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Annie Carpenter, MS, E-RYT 500, creator of SmartFLOW Yoga, is a former dancer and is an international yoga teacher based in Northern California. Known as a "teacher's teacher," she has created a well-respected system of yoga practice and teaching methodology and is the author of RelaxDEEPLY, a CD of restorative yoga, and Yoga for Total Back Care, a DVD produced by Yoga Journal.
1440: You describe yoga practice as a shamanic path. What do you mean by that?
Annie Carpenter: What I mean by that is it's possible to make lasting personal transformation through yoga practice. If we enter our practice fully and without reservation, any kind of change is possible, whether it's change we predict we want or not. If we open up and let the practice work on us over time, change happens.
1440: Do you find change happens quickly or does it require a lot of time?
Annie Carpenter: Occasionally we get those eureka moments, but I think, for the most part, you do the practice day in and day out, and then you look back 10 years later, 20 years later, or even two years later, frankly, and you say, "Wow. I really am seeing the world and my place in it differently. I'm seeing reality a little more clearly."
1440: What kind of changes can people expect?
Annie Carpenter: A committed practice can affect us in so many global ways. You may find yourself with new and different friends. You may find that you eat better because you notice that the funky food you ate last night meant your practice didn't go as well this morning. You might find yourself choosing books and activities that actually promote well-being and self-knowledge. It leaks into all aspects of your life in really positive ways. I like to joke that I don't think anyone ever said, "Oh, I wish I hadn't practiced today!"
1440: What's your advice for establishing a daily practice?
Annie Carpenter: This was hard for me to understand as a young teacher years ago. I came out of the womb with some discipline, so a daily practice was never a problem for me. I thought, "If you feel better when you practice, why wouldn't you do it?"
What I eventually learned to tell people is that it's far better to spend five minutes, five times a day, every day than to do one giant session for an hour and not get back to it for another week.
It's more important to see it as part of daily life. I have my students pause five times a day for five or ten minutes for a mindful walk, a little stretching, a short meditation, or a few sun salutations. To me this is more helpful than getting to a yoga class once a week. I have them look for little ways to be awake in the day.
1440: How do you encourage students to make their practice their own, even when they're in a class?
Annie Carpenter: The primary asana principle I operate under is something I call effort and return. The effort is the movement or attention toward a given pose. The return is the movement that would take us back to tadasana (mountain pose), or center. I call it the return to center. Each time I give an instruction, I teach the movement toward it, and the movement out of it. Using questions, I encourage students to find their place on the continuum.
Whether you're a basic beginner or an advanced student, it's not about how far you go (or don't go), or that you even get there. The point is that you explore along a specific, highly precise continuum that might take you into putting your foot behind your head, or it might take you into releasing your hip a little bit.
It takes a little training to get the hang of my specific approach because most people are more used to a stronger class or a looser, flowing class with music. But once people are trained in it, they're really empowered to explore in a specific way, in a very present way, to find their version of whatever it is we're doing.
1440: You've been called a "teacher's teacher," you've created your own yoga style (SmartFLOW Yoga), and you've trained many yoga teachers. What is it that makes a good teacher?
Annie Carpenter: There are many different ways to be a good teacher. Some teachers inspire by being good and positive at what they do. Some teachers force you to see yourself, and that's not always pleasant—I have some of that in me. I think that many of today's yoga teachers build community beautifully well, and have lots of "friends/followers."
Ultimately, I think a good teacher is someone who is interested in having their students go even further than they do.
1440: What area do you think most teachers could improve in?
Annie Carpenter: I think many teachers give too much too soon. I've had a lot of experience developing and teaching curricula, and I know it's more important to give a tiny thing for someone to gnaw on for a while before you give them the next piece. You can't give a student everything at once. I think teachers need to not be everyone's friend. They need to be willing to say to a student, "Hey, wait. Wake up. I know you think you've got this, but look again." You may not be their favorite person in that moment, but at the end of the day your students know that you're solid for them. If they want to change, they know you'll be there, even in the dark parts.