How to "Breathe Into Your Foot" & 8 Other Questions You've Always Wanted to Ask Your Yoga Teacher
You pay your instructor to stay super zen and make you feel that way, too, but she's still a human. We asked teachers what they're doing (and thinking) while you're dangling upside down in a forward bend
You know when you're in a yoga class and you just chaturanga-ed and warrior-ed your face off, and it's finally time to settle into shavasana? You're totally calm and relaxed and a bit sweaty, but just as you're drifting off, you find yourself wondering what your teacher is up to. Is she texting? Does she have to pee? Does she think the sweat stain on your mat is kinda gross?
I do my best to stay present and focused during yoga classes (even if I'm not the world's most perfect yogi), but there are certain questions that flit through the mind now and again. I collected a few and directed them to two lovely instructors: Heidi Kristoffer, the creator of CrossFlowX, and Sarah Larson Levey, the founder of Y7 Studio. They laughed-often-and answered the following ponderings.
What does it actually mean to breathe into your [insert body part here]?
Levey: It really means that instead of doing that shallow breathing, [in] the throat, it's challenging you to bring your focus and that breath to that certain spot.
Kristoffer: Honestly, for me, those kinds of things are ridiculous. I think they take people out of class. How do you breathe into your foot?! I once took a class where the whole class was about the alignment of the pinky toe, and I was so annoyed!
Is it possible to be bad at yoga?
Levey: As long as you're breathing and present, you're doing yoga. But I've definitely seen people that I get a little worried about. They want to rush through poses, really kick up into a handstand, and they're just not activating the right muscles. That can be really dangerous.
Kristoffer: People come into my class all the time and say, "I'm really bad at yoga." My response is always, "there's no such thing as being bad at yoga." (It's one of the 5 Yoga Myths That Just Aren't True.) There is a such thing as having a really bad attitude. If you come in and someone drags you there, and you hate it the whole time and you don't really open yourself up to the possibility of going with the flow of class, that's having a bad attitude toward yoga.
What do you do if you're not in the zen mood to teach?
Levey: You have to suck it up. But if that happens to me, I either go to the bathroom, or into a changing room, or I go into the room early, and try to sit with myself. I do the same thing we tell our students to do: let go of whatever happens outside the room.
Kristoffer: I used to be an actor-I was on television shows and in movies and theater-and that's where my acting experience comes into play. You come in and check your baggage at the door. If you can't do that, you shouldn't be teaching.
Are there certain poses you're bad at?
Levey: I am horrible at dolphin. It is like something I struggle with, going into dolphin and attempting forearm stand are the worst. My alignment is fine, I don't know what it is. I just can't do it.
Kristoffer: It changes. When I first started doing yoga, I couldn't touch my toes. I was not naturally flexible. Pigeon was my least favorite pose in the world. I hated it. But a year ago, it became my most favorite. I figured it out and now it feels good. (Struggling with pigeon? Try these 4 Tips for Increasing Your Flexibility.)
Do you ever forget what pose comes next in a flow?
Levey: Absolutely. [laughs] Sometimes you get a class and you're looking around the room and you see someone do something they've never done before, and you get so excited for them that you forget what's happening.
Kristoffer: Ab-so-lutely. [laughs] And you'll always know it, because my face just goes, uhhhh. I'll do five more alignment cues for that pose than I did on the other side, and be like, crap, now I need to even them out!
Did you memorize all the Sanskrit words?
Levey: There are the basics, like downward dog, that you're required to learn. But really, honestly, it's flash cards. Like I was in school again, learning a foreign language.
Kristoffer: For me, the answer is yes, and that is because I wrote the encyclopedia of yoga for Microsoft about two years ago. It's still fresh in my mind. But there are a couple of poses that sound similar and if I were really tired, I could easily mix up parsavakonasana and parsvotanasana, which are extended side angle and single-legged forward bend.
Why are inversions so important? They seem so counter to what we're otherwise trying to do.
Levey: I think inversions are very, very interesting. When I first started practicing, it was all I cared about. That's what I wanted to get to. I think yoga instructors, especially at Y7, we're trying to get people away from that end goal. It's more about gaining the strength in the muscles so that one day you can just pop up into it. (Start with these 10 Exercises to Prime Your Arms for Tough Yoga Poses.)
I think it's best to try. That's why it's kinda dark [in Y7 studios]. If you fall, whatever. I still fall all the time when I practice. Everyone falls. We all fall together.
Kristoffer: I don't know that inversions are a big part of yoga unless you live in NYC or LA. You know, the type-A, super fast-paced cities?
An inversion will force you not to have external thoughts. You have to be so focused to maintain the inversion, or get into it, that it actually forces you to be present. It does unify your body and your breath. The inversion is the epitome of what yoga is.
Do you ever get grossed out by how sweaty we are?
Levey We literally don't care. Y7 is heated, so we are also sweaty. For me, it's cold out and I could walk to the subway and I'm dripping. It is what it is. Everyone sweats. No, we don't care.
Kristoffer To me, it doesn't matter as long as you have clothes on. If a guy has his shirt off, it's a little more difficult to give the adjustment you want to, just because there is the risk of slippage. You don't want to run the risk of slipping and hurting someone.
But of course, people's shoulders aren't covered generally, and I rub their shoulders while they're in forward bend and there's no clothes there... I'd be upset if people took my class and they weren't sweating. It's my job!
What are you doing while we're in savasana?
Levey: I'm always giving people some savasana love. For us, that's a little rub on the temples with eucalyptus or lavender oil. If someone's new, they'll open their eyes. I'll be like, awww, this is weird. You just have to smile and look away.
Kristoffer: I won't name names, [but] one of my initial [teachers], he leaves the room during savasana. He goes to the bathroom, or he gets water, and he comes back and is like, okay, it's time to deepen your breathing. And we're like, we just watched you! Because the light fills the room!
I give neck massages or foot massages during savasana, because that's what I would want. I think there's nothing more delicious than getting a massage during savasana. (Ahh, savasana-one of the 30 Reasons We Love Yoga.)