Leading Transformational Experiences

I have not written a blog post in a while, and I have been missing it. But as many of you know, I was in India for two months teaching philosophy and methodology for the World Conscious Yoga Family Yoga Teacher Training course. I truly savoured the experience of teaching my 9-10:30AM class and the getting the opportunity to share our philosophy teaching experiences with my Japanese counterpart on the program, Eesha. So many days we talked about fresh ways of looking at this or that sutra that just emerged crystaline during one particular session. So many times I said to myself, “I should blog about this”, but just savoured the moments on my balcony or in my room chatting with Eesha and occasionally taking notes right on the syllabus or in the manual text. Heavenly! At some point I will get to unpacking those notes, or finalizing my manual edits and may get the chance to post some thoughts here…

But tonight I wanted to share the amazing experience of leading a group of yoga teachers in a two-hour workshop at the Toronto Yoga Conference about the art of teaching. What a wonderful opportunity to be in a group of teachers for a period of time with the subject of experiential teaching and learning. Ah!! At the outset, I passed around a hat of slips of paper and we mingled to meet the other people with the same word or phrase on their slip. Words like: holistic, safety, experiential, non-sectarian, process-oriented, and integration. What did these words have to do with educational methodology. From this point we centred and Om’d, and flowed into a visualization and journaling/sharing sequence about powerful teaching experiences we had been involved in, and what we hope students of our yoga philosophy or yoga experiences classes would take away. From this mind-map of teaching intentions we realized that what people often take away from powerful teaching/learning experiences is often not necessarily about the content, but about the process, the sharing/group think experience, the windows into new ways of thinking or seeing that opened up for them and the resources to follow that up at their own pace in future sessions or on their own.

So, you don’t need a PhD in Sanskrit to lead transformational, experiential yoga workshops. In fact, it may even be to your advantage if you don’t. I find the moment I get the slightest bit ‘scholarly’ in my presentations on yoga history or philosophy, a certain number of participants just check out immediately.

I indulged and took some time to talk about teaching models, and how different types of activities or yoga experiences could be strung together with a talking/teaching piece to create a satisfying session full of inner inquiry and that left participants feeling like they were taking insights from their own experiences out the door into their lives. I get so inspired by educational models, and how experiences and talk pieces can be skillfully strung together to this effect, that I wanted to post my hand out here (below). After reflecting on the slip from the beginning of the class, and how they fit into the educational models, we got back into experiential learning mode and chewed a raisin for five minutes, and then debriefed with a partner.

Are we talking about yoga yet?

This was a demonstration of how an experience (like mindfully chewing a raisin) can be a leaping off point to yoga philosophy discussions surrounding Raga and Dwesha (craving and aversion), aparigraha (non-grasping) and generally, mindful eating and savouring the now. The group brought up the fabulous point that directing the senses toward the now allows us to savour our experience the first time with total satisfaction, rather than shying away from pleasure, or total attention to what we are doing, with the result that we are unsatisfied and crave more. Savouring the now!! Allowing the senses to fully absorb and appreciate everything the world has to offer in the now, in the appropriate moment, and then moving, unclinging, into the next moment. I would like to put forward that yoga is not so much about shutting down the unruly senses (including the mind), but about directing them skillfully, and utilizing them to savour and appreciate through presence. For example, gazing into the centre of a flower, laying down on a bed of grass or sand to look up at limitlessness of a clear blue sky, seeing the veins of a freshly opened leaf (there will be much opportunity for this as the leaves in my part of the world pop from their buds in the next few days).Thank you Stephen Cope, for making the concept of savouring so resoundingly clear in your book The Wisdom of Yoga.

We closed by placing our hands on each other backs in a circle and breathing in synchronicity, tuning in to the energy and vibration of breath and of OM in and around the circle. I feel an immense amount of gratitude to share in circles like this.

Hari Om!!

Following is the handout from today’s workshop.

Leading Transformational Workshops

With Chetana Panwar at the Toronto Yoga Show

http://www.akhandayoga.com

How to Facilitate Transformational Experiences:

As a part of our Yoga Teacher Training programs I have spent many years developing an experiential philosophy and methodology curriculum that weaves together diverse aspects of yoga and ties them to philosophical discussions. We learn about yoga both intellectually through discussion, and experientially through journaling, mind-mapping, visualization, mantra, energy work, meditation et cetera. I wanted to offer students a sacred space open to scriptural study, inner work, profound group bonding, and devotional experiences. I hoped to provide techniques that would help them to integrate these experiences into their understanding of yoga and into their perception of what the teaching and learning community represented for them.

In teaching this type of session, I use a blend of two models. One is a common post-modern educational model, and the other a model for experiential learning.

Model for a participatory learning class

The flow of such a class is actually very intuitive. I often use the terms:

Elicitation

Teacher’s input

Students’ exploration

Closing – review of the insights of the class

Elicitation: The class begins with a mining of what the students are already bringing to the class. You may begin with a group brainstorming about the topic, a visualization and brief pair sharing that connects the group to the topic, a related mantra, a brief journaling and sharing to help the group excavate their previous thoughts or experiences related to the topic you intend to present. The elicitation is meant to be fun and to engage the group right off the bat. It also allows you to co-create the class a bit; if students come up with an understanding of the topic that is different from what you had intended to have the group explore, you may modify or open up the experiential component so that these avenues can also be pursued.

Teacher’s Input: Unless you have in mind a purely experiential learning experience, in which students are learning solely through their own response to a certain activity that you bring to the class, there will be a segment of the class that is reserved for a presentation of some information by the teacher. Because educational models were so much based on lecture formats in the past, some modern teachers try to do away with the lecture as much as possible. But this can lead to the feeling that students are merely manipulating information or knowledge that they already possessed. I recommend a balance of teacher input, and student exploration or experiential learning. There is a richness in this blend in which the teacher is offering access to new information (quotes from scriptures, philosophical concepts, historical background information et cetera), AND there is valuable time given for participants to explore the concepts and relate them to their own lives.

Students’ Exploration: If the group does not have a chance to relate the information to previous ideas, knowledge or life experience, it will likely remain dry or remote to them and the lecture will not hit home. It is therefore important to offer meaningful time for activities in which participants either reflect on some idea and what it might mean to them, or get into pairs or small groups to explore the concepts presented. Pairs and small groups allow each participant to have more of the talk-time and therefore share more of their own ideas and experience. The more you work with groups, the more creative you may find your activities become in order to engage the group with the ideas presented.

Closing: Finally, it is more satisfying for everyone if the class comes to a close in a meaningful way. Just as we don’t like to have classes opened with the teacher saying “Turn to page 10”, the class falls a bit flat when it is closed hurriedly without ritual or group reflection on what has gone on. I use a variety of closing rituals, often two or three in combination, such as:

  • journaling in silence,
  • a brief survey of the findings of the pairs or small groups,
  • chanting or meditation to bring the group back together as a whole,
  • each member calling out a word that summed up the experience for them that day,
  • an energy work circle in which we place our hands on the backs of those sitting next to us and chant Om several rounds, or in which we place our hands over or under our neighbours’ hand around the circle (left hand under and right hand over).

Model for experiential learning session

I learned invaluable techniques for experiential learning from the senior teachers at Kripalu Centre, which is in my mind one of the fore-running organizations in the promotion of this type of method in spiritual and holistic education. The components vital to such a session are:

Safety

Experience

Integration

I gained an appreciation for the importance of bringing emotional safety to the experiential work I was doing with students, and of offering time and strategies for integrating the experiences from Ken Nelson at Kripalu Center and my participation in his sessions on Leading Powerful Experiential Workshops. In this model, the learning is driven by the experience facilitated by the workshop leader, which is set up and concluded by activities or rituals that promote emotional safety and personal integration or the experience.

Safety: The facilitator can foster an emotionally safe and nurturing environment by:

  • turning down the lights or having candles,
  • letting students know a bit about the flow of the session, and when they will be able to shift their seated position, go to the bathroom etc.,
  • making sure there have been enough group ‘breaking the ice’, and ‘getting-to-know-you’ sessions before embarking on an intimate Transformational Experience,
  • assisting students in finding partners for any pairwork aspects of the evening if they need this assistance,
  • making sure that as a facilitator you never ask students to do an activity that you yourself would not be comfortable doing, or modeling for them.

Experience: The facilitator, and possibly the group will create an experiential activity. An experiential activity is any process or inquiry that causes the participants to gain new insight about something simply from engaging with the group and the experience. Yoga Asana classes are in and of themselves experiential if the participants are invited to explore and reflect on their own experience of asana that day instead of just following the teacher’s cues. That said, yoga philosophy and history can also be taught experientially. Facilitators can design yogic experiences or activities to demonstrate philosophical concepts, such as those that help to cultivate surrender of the firm boundaries of ‘I-ness’, and/or help participants get in touch with their bodies and glimpse states of union between body, mind and higher mind, and to connect with states of wonder, bliss, absorption or devotion. Experiences can also be used as a part of a lecture or presentation, as I mentioned above. Most commonly I integrate these two models and use even simple experiences to inspire reflection and discussion, such as:

  • Chewing a raisin for 5 minutes and flowing into a reflection on clinging and craving versus savouring;
  • singing kiirtan or other devotional songs and then observing their effects,
  • sharing circles and healing circles,
  • activities that show us the ingrained patters of movement and response to circumstances that we have cultivated and what it might be like to shift them, such as crossing the legs or folding the hands in the way opposite to that which is automatic for us.
  • Activities that help us to understand the mind-body connection more deeply such as a visualization on peeling and biting into a lime.
  • eye-gazing meditations with a partner and reflecting on the concept of I-ness
  • synchronized breathing and/or energy work and reflections on universal prana or the primordial vibration.

Integration: The facilitator should encourage the integration of these states or realizations into their understanding of yoga and their lives, such as,

  • allowing for silent contemplation at the end of an experience before moving on or closing the session,
  • allotting time for journaling their experiences right in the circle after the experience,
  • having pairs debrief with each other regarding the experience,
  • having the group debrief with each other regarding the experience,
  • conducting a ritual that ceremonially closes the experience and helps to reinforce the experience through its symbolism. As you will notice, I often use fire, prostrations, and the concept of surrendering or offering up whatever the participant wishes to release or transmute.

I would like to emphasize that each session is a creative, interpersonal journey. I begin with a plan, a theme, and a message that had come up for me in working with the group. I may have planned ahead by writing a mantra on a white board, or asking students to review a certain more lengthy mantra if we would be working by candle light. But as people arrive and we co-create the sacred circle, I notice that I am often moved to present a different message, or different, spontaneous activities. It has been proven to me again and again, that when as a facilitator I allow myself to open up to the group’s energy, and to be a channel for universal energy, that there is a special, mystical quality to the sessions that creates a real intimacy amongst the group. For example, one night we were having a Divine Feminine evening, and after some pretty etheric Ma kiirtan, I was moved to ask the group to move into toning to the sound Ma to whatever pitch, tones or length of sounds seemed right for them. We would continue for about 20 minutes. For me, this was one of the more powerful experiences I had with that group. It felt fresh, non-sectarian and universal.

It is in this spirit that I offer this session today – to inspire your creativity, and to give you a leaping point in facilitating this type of session.

Sample Class – the following is a class designed to get new yoga teachers to reflect on the art of teaching, and how teachers can take concrete steps to set up nurturing, confidence-building, [insert your adjective here] experiences.

Visualization: Allow to arise in your mind, the image of a teacher who has moved you. Stay with the visualization of that teacher, or an interaction you had with them in which they exude the qualities and teaching presence that moved you. Now, allow to arise in your mind 3 words that describe them and the teaching/learning context they evoked.

Pairwork: When you’re ready, turn to a partner, and share the image and the words you came up with. Having shared this with a partner, is there anyone who would like to share their visualization with the whole group?

Journaling: Turn to your journals now, and write a bit about what you would like your students to take away from classes that you facilitate. Write also about qualities that you have that you would like to draw on to create this type of learning context. Finally, consolidate these ideas into 5 words.

Small Group: Make a mind map of all of your words.

Now, let’s tap into how can we provide the context for increased ‘self-respect’, for example, to be one of the outcomes of the yoga class. Think about the small ways, or ways of being that you can bring into the classroom to make these intentions for your teaching-learning experience a lived reality for your student groups. For example, if you said ‘continuity’ was important to you in your teaching and learning, what context would you be willing to work in to create that outcome?

These categories may help you to think about ways of putting your intentions into action, and creating a culture or sacred space for your classes.

  • Registration
  • Setting/yoga space/atmosphere
  • Attitude/dress
  • Language/voice
  • Content/continuity
  • Access/availability
  • Resources for students continuing and self-guided learning

Closing: Share with the larger group some of your ideas in each category.

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