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Friday, February 25, 2011

Egotistical Yoga Teachers -- An Article

Below is a recent Newsweek piece a friend forwarded me. Yoga is today a multimillion-dollar industry/ business, and there is no looking back ... A very  interesting piece:

Bow Down to the Yoga Teacher

by Casey Schwartz February 20, 2011

Marco, the tattooed instructor at the front of the room, is all charisma. He stalks; he pounces; he perches on my back as he corrects my Janu Sirsasana pose (otherwise known as a forward bend). “If you tell it to me from your mind, I’m not interested,” he announces, to begin the class. “That’s just drama. I’ve got my own drama.” It can be difficult to exit the studio when Marco’s class is over: people lingering to talk to him block the door.

Do yoga, transcend your ego, and discover your inner humility—at least that’s the idea behind this ancient spiritual practice. The enlightened person is “friendly and compassionate, free from self-regard and vanity,” promises the Bhagavad-Gita. But in the recent past, around the time that $100 yoga pants became as common as designer jeans, the once inconspicuous yoga instructor has morphed into something more grandiose. Now certain teachers display all the monkishness of Keith Richards cooling his heels in the greenroom as adoring fans reach a peak of anticipation.

The aura of high priest surrounds not just celebrity instructors like Marco, who teaches at Pure Yoga, and is known throughout the New York yoga scene for his godlike presence, but the ranks of proletarian instructors as well. The New York City–based filmmaker Ariel Schulman goes to a weekly class at Kula in Greenwich Village. He knows the instructor is in the building when he arrives. “But she comes into class late. She waits for the room to fill up—I feel the drumroll, sitting cross-legged waiting for her—and she makes her grand entrance.” The lights dim, and her patter begins: “Who don’t I know?” she asks. “Who haven’t I met?”

In America, yoga has become a mainstream and marketable cult—20 million people practice regularly, according to some estimates—and its teachers are, in a sense, performers. That’s why the narcissistically inclined can be drawn to the job, says Miles Neale, a Buddhist psychotherapist based in New York. Becoming a yoga teacher allows an insecure person to act spiritually superior. But the dynamic is two-sided. For the yoga teacher to become inflated, the student must inflate. Yoga acolytes, like rock-band groupies, hang on the approval of their favorite gurus—thus allowing that narcissism to flourish. “People elevate because they want to be accepted by the one that’s elevated,” Neale says. “That makes them feel good.”

Some yoga-diva antics would be considered bad manners even in Hollywood. Jennifer Needleman, a film editor, woke up before dawn recently to attend a new class at her local Venice, Calif., yoga studio. So few students showed up that the teacher declined to teach. It simply wasn’t worth her time, she said. Matt White, a member of the L.A.-based band Earl Greyhound, remembers resting on his back at the end of one class when the instructor seized the chance to burst into song. “I could be wrong, but I swear to God, he was singing something from a musical, like from Pippin,” says White. Carrie Campbell, a Pilates instructor in New York, was midpose at the notoriously purist Jivamukti studio, when her instructor approached, paused, and sniffed. “I can tell by the smell of your sweat that you’re not a vegetarian,” she announced for the whole class to hear. Campbell has not returned since.

Instructors concede that there’s a lure to giving in to their egotistical impulses. “When I start to feel powerful—that’s a dangerous place to be,” says Emily Wolf, a yoga instructor who is also studying to be a psychologist. When she begins to feel that way, she remembers her own teachers “who continue to put me in my place,” she says. The megalomaniacs, she believes, have lost sight of the fact that they were ever students themselves.

Paul & Suzee Grilley (Part 3)

Okay, I might have over-reacted a little yesterday ... The 30-Hour Yin Yoga Teacher Training came to a satisfying conclusion today -- I got my certificate!! -- and I think Paul is truly a dedicated yoga practitioner/ teacher. Sure, he was critical of other schools (I didn't miss/like his sarcastic references) but, with hindsight, I don't think he was dissing them. He simply wants practising yoga teachers/students to understand that, by following blindly and rigidly "traditional rules", they may risk hurting their students/themselves. Full stop. I was particularly touched/moved by his end-of-course speech: that with the extra knowledge/info we've learnt over the past five days, we should use it wisely and kindly ... and not to use it to embarrass teachers who might not know their A-Z of Human Anatomy. After all, most yoga teachers only want the best for their students, not to hurt them, he said. Paul did admit his teaching style may not be everyone's cuppa (he can say that again) ... but his intentions are good and genuine. He also reminded us all to be true to ourselves. So I miss their teaching already!!! The couple said they'd come back to HK/Asia again but it won't be for another year or so.

Now I know my heels don't have to touch the floor when doing down dog (whatever the primary functional purpose(s) of the pose is, it ain't stretching the hamstrings!) and will be more kind to myself from now on. I am also looking forward to practising with my fav teachers again -- and to see how I can complement their style with my new found knowledge and attitude.

Paul says our body/health will continue to deteriorate with age and, well, death is inevitable. And no amount of Yoga practice will change or stop that. But if we continue to practise yoga, it will improve our mobility. The pain may still be there but at least we will not be, like, bed/wheelchair bound when we get old (for some of us, that could well mean in our 40s!). 

I honestly have learnt so much over the past five days and have met some wonderful like-minded yoga practitioners from around the region and this city -- Hi Shiang, Marcus, Mel, Kenny, Oxana, Stefane and Mel!!! -- I hope I will run into them again and practise together in the future.  

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Paul & Suzee Grilley (Part 2)

Today's training has been a little weird.

But first, it has been a totally liberating experience to learn that there are no fixed ways, or the "proper right way", of practising yoga asanas. For instance, when doing a spinal twist lying down, it is okay to keep either the crossed bent knees or the shoulder on the ground -- there is no need to keep both knees AND the shoulder on the ground -- better still, to straighten the top leg onto the floor and then rest the shoulder on the floor. As long as I am achieving the pupose of the pose, it is FINE. It doesn't have to LOOK right. 

Also, it is totally okay to not be able to get into certain poses (Bird of Paradise, or in my case, Prawn of Paradise, for instance) because of anatomical limitations. It is something I may have to come to terms with (especially when I see my instuctors or fellow students give their body a beautiful full and open twist!!) but not having the physical built for certain yoga poses is simply a fact of life. And no matter how long or hard I practise, unless I have an operation, it's not going to happen. All this does bring me to the fundamental question: Why am I practising yoga? My answer is the same as it was months ago: to pay more attention to the body, to take care of it and, in more recent months, to start using asanas to keep the body healthy - the fact it feels darn good is a bonus! (I have not reached the spiritual stage yet ...)

So, in that respect, I'm still enjoying this teacher training by Paul and Suzee. However, this afternoon, especially towards the end of the class, it became more and more apparent that someone really had an axe to grind -- and it weren't the students. 

I take Paul's point that there shouldn't be "fixed rules" in yoga practice because everyone's body is different but he went a little further in, in a tongue-in-cheek way, slamming other yoga schools (though, in all fairness, he says all systems are good BUT, on the other hand, he also points out that each and every asana is bad for somebody) ... Thus it kinda becomes a little confusing as to what exactly are the objectives (or agenda) of his training course: to advocate better understanding of Yoga Anatomy and its applications in yoga teaching and learning? I think the couple is doing a fantasic and admirable job in that; OR to diss other yoga schools, which I honestly thought Paul was doing this afternoon. The way he dismissed questions (from genuinely dedicated yogo teachers) that challenged HIS views and beliefs with a wave of a hand was also alarming.

I did walk away doubting (briefly) my own teachers (have they been WRONG?) I mean, yes, I think there had been instances when they asked me to get into challenging poses without taking into consideration of my anatomical makeup but I think, at the end of the day, they just wanted me to experience the sensations of the pose ~ their intentions are always good and for my benefit. I don't think for a moment they are out to hurt their students.

Well, tomorrow is the last day of the training and I will get a neat little certificate. But what is more important is that I hope I'll come out of this as a better student ... and not a confused one who doubts about his own practice and teachers ... 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Paul & Suzee Grilley (Part 1)

Have now completed Day Two of my five-day teacher training in Yoga Anatomy, conducted by Paul and Suzee Grilley , and am very impressed. I'm impressed not only by the fact this couple from the US have a combined 40-50+ years of experience in practising/teaching Yin Yoga (this genre is explained in details in earier posts) but their commitment to the teaching of this art form. While part of the course is on learning the technicalties of human anatomy (what and where is the Femur bone, the Hamstrings, the Adductors, the Quadriceps ... basically things that I've been obsessed with for awhile!), a good part of the teaching (and the essential message they try to get across) is that we practise asanas in order to benefit from them. A quick example, some yin poses work the sacrum so to help us maintain the mobility of the lower back esp. as we age.

Practising yoga is not about looking impressive with our flexibility (think that is called circus act). As Everyone is built differently - even our own left and right hip sockets are seldom identical - so there is no point 1) for the students to struggle in achieving "the right/perfect look" and 2) for the teachers to try to get the students into "the right/perfect look", and it's actually dangersou for teachers to impose a certain pose on a student without fully understanding his/her anatomical make-up. Anatomical tension can be eased, compression is a fact of life.

This is a complete revelation. I still have instructors who tell students to do this and that pose without explaining why. I can understand how individual adjustment may not be possible especially in a big class but to explain to students what they are doing and why they are doing it is so vital in both the process of teaching and learning. I am not here to dig teachers ... but Paul and Suzee certainly have made me approach my own practice differently. What am I trying to do? While I am in the pose, am I getting the benefitsof the poses? If not, why not? Can I move this way? Can I move that way? If I look good while doing the poses, ha, that's a bonus but definitely not means to an end.

So, no more hangs up about not being able to do the double pigeon or lotus positions because my anatomical makeup simply doesn't allow me to do that ... but that is fine, cos there are always other poses that offer the same benefits and I won't have to break my knees for them.

Day Three commence this afternoon and I can't wait to learn more about the spinal twist! 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

An Effective Exercise

Yesterday I took a yoga class that specifically targetted the pelvis>hip areas and it was an interesting - inspiring, even - experience. We did the standard poses - triangle, side angle, half moon etc - but our instructor drawn our attention and focus inward, trying to get us to feel the subtle hip movements - e.g. the rotation of the femur bone in the hip socket - through various asanas.

I wasn't quite sure What I was feeling Where but I certainly felt Something, for instance, when I was stacking my hips in half moon. In this pose, there was this sensation (which is hard to explain in words) on the hip/side closer to the floor, and the more I wanted to straighten the pose the more I stronger the sensation. Am wondering whether it was also the iliopsoas muscles (being stretched) that were giving me that...  all this I am hoping to learn in the forthcoming yoga anatomy training session.

Today though, I "invented" an exercise that can help me feel the various movements in the hip area: I lift one leg up onto the back of a chair so it's at 90 degrees with my standing leg. Facing my lifted leg, I can then bend forward, stretching the hamstring; then turning my body slowly to the side to Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (see Action Man below) and gentlely rotate my femur bone in the hip socket (or at least that is what I think I am doing); then I rotate my lifted leg downward so I can proceed to half moon. This pose feels superb especially when the chair is providing  support to my lifted leg! After doing both sides, the pelvic region, including the lower back, really feels it's been exercised. I think I can really work this into my daily routine. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pre-Training Jitters

For someone who thought Gray's Anatomy was a TV Series than a textbook (Grey's Anatomy, however, IS), perhaps I shouldn't be taking a training course on Yoga Anatomy. But I've signed up for one and it's going to start this weekend. And I am feeling a tad nervous about it. Do I know my gluteus maximus from my gluteus medius? With a bit of hope, I won't have to remember all these technical terms (after all, I failed my biology exams spectacularly when I was at school). I just visited the web site of the trainer (Paul Grilley) and it says: "What is most immediately relevant to Hatha Yoga practitioners is 'How does my body move?' or even more precisely 'Why does my body not move the way I want it to?'" Well, these are exactly the questions I want to explore; the more in tune I am with my body -- to be aware of how it feels and sensitive to what it can or cannot do -- the more I want to know how everything works, anatomically -- and that is why I've signed up this course. Tonight at my usual Core class with the Perfect Human Specimen, I became very aware of the inbalance between the left and right side of my body. It appears my left leg is a lot weaker than my right leg, yet my left hip is a lot more loose/less tight than my right hip (weird, huh?!?) Through this course, I hope I can find ways to strike a better balance between the two sides of my body as well as the Yin and the Yang.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Transformation

... Not mine but that of a fellow yoga practitioner. This guy -- who looks Japanese but is, in fact, Chinese -- and I used to attend the same Core class and we used to team up for partner work. I'd always admired his dedication and determination because he was, physically, quite large and holding the down dog or standing forward fold was quite a challenge  for him. Well, that was about a 18 months ago. Because of his busy work schedule, he stopped going to this Core class and I hadn't seen him around for about six months. So when he showed up tonight, looking more slim and healthy, I was, like, Wow! He has continued to practise all this time ~ and it shows. His handstand is firm and his body upright, and his core is strong. After the class I told him he had definitely lost weight and he said that was probably the result of going to hot classes. "No," I told him, "It's a myth. You are more likely to lose water, not fat in hot classes." Fat you need to burn. However, since he has kept up with his practice, it is probably the regular exercising that is reducing the waistline.

Tonight's class was really a killer but enjoyable as usual (okay, Quite enjoyable ... I did scream out OH MY GOD when the Perfect Human Specimen said we were to do another set of core exercise that almost reduced me to tears... he was only joking ~ BWAH!!! ) Am now working on this pose called Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (left) ... it is a lot harder than it looks ~ Really!!! Trying to keep both legs straight is a real challenge but I think I am getting there; give me maybe another year and I should be able to kick my leg up as high as it's illustrated on the left (I think you need quite a loosen hip/hamstrings to do that). Hmm, I think I am quickly developing an Action Man Envy ...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bloodshot Eyes

For most HK families, the first three days of the Chinese New Year are a particular hectic time. There are relatives to see, mahjong to play and lots and lots of turnip cakes to be consumed. Not for me (luckily). Each year my parents cross the border to, err, avoid the relatives/turnip cakes to fully immerse themselves in their mahjong playing, freeing ME up from all the family visits is well. And I'm, frankly, too lazy to visit the few friends I have (which might explain why I actually don't have that many friends).

So today I got up early, feeling gung ho as usual, and  reached out for 1) the alarm/Blackberry, 2) the radio and 3) my PSP. Of course, there HAD to be a bloody glitch in my new Yu-Gi-Oh game -- the "heart meter", which was full when I went to bed last night, was completely drained -- meaning I had to fight zillions of duellists all over again (for those who are not familiar with this game, just say this is a very laborious process). The only saving grace was that, at least, I got to know the game better and I am actually getting quite good at this ***evil laughter*** And before I could say Yu-Gi-Oh, it was time to yoga.

Today, it was all about going upside down (or Inversion). Think my instructor, Mister M, was a bit tired and the structure of the class was a little, well, inverted ... that is, we did headstand/handstand poses BEFORE the Core exercises (I thought it should be the other way round?) Anyway, it was fun all the same because we just kept moving and there is never a dull moment in Mister M's class (oh yes, not all classes are interesting ... I once nodded off in the middle of a triangle pose because the instructor, a very nice girl from Australia, had this extraordinary monotonous voice that just kinda droned in the background ... Zzz) 

Feeling energetic after the 90-min class, I grabbed a wholesome salad for lunch then headed back home to play some more PSP ~ in between watching some movies on my computers (inc. one called 127 Hours and Eat Pray Love, which both coincidentally feature this US actor called James Franco. He's kinda cool but the movies!?? Hmm. I think I prefer watching the Spider-man.)

My eyes are now watery so I think it's time to call it a day. Tomorrow is just another day: instead of gaming between movies, I will be gaming between work ;o)-