Next Steps

Early in the pandemic, the Iyengar Institute of New York moved classes online. Like everyone else, the roughly 40-person faculty assumed it would be a few weeks without teaching in person. Maybe a month. But you know what happened.

I bought equipment. Classes took on more cohesion. We found a way to make it work. That is to say: online classes do work, and far better than expected. My Friday night class roster included new friends abroad in places like Singapore, Japan, and the Philippines, as well as locals who I had met in person before then pandemic.

Now, well over a year into this new reality, online teaching and studying has become central in my life. Iyengar Yoga classes are expressly designed to foster an independent home practice, and studying with a teacher of your choice in your home is a fantastic place to start. I’ve seen my own students thrive, take risks, and really customize the work for their own unique situations. I feel that my own studies have flourished, with access to teachers outside of my local area.

With in-person classes returning as a choice, I intend to begin by offering some in-person workshops in my own space in the South Prospect Park area of Brooklyn. I would say my target would be September at the latest, but I hope to have something sooner.

low and slow

Cooking many meals per week is a cornerstone of our household since my wife and I began living together. During this pandemic, we cook most meals we eat. Cook enough and you start to see your patterns. Now many months into this new routine, I observed a tendency to treat vegetables the same ways. Onions always cooked on the hotter side with a lot of color. Brussels sprouts? Roasted and charred. A lot of heat can be great, but I was surprised the other day when I did the onions at a more medium-low heat with little color. The chopped garlic was fragrant and danced around in the pan just for a while before the brussels sprouts went in. I used a generous amount of broth and simmered them for about 12 minutes. The result was a different taste. There were sweet tones from cooking longer and with a more gentle intensity.

My postural practice went through a similar revision this fall. When that lump below my ear turned out to be a tumor in my parotid gland, I had to get a somewhat invasive surgery with a recovery period. My movements, particularly for the first two weeks, were very limited. But with props and creativity, I was able to do a lot. Forward extensions with my head resting became a source of comfort. Because I was very nervous leading up to the surgery, there was a lot to let go of. Suffice it to say, now 6 weeks or so out of surgery, I’m aware of the balance that I need to strike as I add more ‘heat’ to the practice. Strong poses, like for instance parsvakonasana, can still be cooked low and slow. Reflective action and breath awareness make the work actually yoga for me – at the risk of sounding very cliche.

If you are stuck at home with some time and wondering what to practice, try practicing few poses with a careful attention to your feelings in each pose. The restorative poses, such as supta baddha konasana, are certainly the easiest ones to do this with. But then I’m confident you can take that into whatever you do, and whatever you want to work on. Try it. Otherwise, in my experience, we can do active postures with too rigorous a mindset and just get stuck in measuring physical progress (“can I touch my toes/ bind/ come up with straight legs”). Those things have their place; it’s hard to be ‘quiet’ in head balance if you cannot execute it. But if you can see the refinements we make as a way in which to go deeper ‘inside’ and more effectively reflect, the experience is very different.

Back from Pune

I had an excellent month studying at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune. My schedule included classes with Abhijata, Raya, Rajlaxmi, and many other fine instructors.

Confusing and Amazing

A discipline like yoga humbles the earnest practitioner to such a degree that the idea of mastery is a distant dream – a point B to keep us going. In one sense, this is just perfect, as we should always see ourself as at point A. And yet. During a recent class at the Iyengar Institute of New York, teacher Kevin Gardiner said, “This work is intermediate/advanced – it isn’t how you teach a beginner, nor is it how a beginner should practice.” He then went on to discuss how Iyengar himself practiced differently than his students. I don’t think Mr. Gardiner meant that as a lofty, divisive statement. I took it to mean that there was a depth Iyengar was practicing toward that required he treat his movements and actions in a more refined manner, and that it was the natural result of all his prior work.
In my teaching, I’m often working with students to create a clear framework. In one sense, the idea of mastery is akin to fine motor skills developing in a child – i.e. they have ‘mastered’ the use of their hands when they can pick things up, open doors, etc. When a beginner struggles with the physical movement of Trikonasana, that period of wrestling with the shape is essential to learning. Once we are established in the idea of Trikonasana, it makes room for another level of observation and experience. It doesn’t in any way say that the pose is finished or perfected, it just allows the work to occur on another level – because it can and, I think Mr. Gardiner, and Mr Iyengar, in fact, would say because it must.

Suffice it to say, one struggles to find accurate or effective wording to convey this. Mr. Gardiner lead us through familiar postures, such as Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose), imbued with a distinct depth of detail in the abdomen, frontal pelvis and various parts of the hand. The work of the hand made a familiar movement, that I had done literally thousands of times, feel completely different. We tell a beginner to stretch their arms, but this approach made the arms feel alert yet more relaxed. It was confusing and amazing.

And so I left the room both confused and amazed, ever more aware of the work needed to be done. Mastery on a very superficial level might mean having a big picture idea of what a posture is. It makes room for another point A, and an ever more wonderfully distant point B.

During high school, I was playing electric bass. I jammed with friends, listened to records, and talked about music every spare second. At some point, I stumbled upon a collection of essays about various Jazz musicians. The descriptions about each artist, from avant-garde stalwart Albert Ayler, to Count Basie and Duke Ellington, remained etched into my subconscious long before I’d heard much of their music. Now, in one sense, reading a book (I’m pretty sure critic Gene Lees was the author) of this ilk was invaluable in one way; it exposed to me to the vast and diverse world of jazz, and it could be argued that I might have not discovered any of these musicians without some guidance.

But it had consequences somehow. I didn’t realize that I’d been seduced by the curator class.

What the hell is that??

The curator’s role is not making stuff. At best, a curator serves as a needed, or at least useful, conduit between stuff and you (the consumer). So I was reading the well-articulated views of a non-musician, or an amateur musician, who clearly felt passionately about the subject of jazz, and checking out recordings. But the words were hopelessly in front of the experience. Does that make sense? I think it makes sense if you’ve experienced what I’m talking about. I think this sort of backwards entry into jazz created an approach that I’d call head-first, euphemistically. It created a harmful pattern of putting too many words around an experience, and it took a long time to break out of it.

It’s hard. We have to have names for stuff. But even that is a problem. When I teach ‘yoga’, I have to use words, and I have to call the subject ‘yoga’. In a sense that definition is the conduit for an idea, but is it the idea? I’m not sure. I do know that my attention to simple movement in the body takes me somewhere, and that experience is easily tainted by definition. I’m hopeful my words are conduits for authentic ideas in my students. But my seeing (and saying, really) are limited in the end.

Social media fosters a fertile environment for aspiring curators. One could probably say that any educator is a curator of ideas, but the modern ‘curator class’ I’m referring to are web critics, bloggers (ha) and the like who put short blurbs above articles, links to books, recordings, etc.

Yoga has its own legion of curators. You can even take workshops with yoga curators, which is kind of insane, since a yoga instructor is another curator. So it’s essentially curated curation. Anyway, I’ve stated that internet discourse is usually reactive. Thus the pull is all the more seductive. I know this piece might be confusing, but I need to cement my commitment to the ‘doing’ role, and leave the curators to talk about it amongst themselves.


Fall News

I’m pleased to announced that I’ve passed assessment, and am Certified Iyengar Yoga Techer (CIYT). I previously completed another training in 2009.  This process was far more labor intensive, but very worthwhile. Coming later this fall, I hope to have a lot more offerings at my home studio. Watch this space for a new site and a bit of rebranding.

I continue to teach a wide range of public classes. In my home, I’m going to establish courses, which many might not realize was the way classes were originally sold at the Iyengar Institue of New York. As a matter of fact, though they are no longer explicitly sold that way, they are still taught that way. I’m excited to offer students in my area a bona fide yoga education, as opposed to the casual class.

I’d like to publicly express thanks to the many students, current and former, who helped me to learn and pass my assessment. You are my real teachers!

Back to School

It’s the first week back to school for many. This is a great time of year, and many of us recommit to our disciplines with more zeal, or find new outlets. To be honest, I’ve been ‘back to school’ for several years, and am basically in the throes of it. When you decide to take on Iyengar teaching as a thing, you basically become a full-time student forever. The certification process is long and arduous. It’s worked really well for me. Basically it’s forced me to understand the work to a degree that I might not have otherwise. And it’s put me in the room observing my teacher, James Murphy, for hundreds of hours. Like jazz, we learn teaching osmotically. I watch what he says, and what he doesn’t say. I watch what he does, and doesn’t do. I move things around in the room, mainly to make things work out better for the students. Sometimes I rescue someone stuck in sarvangasana. 

What struck me the most about Iyengar Yoga was the quality of the teachers, and the community that, in my view, is really based on teaching. Iyengar himself had a fervent commitment to teaching and learning. I lament that what I see in the contemporary culture of yoga has veered away from that. Popular classes are mainly lead sequences without any precision, detail or refinement. But rue learning is demanding, and not always polite. Generally, learning thoroughly involves unlearning habits that are holding one back, and that’s rarely much fun. But kriya yoga begins with tapas (austerity, mortification, inner fire), according to Patanjali. That’s where the parinarma (transformation) takes hold.

So, with the new school year now afoot, consider redoubling your commitment to your yoga practice. Study with teachers who demand the most of you. As Genny Kapuler often says, “Even a long life isn’t forever”.