Jan. 26, 2023

My origin story: How I learned to remember yoga.

My origin story: How I learned to remember yoga.

In the spring of 2011 I found myself at the Omega Institute in upstate NY, sleeping in a tent, and spending twelve hour days immersed in the Jivamukti Yoga Teacher Training, along with 118 other students from all over the world.

In the months leading up to the training yoga had helped me heal from the worst breakup of my life, while creating a sense of ease in my body, and peace in my heart. I found Jivamukti Yoga in New Orleans at the Swan River Yoga studio. It was one of the most respected lineages of yoga, influencing much of the vinyasa yoga teaching that we see in the world today. I loved the way it included the chanting of mantra, an exploration of Hindu philosophy, a call to be kind to animals, and a very challenging method of asana practice. I was hooked.

My desire was to become a teacher so that I could pass this gift on to others. I marveled at how my favorite yoga teachers seemed to effortlessly teach classes that opened my heart physically, mentally and spiritually. It was like magic. I wanted to be that kind of magician.

Now I was in the thick of the training, and realizing the amount of information expected of a yoga teacher was daunting. We had experts in anatomy and Sanskrit come teach 3-day modules that barely scratched the surface of those disciplines. In addition, we were studying the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Haṭha Yoga Pradipika, dozens of mantras, vinyasa sequencing, yoga assists (huge in Jivamukti), meditation, creating themes for classes, and more. It was overwhelming!

How could I possibly remember it all?

Teaching yoga is not as easy as it looks!

At the end of 2011, 300-hour yoga teaching certification in hand, I migrated back down to New Orleans for the winter. I was blessed to be asked to teach at Swan River. I took advantage of the fact that all of the teachers were taking a week off for the Christmas holidays, and got permission to teach one class per day during that stretch.

In those halcyon days of my teaching I did not worry so much about how many students showed up, but I had lots of anxiety about being able to give the ones who did a great experience. I had serious imposter syndrome. There was so much to remember in each class! The class theme, the sequence, the names and anatomical foundations of the poses, the names of students, etc; I would look out at the student’s faces, and no one would be smiling. I perceived each serious student face as a personal failure. Shouldn’t they be smiling?

Over that week I worked through my insecurities. There was a student named Sara who kept coming back. She wasn’t smiling, either, but she was consistent. She was my lifeline. This was helping someone, even if it was because I had the only class on the schedule. Yet after the other teachers came back, Sara still came to my class. I still feel so much gratitude for her.

My brain is not a fried egg, but I might have scrambled it.

My momma talkin' to me tryin' to tell me how to live. But I don't listen to her 'cause my head is like a sieve. ~Cheech & Chong’s ”Earache My Eye”

About the time that Cheech & Chong were at the peak of their popularity, I was a teenager smoking way too much pot. First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and the this is your brain on drugs commercials only made me want to smoke more. It was obvious to me that the dangers were being overstated, and I would neither become a heroin addict, nor the stinky part of a breakfast sandwich. I just wanted to fit in with the cool kids who hung out in the woods behind my house.

If I could, I would go back and say to that younger self, “hey buddy, wait until you are in your twenties.” Science is finding that pot is not good for the developing adolescent brain. I don’t know if it was the weed I began smoking regularly at 15, or just the brain I was born with, but now I have a really hard time remembering things.

I forget faces, for example, a mild and self-diagnosed case of prosopagnosia (facial blindness). It happens when I see someone I know in a place where I don’t expect to see them, like seeing a yoga student at a hat store. They will start talking to me and I will be frantically trying to figure out how I know them, and why I am in a hat store.

Of course I forget names easily, which is more common. I forget large swaths of my life; friends tell stories about me that spark no memory. I forget the details of almost everything I read. I forget the dialogues in movies. My mind truly is like a sieve.

For most of my life I have been very self-conscious about my memory. I use humor and wit as the smoke and mirrors that disguise my memory deficits. I lean heavily on the parts of my brain that work better. I have good pattern recognition and excel at puns and rhymes. I am intuitive with placement of objects in space. I am a great listener, and don’t get annoyed by people who tell the same story over and over. It’s all new to me.

Knowing all this, it is no surprise that remembering all of the intricacies of a yoga teaching practice is a challenge.

The song that began my journey of remembering.

In the United States we just can’t help ourselves. As much as most of us hate standardized testing, it is still a model that most educational systems use to validate a student’s progress. The Jivamukti Yoga Teacher Training was no exception. We had a written portion of our final exam that we needed to pass in order to be certified. My ally in the quest to conquer the test turned out to be the ukulele that I carried around with me everywhere I went.

One of the skills that I have developed in the place of memory is the ability to make up songs about whatever is going on around me. And so it was that I wrote my first mnemonic song, the Shatkarma Kriya Song. The Shatkarmas are six yogic techniques to purify the body, outlined by Svatmarama in the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā. We all knew they were going to be on the test. I played the song for a couple friends, and soon I was playing it for little groups of students wherever I went. I was on to something! Music helps us remember.

Here is the song I wrote to help remember the shatkarmas:
My friend Helida recorded this video in a canoe the day after the test)

The Shatkarma Kriyas song recorded at the 2011 Jivamukti Yoga Teacher Training.

Without going too far down the shatkarma kriyas hole, here is a quick overview:

There is a lot more to know about the shatkarmas than the one-word descriptions in my song, but single words can remind us of larger concepts. They are the seeds for memory.

  • Dhautī is washing the digestive tract.

  • Basti is cleansing the colon.

  • Netī eliminates mucus from the sinuses (using a Neti Pot, for example).

  • Naulī is churning the abdominal muscles.

  • Trāṭaka is fixing the gaze, most famously by staring at a candle’s flame without blinking.

  • Kapālabhātī is a breathing technique that “shines the skull.”

  • Agni Sara, literally fire wash, is a pranayama technique that purifies the organs of the abdomen.

The yoga of memorization

Thousands of classes later I am an accomplished yoga teacher. I have learned to manage the challenges of remembering. My best classes are journeys that begin with my harmonium and chanting of mantras. We then flow through philosophical themes, storytelling, playful sequences, anatomy tips, and demonstrations.

My advice to new yoga teachers. Be humble. We can’t be everything to everyone.

Svādhyāya, besides being fun to say, is the Sanskrit word for self-study. It’s the key to success in business and in life. Trying to see ourselves clearly is really hard. I didn’t want the world to know I have a hard time remembering things. To my ego, it feels like admitting I am stupid. Yet wisdom and intelligence take many forms, and we all are wise and intelligent in our own unique ways. Understanding what those qualities are, as well as our weaknesses, is svādhyāya.

The clarity that comes from self-inquiry is useful. It is useful to know what we are passionate about in the yoga realm, and who we want to serve. Then we can stop putting energy into learning the things that don’t serve our mission. If your goal is to teach trauma-informed yoga, then perhaps learning the Sanskrit names of the poses are not as important.

I personally love beginner to intermediate-level vinyasa, chanting mantras, meditation, and yoga philosophy. I don’t spend much time learning the gentler forms of yoga; yin yoga, restorative yoga, chair yoga, trauma informed yoga, yoga nidra. I am also not obsessed with doing complex arm balances and super advanced asana. Those are all incredible practices, and I have some familiarity with all of them. But I actively pursue deepening my knowledge in the forms of yoga I am passionate about. If a student wants something different, I refer them to another teacher who can help them.

Cutting out the parts that don’t serve me, there is still a vast ocean of knowledge I immerse myself in. To help me navigate those waters, I have developed a strategy of remembering.

Mnemonic Methods of Mastering Memory (mmmm…)

  1. Decide if it’s worth remembering. Use svādhyāya to ask yourself if something is truly worth putting extra effort into remembering. I think of my brain as a hard drive with limited space. If it fills up with spam then there is no room for important data. I enjoy dad jokes, but I don’t really want to spend my precious time remembering them.

  2. Establish a connection to something already remembered. Our brains create neural networks that strengthen over time with use. This is helpful with remembering names, for example. When someone tells me their name, I will think of other people with that name, or something it reminds me of. Connecting a visual image is powerful here. If you meet someone named Matt, imagine them rolled up into a yoga mat. Let them go when you get to your next yoga class.

  3. Use wordplay mnemonics. I love words. Rhyming, acronyms and alliteration are all great tools. Music is the most memorable way to remember for me. If there is a song that has a chorus I can swap out words with, it is very helpful.

    For example, I had a hard time remembering how to pronounce “mnemonic,” because the ‘m’ at the beginning would trip my mind up. I began practicing the mantra “Kali Durga Namo Nama” by chanting “Kali Durga Namo mnemonic!” Now I say mnemonic the right way most of the time! Kali helped me overcome the demon of mispronunciation!

  4. Through repetition, the magic will rise. My teacher Sharon Gannon loved to tell us this. She said it so often that I easily remember it. The more we repeat something silently or out loud, the more likely we are to remember it. But remember, it takes time.

    We have all studied for an exam using flashcards. This is a type of repetition that is helpful. If you are like me, most of the facts and figures you crammed into your brain like that have probably slipped back out. The element of time is the other important factor. If you circle back regularly to those flashcards, or to your journal, or to a book you love, and remind yourself of the facts and figures, you are more likely to remember them in the long term.

The transformative power of remembering

After my teacher training, I got a job orking at the Jivamukti Yoga Center in NYC that lasted for six years. During that time, there was a teacher there whose classes were always full, in a room that held over 75 yogis on their mats. Her name is Rima Rabbath. She has great dharma talks and her vinyasa sequences are imaginative and challenging, but not more so than the other Jivamukti teachers who taught there, who had smaller followings. There was one thing that I noticed about her that really set her apart. She remembered everyone’s name.

Because there were so many people in her class, the first part of the class was spent moving mats around (fortunately she had assistants helping her). Whenever a new face came into the room, she would ask them their name, and repeat it back. She would find out who they knew, how they got there, making connections. At some point in the class she would say their name again, giving them encouragement. She would mention lots of people during the class. In a sea of students, we were each made to feel special. Even if it was our first time there.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

-Maya Angelou

As I evolve as a teacher, what is most important to me is that I give my students an experience. I want every class to be a journey. It begins with letting them know that they are part of the journey, that I remember their name. When we are meeting someone, we often get overwhelmed with the emotions they spark, and their name sometimes slips through. So the yogic practice of breathing and being present is powerful. Remembering names will revolutionize your teaching practice, especially when it’s a student’s first class and they are deciding whether they want you to be their teacher.

All of the great yoga teachers I know have their own unique method for teaching. If you pay attention, you will notice they repeat themselves. The repetitions will show up in their alignment cues, the philosophy they share, the way they pronounce Sanskrit words, the themes they choose. I used to see this as a personality quirk, but know I realize it is a sign of mastery.

A great teacher follows their passions and leaves out the parts of the practice that don’t serve them. Through repetition they create an experience for the students that is reliable and that becomes familiar and comforting.

By letting go of trying to remember everything, I have become better at remembering some things quite well. I use all of the tools in my Mnemonic Methods of Mastering Memory toolbox to help me.

I use it to plan my classes. I can now tell stories that continue throughout the class, so that the climax of the story happens around the time the students are moving into the peak pose. I can connect elements of philosophy to specific poses, or parts of the story. I have songs about anatomy that help me remember muscles and their connections to bones.

Being able to manage memory, and apply it to your teaching practice, is powerful. I have been able to overcome imposter syndrome by realizing that I have lots of gifts and wisdom that I can share. I have befriended with my brain's limited capacity for memory, and instead of seeing it as a handicap, I see it as the catalyst for this unique journey I am embarked upon with mnemonics.

I have even gotten much better at remembering students’ names, and can usually get them to smile when I mention them in class. To be yogic about it, their smile and mine are one and the same. I wish the same for you.

The Don’t Forget Yoga Podcast

If you are a new yoga teacher who struggles to remember all of the aspects of teaching, check out my new Don’t Forget Yoga Podcast, helping new yoga teachers absorb yogic wisdom with music, mantras and mnemonics. I will be diving deeper into all of the ideas mentioned in this blog post, and talking to other teachers and memory experts along the way. I hope you will join me on this journey!