Our yoga program at Suan Sati is aimed at
Transformation, Awareness, & Empowerment.
Transformation – In order to unlock the transformative power of yoga, we must practice in a way that produces some kind of conflict or crisis. It’s just like in nearly every movie you’ve ever seen. The main character faces some kind of conflict and eventually has to overcome the conflict in order to learn, change, and grow. It is by facing and overcoming difficulties in life that we transform into better versions of ourselves.
What this means practically is that you can expect to work hard in our classes, especially the morning sessions. The evening class will usually be more gentle in order to balance out the hard work of the morning. Of course, we encourage you not to push yourself too much, and to always back off when you go too far. It’s not for the sake of competition or achievement, but rather to give you an opportunity to come to a place where you meet some resistance to your experience.
We realize that most people practice yoga in order to relax or feel good and not to seek out resistance, but we are confident in our methodology to produce something even better, which is transformation. By softening your resistance to the way things are, you free up the mind to be at ease, no matter what. Then, when you go back into the real world, your hard work pays off as you find an increased ability to be with things as they are while maintaining a sense of calm collectedness. This contentment and peace is actually much more rewarding than a temporary feeling of bliss or pleasure because it doesn’t depend on meeting certain conditions. So even though it might not always be pleasant while you’re holding Warrior 2, the long-lasting ability to adapt to the changing conditions of life is surely worth the efforts.
Awareness/Mindfulness – The development of awareness in yoga comes when we explore what it means to be alive in every moment. We learn to tune in to the body, breath, and mind in order to stay connected to the present moment. But, as we’ve discovered in meditation, a simple awareness of the present moment doesn’t lead to the development of liberating wisdom. Even though that’s the primary aim of the meditation program at Suan Sati, we seek to integrate it into everything we do as a way of developing a sense of continuity of the practice of mindfulness throughout the day in all activities.
The Buddha taught meditation in the four postures, namely sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. Basically, he taught that meditation can be practiced in every posture, so when we bring his teachings into yoga, we open up the possibility to practice mindfulness in hundreds of postures. Only by investigating what we are aware of do we come to a deeper understating of the true nature of mind and matter. Through repeated observation, wisdom develops and we gradually wake up from our delusion and start seeing things as they really are. This type of investigation in yoga is not common. That’s why we have so much conviction in what we’re doing.
We’ve all been told to follow our breath or feel our body in class, but how often are we instructed to closely observe the arising and passing away of all mental and physical phenomena in order to realize their impermanent nature and thereby let go of our attachment to the body and be freed from the afflictive tendencies of the untrained mind? This is just one example of the depth of investigation that we strive to implement into the physical yoga practice.
The other aspect of awareness is our focus on alignment. By offering clear instructions and demonstrations which focus on actions in the body (rather than basic shapes), we offer an opportunity for you to become intimate with your body. Rather than just teaching a series of poses, we largely teach a series of actions that systematically build a pose in a way that honors the structural integrity of the body. We also like to play around with movement and transitions, but find that they become much more stable and rewarding when we first build a strong foundation in our poses.
By integrating the different parts of the body and using muscular engagement for support, our poses start to shine with intelligence.
If you’re used to doing things your own way, or not receiving any clear instructions on alignment, you’ll find our yoga program to be something quite different. While we don’t believe there is just one way to do anything, we do believe that by offering a clear model for exploring the practice, we develop more awareness. This means that you will be asked to follow the instructions and to some degree we will observe your practice to see if you’re doing what is being instructed. Most of the time, we think we are doing it correctly but because of limited body awareness or yoga experience, we are mistaken.
The true value of our yoga program is that you will be observed, adjusted, and given personalized feedback.
What we hope is that you’ll start to hold yourself accountable for the position of your back foot, for example, and in order to do that, you’ll be encouraged to check. It is in that checking that you will develop more and more awareness, and the result will be a much more rewarding practice.
In some ways, our ideal students are those who really want to learn about yoga. Those students tend to be beginners, who have an attitude of openness and curiosity, or those who teach or plan to teach at some point. It’s the somewhat-experienced phase in the middle that tends to produce an attitude of “I already know how to do this pose” and the learning process can’t take place. So we really encourage this kind of openness and willingness to try things our way and we feel the need to include this in the description for the yoga program so there won’t be any major surprise or disappointment on your part when you find out how we do things. If you have a good attitude, we can assure you that your practice will get better, no matter how much experience you have.
For example, if the instruction is “do Trikonasana”, and there are 10 students in the class, there will most likely be 10 different versions of Trikonasana being performed. And in one way, that’s okay because there are 10 different bodies, and each body is unique and has special considerations to be made. But, usually the variations are due to the fact that many teachers teach Trikonasana differently, which can lead to confusion. Instead of “do Trikonasana”, our instructions might be something more like this:
“Step your right foot forward, spin the back heel down at 90 degrees, and push through the right foot to straighten the right leg, but not to the point of hyper-extending your knee. Slide your right hand back until it’s directly below your right shoulder, or use a block if you feel like you’re collapsing the right side of the body. Good, now keep that action of pushing through your right foot into the floor and bring your left hand to your hip. Hook your thumb around the back and keep four fingers around the front of your hip bone. Now, draw your left elbow back and notice how it brings your shoulder onto the back. Keep pushing through the front leg as you isometrically draw your feet towards each other to engage the inner thighs. Now pull your left thigh back with your left hand and scoop the right buttock under as you tuck the tailbone and externally rotate your right leg. Tilt the left side of the pelvis up as you extend your spine out of your hips all the way through the crown of your head. Keep working the legs, drawing in with the muscles and extending out with the bones, and firm your belly. Now drag your belly and your heart away from the waistline on your inhale and twist to open up to the sky on your exhale. Turn the belly, turn your chest, and extend your arm up the sky. Finally, turn your head to look up if it feels okay for your neck and breathe.”
As you can see, there’s much more to Trikonasana than just making the shape of a triangle and throwing your arm to the sky, and actually, if we were exploring this pose in more detail, you’d find that these instructions are just the tip of the iceberg. The good news is that we use the same principles of alignment in every pose, so it’s not necessary to memorize alignment details for every pose, but rather to study the alignment principles and apply them to different poses. In this way, after a few weeks of practicing at Suan Sati, you’ll have a good grasp on how to implement these principles into any pose, even if it’s not a pose that you’ve learned before.
Empowerment/Potential – At Suan Sati, we have a systematic approach to empowerment which is largely achieved through intelligent and progressive sequencing. Most yoga classes consist of a somewhat random collection of poses that offer smooth transitions or feel-good experiences, but they lack transformative power. We know because we practiced that kind of yoga for many years and although we got a bit stronger and more flexible, nothing really happened. It was only when we started practicing with teachers that offered more intelligent sequencing that we started to unlock our potential and feel empowered.
What we’ve found is that the average person in the world today is disconnected from their potential–they’re not empowered.
They feel unable to lead the kind of lives they dream of and they constantly sell themselves short in terms of abilities and value. When people come to the yoga practice, they tend to bring with them their insecurities and doubts about what they are capable of. It’s normal and we’ve also noticed this tendency in our own practice.
As teachers, we start from a place of seeing your potential and believing in you. After all, if no one else believes in us, it’s almost impossible to believe in ourselves! So what that means is that as we offer clear instructions and then follow up by observing you, giving adjustments, feedback, and more instructions or demos as needed. In this way, we will develop an idea of how your body works, what kind of habits you have, what you’re capable of, and what you’re ready for. We’ll walk you down the path and when the time is right, we’ll encourage you to face your fears and insecurities and give it your best shot.
Time and time again we’ve seen how this works wonders in terms of empowering our students to feel more connected to their potential both on and off the mat. We understand that the real value of empowerment is not so you can finally do a fancy pose, but rather for you to generally see your own life in the light of infinite possibilities and start to live from a place that honors your vision and purpose.
Only when you can see the change can you be the change.
If this all sounds familiar and you’re already enjoying the empowered life, as many are who end up traveling to Thailand, that’s great and our work will be to continue to expand the possibilities and clarify the vision. If it’s all quite new to you, don’t worry, we will give you ongoing support and make sure that you leave feeling better about yourself than you did when you arrived.
Let’s go back to the methodology here.
With progressive sequencing, we carefully select a series of poses that work towards what’s called a peak pose, which means a pose that will be challenging and requires preparation. It’s not responsible to attempt difficult or advanced poses without warming up or in the beginning of a class. First, we need to think about all the parts of the body they need to be opened up in order to perform the peak pose. Then, we take some time to look at specific skills, like learning how to engage the core, or how to keep the shoulders away from the ears. By practicing specific alignments in more basic poses first, we develop good habits. Then, we start to work up towards the peak pose by performing a series of poses organized from simple to more complex, or from gentle to going deeper. Finally, when the time comes to challenge ourselves, all of our skills and knowledge come together and the intelligence of the body supports us to push our limits safely and responsibly.
Let’s look at an example of this:
If our peak pose is King Pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana), we can see that this pose is a deep backbend, but also requires a lot of core strength to support the upper body, an open hip for the front leg in order to sink down towards the floor, an open hip-flexor and quads for the back leg to extend back far enough and find a full flexion of the back knee, and open shoulders to reach back for the back foot or strap.
So we might spend the majority of the class working on the hips (in terms of external rotation plus flexion and abduction), quads, hip-flexors, and shoulders. Then we could do some poses or exercises to strengthen the core before we start with backbends. Since King Pigeon is a deep backbend, we will need to do quite a few more gentle backbends to lead up to our final pose. Here’s where the real key to empowerment lies.
We are well aware that not everyone in the class will be able to perform King Pigeon, and certain people probably won’t be ready to even attempt it. That’s why we structure our sequences progressively. We want to take baby steps to reach our potential. Another thing you might hear us say is “get off the bus when it’s your stop”. That means that as we move through the progressive sequence of backbends, we encourage you to feel your way through each pose. If you were able to do the previous pose in the sequence and then come to a pose or see a demo and you think, “there’s no way I can do that!”, we encourage you to slowly and carefully give it a try. That way, you will learn to distinguish between that voice in your head that says you can’t do it and your actual physical limitations.
What you’ll most likely find is that your actual abilities far exceed your perceived limitations. In other words, you can do more than you think you can, and that’s why we’re here to support you and believe in you.
So as we move through the backbends, the options will always be to repeat the last one or move on to the next one. By the time we get to the final pose, we might have some students still repeating the first pose (Bridge, for example), other students might have moved on to the second pose (maybe Camel), others might be repeating the third pose (Wheel) and yet another group might have made it to the final pose and are working on King Pigeon. And here we find a very mature and responsible way to approach the practice for people of all levels and with different types of injuries and limitations to consider.
Then, we can perform any counter poses needed to restore balance to the body and conclude with a series of cooling, restorative poses before going into the final resting pose, Savasana.
Since every class will have a different peak pose, you will gain a deep understanding of how to prepare for certain types of poses, the body parts that are involved, and what key actions or principles are helpful or necessary. As you can see, this is a great way to explore the practice for those who want to depend their understanding, either for themselves or for their students.
You can expect a wide range of poses to be covered and every class is sure to be empowering!
Another, lesser known secret to empowerment is the use of props. While many see props as something to avoid if necessary, something which reveals our weakness or limitation, we see props as empowering, and here’s why.
Props allow us to do more, safely.
Since props essentially help us to support ourselves, or find more length, more space, or more stability, they ultimately allow us to do more and feel better. For example, if the block under the front hand in Trikonasana helps use keep the side body long and have more length and space in the torso, you will be able to breathe more deeply and freely, your heart will will feel spacious, and you’ll have more room to twist an open up to the sky. The person next to you, convinced that the block is only for losers, might be (if they could benefit from a block but aren’t using one) breathing rapidly and shallowly, which will increase their heart-rate, they will feel like they are compressed and unable to extend or twist to open up, and will generally be struggling to perform the pose with any sense of ease and freedom. So you tell me, who is more empowered?
The whole practice becomes an exciting journey of exploration. We try the pose with props, without props, with the help of a partner, or on our own. We encourage you to keep exploring your body and different poses in order to lead to a fuller, more rewarding experience and ultimately feel empowered to continue your practice on your own.
What really separates our retreats from others is that we normally reserve all of this information for our teacher training courses (TTCs), but we’ve decided to be more open about what we are doing and why, so that everyone can benefit from them, even if they’re not interested in joining a TTC with us. For those who want to take their practice to the next level and may want to teach someday, you might prefer our next TTC. If you are unsure, we encourage you to come check us out on retreat first and then you can decide if it’s a good fit for you.