Here is a repost of an essay I wrote for Erin Aquin’s Aquin Yoga Teacher blog. I had a great time writing it and I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please feel free to share it!
Inspiration, Move Me Brightly
How The Grateful Dead Made Me A Better Yoga Teacher
Earlier this year, the Grateful Dead celebrated their fiftieth anniversary as one of America’s most influential rock and roll bands. Around the time of this anniversary and the band’s “final” Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago, I began to think a lot about the many ways this band has influenced my life, my yoga, and how I teach. From the Grateful Dead, I have learned several lessons that I feel have made me a better yoga teacher.
Lesson #1: Be Yourself
“You do not want to be considered merely as the best at what you do, you want to be considered the only one who does what you do.” – Jerry Garcia
“We (The Grateful Dead) are like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice” – Jerry Garcia
The first lesson I have learned from the Grateful Dead is to be myself and to do my own thing. The Grateful Dead have never fit in. Instead of letting this stop them, the Dead embraced their “freak” image. Not only did they find their audience, they largely changed how bands relate to their audience and, as a result, significantly changed the music industry.
After completing my 200 hour teacher training, I, like probably a lot of new yoga teachers, felt quite a bit of pressure to teach a certain way or in a certain style. I somehow thought that if I taught the “perfect” class, I’d make everybody happy and people would love me and flock to my classes.
Needless to say, that didn’t happen. It wasn’t until after I recognized my own unique gifts as a teacher and embraced my own personal style that my teaching began to take off and grow. I didn’t need to teach in any particular way or to fit into any label. Just as it was OK that the Dead was not “really” a rock band, a blues band, or a country band but infused parts of all of these styles into their music, it is absolutely OK that I’m not an Iyengar teacher, an Ashtanga teacher, a Sivananda teacher, or a Kripalu teacher, but I include aspects from each of these traditions into my classes.
I have found that there is a certain type of student who resonates with my style and my yoga. Fortunately, many of these students seem to really like what I do. The main lesson here is to be yourself, do what you do and you will find an audience who loves you for it.
Lesson #2: Be Open To The Moment
“Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right” – Hunter/Garcia
“The music played the band” – Barlow/Weir
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from the Grateful Dead is to be in the moment and to be open to whatever the moment brings. There is an old adage that “anything can happen at a Grateful Dead show.” When the band was at their best, this was certainly the case. Going to a Dead show was a spiritual experience. One song might, quite unexpectedly, turn into another, a song that hadn’t been played in years might be busted out, or a rainbow might appear out of a cloudless sky.
These experiences can’t be planned for, however. For the magic to happen, everybody, band and audience, had to be tuned in, in the moment, and open to whatever might happen. Boundaries between the band and the audience dissolved as everyone shared a common experience. At the end of the show, people were, often in hard to understand, much less explain ways, different than they were before it started.
When teaching, I aim to create an atmosphere where this kind of experience is possible. Creating and holding a space where each student is safe, accepted, and free to be and explore whoever he/she might be pis essential to this. During a show, the Grateful Dead took cues from the audience and vice versa. Often these cues were very subtle and almost imperceivable but they still managed to lead to some incredible experiences. In much the same way, my students often “lead” the class as much as I do.
Almost every time I think I’m going to teach a class a certain way or with a certain focus, circumstances, whether its whoever shows up for class or a change in the energy of the class, leads me in a completely different direction. Members of the band have often described the experience of playing as being “led by the music” or as being “along for the ride and curious about what is going to happen.” When I’m truly in the moment, it feels so natural and automatic that the class almost leads itself.
Lesson #3: You Have To Work Hard To Be Great
“Practice and All is Coming” – Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
“If you’re able to enjoy something, to devote your life to it or a reasonable amount of time and energy, it will work out for you.” – Jerry Garcia
Another lesson I have picked up from the Grateful Dead is that you have to work really hard to be good at what you do and to create the experiences I just described. It doesn’t “just happen.” As effortless as playing an epic show (5/8/77 Barton Hall, for example) or teaching an incredible, life changing class may appear, it takes a great deal of work, dedication and practice to successfully pull it off.
Improvisation and being in the moment does not necessarily mean throwing out the rules completely and doing whatever one wants to based on a whim. Contrary to the common stereotype of the Dead as “mindless, directionless noodlers”, there was most certainly a method to their own particular type of madness. That method that was built on years of playing together and listening to one another.
It is said that the highest mountains have the largest, most solid bases. When the Dead were in their collective zone and playing at their loftiest, each song, maybe even each note, fit perfectly into its own unique space, creating a transcendent experience that was much more than the sum of its parts. For this to happen, it takes a very large and solid base. In their case, years of practice and discipline. To be able to improvise effectively, a musician has to have a very solid foundation of music theory and to be able to respond to whatever else may be happening. In order to make this happen, the Grateful Dead were 100% committed to making their art and dedicated their lives to it.
Yogis will probably recognize this type of dedication or discipline as tapas. Just as a musician needs to practice, practice, and practice some more to be a better player, a better listener, and to be more in the moment, becoming a better, more aware and present yoga teacher requires dedication to one’s practice and a lot of hard work. It is only through developing a strong foundation of theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience that one can learn to improvise effectively. Like just about any skill, success requires 100% commitment.
While my teaching style is very improvisational and I very rarely plan a class before teaching it, I do not think its fair to say that I “wing it.” On the contrary, I have spent a great deal of time and energy developing and improving my teaching skills. For me, this work was necessary for me to build my foundation as a teacher and to get to the point where I was comfortable enough to give up a prescribed “setlist” of poses and start teaching in my own style.
Lesson #4: You Will Fall Flat On Your Face
“It’s only fractured and a little bit nervous from the fall” – Hunter/Garcia
“Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile” – Hunter/Garcia
Another big lesson the Grateful Dead has taught me is that you are, occasionally going to fall flat on your face. This does not mean that you should play it safe or stop taking risks and trying new things. The Grateful Dead certainly did not become the band they were by playing it safe. While they are certainly known for their great shows, the truth is that the Grateful Dead played many bad shows as well. You cannot play 2,318 shows over a thirty year career and not have “off” nights.
In fact, they even had a song that they stopped playing after the fans petitioned for its retirement.
That failure, on some level, is inevitable is true in yoga, or anything else for that matter. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve forgotten what pose I’m teaching in the middle of teaching it or said arm when I meant leg or left when I meant right. The first couple of times, I was mortified. Now, the whole class usually cracks up and we move into the next pose.
These things happen, you laugh at yourself and move on. The truth of the matter is not everything you are going to try is going to work. Sometimes you might achieve greatness, other times you will end up putting your foot in your mouth or mixing up right from left for the 4,335th time. When you mess up, laugh it off and keep trying, it is the only way to grow.
Lesson #5: Mastering Structure and Pace
“Shall We Go, You and I, While We Can…” Hunter/Garcia
The final way in which the Grateful Dead has influenced my teaching is in how I structure and pace my classes. I like to work within an arc like structure of a class in such a way that classes are rarely the same. Without really planning for it or knowing how or why it happened this way, most of my yoga classes have ended up being a little bit like Grateful Dead shows.
It has often been said that going to a Dead show is kind of like going on a journey to someplace you haven’t been before. This can be true whether you’ve been to one show or a hundred as they were never the same. In my teaching, I strive to do the same thing with yoga.
While structure is usually not the first word most people associate with the Grateful Dead or their approach to music, most of their shows (at least from the mid-Seventies on) followed a basic and somewhat predictable format. Most shows featured two sets. The first set was typcally the “warm-up” set, where the band found their footing. The second set was usually a little longer and improvisational.
Just as many yoga classes are structured around a peak pose, many Dead shows were based around a peak song or musical moment. The second set was typically followed by an encore. Despite this structure, the Grateful Dead managed to play 2,318 shows while never playing the same show twice. They rarely relied on a set list and when they did, it often went by the wayside. Similarly, the Grateful Dead rarely played the same song the same way twice. Each musician added parts here and there making each performance a little different than the one that came before it.
The same basic ideas can be applied to teaching yoga. While most of my classes tend to follow a basic arc formula, focusing on a peak pose or sequence and starting with leg lifts, sun salutations, or other warm-ups, progressing towards a peak pose followed by relaxing floor poses, and ending in savasana, I almost never teach two classes in exactly the same way.
Similarly, I rarely walk into a class knowing what I am going to teach that day. Just as the Dead might open a show with a long, leisurely, Sugaree one night and a more upbeat Bertha the next, I might start one class with a long Supta Baddha Konasana one day and a fast paced set of Surya Namaskar the next. Just as the Grateful Dead left the audience wanting more with the encore, a nice long savasana leaves a class feeling rejuvenated and looking forward to the next class.
I find that mixing up my “setlist” of poses while still following a basic class structures forces me to be creative and to come up with new ideas. As a result, my teaching stays fresh and energized. After teaching for over 12 years, I can say I have never been burned out.
Similarly, just as the Grateful Dead almost never played the same song the same way twice, there are numerous ways to approach teaching almost any yoga pose. In triangle pose, for example I might teach the pose dynamically one day, having students move in and out of the pose with the breath, and more statically another day, focusing more on alignment. Same pose, different aspects and different effects. This also keeps it fun for me and, hopefully, interesting and exciting for the students.
By inspiring me to be myself, to be in the moment, to work very hard, to take risks and to have fun and be creative, the Grateful Dead has been a huge influence on my life and one that I try to pass on, in my own weird little way, through teaching yoga. Believe it if you need it or leave it if you dare.