Category Archives: Yoga

Yoga articles by Emily Johnson, a Chicago yoga instructor.

Deeper Into Yoga, part 3: Teaching

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Fabio Gismondi

I am starting a community class next Friday in Rogers Park, please contact me if you’re interested in coming. It will be a donation-based class, since I’m still honing my chops. I should have something up on Facebook in a day or two.


I’m so mental that it only hit me recently that I was actually going to be teaching this stuff. I’m not sure what I was thinking before, but the teaching bit is really good for me because it adds a little gravitas and structure to my training. Otherwise it would just be easy to be sort of half-committed, taking away yet more information about life, but not really having to put it into practice.

I feel I have more responsibility to really know my stuff if I’m going to teach it.

It’s also good for me that yoga is about practice more than philosophy. We do some reading and studying, but even the philosophy we read is very experiential; the yoga sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, they mostly guide, organize and explain the experiences you are likely to have as you delve into the practice. You are a student of yoga, and once you actually start to experience some of its more esoteric effects, which I’ll get into some time, you are an initiate.

You may or may not be able to identify with the level of scariness this word presents to me. The only thing I’ve been really committed to is my resistance to commitment, relatively happy to flit about in the realm of ideas my whole life.

Now I’m so excited to become a teacher, more than I expected. My training has brought me such a different kind of awareness of myself and others, but I understand that half the challenge is to bring that into the world, to help bring it to others.

I can’t be in a yoga class anymore without being very aware of the teacher’s style and personal idiosyncracies. I also can’t help but watch the other students’ postures as well, but without my former judgement. I still have a critical eye but there’s a sense of compassion and understanding underpinning it. I can see more deeply now, and I just want to help people to open to themselves. I know that this process leads to a gradual unfolding of cooperation and insight that brings a more harmonious attitude to life. And, incidentally, an ability to get out of your own way and accomplish what you set out for yourself.

I also look on those I know in my life who are teachers differently. I see their magnanimity, their unselfish service to others. Unlike many intelligent people I know, myself included, the teachers seem more to be without the need to prove something about their  intelligence. I think it’s because they are passing it on, while many who simply derive their self-esteem from it, who perhaps feel as if they haven’t performed up to their potential, are constantly looking for positive feedback to support them.

Until we share our talents they remain half-baked. I think there’s a simple balance in life that says that you can only take in so much, then you have to put out a roughly equal amount. In other words, if we don’t deliver, our talents molder. Without that angst, the best teachers seem able to remain open, to be students of the world, seeking to learn and not just to be seen to know.

I marvel to see all of my classmates finding their voices as teachers, a process which is bringing us all both more in to and out of ourselves. Some are so physical and seek the most basic way to articulate movement to the student. The ones who are no BS, put things in a no BS way. It’s pretty entertaining to see. I’m not sure how I’ll be, but I’m striving for an integration of the internal experience with the external, for this has been my challenge. If that sounds vague, I guess it’s about this strange and wonderful feeling I get sometimes in yoga, that the movement is literally starting from somewhere deep inside, from the belly of the breath, and moving into the body/world without modification or self-consciousness.

This reassures me that thinking is not the only way to approach or produce effects in life.

As a consequence, I feel more purposive, confident, and direct. I feel less likely to create drama in my daily life. I don’t sweat the small stuff. The more I seek to give, the more I feel I get. This is a major turning point for me. It’s hard to admit how self-absorbed I’ve been. But when you find your way through a quandary that’s been puzzling you for years, you can’t quibble with the past. You just breathe a sigh of relief to find that it all brought you somewhere.

Learning lessons is fun, isn’t it?

To be continued…


Deeper Into Yoga, part 2

Wings over Dublin
Photo Credit: Steve-h via Compfight

At first I was excited to get down to some crazy yoga shit, to get into handstand, forearm stand and full wheel for more than a few seconds. I grew slightly impatient as the weeks passed and my teachers kept having us do things like downward dog with bent knees, or chaturanga prep. Seriously, at first that just seems like you’re laying there doing nothing. I  questioned my commitment. As much as I had balked at yoga classes that caused aches in my low back and arms from too many pushups, I still thought that’s what yoga was. I thought maybe I was too advanced for the program.

I realized soon enough just how inculcated I was into a Western mindset and approach.

Goal orientation and an acquisitive attitude toward life, however much like living in Pacman it may be, is not easy to give up. It’s not even easy to notice, in all the varieties of ways it filters down into every crevice of the way one does things.

I wasn’t alone. In the second or third week, a student asked when we’d get into to more advanced stuff. Our teacher M. said, with slight exasperation (the most unease I’d ever see in her): “We’re not trying to get anything, we’re here to get rid of things!” That quip aside, she explained more gently.

One of the first things I learned was that there is even an attitude there. And that it (wanting to get through it so I can get to the rest of my day) makes it hard, nay almost impossible, to notice the subtle sensations in the body.

Yoga is about letting go of the biases accumulated in the body. In yoga philosophy this is tantamount to saying that yoga is learning about letting go of the accumulated experience that makes you act the same way over and over, based on old information. Experience leaves its marks on the body, most solidly, and on the mind and in life in general. “How you do one thing is how you do everything,” they say. Yoga is a kind of play area to see what you’re like.

This is true of any discipline that targets the body. It’s hard to change, your limits are not something that you can bullshit, and it pushes your buttons, showing your reactions and attitudes pretty quickly. Henry Rollins agrees. (via Medusa)

The body is in some ways the hardest thing to change because it is the most solid thing we have. Years of habitual behavior shows on the body, has been hardened into solidity, and has become the norm. If focus plus time creates things in this world, the body becomes the most clear map on which the past is drawn.

>>>Check out my yoga website to see our Chicago yoga classes

Though the body is most solid, it is still where we can most easily begin to manifest change. That’s because it is also the most accessible way for us to see change. Change in the body (or anything) happens only over time, with sustained effort. When speaking about any of yoga’s benefits, we are taught to preface it with, “Over time with practice…” This inculcates a different attitude. It teaches how change happens, to teach you how to work on other more subtle aspects of life that need work.

Change starts with awareness. Not will, not even understanding, but awareness. The big idea is that in life you just have to notice things. This orients you to the reality of things rather than wishful thinking. And you need to let go of judgment about what you find. Guilt merely feeds denial. This is how the paradox can be: Acceptance leads to change. Although I’d use the word awareness over acceptance, which has a whiff of resignation and irresponsibility.

Our teachers didn’t seem to mind if we were impatient; they were reassuring, but they also just let us be. They said we’d find most of what could sustain us as teachers in our own practice.

I started to slow down when I practiced, building the pose from the ground up, do simpler poses, and became aware of my body in an entirely new way. Using the breath, I could begin to feel and let tightness go.

It worked. Slowly things did change. We all progressed in a somewhat miraculously systematic way. We lost a few along the way, but most of us became devoted. In the process we have become more supportive of ourselves and each other. As a yoga teacher said on NPR recently, who knows why evening out your weight on your feet, hips, shoulders, or setting an intention, or connecting movement to breath, leads to peace of mind and just generally being a happier person, but somehow it does.

To be continued

Deeper Into Yoga, part 1

I’ve been getting deeper into yoga. I’m in a teacher training program and I graduate in just two months. The program is a rigorous and traditional hatha program, it’s been around since the 60s, was actually one of the first programs for hatha teacher training in the U.S. We have gone steadily through what are called the 8 limbs of yoga, of which asana or postures—that most of us understand to be yoga—are just one part.

It took me a long time to get around to doing this program. I started researching similar trainings four years ago when I was in New York. It seems inevitable how, looking back, that I would eventually do something like this. I’ve always been seeking some deeper understanding of life that seemed elusive.

I didn’t realize how much tension I had accumulated in my body over the years at my office job, doing “knowledge work” and just generally thinking, reading, and talking for most of the day. It seemed normal. Most of the yoga I took then just compounded the problem. The quick, strenuous, movements of traditional exercisedone with the kind of haste with which you make up for lost timeoften encourages habitual overuse of stronger muscles, making them stronger, and tighter, while making weaker muscles still more inaccessible.

>>>Check out my yoga website to see our Chicago yoga classes

Yoga, as I’ve learned, is used to correct imbalances in the body and biases in our posture so that the skeleton easily bears the weight of the body, and the muscles don’t have to overwork. And, what came to be over time can only be changed over time.

The aches in my body also reflected the tension underlying my fairly hard-driving nature, something I didn’t even recognize for a long time because it didn’t gel with my laid-back manner. When I was in college, I told a friend I wanted to do yoga to help relax, and she said, “Jeez, Em, If you were any more relaxed, you’d be unconscious!”

It confused me, how others saw me, because even then I felt dissatisfied and tense, despite (or because of) my passive demeanor. Through the years my obsessive habit of overthinking hardened into feelings of stuckness that pervaded my life, and my body… stuck in an eddying whirlpool, not going anywhere, for all the energy I was expending.

Even when I tried to find a solution, I was just using the same techniquesoverthinking, a critical problem-solving attitudethat got me into the predicament. Friends used to say to me, “You think too much,” and I’d say: “That’s interesting, I’ll think about that.”

It was only in yoga that I began to learn a different way, and to understand why my approach didn’t work to begin with.

To be continued

Photo Attribution: By Robert Bejil Photography

Deeper Into Yoga, part 6: Some Woo-Woo Stuff

© Emily Johnson

The other day one of my fellow trainees asked how to balance the needs of students in a class when they diverge. Some of her students want to learn about the philosophy behind yoga, and others were weirded out by that. They just want the physical practice.

I think this quandary is grounded in the idea of the two being somehow different or unattached to each other. I believe that if you are teaching yoga well, the philosophy gets in, too, and at best unobtrusively.

At the beginning of training our teacher said that we might find some things just change: how we eat, how we behave with others, how we think about things, all an organic outgrowth of our practice. And many of us have found this to be quite true. Then again, we have studied the philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita, the yoga sutras, all eight limbs.

But we didn’t start there. I’ve often had the suspicion that yoga is just an elaborate way to get you to meditate and do breath work, which is too subtle at first (read: boring) for most of us. It would be like giving a first-grade reader a book by Austen. It’s enough to get into the physical stuff, at first.

One major challenge for a beginning (or any?) teacher must certainly be putting physical experiences into words. That’s what we do, really: we translate the physical to the verbal, and then people translate it back for themselves. Things can get lost in the translation, so we try to keep it simple and send people back into themselves and not out, as can happen when we’re indulging loftier ideas.

The challenge is that we don’t typically verbalize our physical experience. We talk about what happened, and maybe our thoughts and emotions. That’s about as close as we get to sharing our actual visceral experience, and when someone has a particularly sensual or colorful way of speaking, it can be strangely arousing, like they can root around inside you. The best books do this.

It’s a challenge in writing, too. When I’m writing about yoga, I am a rationalist trying to redeem it, preemptively, from those in my life who might think it’s too woo-woo or “out there.” I try to keep it all very close to home. This is to entice people, to convince them. Maybe to explain it to them a little bit. Whereas with people already in a class the goal is to give them something they want, or need, a need just an unexpressed or uncomfortable want, however deeper it seems to be generated. And this, too, can be tricky.

As for yoga being “out there” or somehow esoteric; on the contrary I’ve found yoga to give me more awareness, more grounding in reality than I’ve ever had. It imparts both a will and a way to get beyond wishful thinking and escapism that seems common not only to many so-called spiritual disciplines, but to our culture in general.

Maybe it is all about the breath, which helps you stabilize yourself in the most uncomfortable positions. Keeping breathing through difficult or strange or new movement also trains us to regulate our emotions and soothe ourselves, in a life and time when more and more people are succumbing to stress-induced sickness, both mental and physical.

Yoga is a practice of beginning again, always back at the source, which is just ourselves. Just standing there is a pose, and we do have to learn how to just stand there. Yoga literally means the yoking of the mind to the body. We use the body to quiet the mind, and then learn to use both as tools, as both the means and the measure of things. The breath and the movement bring us into a better acquaintance with our body, inside and out. It shows us that our everyday level of awareness is pretty superficial, and it shows us this by taking us deeper.

Is that all the philosophy you need? I like the idea that you just go along and you get it when you’re ready for it. That includes knowledge, lucky breaks, and challenges too. So sure, yes! And that must include the teacher too. If it comes up for you, it comes up. Some people will zone it out anyway.

Deeper Into Yoga, part 5: Teach, Taught

End of Day in the Enchanted Forest
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Fred

I had my teacher training demo last weekend, and I taught a class with about five people the night before. I passed my demo with flying colors! Rah!

It went really well. Friday night I was shy, tentative, worried about getting the instructions right. Saturday morning I was bolder, more creative, able to let go when I started tensing up, and use the energy rather than be reduced to the shakes.

I’ve noticed that I am absorbing the wisdom of simplicity. Sometimes I can get so deep with the thing that I lose the thread that makes it intelligible to other people. I am learning to come back to basics when I feel myself spinning off into an abstract conceptual universe. In other words I sometimes need an editor. In teaching, you have to edit yourself, and I know from writing that this is tough.

You don’t want to get all up in your face and clog your mojo, you want energy flowing freely and cleanly, to be yourself, to not second guess things. It is just a little half-step back, during a pause, when you take a breath and ask yourself, “First principles. What is the essence of the pose?” Or if you’re writing, and going a bit off, “What’s the story?” It always starts from the ground up.

In my first class, I was a bit tight, standing too far back. I didn’t let it flow, I was too concerned about saying everything correctly. One of my students, a friend of a friend, was a yoga teacher. Not intimidating at all! But he was great, afterward he told me not to worry and to be myself, that people will come because of my personality, not for perfect instruction.

The next morning I was able to remember this, and when I got worried or nervous, just allowed myself a couple of breaths, smiled and laid off a bit, and looked down at my students’ foundation to know what to say next.

Which is what I love about yoga. It is real, it is a physical embodiment of principles that work for literally everything. Foundation. Ground down and lift from there, etc. The routine, the limited system is very comforting (something about freedom within confinement, feeling held, yes?)

My writing mind is engaged with the challenge of saying these things over and over (essentially), but differently, to keep students listening, each one feeling it differently in their body when you put it precisely this way, or that way.

At school I had to pee all morning. I couldn’t remember the last time I was that invested and excited about something. I had to go back to dance recitals as a kid to locate a similar feeling. (Writing is different, it’s more of a wave of euphoria when I get something real down, then a rush of dread when I think people might actually read it). This is more about performance, something I really haven’t done much in adulthood. But it’s also not about me. It’s for the students, and this short-circuits my modesty and appeals to my desire to serve others, a higher purpose. And I still get the rush of it. I am so pleased. Yoga, and learning to teach, has brought me more into and out of myself.

Read on…for more woo woo stuff.

Deeper Into Yoga, part 4: Mission

I will be conducting a yoga class this Friday in Rogers Park, hosted by the folks at the Solarium. I have my final in teacher training–to teach a demo class to my classmates–on Saturday morning, so I was a bit unsure of putting another source of nervousness on my plate the night before. But then I thought, why not? I might as well get two for the price of one nervous day.

I wrote this to help me prepare for teaching, and to aid me in grounding the practice in the  basic alignment principles that will allow my students to build a personal practice of their own. This is important in yoga, the path of change (in the body, in the mind) runs gradually, over time and with regular practice.

Mission Statement

We escape into our minds every day, constantly ruminating about issues in our personal and professional lives. This way of being often leaves us feeling anxious and exhausted, yet we repeat the cycle on a nearly daily basis. So distracted from what we really need to do, change seems inaccessible.

Yoga is a way to rebuild the pathways between our external senses with our internal experience of life. It reconnects us to the body, from the skin on down to the very cells. Yoga allows us to achieve centering, focus, self-care, and a healthy relationship with the body. It promotes health in the circulatory system, better digestion, cardiovascular health, calm and focused awareness. Even more, it supports transformation in the body and courage in everyday life. The healthier we feel, and the more we take care of the basics in our life, the more we have a stable base from which to perform great feats in life.

Yoga is for everyone, and you do not need to be super physically fit to take part. We begin where we are. This class will acquaint both new and more seasoned practitioners with the building blocks that support a personal daily practice.

Read on