yoga teachers

Ashtanga forever

This article is just too important not to post in multiple locations. I am becoming more and more convinced that my ashtanga practice is essential as I grow older. It’s not just for youngsters, it’s not a fad practice. Check this out…

Where I found it, with nice pictures:

And the original source on FB:





Beginner’s mind is a crock

‘You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state...’ – Sharron Gannon

What my practice is not.

What my practice is not.

None of us, really, are beginners to yoga. We’ve just forgotten our true state and we’ve returned to yoga seeking answers to questions like: how do I stay fit and strong and resilient? How do I heal this physical and/or spiritual injury? How do I calm my mind and stay focused? Yoga can and will inevitably answer these questions if you stick with it for long enough.

Whenever I hear a yoga teacher say ‘beginner’s mind’, I wretch a little (and I’ve actually blogged a lot about it here). Returning to my mat now, with some significant, complex, interrelated injuries, and a healthy cynicism for the current climate in the yoga community, I cannot forget how I got here. My body and my mind are intensely aware of my past abuses. Their bitching and moaning is a huge distraction to an ego that thinks even one of my feet can still be placed behind my head. So, NO, I can’t get on my mat every day and pretend I’ve never been here before and everything is fresh and new and my mat is the idyllic field of buttercups and daisies it once was.

I have a new approach: I am not a beginner, I have been here before, and I am my own best teacher. Because recognizing you’re on the wheel is the first step to getting off. When I practice I am the practitioner and the teacher. I watch myself go into the asana, I observe the breath, I count the vinyasas, all as student and teacher. Would my teacher allow me to skip that vinyasa? Would my teacher approve of practicing that posture out of sequence? The teacher me sees injuries before they occur, because teacher me has been here before. Above all this teacher side of me is observant, supportive and compassionate, and far more forgiving than I am.

This method has worked so far, I’m not getting re-injured, and some of my injuries have started to heal. Most of all I don’t sweat the small stuff, because I have faith in my teacher and in the practice, it will eventually bring about healing, and strength of body and mind. You are not, nor were you ever a beginner, so get off that wheel and have faith in yourself!

1.2 yogasgchittavrttinirodhah (Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.)

1.3 tada drastuh svarupe ‘vasthanam (Then the seer abides in its true nature.)

If you’re interested in the deeper discussion of how to detach yourself from your karma, read Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras Sadhanapadah (Chapter 2) and check out these links:

What’s made me happy this week: I’m still rocking out to MC Yogi’s Mantras, Beats & Meditations! And thankful for the reinforcement offered by the track ‘Truth Seeker’. Pay attention to those you meet on your journey, you don’t have to experience everything personally to gain knowledge or make good decisions.

Mysore Myths, part 1

There have been a few issues recently that have made me very, very grumpy. Hrrumph! Blogging fingers ACTIVATE! Stay tuned because this is just the beginning.

Queen of the East Village recently wrote a fabulous ode to the humble Mysore-style teacher here. I’m thankful for this blog post because sometimes I would love to remind travelling yogis everywhere of who it is who stays home and keeps the home fires burning (shala space/practitioner base) while we wait for your return.

More on that later. But first…

“Mysore-style is not for beginners.”

At Ekam, Mysore-style is for beginners, and I have gotten rid of any and all ‘beginner’ labelled classes. I’ve stopped targeting classes to those who brand themselves ‘beginner’ when really they are just uncomfortable or inconvenienced with being outed in a yoga class as either inflexible, weak, unbalanced, or all three at the same time. I also consider it a form of molly-coddling and generally patronizing to the practitioner. One thing Mysore-style classes clearly demonstrate (if I could get people to come) is that we’re all beginners. But you can’t be a ‘beginner’ until you take that first step and get on your mat!

Lately, in this New Year’s Resolution/Goal setting season, I’ve received emails asking if I do privates, or if I run beginners classes, workshops, boot camps, etc. I DON’T because:

  1. I don’t like the intention/expectation behind ‘private’ classes; you/your practice is not so special that you need me to personally watch you do it. I’ve run so many ‘private’ Mysore-style classes and I can assure you, it’s uncomfortable for both teacher and practitioner. An ashtanga practice is a self-practice, not a one-man/woman show.
  2. Short workshops/weekends/camps are simply a short spurt of activity usually followed by a lengthy down time wherein the student searches for their next yoga fix. One leaves these sessions thinking they’ve ‘learned’ something, but if they don’t have the self-discipline of a daily practice there’s nowhere to invest what they’ve ‘learned’.

Both of these situations ignore the fact that ashtanga vinyasa is a daily, personal practice. And the only thing that reinforces a daily practice is a daily practice. So my response to inquiries about private classes or beginner workshops is to come to Mysore-style classes! Especially for those with no experience. Mysore is an effective combination of both a private session and a workshop. The teacher gets to work with practitioners personally, and the practitioner receives benefits from other practitioner’s experiences, as well as reinforcement of the practice in a group setting. This traditional method is hundreds of years old and it wouldn’t be around today unless it really worked. In the past few years of maintaining a Mysore-style shala, I have developed a profound respect for this method and the practice. It keeps me honest as a teacher and a practitioner. As long as you get on your mat, it will work for you, I promise!

After a few weeks in the Mysore-style self-practice setting, I encourag new practitioners to start attending weekly led classes; usually around the time they reach paschimottanasana. Led classes feel like a wonderful vacation after a week of hard work. But again, the daily practice has to be there for the method to work. For those who attend only led classes once or twice a week, ashtanga can feel a bit brutal and unrelenting. The beauty comes is in finding harmony between the two.

The inspiration for this blog came from here. Love the meme!

my first yoga teacher

Ekam Yoga ran its first yoga teacher training last year. On the whole it was successful; but I was left feeling like 200 hours just isn’t enough. Yoga is vast. 200 hours feels like the blink of an eye.

Lately I’ve been thinking: what makes a good yoga teacher? Then I think: what makes a great yoga teacher? And I remember my first yoga teacher.

Her name is Debbera Blackwell and she is still teaching yoga in the Svaroopa style in Boston, where I started taking classes with her 15 years ago. Back in those days yoga was yoga and if someone were to ask me what style I practiced, I wouldn’t have understood the question. (I’m still not exactly sure what Svaroopa yoga is.) Debbera had a direct teaching style, a grounded approach, and put my flexibility and gymnastics training to the test. It wasn’t awe I developed for her, it was respect. She grounded me in proper alignment, she knew just how to build a posture so that I was challenged throughout, and she kept me coming back for more. She created such a strong foundation in me that to this day I still remember her and what she taught me.

I am inspired when I watch DVDs of advanced practitioners of ashtanga vinyasa yoga (Kino MacGregor, Richard Freeman and David Swenson to name a few). I am indebted to those who have invested time and effort to writing about ashtanga (Lino Miele and Gregor Maehle have some particularly excellent contributions). And I am grateful and humbled to practice with inspiring teachers like Michael Gannon, Eddie Stern, and Sharath. To me they are all great teachers.

To be honest, I don’t aspire to be a great yoga teacher; I only aspire to being a good one. To me it is more important to be the teacher who created space and encouraged a practice to take root and grow rather than be a towering pinnacle of how far you may get (if you practice and study hard enough for long enough). I don’t need to be the teacher who offers exclusive getaways, packed workshops, or sells lots of DVDs and books; but I’d love to be the one that points a student in the right direction and then gives them a shove down their own path. I have no desire to be the teacher that everyone’s dying to take a class with; I want to be a teacher that everyone remembers their first yoga class with. Remember? That first class where everything clicked and you said to yourself, ‘I like this, this is where I want to be, this is what I want to be doing.’

So to Debbera- thank you, you still inspire me! And to all the good yoga teachers out there who may not be in some exotic location or selling lots of DVDs, never doubt that you aren’t just as inspiring as those who are. It’s tough to be first, but it’s a lot more memorable.

so you want to practice intermediate series?

below is an article i wrote about 2 years ago when an occasional student insisted i teach them 2nd series. i intended it for the Ekam website but couldn’t figure out how to tone it down enough for general consumption. i’ve had my personal battles with learning intermediate series, especially without a qualified teacher. perhaps this was a way to vent my own frustration with learning 2nd series on my own- a process that is still ongoing after 3 years. i did do some research when i was writing the information below- this isn’t stuff i just made up because i think i’m a bad ass. i sympathize with those learning intermediate on their own, it’s a truly devilish sequence of postures and the risk of injury is greater than that in primary series. so if you want to learn intermediate series (from me) i’ll refer you here first. and i’ll be very honest that i’m still on my own journey though this sequence. i truly believe in the criteria outlined below, which is why i am currently not practicing 2nd series, but i do assist others (and believe me, i recognize the ethical issues of this).

‘primary series is for students, intermediate is for teachers, advanced is for demonstration.’ – Sri K Pattabhi Jois.

The intermediate, or ‘second series’ of ashtanga vinyasa yoga is a challenging set of asanas that work deeply into the body and the mind. This series of postures, known as ‘nadi shodhana’ or ‘channel cleansing’, requires the ‘yoga chikitsa’ (yoga therapy) learned in the primary series to create a grounded physical base for this more energetic sequence. The intermediate series is a much deeper practice than the primary series, while being complimentary to it. Just as primary series pulls and twists your physical body, the intermediate series pulls and twists your nervous system and the energy channels that run throughout the body- the nadis. And like the primary series, each posture in the sequence prepares you for the next.

For many students of ashtanga vinyasa, beginning to practice the intermediate series will be the first time the student has experienced the traditional method. Many people (like me) learned primary series all at once from a DVD, a book, at a gym, or at a yoga studio during a full primary series led class. So learning one posture at a time, slowly integrating it into your daily yoga practice, may be a new concept. Like the primary series, the intermediate series of postures can take years to learn- perhaps a whole lifetime.

Learning the intermediate series is rewarding, but takes a serious amount of physical, mental and emotional commitment. If you don’t have the strength and the stamina to complete the primary series and feel energized afterwards, you will not be able to advance in your second series practice. Second series postures are added, one at a time, to your primary series practice, testing your physical and mental endurance. To be truly ready to embark on this next level of your practice, you should be able to answer ‘Yes’ to the following statements:

  1. I have been practicing the primary series at least 4-5 times/week for at least a year. In addition, I am capable of sustaining a 4-6 day/week practice indefinitely.
  2. I know the correct vinyasas for entering and exiting all postures of the primary series.
  3. I can perform all jump backs and jump throughs between each posture all the time, every time, throughout the entire primary series.
  4. I am capable of binding myself in Marichyasana D and Supta Kurmasana. I am able, or nearly able, to stand up from Urdhva Dhanurasana and drop back into the posture unassisted or with very little assistance.
  5. I have the time for my daily practice to run up to two hours in length.
  6. I have attained yoga chikitsa (yoga therapy) and my life is in balance. I am content in my current yoga practice.

Also, review the first two limbs of Ashtanga, the yamas and the niyamas, and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Ahimsa (non-violence): Do I knowingly bring myself to the point of injury in my current yoga practice? Am I able to recognize an injury before it manifests and change to avoid it or ask for help?
  2. Satya (truthfulness): Am I honest with myself with regard to my capability within my practice?
  3. Asteya (non-stealing): Am I taking away time and effort needed in my primary series practice?
  4. Brahmacharya (going with God): Is this truly a good use of my energy? Do I have constancy in my practice, offering it as a prayer or meditation rather than just a physical effort?
  5. Aparigraha (non-grasping): Am I trying to acquire 2nd series rather than seeing it as a daily meditation and act of humility?
  6. Saucha (purity): Am I approaching this new level of my practice with purity, having uncluttered my primary series practice? Am I open to the benefits the practice will bring?
  7. Santosha (contentment): Am I content with my current practice, regardless of whether or not I ‘advance’ in 2nd series? Would I be happy practicing primary series for the rest of my life?
  8. Tapas (austerity): Do I have not just the desire, but the discipline to carry my practice further, despite what it may bring?
  9. Svadhyaya (self-study): Do I seek 2nd series as a way to know myself better? Regardless of what it uncovers?
  10. Isvara-Pranidhana (surrender to God): Can I surrender my practice to a greater power, open to what each day may bring, whether great advancement or serious setback?

Finally, students wanting to learn intermediate series postures will need to attend Mysore-style self-practice at Ekam Yoga for at least a month before any postures are added. This is so we can observe your current practice, work with you where necessary, and ensure an open, honest relationship between student and teacher moving forward. Traditionally, postures are given by the teacher, not asked for by the student- are you ready to surrender your practice and trust another to guide you? We as teachers are also slowly deepening our own practices with these postures and that resources regarding the intermediate series are currently thin on the ground in South Africa. We are doing the best we can, grounded in a respect for ourselves and our practice, and with awareness of our own strengths and limitations. We are all a part of the journey.

Goal Setting Part 3: the axis of TIME

some nice ideas about new year’s resolutions here. see, i’m not the only one thinking about the grand master plan for ME!

i blogged previously about creating measurable goals and about having an overall plan. now for some sad news- goals have expiry dates. time is a key element in any goal-setting process because it both keeps you on track and helps you see the bigger picture. time will never on your side, but you can use it as a great motivator. so when i’ve finished my little goal to-do list, and organized them into the different areas of my life, i then take a step back even further and imagine where i want to be in 5 years, and in 10 years. for an example i’ll have to go back a few years…

in 2007 i received my 200-hour yoga teacher training, which had been a little goal on my list for a year or so. in 2008 i taught at various studios in joburg and took my first trip to mysore. i loved yoga! at first i was happy just teaching, then i started getting big ideas- like why not open my own yoga studio? and maybe someday teach other aspiring yoga teachers? so i started building a road map to get there:

  1. register as an RYT-200 Yoga Alliance, USA (completed july 2008)
  2. create Ekam Yoga (completed march 2010)
  3. teach 1000 hours of yoga and register as an experienced registered yoga teacher (E-RYT) (completed january 2011)
  4. draw up a fantastic curriculum and submit it to Yoga Alliance, USA for review and approval (completed november 2011, approval expected early 2012)
  5. set a date (july 2012) and let the world know!

none of this happened over night, and if you looked at my goal list over the last 5 years you would only see little goals:

  1. practice yoga 5 times/week (2007-current)
  2. teach a yoga class 3x/week (2008-2009)
  3. spend a month in mysore (2008, 2009)
  4. save $10,000 annually (2007-2009)
  5. create ekam yoga (2009-2010) (ok that was a big goal)
  6. triple student attendance at the studio (2010)

each of these were SMART goals when i originally wrote them down, some more than 5 years ago. over time they accumulated, getting me to the present where i can make really cool decisions about where my passion for yoga will take me, from anchoring and growing the only mysore-style ashtanga program in joburg, to running the best yoga teacher training program, to organising international yoga retreats, to maybe becoming a travelling yoga teacher some day! just by taking lots of little baby steps over time.

remember, yearly goals are about the little things, breaking bad habits, creating good habits. but why are you trying to affect these seemingly small bits of change in your life? this is where having a 5 year and 10 year sketch of where you want to be comes in handy. because you’re building the person right now that’s going to be able to handle those big dreams you have for yourself in the not too distant future.

now i’m going to take my experience with yoga and apply it to a new area of my life, parkour, and ask myself- where do i want to be 5 years from now? i’m a realist so i’ve given parkour an expiry date: i’m going to practice parkour for 5 years or until i break something; that’s my overarching goal. 5 years because i’ll be 45 and more breakable every year, but also because 5 years is where i’d expect to see a bit of mastery and would be better able to make judgements about my future in parkour. i also need to give myself enough time to see if i’m any good at it. i wasn’t any good at yoga after 2 years, and my strengths as a teacher of yoga have only just started to grow. and i’ve only come into greater awareness and a sense of contentment with my yoga practice at the 5-year mark. so… 

Parkour Goals

2012 (1 year goals)

  • keep up strength and conditioning training 4 days/week, jam at least once a week, twice if possible. focus on creating a strong body that’s up for the practice. modify conditioning quarterly, adapting to new abilities.
  • continue with practicing yoga 4 days/week. focus on creating a supple body that is resistant to injury, and a resilient and focused mind.
  • at year-end, create a 3 minute video of continuous parkour (hmmm…side goal: save money for a go-pro video camera and head mount- YES! gadget goal achieved!).
  • continue to encourage more women to participate actively in the pk/fr community.

2017 (5 year goals)

  • create a 5 minute continuous pk video.
  • have a habit of strength and conditioning training and base knowledge that will be maintained indefinitely as i age (general health and limits loss of bone mass as i approach menopause)
  • look into credentials required to develop future pk/fr practitioners (i.e. see if you’d make a good teacher)

here are some key points to notice in the above goals:

  1. i’m dealing with the present needs (strength and conditioning) to get me to future goals. not just one big leap to pk master!
  2. i’m tying some of my goals into other areas of my life (yoga, teaching, aging).
  3. i’m creating a goal of being part of a community, a network and a support group that will reinforce my goals (more on goal sharing later).
  4. i’m building in alternatives if i do happen to break something, essentially investigating what level i need to reach to branch out within the activity and apply other strengths (teaching) to something i’m passionate about (more about what to do when goals fails later).

where are you going? not just this year, but in the future? where do you want to be in 5 years, in 10 years, and beyond?