J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. Visit his website at jbrownyoga.com.
1. Please describe, or tell a story, about your first yoga class or yoga experience.
My first yoga class was in 1992 as part of a sophomore year acting program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. The teacher’s name was Maud, but we affectionately referred to her as the “Swedish Mistress of Pain.” She taught in a classical Iyengar style and was quite lovely with me at a tender age. My mother had passed away only a few years prior and I was only just starting to face the deep pain and loss. Despite my angst and disillusionment, I could not deny that I always felt a little bit better after yoga class. And years later, when things got really bad and I was desperate, that early experience of feeling just a little bit better is what brought me to yoga as a life direction.
2. Describe or narrate your first time teaching yoga. What do you recall?
My first yoga student became my best friend on the planet. We had gone to college together but he was a year ahead of me and we were really only acquaintances at that time. Some years later, our mutual friend died suddenly as a result of an asthma attack. I had gotten deep into yoga practice when it happened and something about the way I was handling things prompted my old acquaintance to call me up a few days after the funeral. He wanted to know what I was doing and whether or not I would I teach it to him. We set up a weekly time to meet at his apartment.
Back in those days, there was no 200hr yoga teacher certifications. I would just mimic whatever I had done in class earlier that day with him. Frankly, I was grossly unqualified. But I learned how to have a voice as a teacher that felt like me. Because he was my friend. He knew me before I got into yoga. So I couldn’t put on any airs. You can’t act like something you’re not with your real friends. And this first teaching experience helped shape the way I interact with students.
Ultimately, we ended up traveling to India together and charting a course for the rest of our lives. We both acted as best man at each other's weddings. We shared in the trials and tribulations of becoming fathers. And now, we continue to share in each other's lives as deep friends and brothers. My first teaching experience has definitely ended up being a model for all the teaching that has come after.
3. Last time you took a yoga class or workshop, what were your impressions?
Honestly, I don’t go to a lot of classes these days. I teach at least 12 a week and am the father of two young children. But the most recent opportunity I had to be a student was just after my first daughter started school last year. I decided to use the newly obtained time to study and I enrolled in Leslie Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy Principles Course. Leslie and I have been friends and colleagues for many many years and I often refer people to him. But I had never actually taken his course since he solidified it formally.
It was great. I so enjoy being a student. And Leslie does such a wonderful job getting folks to question what they are doing and be clear about the choices we make as teachers. For example, for as long as I could remember, when doing cat-cow I would say: “Inhale arch your back and exhale round your back.” But if you think about the word “arch” and ask someone who is not in a yoga class to make their back into that shape they usually do the opposite of what you are asking. It is a terribly inaccurate way to articulate what you are asking someone to do. Now, I am saying: “Inhale create a reverse arch in your back…..” It may seem like a silly thing but really it was about being really clear on what we are doing and why.
4. Describe the last time you taught a class or workshop.
I teach classes six days a week. I am writing this as I sit at the front desk of the yoga center I founded and direct, having just finished teaching my Saturday 12pm Open class. There were 6 people in the class. Three of them were regulars who I have known for many years and the other three were new folks. One of the three was a teacher from Yogaworks who is interested in a more therapeutic orientation. She is dealing with SI joint pain and trying to sort it out. The second new person is a long time practitioner who has been out of the yoga loop because she had a baby eight months ago. And the last of the three was someone who had only been to one yoga class at her gym that she didn’t like and came because she really wants to find something to help her get healthy.
I’d say that this is a typical example of the demographics that I see. Teachers who are looking for an expanded view of practice. Long time practitioners who love yoga but can’t keep going to the power vinyasa style classes they started with because they get hurt. And folks who are new to yoga but understand that there are different approaches and want something that fits their needs.
In all my teaching these days, my focus is on fundamentals. If we can get the foundational elements in place then there is an infinite number of things that can be explored and benefit to be had from yoga practice. But without having a strong foundation of basic principles first, the attempt to explore all the many varied possibilities ends up being a wasted effort. I’m interested in saving people that trouble.