Q and A with Jack Cuneo

Q: When and why did you first start practicing yoga?

A: My first experience with yoga actually had nothing to do with asana. In college, a girl I really liked was taking yoga classes with Prem Prakash, a real-deal yoga scholar who taught postures but was clearly much more on the devotional and scholarly side of things. He held a yajna - fire ceremony - at his house and I went. We chanted for hours. It felt like my knees and back had knives sticking out of them by the end, but I also felt as though something important had awakened in me. I became fascinated with Hinduism, Buddhism, and esoteric spiritual practices and started studying them deeply.

I started practicing asana in Winter 2009, right around Christmas. I had been in a pretty serious accident, and was suffering from some pretty serious knee and back injuries. It wasn’t uncommon for me to literally cry in frustration and pain while trying to do normal, everyday activities. I felt betrayed by my body, and like my life was already over at the age of 20! I hobbled into an Ashtanga yoga class out of desperation. I was looking for a savior. The practice inspired me that day - I loved it immediately - but what really changed me from the outset was the teacher’s capacity to hold space and empower me to stop looking outside myself for a savior, and instead to look within.


Q: When did you start teaching?

A: I started teaching in 2013. Although I came to yoga pretty physically unfit, I was so passionate about it that my practice progressed very quickly. After a few years, most of my yoga teachers treated me like something between a peer and a student. I got to see through a window into the world of teaching, and I really liked it.

In 2011 and 2012, I was studying the Anusara yoga method, a brilliant synthesis of alignment principles and philosophies created by John Friend, who had previously been an Iyengar yoga teacher. Unfortunately, the organization was engulfed in scandal in 2012 and collapsed. Most of my teachers struggled to cope with this dissolution, but a few began to shine even brighter to my eyes, especially Livia Cohen-Shapiro and Patrick Montgomery. These two teachers encouraged me to go to Tucson and train with Darren Rhodes and Christina Sell, and after I returned they gave me my first opportunities to get teaching experience. I will forever be grateful for that.


Q: What made you want to teach?

A: At first, I wanted to teach because people were telling me that they wanted to learn from me. I had lots of insights into the practice, but I didn’t have the skills to convey those insights. For me, the practice itself has always felt wonderful and natural. The art of speaking, conveying, holding space… those things have not come as easily. I’ve had to work hard and I’ve made a lot of mistakes.

Now I teach because the act of teaching is my teacher. Standing in front of people - trying to listen to their experience and share my own - helps me learn about myself. It forces me overcome my introversion enough to observe and hone my relationship and interaction skills. On some level, teaching is simply another layer of my own practice.


Q: What is your favorite style to teach?

A: People loosely classify what I do as alignment-based yoga, but I don’t think much about style. I teach what I teach in the best way I know how. That means sometimes my classes flow from start to finish, and sometimes there are a dozen stopping points for demos, partner work, crazy prop contraptions, and so forth. I suppose my favorite classes and workshops are the ones where students get the chance to break apart a basic assumption they’ve held about their body or the practice. It’s fun when a student gets an arm balance for the first time, but I love it even more when they take a pose they’ve done a million times like Warrior 2 and suddenly discover something new about it.


Q: What is one of your favorite moments as a yoga teacher?

A: We were practicing deep backbend variations at the wall, and a student who loudly proclaimed how much she hated backbends had overcome some resistance and was really going for it. I gave her a few refining cues and suddenly, she was able to touch her foot to her head. She was like, “What is that?” and I said, “Your foot is touching your head.” Still in the backbend, she says really loudly, “No f*cking way!” I love those moments.


Q: What is one of your most embarrassing moments as a yoga teacher?

A:  I’m not proud of this one. This happened a few years ago. I had a dedicated student demonstrating an arm balance with her legs in eagle pose. I’ve always loved making cues more memorable with goofy analogies, and they often just spring off the top of my head. In this case, I said to this lovely student - in front of everyone - “turn your front thighs in to cross your legs more. As if you were chaste.” Immediately I recoiled in horror; what had just come out of my mouth? I had just implied something about the sexual promiscuity of this student for no reason. I’m not sure anyone else actually got what I had said; it didn’t turn into a problem of any sort. But I was so embarrassed. After that I had to take a good look at myself: had what I said meant something? Was it some sort of Freudian slip? I don’t think so; it was just a bizarre improvised analogy. But the lesson I drew from the experience was this: when others trust you with their bodies and allow you to guide them, that’s precious and there’s a risk inside of that. Often the best teaching happens spontaneously, but teachers also have to do the work to ensure that they are clean and that they have the right filters in place to create a safe environment for their students.


Q: What is one of your most profound moments as a yoga teacher?

A: In a teacher training I helped facilitate earlier this year, the students started discussing politics during a discussion of the Yoga Sutras. Does equanimity or dispassion really mean not trying to change the world around us for the better? Can we really say that suffering is all in our minds when we can also identify systemic injustice in society? So we switched gears and took a look at the story of the Bhagavad Gita. We talked about what it meant to do one’s dharma without attachment to the outcome, and had a liberating conversation about duty and destiny in our modern culture - how we’re both blessed by the opportunity to choose and bear the responsibility for choosing wisely. We talked about standing for something - no longer running from pain and towards pleasure. It’s hard to know what seeds conversations like these can plant, because I think often the seeds don’t truly sprout for awhile, and they sprout in many different forms. But for me, it was deeply powerful.

Practice No Matter What

I just finished 3 months of Yoga Teacher Training. What just happened!

You come into this experience hearing about the epic transformations, expecting some miraculous shift to happen, for your heart to crack wide open on your mat in a divine moment of bliss. Your whole world will change and suddenly you will become this ever calm, cool, collected, enlightened yogi who can be trusted with the physical, emotional, and spiritual safety of their students.

And the transformation comes. It just might not be in the way that you think.

The first day of practice teaching, figuring out how to eloquently get students safely into postures with a sense of ease, I remember thinking "Oh my god, how on earth am I going to do this?”. Ironically, learning to cue, sequence, and assist, learning to physically teach yoga, turned out to be the easiest part. The transformation didn't lie in being able to beautifully piece together the juiciest adjectives to settle someone into half pigeon. The transformation came from the work we did on ourselves, the spectrum of energy and emotion that was brought up by the teachings we were immersed in day after day.

One day I would be super happy and peaceful. The next, I found myself screaming in my car, just needing to release absolute rage that I couldn’t even figure out where it was coming from. Me? Mad? I don't get mad…what is this? One day confidence, the next ruthless self-critiscm. One day presence, the next constant fidgeting, trying to numb out and ease my anxiety. Feeling like all tension and emotion was stuck inside of me with no way to release, to the beautiful flow of tears on my mat one Saturday morning, letting it out…finally. Somehow, in three months, every single old addiction, habit, and limiting belief came out to play. Confronting me, shaking me, sometimes taking hold for longer than I would have liked. Taunting me "If you're such a yogi, why are you so unsteady?", "Who are you to teach others if you can't even control yourself?”

Funny how the ego pops up when we are up -leveling. It can feel the threat.

But this, this is why we're here. This is why we practice. We come to our mats to create space in our minds and bodies. To create the space that allows us to discern what is truth and what is fear. By practicing sustained attention with intention on our mats, we are able to bring that practice everywhere else. We begin to notice. We begin to witness. We begin to see our ego and our challenges for what they are, separate from our true essence, part of what comes with living in this “earth suit”. The demons, the samskara, the intense emotional fluctuations, they are lessons, they are opportunities, they are cues to come back. Come back to our truth. That which is unconditional love, a piece of the divine, steady, unchanging, wholeness just as we are. Each time one comes up, we detach from it a little more quickly. Each time we start to tailspin, we can realize what’s happening before total destruction occurs. Each time life happens, our practice is there for us. It’s there to bring us home. It’s there to hold us together when we can’t do so ourselves. It’s there to help us re-remember. It’s there to transform. 

As it turns out, being a yoga teacher isn’t about achieving the perfect posture and a constant heart filled with love and light. Being a yoga teacher is about walking the path of life, coming up against the bumps, and relying on our practice to carry us home, a lot of times more quickly than the last, but sometimes not. Being a yoga teacher is about guiding others towards the knowingness of their true nature and helping them create space between their divinity and the constant whirlwind that is the human experience. It’s about helping students feel a little more ease in the midst of it all, and the best way to do this is not to be perfectly enlightened yogis, but to be navigating it ourselves.

I just finished Yoga Teacher Training. The big, cataclysmic transformation? It never came. Instead, I got a million little reminders. Reminders to stay the course, to stay devoted. Reminders that this is a practice and no matter what, to always come back.

-by Julie Martinez

 

BREATH

2 by 5. A space to call your own, a space to face yourself, and a sacred space to meet yourself time and time again with the simple intention of breathing. There is a unique relationship that forms and strengthens as you practice Yoga, the connection of breath and body. This connection is extremely complex but it begins to draw out forms of healing, aspects of growth, and opportunities for learning within the student. 

The breath is the true teacher, and I simply look at myself as the guide to help initiate the connection between the breath and the body. Which then ultimately unfolds into the fruits of Yoga. I look at the physical body as an intelligently designed piece of organic machinery. Even when we ourselves do not know whats going on within our physical frame, our bodies' know exactly whats happening. It even signals us about our current state of being that will assist us through everyday waking life. Yoga and the strengthening of the connection between breath and body begin to teach us how to properly use these tools that we were born with to our advantage. 

We regain posture and purify the physical layer through various asanas or movement. The breath then guides us into these postures and connects us back to ourselves. We can dig deeper within each pose by deepening the breath and awareness surrounding the posture. Once our bodies release, it floods our awareness with information otherwise stored underneath stress, anxiety, fatigue, and other forms of illness. Ultimately, we already know what we learn in Yoga.. there is only a guide there to help us understand the experience. That is the key for myself. The key I have been given in this lifetime to help unlock an already unlocked door. And whatever is behind this unlocked door is exactly the same thing you have been searching for..it is yourself. And I have been given the gift to help guide my students back home. 

by Evan Price

I Am But a Guide

Being a yoga teacher is one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given in my lifetime. It is first and foremost a platform to be able to help others through the knowledge of breath, bodies, and yoga in all of its different forms and traditions. There is something about stepping into a room full of students waiting on their mats that makes your heart melt – that makes you feel one with everyone and everything. Some students want to sweat, move and dance to feel freedom, while others want to slow it down to heal and nurture their bodies. They are all beautiful and special in such amazingly diverse ways.

When I step into the warm yoga room I introduce myself, turn on what I hope to be a perfectly crafted playlist that will somehow help my students transcend time and space (I’ll keep that one on my teaching goals) and the sweet journey begins. I keep a watchful eye on the bodies before me as I cue through different poses, I offer adjustments, I demonstrate difficult poses, I present a theme that weaves through the class that I hope will have an impact on my students. And when all is said and done there is a room full of sweaty bodies resting peacefully. I bow my head and thank the Universe for the lessons that I have been given. It was somewhere in my first year of teaching that I realized that while I might be a guide to the students in the room, my students are really the ones teaching me. They teach me about the journey of life, about how to be vulnerable, and how to be humble. On the days I feel like crap or unworthy or lost, my students give me the greatest gift of love and inspiration. Many probably don’t even know what it means to a teacher when they just step onto their mats. Many don’t even know the healing presence they have just by showing up.

This journey of teaching is full of ups and downs. Some amazing classes, some not so great classes, weird classes, funny classes, spontaneous classes where you hit a wall and forget everything you wanted to say. Themes that hit home and resonate with others and themes that are way off. There are times I’ve left a class saying to myself: “What in the heck did I just say for an hour.” And that’s all okay. It’s about stepping into a place of acceptance with what comes through in your teaching, the good and the not so good, and understanding that what comes out is exactly what needs to.

Being a new teacher can be scary and intimidating. There are so many wonderful new teachers that are just waiting to release the gift inside of them, but lack the confidence, continuing education, or resources to do so. That’s where Om Forward comes in. Om Forward was created with new teachers in mind, but extends to all teachers looking to continue their education no matter their level of experience. It was created with the idea that if we help the teachers in our community grow, then the entire community grows together. If we give teachers the confidence to release their gift to the world, then all will benefit and will be encouraged to do the same.

Om Forward was also created with affordability and accessibility in mind. Additional trainings, while incredibly beneficial and something I highly recommend, can be expensive and time consuming. So in the meantime Om Forward fills in the gap by offering cost friendly and time friendly workshops at $20-$40 in price and 2-3 hours in time. We are committed to bringing in the best teachers from around the Denver community who will offer workshops in their areas of expertise.

Starting something comes with a lot of fear, a lot of what if’s and a lot of unknowns. But that’s where faith comes in. I believe in this project and I’m so excited to share it with you. I hope to see you at an event soon! I’d love to support you and I hope you will support me and OM Forward as we continue to grow- all together, all as ONE.

Thank you to all you beautiful souls!

Carisa

Founder - OM Forward