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yoga blog

brain yoga

brain yoga

We all have physical and verbal tics that we use to release nervous energy when teaching postures. Pacing, shifting weight from one leg to another, in one case, furious hair twirling are some of the physical manifestations. We talk a lot about “comfort words”, unnecessary words that are thrown repeatedly into the dialogue like “now”, “and”, and “alright”. My tic is the vocalization “uh”. When it is bad an “uh” will come at the beginning of every phrase, causing my listeners to suffer almost as much as I am.

Perfecting elocution is exactly the same as perfecting yoga postures. The aim of both is to eliminate everything superfluous until every part of every action is necessary to expression. Remove anything and the expression is incomplete, add anything and it is either redundant or not part of the expression.

If the standardized text is communicated with perfect economy the student stands a much better chance of being able to translate the words in their brain into physical actions. Listening is already a challenge for the student; listening is not just hearing, it is hearing and translating words coming from the entire universe of the experience of the teacher into commands to manipulate the body. There is a lot of interference in that process, thoughts about the heat in the room, the person on the mat next to me, about my own body, vanilla ice cream, the pain in my knee, my second ex-wife, the time I got to ride a roller-coaster twice and got really sick afterwards. Once I get back to the translation, having forgotten half the words, I find I don’t really understand the instruction so my translation is faulty, or I decide to modify an instruction I do understand, or I just ignore the instruction, allowing my body to slip into automatic pilot and do the same thing I have done before.michael-teaches-yoga

Such are the mental challenges for the student, the brain yoga part of yoga. As a teacher, I have a similar challenge in mitigating interference, vanilla ice cream and second ex-wives. I also have distractions in the room, but the people on the mats are not distractions, I have assumed responsibility for them. My actions can detract from the experience of anyone and everyone in the room, just as they can contribute to the students having a great yoga session.

communicate with energy

As hard as delivering words with the maximum economy is, it is only the beginning of teaching. The words are transmitted with energy, energy that must be modulated according to what you are telling the students to do and external conditions such as the heat in the room and the individual practice of each student. At the evolation yoga teacher training we did an exercise to implant this idea in our teacher’s brains, throwing different colors balls to each other as we yelled out words of dialogue. Emphasis may be modified as you observe your students and see what they need, “don’t bend your knees” comes out stronger to a room of bent knees or “toes pointed” to a room of straight knees but toes going every which way.

transcend the dialogue

Mark Drost told us that every teacher evolation has trained has arrived at the point where the standardized text becomes “transcendent”. Interesting word. The obvious advantage to memorizing dialogue is that it takes a lot of knowledge and experience to describe yoga postures with the maximum economy so that the student will translate the instructions into physical actions with equal economy. Even with their decades of experience, the senior members of the evolation yoga teacher training team have and continue to labor mightily at this. Without a set text, the teacher would be required to ad-lib the right words, with the necessary economy, and deliver them at the right speed corresponding to the desired duration of the pose, and, at the same time, adjust to the conditions in the class at the moment. Daunting task.

We all ad-lib to some extent from the very beginning, it can be hard to make 100% of someone else’s words flow out of one’s mouth perfectly. Our ability to recall and recite dialogue is imperfect and we sometimes try to smooth over our lapses with our own intercalations. With great experience we may find ourselves increasingly able to go directly from our own perfect mental image of the postures to words, the crutch of the dialogue may eventually be simply largely unnecessary. We started on that path during teacher training, with posture clinics and anatomy classes being foundations of that perfect mental image. However, Mark assured us that even very experienced teachers who have experienced the high levels of brain yoga needed to go effortlessly form perfect mental images to maximum economy in words still return to the dialogue. hot-yoga-teacher-training-250-300

Brain yoga, like physical yoga, is yoga, the full expression is a perpetually distant ideal that keeps us moving in the right direction with an efficient alignment of body parts and mind. The standardized text is the word equivalent to the physical image, it is only with that ideal in our mind that we begin to practice brain yoga with the words; that we can transcend the words into …yoga.

Emily Brown, a gifted and wonderful evolation teacher trainer, posture master, and anatomy instructor helped me to make an important step in my own brain yoga: recognizing the “uh”s. I say recognizing because eliminating the “uh”s was really a process of first becoming aware of them, then understanding why I used them, then understanding more deeply the process of reciting the text so that the “uh”s were no longer there on the path from my brain to my articulation of the words. I’m sure that I was aware of the “uh”s but I wasn’t aware that I was aware of them until it was pointed out to me in feedback. Awareness was good, but in subsequent teaching practice the “uh”s kept coming out. Finally Emily stopped me mid-posture and said “Every time you say uh, you will stop and teach the posture from the beginning.” And I had written in a previous blog that there were no soul-crushing experiences in continuous feedback! I was ready for one now and my fellow students too as it seemed that everyone settled in for what was going to be a very long session.

be silent and wait

I think Emily had an insight into what I needed to progress as a teacher. The stick. Somehow, locked in my formation as a human being is the association of corporal punishment with learning. The funniest scene, for me, in the great comic, erotic/spiritual classic Qing Dynasty Chinese novel, “The Carnal Prayer Mat”, is the one where a deficient student is forced by his unrelenting instructor to kneel in the frigid outdoors in the snow until he can recite his lessons perfectly – he subsequently dies from having become overchilled. However, this cruel and morbid event is described with the comic lightness Li Yu was the unsurpassed master of, and it is funny.

So here I was, kneeling in the snow, facing certain death at the hands of unrelenting Emily. Focus, brain yoga. I saw, in my mind’s eye, two panes of glass, side by side. I begin to recite the dialogue, seeing the words I was about to say appearing in the right pane, the left pane remaining empty. I said the words in the right pane and then shifted my focus to the left pane. I was aware of very little around me, my attention was concentrated internally. And then the dialogue was finished. Emily said there had been one “uh”, but not really being a Chinese instructor in the Qing Dynasty she let it pass.michael-in-eagle-pose

Mark gave me another insight the following day: “uh” is not what I say when I can’t remember the standardized text, it is saying “uh” that causes to me to forget the words. If I think I am forgetting the dialogue I should just be silent and wait for the dialogue to come. It was exactly what I was doing by looking at my empty pane of glass.

I haven’t completely vanquished the “uh”s, but I’ve made incredible progress. Wrestling with the “uh”s caused another problem, closing myself in a bubble as I turned my focus entirely inward, losing contact with my students. That has gotten better too, but, certainly, there will more to work on, always something more to work on. Brain yoga is practice, a lifetime journey toward the perpetually distant goal of full expression of the perfect mental image of perfection.

Michael Leventhal

Michael has been practicing hot yoga for over ten years, coming to it initially to heal a body broken from endurance and extreme sports. While yoga continues to do that he has perhaps benefitted even more from its power to enhance focus, concentration, creativity, and calm, attributing two of his major inventions in the field of computing science to yoga energy. After 30 years of chasing fame and fortune in tech, Michael has recently reshaped his life goals toward expressing his gratitude for his spectacular life through Service, expanding his practice from hatha yoga to yoga in all its expressions.