The Training Years
The Integral Yoga Hatha 1 teacher training was my first formal training to earn a certification. I felt I had already been in training for over 25 years. The prerequisite for this training was a recommended six months of practicing the Integral Yoga Hatha 1 sequence. Today, prerequisites can range from very little experience in a specific style to at least a year. Our group ranged from very little experience to myself and a Hindu Sanskrit scholar with the most. We were fortunate from my perspective that our lead trainer had a Master’s degree in exercise physiology and a background in Iyengar as well as Integral Yoga.
The Iyengar methodology is to focus on safe alignment. The Integral Yoga focus is to create a meditative inner experience. These approaches are seemingly at odds. It is difficult to go within if the instructor is constantly talking about alignment. The challenge can be to find the perfect talk and silence ratio so the student has time to process the instructions and listen to the biofeedback of their own bodies.
The rigidity of the Iyengar system can encourage students to try to force themselves into the form instead of adapting the form to the uniqueness of their bodies. Props can help with adapting and moving toward the goal of a “perfect” form as understood in this system. However, those goals might prevent one from feeling fully at home in their own bodies. When I am being told what to do and how to do it, I have noticed I am somewhat disconnected from my body. Our trainer had a good balance of both. I call it the outside in and the inside out approach to the postures.
Our days flowed from 6 am to 10 pm with practice and classroom sessions, study time, lectures and meals. The experiences I had at the Siddha Yoga ashram arising at 4 am and going until 10 pm prepared me well. The focus was to teach beginner level Hatha in a safe meditative way including pranayama and Yoga Nidra, a sophisticated practice of progressive relaxation and witnessing meditation.
Today, there are many Yoga Alliance approved 200-hour schools that are teaching very physically challenging advanced poses in addition to beginner level to new teachers. That’s a lot to process. I think it is wiser to introduce those poses in the 300-hour advanced trainings to reach the 500-hour level with YA. IY has three levels of Hatha trainings: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. This in-depth progression with time to absorb each one makes more sense to me. Some teachers today seem to be in a big hurry to teach whatever they want before they might be ready. This is one of the reasons cited for an increase in yoga-related injuries at ER’s in the last 15 years.
An article about a recent study is at https://consumer.healthday.com/fitness-information-14/yoga-health-news-294/serious-yoga-injuries-though-rare-are-on-the-rise-717438.htm
There is no licensing for yoga teachers and no qualitative assessment of any YA approved schools. There are certifications but some are only for a weekend. The YA does not certify but registers graduates from approved schools. Employers may not be knowledgeable about yoga schools, styles, and experience. They may not have the knowledge to assess the abilities of the teacher. There’s a need. The applicant has a certificate and that’s good enough. The eager but naive student walks into a sometimes-risky situation. They may have physical conditions that would not pass a perfect physical with their PCP. The teacher may not mention contraindications for postures. Though postural yoga comes from a non-competitive mindset, there may be an attitude of competition in some studio, fitness and gym settings. The risk increases.
Yoga Alliance began to formally address standards for teachers in 1997. A summary of their history is at https://www.yogaalliance.org/About_Us/Our_History.
The training I have been describing in 1996 was approximately 250 hours. An Integral Yoga senior teacher Swami Ramananda was on the original YA board of directors. Another IY senior teacher Swami Asokananda is currently on the board. I have had the great privilege and good karma to have hosted them in Erie for programs. They offer a lot of depth and insight into the entire spectrum of yoga and not just postures.
In addition, we had classes on anatomy and physiology, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. We also had 8 in-depth classes on the Yoga Sutras by Swami Karunananda, an excellent Raja teacher.
To immerse myself with a group and an insightful teacher in the sutras that I had been studying pretty much in isolation for 25 years was like being in heaven! When I heard Swami Satchidananda’s teaching that Raja Yoga is a calling card for Hatha Yoga, I had an epiphany. Ever since, I have been trying to creatively explore how to offer Hatha classes as a context for Raja, Jnana, Bhakti, Tantra and Karma Yoga.
Satsangs on Saturday night included kirtan chanting and guest speakers from all traditions and the noon meditations in the Lotus Shrine were special. Daily hikes and excursions into the mountains also fed my soul.
After much practice teaching, we all had to teach a class with very specific requirements monitored by a senior teacher to provide feedback. As nerve wracking as this was for most of us, the discipline of learning a sequence with lots of optional poses with precise timing was invaluable.
I learned a lot about myself and how to teach in those magical 30 days. Swami Satchidananda was still alive and it was special to hear him talk and laugh. I also appreciated there was no pressure for him to be your Guru. It was refreshing to hear him say if you wanted to raise your kundalini energy, then master one of the Yamas or Niyamas. No shaktipat required!
One time I was sitting alone by a shrine on a ridge overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountain chain when I heard a car quickly approach. It was Swamiji. He walked by me and grunted. We did not speak. He stood nearby and gazed at the view with me. He walked by me on his way out and softly grunted. I felt his blessing. It was a precious moment.
To learn more about Integral Yoga, go to www.yogaville.org. I am now considered a senior IY teacher and will be giving a workshop there in November. For details go to https://www.yogaville.org/programs/4560/beyond-asana-the-joy-of-classical-yoga/.
One of our Swami teachers said when we returned home, our karma would be waiting at the doorstep! This was so true for me. Daily spiritual practices in a community, of like-minded souls, is so much easier than as a householder living in a community where folks can have very different values.
I began to teach immediately so I would not lose my “chops”. I relied on a script we had memorized for almost six months. I felt liberated as a teacher when I put the manual away and began to truly figure out how to read the group and teach to the room. Keep in mind the yoga class phenomenon is about 50 years old except for isolated classes being offered in a few big cities as far back as the 1920’s. And the availability of classes in many settings is more recent.
The traditional model was a teacher and a student. A private lesson. The student’s individual needs could be addressed with precise specificity than in a general way in most classes. The converging histories of 20 or more students is a challenge for the teacher to address unless they choose to keep it simple and direct a rote class. The creative challenge of trying to support individualized practice in a group setting continues to inspire me.
I began to teach wherever I could to build a following. Companies, colleges, churches, fitness clubs and even a grocery store. I was also freelance writing, developing a stress management program for a community college and working part-time at a library. As a yoga teacher, I was making a few bucks here and there sometimes just enough for gas! After a year, I was discouraged. Allison suggested I go to a yoga workshop to “fill my tank”.
I went to the Yoga at the Leading-Edge conference at Kripalu. I studied with inspiring teachers like Erich Schiffmann, Donna Farhi, Lilias Folan (my TV teacher in the 70’s), Richard Miller, Stephen Cope, John Friend and Richard Freeman, who if you recall started this narrative with me in a hot tub. They juiced me up. I returned reinvigorated. It was the fall of 97. Allison and her mom suggested I open a studio. You know, open it and they will come. But will they? All my fears and insecurities returned but their emotional support and love gave me the boost I needed.
I opened the first yoga studio in Erie on January 1, 1998. It was quite small (held 12 people max) but the rent was low and the location was good. I offered a few free introductory classes the first week and people were literally tossing checks at me. I registered 76 people a week for the winter session. It was very encouraging! I have been following this class schedule and registration template for almost 20 years.
I was still freelance writing and had published a feature article on Alternative Medicine in a local magazine. It caught the eye of an executive vice president at a local hospital. She called me and asked if she could meet with me at my studio. She was wearing a black suit and dress. I didn’t even have a chair to offer her! She brought me a large beautiful peace lily. We sat on pillows on the floor. She explained the hospital was planning on opening a complementary care center and wanted to hire me as a consultant to find the best practitioners in town. I enthusiastically agreed.
The consulting eventually led to me being hired as the yoga teacher for the center. They paid off my lease and I moved into the new facility that summer. I had a salary, healthcare insurance and a 401 K plan. They sent me to get certified in prenatal yoga and yoga for heart disease and cancer. They bought all the props I needed to offer restorative yoga. Word got out and not just in Erie but nationwide. My work was profiled in Yoga Journal. I was the envy or inspiration to yoga teachers from coast to coast. They sent me to another Leading-Edge conference. I also did an advanced teacher training with Erich Schiffmann at Kripalu. At a workshop in Columbus, Rodney Yee shook my hand and said what I was doing was revolutionary.
Another angel had appeared in the form of a hospital executive who truly changed my life and I hope through my efforts to change the health of others. Soon after I had settled into my new office overlooking the studio, the CEO of the hospital came for a visit. When I was hired, I explained I did not want to compromise any of the traditional yoga practices like meditation or chanting or I would not take the position. My angel said she trusted me. I had pictures of Swami Satchidananda and other Yogi’s in my office. I was burning incense when the CEO walked in unannounced.
I was nervous. Did I blow this opportunity? I almost lost my mulabandha (gentle contraction of the pelvic floor). She saw a picture. She said, is that Swami Satchidananda? I said incredulously, yes you know him? I met him with a group of nuns at an ecumenical program he was giving in New York City, she explained. I said, he is the founder of my training. She said, very good and walked out. I felt I had been blessed by God. Of all the schools, I could have chosen, I chose the one founded by a Swami that a CEO/Nun of a Hospital knew. Miracles move in mysterious ways indeed!
As good as all this sounds and it was very good, I intuited it would not last. I worked hard and attendance rose to 150 students a week. It helped that there was an advertising budget and marketing plan behind me. My prenatal yoga classes were packed. I was in the system but still had freedom. I did not have to compromise or water down the classical teachings like some teachers must in secular settings or choose to do because of their fitness yoga trainings. I was living the dream!
This amazing gig lasted three years. The CEO retired and was replaced with another with a different vision. The hospital was very good to me. They gave me the yoga database, I bought the props at a very nominal cost and the severance package gave me time to find a new space. The three years there gave me a presence and credibility in the community that I had estimated to have taken twice as long on my own. I am eternally grateful for the angel in the black suit and dress who gave me the opportunity, and the nun with a vision of holistic health.
You can call this being in the right place at the right time, a coincidence, synchronicity, good luck, fate or karma. I like to think of it as being loved by the creator with a master plan.
It was the fall of 2001. Establishing a new downtown studio, attending more workshops and trainings, and eventually going to India was beginning to manifest. The amazing adventures of a yogi in America would continue.