus represent desire and the Pandus represent dharma. The primary message of the Bhagavad Gita is to align our actions on the side of dharma. Actions performed with desire are often a means of projecting, enhancing or conforming to a false image. By aligning our actions with our dharma, our actions are performed for their own sake—not trying to appear greater than we actually are. In Chapter 2, Verse 50, Krishna tells us that yoga is the art of proper action. When I stated earlier that renunciation means motiveless action, this is to what I was referring—actions originating from dharma, not desire.

     Joseph Campbell said, “We must let go of the life we have planned so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.” This one sentence is yet another way of approaching the Bhagavad Gita. Within this one sentence, we have the teaching of renunciation – we must let go. We also have the teaching of desire versus dharmathe life we have planned versus the life that is waiting for us – our destiny.

     Another important teaching from the Bhagavad Gita concerns maya, the power of illusion that veils one’s true nature – I am. This is the source of our low self-worth, making us feel unworthy, inadequate, unappreciated, unwanted, unheard, unloved and undervalued. This illusion of a lack of self-worth is so powerful—we believe it to be true. When we try to make ourselves appear greater than we actually are, it’s because of our own self-worth issues. We don’t think we’re enough as we are. We don’t need anyone or anything outside ourselves to validate our existence. What we’ve been seeking our entire lives is simply to be who we are.

     Yoga studios and teachers come and go. No one opens a yoga studio thinking they will fail and I doubt many people start teaching yoga thinking they would not be very good instructors. People are successful when they perform without any personal desires (motiveless action). The underlying desire is to feel worthy, appreciated, wanted, heard, seen, loved and valued. Looking outside ourselves for validation, trying to make ourselves look better than someone else, pretending to be someone we are not, lying and trying to prove ourselves is all connected to a lack of self-worth.

     Your desires are not your dharma. If you teach yoga to somehow make yourself look better than others, you are a Kuru, and Kurus shouldn’t teach yoga. This is the metaphorical war represented in the Bhagavad Gita: learning to be yourself, without pretense—the greatest accomplishment.

 

Ted Cox is the author of Warrior Self – Unlocking the Promise of the Bhagavad Gita.
Ted is also the owner of Spirit House Yoga in Oklahoma City. www.spirithouseyoga.com
Follow Ted on twitter @warriorself

Process vs. Product

 

My yoga practice has changed over the years, and as I think back, I notice that there is a common thread, or sutra, that has connected me to my practice all along. It goes back decades, to my first discovery of my love for music at around age 12, and then beginning the process of making music; practice. Learning something new requires desire, curiosity, determination, enthusiasm and patience.  My background in music taught me a lot about all of these qualities. The instrument that chose me was the French Horn, a beautiful sounding contraption of a thing, which, in the right hands, can be sublime. I studied seriously through high school, college, graduate school and beyond, and won my first professional audition 4 years after graduation- this was a 15 year process. Even after years as a professional, I don’t feel that I ever mastered my instrument, despite my many professional successes. I love this story about the famous cellist, Pablo Casals;

When Casals (then age 93) was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, he replied, “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.”

The parallels between music and yoga are so similar that even after 15 plus years of yoga practice, I have yet to master anything on my yoga mat; but that is inconsequential. In yoga there is nothing to achieve; there is only practice. Earlier I used the word sutra, which literally means thread and is the root word for suture. In Patanjali’s definitive text on Yoga, the “Yoga Sutras” we learn all about the practice of Yoga. In fact, the whole second chapter, titled Sadhana Padha, is about how to practice yoga- Sadhana is the Sanskrit word for practice. Interestingly, the physical practice is only mentioned twice in the entire book.  The first set of verses that reflect my thoughts on practice are 1.13-14;

Practice is basically the correct effort required to move toward, reach, and maintain the state of Yoga.

It is only when the correct practice is followed for a long time, without interruptions and with a quality of positive attitude and eagerness, that it can succeed.

So yoga is a state of being that we are working toward by way of practice. I’ve been observing a trend lately, in that yoga seems to be more and more focused on the attainment of advanced poses, rather than on the merits of steady, dedicated practice. Our culture seems to be oriented toward acquiring things, getting it now and achieving immediate results; “getting” that challenging pose and then showing it off via social media. The process, the most potent part of our practice, seems to be getting lost.  In the past when I pushed myself into more challenging postures, I didn’t feel any of the things we are trying to accomplish in yoga– authenticity, inner peace, our true nature, awareness, etc.- I just felt my body differently and often ended up  tweaking a muscle or injuring myself, which actually made my practice more challenging in the long run. In the process my mind would contribute plenty of negative feedback about my lack of ability or self-worth as a yogi, which was totally un-productive and un-yogic.  So the question begs to be asked, what is there to be gained from doing advanced postures?

The longer I teach, the more interested I’ve become in how things work and how we get there, rather than on the attainment of anything. The practice and process have become so much more interesting to me than the product, the achievement of any advanced Asana. How do you refine the actions to the point where you are connected to every aspect of a pose, in tune with not only your muscles, but your mind, intelligence and even your attitude?  This requires years of practice and self-study – there are no shortcuts. Again, when you approach yoga from that standpoint, there is nothing to achieve; there is only practice.

There is much more to be gleaned from the sutras regarding this topic, in verse 1.15;

At the highest level there is an absence of any cravings, either for the fulfillment of the senses or for extraordinary experiences.

This is speaking to gratification of the senses as well as the ego- understanding and knowing the bigger reason behind our actions is the key.  Why are you doing it and of what benefit is it to your practice? Verse 2.26 talks about applying discriminative awareness, Viveka, to our practice to create more clarity. 

Viveka aviplava hanopayah; The ceaseless flow of discriminative knowledge in thought, word and action destroys ignorance.

This is one of my favorite verses, and viveka is one of my favorite words. I use the word discernment here to describe discriminative knowledge, being able to see what is below the surface of things and to really understand the subtle actions that are at play; physically as well as mentally. The next verse states that the attainment of clarity is a gradual process- it takes time- and practice.

As a teacher, I have my reasons for what may be perceived as holding my students back. There is an order to things on the yoga mat, a progression of understanding and awareness that must occur beforehand- it is not simply about strength or flexibility, or “getting” into the big, advanced postures.  There is a level of self-discipline and studentship that needs to be developed and well established in the first few years of practice, and I don’t actually see that happening much these days.  I personally feel that there is no point in teaching more advanced poses when students have not mastered a basic understanding and ability to engage specific actions on a consistent basis (see sutra 1.14). Don’t get me wrong here, I do enjoy challenging my students and taking them toward a deeper experience; it’s that the deeper experience is not as meaningful as the work it takes to get there, and is what moves our practice forward. The process itself is what teaches us how to apply ourselves in our subsequent practices as well as outside of the practice.

So is it yoga practice or yoga product? What is it that we are aiming for when we go to a class?  If the class is not challenging enough, then how do you define challenge? For me, challenge is not the extreme arm balance. Challenge is meeting myself as I am in any given moment by willingly placing myself in an alignment that squeezes me physically, while staying connected to my breath and simply being there. That can be as plain as just standing still, or lying in Shavasana. Practice is what you make it, and each practice should be a learning experience that takes you deeper towards yourself. That, to me, is what the process is all about, and I am content with never being finished. I am always a work in progress, because in yoga there is nothing to achieve; there is only practice.

 

When the Question Becomes the Answer

We begin a new chapter at our studio on February 7th, as we step into our Yoga Teacher Training program. This idea has always seemed too daunting an undertaking to me.  I have told myself many times over that there are other teachers who would do a much better job than I ever could.  I say this mostly because, in all honesty, I regularly struggle with my practice of teaching yoga. There are days when my teaching feels flat and uninspired; when I feel that I have nothing to offer.  My words don’t land with my students and I feel as though I am speaking some long dead language that is falling on deaf ears. The idea of inspiring others to walk this path seems ludicrous, and the mean little voice inside me asks the question, “Who do you think you are, trying to teach people how to teach when you struggle and fall and fail?”

This however, is not bad question to ask.

For me, questioning is part of the practice and process of yoga- deeply internal, introspective work that takes us well beyond the physical practice. Yoga challenges us to question how we live and how we respond to ourselves and the world around us. This is an integral part of my practice and understanding of yoga.  As I remember this little bit of truth, I pause and realize that it is precisely because of my questioning and struggles in walking this path that I am innately qualified to guide others. Within the scope of my experience, I have felt all the low points, disappointments and failures, and have also experienced the positive results of serving and making a difference to many people over the years. So the question actually becomes “who am I not to teach other people to be teachers?”

In light of this new professional endeavor, I seem to be questioning a lot these days.  How do I approach teaching, and how can I effectively impart my knowledge and skills to others? One question that I am asking myself is to define yoga in a multitude of ways, in order to help my students understand that Asana is just the beginning of yoga- the tip of the iceberg.  This morning in bed I was thinking about this question, about how yoga asks us to look past the surface of things, to learn to be more discerning – not only with asana, but with our own lives and relationships, and how we affect the world around us. We all have self-doubt, but that same doubt can be a positive catalyst for our growth. Doubt leads us to question ourselves, our relationships, our lives, as well as our place in the world.

In looking deeper into my own self-doubt, I see its deep roots in my perfectionist tendencies and how they have at times manifest into harsh self-judgment, along with a strong streak of idealism, which colors my view of how I think the world should be, rather than how it actually is. These two tendencies have always been a contributing factor to feeling unworthy, imperfect and incomplete. That is the shadow side of my personality, yet my perfectionism and idealism have also served me in many positive ways as well, as a student, in my attention to detail and drive towards excellence.  We need both shadow and light to be whole, and Yoga is the practice of knowing that we are complete and whole, just as we are.

The questions that yoga has lead me to ask have evolved into a practice of deep self-love and self-acceptance, of learning to sit with how things are rather than how I think they should be, and knowing that the discomfort I feel is a big part of the process of coming home to myself.  Yoga is knowing and trusting that the process works; that I will be ok no matter what.  Yoga is looking past the surface of things – past the discomfort, beyond my imperfections and beyond the harsh reality of the world as it is: seeing who I truly am.

The process of questioning leads me to understand that the questions are my best teacher. The questions ensure that I am ready to take the next step and lead others toward their own truths as teachers.

The Yoga of Music, (or is it the music of yoga?)

By Ted Cox


     Most of you know that I’m a professional musician with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic.  I just finished my twenty-first season last month with the orchestra.  I began music lessons when I was nine years old in 1968.  I had a private teacher who came to our house once a week.  His name was John Costello and he seemed to be able to teach every instrument.  Mr. Costello was my teacher for two or three years and then I switched instruments and studied with Harold Strand, in the Phoenix Symphony, for five years.  When Mr. Strand retired from the Phoenix Symphony, I started studying at the same time with his replacement, Dave Pack, and he’s still in the Phoenix Symphony playing forty years later.

I had good teachers and I was a good student.  Because of those two things, I was able to attend one of the best music schools in the country, Indiana University.  There I studied with a living legend, Harvey Phillips.  One of Harvey’s many, many honors was he was the first wind instrumentalist inducted into the Classical Music Hall of Fame.  In a yoga lineage type metaphor, Harvey was the B.K.S. Iyengar and his teacher, William Bell, was the Krishnamacharya archetype.  I studied with arguably one of the best teachers of my instrument and went on to be his teaching assistant in Graduate School.

When you get a music degree, you have a required number of hours of study for your instrument, music theory, music history and then some general education requirements.  One of my yoga teachers, Christina Sell, says there are three types of yoga students.  The “athlete”, those only interested in the physical practice.  The “scientist/engineer”, those students interested in the details of alignment.  And finally, the “poet/mystic”, those students who love the history and philosophy of yoga.  It was important for me to have a strong balance of the three areas I mentioned for my music education.  All three are related to yoga.  When I was a very young musician, I just wanted to play.  That would be the “athlete” archetype.  As I got older, well into undergraduate school, I became more interested in music theory, our “scientist/engineer” archetype; finally, music history, our “poet/mystic” archetype.  A good student of yoga and especially a good teacher of yoga must have all three areas developed to a high level of understanding.

Playing in a professional symphony orchestra you have a conductor.  The conductor is a little like a yoga teacher.  Instead of using his eyes, he uses his ears to tell whether or not something in the music is out of “alignment”.  In one sense, my job as a musician in the orchestra is very basic.  I have to play in tune, play together with everyone else, make a good sound, play with good style, have incredible accuracy and good overall balance and blend.  All of which you could say is having good “alignment” with everyone in the orchestra.  Actually, it all has to be extremely precise.  The conductor oversees all of this from his vantage point of being in front of the orchestra.  All parts of the orchestra must work together just as all parts of the body must work together to create something beautiful.

I taught music for twenty-two years prior to teaching yoga and I’m now into my tenth year of teaching yoga.  Thirty-two years is a long time teaching.  My music background since 1968 (45 years) informs and influences how I teach yoga today.  Studying with a music teacher is always one on one.  Once upon a time, yoga was also taught one on one.  I don’t think I ever once went to a lesson and practiced in front of my teacher.  I prepared material for him all week to listen to and help me with at my lesson.  At Spirit House Yoga, none of our teachers teach from our mats.  We don’t practice with the students.  Instead of listening in music, we watch in yoga.

Because I studied music, I am very used to constructive criticism.  Sometimes that criticism has been rough.  I remember one specific occasion where I studied with a famous teacher who taught a semester while my main teacher, Harvey, was on sabbatical.  It was my first lesson with him and it was my junior year.  I was loaded for bear going in wanting to impress him and then one of the first things he said to me was, “hasn’t anyone taught you how to breathe?”  I know, it may not sound like much reading it, but trust me, I was ready to quit and do something else.  I was devastated.  I got over it by the next day and practiced my butt off that semester.  I was one of two people to get an A from him that semester.

My root yoga teacher is Baron Baptiste.  The very first time I worked with Baron he taught something philosophical that I very much related to.  He defined yoga as being the annihilation of the walls we build around our hearts.  He also taught a detail in alignment that I had not been doing, and over time caused me great pain in my elbows.  I was misaligning and my teacher at the time here in Oklahoma City didn’t teach the pose the way Baron does and it caused me to injure myself.  It took some time to clear, but it eventually did through what might seem like a small detail of alignment to some.  The first time I worked with another teacher of mine, John Friend, he also taught two poses specifically that I remember learning more about.  One of the poses was shoulder stand, which I was teaching prior to working with John, but after that training, I stopped teaching the pose for a long time until I learned much more about it.  I realized that I had the potential of injuring my students by not knowing precisely how to line the neck up before going into the pose.

Hatha Yoga is a method of yoga for taking care of the physical body.  It’s athletic.  Because it’s athletic, people have the possibility of getting injured.  The word “alignment” seems to have become a negative word in yoga, not only here in Oklahoma City, but everywhere else too.  Yes, there are basic understandings of alignment that students should know, such as where to place your feet and hands.  Beyond that, alignment is not exactly the correct word.  A more precise word is actions.  Shoulder blades on your back, sides of waist back, scooping your tailbone, lifting your toes, spreading your fingers, taking your head back, etc. are all actions.

Martha and I always teach the “why”.  We will always tell you why we want you to do a specific action.  For example, downward facing dog, a quintessential yoga pose.  The primary action of down dog is that of opening the shoulders.  Placing the shoulder blades on the back in that pose is not an easy thing to do.  You need someone watching you because most yoga students can’t tell whether or not they have their shoulder blades actually on their backs.  Awareness of the back body takes years to develop in yoga.  Some teachers want you to press your heals down to the ground.  We don’t.  Why?  Because it overstretches the Achilles tendon and flattens out the low back.  Some teachers have you drop your head in down dog.  We don’t.  Why?  Because it flattens out the curve in the neck and takes the shoulder blades off the back.  Where you place your hands is also important.  Too narrow also takes the shoulder blades off the back.  Misaligning in poses, both in the short term or long term can and probably will cause injury.  Proper alignment and action can and most likely will heal existing injuries and prevent you from injuring yourself in the long term.  Not only that, learning how to align and engage in every pose will make you very strong.  Have you ever tried down dog with your feet on one blanket and your hands on another?  If not, give it a try and you’ll see what I mean about engagement and strength.  Too many people “hang” in their shoulders.  You won’t be able to do that common, disengaged misalignment on the blankets.

I wouldn’t have made it very far in music if my teachers played along with me and never gave constructive criticism that helped me to improve.  If they were just playing their instruments along with me in lessons to “show off” how good they are or worse, how much better they are on their instrument than I was, what would I have learned?  I didn’t learn music that way, I never taught music that way; why would I teach yoga that way now?  When I started teaching music in Houston in 1982, I deliberately left my instrument in my truck so I would not be tempted to play during the students’ lessons.  I wanted to develop my verbal skills instead of relying on my instrument as a type of crutch due to the fact that I couldn’t verbalize what I was asking them to try.  I’ve been around great teaching not only as a musician but as a student of yoga as well.  That level of discernment in being able to recognize a great teacher in music also influenced who I chose to study with in yoga.

A lot of people get degrees in music and never end up with a job in music, especially a playing job.  The level of dedication, self-discipline and personal sacrifice that’s required to win a playing job in an orchestra is enormous.  All of that background and history has informed how Martha and I not only approach yoga, but how we teach yoga as well.  My tenure in the orchestra has been long.  To maintain the level of playing I’m required and expected to have demands a daily commitment to my instrument.  I am no less committed to studying yoga and teaching yoga; which is one of the reasons Spirit House Yoga is the longest operating studio in Oklahoma City; it’s our level of dedication to everyone who walks through our doors.  I won my first professional orchestra job in 1980; but had I sat back and not kept improving myself and my skills, I don’t think I would have lasted in my positions twenty-eight years and counting.  Thanks for reading my thoughts.  I hope you found how I connected music to yoga interesting.

Ted

Perspective

“You know I’ve heard about people like me

But I never made the connection

They walk one road to set them free

And find they’ve gone the wrong direction.

 

But there’s no need for turning back

’cause all roads lead to where I stand

And I believe I’ll walk them all

No matter what I may have planned”

                                                                               Don McClean “Crossroads”

 

 I write this at the end of a four day intensive for yoga teachers in Tucson, Arizona hosted and taught by Darren Rhodes and Christina Sell, both of whom  I admire and respect.  I came to the training feeling heavy and burnt out, and had doubts and questions about the direction that my yoga teaching was going.  The four days I spent with these two teachers yielded an unanticipated result that was not so much surprising as it was a felt understanding of something I already knew, but seemed to have forgotten.   The aspect of the training that helped me to uncover this forgotten truth was an exercise of directed self-inquiry.  Each morning we practiced 2 1/2 – 3 hours of yoga, which was challenging and a bit out of my comfort zone, and yet this was the necessary catalyst to bring up the deeper issues that needed to be seen and dealt with.  The first self-inquiry question was, “In what way is yoga the finest work that we can do?” This is when things began to shift as I began to contemplate.   This is what I wrote:

“To teach yoga is an honor- to serve the awakening of each student at his or her own pace is a powerful responsibility.  We hold each tender opening, each small victory with a joyful heart, and encourage and uplift students in the moments that are challenging.  Showing people that there is another way of being is a great way of serving. “

The second part of the question, however, is “What trouble does that work bring up?”

Again, I wrote: “To show up and be authentic, to be willing to be vulnerable to my students is one of the biggest challenges I face.  I feel that I am sometimes hiding behind a mask of knowledge, and occasionally there is a glimpse from behind the mask that lights up the room and connects immediately to all who are present.  But then there is the inevitable retreat back into my protective shell, the boundary that holds me back.”

I’m sharing this in an attempt to be vulnerable and transparent to my students, so please forgive any tones of self-indulgence here.   Just like each of you, I struggle with aspects of my life that I’d rather not face. I fight against the aspects of teaching that I don’t like, the repetitive nature of classes day in and day out, the pressure to “perform”,  trying to maintain a sense of compassion when working with  challenging students, inspirational dry spells and my own struggles with self-care.

But in the moment when I had to speak to the power of yoga as being the finest work I know, all the struggles suddenly became an integral and necessary part of the practice of teaching, no different than the physical struggles on my own mat.  Understanding and facing these struggles is an important part of the practice of yoga itself: it IS the practice.  While practicing yoga changes me, teaching yoga changes me more.  My teaching evolves and as a result, I evolve.  It is ever shifting work that asks more questions than I can ever find answers to, and the process itself is one of wonder, a softening to the fact that I am always going to have questions without answers, and am always in the process of evolving again and again, deeper into becoming more and more myself.

So while I have no answers to the questions that I brought with me, that is no longer important.  Now I have a whole new set of questions to ask and explore, with the understanding that the landscape of teaching changes with every step of the journey.  Just like traveling to an unknown country, your perspective shifts and new understanding arises, simply by stepping out of your comfort zone.  Teaching is an invitation to my students to travel this landscape with me, and hopefully also have a shift in perspective along the way.

 

Ross Rayburn to visit Spirit House Yoga!

High Res Headshot

     When Martha and I began Spirit House Yoga nine years ago, part of our vision for our studio was to offer workshops and bring in the very best guest teachers who represented our overall vision.  We’ve hosted around twenty events with eight different teachers, bringing popular teachers back and inviting new teachers to teach weekend workshops.  Such is the case now.  We just hosted Todd Norian, who has visited our studio the most and is very well received by our yoga community these past many years.  In just a few weeks, we host a new teacher, Ross Rayburn.  The dates for Ross’s visit are June 14 – 16.  Although these dates are a little soon after Todd, we have to book teachers when they’re available.

     Martha and I don’t “blindly” invite people to teach at our studio that we don’t know or have worked with personally.  Martha and I travelled down to Dallas a year ago this month to meet and work with Ross.  I had attended a lecture Ross gave in Estes Park, Colorado a couple of years ago and was very impressed by his knowledge and presentation.  Martha and I jumped at the chance to work with him in Dallas and we are both extremely excited to have him find time in his schedule to come teach in Oklahoma City.

     I realize it sounds like I’m trying to hype our event and to some degree I admit that I am.  However, you do not want to miss this opportunity.  We don’t offer too many workshops during the span of a year so it may be a while before we’re able to have Ross come back.  2014 is booked and we’re beginning to book 2015.  Martha and I are extremely discriminating on who we invite to teach at our studio.

     What Martha and I have observed is that people talk themselves out of coming to workshops, believing they won’t be good enough or whatever other excuse they can create to not step into something unfamiliar.  If you have doubts about coming, forget about it; Ross is the teacher you want to experience firsthand, especially if you’ve never attended a workshop event.  When I introduced myself to Ross, I felt like I had known him forever.  He’s that kind of rare individual you wish you had as a best friend. Personally, Ross may be one of the best teachers I have ever worked with; I find Ross to be extremely grounded, open and genuine.  This workshop will be a huge learning opportunity for everyone in Oklahoma City.

     I trust I’ve made my point so I’ll close.  There’s not too much I get excited about, but I’m really looking forward to Ross’s visit.  I fully expect it to sell out, so don’t let this opportunity pass you by.  We’ll have the registration for Ross open as soon as possible. We’ll send a newsletter out when we get more information.  Don’t talk yourself out of this opportunity!

Ted

I Am In This To Serve

Yoga Teacher MemeI love this meme. It illustrates so well the different perceptions of what we think a yoga teacher actually does. What is it that I think I do and why do I do it? My number one intention as a teacher is to be of service to others, which can manifest in many ways. There is a dimensionality to this work that is subtle, and most students are never aware of what has lead a teacher to each moment in class, or what the idea of teaching as service means. Things look very different when viewed through the lens of the teachers eye. Yoga is as much about changing your perspective of yourself and the world, as it is about moving your body through a series of postures with breath. Part of a teachers service is to help students shift: physically, perceptively, intuitively and perhaps even spiritually, but it must come from the student.

When I am about to start a yoga class the first thing I do is assess my students for injuries, ability and energy. I do this in order to serve as fully as possible, and this information drives the posture flow for everyone in class. This can be a challenging. A few weeks ago I taught a class of students with the following issues:

  • 6 month post-op shoulder surgery
  • 1 year post-op ankle surgery
  • Two failed carpal tunnel surgeries on both wrists
  • 1 year post traumatic head injury
  • In addition to 2 new students, a mom and her 10 year old daughter and several of my regular students

This was an all levels class. So based on who my audience was, I had to create a practice that would serve everyone, which was no easy feat. It takes a willingness to be creative, to be sensitive to the needs of each student, the ability to think on your feet, and to make everyone feel comfortable. To the students who came expecting a wild evening of arm balances, I apologize, but in that class it would not be of service to take people into postures that were not accessible due to their limitations. The teacher must take into consideration everyone’s abilities and serve as fully as possible from there.

There is also the unseen service of holding space for students who are in the midst of personal crisis and being willing to stay after class to listen and support. Service is not limited to the yoga studio: we share in our students grief and trauma as well as in their joy and celebration. It is not unusual for the phone to ring late at night with a student on the other end looking for help, guidance or consolation. We are always there, willing to help when we can, or to simply listen, as needed. This is in appreciation of all the teachers who have supported and held space for me during difficult times, paying it forward.

I am in this to serve. It is also how I make my living. It is not an easy profession, nor is it lucrative, but I do take it seriously and am committed, as I know the value and power of this practice. Ultimately your experience in class depends on what you bring to the practice and your willingness to shift your own perspective. It is the teachers responsibility to serve that in each student. This is what I think I do.