Judith Hanson Lasater ~ Teaching Yoga with Intention

It is with great pleasure I can bring to you Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT.  Judith has taught yoga around the world since 1971. Judith offers numerous live eventsdigital courses, and has published ten books. Including Yoga Myths, and her most recent book, Teaching Yoga with Intention.

Judith Hanson Lasater is an American yoga teacher and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area, recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country. She helped to found The California Yoga Teachers Association, the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco, and Yoga Journal magazine.

During this conversation I have the chance to ask Judith questions about her new book, Teaching Yoga with Intention and the importance of cultivating non violent communication as a yoga teacher. 

Please visit Judith at www.Judith.yoga to learn more.
Follow her on Instagram at @judithlasater

You can listen to the full episode for free here.

Welcome to Native Yoga Toddcast. My name is Todd McLaughlin. I’m so happy you’re here. If you’re a first time listener, welcome. And for those of you that have been with me all along, your support means the world to me. I’m so pleased! I feel that my next guest here does not need an introduction. She is a famous yoga teacher, and I have utmost respect for her. Her name is Judith Hanson Lasater, and you can find her at www.judith.yoga.

Judith Hanson Lasater is a PhD. She’s a Physical Therapist. She’s taught yoga around the world since 1971. She offers numerous live events, digital courses, she’s published 10 books. And today the focus of our conversation is speaking about her most recent book called Teaching Yoga with Intention. So I want to express a huge thank you to Judith because she was so kind and accepting my invitation to be here on this podcast. And without any further ado, let’s get started.

Todd McLaughlin

I am so thrilled to have Dr. Judith Hanson Lasater here today. Judith is a PhD and Physical Therapist and a yoga teacher since 1971. Judith, how are you?

Judith Hanson Lasater

I’m doing well. Thank you very much. I hope the same for you. 

Todd McLaughlin

I am really excited about this. I actually couldn’t sleep last night because I was so excited for this.

Judith Hanson Lasater

Oh, tell my children that! Or can you tell my grandchildren that? That they could be equally as excited when I call and talk to them.

Todd McLaughlin

Yeah, you can you can tell them that. I hope they’ll listen to you and appreciate that. Well, this is a great opportunity! I got a chance to read your most recent book called Teaching Yoga with Intention, The Essential Guide to Skillful Hands on Assist and Verbal Communication. I’m really excited to get a chance to talk to you about this today. Before we even go down that track though, I’m curious if you can just tell me a little bit about how and what you’re doing these days? Like what does your yoga practice and teaching like these days?

Judith Hanson Lasater

Well, one of the exciting things is beginning to teach live again. Traditionally yoga courses were taught one on one. And it was BKS Iyengar in the modern era who really began, initiated and created this whole idea of classes. But it’s still live, you can still feel the room. When you teach, you can still make eye contact with each person, if that’s appropriate. And so what I’m finding is this huge thirst, to be in community. To be in Sangha. To be with other people and just their presence. Practicing with you in the room is a nonverbal but very powerful support. And we all need that right now. So that’s what I’m liking. And that’s what’s alive for me. I’m very excited about this new book, because I wrote it during the pandemic. It flowed out of me. And that’s always a good sign for a writer.

Todd McLaughlin

I hear you! I think it’s an amazing book. I enjoyed reading it immensely. I found so many great points. I feel like you really honed in on some of the things that when I think, “how would I explain this to somebody?” And I have a loss of words. You did a great job of really laying out the foundation for healthy communication with us both verbally and if we use the power of touch in our in our teaching. So I think you did an amazing job.

Judith Hanson Lasater

Thank you. But before we go into the book, I really would like to follow, I’m all excited, of course to talk to you about, I’d like to follow my tradition of when I speak from the mat, or from the cushion, or in this place from my office chair, that I speak about what I think is, for us, all of us are listening, a really important part of our lives, which is our practice, I’d like to start with a moment of silence,

Todd McLaughlin

That’d be great.

Judith Hanson Lasater

So I’m going to ring my bell. And what I suggest you do is to sit and sit in front of your sitting bones, which brings your pelvis forward and then brings the pelvis under the spine to be like a pot to support this curvy, winding, fine, normal curve. So the brain in the head can float on the top of it. And that physical alignment will resonate through us energetically as well. And then my suggestion is that during that moment, if you find it interesting, useful and or pleasant, just imagine the very center of your brain geographically from the sides of your head from the top and the bottom and the front of the back, the deep center of the gray and just like a wave moving away from the shore, you stay rooted in that not ringing the bells and about a minute I’ll ring them again.

Todd McLaughlin

Wonderful.

Judith Hanson Lasater

All right, fire away with your questions.

Todd McLaughlin

First of all, I love the visual of wave pulling away from shore. That’s, that’s a really beautiful visual that works with that sensation of trying to put your attention right in the center of the brain. Is that something that has came to you? When a while practicing meditation? What made you think of that?

Judith Hanson Lasater

That’s a good question. It just popped into my consciousness one day, and I actually find that I can do that. With my eyes open. And I do it in conversation. I’ll be doing it a lot through our talk. It’s just a very, it takes you away from thinking. Did you notice that? Yeah. Because I have this word I’ve made up. You know, we all know the word mindfulness. But I really liked the word, body fullness. And when we can have, whenever we have the space that we can become aware of sensation, like the weight of our body on the chair, the floor. The sensations of the breath, is when we can cultivate our attention to be aware of the sensation of the moment. We step out of thought, because it’s we stepped from that space into into the present, into the present moment because sensation only occurs in the present moment. You can remember that yesterday you stubbed your toe and it hurt, but you can’t recreate that sensation in the present. So sensation lives in the moment. And when we put our awareness on the body, bodily sensation, we must then not be dancing with thought.

So here’s another technique that arose in me. And it was this idea of the tongue. So let’s try this for a second. Go back to the center of your brain.

And release your tongue from its roots, and let it lie flat in the mouth. Now, when I do that, that deepens the silence for me. Did you find that?

Todd McLaughlin

Yeah, to bring the attention to it or to even just put it right into the mouth, but then try to actually get my tongue to relax? That’s a good one.

Judith Hanson Lasater

No, no, don’t try.

Todd McLaughlin

Don’t try?

Judith Hanson Lasater

Invite. Invite. So here’s what I’ve reasoned out about that is the tongue is not just an organ of digestion, a muscle. It’s also an organ of speech. And so it’s neurologically connected to the speech centers. So we have parts of our brain that are very connected with speech and writing. And thinking because we think in words, have you ever seen a little kid? Or maybe you did this yourself? I remember doing it. When I was learning to write. Sometimes my tongue would be outside my mouth or writing the letter? Yeah, yeah. Because it’s the tongue, you have motor skills. Yeah, babies, infants have to learn how to swallow. They have to learn to swallow. Meaning that with the tongue, and how they nurse and all of that. So I think that when we relax the tongue, and there is some evidence to this, we affect the neural pathways to the brain. And so when I combined, for me, the center of the brain, release the top. Let the heart, expand to its truth. Then descend to the pelvis and feel the pulse of life of being in the pelvis. Thank you, we are then radically present in the being of the body, which lives in the moment. Did you find anything of that in this moment?

Todd McLaughlin

I did! Two things I love right off the bat is the language you used around, don’t try….. instead invite. That’s amazing. That’s a big shift. And then I started thinking, Well, we really don’t have anything to talk about now. Because you got to the heart of it all already.

Judith Hanson Lasater

All will be well.

Todd McLaughlin

You got to the heart of the matter right off the bat.

Judith Hanson Lasater

Can I tell you a story about that?

Todd McLaughlin

Yes, please.

Judith Hanson Lasater

So my second time that I went to Russia, I think I went the first time in ’89. When the wall was coming down, and then again in ’91. And the first time I went, there were just a couple of, two or three Americans there. But then there were a larger group that went and we were in a big cafeteria in one of the big hotels, where we were all staying and then a group of Russian yoga teachers came walking towards us. They came in, you know, and I because I’d been there before. Got up, everyone was like, what did we do what we do? And so I got up and walked towards them. And pretty soon other people started coming and we started introducing ourselves and I remember distinctly talking to a woman and I was doing this southern girl, chatty, chatty. Your city is beautiful, I got it that you know, whatever. And she reached over and she grabbed me by the upper arm. And she leaned into me and she said, No, let us talk a real thing. I love that. That’s what you, that’s what you and I are about I think right now.

Todd McLaughlin

Yeah. Let’s get right to the to the heart of it. That’s amazing. Judith. Well, in your book, you mentioned the importance of language. And you mapped it into like three different stages. Can you please define and explain the three levels or stages of learning about language and the teaching of yoga?

Judith Hanson Lasater

Would you prompt me on that, please?

Todd McLaughlin

I will. Because the first one is how you talked about how first as a yoga teacher, we transfer info “about the pose.” Like the first level of conversation is kind of like, okay, Triangle Pose. And let me just convey some words to help you get from point A to point B.

Judith Hanson Lasater

Yeah, it’s just information. Yeah, it’s like, it’s technique, which is very important, because technique affects energy and organs and state of mind, the nervous system, and we’re very complex. In fact, you know, years ago, people used to say, body, and mind and body were completely separate. That was the western view. And then it started hyphenating, that term. MInd-body. Interesting. You know, and then there was a period, you’d see it written as one word, I see it a lot. Now mindbody is one word. So I’ve made up a word, which is mody. Mody. Because the body and the mind on are so one.

Todd McLaughlin

Yeah, that’s a great word.

Judith Hanson Lasater

Mody. So yeah, I mean, we should get it, we should get it in the dictionary, another word I made up, it’s not just multi-tasking, it is hyper-tasking. So you know, if there, so I want uni-tasking to be in the dictionary. And we, this spiritual practice asked the question, “Can we do one thing at a time?” And usually, the answer is no way Jose. So, yes, the first part of communication is, of course nonverbal. But if we get past that, we’re giving them information. Because if someone comes in and says, teach me how to do yoga, and we just say, do Triangle Pose, we need to tell them turn the left foot in the right foot out, stretch the arm, etc. But that’s not our most important job. So number two?

Todd McLaughlin

The beginning of the personalization of instructions.

Judith Hanson Lasater

Yeah, so a leader in yoga is someone who leads the class. I’ve even seen people turn their back and just do their practice, and people follow them. Which surprises me, so you’re leading. But then teaching begins When you can say to this person, please put your feet wider apart into this next person, would you bring them closer together, when there’s an individuation, of how we can support each pupil expressing the beauty of their Trikonasana in this moment. In ways that keep them safe, and open their heart and mind the same time and bring them into their body into their own self. So that’s a deeper, that’s a real teacher. The teacher sees both the difference and the absolute unity among all people, and to help them help the students. What’s the third one?

Todd McLaughlin

I think you’re correct! You answered that really well, thank you. That when the teacher is able to communicate in such a way that their words evoke, or conjure the pose from the student, or how the student can discover the pose already exists within them. And I love how you wrote as an ancient archetype. That’s so cool. Like the thought of…..

Judith Hanson Lasater

A pyramid. Which is a three dimensional triangle. Yeah, so that presupposes the understanding that we could never teach anybody anything. We can only create an environment in which people choose to learn.

So the question is, how are we going to create that environment with our language? So I make intentional choices. I don’t say good or bad, right or wrong. Oh, I might say to a student, I really liked the way your knee is in that pose, or I’m concerned about placement of your knee, would you try this and see what you think how it feels to you. So because if I come, you know, stomping in the class, and say, do this, do this, do this. And then I learned something and I wanted to change my mind, I’ve painted myself in a corner. So what I want to teach in that part of the of the pose is twofold. The second stage, is like I want to teach them technique in a way that underscores trusting that they trust themselves. First, I want to use my words in a class, to create an environment in which people are trusting themselves and at the same time they’re willing to try something new. And I’m not there to impose the pose to fit them in a cookie cutter. So I like to say to my students, I don’t want to teach you rules, I want to teach you principles. Because that’s a bigger, bigger idea. There are anatomical principles about how the pelvis can move over the femoral heads, in Trikonasana that will relieve the lower back and create a sense of ease and dynamism at the same time. You know that in Patanjali’s yoga sutra, chapter two verse 46, Sthira Sukham Asanam. It’s a definition of Asana. So abiding in ease is asana. So an Asana is that which we can be in which we can be still, and at ease. And it’s really ironic, we think of as movements that are difficult.

Todd McLaughlin

Good point!

Judith Hanson Lasater

How can I create an environment in which people find their Trikonasana? And often it’s not airy fairy? I mean, there are boundaries, there are alignment principle. You could be, you know, hyperextending your knee or whatever, that guidance. But the asana, Todd, the asana isn’t the yoga. It’s the residue, that the asana leaves in the nervous system that is the yoga. Because Yoga is not just, you know, to paint with a broad brush, Asana, Pranayama, meditation. Those point to the potential of presence, which is the state of yoga. So we confuse them. People say I am going to do yoga, like, what? When are we all going to say I’m going to go in my own? Right? And bring that into the world. And bring that. That state of presence. Compassion.

Todd McLaughlin

Great point, Judith. Was there a point in your transformation through your yoga journey where maybe you were practicing a yoga pose and thinking about that yoga sutra, where it’s mentioning that the asana should be stable and comfortable. And thinking, “how in the world could this be comfortable?” I’m in this really like, uncomfortable position right now. And has that informed your teaching and evolution of your practice over the years?

Judith Hanson Lasater

Yes, but it wasn’t a thought. It was an experience, which I’m happy to share with you. So I was taking a class from another teacher. And I was doing what it at that time, for me was my favorite pose, which was Paschimottanasana, which is just sitting on the floor, leg straight and bending forward. Which I think is the hardest forward bend because there’s nowhere to hide. Like, if you’ve bend one knee, if you’ve bend one day like Janusirsana, you can cheat all over the place. But you cannot cheat in Paschimottanasana. It’s you and your hamstrings baby that it is no getting away from it. And it’s also true I think in Urdhva Dhanurasana, and it’s the most difficult backbend. Because when you’re doing one side, Raja Kapotasana, or you’re doing one side of another posture, there is a way to work off to the one side of something in there. Alright, so that was my favorite pose. And I was I like to say I had my hamstrings surgically removed at birth. I just felt like for a long time, and I’m, you know, just sort of naturally a little loose. And so it’s just flat down, you know, forehead on the shins. I mean, I felt a little bit of stretch. But not much, you know, I was pretty comfortable there. And my mind was spinning like what are we going to how long are we gonna be here? What’s happening with that other person doing what I’m going to have for lunch after class, you know, the normal, useless brain chatter. And then there was experience and I want to treat this story with humility, gratitude, and wonder. And I had the sense that something just kind of flew out of me. And I still felt the stretch but I wasn’t doing anything. And I just stayed there. It wasn’t like I even stayed. It was like, there was no deep reason to move. There was no discomfort, there was no agitation. I just stayed there. And finally the teacher said, come up, and I didn’t come up. Because I didn’t know what that meant. Literally, it was so bizarre. He said, come up, and I’m like, what does that mean? Because he was, it would be as if I were saying to you stop jumping up and down. Yeah. And you know what? I’m not jumping. Yeah. So he said, stop doing the pose. And I’m like, what is he talking about? And then this little ego stuck it’s head out behind the tree and my consciousness and said, Wow, that was cool. I started, you know, then it shifted again. But I thought to myself afterwards, well, I’d finally practiced one pose. It was my first pose, you know, it was years into my practice, but…. So, does that answer your question does?

Todd McLaughlin

Yes. Perfectly. Since I’ve read your book, I’ve been extra thoughtful about my speech and my touch, in a good way. In a really good way. Like, maybe I was just on autopilot for a little bit. I kind of forgot how important it is. And you made mention, in your book, this is quoting you “we speak to manipulate the world around us” end quote. Can you explain that? It makes sense to me. It makes sense to me, but love it. I thought it was actually kind of profound when I heard that. We speak to manipulate the world around us. I might think, “I’m not trying to manipulate the world.” I’m just getting through the world here. So I love that sentence.

Judith Hanson Lasater 

Okay. So first, let’s look at the word manipulate, because that has a negative connotation. But if we’re truthful, Todd, you are manipulating the world around you all day long. You go for a run, you’re manipulating your consciousness, right? Go for a run, you smoke a funny cigarette, you smoke a real cigarette. Not that you do these things. You have coffee, you want your caffeine which manipulates your nervous system. You do your Pranayama or your yoga. You stand on your head, all this manipulate your nervous system. You go to sleep and that manipulates your nervous system. We’re always seeking homeostasis. In fact, you are choosing, you know, when you eat, you feel different. You manipulate your nervous system. That’s what human beings do. And there are two kinds of manipulation. There’s the unconscious one and the conscious one. And so to me, that’s what yoga is about is paying attention to how doing Savasana. Savasana manipulates your nervous. Does it not?

Todd McLaughlin

It does.

Judith Hanson Lasater

Okay, so that’s a conscious manipulation. So the question is not, should I not manipulate, it’s am I doing it consciously, to live my highest values. And that’s what yoga makes us aware of. And this speech that I’ve that I’ve studied this technique of nonviolent communication has radically changed my relationship, in my interaction with my children as they were growing up, and in intimate relationships and in teaching.

And the best way we can do that. Well, let me let me let me back up a second.

Every time I go to teach, whether it’s online or in person. The first thing I do is have the one minute. And during that one minute I connect with myself. This is the first rule of teaching. When I sit there in front of you today or in class. The first thing I do is I ask myself this question. What is alive in me right now? Am I anxious? Am I happy? Am I sleepy? Am I irritated by the discussion I just had with someone? It doesn’t really matter what is arising in me but when I get connected with that. Oh right now I’m tired or right now I’m excited. Right now I’m worried about one of my children. It was always one of the three was at the top of the worry list, you know, over the years. Whatever, whatever is arising in me when I notice it. That when I bring it into the light. It connects me with the present moment. And I go, Ah, yes, I’m feeling excited. Ah, I don’t judge it. I don’t try to make it different. I don’t try to fix it. I just notice it. Because, and name it to myself. Right now I’m sad. Because my uncle died. I’m just sad right now. Okay. That’s what’s alive in me, then I’m firmly present. Radically present I call it because we’re very rarely there. So the next thing I want to do is I want to be able to see you. And I can’t see you and or connect with you if I’m not connected with myself. So when I see you, and it’s really tricky, because I’ve taught for 51 years. I have students who’ve been with me for 45 years.

Todd McLaughlin

Wow, that is amazing!

Judith Hanson Lasater

You know everything about them. You know them before they met their husband, before they got married, when they got divorced, and they had these kids, and they had this surgery, then this. And so it blurs in a way, your objectivity. So when I go to teach somewhere where I don’t know, most of the people, I sometimes feel that my best teaching. Because I don’t see my friend. I see a human being, you know what I’m saying? You may know what I am saying. So that. Yeah, so the second part of this is I want to see the person standing in front of me. They may have been there for many weeks, or never again, but can I be present with that person in this moment?

Todd McLaughlin

Nice. That’s a great technique.

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