Yoga Alliance Leadership Conference:Transformation Through Yoga

October 25-28, 2012 in Indian Wells, CA

Getting to Know...
Cora Wen, E-RYT 500

We had the opportunity to interview conference speaker Cora Wen, E-RYT 500 and director of a RYS 500. Cora shared her genuine experience of transformation through Yoga, reflected passionately on the challenges of hosting teacher training, and divulged the best advice she's ever been given as a Yoga teacher.

YA: What does the word "transformation" mean to you?

CW: I am always interested in the root of words, as English is not my first language. The word transformation brings me to chrysalis, whose root is from the Greek χρυσος Chrysós, for gold. The spun fiber of the pupa is golden light as it catches the sun. This is somehow a comforting image, just as a new dawn is full of potential.

In the scientific sense, a metamorphosis is to change shape and form, and is necessary to proceed to the next stage of life with ease. The biochemical changes in our bodies cause a constant regeneration of cells. In some ways, as we physically transform our cells every few days, one could say we are becoming a new being all the time. And if you have ever questioned the power of change in the body, ask any woman about monthly hormonal cycles!

A classic example of a physical transition if that of the caterpillar to butterfly. While we hear and see this imagery commonly, the transformation only can occur with great struggle. As the caterpillar goes through metamorphosis to grow wings to fly, it can only journey alone. If we help a butterfly shed its cocoon, the butterfly will not gain the strength needed to fly its wings. It is necessary for the butterfly to struggle to grow strength and to push the cellular energy into the wings to fly.

This is such a profound metaphor for us in any spiritual journey, as no one can do the work but ourselves. And the work will bring with it struggle, and often the great pain of change. But transformation awaits, so may we bloom into ourselves.

YA: How has Yoga been transformational in your life?

CW: In my personal story, Yoga changed everything. I began the greatest love affair of my life - the journey home to myself.

As I began to get grounded in the physical body of muscles, tendons, ligaments and breath, the energy surrounding my decisions changed. What used to feel right, didn't feel as right until the choices I made came out of my deepest fulfillments, instead of my deepest fears.

I left a high paying corporate banking career, which may be more common now, but certainly wasn't in the late 1990s! This transformative practice helped me grieve the passing of my mother in 2001 more fully than the passing of my father in 1991.

It has helped me find the physical comfort to sit longer and more often for meditation, and the emotional comfort I was always seeking in my younger years. The great scribe of the Vedas and Puranas, Vyasa says "the yogi is as sensitive as an eyeball", and this sensitivity is Viveka, the discernment needed to choose and make wise life choices.

Yoga and meditation practice help us become the observer, and witness what is truly happening, instead of becoming the slave of mind chatter, which manifests as worry and stress.

We may enjoy the strength and flexibility that asanas build in the body, but it is really the deeper strength and adaptability that helps us through life's struggles. This adaptable witness that I have glimpsed keeps me coming back to the practice for more. And it helps me clearly see that sometimes my thoughts are the prison of my own making. Ease is what can become available, and happiness sits waiting for me inside myself.

YA: What advice do you give your students looking to change themselves through Yoga?

CW: My advice is always to not look so hard and not try so hard.

Yoga changes us. Its power is better than any of us as humans can define. As a student, we can desire strength and flexibility in the physical body, and that is helpful to repair ailments of joints, muscles and aches. But the power of Yoga is the ability to stand up when we don't think we can, to move through what feels insurmountable, and to transcend difficulties with breath and acceptance.

If you come to Yoga, and practice with dedication and clarity, the world will change, and transformation will happen. We don't have to "make it happen", just as we can't push our hamstring or spine to open, we cannot make the mind stop chattering. What might happen instead is the mind chatter shifts to help and heal, over destroy and detract.

I have been known to say this mantra over and over: Don't do Yoga, be Yoga.

Live it, breathe it, let it infuse your senses and direct your choices. Learn to listen, take time to look and listen, and sometimes there might be less struggle in life if we struggle less with our hamstring.

We don't need to work too hard to find big changes in our lives. What would happen if you just found time for a 15-minute savasana every day? What would happen if everyone in the world did a 15-minute savasana every day?

And as much as day turns to night, I encourage everyone to balance activity with rest. Most of us are a bubbling, stressed hormonal concoction most of the time, so sometimes the greatest healing will come from rest.

YA: How has your view of Yoga changed since you first started practicing and teaching?

CW: My story is much like most; I came to Yoga during the corporate banking years to find exercise and a way to calm my mind, and in the first class (with Rodney Yee), I found connection to myself.

In the beginning, like most people, I loved the way my body felt. I had always been the unathletic one, the nonsporty, nerdy, bookish, weaver type of person. I preferred art classes to sports and reading books over dance parties. Although I did my fair share in the 90s!

And in that very first class deep in the California redwoods, I pushed up into a backbend and felt the years of Buddhist teachings of compassion and wisdom come home inside my body.

I was hooked! And like any good junkie, I ran looking for that bliss again and again. I practiced for six hours a day, and gave up everything else for my practice. I remember the first few years and how annoyed I was that I had to go home for Thanksgiving. I knew I would have no time to practice and took it out on my family in sullen silence.

That was the last holiday I ever spent with my mother.

Now I can barely find those same six hours for sleep. I would trade the entire syllabus of every asana and every note on philosophy for one more conversation with my mother. I used to look for bigger and more, and went after the advanced backbends like I was preparing for the Olympics. After "achieving" some semblance of most of those backbends, I just found my ego growing, and my judgement of other peoples practices growing. Basically, I had no social life because I was "doing" Yoga.

Now, I spend hours examining why my index finger shifts as I hop into handstand, or how much breath fills the left lung in pranayama, and have been working to raise my second toe independently for almost 17 years. In other words, the practice has become more nuanced and subtle. The changes are not about more and deeper, but softer and smoother. Can I breathe in that deep backbend? And if I can't breathe and find myself huffing and puffing, I now stop. If it is recognizable to me that my ego has replaced my discernment, it is time to stop.

As the years have passed, I am not striving for big poses. Certainly they are fun, but the pose is not the fulfillment anymore. More is no longer the goal. I just want to be able to keep the body supple enough to do household things by myself as long as I can, and to keep the mind conscious and mind chatter calmed.

Sure, the ego arises, and I have to keep it tamed. But now I understand more and more that this is a life practice, a transformational practice of mind, body and spirit. Besides, isn't that why we call it practice?

As a teacher, I have found I am less and less interested in showing or getting into the poses, but how to teach a teacher to teach the poses. My advanced techer training (RYS 900) is tough. I ask for the most difficult thing a teacher can ask: I ask you to think for yourself, to learn how to find the answers, and to love the questioning. I'm also much more interested in working with different audiences, especially with acute and chronic ailments, along with cancer recovery and conscious grieving.

Perhaps it is just as the Yoga sutras advise; we move from the outer periphery inward toward the heart. I want to leave my students - and student teachers - with tools to find their own voice and inner wisdom.

And for myself, I am moving in my practice to the last and most difficult asana, the final breath so I can leave this life with grace.

YA: What does being a "Yoga leader" mean to you?

CW: Wow, this is a hard one. I don't think of myself as a Yoga leader, especially as my own path has been led by some of the most respected leaders in the world, like Judith Hanson Lasater, Erich Schiffmann, Patricia Walden and Angela Farmer. These teachers, along with my parents have instilled the importance of humility. The necessity of it. They have shown me to respect myself, and others always, always.

In this modern Internet-infused world of Yoga, I am seeing how much each word, picture and image can influence a generation, and becoming more aware of how the Internet can influence our world. So as I have fallen into some public persona of Yoga teacher, I stress the teacher part of this title.

In social media, on the web, in the classroom, on the mat, or in the world, I have been given the privilege of being called a teacher, so the responsibility and duty of the title of Teacher is an honor, and one I do not take lightly.

It is my honor to teach this transformative practice, and my job is to live it, breathe it and share it abundantly. In all of my media outreach, I want to give and to teach what small bits of information I may have. To share it and help others find their own paths. To remind myself and others the difference between goals and objectives, and to help others develop the Viveka to see what is real and unreal, and to choose wisely.

Yoga integrates body and mind and is a process of observing our physical and mental limits, then transcending them. We breathe, move, listen to our bodies, and work to be more at ease, centered and happy. The concentration, intent, faith, and unity between the physical and ethereal body strengthens mind and body, and a connection to our deepest self.

YA: What was the best teaching advice you ever received?

CW: It's interesting as every one of my teachers from my childhood Buddhist sifu to all of my Yoga asana and philosophy teachers have given me the same advice in different ways.

They have taught me to look at who is in front of me when I'm teaching.

To put away my judgment and self talk beliefs, to look right here, and right now. Who is this person in front of me? Last week they may have dropped back into the most advanced backbend, but today they have energy that is tired, or they are agitated and need rest not action, or vice versa. How do I know what has happened in their life? How can I help? What do they need?

It is also profoundly important to speak from your own voice. I am asked more and more often now about "cues", and I'm always confused by this question. If I give you a cue for a flexible spine, and you have a vertebral disc injury in front of you, how can a cue work? If we use language because it sounds good, but never look further to the meaning, what am I actually saying? I personally don't want to repeat a list of words that someone else felt, without feeling it in myself deeply first.

When I learn from my teachers a new action, or develop a new sequence, it may take me years before I will teach it. It took three years for me to teach the Pink Dog sequence (a sequence designed for Breast Cancer), and even more years to teach an advanced backbendingsequence learned from Patricia Walden.

It is confusing to me when other teachers teach a sequence they may have done once in one workshop. How can you know it? How can you instruct without playing around inside your own body? How can I instruct something I haven't experienced for myself?

I am reminded of something I was told many years ago by Erich Schiffmann when we were chatting about giving up my banking career to teach. I asked him how I was ever going to make a living in SoCal as a Yoga teacher, as there were so many (even in the 1990s!), and his response was this:

"There are many teachers, but few good ones, and even less great ones."

So I asked how I could know if I was any good. His response changed my view forever.

"You won't know, but your students will. They will eventually stop coming"

And my best advice to Yoga teachers is to practice at home. Develop your own practice, find the time, take five minutes, 15mins, or any amount of minutes. Go stand or lie on your mat or in your Yoga space.

Your students will know when you are practicing at home through the gems you can share from that experience in your own body.

And don't forget savasana!

YA: Why are you inspired to speak at the Yoga Alliance Leadership Conference?

CW: I have been a strong supporter of Yoga Alliance since the beginning, and am grateful for the opportunity to begin opening forums of discussion and encourage collaboration between modalities of Yoga.

When YA first began, I was amongst the skeptics at the time. This was in the late 1990s. But my mentor and friend, Judith Hanson Lasater reminded me that all professions had a registry, and we as Yoga teachers wanted to become a profession. This would help us be treated as professionals, and have all the benefits of a profession, including financial remuneration and worth. We needed a group that was willing to do the administration work that needed to be done to have a registration for our profession.

I am grateful to speak at YA leadership conference, so I can share some small bits of things that I've learned along the way that have been helpful. In 40+ years of Buddhist study, and 20+ years of Yoga practice, I'm still in awe of the practice, and its power.

It is a privilege and honor to be a Yoga teacher, and I want to remind other teachers that this is hard work, and good work, and you will transform people's lives.

It will be great to share some pieces of what keeps me coming back to the mat, physically and spiritually every day. I'm offering three short practices in my conference session for attendees to take home.

YA: What has been the most challenging part of running a Yoga teacher training? Any personal lessons learned that you could share, or success stories?

CW: Actually, the question might be rephrased as what isn't challenging about running a teacher training!

I see many teacher trainings that are very large and create a good turnout of young teachers, who go out and teach good classes. What I also see, is that these teachers never go back to the training, or trainer, to check in, develop ideas, converse about what has happened as they spend more time in the classroom.

To me, a training of a Yoga teacher is a gift, and one that might develop into a relationship. A place where Yoga grows and is nurtured together. The relationship with community and elders is an integral part of that growth. The relationship developed between teacher and student can develop more fully over time. Selfishly for me, I like to stay connected to students and help encourage their path.

I want teacher trainees to develop their practice of Yoga, not asana, but the way they work with themselves and students. Are you running your life in a way that is consistent with teaching? Is there calm, ease and learning to take care of yourself as a teacher? Leave time to learn, to study. How can you teach without taking time to study yourself?

It is a privilege and a duty to be a good teacher, to nurture and inspire others. Yoga Bloom Teacher Training came out of my own deep love and respect for the practice, and I want to offer that to other teachers. A way to see this practice truly as a way of life, and do the best we can to help others and share this practice.

YA: What are the challenges the Yoga community and Yoga teaching community face with continued growth and interest in Yoga?

CW: It is amazing to see the growth of Yoga. When I first started to practice, people asked if we meditated or chanted all day, and if I was giving up Buddhism to become a yogi.

As the growth of Yoga has come into our social and cultural lexicon, it has changed the way we see the mind-body connection. Yoga has affected healthcare to redefine how we see this connection, and there are over 1500 clinical studies ongoing measuring its efficacy. Health practitioners prescribe Yoga as a tool for inner balance, rejuvenation and health, and to provide more energy and joy in life.

As Yoga diversifies in culture and demographics, we see this transformation in large and small ways: from an athlete's concentrated workouts to an elderly person managing everyday chores. It is great to see Yoga accepted into our common vocabulary, but I am concerned that we will lose sight of the important aspects of lineage in search of the next greatest thing.

There are so many "new" forms of Yoga now, and it is everywhere we look, from dog-centered, to wine and foodcentered, hip hop, tantric rock, mudra meditation - more styles growing daily.

Some of these are fun, some are crazy. Through all the individualistic nods of this sublime practice, I do hope we don't forget the simple joy of just being in touch with ourselves and each other.

I hope we don't look for more and bigger and better to the point of losing the one-on-one relationship and mentoring that helps some of us heal. That connection to an authentic being, in an authentic conversation. I know it has been a great part of my own healing and transformation in Yoga - the connection to another person, that allows me to see the connection to myself.

It is our job to keep lineage alive - the idea that we grow old together and share the bits of wisdom we have with one another, so that Yoga can transform us all. Having shared experience from those that have come before us, those that have tried this type of thing for a while, might be of value. I am Asian, and we believe in long term relationships with teachers, the idea that no one can master anything without time and experience.

Transformation suggests a big change so we often look for new and next, yet Yoga actually brings us home to ourselves, with the ability to look inwardly to refine our true essence. The concentration, intent, faith, and unity between the physical and ethereal body strengthens mind and body, and is a connection to our deepest self.

Cora will be speaking at the upcoming Leadership Conference:

Transformation through Asana

Yoga is a process of transcending both physical and mental limitations. It helps us release old habits and negative patterns in order to transform. We witness these transformations - large and small – every day. In our asana practice, we breathe, we move consciously, we listen to our bodies, and we seek to be more at ease. The concentration, intent and unity between the physical body and the subtle body support this transformation through asana. In our closing session, Cora will lead us through a transformative asana practice to awaken and inspire our Yoga journey.

About Cora Wen, E-RYT 500 from San Jose, CA

Cora Wen, founder of the Registered Yoga School (RYS) Yoga Bloom, is an international specialist in Yoga therapy. She teaches throughout Asia, Canada and the US. Cora is a favorite of students of all levels due to the extraordinary energy and life experiences she brings to her classes. She left careers in fashion and corporate banking to follow her love and passion for Yoga, and her expertise has arisen from over two decades of practice, teaching and apprenticing with influential teachers. Her style infuses humor, anatomy and energetic awareness. She helps students explore asana by opening to the beauty of imperfection and cultivating acceptance of body, mind and spirit.