Yoga Pose

To See or Not to See

To See or Not to See – That is the Question 

 by Mugs McConnell SOYA, ERYT500, IYTA

Back in 1978 I did my initial yoga teacher training at the Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas. Swami Vishnudevananda and his disciples worked diligently to train us in the science of yoga philosophy as well as the skills of being a teacher of asana. Every day we practiced the Sivananda sequence, memorizing how to lead someone in the surya namaskar (sun salutation) without doing it with them, observing if a student’s shoulders were up by their ears in bhujangasana (cobra), and if toes and knees were aligned with the hip in janu sirsasana (head to knee pose). I worked hard to sharpen my observation skills and develop the ability to assist a student in finding relaxation within the alignment of a pose.

When I left the ashram I ventured out to attend classes with other teachers from other lineages. One day the teacher was doing the class along with the students. She was a full participant in the class. I thought to myself, “Why didn’t I think of that? All this time I have been watching my students do the asanas when I could have been doing the yoga with them and getting in my personal practice at the same time!” I decided to give this time-saving practice a try!watching as lying down

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I picked up a Yoga magazine and read an article on this very topic – yoga teachers were becoming too busy to find time to do their own personal practice. Their solution was to participate alongside their students and do the class with them. The concern of course, is who then is watching the students? Who is seeing to their proper alignment and responding to their progress? Who is noticing if they are able to follow the verbal cues correctly? Who is noticing facial expressions to see if someone is injured or in pain? This is the job of the yoga teacher.

The article came just in time! I was just about to change my habit of leading my class to becoming a participant in my class. Saved by the bell! Ever since then I have kept my personal practice completely separate from when I teach so I can focus on giving my time and attention to the students.

This brings to mind a great quote from yoga master Erich Schiffmann that speaks volumes of our task as teachers.

“The purpose of yoga is to facilitate the profound inner relaxation that accompanies fearlessness. The release from fear is what finally precipitates the full flowering of love. In this state you will love what you see in others, and others will love you for having been seen. This is the softened perception of the world that yoga promotes.”[i]

Let’s take a look at some key words in here.

“Facilitate”

Our job as teachers is to help facilitate, meaning “to make easier or less difficult – to assist the progress of a person”[ii]. How can we do this if we cannot see the students? There are two key ways to facilitate the progress of your students. One is to demonstrate all new and major poses, pointing out the correct alignment and ways to modify the pose to make it easier or more challenging before the students gets into the pose.  The second way to facilitate the progress of your students is to observe them while they are doing the poses. Seeing each and every one of them, and moving around the class if our view is obstructed. This way we can see if they have understood our cues and demonstrations, and if they need assistance to find the safest and most stable alignment in the pose.

This leads me into the next set of key words in the quote from Erich Schiffmann.

“You will love what you see in others…”

How beautiful that is to look at our students and see not only their progress but also our own. It is a gift to notice watching - been seenhow they have responded to our words and learn how skilled we are at helping them to find relaxation in the asana through correct alignment and personal modifications.

If we put ourselves in the shoes of our students, the suggestion to “modify the pose as you need” really has little meaning. A new student may not even consider lowering their hands to their hips in virabhadrasana (warrior) to accommodate their shoulder injury if they have never been shown this modification. Potentially they could simply believe they can’t do the pose at all. However, once taught how to modify to accommodate the shoulders, the student benefits from the strengthening of the core and legs while working on their balance.

Our students show up at class ready to follow our guidance and instructions. Our ability to modify the asanas for them is directly related to their fear – fear of not being able to do yoga well enough, fear of failure, fear of pain. Each time we facilitate a student in finding the place of sthira and sukha or stability with ease, we succeed in removing another layer of their fear and reveal a greater feeling of success. In the words of Mr. Schiffmann, we “facilitate the profound inner relaxation that accompanies fearlessness,which is the purpose of yoga.

And now for the last key words in the quote from Mr. Schiffmann.

“Others will love you for having been seen.

Our students will love us for noticing them, for helping them to relax into their yoga practice, for guiding them to the options they never thought of. When we look at them and really see them, they feel noticed. They know that we care and we know they are there. They begin to trust that we will offer them guidance and assistance if they need it. They will want to show up for us and for themselves. They will feel loved. It may be the only time all day that a student feels noticed, seen, and loved.

Tips for watching your students

Some people are auditory learners and some are visual learners. If we want to reach everyone in the class, then demonstrate new or major poses along with verbal cues and instructions. If you like to teach vinyasas, demonstrate watching bridgethe flow first, then guide students through it verbally.

For all supine poses, ask the students to watch the demonstration first, before they lie down. There is no way students can see our demonstrations if they are lying down, without crooking their necks or straining their backs.

Rule of thumb: If we the teachers are lying on our backs as in setu bandhasana or supta eka padangusthasana, then we are demonstrating the pose. If the students are laying on their backs, then we the teachers are standing up and observing their breathing, comfort level and progress.

After each class, ask yourself what you learned from your students. If we can’t remember seeing the progress or alignment of a student, then be sure to observe them next time. This way we will learn to share our attention and expand our observation skills equally, so all the students have been seen, not just the ones in the front row.

Learn how to guide students through surya namaskar without doing it with them. Start the movements as guidance, mimic the actions to help you follow, but never lose sight of them. If they are in down dog, we can be standing and observing who has a round back and whose wrists are aligned and those who may need guidance to be stable in the pose.

If you like to teach Vinyasa classes, then demonstrate new flows for your visual learners. Then verbally guide the students and watch them as they follow your verbal cues. Offer our assistance and guidance with kindness and care. Ask permission to touch if a physical adjustment is required. If no touch is desired, then use verbal cues and demonstrations to help.

Observe how students breathe in the asanas. If their breath is choppy, suggest modifications so they can soften the pose to a point where their breathing can become smooth. Observe students during pranayama too, to ensure no one is struggling. If your classes are too big to observe everyone, consider making them smaller.

I do actually join the group in meditation – however I often take a little peek just to be sure everyone is okay.

Continue to educate yourself. Sometimes teachers don’t “look” at students because they don’t know what to do if there is a misalignment. Teachers are welcome to come and retreat at the SOYA 300 hour upgrade teacher trainings (as a retreat or the full training) to enhance their ability to observe and modify poses amongst many other things! This is a strength of our teacher trainings!

As a final note, I feel disappointed after class if I realize I missed “seeing” a student. I learn so much from them and they teach me about myself. They are the whole reason I am standing in that class in the first place. They teach me then and there if I need to tone down the class I planned or kick it up a notch. They give me direction about what to plan for the next class by showing me what they are ready for. I would not be the teacher I am today if I hadn’t learned to observe their breath, their struggles, and their victories.

Mugs-listeningMarion (Mugs) McConnell, ERYT500 is a co-owner of SOYA with her husband Robert. She has been practicing yoga for 43 years, teaching yoga for 38 years, and training teachers for 21 years. She is the Canadian representative for the International Yoga Teachers Association, a Board Member for Yoga Alliance, and the author of Letters From the Masters: Teachings Revealed from Paramhansa Yogananda, Ramana Maharshi, Swami Sivananda and Others.

[i] Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness, by Erich Schiffmann

[ii] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/facilitate

 

 

How do I know when my Nadis are Purified?

How do I know when my Nadis are Purified? 

By Marion (Mugs) McConnell, ERYT500, SOYA, SYVCA, Canadian Representative for IYTA

During the immersion portion of our Yoga Teacher Trainings, we engage in a steady practice of Nadi Sodhana for two weeks, morning and evening. The purpose of this is to get established in this pranayama practice for the purpose of purifying our nadis.  A very good question came up during a study session in our training, “How do I know when my nadis are purified?”

 

My first response to the question was, “When the prana is able to go into the sushumna” but of course the next logical question that came back was “How do you know when it does that?” There are certain things that occur, like unmani avastha, a state of deep concentration where the breath stops and the mind becomes still (Hatha Yoga Pradipika Chapter 2 verse 4-10).

 

Swami Sivananda says in his book “The Science of Pranayama”, when the nadis are purified there is a “lightness of the body, brilliancy in complexion, increase of the gastric fire, leanness of the body, and the absence of restlessness”.  He says in the first stage of purification perspiration arises without effort, the middle stage is the tremor of the body, and the last stage is levitation in the air” (or in a broader sense, siddhis begin to appear).

 

When you do a cleansing fast, you really notice the difference in how you feel during and after the fast. It is difficult at first, and you may feel rather ill as the toxins are cleaned out.  As time passes, you begin to feel lighter and brighter and terrific!  It is similar when you do yoga practices to cleanse the nadis.  At the start you may not feel too well as blockages begin to release.  Blockages in the nadis often manifest themselves physically, so you may feel symptoms such as headaches, emotionally off balance, or one nasal passage becomes blocked.

 

Gradually, over time through the cleanse you have more energy and more clarity too. You feel good about yourself and your discipline and the results are generally quite delicious. There is a peacefulness that comes with the cleansing of the nadis because the thoughts are no longer jumping between the right and left brain… the union of “ha” and “tha” has brought this into balance and we experience santosha or contentment.

 

But nadis can become impure again if you, for example, reinstate junk food into your body, smoke, allow negative thoughts to run untamed, or cultivate ill intentions. So the nadis don’t necessarily stay purified if you don’t keep up your practice on all levels, on and off the mat.

 

When we do our yoga we are working with more than the physical body. Our sadhana also affects the astral body (which includes the emotional and mental aspects of our being), and the causal body (which involves our spiritual well- being).  Each layer of maya we uncover takes us closer to another vritti or samskara to perhaps deal with. As we change and develop our thought patterns through our yoga practices (ie: how we respond to new circumstances) they reflect the cleanliness of our nadis.  Pure thoughts = pure nadis, and negative thoughts such as fear or anger = not so clean nadis.

 

In Chapter 2 verse 4-10 in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika we discuss the cleansing of the nadis.

 

Nadis(4) When the nadis are impure, breath cannot penetrate into the sushumna. Then the yogi achieves nothing, nor can he reach the state of deep concentration [unmani avastha].

If there are blockages in our 72,000 nadis then the prana, or life force, is impeded in its flow.  Nadis are the energy channels for the flow of prana, the life force that brings movement to our bodies and thoughts.  The chakras are transmitters of this energy, and they have the potential to transmit both positive and negative energy depending upon where our thoughts and behaviours are centered.  Therefore, this energy is expressed or manifested in our outward actions through our body.

I often say “I see myself through the reactions of others towards me.”  If I am angry or annoyed, this will create a reaction in others that reflects my state of mind. If I am angry or annoyed, I am distracted (attachment) and I cannot concentrate.  My state of mind is a reflection of how purified my nadis are.  As yogis we are constantly trying to live a higher life and increase the supply of prana through the nadis to the sushumna. Only then will we feel peaceful and therefore be able to reach the state of deep concentration.

(5) Only when all the nadis, which are still impure, become purified can the yogi practice pranayama successfully.

(6) Therefore one should practice pranayama with the mind in sattvic condition until the sushumna is free from impurities.

Here we are back to the basics of the yamas and niyamas.  A sattvic mind is essential for success in ALL practices of yoga, and definitely during the practice of pranayama.  Pranayama is the ability to control the movement of the life force. It establishes intention and focus.  A wandering mind means the prana is being dissipated away from the task at hand – yoga or union with the Self.

A sattvic mind is reflected in our outward expressions through our body.  Kindness, compassion, understanding, patience, a peaceful presence, loving actions; these are all outward expressions of a sattvic mind.  By practicing the positive expression of your True Self regularly, steadily, and catching those negative thoughts before they get a chance to have any power, it will help you to maintain the sattvic state of mind, particularly during pranayama.

Sattva must become established in thought, word and deed. This may seem like far too much of a challenge, but we are given the tools to change our thought-waves from negative to positive in Patanjali’s yoga sutras where we discover the mind is made up of “manas, buddhi and ahamkara”.  Manas is that which records the incoming information from the senses.  Buddhi is that which classifies this information as truth, untruth, etc.  Buddhi is normally clouded by the ego, the ahamkara, and therefore classifies information under the influence of the ego.  This is because we are more in tune with our “ego-personality” than we are with our Spirit.

The Spirit is rich with the qualities of love, peace, compassion, non-judgment, etc. The ego-personality has the potential of both positive and negative qualities because it is in this manifested world.  Therefore, we must establish the habit that each time the mind receives information through the senses, we pause before judgment. We don’t make assumptions, we don’t jump to conclusions, but we filter the information based on the higher principles of yoga beyond the ego, and then classify the information according to the principles of the Spirit.

Let me give you an example.  An older couple lived in my community.  The wife passes away in the fall, and I went to Mexico for the winter.  When I returned, I was walking by the man’s home and saw a woman going in the front door. I immediately assumed he had remarried.

Recognizing my quick assumption, I immediately stopped the thought wave of him being remarried to further assess the situation before I jumped to conclusions.  She could have been his sister, housekeeper, friend… there were numerous options!

Manas had recorded what it had “seen” through the eyes (senses).  My ahamkara “ego-personality” immediately influenced the buddhi to classify this information based on the assumption the man had remarried.  I caught myself by observing my thought waves, and thus stopped the influence from the ego-personality, allowing the buddhi to reclassify the information as based on no truth whatsoever.

Simple example of how we control our thought-waves. Not a very important situation (and really none of my business), but this is how our mind works! So by putting this process of observation into practice on the little things like this will create a new standard of observation for when we encounter the bigger, more important circumstances in life where we really need to see things “clearly”!  No matter how unimportant the circumstances may seem, it is always important to establish yourself in Truth, sattva, a pure mind.

Yoga is the control of thought waves in the mind. To emphasize how important this is for our yoga practice and the purification of the nadis, I quote from Yoga-Age.com, “If we now become aware that every breath we take is in a sense pranayama, we can readily realize how frequently we damage our delicate psyche with an impure or bad thought. In the long run we shorten our lives with every negative gesture in deed, word, or thought by overburdening the conductors of the life stream with these impurities.”

Now, for the last few verses in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika on the process for cleansing the nadis:

(7) Assuming the padmasana posture, the yogi shall guide the prana through the left nostril [chandra = moon] to the ida nadi, and, after having retained the breath as long as possible [in kumbhaka], should exhale it through the right nostril [surya = sun].

(8) Then he should inhale through the right nostril, do kumbhaka according to the rule, and exhale through the left nostril.

(9) Inhalation is [always] through the same nostril as the previous exhalation. After the breath has been retained to the utmost possible limit [until perspiration breaks out or the body begins to trembler, one should exhale slowly–never quickly [since that reduces the energy of the body].

(10) Take in prana through the ida nadi and exhale it through the pingala. Then take in [new prana] through pingala and release it through ida, after having held it [in kumbhaka] as long as possible. The yogi who has perfected himself in the yamas [having thus developed the sattvic mind] will purify his nadis in three months [of practice].

So, how do you know if your nadis are purified?  Watch your thoughts and watch your actions, and they will reflect exactly how purified your nadis are. And remember these wise words from the Katha Upanishad, “When the five senses and the mind are still, and reason itself rests in silence, then begins the Path Supreme.  This calm steadiness of the senses is called Yoga.  Then one should become watchful, because Yoga comes and goes.” 

Resources:

Hatha Yoga Pradipika, commentary by Swami Vishnudevananda

How to Know God, The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, commentary by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood

The Science of Pranayama, by Swami Sivananda

The Upanishads, commentary by Juan Mascaro

Yoga-Age.com