Category Archives: Teachers

The beauty in our flaws

Some stereotypes of a yoga teacher:

–She has a tranquil demeanor.

–He is graceful.

–She has conquered the demons, or at least has moved on.

–He has a clear belief in God or an obvious spiritualism.

This might describe my first two yoga teachers, whom I admired while despairing of ever emulating. One of them, Karin O’Bannon, encouraged me to teach; she helped me struggle with philosophical questions; her faith was the foundation of my faith in myself. So, when she died June 10, 2013, 16 years after we first met, my world faltered.

Now for a superficial description of my teacher for the past 12 years, Manouso Manos:

Manouso Manos

Manouso Manos

–He curses. He yells. He gets angry, even furious.

–When demonstrating poses, he is somewhat famous for moving his shorts around until much of his buttocks or even tailbone is visible, so that we might see subtle actions not evident through fabric.

–He will risk physical injury to himself to help his students.

–He exhausts himself exhorting us to understand how to help ourselves.

–He laughs, mostly at himself.

Less obvious is that he is one of the most compassionate people I have ever met. Whatever his spiritualism or beliefs in a higher power, he pretty much keeps them to himself.

Having just spent a week-long intensive with him, I have much more of an idea of where his compassion comes from. I know better why I was drawn to his classes even during the first several years that I was so terrified of the challenges I would face in his weekend workshops. At first I thought it was the physical challenges that sent me out of the room in tears. Over time, I realized that it was coming face-to-face with my weakness of will.

Karin once told one of my students that my student and I were made of the same “clay dust.” Manouso has said that we are attracted to teachers who are like us. I now know that is certainly the case with Manouso, at least in terms of attitudes. Clearly not in terms of teaching abilities.

After 16 years of teaching, I still approach each class and student with a feeling of “I am not worthy.”

It was a shock the first time I heard Manouso tell us that he approaches each class terrified.  He tells teachers that if we ever feel competent, quit. By that yardstick, I have permanent job safety.

Over time I’ve gleaned a bit of information from Manouso himself and from other students about his childhood traumas. I have enough of my own that I’ve come to realize that it is something I can draw on to reach out to students suffering from heartache.

This past week, he described his first experience in pranayama in India with his teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar. He related a tale of a disaster, of a feeling that he was so damaged that he couldn’t possibly do this thing.

This story and others that morning had a moral: That, from a certain perspective, damage adds value. I realized that this very damage is the foundation of his compassion, of his determination to help others find emancipation from our sorrows, our damage, through yoga, just as he is doing.

I do not have the strength and inquisitiveness that Manouso has demonstrated in reaching the point not of overcoming his demons, but of living with them.

I do have another asset. I am stubborn. I don’t know how to quit.

I finally have an understanding of why some of my students have said I am inspiring. I never really got it until I realized how inspired I am by Manouso. Maybe it’s because I am so deeply flawed, and those flaws are so visible, both in my poses and in my attempts to live yogically, that I am inspiring.

At the end of our week’s classes. Manouso grinned and announced that he was the luckiest man on earth. I understand the feeling. All of my flaws have brought me to this place where I am so fortunate as to be a yoga teacher.

Manouso left us with several pithy pieces of advice:

He egged us on in our practice. We’re SUPPOSED to make mistakes.

Try waking up every morning with a sense of “Wow!”

Be in it for the journey.

Keep a sense of wonder at what might happen next.





Alignment and consciousness

The message from BKS Iyengar has always been twofold: align the pose and let consciousness come. For some such as me, however, learning alignment has been such a task that finding awareness of consciousness has been even more elusive than the turn of a femur. At some point, I gave up even trying.

birjoo-mehtaTo the San Diego yoga conference named for the universality of yoga, senior Iyengar teacher Birjoo Mehta brought us a how-to message, a map any individual can follow to find that consciousness in a pose.

The good news: We should worry less about making corrections in a pose. The bad news: We have to use our minds even more than we use our bodies. As another senior Iyengar teacher, Manouso Manos, often notes: Finding resolution with the physical body is considerably less threatening.

Birjoo sets out the process in a pragmatic fashion, likening it to a corporative initiative.

What is the vision of yoga? Perceiving our permanent form.

What is the mission of yoga practitioners? Stilling the fluctuations of thought – in order to perceive our true, unchanging self.

What is the strategy for accomplishing our mission? Asana.

What tactics shall we use in our strategy? Alignment.

Birjoo Mehta

Birjoo lept lightly to the stage the first evening of the conference, Sarvabhauma Yog, which ran June 10-15, including the teachers convention.

A student of BKS Iyengar’s since childhood, starting in 1974, as a young man he traveled with his teacher through Europe, the United States and Australia, demonstrating poses. Now an engineer by profession, he has led conventions in the United Kingdom since 2001. When BKS Iyengar traveled to China in June 2011, Birjoo Mehta taught the evening sessions, though often with further guidance from his teacher.

Like his teacher, he brings joy to his teaching. In San Diegl, he made us laugh with implied threats of long holds of kapotasana. His hands wove like birds as he spoke. He smiled, he coaxed, he reached for analogies to help us understand that he wanted us to concentrate on consciousness, not the turn of a thigh.

With precision, he demonstrated the subtle actions he sought, wearing the banded shorts popular among Iyengar teachers and a polo-collared shirt also common among the male teachers.

Tadasana – Samasthiti

This pose is like the unchanging self at the center of all our fluctuations. It is the touchstone, the place of quiet at the center of a practice. The other poses all become variations. The key to envisioning this is in the name samasthiti: sama – same; sthiti – steadiness.

To find the quiet within fluctuations of other poses, Birjoo directed us to bring an element of tadasana to each pose.

In utthita trikonasana, Birjoo suggested we maintain the back leg actions of tadasana in both front and back legs as we slowly lowered into the pose. A surprising kind of steadiness resulted; a quiet, unfluctuating mind translated to a pose that felt grounded.

In bharadvajasana, once we had turned the torso, Birjoo asked us to recreate the evenness of torso found in tadasana. Once again quietness descended.

We touch back to universality when we bring samasthiti to other poses.

Balancing consciousness

For any other physical activity, the movement itself is the point. In yoga, the asana starts when the activity and movement of creation stops. We pay attention to the details of the pose as we create it, then, once in the pose, we let awareness move to where consciousness is. Then we seek to balance the consciousness throughout the pose.

In all the asymmetrical standing poses, consciousness concentrates in one leg or the other. Birjoo outlined this process in utthita trikonasana, where the back leg becomes light, with consciousness concentrated in the front leg. He suggested moving the bones where consciousness, density remained, and to move from the flesh to bring consciousness to the pose where it was light, such as the back leg.

Another consciousness balancing technique works through awareness of opposites. He suggested that where the flesh was puffed out or extended, excess consciousness existed. On the opposite side was an interruption of consciousness. To balance consciousness, we had to reopen that interruption. For example, a locked elbow produces excess consciousness along the inner elbow, and we must release the back side of the elbow to create evenness.

It all seemed accessible while he explained these concepts, which other teachers echoed in many other sessions. The trick is going to be in carrying it home with us, to apply his clarity of purpose to our practice.


A teacher’s gift: faith

For some yoga students, the act of walking into a yoga class is a leap of faith.  It’s true for many of my students, who bring woes ranging from gout to bulging vertebral discs to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Karin O'Bannon looks here much as she did when I met her in 1997. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Bannon.

Karin O’Bannon looks here much as she did when I met her in 1997. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O’Bannon.

That I am standing in front of them teaching yoga is an act of faith as well. I must constantly draw on the words of the teacher who taught me to teach, Karin O’Bannon.

She asked me on my third day of yoga teacher training if I was teaching anywhere. I stammered, that, no, I wasn’t.

Was she crazy? Here I was with all these people who were actually GOOD at the poses. And she addressed me while I was struggling my way into ardha chandrasana, my elevated leg mere inches from the floor, restricted by such impacted hip joints that two years later I would have them both replaced. My back was to the wall, and my hand was on a chair seat.

“You should be.”

I was shocked. I was there because my teacher at a health club had urged me to get some training so I could sub for her.  After my first day of class, I was sure I could never teach, but I was there to get more of the learning Karin provided, which had immediately taken hold of my heart.

I struggled with more than my utter inability to do the poses with even 10 percent of the quality of my fellow students.

I struggled with the concept of ishwara pranidhana, surrender to God. As an atheist, I didn’t even know how to begin to deal with this. A few weeks later, though, Karin gave me something to hold on to. In response to an assignment, I had written that at the end of a yoga class, I felt that the possibilities of all the individuals within the class were magnified far beyond the strength of any imagining. She had written: “For some, this is God.”

When I started teaching, it was with her faith in me.

Over the years, perhaps encouraged by my own limitations, students came to me with problems and encouraged friends to come, too. Their courage inspired me. Over time they learned to have faith in yoga. When they thanked me, I had to point out that they were the ones doing the heavy hauling, that it was the yoga and their work that they should thank.

One day a 30-something student came to me who was in such immense mental pain that I felt overwhelmed. I was so frightened of doing her harm. I contacted one teacher by e-mail. She told me to trust my instincts. I realized later that what I came to trust was the student’s determination to heal herself and the ability of the yoga itself.

A few months later, I was able to see my teacher Karin and ask her directly for advice. (She had moved to India a few years earlier.) She said the same thing, to trust my instincts. Then she looked me straight in the eye and said: “And know that she is a gift.” I had no idea what she meant at the time.

Her workshop that evening touched on Sutra 2.15, that it was the “axial aphorism” for the entire text.

“The wise man knows that owing to fluctuations, the qualities of nature, and subliminal impressions, even pleasant experiences are tinged with sorrow, and he keeps aloof from them.  (Translation: Edwin F. Bryant.)”

Eventually our discussion went to ishwara pranidhana, my old nemesis, as she knew. And she said it might also refer to surrender to “absolute truth”. As a former journalist, I found the idea of an absolute truth perhaps even more difficult to grasp than the concept of a supreme soul.

The 30-something woman and I attended the Iyengar yoga conference in Washington, D.C., in May 2012, in large part to be able to study again with Karin. We also attended Professor Fred Smith’s discussion of the Yoga Sutras. Here I came across another explanation of the niyama: surrender to the “lord of yoga”, to trust in the act, the doing of yoga.

I thought I had come to that point, teaching as an act of faith in yoga. Then I learned my teacher Karin is terminally ill , and I realized that, no, I was still teaching from her faith in me. Without her, how could I find the courage to keep teaching?

Student by student, the answer has come. Sometimes from someone who knows I am quavering, but as often not. Over the past weeks, many students have told me that I am an inspiration and that is why they have found healing in yoga. Rather like when I heard my teacher Karin, I have no idea what they mean. I am so very ordinary. But I find that I must accept their faith if I am to keep on teaching.

And so the gift I have wanted to give my students, faith in yoga, has come rebounding back, multiplied many times over.

Real bodies in yoga, teachers

The Internet is replete with images of young, slender, flexible yoga students. Here is my attempt to balance that out with a few images of my own, starting with four Southern California teachers: myself, Denise Thibault of Orange, Tammy Gingerella of Riverside, and Marie Harris of Riverside.

Denise challenges us all, taking teenagers and septuagenarians past perceived limits.

Denise challenges us all, taking teenagers and septuagenarians past perceived limits.

Supported ardha halasana may be restful, but it does not provide the most flattering abdominal views.

Supported ardha halasana may be restful, but it does not provide the most flattering abdominal views.





Tammy Gingerella demonstrates how props can create lightness in a pose.

Tammy Gingerella demonstrates how props can create lightness in a pose.

A student of mine mentioned how much she enjoyed Marie’s teaching of this pose, garudasana, eagle pose.
A student of mine mentioned how much she enjoyed Marie’s teaching of this pose, garudasana, eagle pose.