Remembering a Yoga Legend: Maty Ezraty on Developing Effective Yoga Teaching Skills
The recent news about Maty Ezraty’s much-too-early passing was a sad day for the yoga community. Among all the many yoga luminaries we have had the privilege to study with, Maty shone like one of the brightest stars. Her wonderful playfulness and integrity as a teacher was an inspiration, and her ability to make the essence of yoga come alive in every cell of your body was unparalleled. While we mourn the loss of a great teacher, we also rejoice for Maty in her new journey, we know she will excitedly welcome her new ‘assignment’ and bring greatness wherever she goes.
As a tribute to Maty, we feature this excerpt with highlights from an interview YogaUOnline did with her a few years back. Enjoy! ~ Eva and Lynn
Q: With the growing popularity of yoga, there’s a huge proportion of beginning yoga students in classes. How can we, as teachers best serve that huge influx of beginning students?
Maty Ezraty: I would start with that word ‘beginners,’ because it can be problematic. You can be somebody who is studying and practicing the more basic poses and not be a beginner at all. Being a beginner is not just physical; It also has a mental quality to it.
So you can be a practicing a very basic asana practice, but actually, be an advanced practitioner. And you can be a so-called advanced practitioner–you know, putting your foot behind the head–and be a beginner in yoga.
One problem is that we’re seeing magazine covers and pictures of people doing poses that are not normal. But that’s not advanced yoga, and it doesn’t define an advanced practitioner. An advanced practitioner has a settled mind and can introspect.
We do need to offer a variety of types of classes that you could categorize as “Level One.” This was the heart of our business at Yoga Works. But within that context yoga studios can offer a variety of types of level one classes.
At Yoga Works, we had classes that people attended for as many as 15 years because those so-called advanced poses just didn’t fit in with their lifestyles, and the students knew their own needs better. But they were absolutely regular students.
In a Level One class, you may be teaching the basic poses, but you can teach the concepts of yoga. You also have things like seniors classes, which could be considered beginning classes, but people in those classes may have been coming for years. You can have classes that are like Easy-Does-It, for people who require a more therapeutic approach. And of course, there are Introduction to Yoga classes, where students are physically physical capable and need to learn the basics of the poses. You can give them a path to move on to a Level Two class. So I think you have to think differently about how you define the levels.
I never consider a student doing crazy back bends necessarily as an advanced student. Sometimes they’re actually some of the more beginning students I have.
Q: Speaking of levels, it’s common to see beginning students resist modifications, such as blocks, because they see them as a lesser version of the pose. This creates a problem for teachers concerned with student safety. How can yoga teachers help students honor their bodies’ needs instead of working from a mental picture of what they think they should look like in a pose?
Maty Ezraty: This question needs some background: The student who is not taking a block is potentially a beginning student who’s in the wrong level and in a class that is going faster than they should be going. That problem comes, in my opinion, from today’s yoga world of just putting everybody into one room from a need to have a certain number of people in classes to pay the bills. Because that student probably needs to go into a lower level class to get the information.
That said, one way to deal with a mixed level class is to change the attitude about props for everyone. I believe that that’s something teachers should put into their classes regularly. For example, “Everyone, please get a block.”
We are educators. When you have students like that in your classes, you have to figure out ways in to educate them. If everyone tries a version using the block, everyone sees the benefit.
I think it’s very important that teachers stop saying things like, “Those of you that are beginners do this, those of you that are intermediate do that, or those of you that can take the next step, do this.” That’s not an education, that’s a carrot on a stick.
You have to appeal to people ‘s intelligence. So, “If your knee is like this and if your hand is like this, then go ahead and do this. If it’s not, do this.” There has to be education; You have to also explain to people that putting their hand on a block will make them progress faster. Because if you keep going beyond the place where you need to work, you’re always going to bypass it and your body will always find a way around it. You’re going to be there for a very, very long time. On the other hand, if you stick to the block and work on that part that you need to open, you will actually progress much faster.
This is what we must do as educators: We have to see that a beginner who is not putting their hand on the block is not a bad student. We have to see and study that person and ask ourselves, “What is it that we need to get through to them?”
It’s like a kid who goes to school and has issues learning. And as a teacher, you have to find ways in which you’re going to do it. Sometimes it could mean saying something to the whole class that’s very specific to one student, not with animosity, but with love and good intention. Everyone can benefit from hearing it, but you’re really talking to one student. You might sometimes have to take it past the yoga asana and bring the yoga philosophy into it. And it’s amazing because people do make progress. People do want to change.
Q: Another factor that comes into play is the lack of body awareness that is typical for many beginning students. Many students lack proprioception or any sense of their body in space. When working with beginners, how can teachers encourage body awareness and help their students transition to building awareness of their bodies?
Maty Ezraty: It’s difficult for beginners who are newly confronting their bodies and all their issues with their bodies. We yoga teachers can forget that, because we’ve been in our bodies for a long time and we enjoy it. We don’t understand what it’s like to come into a yoga class, see this young teacher doing some stuff or look around the room. We don’t really understand how hard it is to be in that body. And so one of the most important things we have to do is to help them through that time with a lot of encouragement. Building up confidence is huge because that’s what will make them come back and do it again.
I think it’s important to communicate with them is that the beginning is difficult, why it’s difficult, and why it’s worth sticking with it. And this is why it’s so good to have beginner’s introductory classes where people can be with other people who are facing those same issues. A class has to have an element of enjoyment and fun, even to that group of students.
There are always poses you can do that will give people that sense of peace and calmness, and it just means variations: Using more props, chairs, the walls.
There are always poses you can do that will give people that sense of peace and calmness, and it just means variations: Using more props, chairs, the walls. The class has to have a certain amount of pleasure. If it’s really, really hard and you’re just confronting them with how their bodies don’t feel good, you’re not going to build up their confidence.
Q: It can get very overwhelming for new teachers who realize that the modifications they learned in teacher training don’t address the challenges many beginners face. Take tight hamstrings, for example. For many beginners, “Bend your knees and use a block,” doesn’t even begin to meet the needs of people with very tight hamstrings. What other ways would address something like tight hamstrings?
Maty Ezraty: It depends on the kind of class you’re teaching. In a beginning yoga class, it’s a lot easier to address that student because you would not be doing very many Sun Salutations. I really love Downward Dog at the wall where you are in a kind of an L shape with your hands on the wall. The other posture that is super helpful is Supta Padangusthasana (reclining-hand-to-big-toe) with a belt.
The issue with bending the knees in forward bending yoga postures is that if you’re always bending the knees, you are not ever really going to open the hamstrings to the same degree. So, while others are doing seated forward folds, a student with really tight hamstrings can prop up on blankets and use a strap. If they are willing, have them take their foot to the wall and put their hands either up the wall or on a chair instead of folding forward and rounding. Or, if their body is warmed up, have them do legs up the wall with the pelvis slightly off the wall.
It’s important to take the pressure off students by emphasizing that things take time. It’s not essential to be in a full forward bend because really, we are doing something else here in the process. We are stretching the hamstrings and whether they ever will get open or not is not the end of the world. The more the student is patient and understands how to take care of their bodies, the more progress they will make. The more forceful and aggressive they are–the more they want it–the more likely they are to hit a block and maybe never continue or come up to against an injury.
In the center of the room, it’s so valuable for those students not to try to touch their hands to the floor, not to try to put their forehead on their shinbones, which is one of the worst instructions in yoga classes today. Have them use blocks to really prop themselves up and learn how to use their quadriceps muscles.
Interestingly enough, when you get past the mind wanting things so badly, it actually becomes more pleasurable for those students to do those poses. And it’s amazing how they will do it. They will get those blocks because it feels better.
Q: A common misalignment beginners face in standing yoga postures is an anterior pelvic tilt in the Warrior poses, where the belly spills out. That common cue to tuck the tailbone can sometimes result in students actually shifting into a posterior pelvic tilt, which is also counterproductive. What can yoga teachers do to help students find the correct pelvic alignment?
Maty Ezraty: I think students need a lesson on the three planes of the pelvis: the forward-and-back, up-and-down, and side-to-side. Of course, the teacher first needs to understand which of these is most important and when. For example, in Virabhadrasana 1, I believe that the up-and-down level of the pelvis is actually the most important one.
One of the worst cues in the yoga world is to “Square the hips.” This is often at the expense of having the student shorten the distance from the front and back legs.
I think it’s actually very difficult to square the hips. A lot of times what happens when a student tries to square the hips is that they take their pelvis out of the up-and-down level and drop their back hip, so one sit bone is now lower to the ground than the other. Now they’re actually in a very dangerous posture, particularly if the teacher is insisting that they be upright. This is where they really begin torquing their SI joints.
Quite possibly, that student may have a tight psoas, so I don’t think it’s necessarily bad for them to lean a little bit forward, which takes the pressure off the low back. When your arms are up, and you’re trying to get upright, you’ve got a lot of weight from the upper back on your lower back. If you don’t have that capacity lift, you can be in a bit of trouble.
In Warrior 1, I prefer to make sure that the pelvis is level, keeping the two sitting bones in line with the ground. I don’t insist on square hips, which is something to shoot for, but something that very few people can eventually do.
I also don’t particularly love the instruction to move the tailbone in and down. I much prefer to teach students to lift the front pelvic bones up press the buttock flesh down, so that you have something to lift the torso up out of. Getting the length and lift in your torso is one of the most important things here.
Without that lift, you won’t have the space to bring the hips closer to square eventually, and you won’t have the ability to change the position of the pelvis. You need to be able to get that height and that lift, so you need those buttocks anchoring you down, drawing down to the ground. It’s like a backbend where you need your buttocks to help lift your chest. In fact, this is essentially teaching backbend–Virabhadrasana 1 is really an introduction to backbends.
A student with a tendency toward anterior pelvic tilt may need to do extra work on their psoas, or they may need to lift their back heel off the ground. Those students will also benefit from putting their heel on the wall.
I teach lunges with the back foot on the wall a lot more now than Virabhadrasana 1. I think it’s more effective for opening in the psoas in the back leg and eventually it can really teach the alignment of the buttock and have to lift up your torso.
Q: Students new to yoga often complain of wrist pain, either during or after class. Can you speak to that a bit?
Maty Ezraty: Whenever a student says that something is painful, the teacher needs to have the ability to diagnose what is going on. There’s no one diagnostic for every student. With wrists, you look for things such as hyperextension in the elbows, whether they have a carrying angle, whether their arm straightens fully, their overall muscular ability and strength, and whether they are overweight.
One of the very first things to ask is what poses hurt their wrists. Some students are unable to take their wrist to the 90-degree angle that is required for something like a handstand or Chatarunga, and they may never be able to do so. This is a common issue. If that’s the case, they’re going to need a block or wrist wedge when they are doing those poses and maybe even down dog.
Next, look at the wrist crease in relationship to the elbows and the shoulder. Are they torqueing? Do they have a carrying angle where the position of the hands needs to be modified? Do they know how to lift their forearm up out of their wrist joint or are they just sitting and dropping weight into their wrist because they haven’t learned how to draw up? Do they understand extension? These are things that the teacher has to look at before saying that the posture is a problem. It may be the execution, or it may be that this student has certain things in their body that require some permanent modifications.
It could actually be the case that the problem is further up. It could be the outer forearm that needs to work or that the shoulders aren’t properly tracking into the socket. This is a passion for me because coming from Ashtanga, you must be able to take care of your wrists or you’re never going to be able to get through the third series.
This is the fun-est thing of Yoga! You have to figure out how you are going to turn your students on to these incredible cues that are journeys into your practice.
I don’t particularly love the instruction teachers use to press into the finger pads. I believe that your fingers should be able to play the piano practically and that they should extend and lengthen, while the knuckles of the fingers press down. The student needs to learn how to lift and draw the forearm up and make space in the wrist joint.
Q: This lifting of the forearms seems like one of those concepts that are hard to teach. How do you approach it?
Maty Ezraty: Oh, it’s not hard to teach! This is the fun-est thing of Yoga! You have to figure out how you are going to turn your students on to these incredible cues that are journeys into your practice.You have to demonstrate sometimes, to show, to explain.
You have to get into people’s intelligence. Sometimes they see, sometimes they hear, sometimes, you have to figure it out. That’s the excitement of yoga! How to make that student that comes to class that never listens to me–How do I turn this person on? And like that’s like your juice. That’s the Funville of Yoga Teaching!
Ultimately you have to turn them on. A student that is turned on when they come to class wants to learn anything’s possible. And that’s the first part of the job. You gotta gotta gotta get that!