What makes a good yoga teacher?

I have a subscription to a chain of yoga studios situated around Dublin. This is great as it gives me flexibility depending on where I find myself with work etc, and it helps me to maintain a consistent practice through many different yoga classes. It also means that I get to experience the teachings of many different yoga teachers.

Style

It really is amazing how every yoga teacher has their own style, their own focus and their own methods. Each one is individual in their own way. This is great in my opinion, because attending different style yoga classes prevents my practice from being stale and too repetitive.

Repetition

Traditionally speaking, yoga is a very repetitive practice and is a repeat of a collection of poses strung together in very specific sequences. Although I do enjoy a traditional approach to yoga, and I know that repetition makes for improvement in anything, I feel that it is most beneficial to vary the practice to get the most from it. I enjoy one or two sessions a week in yoga classes where there is a focus on arm balances or an unusual ladder flow or just something that takes you from your comfort zone, this is where real learning takes place, I feel.

What makes a good yoga class?

For me, a good yoga teacher is someone who is well versed in tradition but is not afraid to add in some ideas that would technically not be classed as yoga to the hardcore traditionalists. By this I mean, mobility movements that explore full range of motion in joints, which is so important for longevity and a healthy body. Although there are various movements of joints in such a large collections of poses, yoga does neglect, mobility training. Being able to move a joint in it’s full range of motion using the strength of that limb is huge and has massive benefits.

A strong focus on the breath is always a plus as it really is an anchor to the practice. I have heard that the more you focus on improving the quality of practice throughout your practice, the better your physical practice becomes. I never believed that before but I have to say it has shown itself to be true for me.

What defines a good yoga teacher for you? What do you like the focus to be on? Traditional, breath-work, meditation, or crazy arm balances and handstands? Maybe you are like me and love a good mix of all the above, let me know in the comments!

Benefits of Yoga Asanas

Yoga asanas are a new element of yoga, relatively speaking. Yoga was originally developed as a spiritual practice and meditation was the popular method of yoga practice. However, at some point, probably around the 19th and 20th century, Hatha yoga, became popular, particularly in the West.

Hatha yoga is the branch of yoga that the physical practice of yoga was developed and where we get most of the asanas that we have today. So what are the benefits of of yoga asanas?

Well, the answer to this question is a big one, but here are a few that spring to mind. It is a common misconception that yoga is just stretching. In reality, yoga has physical benefits far beyond lengthening the hamstrings. Yoga asanas help to improve full body strength in a different way than traditional strength training.

Although flexibility is improved, it is more the mindful approach to moving the body that develops excellent proprioception. Proprioception is the awareness that one has of where each part of their body is in space at all times. This sense that is developed over time, allows the practitioner to reach much deeper poses as they have a lot more control, rather than throwing themselves recklessly into shapes.

Another benefit of practising yoga asanas is learning to deal with uncomfortable situations, which can be applied off the mat. Being in an asana that is strenuous on muscles or balance and accepting it can develop an incredibly strong mental resolve and is an excellent tool to use day to day in any situation. This is something that beginners tend to struggle with but once the breath control develops, usually the asanas come much easier.

Of course an obvious physical benefit of yoga asanas is the core strength that is developed. Every single asana that exists requires a tight core. Abs and lower back require to be engaged in some way at all times, doing this on a regular basis yield amazing core strength that is functional and far more beneficial than doing hundreds of push ups (far more enjoyable too).

Something that tends to be overlooked as a benefit and is not really taught much in traditional yoga classes is mobility. There are great developments in mobility but it was not fully understood when yoga asanas were first developed. Mobility can be described as applying strength to move joints around in their full range of motion. People tend to confuse this with flexibility but it is not the same. Someone can be flexible and pull or push limbs into positions. Being mobile means using the strength of that joint to get into the same position.

It is common for people to say they are inflexible and have tight hips for example. In reality it is more likely that they have poor mobility in their hip flexors. This is very common in today’s world where sitting for long periods of time has become the norm. What yoga asanas also work that a lot of other exercise regimes miss is the psoas muscle. The psoas muscle is the only muscle that connects the lower and upper body and is usually a neglected body part when it comes to training.

I try to compliment my yoga asana practice with some mobility training and it has helped my yoga practice immensely. I’d love to know what you get from your asana practice?

Flow

I have just finished a book called Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. It talks about flow and how it can be applied in different fields and what can be achieved when applying it, but what is flow?

Flow is an optimal state of consciousness that was first studied and popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. A flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, can be described as a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. When it is put this way, it sounds really like the concept of mindfulness, in that, all attention is focused on what is occurring right now.

People from many different fields can use this flow state to enhance their performance, extreme sports, writers, coders and deep meditators all achieve this flow state. It is when we are in this state that the best version of ourselves come out. It has been shown that more people that access flow on a regular basis the more happiness these people feel in their lives.

Having read this book, I have become obsessed with flow and try to use it on a regular basis. Whenever I am working on completing a task, like writing this blog post for example, I am fully focused on now and not later or before. It is amazing how many times in life that this flow state is regularly accessed without thinking about it. Try to remember a task that you have performed that seemed to just happen, time passed by quickly and it was like you weren’t trying at all, it all just happened. That is flow in action.

In extreme instances this becomes a necessity, for example, competing martial artists would have to fully focus on the present, their opponents’ actions and their own reactions to these actions. At no point would they be thinking of how they prepared or what is going to happen afterwards, they are fully focused on each second, as it happens, relying on conditioned responses repeated in training.

According to Stealing Fire, a flow state is achieved when one experiences, STER. STER stands for Selflessness (sense of self disappears), Timelessness (hours seem like minutes), Effortlessness (your tasks you are immersed in seems much easier), and Richness (insight and information in vivid detail).

I personally have experienced flow multiple times in my life but never really knew the psychology behind it, I’m sure you have too. I remember in my younger days, being immersed in computer games for hours and hours and being shocked to realise it was 3am. I used to also play live music and playing a one hour set on stage felt like a couple of minutes, songs would be over in what seemed like a matter of seconds.

I would highly recommend this book, it really is fascinating, and I can’t do it justice discussing it here. I look forward to learning more about flow, have you any suggestions for books, podcasts or videos I should check out? Let me know in the comments.