Derek Ireland, a teacher’s teacher

I’d like to share a link to a long post by Anthony Grim Hall, on Derek Ireland, one of the pioneering Western students of Ashtanga Yoga.
Derek Ireland is something of a legend in the Ashtanga world.  He was the teacher to several prominent Western teachers: John Scott, Gingi Lee, Alexander Medin, Lis Lark, Brian Cooper, Mathew Vollmer, Michaela Clarke, Annie Pace, Jocelyn Stern, Petri Raisanen, Joseph Dunham, Ginny Dean, Hemish Hendry, among others.

Grim Hall’s post has a lot of great articles on Derek, and some amazing videos that I had never seen before.  Definitely worth a read.

Apprenticing in Yoga: the first steps

The following ideas have been gleaned from Robert Greene’s book, Mastery, which is serving as the basis for my new course on The Business of Yoga, starting this fall.  The first part of this course will be “How to Be a Student of Yoga.”  We will then cover, in subsequent courses, how to be: a yoga teacher, a studio manager, a studio director, and a brand.  The overarching goal of this series is to generate a dialogue for the student and for the community about what it means to practice yoga, in all of its forms and manifestations, and to encourage a more thoughtful, profitable, systematic approach to yoga teaching as a business.

Mastery is about the transformation of your mind and your inner attitude.  Mastery in any field of study begins with a period of apprenticeship, where you subjugate your own opinions and preferences to learn the rules and conventions of the field.  Contrary to current popular notions about skill acquisition and refinement, there is no shortcut to mastery.  It takes time and effort – the proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears.”  This view applies to the study of yoga as well.

In essence, you must learn the rules before you start to break them.  And it can take a significant amount of time to reach that stage, sometimes between 7 and 10 years (or more) of consistent, persistent, thoughtful study.  Our current cultural attitude does not support such endeavors, as we want instant gratification, instant success, and a feeling of having mastered some skill or practice in a short period of time.  “Accelerated learning,” “life hacking,” and other phrases indicating that you can master something in a quick, bloodless manner are boosts to the ego, but rarely result in any truly lasting mastery and proficiency.

Let’s take a look at the model of apprenticeship.

In the traditional model of apprenticeship, most commonly associated with the medieval period, there are 3 phases:apprentice

  1. Apprentice
  2. Journeyman
  3. Master

As an apprentice, a student would spend a minimum of 7 years with a master, imitating his work through countless repetitions and lots of hands-on work, often supervised and reviewed by the master. At the end of the 7 years, the apprentice had to pass a Master Test, at which point they were elevated to the rank of Journeyman.  As a journeyman, the student could then travel wherever he or she wanted, practicing skills and techniques in different settings.

But they were still not masters yet.  It may take many, many more years and many projects before the Journeyman could demonstrate mastery or his or her field. Success and, more commonly, failure were essential ingredients to the Journeyman’s progress to mastery.

How does this apply to the practice of yoga?

Most people are introduced to yoga through the following four practices:yoga mudra

  1. Asana (the practice of yoga postures)
  2. Meditation (the practice of calming and stilling the mind)
  3. Pranayama (the practice of experimenting with and refining breathing patterns and the underlying psychological patterns)
  4. Devotion (the practice of devoting your efforts and actions to some higher cause or being)

Regardless of which practice you take up, you will need to go through the following three phases that Robert Greene outlines as keys to an ideal apprenticeship:

  1. Deep observation (the passive mode)
  2. Skills acquisition (the practice mode)
  3. Experimentation (the active mode)

We will discuss Deep Observation in this post.  Skills acquisition and Experimentation (Stages 2 and 3, respectively) will be discussed in forthcoming posts.

In Deep Observation, you want to learn the rules and procedures that govern any system of practice.  You want to learn the fundamental styles and values in that system. This will make the acquisition of skills and the experimentation further on easier and more stable.

For instance, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga places a great deal of emphasis on:

  • daily practice of the Seriessurya A banner
  • adhering to the set sequence, with little to no variation
  • respecting the traditional lineage (parampara) as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
  • studying with an authorized or certified Ashtanga teacher
  • humility
  • patience

The rules and procedures will be different for practices such as meditation, devotion, and pranayama, but the underlying principle remains the same.  Also, this way of looking at practices can give you a solid, reliable way of separating passing trends from more stable methods.  It will make you a more discriminating student of yoga.

Every day spent in practice is an opportunity for you to observe these rules in action.  By practicing daily, you memorize the sequence.  By adhering to the set sequence, you build up neuromuscular patterns to make the practice, over time, more efficient and smooth, than if you just practiced sporadically or without method.  By respecting the tradition (at first, more on this in later posts), you avoid the costly mistakes of causing emotional turmoil with a teacher or a community.  By cultivating humility and patience (acquired skills, no one is born with either), you open yourself to a positive learning environment.

In closing, I want to relate something about how students used to learn Ashtanga, when the first Westerners were visiting Pattabhi Jois in Mysore.  andre van lysebeth 2

Back then, there were no videos, books or primers on Ashtanga Yoga.  Outside of Mysore, India, Ashtanga Yoga was unknown.  If someone was interested in the series, the student was told to sit on the side of the room and to watch a regular Mysore session.  If the student liked it and wanted to learn the series, then Pattabhi Jois would tell them to come back the next day, and they would learn Surya Namaskar  A and B.

If the student could demonstrate enthusiasm, memorization and drive, then he or she would learn the series in the traditional manner: one posture at a time, one day at a time, progressing based upon skill and stamina.  Learn and earn, in essence.

This is in direct contrast to how most people learn yoga nowadays: from a video, from Youtube increasingly, from group conducted classes.  Although such an approach has some advantages (increased popularity of yoga practices, building a larger community, and exposure to the teachings), it tends, in my mind, to stifle individual progress in postures, sequences, and methods.

In exchange, you get students focused on exploiting strengths at the cost of addressing weaknesses; on “nailing” a posture at the cost of the well-rounded development of breathing, movement, and method; of investing in the superficial aspects of practice at the cost of understanding the deep principles.

In short, the student makes uneven progress across the spectrum of postures and practices and has an incomplete picture of the bigger picture of what yoga is about.

That being said, I hope that these series inspire you to re-evaluate your practice and to start asking high-quality questions about what you are doing, how you are doing, and most importantly, why you are doing it.








Why do you practice yoga?

I’ve been asking myself “Why?” a lot recently.

I suppose it may have something to do with the liminal state I find myself in, as I move away from teaching morning Mysore at Yoga District (now led by the awesome teacher Claudia Paredes), and into projects with a broader scope.

I’ve been asking myself why I practice yoga.  In fact, why do we practice yoga at all?  What is the purpose of a yoga practice?  What constitutes a yoga practice?  It cannot be posture practice in and of itself.  It cannot be limited to pranayama (breathing awareness and exercises) or meditation.  It certainly is not any sort of scholarly knowledge of the field of yoga or the history of yoga.

Why do I put my foot behind my head several times every week?  Why learn headstand, shoulderstand, or even padmasana?  There is nothing that really compels me to do these seemingly strange contortions of the body, except my own ambition and my own interest (and now after 20 years of practice, a certain level of investment in the series).  I’ve come to realize that, if I were really into playing the piano or painting or finance, I would apply the same level of interest and concentration to that as I do to mastering postures and techniques.  (At heart, I am a frustrated concert pianist.)

What it really boils down to is: mastery.  Yoga is a path of mastery of our minds, our emotions, our actions.  Mastery is a long-term process.  It is not something that can arise from haphazard strategy, mindless repetition, or inconsistent practice.  It requires discovering your purpose, absorbing information from a variety of sources, and, most importantly, practice.

Ashtangis know it by heart.  “Practice, practice, and all is coming.”  If you do the series, you will see the results.  But the results will differ based upon the person.

Over the years, I have heard the following question repeatedly: “Which postures can I do to work on (name of the physical, mental or emotional issue)?”

I may give a simple posture or two for the student to practice, but I always remind the student that it is consistency, practice, and intelligence that are the ingredients to resolving the issue.  If any of these elements is ignored, then the practices do not bear any fruit.

And ultimately, it is about the awareness you generate through attentive practice that bears the sweetest fruit.



New Moon, New Paths

Today Thursday is a New Moon.  In the Ashtanga tradition, you take rest from vigorous asana practice.  So enjoy your day of quiet, restoration and rest. =-)

New Moons are associated with new beginnings.  It is a time to plant seeds, to start new projects, to take on new challenges.  So it is unusual, yet also fitting, that I announce that, as of Friday June 9th, I will be stepping back from teaching the morning Mysore program at Yoga District, for the foreseeable future.  Claudia Paredes will be stepping in to start teaching the Mysore program on Monday June 12th.  I would like to thank Jasmine, the owner of Yoga District, for giving me this opportunity to teach the morning Mysore program for the past year.

I will continue to teach some led classes at various studios and corporations, and I will be conducting workshops and intensives once I am able to get some time to recuperate from my exhaustion.  I will also be available for private instruction.  So please stay tuned and share my information if you are interested in learning Ashtanga, Vinyasa Krama, meditation and pranayama.

In short, Rogue Ashtanga is becoming more of an individual project, more like consulting than a regular program tied to a studio.

This has been a hard, but necessary, decision to make, because I am, frankly speaking, burned out and I need to make this more sustainable.  I’ve been teaching yoga for over 17 years, practicing yoga for nearly 20 years.  I’ve given a lot to the yoga community.  I’ve seen it all.  I’ve been a yoga teacher, a studio manager, a teacher training director.  I’ve taught regular weekly classes, special workshops, teacher training modules, donation-based fundraisers, Mysore programs (twice now), and international yoga retreats. My studio was a part of the yoga landscape in DC for 6 years, before rent obligations and flagging sales caused us to close last year.

And most recently, I have taken to blogging about the “whys” and “hows” of yoga practice, specifically Ashtanga Yoga and Vinyasa Krama as taught by Matthew Sweeney.

I’ve advised yoga teachers on their classes and their career paths.  I’ve advised yoga studio owners on their business strategy and their vision.  I’ve aspired to be what Keith Ferrazzi calls a super-connector in the yoga community.  I have lived, breathed, eaten, slept yoga for a long time.

And it seems that I am reaching a midlife crisis (3 years early! Early bloomer!).  I am questioning everything about what I am doing, about why I am practicing yoga, about why I am a full-time yoga teacher, about how the yoga community is organized, about how yoga as a business is conducted.  I’ve been asking myself, “What are we doing when we say we practice yoga?  What are we teaching when we teach yoga?”

In fact, why is the image of yoga presented to the public, mostly through Instagram and Facebook these days, about being tanned and flexible, posing elegantly in a difficult yoga posture (or handstand, more and more on one hand) in an exotic location, hash-tagged with the following bizarre litany: “#yoga #yogapants #yogachallenge #yogaeverydamnday #yogainspiration #yogapose #yogalover #yogagram #yogafam #yogateacher #yogamat #yogaforlife” ad infinitum.

Dig deeper.  A casual search of the instagram hashtag #yoga delivers 34,647,365 posts (that’s over 34 million, just to write it out for full effect), the top posts showing one yogi in an oversplit (see image),Oversplit-400x269 another yogi in a jumping split (like a cheerleader?), a protein vegan bar, a model in a white dress (doing pout-asana? upward-facing duck-face asana?), a video of a student “nailing the straddle press” into handstand (while on Keramas Beach, in the yoga hotspot Bali, Indonesia), a student taking a selfie near her mat, a video instructional on bakasana, a  quote from the Dalai Lama, and a post on the law of positivism (whatever that is).

And that’s just for #yoga.  The second most searched #hashtag is #yogapants (and of the 9 top posts for that term only 5 appear to be wearing yoga pants), followed by #yogachallenge .

I don’t know.  Am I being too jaded, too cynical?  Is this the burnout speaking?  Maybe.  And I know that there are a lot of genuine, authentic teachers and inspired students out there.  These are the people that I look up to, that I love to work with, that I constantly refer to my friends.  So, it’s not all doom and gloom (or spandex and fairy dust?), and yoga, as a decentralized system of individual self-development, will persist, regardless of the plastic pantomime of the media monkeys and their junket junkies.

I am just trying to make sense of it all.

You know, my father passed away three years ago.  He was a computer programmer by trade, a genealogist by hobby, an archivist and memorialist by preference. He kept every paperback book he ever read, noting max alain yoga in red ink on the front cover his name, followed by the dates he read the book.  After he passed, I found a book called Yoga for Perfect Health by Alain (nom de plume of Max Alain Schwendimann, about whom I could find nothing else on great Google), written in 1961.  Alain seems to have been a student of Swami Sivananda. My father read it in February 1965.  I’ve been reading it for the past few weeks, and I’ve been imagining what he was thinking when he read it.  He even underlined certain phrases, such as “Much of the success in Yoga training depends upon this condition of affective (emotional) indifference to results.”

The front cover states that yoga is “a system of health and hygiene of body and mind that can help give you a vigorous and happy life.”

But is that what we are teaching?  Is that how we are representing yoga in our social media crazed society nowadays?

Is doing a one-armed handstand going to “give you a vigorous and happy life?”


So why are we doing yoga?  If you are teaching yoga, why are you teaching?  If you are a studio owner, why are you running a yoga studio?  And is teaching yoga as a profession really that sustainable in our current marketplace?




An important perspective on the business of yoga

The subject of “the business of yoga” has been on my mind for quite some time. It’s the proverbial tiger under the table in this industry, and no one really wants to discuss it at length.

Reflecting upon more than 16 years of teaching yoga, I’ve been writing an article about the trials and tribulations of being a professional yoga teacher. I keep revising it, because it feels too much like a rant, not enough like a reasoned analysis of the problem. And I’ve also been researching other articles about the same problem, to see if anything I have been observing has already been tackled more eloquently.


So for the time being, my own article on the business of yoga will remain unpublished.  (Update: you can now read that article I wrote here, A Cautionary Tale for Operating Yoga Studios).

Instead, I would like to direct you to this article by Michelle Marchildon.  It is one of the more insightful ones I’ve come across. I encourage you to read it. She hits upon a lot of the troubling aspects of this industry- high rents, low teacher pay (yet teachers demanding to be paid more per session), low revenue, low return on investment in teacher education, and competing demands between neighboring studios and local festivals. And there is a lively discussion in the comments section between readers and the author.

From my corner, here are a few suggestions if you want to turn this situation around for studios and teachers:

1./ Pay full price for classes and workshops. It shows that you value the information the teacher is sharing with you and support his or her work. Think about it: would you ask any other working professional for a discount on their service? Would you ask your hair dresser for half off on your haircut? (You might get half off your hair in the process). Would you ask your lawyer for half off his service? How about a discount on your surgery? (And teachers, stop giving away your classes for free! Studios, stop giving discounts on memberships. Pick your price and then stick with it!)

2/. Ask yourself why you practice yoga. If you love it and it has changed your life, then tell your friends about your favorite studio and your favorite teachers. Word of mouth is the greatest form of advertising.

3/. Be a student first before you decide to become a teacher. Practice for five or, better yet, ten years to acquire the experience and the discipline in your own practice before you decide to sign up for a teacher training (See 3a).  Once you find a style and a teacher you like, then stick with them for a few years. Feel free to try other classes and styles, but make your priority digging a deep well.

3/a/ Newsflash!  The world does not need more yoga teachers.  We need more yoga students.  Why?  Every yoga student who becomes a teacher wants to do what?  Teach!  Which means that these newly minted yoga teachers, who happened to possibly be your most dedicated students, now become your competition or your replacement, instead of your students.  Plus, from a purely financial standpoint, the return on your investment in your yoga education ($3,000, at least), will take a long time to pay off.  Say you start subbing classes at $25 per class, flat rate.  You will need to teach 120 classes to pay that off.  If you consider that you will be paid as an independent contractor for these classes, you will need to save approximately a third of each class pay.  So that one class is now really worth $16 per class, and now you have to teach 187 classes before you break even.  That being said, let’s say you teach one class a week.  It will take you three and a half years to pay it off.  If you teach two a week, then it will take you a year and a half to make a return. You would have to teach 3 classes a week, from the start, to pay it off in less than a year.  And teaching 3 classes a week from the start is highly improbable. (End of rant)

4/. Support your local businesses. Whether the studio says it or not, every yoga studio wants to be profitable. Yoga studios are businesses. The purpose of business is to make a profit while providing a service or a product. Businesses that don’t make profits end up closing. Simple.

5/. If you are a teacher and you think that opening your own studio is the solution to your problems (or the realization of your dreams), please do me a favor. Lie down and what until this feeling passes. (You do not have to be in savasana for this to be effective). Business is one thing; teaching is another. If you decide to take the plunge, know your downside.  And running a yoga studio is not the same as teaching a class: different skills, different expectations, etc.

You can reach Michelle’s article via this link.

6 things a beginner’s lesson in tango can teach you about your yoga practice

Last night I took my first tango class in over ten years, at Capital Ballroom in Bethesda.  I love taking beginner’s classes because it reminds me of how other people feel when they take their first Mysore class.  I can feel that same sense of trepidation, of uncertainty when faced with learning the moves of tango, that students new to yoga feel on their first day in one of my classes.  It keeps me humble and focused on the basics, especially after I’ve stepped on my girlfriend’s toes two or three times.

I also love to take beginners’ classes in other art forms (martial arts, music, dance, painting) because I get the opportunity to see my main practice, Ashtanga Yoga, from a new angle.  Let’s face it: it can be frustrating practicing the same sequence, day in, day out, for years at a time, so it can be refreshing to move the body in a completely different way.  I’ve realized that, by almost exclusively doing yoga for the past ten years, my repertoire of movement has narrowed.  Yes, we focus on breathing and, if you’ve had some training in Iyengar yoga, on alignment, but our practice movements are contained on a yoga mat.  For the most part, the body is moving in a linear fashion, and postures are strung together while remaining roughly stationary (excluding Nakrasana and other dynamic postures).

Thus, we lose the freedom of movement expressed in dance, the joy of moving with someone else, the circular movements the body is capable of, the spontaneity of each moment.  We become imprisoned in thoughts on how we should move, rather than how we are moving right now.

Even the whole injunction to “take your practice off the mat” is more aimed at the notion of expressing compassion and awareness towards others, less about standing in Samastitih on the metro.  (Please don’t stand in Samastitih on the metro.)

And yet, I continue to believe that the practice of yoga postures should not only make sitting more comfortable and stable (posture practice’s chief aim according to the Yoga Sutras) but also more refined, elegant and graceful when moving through the world.

  1. The embrace: the energetic connection between you and your partner. This is something that is felt between two people when they move into each other’s personal space.  The embrace can vary in distance, from formal, where there is more space between the partners, to more intimate, where there is little space between the partners’ chests.  The embrace must be maintained while dancing so that the partners can communicate non-verbally with one another.  If you lose the embrace, then you lose the dance.  Application to yoga practice: whether you are teaching or being taught, or you are practicing in a room full of other students, see if you can keep a portion of your awareness on the feeling of the others in the room.  So often I see students’ move their mats around when other students come to close to them, or they feel like the other person’s Sun Salutations are eclipsing their own.  The lesson is that being closer to others will increase your body control and your sensitivity to others, and yoga cannot be practiced in isolation, only in relationship.
  2. Polarity: one partner must be masculine and the other must be feminine.  The masculine leads and imparts directionality to the dance, while the feminine follows and elaborates.This has less to do with gender than with the roles the dancers are playing.  Normally, a man assumes the masculine role in the dance, while the woman assumes the feminine role in the dance, but men can dance with men and women can dance with women.  It is important, though, that one of the partners leads while the other follows, in order to preserve the polarity.  If both try to lead, then conflict ensues.  If both try to follow, there is hesitation, uncertainty and aimless movement.  Application to yoga practice:  When you are teaching, teach from a place of confidence and surety.  You are leading your students through the sequence and giving them the opportunity to breathe, explore, and deepen their awareness.  When you are taking a class, assume a beginner’s mindset.  Even if you’ve practiced for twenty years, you can still learn something from someone else.
  3. Dance together but also be comfortable dancing on your own.  This means that you must learn to listen to what signals your partner is sending you so you can dance together comfortably.  At the same time,  you must be comfortable with your own ability to dance in order to feel comfortable dancing with other people.  Application to yoga practice: If you practice any system for any length of time, the mark of progress is actually in the deepening of sensitivity to the world around you and to other people.  I don’t mean being sensitive in any sort of weak, simpering manner.  Rather, being sensitive means being attuned to what is happening around you and how others are interacting with you.  If your practice is working, then it should actually make you more sensitive to your physical movements, more conscious of your emotional habits, more aware of your thought patterns.  This way, you can better communicate with others.  However, it is equally important to feel confident in and true to one’s self.  Learn to become self-reliant in your yoga practice.  Your progress in individual postures and in set sequences is limited when you take classes.  Group classes are fun, but you are at the mercy of the teacher’s whims or the time allotted to certain postures.  Self-practice is the way forward in establishing a more stable, strong yoga practice.   In fact, self-practice has much wider applications to other forms of practice, such as meditation, pranayama, philosophy, martial arts, writing, painting, dancing, and more.  It’s only once you have taken ownership of your practice that it will truly blossom.
  4. Dance as if you are walking.   When you are walking in everyday life, you have a natural gait, a rhythm that feels appropriate and efficient, almost effortless.  When dancing the tango, you also want to move through space with the same ease and grace you would feel when walking down the street.  Application to yoga practice:  this goes back to what I was saying about posture practice helping us become more graceful and elegant in how we hold ourselves, move through the world, and how we express ourselves physically.  In other words, how you hold yourself and how you express yourself physically communicate your inner world to those around you.  Your posture is your personality.  Your movement is your language.
  5. For the masculine, practice being sensitive yet assertive.  The masculine partner always initiates the movement with the marca, whether it is a glance of the eyes, a pressure of the arms, a movement of the chest, or a weight shift. This marca communicates to the feminine partner where he wants her to move.  In its most simple demonstration, the teacher showed us that you can merely press your partner on the shoulder to indicate which direction you want her to move.  Once the woman receives the marca, she moves, and then the man moves.  And the process starts all over again, step by step.  Application to yoga practice:  When receiving an adjustment from a teacher (or when you are giving an adjustment to a student!), learn to feel the student’s movements and breathing.  Be sensitive to how your adjustment changes them and how their response changes your application of the adjustment.  Hands-on adjustments are a form of communication.
  6. Breathe!  It surprised me how much I ended up holding my breath, especially when I was trying to focus on practicing the basic moves.  I would find that I had either not breathed much or had held my breath for several steps, only to realize that my body was feeling stiff or unresponsive.  I consciously kept reminding myself to breathe as I practiced walking with my partner. The less I held my breath, the more I was able to relax and practice the moves.  Application to yoga practice: Pretty obvious, right?  Every other word you hear in a yoga class is “Breathe.”  The more you liberate your breathing, the more fluid your movement will become.  Make your practice like elegant tai chi ch’uan.

Or better yet, make your yoga practice like a dance.  Dancing is fun, liberating, energizing.  We dance when we are happy, when we want to celebrate, when we want to drive away the demons of stress and isolation.

We can dance our yoga practice.  We can dance our walking.  All of our life can become a dance.

The next time you are feeling stuck in your yoga practice, move laterally and take a dance class.  You might just get back a bit of beginner’s mind.