27 May 2014

A Brief Glimpse of Yogi Angela Thomson-Brenchley's Journey into Intuitive Receptivity

My good friend and Yogi, Angela Thomson-Brenchley shared with me her story of coming to yoga and her philosophy and understanding of what constitutes a yoga "lifestyle".

Angela: I "discovered" yoga very gradually. I taught fitnesses classes at a YMCA in the Midwest. I developed an interest in learning and teaching stretching. Really, this was the seed that began to call me toward yoga. The YMCA offered a stretching workshop for teachers. I attended and shortly thereafter began teaching a "Stretch and Relax" class at the Y where I worked. It was a pretty conservative place. The local YMCA association did not allow yoga, as it was considered non-Christian. 

Somehow, someway, I began to realize that I was interested in more than stretching; I was interested in yoga. I began a self-guided study and discovery of yoga. In retrospect--after many years teaching and after completing multiple yoga teacher training courses, I recognize this was (and continues to be) the most important and effective step I took/am still taking in my journey as a yoga teacher. 

I did not have a guru (never have had, don't plan to--different topic!) Back then, I did not have a yoga teacher, other than myself and the books I studied. One was Erich Schiffmann's The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness. Along the way, I picked up books by B.K.S. Iyengar, as well.  Although Iyengar Yoga is not the path I follow as a teacher, I still refer to those books often and am even currently studying Iyengar Yoga with a certified Iyengar teacher. For me, being open-minded is yogic. I'll take Ashtanga classes. I'll take Kundalini classes. I'll take Sivananda classes. I'll take Yin classes. I'll take classes that thoughtfully mix and mingle lineages.  I don't believe in arguing about who/what is right. I'm open to receive wisdom from many traditions. I use common sense, critical thinking, and intuition as navigation for what I'll call "conflicts among the traditions."  

The next highlight of my journey began when I enrolled in yoga classes offered at California State University, San Bernardino. I took classes there from almost every instructor who offered them, eventually finding myself drawn to take class exclusively with two particular teachers: Amy Wheeler and Beth Lucas--both teachers in the Krishnamacharya lineage, sometimes referred to as Viniyoga. Their classes changed my life. I learned to really focus my asana practice on my breath. They also encouraged slow, flowing asana movement, intelligently sequenced and synchronized with the breath. Both Beth and Amy taught yoga classes in such a way that empowered students to independently continue with a sound yoga practice. As I took class with them and by observing their teaching methods, I was learning how to teach yoga. I also had the wonderful opportunity to train with Amy at CSUSB as a student in her quarter-long professional preparation course for teaching yoga. 

The Krishnamacharya lineage most influences my own teaching. I largely follow its "in" "out" asana sequencing in which one flows in and out of almost every pose with its appropriate breath (inhale or exhale) before holding the posture in a static way. My preferred type of hatha yoga to teach is what I call slow-flow vinyasa. I like to create my own vinyasa sequences. I almost always vary Sun Salutations from their "lineage codified" forms. Often, the practices I design for my students don't contain Sun Salutations at all.  Something important to me is to share with my students breath and posture insights I've gained through my own practice. One simple example of this is Warrior/Virabhadrasana III. I teach multiple ways to approach getting into this pose--no one size-fits-all, no set "it must be done this way always." My latest favorite? Coming into Warrior III from Standing Forward Fold/Uttanasana.   

Rather than "yoga as a lifestyle," I prefer to think of yoga in terms of a path toward wholeness, a life-help, a philosophy in which every practitioner--everyone who practices/tries/attempts--gains from her/his efforts and exposure to yoga. Anything that approaches thinking of yoga as a bunch of doctrinal dos and don'ts that lead to negative judgment, or even relative "evaluation" and hierarchies by other yogis doesn't help. I practice yoga because it helps me feel well, plain and simple.

It's kind of popular right now for people to discount asana. I won't do that. It is so integral to many people's practice. Yoga/union of course is not reliant on asana, but it is a time-tested tool that some of our revered yogis continue late into life, even though we might see them as having "mastered that stage in the journey."  

With my personal practice I have many struggles. I'm human! I scrimp on meditation time. I follow my mind's fluctuations down its myriad paths. I stick with the familiar, the loved and neglect the unknown and new. The best thing for me to remember is that my breathwork/pranayama is deeply therapeutic and to respect its power and give it its due devotion. 

My advice to new yoga teachers? Be open, stay open to others and to yourself. Remember that each practice you lead is an opportunity to give. Feeling nervous? Remember it's not about you performing or coming off well, but about the practice, about growing, about sharing, about moving toward stillness (Erich Schiffmann), ease, and wholeness. 

You can learn more about Angela Thomson-Brenchley's practice and schedule of classes at http://theyir.org/profiles/atb/.

13 May 2014

Utah's Own Vibrant Yogi, Shannan Hansen!

I met the effervescent Shannen Hansen earlier this year during a workshop she lead about stress-reduction and health management.  She spoke on how stress should not be managed, but rather, we should put energy into managing that which find value within, such as our finances, our families, our bodies and health, our lives. She let me pick a bit at her brain to find out more about her

ME: When did you first discover yoga?
SHANNAN: In 2001 at a gym.  I can honestly say that after the first five minutes I was hooked.  It felt like I had finally found my thing.  I looked at the other yogis in the room and thought, "These are my people."

ME: At what point did you realize it was not just about the asana but a lifestyle?
SHANNAN: People enter the realm of yoga through different points.  For me I did come into yoga through the asanas and it took me few years to understand and incorporate the other aspects of a yogic lifestyle. I read a lot in Yoga Journal, went to yoga conferences, watched yoga documentaries, and finally read Light on Yoga (BKS Iyengar) and the Yoga Sutras (Patanjali).  These things have propelled me on the yoga path but I still feel I have a lot of discovery ahead and that is exciting. 

ME: What does the yogi(a) lifestyle look like for you? How do you incorporate personally as a lifestyle?
SHANNAN: To me this is a mindset more than anything else.  The way I see the world and other beings on the planet and the compassion I offer to myself and to others are examples of that.  Choices that reflect the 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga. It took some time but I eventually stopped eating meat and dairy and began eating healthier food. I try to consume less, make more sustainable choices, and am more aware of my impact on the planet.  I also take all this with a huge dose of reality because there are many moments of hypocrisy where I don't say the right thing, can't control my feelings, or buy something unnecessary.  Maybe that's called being human.  So I am still on the path to living a full yogic lifestyle.    

ME: Which styles of yoga have worked best for you? Which do you enjoy practicing the most?
SHANNAN:That has changed over the years but I have always gravitated toward Vinyasa flow classes and that's what I teach most of.  The last few years I have also grown to appreciate restorative yoga and Hatha yoga.  My go to yoga class for getting grounded and centered as a yogi, is Ashtanga.  It feels the least modern and is always a great challenging. 

ME: What struggles have you experienced (and overcome) in your own personal practice?
SHANNAN: Injuries have set me back several times.  Each time I try to be patient and let my body heal.  When it's time to re-approach my practice I do so realizing things are different and i don't ever force myself to do anything other that what I can in that moment.  I overcame belief that I couldn't do certain poses. I am still working on handstand...:) 

ME: When and how did you decide you wanted to become a yoga teacher?
SHANNAN: After taking yoga for a while at the gym, the teacher there said to me that I should look into becoming certified.  I don't remember why she said it or what she may have seen in me, but it planted a seed.  A few months later I was driving to Las Vegas for my first teacher training and started teaching in 2002.

ME: Tell me about your teaching style: instruction, prepping, planning.
SHANNAN: I practice yoga in my home everyday.  I believe that a strong personal practice is the best tool to being a good teacher.  When I am preparing for a class I think about the students.  My personal teaching philosophy is that yoga is an individual experience.  The way our bodies move through the poses and the way we feel in each pose is unique and often unexplainable.  So I never want to force my students into a shape or make them think they have to copy me.  I want them to learn to listen to the story of their own bodies.  I often think of a sequence or general theme for the day, but when I arrive, I assess who is on the mat, their skill level, their energy, etc.  I teach to them and try not to worry about my own agenda.  This came with time, however.  I wasn't always able to improvise so easily. Years of teaching and years of my own practice have given me that ability.

ME: What advice do you wish someone gave you when you first became a teacher?
SHANNAN:  Power yoga doesn't mean you have to kill your students.  I'm not sure why, but when I first started teaching, I really wanted my classes to be hard.  I wanted to work the students and make them sweat.  I planned complicated sequences with little to no resting and pushed the students to go deeper.  A friend and fellow yoga teacher actually pointed out to me (luckily early on in my career) that the students were working so hard to survive the sequence, they weren't using proper form.  I also started recognizing that the when students are so focused on pounding through hard poses, they lose the chance to relax and heal.  I started backing off and creating more balanced classes and soon learned how to appreciate the subtle nuances of yoga.  Yoga can be challenging without it being dangerous.  In fact, sometimes the smallest adjustments, the simplest movements connected with breath can be very intense.  I'm grateful for the things I've learned a long the way and I am think I am still evolving and learning every time I step on the mat. 

ME:  Any last words of wisdom...
SHANNAN: Listen to your students more than you talk.  Don't take it personally if they can't or don't want to do the sequence you're presenting.  Allow them to come and enjoy the class getting what they need, not what you want them to receive.  Do yoga often. Enjoy.  

You can learn more about Shannan Hansen, her practice, and the classes she offers (including online courses!) at www.mindandbodyyogatherapy.com.

11 May 2014

Clap Along with The Clapping Monkeys!

If you haven't heard The Clapping Monkeys yet, then THIS and right NOW:

The Clapping Monkeys are a kirtan band based in Southern California and use harmonium, banjo, flute, guitar, cello, bass, harmonica, drums, and of course, vocals.  As described on their Indiegogo account, The Clapping Monkeys explain that "kirtan is a form of devotional chanting put to music. It gets you out of your head and into your heart... singing is the heart of kirtan and everyone sings along at a kirtan concert.  No one cares what you sound like.  All voices merge together to become One Voice."  Their current goal is to further unify in a single voice by recording an album within the year.

To learn more about the Clapping Monkeys visit www.theclappingmonkeys.com, and visit their Indiegogo page to find out more about their upcoming album here.