When I realized that I wanted to teach yoga, it was partly because I needed a complete lifestyle change. I always loved the way I would feel after practicing, and I had some experience guiding friends and teens through informal yoga classes, done for fun. Yet I never felt that I could be a teacher, for I always revered the instructors of every class I took, and didn’t feel I could ever match their presence, awareness, intellect, and postural understanding. I remember sitting at my desk at the office, looking at the clock every day, hoping I could get through enough work to make time for a yoga class in the evening. More often than not, I couldn’t. I think that this is part of what propelled me to become a teacher, because I always felt myself wanting more yoga in my life.
I recall practicing asana before the training, almost religiously. I was so nervous to be around others who were going for their certification, I felt like I had to be in prime shape and be able to hold a headstand for twenty minutes. I envisioned arriving and everyone stretched out on their mats, contorting into twisted inversions and intricate arm balances. It was a great motivation, because it helped me bring my practice to a central part of my day and my life. But when I got to the training, I came across six other individuals who were at the same level as me, everyone completely free from judgment and eager to learn from one another. I still use some of the cues from the people I went through training with.
Over the course of the training, I could feel my body responding to the immense amount of asana practice we had been doing. Learning how to cue the postures helped me to more fully understand them. There were a lot of “A ha!” moments in realizing the relationship between my body and the postures. When I would go to a yoga class prior to the training, I didn’t have as much awareness of physical alignment and the flow of energy. I think part of it, too, is the first few months (or even years) that you are doing yoga, you are just trying to get your body into these positions that feel somewhat unnatural. Once your practice reaches a level where you have postural understanding, the asanas change completely. There is more opportunity to grow in asana practice by steadying the gaze, breathing deeper, and feeling the parts of your body that are getting stretched and strengthened. Small details like spreading my toes and pressing down with the lower half of my body helped me feel more grounded in my asana practice. The notion of trying to keep a sense of lifting in the upper half of my body encouraged me to bring awareness to my spine and core muscles, as well as open through my chest and shoulders. Learning about anatomy and seeing how my own body was affected by the postures, I began noticing where I would feel more open or sore after practice. I also began to understand why I didn’t like certain postures. Usually, it was because I needed to strengthen my core, admittedly. But, practice makes practice!
I started to become familiar with the balance of flexibility, strength, and patterns of holding. Something that became central to my asana practice, and eventually my teaching style, is the notion of always stretching in at least two directions. I began to understand things like oppositional force (pressing down through the base to lift up) and static contraction (holding difficult postures while focusing on breath flow). I strive to get my students to match their strength with flexibility, and vice versa. Many people can bend into a pretzel, but if they don’t have strength to back it up the risk of injury, like pulling a hamstring or a ligament, is far more likely. Likewise, those people who have strength from cardio or weight training exercises require stretch and flexibility to prevent their muscles from over-contracting and to prevent their joints from becoming tight to the point of inhibition.
Once I became a certified instructor, I again felt my practice change. I had a lot more confidence in my abilities and felt eager to take the challenges that a lot of teachers offered in the classes I would take. I also found myself being a bit more critical of instructors. This is not necessarily judgmental or unkind, just contemplative. I still peak out of the corner of my eye as they adjust students and modify physical or breathing cues that don’t feel right for my body. Sometimes I think to myself, “Shouldn’t we be inhaling here?” But these are all examples of how we can learn to let go, which is another central aim of taking a yoga class. In essence, it is important to shed all thoughts and preconceived notions, and to strive to remain present no matter what the teacher is doing, what the students around you are doing, or what the brain inside of you is doing. It is in this state that one can not only attain more benefits from the class, but also give the self an opportunity to learn in a way that is not anticipated or expected.
I still find it difficult to get out of my ‘teacher’s mind’ while practicing asana. Sometimes I can’t help but look at other students and want to tell them to relax their neck in uttanasana (standing forward bend), or track the knee to the outer edge of the foot in virabhadrasana (warrior) poses. I am also constantly absorbing the cues of the instructor, playing with them physically, and then adapting or adding them onto my repertoire of cues that I use while teaching. I have a notebook that I keep at home, filled with sequences and cues from other teachers that I enjoyed while taking their class. I think it is imperative as an instructor to always take yoga classes with a variety of teachers, for it is an ancient practice that belongs to no one, and all we can do is learn from one another, share it, and pass it along.
As a teacher, I think it is imperative to understand your students and where they are coming from. When I first began taking yoga, I always appreciated that the instructor would ask if there were any injuries in the class. I feel that this gives the initial impression that there is no need to exacerbate your body or overwork yourself, in fact just the opposite. In yoga class, one is meant to accept his or her limitations and incorporate them into the practice, rather than try to ignore them and go beyond one’s limit. When I teach, I often like to ask the students present what they would like to work on, postural or physical, and then tailor my class to the needs of the group. This way, everyone gets a little bit of what they are looking for, as well as some aspects they may not have been expecting. While I am often looking at my students’ posture and alignment, I also try to keep an eye on their faces as well. There’s nothing more telling than a grimace in a posture to hint that one is overexerting oneself. “Slow, steady breath. Relax your shoulders. Relax your face.” I am quite sure I recite these cues in my sleep.
At the start of class I always try to take at least two deep breaths with complete focus. From there, it is funny, sometimes I don’t even know what happens. It is almost as if I am a medium for this ancient practice to come through, the words come out of my mouth without thought, the sequences pop into my brain with little effort. I know that part of this is from practice, but I also feel an innate sense of belonging as I teach, as if it was something I have always been meant to do, and may have even done before. The flow of a class, from breath work (pranayama), to warm up, to standing postures, to inversions, to cool down, to relaxation, seems to uphold itself with only a few glances on my part at the clock. At the end of class I often try to sit in meditation, or put props away quietly and mindfully, as the students let themselves relax. I guide the relaxation by encouraging the students to remain in the present moment and refrain from planning the rest of their day. Again, this is advice I have to take myself when on the mat. Just like anyone, my mind wanders to thoughts, to-do lists, and usually, the planning of meals.
Now that I have been teaching for two years, I am constantly trying to better my practice and become stronger in my physical body. But I have to remember that it is not imperative for the teacher to do any posture perfectly, but rather cue it safely and accurately. I feel a little pressure from myself to do postures beautifully and flawlessly every time. I notice that I don’t always take my own advice on the mat and try to muscle into postures, sometimes. This has led to injury of my back and my knees, and lots of frustration for myself. I have had to look critically at why I do this in spite of the fact that I know it’s not what yoga is all about. What I often think I am striving for are those “A ha!” moments in more advanced postures like titibasana (firefly) or jumping back to a chaturaga (low plank) from bakasana (crane pose). When I practice ashtanga I try not to stare at the yogis falling back from standing into chakrasana (upward facing backbend), or become impatient with myself as I struggle in kurmasana (tortoise pose) or matsyasana (fish pose). I have to constantly remind myself, as I do my students, that this is a lifelong practice. There is no goal that must be achieved today, there is only the goal of a fit body and mind over time. Sometimes I like to picture an older me, grey and wrinkled, in a beautiful arm balance I have yet to attain, like galavasana. With this image in mind, it becomes easier for me to have patience with myself today, and continue my practice with measured, relaxed, consistent effort.
By Shanti Caiazzo