How to Learn the Yoga Sutras

In my early years as a Western born and bred yoga teacher, I felt somewhat intimidated by what I viewed as the mystical, unfamiliar, Indian philosophy element of yoga. I sincerely wanted to understand the teachings and so I read a multitude of books, sat through lectures, and pursued the spiritual view of yoga with best intent. Still, my understanding was surface level at best. I believed Eastern philosophy was a “big subject” and therefore assumed someone more advanced than I was necessary to capture and explain the wisdom, and so I hired others who claimed to have a grasp on the concepts to teach the philosophy portion of yoga teacher training at my school. The problem was, while I hired several different individuals to cover this competency, there still wasn’t clarification for me or my students, and we were often left more confused than when we began. These philosophy teachers did indeed explain the meaning of certain concepts, such as the Yamas and Niyamas, but something was definitely missing. Memorization and definitions just failed to transfer the feeling of spirituality that I believed would be a part of deeper knowledge. I knew the teachings were meant to aid transformation and spiritual development, but the way they were being presented continued to portray the meaning in a theoretical way rather than something more sacred. Yes, the conversations about the Yamas and Niyamas were impactful, but I couldn’t help but be aware that our humanity kept us slipping backwards when we weren’t in that yoga frame of mind. The philosophy teachers I employed delivered a cohesive lecture on how a yogi should interact with the world, but I would occasionally look at their Facebook posts and couldn’t help but wonder if they knew this stuff so well, why they didn’t seem to “live” the philosophy in ways that honored one’s true potential as a yogi.  

I have always believed that sometimes, if you want something done right, you just may have to do it yourself. So, I determined that if I wanted this subject taught differently, I would have to be the philosophy teacher at Heartwood. The fact that I was still quite unsure of how all the information integrated was a moot point. I would figure it out, not just for my benefit, but for all the students yet to come. So, I plunged into yoga philosophy for a period of five years or so before I felt even the initial inklings of competency. I continued to teach what I knew, but I also knew I needed to know more.  I read books, listened to famous gurus, and took online classes with schools I admired and trusted. I gained an academic view from college level courses that combined historical & cultural explanations with intended meaning and tried to combine that with spiritual approaches that included meditating on the teachings and humbly listening to older, more experienced teachers with authentic ties to Indian culture in some odd hope that just being in a guru’s presence would bring insight because being Indian makes a teacher more authentic. (Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.)

All this seeking certainly gave me information to share. I knew the yoga sutras by number, could share the story and themes of the Bhagavad Gita, and had broken down the important concepts of the 13 primary Upanishads. But what forced me to deepen my understanding was less my studies and more a result of teaching yoga philosophy to others. To teach is to learn and each time I sat with a circle of students, their inquiries forced me to question the meaning and intention of each sutra. As I struggled to find the words to explain what was really a felt sense of meaning, I progressively deepened my relationship with a worldview that provided a new understanding of life, the mind, and our place in the world. Devotion to the teachings doesn’t come from blind faith or being enamored with the idea of Eastern studies. That is more infatuation with Indian concepts. I found real life application and questioning the yoga sutras, only to find their wisdom impossible to deny, set the stage for embracing them earnestly.

Still, I found it impossible to transfer a sense of the sacred to newer yoga students in the 40 hours allocated to philosophy and history in a yoga teacher training course. I did my best to set a great foundation for my students and many have proclaimed that the philosophy portions of YTT have changed their worlds. But I also was aware that my lectures, however well-intentioned and heartfelt, had only opened the doorway to each individual’s relationship with these teachings. The possibility that my mostly-American yoga students would walk through that yoga door and go on their own intimate journey with the teachings seemed remote. People are just too busy in modern society to wander into the forest for 14 years to meditate and contemplate the teachings as they did in ancient times. In the modern world, our short attention span and determination to have measurable outcomes to validate our investment of time and energy into anything has us wanting to quickly mark a subject as complete so we can move on to learning more stuff.

How could I possibly teach my yoga students, (all of whom I respect and believe to be well intentioned seekers) to do more than sit and listen to my lectures as one more necessary endeavor or “assignment” they had to do to become certified so they could lead others along the path? How could I awaken their humility, so they understood that what they believe they had grasped wasn’t true knowledge, but only intellectual understanding? Were my students worthy of teaching others if their relationship with the yoga sutras was little more than memorizing the meaning to package up and pass the information on, just as they planned to apply the information about alignment or sequencing to future classes?

I don’t mean to sound sarcastic, but I know what a barrier the practical mindset creates for new yogis. I commonly get asked, “How do I use this when I’m teaching?” as if all the information they receive in YTT is designed to be utilitarian in their career. I thought the same way when I was a newer yoga teacher, dreaming of a fulfilling career helping others as I aspired to share the amazing practice that I loved.

I was lucky. The dissatisfaction I felt over the hired teachers’ outcomes and a nagging need “to know” forced me on a personal journey of yoga philosophy far beyond what I ever had use for as a teacher or YTT trainer.  I became a believer in the deeper dimensions of yoga beyond the intellect, and the quest to know became a personal practice rather than part of my career skillset. As I came to rest in the teachings and develop a richer, profound heart knowing, I began wrestling with the problem of how to teach philosophy in a way that encourages students to channel their energies and tackle the obstacles standing in the way in respect to our shorter attention spans and the belief that we must have measurable utility for anything we bother to devote time to.

Encouraging students to sit with the teachings was of foremost importance. So, I began gifting my students with a beautiful journal from India, encouraging my students to meditate on the sutras not only through sitting in stillness, but through writing. I created dozens of journaling prompts which I hoped would instigate an internal conversation with self, allowing the writer to apply the concepts of the yoga sutras to their own life experience. I next added a broken bowl project ceremony to my training where students would hopefully reflect on their lives in the breaking of a bowl, and then create art from reconstructing the shattered pieces. This was followed by intention setting (which in my YTT is always a review of the yoga philosophy teachings as they can be applied to bringing us back to wholeness) so the broken bowl art project served as a symbolic opportunity to see the sutras’ value in the complex story of our own lives.

But the technique I have loved most of all has been a project I designed for my advanced 300 students: to begin a yoga sutra art journal. While very few of them finish the project to its full potential (my art journal took over three years to complete and I’ve recently begun revisiting each page and adding to it, so my journal will never be done) my students must do at least 10 pages to graduate, which invites them to spend a bit more time with at least ten of the individual sutras as a sampling of what it is to “sit with” a teaching and be absorbed with finding the meaning for a longer period. The art journal is a way of teaching process, not production.

Art journaling is the process of layering. You begin by putting gesso on a page to make paper into a canvas. When that dries, you cover the page with color or inks. That too must dry before you add additional paint with stencils, leaves or other textured items, such as mandalas or other designs. This layer must dry before you can add markers, text, Sanskrit, pictures, or anything else. I won’t get into the details and techniques of art journaling here but to say that to complete a page in your art journal requires revisiting the page 8 or more times if you are not just rushing through the process without thought. And each time the artist returns to a page, they read and consider the meaning of the sutra to contemplate how they might visually capture the essence on the page. This quiet work, striving to capture the meaning of the sutra as per your own interpretation, is a meditation of its own.  And with each page demanding continued thought and time, it invites the artist to sit with the teaching much longer than they might without the project to keep them engaged. Even the small joy that comes from watching the visual interpretation take shape becomes inspiration to keep with the page – and as result, the sutra.

Students do have to get past any issues they have with attachment – such as the avoidance syndrome that comes from not feeling good at art or wanting perfection on the page. Detaching from any desire to create beautiful art is important if they want to actually get lost in discovery and honoring the sutra. I myself am often intimidated by art and don’t feel gifted when it comes to painting or drawing, and yet, I’ve learned that creativity can be a tantric endeavor, and working on my sutra journal isn’t about art at all and is actually about sitting with the teachings and using creativity to see the sutra in a new way. My finished art journal sparks reflection and meditation and I use it as a teaching tool as well, often putting the colorful visual pages on an altar to create ambiance and spark curiosity for sutra discussions.

Creating a yoga sutra art journal is a big commitment, and not for everyone. Doing so takes time and materials and most of all, patience. But for those who respond to a more entertaining, engaging act of study, this project can be a powerful instrument for learning and developing a deep relationship with the wisdom of yoga. Just as mantras or mudras and other forms of tantra can be an instrument for “crossing over” to deeper dimensions of spirituality, so too can the yoga sutra art journal take you to a new level of understanding.

Ginny Shaddock is the owner and spiritual teacher at Heartwood Yoga Institute. She is an ERYT-500 Yoga Teacher and C-IAYT Yoga Therapist.

Our latest podcast!

012: How to Learn the Yoga Sutras Yoga Perspectives

This episode discusses different approaches to learning the yoga sutras, comparing the merits of approaching the teachings academically or intellectually to experiential knowledge and developing the heart knowing. What kind of teacher should we look for? Can we trust teachers? Must we have an Indian guru to learn the teachings correctly? What can we do to deepen our understanding and have a more authentic connection to our spiritual path?
  1. 012: How to Learn the Yoga Sutras
  2. 011 – Yoga is not diet culture
  3. 010 – Setting Boundaries
  4. 009 – Empowered Language for Yoga Teachers
  5. 008: Yoga Therapy- What it is and where it is going

5 Inclusive Trauma informed Language Swaps for Yoga Teachers

Denver Clark, CIAYT, ERYT-500

Photo by Yan Krukov on Pexels.com

Yoga is promoted as a space for healing and growth. But what happens if a student comes for a healing experience and leaves feeling even more uncomfortable or triggered? Of course, it is never the intention of a Yoga teacher to exclude others but often we aren’t completely aware of the simple things we can change about our delivery that make yoga even more influential for our students.  One very easy way to be more conscious and inclusive is though our language.

As a teacher, I feel that it’s most important to communicate with my students to learn what helps them feel more included in my class so I can continue to anticipate future student’s needs and make my classes even more therapeutic. Here are some common phrases you may hear in a yoga class that I’ve changed in my practice since becoming a teacher over 12 years ago:

#1 – “Come to a seated position…”

Remove Commanding Language – Instead, try invitational language

It’s common for Yoga teachers to speak like fitness instructors. For example, “Let’s come to seated…. I want you to raise your arms…..” This can make the class feel like a mandatory experience and place students in a position where they feel a lack of choice or agency over their practice. As we heal from trauma, it’s important that we find moments where we feel in control of our environment and the yoga class is a perfect space to give people choices back in their lives. Especially during a time when we may not have many choices elsewhere. Here are some examples of invitational language:

      “When you are ready, you can raise your arms..”

      “One option is to look upward…”

      “You might decide to sit back into chair pose here…”

      “You can bend your front knee on an exhale…”

#2 “The full expression of the pose is…”  

Instead of stepping up each option – Try giving 2-3 choices, popcorn style

David Emmerson, one of the leaders in Trauma informed Yoga work calls this the “ABC approach.” It’s easy for teachers to fall into the trap of making postures harder and harder: “This is the pose, but if you want more….. if you want the full expression….” This kind of language can make students feel like they are less capable in their practice or that they are “bad” at yoga. Similarly, teachers may present the “fullest expression” of a posture and then step back to “If you can’t do this, then grab a strap…” Giving students 2 or 3 options in a random order allows students to make a choice based on how they feel instead of what they think they should be able to do. Yoga is personal, not goal oriented and not every student should be doing the traditional version of every posture. This exploratory approach reminds students that yoga is about listening and responding to your body in the moment and that it’s ok to change your mind or your practice as your body changes. Try replacing the word “modification” with “version.” Here are some examples of how you might do this:

      “One option is to raise the front arm in warrior two, if this is uncomfortable today you could decide to place your hand on your hip and another choice might be to tuck that arm behind your back…”

#3 – “Don’t practice this if you’re….”

Instead of contraindication rules, try education. You don’t know the whole story

To protect our students, it can be easy to assume that the element we know about their health is the most important. But there is so much more to the story that we don’t know. If we speak in absolutes such as “always” and “never” because we read in a book or learned in a workshop that something is contraindicated, we may be unknowingly holding our students back from things they are fully capable of and ready for.

It’s a great idea to educate your students about the possible complications of a posture or pranayama practice, for example “menstruation may be a contraindication to inversions.” However, explaining the energetic and physical reasons why this might be a contraindication (“Apana vayu energy is trying to eliminate tissue during menstruation and we may find that inversions are uncomfortable or make us lightheaded during this time…”) gives my student the power to choose. An empowering practice is a healing one and after all, that is the point of Yoga – to learn how to listen to my own body and be responsible for my own health and happiness.

#4 – “That looks beautiful..”

Instead, make yoga about how things feel instead of how they look

When we comment on the way postures look, we are reinforcing a possibly harmful idea that yoga has to look a certain way to be correct – and many students may internalize this as “I have to look a certain way to be correct.” The gift of yoga asana (the physical practice) is interoception – the ability to be aware of my body and it’s internal changes. Focusing on how a posture feels allows my student to know that whatever state they are in is acceptable and there’s no goal on the outside. Because yoga happens on the inside. We can change this habit by removing phrases like “beautiful” or “looks nice” and replacing those with comments such as “feel the strength in your legs.” Or “notice how this posture makes you feel.” This also gives my student agency over their own body and reminds them of how capable they are and that they are in control of themselves at all times, which is tremendously healing when recovering from trauma.

#5 – “You’ll feel this in your…”

Instead of telling our students what to feel, try inviting them to “notice”

One of the most powerful words in trauma informed and inclusive yoga might be “notice.” When we tell our students where or what to feel, we run the risk of placing them in a situation where they feel less than if they don’t feel that sensation. We also direct them to believe that feeling that sensation is good, when it may not be for them. Inviting students to notice what they feel, wherever they feel it is another practice in interoception and helps them build awareness of the subtle changes in their bodies so that they can be aware in the future off the mat if something is amiss. It also allows them to have a unique experience rather than a curated one that may be unfit for their body or mind. Anatomically, not every person will ever feel a pose the same way but that doesn’t mean they aren’t receiving a benefit from the pose somewhere else. I will often say something like “you may feel a sensation in the backs of your legs, but if you don’t that’s okay too. Everyone carries tension in different areas. Just allow yourself to notice what you feel here…”

Most importantly – Ask your students for feedback.

Our students are our teachers. By asking them for open feedback we are allowing ourselves to become uncomfortable and on the other side of discomfort it always growth. Teachers are human and we make mistakes. It’s what we do once we are aware of those mistakes that matters most. I hope that as a community, we all continue to educate ourselves, to inquire, to acknowledge when we make a mistake and to learn from it. Then, we are truly practicing yoga in addition to sharing it with others. Happy Teaching!

Boundaries for Yoga Therapists – how to avoid healer’s burnout

Denver Clark – C-IAYT, LMT #91897

Many of us in the healing industries of Yoga and Massage are called to our work with the aim of helping others. We’ve felt the magic that yoga and holistic approaches bring to our health and healing and we decide that magic is so special that we’d like to share it with others. For many of us, it has always been a part of our nature to be “helpers,” and this leaves us spending extra energy, time and resources to make our work accessible to the world. After all, who doesn’t need yoga? But what happens when we start to feel the pinch of our work as “helpers,” and what if we start to feel drained, burnt out or even resentful?

I’ve suffered from all of these feelings, coupled with the guilt of desperately wanting to set boundaries without letting down all the people who rely on me for their healing. Here is what I have learned in the past 15 years as a yoga teacher, massage therapist and now yoga therapist..

  • Boundaries are individual.

So many forms of holistic medicine from Ayurveda to Chinese medicine and more tell us that each individual is born with a specific balance of elemental energies. In Ayurveda, we call this the 3 Doshas (Vata, Pitta, Kapha). Having done the work to acknowledge my own tendencies, I know that I am a very fiery person. Those with strong fire element are often built to handle tremendous amounts of stress, allowing us to keep pushing through even when others might stop. This has allowed me to place boundary lines on my time and energy that are fairly flexible. I have had many times in life where I feel perfectly comfortable giving out my cell phone number and receiving messages and email questions from my clients at all hours of the day and night. I can multitask very well, cooking dinner and answering an email on my phone at the same time.

But not everyone is built this way and that’s perfectly healthy and normal. Those with high Vata (air and ether) are highly creative and driven to help but may need a bit more personal space (get it?) between them and their students/clients. Kapha heavy individuals might need more structure to their workday to feel at ease in their work/life balance, with specific days and times set for office work and appointments.

  • Boundaries can change.

 I have recently entered a phase of life where I need more space to focus on my own health and my family and have changed the amount of hours and personal information I choose to share with my clients. I’ve had a myriad of personal and familial health issues and my priorities have shifted from work to quality family time and rest for my body and soul. At first as I began to slowly create new boundaries, I experienced pushback from a few clients. A few of them were downright upset that I wasn’t as readily available to them and was no longer willing to extend my days to accommodate their scheduling needs. I even lost a few clients who needed me to be more available than I was willing to be. I spent a day or two mourning these losses and finding an appropriate way to send my clients with love to a new referral, reminding them that I am available in this new capacity but encouraging them to find a different therapist if my options no longer suit their needs. Once I stuck to my new boundaries, I found that my current clients experienced no decrease in satisfaction and since I had a renewed sense of personal agency my work became even more influential. I became a better therapist.

  • Boundaries do not need an explanation.

The guilt I have felt when drawing a line on my personal time has caused me more times than I would like to overshare my story. When canceling my clients during my miscarriage or re-scheduling a few months later after my mother’s heart attack, I felt like I had to give all the details of my personal life in to “earn” my time away from work. When my work weeks began totaling 60 hours between 2 jobs, I felt the need to explain every time exactly why I had fewer appointments available – because my family needed me, and my own health was suffering.

None of these explanations were necessary, however. My time belongs to me, and I can plan how I spend it without the need to answer to anyone else – especially a client. It is still difficult for me to answer a request with a simple answer such as, “Unfortunately I am not available that day,” or “That is against my policy.” But I am finding that every time I keep to a professional answer, I feel more and more comfortable doing so the next time. In stopping my apologies and explanations, I have also begun to truly see my practice as a business which allows me to leave work activities for my scheduled work hours, giving my brain the space to disconnect when I go home instead of obsessing over my client’s concerns. I can still help facilitate healing without sacrificing my own mental health.

  • Your time is valuable.

It was difficult for me to understand just how much my time was worth in the beginning. Many people need yoga, massage and other holistic practices and there is often a perception that these should be free to everyone due to the desperate need for them. I started charging very little for my time and after a while I found I would resent spending time with clients when I could be with my family or doing things for my personal growth instead. I found the transition to balance for me was slow and gradual. At first, I went up in price $5 every year in January. I would again, apologize and explain why to clients and most of the time I would be pleasantly surprised when they would respond with “$5?! I would pay much more than that – you’re so worth it!”

After a few years, I was much more comfortable looking at other prices in my area and basing my appointments on the area average. Then, once my time became scarcer, I knew it was time to increase my price. If I ever resent spending time with a client instead of in a class for myself, that is a big sign that I need to re-consider my pricing again.

I’ve spent thousands of hours in trainings, CEUs and research to improve my practices as a yoga and massage therapist. The 15 years I have practiced have also brought me experience. This education and experience are valuable and it’s important to consider this when deciding what you will charge for your sessions.

Pricing my time appropriately has allowed me to give more freely when the situation calls for it. If a client is having a rough time and we’ve established a relationship where they have shown they truly value my work, I am more than happy to offer a discount if I think it may be needed. It feels great to be able to do this from a place of love and a desire to help and it is never expected since we’ve already established a fair price at the beginning of our time together. I have a certain number of time/sessions I am comfortable giving away for free/with a discount each season and I consider this before offering a price break or freebie to a client. If I have already reached that quota, I make a mental note (or written) to offer my gift to the client during the next season instead. This way I can still pay my bills and give the karmic offerings I want.

  • Create a handbook of policies & procedures

There are many events and circumstances you will not be able to anticipate until they happen. Weather it’s in my personal practice as a single massage therapist or in my business as a manager in a group if yoga therapists, when an uncomfortable or difficult situation presents itself, I make a note to “put it in the handbook.” This handbook is a list of how to handle situations such as non-payment, sexual inappropriateness, client grievances, client intoxication, refunds, last minute cancellations and more. The more professional I can be in my language when writing these policies and procedures the better.  Weather or not I ever choose to show this handbook of policies to a client, I am able to reference an ethical and professional set of steps to take if it ever presents itself again. I can place these policies on a page of my website for anyone to see to protect myself and my clients and I can confidently respond with “it is not in our policy” when individuals are asking for more than I am willing to give.

You can view policies of other practitioners in your area as a starting place and I would also suggest researching local and stare regulations on things such as refunds for services, gift card expirations and more. For example, Florida laws states: “ A gift certificate may not have an expiration date, expiration period, or any type of postsale charge or fee imposed on the gift certificate.”

  • Setting boundaries ultimately make you a better practitioner.

It takes time and many mistakes to come to a place of balance as a practitioner in the healing community, but I think it’s important to re-evaluate your personal needs and goals regularly to be sure that your practice is in alignment with these needs. Spending time and energy setting boundaries and keeping to them has refreshed my love for my work and will allow me to continue helping others for many more years to come. I am so much happier and more fulfilled in my work since beginning to explore what my boundaries need to be and I encourage you to do the same.

Thank you for wanting to help others. They need you at your best self.

You deserve to set boundaries.

With Love,

Denver

How yoga is teaching me to love myself – even on days when I don’t

Denver Clark – CIAYT, ERYT-500, LMT #89197

Yoga has so much more depth than most of us (even those who teach) can even begin to comprehend. In a world full of filters and impossible standards of beauty, hearing that self-love is as easy as “getting a pedicure and deciding to love yourself” can leave us feeling frustrated and depressed. So, I decided to share a little bit about how yoga has shaken me out of the trap of self-loathing and into a place of self-awareness and compassion. Some days I still struggle to reach even a moment of self-acceptance, let alone self-love. But the magic of Yoga has been the true catalyst for me.

I was raised in front of a mirror. My mother was a dance teacher at Steps on Broadway and traveled all over the country as a master jazz teacher. My stepfather was my ballet instructor. My mom opened a dance school when I was just a year old, and some of my earliest memories are of bouncing my walker into the mirrors of the studio while she taught. I used to spend hours making faces at myself as a child and was even caught lip syncing the songs from the musical “Miss Saigon” in the bathtub, while watching myself in the mirror when my parents listened to new music to use for their dance company concerts. I grew up with a love for music and performance and decided at a very early age, that I was content to become a starving artist in New York City if it meant I could be on Broadway and inspire others from the stage.

            I was born to be a naturally larger bodied person. I learned to channel my anxiety into hiding food and eating it excessively to help myself feel calmer. The problem was, I was never thin enough to be up front dancing or singing or acting. I didn’t “look right for the part” and this became my internal narrative – not just on stage but in every moment of life. I punished myself as a teenager by hiding in my room and excessively picking at my face – even covering it with scrubbing bubbles bathroom cleaner once in an attempt to wash away the things I didn’t like. I obsessively stared at myself in mirrors, pinching and pulling on my flesh and fantasizing about cutting off my extra girth with scissors. My mind had taken the corrections from my dance teachers, my own parents and twisted them into corrections for myself. My mind had heard “wrong for the part” as just “wrong.” I decided I was the problem, and I did not love myself.

            Even when I was admitted to a prestigious BFA program for Musical Theatre, I found ways to internalize this “not good enough” monologue and managed to sabotage my experience, eventually removing myself from the program and dropping out of college entirely. I made every choice in my life based on the idea that I deserved the bare minimum, from who I chose to date to the way I communicated with others to the activities I engaged in and the meals I ate.

            In my 20’s I found myself working in a fast-food drive-through and looking for a way to re-connect with my body after losing my college dance classes which led me into the upstairs room of a chiropractor’s office in Rural Georgia where I met – Yoga.

            My first experience in a yoga class was simple and to this day I’ll never be able to tell you if the teacher was a “good one” or not. What I can remember is that for the first time in my entire life, I was moving with my body in harmony. I was connected to my deepest self. I was completely at peace and there wasn’t a mirror in sight. I cried during savasana.

            This began my journey into Yoga. Starting with my 200-hour training and navigating the new yoga and dance studio I inherited during the program, I was frantically trying to learn enough to be worthy of my student’s trust. Born with “imposter syndrome,” my desire to know all the answers led me to my 300-hour certification and eventually to become both a massage and yoga therapist. Along the way I learned a myriad of helpful information about anatomy, physiology and how to be a compassionate listener and strong communicator. But the most important lessons came once I started practicing yoga experientially.

I learned about the energetic subtle body and the theory of how our thoughts and emotions manifest in physical pain. I started noticing that when I felt sad and unworthy, my body changed composition – literally padding itself to protect me from my negative thoughts and the outside world. I would experience physical pain in my joints and even gain weight just by thinking negatively about myself.  As a yoga therapist (and someone actively in therapy for body image and disordered eating) there is a proven connection of our physical body to our subtle body. We are what we think. So now, at 35 I am actively working to re-direct my negative thought patterns to compassionate ones. By showing myself love mentally and emotionally, I have begun to feel more worthy, and I treat myself better. I get out of bed to practice or meditate, and I spend the time nourishing my body and enjoying what I eat instead of punishing myself with food.

            My yoga journey has brought me to the alter of Ayurveda. This 3,000-year-old system of medicine coming from India introduced me to the study of the Doshas and how everything in the universe is made up of a combination of the 5 elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether). I’ve learned to accept that I was brought into this world with a lot of fire and instead of allowing this energy to consume me with anger and self-destructiveness, I’ve decided to treat it as my superpower. I’m actively trying to reshape my narrative as a “Type A, anxiety ridden, short, fused person” into “a passionate, transformative and hardworking induvial” and self-awareness helps me see the moments when I’m beginning to tip out of balance. The practices I’ve learned – mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, postures and eating in accordance with my energies – have shown me how to bring myself back when life throws me a curveball instead of taking to my bed for days on end or acting out of self-loathing, mistreating my body and binge eating. I find I recover from stress much more quickly now and can acknowledge my missteps and apologize when that fire comes out sideways instead of hiding behind self-defensiveness. This has completely changed my relationships and my parenting.

Philosophically, the Yoga Sutras have shown me that all of us have fears and aversions. We call these the Kleshas. That our monkey mind and our ego will constantly be grasping, and our job is to stay the course and keep doing the work of spiritual growth. To get back up even when we trip and fall into old habits.

The most important thing yoga has taught me is that healing is not linear and self-compassion is the end to suffering.

Do I remember this every day? Of course not! Honestly, the best way for me to live my yoga has been to teach it. Not on a yoga mat in a “yoga class” but by sharing with others the gems that I’ve discovered. I have these conversations with my daughter, with my husband, with my friends over lunch and I find I’m beginning to live my yoga. After all, it’s yoga “practice,” not yoga “perfect.

My friend and teacher Donna shared a beautiful quote in class just this morning from Brene Brown: “True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world. Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our self-acceptance.”

Self-awareness is the gift of yoga. This leads to self-acceptance and for me, is the doorway to the long and winding journey of self-love.

For further contemplation:

  • In subtle body studies, the concept of the 5 koshas teaches us that we have increasingly subtle layers of existence. Our physical layer sends messages to our energetic layer and creates changes in the physiology of our body. This creates a shift in our mental layer. Also, our thoughts change our physiology and nervous system in the energy body and create measured physical changes. We can in fact, make ourselves sick.
  • In Ayurveda we learn about the 3 doshas, Vata (air and ether), Pitta (fire and water) and Kapha (water and earth). All things in the universe are made up of a different combination of these elements. Therefore, to stay in balance, it’s important to recognize your constitution and apply the opposite energies in your food and activities to keep from falling into an excess of one element over the other.
  • The 5 Kleshas or “causes of suffering” are ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, and fear of death. All people fall victim to these sensations and yoga teaches us to ride the wave instead of allowing these feelings to rule our lives and our decisions.

Yoga is Not Diet Culture

Here we are again.

It’s January. The time when news feeds, commercials and billboards are all flooded with ways to improve ourselves. “New Year, New You” messages inundate the airwaves of our subconscious and most of these messages allude to the fact that the best way to improve our miserable lives is to make drastic changes to our bodies. Couple this with a 2-year COVID landscape and the messages of undoing our depression and isolation induced weight gain are even louder and more difficult to ignore.

It saddens me that even as a member of the yoga community, surrounded by individuals and corporations who are jumping on the body positivity bandwagon (and profiting from it) I’m still seeing messages about how to “eat Ayurvedically to lose weight” or how to “tone your arms and tighten your core with inversions.”

At Heartwood Yoga institute where I teach, we often refer to the philosophical concepts of yoga as “Big Yoga.” What we mean by this is that there is so much more to yoga than just postures. Luckily here in the west we seem to finally be catching up to this idea (albeit rather slowly). What does this mean exactly though? What exactly is the deeper meaning of yoga? And how to we utilize postures in a way that isn’t detrimental to our mental and physical health when all we can see on Instagram are thin, white, female bendy bodies upside down in crop tops?

I have found so many students arriving at yoga Teacher Training with a mistaken idea of yoga, not even aware that the physical practice is only 1/8th of what we consider Hatha yoga. Even less often do we start this journey with an understanding of the magnitude of impact that our subtle body energies have on our physical body. “The issues are in the tissues,” as they say. What I love about the health and wellness community is that more and more often I am hearing these ideas come directly from the mouths of doctors and therapists (mine included), giving Yoga Therapists like myself more credibility than we have ever had before.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to explore where yoga might fit in the western world of body-obsessed individuals and what yoga teachers could be “Selling” instead of new year’s body goals.

Promise – “Yoga promotes physical change or improvement”

Reality – Yoga promotes Self-awareness which brings about a decision to be our best self

Yoga Asana (or the physical practice) is one of 8 limbs of the practice of Hatha yoga. Many lineages believe that the only reason yoga practitioners ever practiced postures is to prepare the body to sit for extended periods of time in meditation. That Meditation itself is the actual, ultimate goal of yoga. If this is the case, then it doesn’t matter if we can balance in Tree pose and stick our toe up our nose. If we cannot be still and go inward in reflection, then we aren’t practicing “yoga” at all. We are simply exercising. We may as well go find a spin class instead. There is a time and a place for asana to be of importance and for many students, this is a way to begin channeling our energy to discipline and growth, but the answer to weather or not we are actually doing this is in our intention. If we can be completely honest with ourselves and notice when our ego is guiding our practice, we should never have a problem knowing if our asana practice is legitimate or not. How do we start to recognize our ego? Meditation! To truly be an advanced yoga practitioner, it is said we must be able to be still and listen inward. Openly, honestly, without fear. If our goals are driven by ego, by the desire to be better, look better or win against ourselves or others then we are missing the whole point of yoga.

Promise – “Yoga promotes weight loss or management”

Reality – Yoga regulates our nervous system and this keeps our bodies in their optimal state

In addition to the self-awareness that yoga gives us, the stress relief of yoga is what mostly leads to a healthier body. When we feel a sense of inner balance and peace in savasana or meditation, our bodies move out of the sympathetic nervous system stress response and into a parasympathetic nervous response where we lower blood sugar, stress hormones and improve digestion and organ functions. Heart health is improved and our bodies return to a natural homeostasis. This does often lead us back to whatever shape our bodies were naturally intended for and hopefully along the way we find acceptance of what that shape is as well. Surprisingly enough however, physical movements can have very little to do with this change.

In the modern world where our nervous system is inundated with noise and stimulation and stress  – the most healthy activity we can do for our bodies, hearts and immunity is to simply relax. In addition, the concept of non-attachment or Aparigraha teaches us to accept that life will not always be perfect and our job is to stay grounded and present even when things totally suck. This allows us to regulate our own nervous systems even when there is chaos, because we have practiced it time and time again on the mat in a controlled environment. Weather you’re working toward 108 sun salutations or laying on a bolster for 30 minutes, whatever activates that parasympathetic response in your body is helping you win at health and longevity. How do you know you got there? One benefit is improved circulation to your digestive system = stomach growling during savasana is a great thing!

Promise – “Cleanses are part of yoga”

Reality – Your body cleans itself every day. Yoga DOES help you get rid of the mental gunk.

Ayurveda is the sister science to yoga. One element of this practice is eating in accordance with your given constitution. This means that some of us are built to eat meat, others are not. Some crave spicy foods and others crave sweets, etc. When we add like to like, it throws our bodies and energy out of balance. Firey people + firey food = inflammation and anger, for example. By practicing self-awareness and knowing what our natural tendencies are it is said that we will be able to stay in balance in part through the foods we eat. When we find ourselves out of balance, Ayurveda recommends a “cleanse” that involves natural elements such as oiling the body inside and out or eating a simple mono-diet of rice and mung beans etc. These types of cleanses are recommended based on the individual’s constitution and spoiler alert: NONE of them involve living off of lemon water, tea or mushroom milk for a month. The purpose is to reset the digestive system in a way that is soft and kind to the body under the care of a licensed or certified ayurvedic counselor with thousands of hours of schooling. Watch out for diet culture creeping into yoga spaces. Real Ayurveda will never come in the form of a one size fits all advertisement. It is always curated for the individual after careful one on one counsel.

IN ADDITION – The concept of “removal of toxins” is NOT a reality. Your body has specific mechanisms in place to remove wastes (digestive, lymphatic, sweating and more) and yoga postures do not “squeeze” wastes out of you. Movement can improve the function of your organs but speaking about the body as if it were “toxic” creates an unhealthy relationship with it for many of us living with body image issues. (More on language in yoga classes in another blogpost) The best cleanse that yoga can provide is the one where we release our expectations, our judgements, triggers and our self-deprecating thoughts.

Promise & Reality – Yoga is life.

So the next time you or someone you know mistakenly touts yoga as a way to “get rid” of the undesirable parts of themselves (physical or otherwise) perhaps you can gently remind them of all the wonderful things true yoga can add to our lives instead, such as:

– self-awareness
– acceptance
– compassion
– love
– inquiry into the subconscious
– empowerment
– stress relief
– mindfulness
– energetic awareness
– Ayurvedic education

– freedom from our thoughts and emotions

– union

After all, yoga isn’t about changing.

It’s about connecting to our innermost, untouchable, radiant self.

And we are perfect as we are.

What is Ayurveda, Anyway?

Denver Clark, LMT#89198, C-IAYT

Ayurveda is often referred to as “the sister science to Yoga.” It has been used as a system of health in India for well over 5,000 years and is deeply focused on not only healing the individual but teaching them how to use knowledge of the cycles of nature to stay in balance and avoid illness whenever possible.

The word Ayurveda comes from the Sanskrit roots of “Ayur” meaning “life” and “Veda” which is a deep, inherent knowledge when one truly understands. This knowledge cannot be taught, only experienced.

Now, the ancient practices from Ayurveda are spreading across the world as people experience the benefits of techniques such as dry skin brushing, oil pulling, cooking with turmeric and eating seasonally from locally grown produce.

One ayurvedic principle that pervades all the practices is that of the Doshas.

These are the 3 elemental energies that create and drive all of nature – including us.

These energies are created from the 5 great elements.

Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether (or space)

These elements are inherent in all natural things in various combinations. Even inside our own bodies, we see their qualities in different physiological processes. They are also in the foods we eat and the activities we engage in and can therefore increase or decrease depending on how we interact with the world, the season and even the time of day.

Kapha – Earth and Water create the Dosha of Kapha – useful for stability, steadiness and grounding but potentially sticky, dry and heavy or depressed when in excess.

Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

Pitta – Water and Fire create the Dosha of Pitta – Transformative, full of energy and power but potentially destructive, hot and angry in excess.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Vata – Air and Ether create the Dosha of Vata – light, free moving and circulates energy, but in excess can be disconnected, cold and restless or anxious.

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

We come into this world with a specific tendency toward one or two of these 3 doshas. You may already be able to think of a person you know as very “earthy,” stable, reliable, nurturing and maybe even sometimes slow to change and may be prone to depression. This is Kapha energy. Someone who is “fiery” with high Pitta energy may often be described as  “Type A.” These individuals have a tremendous amount of energy and stamina to do all the things but may also be quick to anger or plagued with inflammatory issues in their body. “Airy” Vata people will naturally be more prone to move from project to project, easily letting go of grudges and always spouting out new creative ideas. They may also find it difficult or even impossible to complete any of these projects and be prone to forgetfulness, poor circulation, and anxiety. ALL of us have all 3 energies but as we look over our lifetime, we can see patterns of behavior that alert us to our primary “Prakriti” – which is the dosha balance we are meant to have when we are our best selves.

Life experiences, seasonal changes, foods and more call all bring us out of balance. This is referred to as or “Vikriti” or current imbalance. For example, as we age, we enter a period of “Vata” when we retire, become empty nesters and our bodies produce less fluid and become dryer. Those with high Vata tendencies already can easily be thrown out of balance and suffer from poor circulation, anxiety, insomnia, arthritis, osteoporosis and more. These are all light, dry, airy conditions filled with wind-like movement. Add to this, the dryness and cold weather in Fall and early winter and it’s no wonder why we are running to Florida when things cool down up North!

Once we determine our prakriti we can begin to see the way in which we help or hinder our sense of balance. Each of us has a unique constitution and will need a unique list of lifestyle choices that are best for us. Fad diets such as the keto or the raw food diet are perfect examples of ways in which we try to box ourselves into a way of eating that may work for others but will not work at all for us. This isn’t because we aren’t good at eating right, it just means that our constitution is different. The same can be said about the place where we choose to live or our job choice and how it affects our mood. Pittas make excellent lawyers, Kaphas are born to take care of others, Vatas are the creative geniuses.

Yoga teaches us that the ultimate goal in life is knowledge of the self. Ayurveda uses this knowledge to help us live our best lives.

If you’d like to take a simple dosha quiz to start your exploration of self, you can follow the link here.

If you are interested in learning more about Ayurveda, please join us at Heartwood for our “Intro to Ayurveda” weekend or try an Ayurvedic bodywork session with one of our Licensed and Certified Massage Therapists. You can read more about our offerings on our website at http://www.rytcertification.com & http://www.heartwoodyogainstitute.com.

Finding Pockets of Silence in a Busy World

By Stephanie Engebretson, 500-RYT, RCYT and Yoga Therapist in Training

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

After bustling through the holidays with family and friends, schedules and meals to plan, laughter and long nights, it may seem out of reach to accomplish just a few moments of conscious silence throughout our days. We set our lives in motion in such a way that we encourage our hours to be filled with more buying, more dining, more planning, which in turn leads to less mindfulness, less time in nature, and certainly less access to silence. Sound is constantly around us filling our minds with memories, thoughts, and emotion.

Take a moment right now, as you read this post, to become aware of just how many sounds you can hear around you. Is there a radio on? Can you hear the air conditioner or fan? Are there pets or children in the space you are in? Can you hear the cars on the road nearby, or the microwave beeping with your pizza? What about a television, a power tool, a washing machine?

All around us we are experiencing sensation stimulation; unconsciously receiving constant vibration in the form of individual influence on the natural world. There is no question that to live in this human world is to interact with sound in every moment, but the question is, how do we as humans find pockets of silence in our busy lives?

My journey in developing a daily practice for myself has been unpredictable in it’s setbacks, but truthful in it’s difficulty. I am frequently reminding myself that a practice is something that grows with us, changes as we need it to, and adjusts to our current circumstances. So many times, we shy away from things that we know will be good for us because we don’t think we can do it perfectly.

But if we consider that it is better to brush our teeth imperfectly every day, than to wash them perfectly once per month, then we might be able to take the logical step in knowing that the same would be true for meditating, finding silence, and mindfully living.

  1. Consider, what is something that you do every day? Is it making a cup of coffee in the morning? Is it walking your dog every evening after work? Is it brushing your teeth before bed? Take a few days to observe your daily habits and find the one thing that you do each day.
  2. Then, once your daily habit is acknowledged, we can place a pocket of silence before the habit is enacted daily. For example, on your way into the bathroom to brush your teeth each evening you can find a strong mountain pose facing your sink. Standing tall and powerful, close off your eyes and become mindful of the experience your body is having in that exact moment. Notice your breath and then invite in an easy count: 1 with the inhale, 2 with the exhale; all the way up to 10. If you become distracted by a thought, or a feeling try to notice whatever it is without attachment, and then return again to 1. Once you have finished your 10th mindful breath, release your focus and continue on to brush your teeth. Or perhaps you take 10 breaths after you’ve poured your morning coffee or tea; inhaling in through your nose as your smell the warmth and robust flavor of your bean water, and as you exhale you slowly breath your through your pursed lips to cool off the steaming drink.

Whatever these moments are for you, the point is not to achieve them perfectly, but instead to just allow yourself a few moments to slow down and become more aware of the present moment. Allowing the sounds to fall away as your focus your attention away from the vibrations they create, and instead onto whatever it is that you choose to set your mind to. Your breath, the smell of your coffee, a guided meditation on Youtube, whatever it is that allows you take a few moments to yourself will be worth it.

As we enter the New Year, I want to encourage you to find these simple moments. Allow yourself the time to try it out imperfectly, and with awareness that it is hard for everyone who tries it, and still committing to doing it anyway.

There is no perfect silence in this world, but there are little pockets of imperfect moments in which we can slow down, become more aware, and just “be”. 

8 Things your massage therapist wants you to know

Here are 8 things I used to waste time worrying about and questioning that I have learned since becoming a massage therapist. These tips will help you get the most out of every massage you get.

Growing up in a dance studio, owning one as an adult and then becoming a yoga teacher and massage therapist; the body has always (and I mean always) been the focus of my life. In many ways, this has been a tremendous blessing. My fascination with the human body has led to years of study, teaching and helping others understand their own bodies and heal them proactively. I’ve been able to understand the changes my body has undergone as I’ve grown and had a child of my own. In some ways however, the body as the focus of my life has left me with obsessive thoughts and fears about mine being “undesirable,” or “offensive.” Of course, this topic is for another blog post altogether but one thing that massage school and bodywork has helped me heal is my belief that my body needs to be apologized for. (For a fantastic reference on this issue, please buy yourself the book “The Body is Not an Apology” By Sonya Renee Taylor ASAP!)

Here are 8 things I used to waste time worrying about and questioning that I have learned since becoming a massage therapist. These tips will help you get the most out of every massage you get.

  1. The issue of underwear – Take em’ off! – Massage therapists spend hundreds of hours learning all about the anatomy of the musculoskeletal system. We are trained to learn how poor posture and lifestyle choices equal chronic lower back and hip pain for most of the world. We see client after client come in suffering from years of chronic discomfort in these areas and of course, we want to help! Most lower back pain comes from the area of the hips and buttock muscles. This means we need to access them as easily as possible! We can help you more efficiently if we can massage your glutes. So please don’t feel strange about removing your undergarments. We spend hours in school learning how to drape you securely with the sheet and your massage will be so much better if you just take em’ off. When we look at your rear, all we see are muscles that need help. Promise.
  2. Showering before your session – DO! – And speaking of butts, although our job is to massage yours, we don’t necessarily enjoy smelling them. It’s definitely helpful and respectful to us if you find time to bathe before your massage session. Please remember, we are humans with all 5 senses. Coming to your massage straight from the gym or beach may seem like an amazing way to spend the day but think of your therapist and rinse off on the way over please or if you cannot do so, stick a packet of body wipes in your car and wipe the smelly bits (and your dirty flip flop feet) before you jump on the table.
  3. Your hairy legs – we don’t even notice them – So bathing is nice but shaving? Eh, we don’t even notice! There’s no need to come out of your relaxed state to explain how sorry you are that you didn’t get a chance to shave your legs. It doesn’t hinder that massage or gross us out at all. Again, legs are muscles that need to be treated. That’s all we see.
  4. Eating before your session – In massage school, on my first big full body massage I decided it was an excellent idea to practice the abdominal work we had just learned…. Within the first 10 minutes of my 90 minute session…. And you guessed it… soon my poor client yelled “I’ve gotta go!” As they wrapped the sheet around themselves and ran through a room filled with 20 tables and 40 therapists/clients to relieve themselves. I learned a lesson that day to always leave abdominal work for the end of the session. In addition, massage puts your body into parasympathetic response, or “rest and digest,” which vastly improves your digestive function. This means growling belies and potentially, gas and other things moving along your GI tract. With that in mind, keep food and drink light before your bodywork to avoid any bathroom interruptions that will take away from your time on the table. Also – use the bathroom before you go in!
  5. The issue of “Deep Tissue” – Your muscles have a memory. They get used to the tension they’re under and think that the need to stay that way to protect themselves. This default mode has sometimes been in place for years! It’s hard to imagine we can erase all those years of repetitive tension in 60 minutes once every year. The best way to relieve chronic pain is to set up regular sessions, every 2-4 weeks. Your body will respond more and more quickly each session as it remembers the benefits of the massage. In addition – If your massage therapist comes at any muscle in your body with an elbow right away, your muscle tissues will tighten even more to protect themselves from injury. It takes time to warm up the muscle and let it know that we aren’t going to hurt it. So leave a few minutes for your therapist to work into the layers of tissue before requesting more pressure. We are most often working up to this by warming up the body layer by layer to get deeper inward. In addition, steamrolling muscles tends to be less effective that a single point of pressure. So before you judge the technique of your therapist, ask questions about their approach. A finger or thumb is often way more helpful than our entire forearm. When we tell you to let us know if you want more or less pressure, we mean it! Don’t shy away from asking what you want during your session. We prefer it. And the age old “you can go deeper if you want,” comment is kinda lost on us. Your massage is about what you want, not us. We don’t come to work with the intention of hurting people so we will work your muscles in the way that is most effective to relaxing them. Being sore after a massage doesn’t mean the massage was better. It means the pressure was probably a bit too much for your body. And please note that requesting a male therapist isn’t the most effective way to get the deep pressure you want. Plenty of us ladies can rock the deep tissue work too.
  6. Talking is optional – When you pay for a massage, this is your time. Please don’t feel the need to talk to us during your session. Personally, I prefer when my clients are quiet. I can focus on what I’m doing and usually do better work. When I’m on the table as a client, I also notice that I feel like my massage is better if I’ve focused on what I am feeling instead of chatting it up with my therapist. Feel free to let out anything you wish if it comes up though. If my studio walls could talk, they’d tell you that massage therapy is definitely “therapy” and often as our bodies let go of tension, the issues that caused the tension come up. People share a lot with me and that’s ok. Ethically, I made a promise to leave those things in the room and never repeat them. But you don’t have to make small talk with us. We are just happy to be helping you.
  7. Drinking water afterward – Here’s the thing. You should always be drinking water. Your body needs water to heal and thrive. In addition, after a massage (just like after a yoga or exercise class) your circulation and digestion have been greatly improved and this means you need to hydrate! I keep an “emergency water” in my car and my 6-year-old will even remind me sometimes to drink it. Dehydration leads to headaches, irritability, constipation, mood swings and more. Ps. Your coffee (although made with water) is not enough. Caffeine acts as a dietetic and drains fluid form the body faster. So, skip the joke “does my Starbucks latte count?” and just guzzle some good ole’ H2O.
  8. Rest after your session!!!! – Bodywork is serious. When we reset your physical body, muscles and joints are letting go of sometimes years of repetitive stress and pain. Please, oh please don’t leave thinking “I feel so good I’m going to go home and weed my entire yard!” Your body needs time to integrate these changes and hopefully reset so they stick. Placing yourself in physical or mental strain just after your massage is a bad idea and can lead to soreness, injury, and emotional distress. Let yourself heal and enjoy the reverberations of your treatment. Take it slow, drink your water, eat healthy foods, and nourish your body for the rest of the day. You’ll get much more for your money if you take the healing home with you.

For more information about massage, yoga or Ayurvedic bodywork treatments feel free to visit me at Heartwood Yoga Institute in Bradenton, FL any time! Stay happy and healthy and go book yourself a massage with your local therapist right now.

RCYT- the designation that makes a registered children’s yoga teacher trustworthy.

Adventures in movement & mindfulness

 Instilling the values of kindness, respect for the environment, self-confidence and tolerance, are vital tools for living a responsible, enriching life in today’s fast paced world. Helping kids learn these mindsets has become ever more important to parents frustrated with the task of raising conscientious kids in a culture that leans more and more towards an instant gratification mentality.  Over-exposure to the media continues to set an ever-higher standard of perfection on young developing minds, so it’s no wonder kid’s today struggle with feelings of inadequacy and/or depression. Add to this the fact that children today have also become increasingly dependent upon technology to stay connected, a method of communication that enhances feelings of alienation while stunting the development of basic social skills, makes raising healthy and balanced children harder than ever . But rather than turning to therapy or medications to help children handle their confusion and stress, many parents are turning to yoga. The practice is non-competitive, gender neutral, and filled with positive benefits. Yoga gives children a sense of accomplishment, self-esteem, and worthiness. Thanks to the fact that yoga doesn’t require special clothes, shoes, or equipment, the classes are often more affordable than alternate afterschool enrichment activities too.

The problem is just any yoga class will not suffice. Yoga classes designed for adults require a certain maturity, and as such they are not appealing to younger students who come to the mat with shorter attention spans and excessive energy, nor do they address the unique challenges facing kids today. Youth orientated yoga needs to approach the subject differently, with yoga postures and principals taught through intriguing games, stories, and exercises designed to build self awareness, respect for others and the interconnectedness of all beings.  For this reason, franchised programs such as Radiant child, Yogakids, Karmakids and others, have experienced unprecedented growth as teachers and yoga professionals flock to seminars to learn how to introduce children appropriately and successfully to yoga to keep them engaged and excited by yoga’s poignant lessons.   

 For the last few years, youth yoga has been hovering on the outskirts of mainstream activities with classes popping up in preschools, gym classes, YMCA’s, daycares and at local yoga studios. Parents looking to find a yoga class for their child can begin by searching the internet for programs, but it is best to seek out Yoga Alliance Certified Children instructor’s with the RCYT designation.

To become a RCYT, a yoga teacher must first have an RYT-200 designation. The children’s training is considered continuing education and not a substitute for the formal training every yoga teacher is meant to have. The standards set by Yoga Alliance for RCYT prepares teachers to use games, creative movement, focused activities, art, and stories to teach not only the postures of yoga, but personal ethics, breath techniques, and compassion for the environment and more while also enhancing health and emotional balance.  RCYT programs (Registerd Children Yoga Teacher) also address trauma informed work for kids and how to address hyperactivity, ADD and more.   With themes such as recycling, endangered species, non-judgement and other key concepts, an RCYT instructor approaches each class as an opportunity for an enriched understanding of the individual’s role in connecting to the natural world, community, and personal spirit. A powerful youth yoga class will venture far beyond the teaching of postures named after animals or basic yoga games and address the full individual in a koshic (mind, body, spirit) context.     

 Heartwood Yoga Institute offers a RCYT program called Yoga for the Balanced Child. The course is designed by Ginny East Shaddock, not only the founder of Heartwood but also the creator of Kiddance, a nationally recognized children’s creative dance program that lead the way in children’s dance education for over 30 years. Yoga for the Balanced Child is appropriate for teachers, childcare givers, yoga teachers and anyone who is interested in engaging children in yoga in a manner that puts creativity and positive reinforcement at the heart of every lesson (but to earn the RCYT designation participants must also be an RYT-200. The two certifications can be attained in any order). Teachers learn creative approaches to teaching yoga by incorporating laughter yoga, cooperative partner games, music inspired movement games, imagination meditations and more. Traditional yoga techniques, such as Pranayama (breath techniques) are taught with pinwheels, feathers, and ping pong balls, while story-time yoga opens discussions on personal ethics and the teachings of the yoga sutras.  With a comprehensive syllabus filled with hours of yoga concepts, sequencing ideas, and class themes, the graduates learn to make classes as fun as they are educational. The training also includes lectures on youth anatomy and mental health issues facing young people today, enhancing a yoga teacher’s understanding and sensitivity to social issues, rauma informed youth classes, medications, and physical challenges children ages 3 to teen deal with.

 All yoga alliance certification programs include 95 hours of comprehensive training to prepare future yoga teachers with theme based and targeted material that will reinforce positive goals for young people while also addressing anatomy, physiology, methodology and appropriate postures for young students. This includes 42 hours of in-person training with qualified trainers and 30 hours of practicum teaching, and additional time devoted to mentorship and studies.

Heartwood schedules their one-week youth yoga camp overlapping this certification program, a creative way to provide RCYT teachers hands on experience working with kids as well as opportunities to fulfill their practicum hours as well.  Not only does this combined scheduling give new children’s yoga teachers a great platform to practice what they are learning under the guidance of mentors, but it results in an amazing summer camp experience for the kids too, who enjoy a ratio of 2 adult, certified teachers to every 4 or 5 kids.

Kids today face complex issues. They deserve teachers who understand and are willing to devote their own time and energy to being the best youth yoga mentors they can be. Whether a teacher takes a formal Yoga Alliance Children’s certification program locally, hops into an online offering (only available now for a short time due to Covid) or travels to one of the national franchise schools for their specialized education, the willingness of a yoga teacher to put in the effort, time, and financial investment that is part of earning an RCYT is a wonderful indication of their commitment to becoming a skilled mentor to a new generation of yogis.