The following post was written by Katherine Moore. Katherine has been teaching for The Perri Institute for Mind and Body since 2013. You can find her running all over New York City, working as a teacher, choreographer, freelance dancer, and writer. Relax with her at Steps on Broadway on Friday nights at 6:30pm for restorative yoga.
This past Monday night, Liz Montgomery taught a class for the Fall Seasonal Series that emphasized transitions, new creative pathways, and making choices in our practice. This class really struck home for many reasons, one of them being that I currently have a very limited practice (in some ways) due to a shoulder injury. Right now, downward dog is not an option for me.
I've been working with my practice in this way for about a month, and while it is certainly challenging and frustrating at times, for the most part I've actually found it kind of fun. Normally of a serious mindset, I have always loved how classes with The Perri Institute teachers offer many opportunities for play, risk-taking, and lightheartedness, which are not areas that I normally gravitate towards. Being injured has made accessing these qualities not only easier, but even more essential in order to continue my physical practice. While I miss certain poses that are not accessible to me at the moment, I'm getting a huge kick out of finding new variations, playing more with my props, and in some ways, being a little free of the normal structure and flow of my typical practice.
I am so thankful that through my training in yoga and dance, I have had years of practice of being placed in unknown situations where the only option I have is to be open and available to whatever comes my way. Years of studying dance improvisation and composition have taught me how to build a larger framework out of a blank slate, with only simple idea as fodder. For me, teaching and practicing yoga feel very similar to the creative process I use in choreographic settings; it's all dedicated time and space where I can draw connections and make meaning between seemingly disparate ideas, and then grow from there. Without these experiences, losing the ability to fully use my arm might have been much more dramatic and frustrating than I'm currently finding it. Because of my experience in the unknown world of creative choice-making, I am able to still fully participate in my practice.
This, and Liz's class on Monday, reminded me of how important it is to teach creative choice in our classes. The lessons we learn from breaking up our routine and trying something new are so critical to how we carry our practice on the mat into our everyday lives. Unless you work in a creative field, the average person rarely gets the opportunity to explore this type of creative thinking, but it's this type of thought that actually makes us more engaged in our society and relationships. Being able to take risks, trust yourself in new situations, and put new ideas into motion are essential traits of the movers and shakers who make change happen in our world. The ability to imagine a life ahead of you that is safe, satisfying, and interesting, while perhaps different from the life you’re currently living, is also necessary for mental well-being and stability. The role of the imagination in our lives is nothing less than essential.
I am constantly reminded that access to art, beauty, and nature help people think in imaginative ways, and then I am reminded that this access is a privilege not shared with many. Across the country, music, art, and dance programs in public schools are being cut and underfunded. The lucky students are exposed to creative arts throughout their formal education, but after embarking on a career path, most people leave those experiences behind. In my dancing life I teach creative movement to untrained adult movers, particularly the elderly, and I can see clearly how magical and transformative that experience is for them, even when it is difficult. Giving adults the opportunity to imagine and invent, to experience creativity via their physicality, is just as important as experiencing it in childhood. I could say more about arts education and community engagement, but my point here is that the day-to-day grind that many adult people experience in their jobs, and sometimes even in their family and social circles, rarely allows for creative experience, which is why teaching creativity in our yoga classes is so important.
People come to yoga for many reasons: for physical health, for mental well-being, for rest, for study. This actually gives teachers room to introduce creativity for all, regardless of why a student is there. Teaching creative choice is naturally easier with a room full of experienced practitioners who are comfortable with themselves and taking some chances, but I might suggest that it belongs in all levels as long as it is taught mindfully and safely. I will be using the fall season to investigate ways of teaching creativity in my classes, and I would welcome any suggestions from our community. Some ideas to start:
- Ask your students to find their own transition from a standing sequence back to Downward Dog. (Thank you Liz!)
- To shake things up, use something other than Downward Dog as your "home base." Try sequencing from Tadasana, Child's Pose, All Fours, or even Upavesasana or Malasana (what?!) and keep coming back to it as you develop your theme.
- Offer variations from the traditional Vinyasa for students to choose from instead of the normal sequence (For example, instead of Plank, Chaturanga, Upward Dog, Downward Dog, try Plank, lower the knees to Child's pose, roll up to sit in Vadrasana, roll back down to plant hands and find Downward Dog). You may need to add a breath cue or two, but if you teach it clearly and with the same intention as the traditional Vinyasa, your students will be able to follow.
- Give choices in terms of imagery. Sometimes we need to support our students' energies by teaching specific imagery (ie. cooling water dripping down the shoulder blades on a 95 degree day in August). But what if you offer energetic choices occasionally? For example, "Imagine the center of your heart space. What is it's texture? Color? Tone?" Your students will probably come up with very different ideas. Ask them to notice if the image has changed by the end of class.
- After teaching a sequence several times, and if you sense that your students will be comfortable with it, ask them to move through the postures on their own. Encourage them to keep moving through postures, even if they forget what’s next. They can pick!
- Instead of only offering variations to challenging postures, offer variations based on energetics or focus. For example, offer Crow as a way to experience the balance of the spine, and offer Side Crow as a way to experience the spirals in the spine. Before Savasana, offer a choice of restorative postures: Restorative Fish for heart opening, Restorative Child's Pose for inward looking.