Online Teacher Training – Is it any good?

Denver Clark, C-IAYT, ERYT-500

In the large picture of yoga, I am just a baby. Having taught Yoga for the last 14 years, my time studying, and learning is a drop in the bucket of the vastness of the ancient wisdom of yoga. And even in this short time, I have witnessed a generous shift in the yoga community from what was previously a western preoccupation with physique to the new frontier of Yoga as a therapeutic healing modality, in the same realm of chiropractic care and acupuncture.

The world is in desperate need of healing and the yoga community is primed and ready to step in and help. In January of 2020, Yoga Alliance of America and the International Yoga Therapy Association were cracking down on fly by night online certifications and exotic training retreats that were much more about ziplining and vacation time than they were about yoga and so many of us were ready for it.

And then – COVID.

Now, we exist in a world where we’ve seen the outreach that online learning and telehealth have provided to underserved, underreached populations of people and we’ve been forced to take a hard look at the view of teaching and experiencing yoga from a distance.

For the last 3 years, the main topic of discussion at conventions and meetings of Yoga Therapy Accredited schools is this:

Online learning is not going anywhere any time soon. So how do we offer quality Yoga instruction and guidance for our students and clients from a distance?

At Heartwood Yoga Institute, the faculty is constantly searching for answers to this question, and this has left us a bit behind other schools as we struggle to offer desired distance learning that meets our high standards of quality in education. Here is what I have learned about learning, teaching, and providing yoga therapy online to clients:

 Live, real time, face to face interaction is necessary. Effective Learning is never only Passive – Prior to my yoga teaching life, I owned a dance studio and have spent my life surrounded by teachers. One thing I have learned is that students must be actively engaged to process and remember information and many studies provide more information on the matter, such as one from the National Library of Medicine published in 2019 which states:

“The process of encoding, storing, and retrieving is enhanced by emotional arousal (Crowley et al., 2019). Arousal will help to construct stronger and larger schemas during initial learning, which makes it easier to retrieve the learned information from long‐term memory (van Kesteren et al., 2012). Active learning methods try to arouse the learner by giving them the opportunity to control the information that is experienced (Markant et al., 2016). In contrast, when new information is taught with a passive learning method, this information is stored with less connections to the existing schemas, and hence retrieval becomes more cumbersome. “

When a school makes it mandatory to show up in person for a portion of learning time, they are offering students a chance to connect emotionally with one another for processing. Their questions can be answered in real time and the container of learning that comes from meeting in a shared space with a common goal can be created, even if it is done through a screen. This requires the teacher and students to be present, with their cameras on, faces visible, sitting alert just as they would in a classroom setting.

It is not the same when watching a recording, or multitasking with other devices or activities such as eating, scrolling your phone etc. The very nature of yoga is a lesson in mindfulness and self-discipline (Tapas, in Sanskrit). Bringing these lessons into the virtual classroom is imperative if we claim to teach true yoga.

When looking for an online teacher training program or yoga teacher, I highly recommend one that utilizes and requires real time, live, face to face interaction throughout the journey to activate the emotional learning portion of your brain.

Repetition begets understanding. Lessons, slides, and lectures that students can re-visit more than once allow them to process information in a new way through repetition. Remember when you learned to tie your shoes? How many hundreds of times does it take to learn a new skill? It’s easy to forget this as we age, especially in the current climate of “instant gratification.” An effective school or teacher will provide opportunities for repetition and it’s important for students to understand this is not busywork or wasting time but rather a planned and studied teaching tool for our brains to contain more information over time.

I am wary of any school that limits how many times a student can revisit their online material or even worse, only allows it to be seen once. I would search for a school that offers repetition throughout the lessons (repeating slides) and allows you to revisit your course for at least 6- 12 months following your training.

Student participation is necessary to learn. To teach is to learn. By sharing information with others and completing assignments such as papers, videos and live teaching of peers the student’s brain must transfer the information they’ve learned and turn it over into a new understanding to teach it to someone else. This is what we call “practicum” in our courses at Heartwood and stretches the students understanding of the material into a new place where they must effectively communicate the information to someone new.

An online class that presents information alone is simply producing content. A course that requires you to share knowledge in your own words is truly one designed by teachers, for teachers. You’ll get so much more knowledge and a much deeper understanding if you re-teach what you learn to someone new as soon as possible and your brain will retain this information much more easily.

Look for a program that requires you to share what you’re learning and holds you accountable as a teacher with feedback and growth opportunities.

You get what you pay for. To offer true student/teacher live interaction, feedback and notes from a qualified faculty member and the additional time it takes to support students in their online learning journey, a school must make a significant investment of tools and staffing. This cost then gets naturally passed down to the enrolled student to ensure the quality of the programming.

At Heartwood, our online courses include pre-recorded lectures with lifetime access that are professionally edited, printable notes that can be re-printed as many times as needed, online quizzes that are graded by our faculty, live meetings with our most qualified faculty members and 24-7 support when students have questions or concerns throughout the process. In order to offer this in addition to the high quality in person programs we continue to facilitate, we must train and utilize our most qualified staff.

A “cheap” program is different than an “affordable” program. When considering the depth of offerings in the course you are considering, make sure you understand the qualifications of the school and its teachers (just because a school says they can train you as a yoga therapist doesn’t mean they are accredited with the correct organizations) If you think the cost is fair for all the elements included that’s a good sign. If you think the price is “a steal,” you are very likely to walk away missing the quality you desire.

Great schools come with happy graduates. Check out reviews on Google, Yoga Alliance and ask the school for references of graduates they have produced. The best way to judge if a school is for you is to go right to the people who have walked in your shoes. Ask what they have done with their education and what kind of support they have after graduation for job guidance, references, and continuing support.

If online learning was designed to provide us with a global community, then the mark of a good online school is keeping that community connected.

If you’re considering online learning for Yoga, Teacher Training or continuing education in Yoga take your time and find the school that gives you the right feelings of support, community, career longevity and quality. And if you’re interested in certification through Heartwood Yoga Institute, please feel free to reach out to us any time at www.rytcertification.com

Good luck on your Yoga Journey!

The Truth about Yoga Teacher Training for ages 50 Plus

One day, when I was around 55 years old, I decided to pop in and enjoy a morning class with the yoga teacher trainees in Heartwood’s 200-hour program. It was a beautiful winter day in Florida with the sun shining bright, the temperature a perfect 75, and a teacher who had had tipped me off that she intended to deliver a mindful, nature-oriented practice. The class was being held outside to take advantage of the gentle breeze, the blooming flowers, and the peaceful ambience of Heartwood in November. I set my mat up in the back thinking I might pause and take a picture or two for the group to enjoy later. This kind of class was just what I needed today, and what a treat it was going to be to be a student rather than the teacher for that hour.

I was truly enjoying myself, but halfway through the practice, the flow got a bit more dynamic than anticipated and I dropped into child’s pose to take a break. A thought ran through my mind. Wow, I’m certainly glad I took my yoga teacher training at 48, because this is hard. I would have a hard time getting through the demands of a 200 program if I tried getting certified today.

After the practice, as I was sitting in the garden with a cup of tea watching a few students practice teaching sun salutations on the lawn, I began considering my yoga journey and all I have done and continue to do to contribute to the world through yoga. For the first few years after gaining my certification, I taught classes, but soon after, I opened a studio. Within a few years I opened another, then another. I eventually founded Heartwood Yoga Institute and began training teachers and developing what today is a 7-acre yoga facility that offers a profound healing and educational experience for hundreds of people yearly. As my career evolved, my involvement in yoga found its own cadence and purpose and in the last 15 years I have trained literally thousands of yoga teachers at the 200-, 300- and 800-hour yoga therapy level with a continually evolving career that fills me with purpose, meaning, and a respectable income. I’ve touched the lives of many people, both the students I teach directly and the students I teach indirectly as my graduates move on to create yoga communities of their own. I’ve also worked as a yoga therapist and had the honor of impacting the lives of many, many individuals whom fate had the foresight to bring to Heartwood at just the right time for us both.    

What a shame it would have been if I had avoided taking that step to formally gain a yoga certification at 48 because I didn’t want to be the “older student” in a course with mostly 30-somethings. What if I had listened to that voice that said I was too old to learn something new, and besides, what really am I going to do with yoga at this stage in life? Worse yet, what if I had waited until I was 54 to consider yoga training? At 48 I was still teaching dance and had energy, flexibility, and stamina. Little did I know what was to come just down the road, both physically and personally. I faced unexpected health challenges in my 50’s. I began having issues with arthritis, had both feet operated on, and was unprepared for the weight gain and other shifts that came with menopause. I had new personal challenges to maneuver, including a financial crash, a devastating divorce, my children leaving home, and the loss of beloved family members. Add a few more years to my maturing self and I had a massive heart attack to add to the mix.  Could I have possibly gotten through a 200-hour yoga teacher training during that decade? Probably not! Did yoga help me accept and move through that decade with grace and positivity. Absolutely! How much harder life would have been without my deeper relationship with yoga, gained thanks to a yoga certification program.

I felt good from the practice, albeit slightly frustrated that I struggled a bit, and I sat there considering my yoga journey, thankful I had done my training when I did, but also realizing that had I avoided taking that step for whatever excuses I made up, it would have been a huge loss to the world. Had I not become a yoga teacher at the ripe old age of 48 (or if I had waited longer) dozens and dozens of people whose lives I have changed would be in a very different place, not the least of which includes my own. Heartwood would not exist, and frankly, many other studios would have failed to manifest since so many of my graduates were inspired by my teaching and as result, opened businesses and forged careers and made waves of their own in the world. In my very own “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment I took stock of the measurable ways my becoming a yoga teacher was central to my service to the world.  I can say with absolute certainty that my involvement with yoga was the best decision I ever made, at any age, and my maturity has never held me back.  In fact, I believe my age and coming to yoga at midlife made my reinvented career a richer experience.        

It was in that moment, feeling my age, a little tired and sore from the yoga practice, but deeply aware of how important my yoga journey had been to both myself and others, that I decided Heartwood needed to offer a yoga teacher training for ages 50 and up. I imagined how many dynamic beautiful souls were out there with wisdom and compassion to share, who might miss the opportunity to embrace the role of yoga teacher due to perceived physical obstacles or doubt standing in the way.  Yoga teacher training shouldn’t be a physical hurdle we must get past. It should be an inspirational, positive beginning of a lifetime love affair with a practice that makes life ever more poignant and meaningful. I knew in that moment Heartwood needed to create a special program for ages 50 and up that took into account some of the challenges YTT presents to those who are not in their prime physically.

I got to work with the Heartwood staff planning Heartwood’s first RYS-200 program geared to mature students and a few months later we offered our first YTT for ages 50+ to seven enthusiastic teacher trainees. In the 8 years since, Heartwood has hosted dozens of successful RYS-200 programs for ages 50 & up in both a weekly program for local students in a course that spans months, and in a 16-day immersion format for students that choose to join us from all over the country and beyond offered twice a year. I can honestly say that some of the strongest and most successful teachers we’ve trained have come from the 50 plus program, including some of our own staff members. The graduates are in their 50’s, 60’s, even 70 and beyond. Some are extremely fit and others successfully complete the program despite MS, Parkinson’s, Autoimmune issues, Injuries, or just the lack of confidence that comes when you haven’t been in school for decades.

People often ask how the yoga program for age 50 and up differs from the Heartwood traditional 200-hour yoga program where all ages participate. To be honest, the syllabus is the same. All yoga teachers, regardless of age, must learn philosophy, anatomy, alignment, methodology, and take a deep dive into the 8 limbs of yoga. Yoga Alliance defines what a teacher must know to prove competency, and considering I’m older myself, I’ll be darned if I’m going to dummy down the program as if age narrows a person’s capacity in the area of yoga. I’m proof it doesn’t! In fact, at Heartwood we have noticed mature students are often more apt to study, practice, and connect because they are less attached to the expectation or attachment to instant gratification that often is a result of being raised in our complex society today with social media, the quicker pace of everything, and what seems to be endless options making focus and commitment to any one thing harder than it once was.

Since most mature students choose to work with others in their age group, and the teachers too must learn to take care of their own bodies as time will inevitably stress their joints, ligaments and bones regardless of how in-shape they may be, we do spend a bit more time on modifications and contraindications to provide safe and effective practices for aging bodies. We skip aggressive practices such as Ashtanga that they are less likely to use when they begin teaching, and opt to add a bonus training of Chair and Assessable yoga to round out their skillset.

But the real difference between the 50 plus program and the traditional 200 program is mostly the community that joins together to study. People who have been on this earth a little longer have shared experiences and a certain wisdom that comes from surviving life’s ups and down. Most everyone in the program has experienced loss, be it a divorce, financial problem, career change or retirement. Most everyone struggles with the complexity of aging, reinventing themselves as time and circumstance forces life in a new direction. They all wrestle with the complexities of aging parents, family dynamics, children leaving home (or not leaving home), career shifts, dealing with spouses, ex-spouses, and personal trauma. They have witnessed friends or family members pass, become caregivers, dealt with disappointment, addiction, or abuse. They have experienced firsthand the health problems that come with age, be it a torn ligament or bursitis in the shoulder, cancer, heart attack, weight gain, or some other challenge. They know without question that nothing is permanent in this life, and yet they sign up for a yoga training because they want to keep growing as an individual and they believe in the promise of endless possibilities still.

All of this makes an older practitioner uniquely qualified to be a truly remarkable yoga teacher. The empathy that comes with having suffered from and survived life’s slings and arrows opens a person to the full potential of yoga. Most importantly, maturity helps a student keep in perspective the limits of the physical practice in the greater scheme, and ego or romantic notions of being hailed the next big instafamous yoga star takes a backseat to earnest personal development and skill building to share this knowledge with others.   

Rarely does the 50 plus crowd care so much about mastering an advanced pose for their next social media post. They are less about documenting the yoga teacher training journey on Instagram and more about applying the teaching to their lives. As they grow stronger, physically, and mentally, they feel deeply inspired and called to help others gracefully maneuver through life’s challenges, the aging process, and shifts in the world. They see yoga not as a vehicle to make a killing in the wellness industry, but as a beautiful and powerful tool for acceptance, insight, and balance. And after years of sacrificing for others, mature students are ready to embrace their right to focus on themselves and to grow spiritually. And one of the greatest things I’ve witnessed in the 50 plus program is the support and acceptance the students show one another as lifetime friendships form, and the students support and empower one another to get past their obstacles and make the later chapters of life remarkable on so many levels.

These results can and should be found in any and all authentic yoga teacher training programs. But for some reasons, awareness and growth comes easier and with more lasting impact in a program where all the students share relatively the same energy, a bit of history, and a broader view of life gained from experience. The RYS-200 Yoga Teacher Training Program for ages 50 Plus at Heartwood is a good reminder that yoga is timeless, and so are we.

Ginny Shaddock is an ERYT-500 Yoga Teacher and IAYT Yoga Therapist and the founder of Heartwood Yoga Institute. Heartwood offers three RYS-200 Yoga Teacher Training Programs a year specifically for ages 50 plus; a 16 day immersion every fall and spring and a one day a week program for local students offered once a year starting in October.

Yoga and Cult Dynamics

Someone came into Heartwood Yoga Institute the other day for a tour and to get information on our yoga teacher training program. After the interview she heaved a big sigh and said, “You know, I went to another school and came close to signing up, but it just didn’t feel right. I felt like I was being encouraged to join the “Cult of Anna” (name changed out of respect to other schools and their directors). This potential student said the school she had visited adamantly proclaimed that only Anna could teach her authentic yoga as she happened to be the only true teacher in the area and beyond. Anna was made out to have almost superhuman powers with credentials that were so embellished they seemed impossible for her age.  Everyone who met or worked with Anna was in awe, not the least of whom was Anna herself. Anna was publishing books (self-published and promoted) and podcasting and healing the hearts and souls of all those who signed up for her programs. The student was told that if she signed up for training, Anna would also teach her important subjects beyond yoga, including life coaching and nutrition and other holistic concepts that could be integrated with yoga to make her an amazing teacher and therapist too.

Something about the self-proclaimed greatness and intensity of Anna’s followers didn’t sit right with this woman. “Isn’t it true that a yoga program should be teaching yoga and not all that other stuff? Isn’t it true that yoga does the healing, and not the leader of a course? And isn’t there more to becoming a yoga therapist than taking a basic yoga training course?”

My office staff just smiled at her inquiries, noncommittedly, and offered the woman information regarding our philosophy and program focus. Not only is the office staff at Heartwood trained in yoga and therefore careful not to pass judgement or try to influence people with a hard sell, but they have also attended the Heartwood Yoga for Mental Health concentrations, where cult dynamics is explored, and they understand the intricacies and varied levels of delusion this kind of adoration for a teacher or program can develop. Shifting the beliefs of anyone under the influence of cult dynamics wasn’t going to happen by blowing a big raspberry or naysaying, and it certainly wouldn’t help to proclaim you are the better solution to their quest.

Where does this loyalty to a yoga teacher begin? Often, a guru or yoga teacher begins their work with humility and best intentions, following their dharma to teach. But something happens when results are progressively positive and students start attributing their changed lives to the wisdom of the leader. Flattery and devotion develops, which certainly makes a teacher feel good at their job. As the teacher is giving lessons about non-attachment to identity and how healing comes from within, they are, at the same time, starting to believe their own story of just how good they are at helping people understand and embrace the power of yoga.  They start to identity with the exalted teacher identity thrust upon them by circumstance. Combine the expanding ego with the fact that a reputation for profound teaching does in fact increase revenue and reputation, and all the seeds of a cult dynamic have been planted. It is only a matter of time until this belief that you are more special than others takes root and blooms.

The yoga sutras warn us of this – how we must practice nonattachment to the fruits of our actions as well as nonattachment to our own desire to be more enlightened. But what we know theoretically, and what we recognize is happening in our subconscious, are very different realities.

The history of yoga in the West is filled with evidence of cult dynamics.  The very definition of a cult is a small group of very devoted supporters or fans for a person or non-mainstream ideology. Studies have revealed common denominators of why certain leaders are successful in rising to the top in all manner of groups, from political or cultural cults that we may not consider traditional cults (Check out articles on the cult of Trump or how the Ku Klux Clan is considered a cult) to religious or spiritual cults (examples to follow). The question to ask is, “What causes people to surrender themselves to others’ beliefs, suggestions and guidance unconditionally?”

People join cults because they’re looking for love and acceptance and because they want answers to the personal problems in their lives. When a magnetic person comes along with problem-solving strategies who also creates an environment of caring and community, many people are ready to give unto them whatever it takes to be included in their sphere. There is, of course, more to cult dynamics than that, but certain elements of cult mentality can be pinpointed.

  • Cults provide a feeling of comfort and inclusion for those who are uncomfortable and feel excluded from life or others.
  • People with low self-esteem are usually easily persuaded by someone with confidence who seems in charge. They want to turn over the challenge of changing their lives to anyone else.
  • New recruits are “love bombed” – meaning they are showered with acceptance and promises of how life will be so much better once they are in the community and are taught to adapt their thinking to align with the taught mentality.
  • Most people susceptible to cults are women (as studies show) and they are often people who have become disillusioned with traditional religion and therefore they are open to a new spiritual path or leader. They’ve tried other paths and are open to anything new they think might be the answer to their dissatisfaction.
  • The leader or community sells a certain logic that seems to make sense. The attitude is, “we know what you need and how the world works, and if you think like us, you too will have insight and find the answers you need.”  And this is followed by testimonials or evidence of their success.

The reasons people turn to yoga often, unfortunately, align with these bullet points. While we can all see the danger of cult dynamics in extreme ashrams and communities that slip into measurable abuse, such as sexual misconduct, controlling the money or personal choices of members and in some cases, even death pacts, we are less inclined to see behavior as “cult-like” when we are in the glow of acceptance and feel positive changes in our lives. When the manipulation of our thinking grows over time hidden behind a veil of habits that we perceive as healthy (like yoga) we fail to make a distinction between the leadership and the practice. And even if all these definitions of cult align, is it bad if it works and makes us healthier and happier? Isn’t a negative definition of the word “cult” the problem rather than the reality?

Yoga does teach us that “modification of the mind is yoga (1.2)”, and cult dynamics certainly is a modification of the mind, good or bad. But yoga also teaches us to shed our false identities and our cultural conditioning, to listen to our inner voice, and to surrender to our challenges and accept them as a karmic lesson rather than something we need outside help to conquer. This means that seeking external answers to our problems, answers that can only come through the guru or cult leader’s blessing, wisdom or attention, is the antithesis of an authentic yoga practice. The only real threat is when a yoga teacher passing on knowledge does so with inference that results can be attributed to their superiority as a mentor, rather than from the system of wholeness that is yoga. Yoga teaches us that a teacher is needed but not the answer.

Sometimes, cult dynamics form when interpretation of the teachings hint that we must trust the process (rather than our instincts) and that suffering is a part of purification. This leads a student to accept that abuse from a leader is a test of our discipline or devotion rather than what it is, abuse. When a student assumes the leader is further along the path than the student and therefore their methods have some purpose we can’t see or understand and should never question, we can develop a mindset that invites the potential for ego and opportunity to skew the healthy dynamic between a student and leader.

A little research reveals a common pattern of abuse and cult dynamics from spiritual leaders and all of us who love yoga should take note and learn from history. Netflix documentaries, such as Bikram, Yogi, Guru, Predator,  or Wild, Wild Country, about Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh point out huge abuses that seemed to develop with power.

A few insightful books I have found fascinating about yoga and cult dynamics that I encourage anyone who is inclined to adore certain yoga star teachers to read, includes:

Practice and All is Coming, Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga and Beyond by Mathew Remski, an expose about Patabi Jois and Ashtanga Yoga.

Premka, White Bird in a Golden Cage. My Life with Yoga Bhajan by Pamela Saharah Dyson, a memoir about abuse and delusion in becoming the 2nd hand man to the leader of Kundalini in the West.

Into the Heart of Yoga, One Woman’s Journey by Danna Faulds, a memoir of the rise and fall of Kripalu as an ashram under the leadership of Amarit Desai and the school’s transformation to a more corporate yoga institution without a guru in the interest of following the teachings of yoga without hypocrisy.

But do these extreme cases have anything to teach us about a local yoga teacher who has a huge ego and likes to sell their services by pushing a story that they are the one and only brilliant mentor who will be highly effective at the job of teaching them self-awareness? What harm is there is loving your yoga teacher? What about all those lovely video clips on Facebook where people insist that their lives were changed thanks to this wonderful teacher so we should sign up today? Are we being naive and susceptible to marketing if we feel inspired by success stories designed to encourage us to sign up if we benefit from the experience?

I believe the best way to avoid slipping into a cult mentality and falling for a leader’s personification or a story rather than reality is to see things clearly, and the best way to do that is to educate yourself – both in what yoga actually teaches and by learning what a cult dynamic looks and feels like. (Reading the books recommended here is a great start to understanding how yoga training can sometimes fall into unhealthy patterns.)

Having a charismatic leader is wonderful. Such a person keeps us engaged and inspired and holds our attention when we might otherwise wander off the path. But when your healing or your education is attributed to the person teaching rather than the process of yoga, it is time to pause and take a step back. We just need to keep things in perspective – both our potential for healing and the importance of whomever is leading the way.

No one can take credit for your spiritual growth or enlightenment. That is a personal journey. A good teacher can help you see the path, but you must walk it yourself. The true meaning of the wisdom teachings of yoga will vary depending on each individual’s interpretation and a strong mentor knows this and invites you to question their interpretations and world view  as you form your own. Those trying to convince you that they are going to be the solution to your problems and that they have the answers you need to be whole, are likely not as far along the spiritual path as they make out.  After all, humility is the first and strongest sign of someone who understands the deepest dimensions of yoga.

Respect is one thing. Adoration and unwavering devotion for a teacher is another. Like all things in yoga, we must maintain a healthy balance.

Ginny Shaddock is an IAYT Yoga therapist and ERYT-500 Yoga teacher. She teaches Yoga for Mental Health as well as Cult Dynamics and Yoga in the 800 hour Yoga Therapy Certification Program at Heartwood Yoga Institute.

The Dilemma of Poor Yoga Training

Recently, I’ve had several students join Heartwood to repeat their 200-hour training after taking a certification program elsewhere. Repeating a program and paying tuition to a second school is an expensive choice to make, but one they felt was necessary. A few students have also signed up for our advanced 300-hour training, but not without first voicing concerns and expressing worry that their prerequisite foundational education (200-hour training) was inadequate.

“I just didn’t learn anything,” or “I didn’t know enough at the end to teach anyone anything,” they lament.  They claim they wasted time and money; sorry they didn’t seek out a more comprehensive program with qualified mentors from the beginning. Often the problem was that they selected a program because it was convenient or inexpensive or they couldn’t resist a hard sell from their local yoga school. They began the journey unaware of just how involved the subject of yoga would turn out to be or what other options they could have pursued. The pandemic provided new provisions to the rules of certification that opened the doorway to many fly-by-night programs flooding the ranks with “certified” yoga teachers who are inadequately prepared to mentor others. These programs, sometimes only consisting of prerecorded content and/or huge numbers of participants with little supervision and little or no actual mentorship, were a disservice to individuals who wanted to learn yoga, but also a disservice to yoga itself. It will take years for the ripple effect of unqualified teachers misrepresenting yoga to subside, if ever.

That said, the more you know about yoga, the more you realize you don’t know, and awareness of how expansive yoga is can be overwhelming. The students who came to me participated in a 200-hour program with best intentions, not expecting to be left with a nagging sensation that there had to be more to the practice than what was offered. This left them feeling inauthentic, but luckily their desire to learn more about yoga was still intact.

I can’t help but admire a student who is repeating their training or coming in with humility admitting they have a bit of catching up to do. Such is the act of someone who cares and wants to be the best yogi and teacher they can be. The student’s willingness to take a step backwards and start over is the best sign I know that a remarkable yogi is in the making, because their journey is not about ego or career goals.

In cases like this I always want to acknowledge the students’ earnest desire to learn, reminding them that moving forward is much more important than looking backwards. No good comes from criticizing or being frustrated with whatever program didn’t prepare you as you had hoped. Yes, it is annoying when people take your money for a quick sell and it can be disheartening to see so many people enter programs, do the work, and come out with a watered down, superficial understanding of the practice. But yoga teaches us that no effort is really wasted, and process is far more important than measurable achievement, so perhaps the long, winding journey they took, which included the cumbersome detour of participation in a less authentic program, will be important to their deeper understanding of yoga in the end.

One thing is for sure: these disappointed students became aware of what yoga isn’t, and that can be valuable information. One of the yoga sutras (1:14 – Sa Tu Dirgha Kala Nairantary Satkarasevito Drdhabhumih) says that yoga takes a long time, over many years, in small incremental doses, (practice with all earnestness) to work. Nowhere in the yoga sutras does it say that in 200 hours you will be enlightened and know everything you need to know. Our arrogance in believing that we will be qualified to lead others and have all the information we might need about yoga after an RYS-200 program, even a wonderfully comprehensive one, is rather silly.

Many people with inadequate training don’t care about the deeper dimensions of yoga as long as they can claim to be certified and can begin the work of teaching or “selling yoga classes.” People don’t know what they don’t know, and sadly, their evolution halts due to false confidence, misinformation, or the assumption that they have achieved their goal of becoming a yoga teacher because they have the credential to prove it. They then pass on this innocent ignorance to their students with claims that all that other stuff they don’t know or teach is unnecessary for practitioners today. They’ve done fine without the additional information and yoga works for them, so their students will do fine too.

Yoga has evolved and developed over thousands of years, and the system of wholeness which is the real yoga is carefully outlined in both the Bhagavad Gita and the yoga sutras. Asana, the physical practice, is only mentioned in 2% of the 196 Patanjali sutra teachings. So, when a program puts postures in a position of such importance, or a teacher claims that classic yoga is outdated and the practice is overdue to evolve and change to better conform to the needs of contemporary society, they are, in effect, claiming that one can omit 98% of yoga’s core to make the practice more palatable for our fast-paced, goal-oriented society. That huge an adjustment isn’t evolution so much as a total reinvention, one where everything that defines authentic yoga is being ignored or tossed out to make the practice appealing to instant gratification-oriented people today. One can argue that old school yoga is exactly what our contemporary practitioners need most, and that our desire to make the practice more commercially appealing and “Westernized” is proof of how desperately we need the personal discipline and patience that classical yoga delivers.

Yoga is not a religion, exercise, or means of entertainment. Yoga is a system to open one’s heart and mind to bring us back to wholeness and connect with our spirituality. The yoga sutras teach us how to explore our way of thinking and interacting with the world to get past our obstacles, which are defined as Kleshas: ego, attachment, diversions, fears, and ignorance. The pursuit of pleasure and desire for quick satisfaction can be powerful motivation for wanting to make yoga more palatable and contemporary. Teachers who have not taken time to contemplate and understand the teachings lead the charge in professing how and why old school yoga studies are obsolete, which contributes to a classic case of the blind leading the blind.

Let me point out that I see the value of making the practice palatable and fun, for that is a great way to bring new practitioners to the altar of yoga. But when spiritual entertainment is the goal, rather than the means to invite people to move beyond initial entertainment to awaken one’s spiritual core, then the potential of yoga falls short.

“1.1 -Atha Yoganusasanam” means now the exposition of yoga is being made.

This, the first sutra, reminds us that every day, every hour, every moment we must begin again, leaving behind our attachments, our assumptions, what we think we know, our conditioning and our expectations. We must nurture our beginner’s mind and be open to new personal insight and deeper understanding as we explore our own interpretation of the teachings as they relate to our ever-expanding life experience. Yoga has withstood thousands of years of people either honoring or questioning the teachings as well as the practice. It has been a mainstay spiritual endeavor not just for Vedic cultures and our contemporary society, but for many, many generations in between, in India and on different continents. 

Some say, “people change and so too must yoga,” but most historians and philosophers will point out that people really don’t change. The environment we live in may change, but we are all, at the core, still creatures of instinct, conditioning, and karma, motivated by a drive to be loved, to love and to live our purpose. Contemporary practitioners aren’t the only ones who’ve been impatient with the teachings. Mankind has always balked at the hard work involved with true spiritual growth. There is even a sutra referencing this, (2.1 Tapah Svadhyayesvara Pranidhanani Kriya Yogah) that warns us that purification is going to be difficult and painful, so this path is not for the lazy or weak of heart.

Yoga’s classic teachings help us connect to our best nature, teaching us step by step how to awaken the witness and see life more honestly.  Self-love, healing, compassion, and tolerance is an inevitable result. These outcomes are what everyone is trying to sell today, so perhaps instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, we should all go back to Yoga’s roots and start our yoga education over from the beginning, just as those brave students have done by registering for our 200-hour YTT program, despite the fact that they have a piece of paper claiming they are certified from an online program already.

What would be easier, of course, would be for students to do research before taking an RYS-200 program to be sure that all 8 limbs will be addressed with equal importance and a sense of the sacred. One on one interaction with a teacher is not just nice, but vital. The discussions, questions and answers, and connections formed through personal interaction with a mentor is the only way to develop a heart knowing, rather than an intellectual understanding. The sutra (1:26 Sa Purvesam Api guruh Kalenanavacchedat) tells us we all need a teacher or guru for guidance, and the role of this teacher is to build our relationship with the ultimate teacher; the transcendent essence within us.   

At Heartwood, we try to make graduations from our 200-hour program special, as we believe completing the program is a wonderful, personal achievement. But being certified is not the crowning glory of yoga education. Formal training, be it a 200, 300 or yoga therapy program, is just the doorway into a lifetime of more poignant, insightful understanding about life, self and yoga.  

Yoga is so much more than physical practices we can memorize and then regurgitate to others, and any quality program will make that ultimately clear. So, if your yoga education so far hasn’t gone deep enough, chalk it up to a karmic test of your fortitude as a student. Put ego aside, proceed with humility and beginner’s mind, and do what it takes to get on the right path.  

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.

My Dharma path

Kimberly Hoenie ERYT-500, YACEP

March 25, 2022

What is the Secret to Life? That is a question I asked myself many, many years ago. I read countless books, watched numerous videos and listened to hours of “advice” from family and friends but to no avail. What is the purpose of my life? I still had no idea so rather than find understanding I placed my effort into living life.

As a (very) young wife and mother of two, I remember feeling completely happy and satisfied. I enjoyed the day-to-day activities of cooking, cleaning, running a household and raising my two young children. There was never a shortage of tasks and I felt fulfilled. The only area of life that experienced struggle was finances. So when my spouse insisted that I get a job, I did.

It didn’t take long for me to feel unhappy and resentful. I justified my feelings by knowing I was doing the best thing I could for my family by providing them with a “better” life. Little did I know that “better” became “even better” which became “better still”, completely trapping me in a cycle of making more and more money.

During this cycle I was moving through several jobs. I would start a new one with anticipation and excitement but once I learned the skills necessary to succeed and thrive, I became bored, resentful and unhappy. I didn’t understand why. I always excelled when given a new task, skill or direction. I can remember being told many times that “I would fail” or “You can’t do that” which only fueled my resolve to accomplish the goal. “I will show them”, I thought. And I did. That is what drove me to succeed. It wasn’t the job or the skills required to perform the job but rather the dare…the impression that I wasn’t good enough or strong enough. That is what fueled my passion, my ambition and my desire. Of course, that bit of information would have been lovely to know back then.

Unfortunately, I did not know what I did not know. Instead, I practiced some self-study and realized that the jobs that made me happiest were the ones when I was training or teaching others and/or included some form of creativity. So in my late 30’s, I went back to school to obtain my Interior Design degree with a minor in Architecture. I thrived in the educational environment. And even secured a job in the design field very early in my education because of my previous sales experience. I was happy…at least for a short time. The job became entirely focused on how much money I could make. There were sales contests which of course, I had to win. There were trips, bonuses and high end furniture to earn. All of which were driven by sales. I was caught in the cyclone of money once more. Never having enough; never making enough and always striving for more. Fortunately, I was good at it.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t happy or fulfilled.

Now in my 40’s, I reflected and asked myself again, “What is my purpose?” I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life cycling through jobs and the feelings of unrest. Still trying to provide for my family, I did not have the luxury to quit working completely but I did understand that working in the current environment was not serving me well. I had been doing some design work on the side and decided to devote myself full-time to my own business. This would allow me more free time for family and fun which I believed would bring balance into my life an ultimately I would be happier.

This mid-life reflection also led me to take a yoga class…finally. It had been years of prompting, advising and mere suggestions that finally convinced me to give it a try. Maybe it would help me to be happy? To say it was love at first class is an understatement. I adored the stress relief I experienced during and after every class. It was this relief that kept me coming back. I listened intensely to my teachers who spoke a very foreign language. I really didn’t care. All I knew is that I felt better. I felt happier than I had in years.

Adding this balance to my life allowed me to flourish in business. I loved working with clients. Each design job challenged me and I was able to educate my clients along the way. I was also approached by the college I had attended and offered an adjunct teaching position in the Architecture & Interior Design departments. I jumped at the opportunity remembering my earlier self-study. It wouldn’t pay much but I would teach in the evening so I could continue running my business. I thought I had found the secret of life…working at something I loved without regard for or the temptation of money.

I spent many years with this combination of work. I once again felt fulfilled and happy. That was until I was presented with the dissolution of my marriage. The security I enjoyed through my spouse’s employment would be gone. No regular income, no medical insurance. You see, being self-employed particularly in the design field, means pay is sporadic. I would take a percentage deposit on a job which would typically be used to secure vendors and contractors to do the work. My profit would only be realized once the job was 100% complete. It could be take years in some situations. While my business was doing extremely well, I always knew there was another income available to take care of personal bills. To make matters worse, at that time, reasonable self-employment health care did not exist. I was scared.

Money came back into play as a primary driving force. I had to have a job that paid a regular paycheck so I could to pay rent. It was also impossible to rent an apartment with self-employment income (see above). So I was hitting the streets looking for my next job. I was hired at an upstart design company in downtown Detroit, the city undergoing a major revitalization. It was commercial design work in an upbeat environment. I initially continued working with my personal clients but took a leave of absence from teaching for a term.

Settling in, I loved the vibe. It was high energy, I walked all over the city every day working on the various buildings that were being renovated. It was exciting being part of something from the ground up. I worked long hours every day. I left in the dark morning sand returned in the dark evenings. But I was happy and free. I had a beautiful new apartment, great friends and an exciting new career. But that didn’t last very long.

The company I was working for was a small upstart within a huge conglomerate business dominating the city of Detroit. The work ethic in the larger portion of the business was beginning to invade our small portion. Longer work hours were required. 24 Hour availability was the norm with phone calls and emails expected to be retuned at all hours of the day or night. I was making great money and I rationalized it would all be ok.

Yoga was no longer an option as I couldn’t make it to class and I was so distracted at home that I couldn’t practice there either. My guaranteed stress relief was far from a daily or even weekly practice. I had to give up my personal clients and was unable to return to teaching at the college. There weren’t enough hours in the day. Life became more focused on making money to live. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any time left in my day or week to actually use the money. Friends and family were concerned as I became more withdrawn. All I did was work and I was beginning to resent it. I missed holidays, my kids and my free time. Something was out of alignment but I didn’t have the time to think about it or to change it.

Then, I crashed. I couldn’t spend one more sleepless night on work. I had to make a change.

Now in my 50’s, I wondered again, “What is my purpose? What am I supposed to do in my life to make a difference? I returned to my yoga practice. I wanted to know more. The teachers I had knew more than what they were sharing with me in class. What did they know? They all seemed so peaceful and stress-free. Maybe I need to know what they know. So I started my search.

It eventually led me to Heartwood for 200 hour teacher training. I was blown away by what I heard but more importantly, I felt home. This, I suspected was my purpose…finally. I knew deep within my being that I was supposed to be on this path…to teach yoga. I knew my purpose!

Once I knew I was able to reflect back and notice those periods in my life when I felt happy and saw the pattern of teaching or educating. This I surmised was who I was meant to be. Happily, I continued my yogic journey, delving deeper through continuing education. I am an Educator I would vehemently say. This is where I am happiest; this is who I am at my core. But is that the secret to my life? Not quite, I was soon to uncover.

You see, it wasn’t until I explored the concept of dharma and delved fully into dharmic studies that I fully understood what the secret was. That secret that I have searched decades for.

What is dharma you ask? Dharma in the universal sense is divine law; individually, it is conformity to one’s duty and nature. Dharma is the right path; the true path for one’s life. Living one’s dharma means one finds themselves  in harmony with their rightful purpose. When one is not living their dharma, they find themselves irritable, unhappy, stressed, misdirected and miserable. This is when I knew the secret. The secret of life is to understand and live one’s dharma.

What a revelation! I had been looking in all the wrong places. My search was always outward…people, books, experiences, jobs, skills, experiences. Where I needed to look was inward. I needed to understand myself at my deepest level. The part of me that drives me. The part that fires my passion. My advanced yogic studies led me to the concept of dharma. The concept of dharma finally led me to the deepest recesses of my being where I discovered that I am a warrior, a leader who has evolved to take on educator qualities. My truest path is to learn all I can and then lead others on a cleared path, guiding them past the pitfalls, detours and misadventures that I experienced. My path is one of continuing education, finding other paths that are cluttered with rubble and fighting my way through to provide a clearer path for others.

So here is me living my dharma. Learn from my story and recognize when you have fallen from your path. Each time, I let money be my focus and purpose in life, I was contradicting my dharma. Money is in direct contrast to the warrior dharma…it is our downfall. This is why I was so unhappy and unfulfilled. I was on a convoluted path far from my true nature. I was living a dharma that someone else wanted for me or I thought I needed to survive. When in reality, if I had been aware of my rightful path I would have thrived. I would have taken the path meant for me and provided by the universe. But now, at long last, I am here…living my dharma.

Maybe today is the day for you to begin looking inward. Perhaps today you will learn what fires your passion at your deepest level. But mostly today, I invite you to find your truest path and begin living your dharma. It is the Secret to Life.

Namaste.

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!

A New Podcast. Heartwood is Taking to the Air!

About a year ago, after a series of morning philosophy lectures, a student turned to me and said, “I wish you had a podcast. I could listen to these conversations forever.” As someone with more on my plate than I have time for already I kind of chuckled and said , “Someday maybe . . .”

Of course, all it takes is an idea or intention for set off the spark of creation, or so that is yoga’s theory about how all things come into being. This led to many conversations with the staff that ended with “and one of these days we really should get around to . . .”

During Covid we were inundated with the task of developing online programs and the thought of adding one more project to our aspirations was quickly filed in the “future” basket. But recently, we found we had not only caught up to our to-do list but had time and space to begin considering what would be the most helpful and supportive way to move forward and support our students while also expanding our relationship with teaching. And the podcast idea came up again.

Now, in theory I was all for our starting a podcast. In reality, the concept was quite intimidating. I am not technology savvy, and while I had no difficulty making extensive lists of subject matter I’l love to cover in a Podcast, the actual steps I’d have to take to learn how to record, edit, publish, get listed on various platforms etc. was overwhelming. Podcasting is a new generation thing, and I am a baby-boomer who still has trouble figuring out my I-phone.

But I am, if nothing else, a good student who loves learning new things. So I took a course on how to Podcast. For a month or so, I worked with my online mentor, fascinated and excited at embarking on a new form of communication to do the thing I love most – teach.

So here it is, the New Heartwood Podcast, Yoga Perspectives. Denver and I, as directors of Heartwood, are the primary hosts, but many people will be invited to join us – people who have information, insight, and inspiration to share. We are lucky to have such a vibrant community of authentic yogis visiting Heartwood often for trainings or yoga experiences, and much of the content of our podcast is inspired by heartfelt questions, shared insight, and the recognition of a lack of understanding when our industry shifts. The podcast is valuable to anyone who wants to learn the deeper dimensions of yoga; however, our slant will be towards material for yoga teachers since our work circles around supporting and educating instructors and mentors.

In the first month of podcasting, I enjoyed a few remarkable interviews with students we have trained, but who I knew had their own wisdom and experience to share as yoga teachers. For example, Jim Dant is a Baptist Minister and after a fascinating conversation we shared where he explained the remarkable similarities between the yoga sutras he was studying with us and his Christian teachings I asked him if he’d like to be featured in our podcast. His insight and references are powerful and clear up many assumptions that often interfere with Westerners fully embracing yoga’s teachings. Cody Mcneeley, another graduate of Heartwood, is developing a program for LGBTQ youth, a subject that explores not just the meaning of yoga for LGBTQ, but the challenges this community faces and why they are attracted to yoga as a path to healing, and he joined me to explain why it is important for a yoga teacher to develop awareness and how and why to create safe spaces for this community.

Our podcasts are exploring issues such as how a Yoga teacher can and should set boundaries, Whether or not joining Yoga Alliance is important to one’s career and involvement in the industry, The perils of Spiritual Materialism (or immaturity) and how a yoga teacher can remain true to the teachings while also establishing a sustainable business (Yoga teaching and money). With a list 5 pages long of subjects we can’t wait to discuss, I see our podcast covering a great deal of ground in a way that sparks thought, action and brings clarity to yoga teachers who long to grow and deepen their authenticity as well as their practice.

We hope everyone will give Yoga Perspectives a listen. Subscribe so you never miss a post. Like us and send us your thoughts or suggestions for future broadcasts. The more people who join the conversation the broader awareness develops not just for the listener, but for everyone he or she teaches as well.

You can find Yoga Perspectives on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Podcast Addict and several other forums. We hope you will join us!

14 – The Five Koshas and Yoga Therapy Yoga Perspectives

In this episode, Denver Clark, ERYT-500 and IAYT Yoga Therapist, discusses the five Koshas and how they can be integrated into yoga classes and yoga therapy sessions. She offers theory and practice insight as well as exercises that can be integrated with asana to increase a student's awareness and open channels of understanding. 
  1. 14 – The Five Koshas and Yoga Therapy
  2. 013: Ahimsa and the Gunas
  3. 012: How to Learn the Yoga Sutras
  4. 011 – Yoga is not diet culture
  5. 010 – Setting Boundaries

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.

YTT: The road to someplace new

Yoga has a way of touching people in the deepest recesses of their heart and mind. It calls to individuals in need of internal peace, a softer way of living, and to those carrying the burden of unresolved issues. Many students begin a yoga practice hoping to conjure up a bit of health and fitness, and indeed gain some flexibility or a lighter body.   People don’t always know why yoga feels good, but they know there must be something special about the practice because in addition to the physical benefits, yoga leaves them feeling stirred up emotionally, deeply calm or surprisingly at peace. 

When yoga students begin to recognize the poignant side effects beyond the physical benefits of stretching, they become seekers. A seeker is someone who looks beyond the mat to understand the physiological, emotional and energetic benefits of yoga, elements which open doorways to deeper connections that forever shift the way one interacts with others, the environment and their own sense of self. 

Once a student discovers yoga as a path to personal growth and wellness, the typical hour long class on the mat can feel limiting. There is a sense that there is more to yoga, but what exactly and how does one learn the deeper elements of the practice?

The physical practice of yoga is a metaphor for life, but it takes a guru or powerful teacher to help a student see that and to understand how to use the tools of yoga to enhance their life and perhaps the lives of others. This, more than any other reason, is why so many people choose to enroll in RYS-200 yoga teacher training programs.  It is exciting to imagine a career as a yoga teacher (or even a part time job to pay for your own yoga classes and workshops if nothing else) but it is even more enticing to dive deeper into the self-discovery of yoga as a path to empowerment and self-actualization. 

Yoga teacher training does exactly that. It teaches people the hows and whys of sharing yoga with others, but more importantly, it unveils the less obvious elements of yoga that leads to transformation and personal enlightenment. Yoga Teacher Training is an unfolding that begins with the familiar – learning the correct way to do poses. Anatomy, sequencing, hands on adjustments and corrections are an important part of learning to be a teacher, but the physical practice of yoga is only one of the eight limbs that make up a viable yoga practice, so a great deal more must be introduced, explored and practiced to become an authentic yogi. RYS-200 courses venture beyond the mat to explore pranayama (breath work) meditation, concentration, philosophy and the difference between western attitudes and eastern approaches to health and wellness. Studying the energy systems, such as quantum healing, chakra theory, and marma points, opens a practioner’s eyes to a whole new level of physical, mental and spiritual understanding.  People who have studied yoga for years and years participate and most will agree – the more you learn about yoga, the more you realize you don’t know. That makes the entire YTT process a great adventure. Expanding awareness is like seeing the world anew. One should not worry about how much they don’t know, and instead be excited for all there is to learn.

At Heartwood the most important part of YTT comes after students have studied the basics of the eight limbs.  Students are guided through intention setting sessions where they begin exploring their own lives, experiences, and relationships in a yogic context. Applying the tools of yoga often leads to a softening of their outlooks and attitudes and they begin healing themselves.  This is not only important so that each individual feels more whole and enriched by yoga training, but so future teachers learn firsthand how deeply powerful yoga can be. When a teacher experiences the healing aspects of yoga personally, they become passionate healers themselves and they go on to teach with conviction and purpose.

Heartwood does not focus on one lineage or style of yoga, and instead exposes the students to a variety of the most popular yoga techniques in America today. By comparing, contrasting and considering yoga beyond its commercial form students uncover the authentic core of yoga beyond the ego, hype and preconceived assumptions associated to defined methods. A diverse foundation is vital to preparing teachers for a variety of employment opportunities too.  A broad-based approach also gives students a wider understanding of yoga’s endless diversity and helps them serve different populations while also discovering and evolving their own voice and style. Just as a college student often receives a liberal arts education before committing to a major in grad school, a broad-based yoga foundation prepares a student to consider the many directions they can take their career or future studies.  

A competent yoga teacher must learn more than how to guide a class through a series of postures. They must learn to integrate all the teachings into the practice. This is the difference between teaching authentic yoga and teaching calisthenics with yoga poses.

A competent yoga teacher must learn more than how to guide a class through a series of postures. They must learn to integrate all the teachings into the practice. this is the difference between teaching authentic yoga and At Heartwood, we encourage teachers to embrace their creativity, instinct, and draw on life experiences to teach people, not poses. A great teacher does more than regurgitate concepts or words that have been programed in by someone else. They must live their yoga and be an example for others.

At Heartwood, we encourage teachers to embrace their creativity, instinct, and draw on life experiences to teach people, not poses. A great teacher does more than regurgitate concepts or words that have been programed in by someone else. They must live their yoga and be an example for others.

Students’ come to yoga teacher training thinking they know exactly what they want from the course, but they often leave with an entirely different idea of yoga and their place in the bigger scheme.  That is what transformation is all about. You just have to begin the journey with non-attachment, because you never know what you will find or where yoga will lead. All you can be sure of is that a deeper study of yoga will lead you someplace new and different. That is the foundation of every great adventure.