Rise Up! MLK Day Flow @ embrace yoga d.c.

This past weekend was a long holiday weekend here in the U.S.; the holiday was in celebration of the great life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a remarkable man remembered by history as peacefully bringing attention to race inequality in the fight for Civil Rights and to beginning work towards ending segregation. Every January American’s remember his legacy and on the third Monday of the month schools are closed and adults have the day off from their jobs in honor of Dr. King. In many communities there are events that commemorate Dr. King and his life’s work; gratefully, while visiting my sister in Washington D.C. such an event was being held at a downtown yoga studio, embrace yoga d.c., and we were able to attend.

The class was entitled “Rise Up! MLK Day Flow” and was more of a workshop than a class which included a flow, relaxation, meditation, and community building. In the description of the class, which was free, the class was described as being held in honor of Dr. King’s legacy and was meant to empower attending students’ noble work in our changing world. Work that could be professional or personal, but all the same powerful.
The class was collaboratively taught by five different teachers from the embrace studio, which made the event feel as if it really were based in community building and collaboration.  It is enjoyable as a student to receive multiple styles of teaching in one class, because sometimes a teacher doesn’t jive with a student in terms of style of yoga taught, adjustments given, cues spoken, or levels of spirituality. In a collaborative class, students can be happy with the blends of styles and learn more than they would by having just one, solo teacher.
The teacher’s at the MLK class broke up their teachings to cover a warm up, gentle-modified sun salutations, a high-intensity flow of standing poses, calming cool-down poses, a guided Savasana, and a lovely meditation. The transition between teachers was smooth and each one had a strong point of view and confidently led their sections. Before the movement began an introduction was given which included a reading by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as a reflection by head teacher, Faith Hunter.
img_0025The heavy theme of creating community is something longed for by many during this tumultuous time of political transition in the U. S. The studio is located in the center of D.C., a city that is smack-dab in the center of the White House transition, or rather the White House transition is smack-dab in the city. The 2016 American presidential election was an emotional event for many because the country is extremely polarized politically, with Washington D.C. being no exception. An NBC Washington news poll claims that more than 90% of D.C. voters voted for Hillary, so therefore it is safe to say that there is a lot of unrest about the outcome of the vote and a lack of support for the incoming president, mostly due to his hateful rhetoric during the campaign trail, insensitive speech that is still being spouted via twitter and press conferences. Posters, such as the one to the right, were visible throughout most neighborhoods that I traversed while in D.C., there was a strong anti-Trump sentiment.
One idea expressed by Faith Hunter that got me excited was her insight that we are in a time of Siva at the moment. In Hinduism, Siva is the destroyer of the universe, and while destruction is often thought of as something very negative, it is also sometimes necessary. In order to come into a new era, the last one must be come to an end. Phoenix rising, you could say. Yes, it is a difficult and dark time to many in this country, but we must be hopeful and positive that the time of Siva will come to an end and we will reemerge into a bright, new era. As President Obama said after the November 8th election, “The sun will come out tomorrow.”
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The MLK yoga class addressed the darkness felt by many by taking a few moments in the middle of the class to have students voice their fears. The cathartic screaming out of fears, which seemed to be generally fueled by social injustices in the city and the country as well as race based issues, had the entire room of students closing their eyes and yelling out the first things that came to their minds as causing fear in their lives, many specific to the political change in their city. As loudly as they could, students yelled out  whatever it was that has been unsettling them. The small, intimate studio was filled with individual shouts by students. A lot of emotion was felt during this powerful exercise, and while it might be assumed that one of those most strongly felt emotions may have been anger about the issues being aired out, instead an emotion of relief was prevalent over anger. Personally, I felt relief in the fact that there were others, others around my age, whom practice yoga, and who have the same fears as I do in this country. It gave me relief that I wasn’t alone and then I felt hopeful that through building community and discussing uncomfortable topics, that we will be able to overcome hate and celebrate diversity.
Immediately following that exercise Kapalabati was practiced to build a fire, to grow strength to conquer the hate and injustices. Then the flow began to slow into a cooldown and ended in a group meditation. The focus of the meditation was on reaching out to others, to take this experience and go and spread it to those surrounding us outside of the studio and yoga community, to share our ideas of caring and love and to support those who are victims around us.
Yoga is not just a means of toning and stretching, yoga is a tool to better the self and the community. By practicing with others and taking the time to learn their names and their stories, we can better understand the larger community and country. By meeting our neighbors and joining together we can bit by bit get a better grasp of what’s really going on in this divided nation. “Rise Up! MLK Day Flow” was exactly what I needed to refuel my soul, to be filled with the needed energy to live each day from a place of love and kindness and to remember that we will overcome hate and injustices, one day at a time.

Know Your Audience

This applies to so many things, for example while telling a story it should be altered slightly differently if the listeners are your near and dear friends, or say, your new boyfriend’s parents. That’s obvious, isn’t it?

This little colloquialism is also very applicable to yoga teachers. It’s a good piece of advice for new teachers who just finished their intensive 200hr training and it’s a nice reminder to teachers who have been teaching for years, because it always rings true.

Know Your Students’ Levels

Generally, at least. You can’t walk around before your class starts and ask new students to define their ability level – that’s way too much pressure for a student and will cause ego damage, because nobody wants to say that they’re a beginner in a room full of intermediates or hand-standing-advanced students. Which is silly, because at one point we’re all beginners, but for some reason there’s an embarrassment that comes along with being new to something and therefore not as “good” as others (read more of my thoughts on this here.)

Another way to say it is – don’t teach a dynamic series of non-stop standing balancing to a beginners’ class, unless you’ve prepared them well for it in the first 40 minutes of class. Don’t even teach something like that to a mixed level class in which just one or two of the students are beginners.

Why? Well, my two primary reasons are alignment and ego. Fist, and most importantly – the alignment. It takes time and practice to get alignment of yoga poses well enough that you can  move quickly from one to the other with proper alignment. Even a basic pose like Virabhadrasan II (Warrior II) could take a whole year to learn the full-body techniques of where to align the bones and how to tone the right muscles, what to do with the pelvic floor, ribs, chin, the list goes on. So, if you rush a class with students who are not familiar enough with the alignment to do poses without you meticulously telling them everything, then be careful. Overtime poor alignment can lead to joint damage, or if their joints are already weak then they could possibly even injure themselves during the flow, during your class.

The ego comes into play when you as the teacher, whom has practiced years and years, blows through the sequence with ease and to full capability, and the student in their mind feels down for not being able to look and do the same. Of course not all students will think like that, but some will, and they might not come back to your class if they leave feeling worse than when they arrived. People are sensitive and compare themselves to each other; this happens a lot in yoga classes. It’s good to remember this as a teacher.

Teaching

Get a Feel for Which Level of Spirituality is Appropriate

We all know that yoga is about more than body movement, unlike other “workouts,” yoga involves breath synchronization with each individual movement and usually has some level of body and mind union. This might mean a theme of gratitude in a class, or it could go further to include a lesson from Shiva, Hanuman, or the Buddha.

To some students it may be too much to hear about the destructive, dancing Shiva. Or, say

20160307_213008for example if you line up a class venue at a church, it’s probably best not to teach lessons from Hinduism or Buddhism. For me it’s second nature to teach my classes in English and Sanskrit, saying each pose in Sanskrit so that my students learn the pose names, but I gauge who I’m teaching and sometimes stick to just English. Something to not only keep in mind for students of different belief backgrounds, but also for levels. If I teach a group of beginners I explain why I use Sanskrit and where it comes from, something I will try to do even more after reading this insightful article on cultural appropriation and yoga.

 

Themes of nature and the environment are other themes that I like to incorporate as it is a strongly felt passion that I have; to take care of the waters and land, and as part of that stewardship, to spread knowledge about how and why with others. Put into a word it can be called activism. I consider myself an environmentalist (which can have negative connotations depending on which political party you’re talking to, so changing the label to say that I’m a nature level is more appropriate depending on who’s reading this.) It’s a good idea to create classes with themes like these that are more appropriate for all. Also, as mentioned before, gratitude, mindfulness, and grounding are other great class themes.

 

When designing a class, keep in mind who your expected audience will be. Plan appropriate poses, themes, and language and be prepared to have to change it all last minute. Being a yoga teacher requires being flexible in more ways than one; know your audience, as best you can predict.