Jason Crandell was recently named “one of the next generation of teachers shaping yoga’s future” by Yoga Journal for his skillful, unique approach to vinyasa yoga. Recently Jason has created two Yoga Journal DVDs, Yoga for Wellbeing and Your Complete Home Practice Companion: Yoga for Morning, Noon, and Night. He is a contributing editor for Yoga Journal and has written over 13 articles for the magazine and website. He teaches extensively at conferences in the United States and abroad and is part of numerous teacher-training faculties. He lives in San Francisco, California, with his wife and newborn baby. His website is www.jasonyoga.com.
I first encountered Jason Crandell’s teaching through his podcasts on the Yoga Journal site, and when I was living in rural Ireland these functioned as terrific sources of inspiration for my teaching. More recently I took his workshop at the YJ conference in New York, and took a class when I was in San Francisco. We chatted by phone the next day.
YTM: What drew you to postural yoga? Before that you were a hockey player and skate kid.
JC: Yeah, I played Triple H hockey in the Midwest for sixteen years and skateboarding for at least as long as that and you know all of that started really quite young so I’ve always enjoyed a pretty intense and robust physical experience and there were a few years – well a year or two – between skateboarding and playing hockey, and starting yoga. And the truth is yoga came to me in a very obtuse way, I wasn’t looking for it or at least I didn’t know that I was looking for it. I had one credit hour left that I needed to graduate and so my girlfriend at the time and I decided we’d take a kinesiology class because Kinesiology was the only department that offered a single hour. And she wanted to do yoga and I fought it, kicking and screaming. I just thought yoga was some weird, New Agey hippy-dippy thing that I didn’t want any part of. Interestingly I had studied a bit of yogic philosophy because I was a philosophy major, and yoga philosophy didn’t resonate, you know, I was much more a Western empiricist at the time.
YTM: And so you kind of dismissed it?
JC: I dismissed it, I absolutely dismissed it. I dismissed it on cultural, physical and philosophical grounds. Because I hadn’t experienced it yet, and I was hardheaded, and I’m still hardheaded. Anyway long story short I ended up taking that credit hour and I really struggled with it, I really didn’t like the experience of doing yoga because it exposed all of my reactivity, all of my imbalances, all my frustration, it just exposed me. And I really didn’t like it. But after class I felt different than I had ever felt before. And I didn’t know why, but it wasn’t just the endorphins of the exercise, I had done every type of exercise. I realized in hindsight it affected my senses and my nervous system in a much more profound way than any other physical endeavor had till then. And I won’t say at the time that it was a philosophical or spiritual endeavor for me. It really wasn’t, yet. It really was a very physical thing, and it was physically different, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was unique. And I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t stop! I just knew that – well I won’t say that I knew that it was good for me, I just literally physically began to crave the feelings of a yoga practice. And so I was able to deal with the difficulty and frustration of being really imbalanced, really tight and really reactionary, because something deep inside craved the physical experience.
YTM: So the reactions fell away after a while?
JC: I don’t want to say quite the reactions fell away but the reactions decreased, and they’re still there. It’s not that they completely went away but they decreased and I was able to manage them and normalize them. It’s just like, oh this is just me being resistant and reactive, it’s just who I am and that’s fine, I can work with it.
YTM: And when did you first feel like you’d started down the road to becoming a yoga teacher?
JC: Well I really never saw any professional path for myself other than possibly education. So I thought for many years that I would be an educator of some sort, but I figured I would teach English or philosophy or politics or economics, and that I would teach at a collegiate level. I like critical thinking, I like discourse, I like being engaged in subject matter. And I’ve always liked to educate people, and I’ve always appreciated good teachers, I’ve always appreciated good educators. It’s not necessarily I was dying to be a teacher of some sort, but I just felt inside that that probably was the path that I would take. And yoga became the subject of teaching for me when I was practicing pretty consistently for maybe 18 months, two years, I was practicing Ashtanga yoga, when my Ashtanga teacher at the time wanted to let go of his Introduction to Ashtanga classes, he didn’t want to teach them anymore. And so I was on a retreat with him and he said, “Would you like to take over these classes?” And literally my thought was, “Why not?” I might as well, I was working at a warehouse loading trucks and I was just enrolled in a master’s program in International Politics… “Sure!”
YTM: That would beat loading trucks!
JC: Absolutely. And so in a sense I always felt the call to teach and I fell in love with yoga and also I just fell into teaching. And shortly after taking over these classes – you know I didn’t have any teacher training, which was not uncommon at the time –
YTM: And this was about when?
JC: Late Nineties. I think it was the summer of ’98 but I am terrible with dates…
YTM: We’ll give you some leeway.
JC: Yeah, so late Nineties. And then a colleague of mine, a colleague slash teacher, said, “You should really check out Rodney Yee’s program, you guys would really get along very well.” And so long story short I joined Rodney Yee and company’s teacher training program in January of 2000.
YTM: That was in Oakland?
JC: Yeah, the Piedmont Yoga Studio. Still exists. Rodney’s not that much a part of it, I think he is adjunct faculty, but it’s still an excellent program, I still refer people to them all the time.
YTM: Which segues to my question about which teachers you admire. I know you’ve studied with Rodney and Ramanand Patel, would you talk a bit about them?
JC: You know from Rodney I got a couple of really essential things. I obviously got a lot of technical information from Rodney. But I think even more importantly from Rodney, and for me, more than anyone else, I learned how to pay attention and I learned how to be curious. And I learned how to have critical thinking skills and to use the practice as a way to engage with what’s happening at the time. And I learned not to be a carbon copy and I learned not to be overly ideological, and those were really important things. And I learned to just savor my body as what it is and some days it feels amazing to live in my body, other days it’s you know sort of uncomfortable and frustrating and I feel like that process was normalized.
YTM: How did he inspire you not to become a carbon copy? That’s essential for new teachers…
JC: He did it in a lot of ways, including having a sit-down with me one day, and saying, “The last thing I ever want from anyone, especially you, is to be a carbon copy of me. Please do everything you can do to find out who you are.” You know, I mean, he used to drill this, he really reinforced this – which isn’t to say he didn’t have sequential and technical preferences that he wanted you to think about, but if you just repeated his words he would call you on it, he was pretty relentless in that way. But I think one of the biggest lessons that I think about to this day, the first question I ever asked him was about sequencing, it was about a month into the program, “Rodney should we do our backbends and then our inversions, or should we do our inversions and then our backbends?” And he gave it a long pause and he said, “This week I want you to do all of your inversions and all of your backbends. Next week I want you to do all your backbends and all your inversions. And the following week I want you to come back and tell me not what is right, not what is wrong, not what you should do or what you shouldn’t do, but how it’s different.” And for me that was a huge example of oh, don’t just learn a script, do your practice and go from there.
YTM: So in terms of asana practice, there is often this aura of ancientness, justified or not, so some people think teachers shouldn’t mess with that too much. I think what your story is saying is that you do have to find your own voice.
JC: It’s interesting, you know, sometimes people mistakenly give authority to something just because it’s old, and other times people give mistaken authority to something just because it’s new. And we have to be careful around each of those things. I do think as yoga teachers there are certain parameters that are technically and logically sound but we have to experiment a little bit with those parameters and see what works because what might sometimes work for someone sometimes might not work for someone else other times.
YTM: And so what about the other teachers you’ve mentioned?
JC: A couple of other teachers… One that I’ll start with is Richard Rosen. You know, I’ve learned… it’s a good question after what I just said – I’ve learned so much from Richard Rosen who to me is one of the foremost yoga scholars of modern day. He has incredible technical knowledge and experience, but he also is a really brilliant researcher and scholar of traditional hatha yoga. I’ve learned so much of the philosophical and the cultural and the historical detail of hatha yoga. I’ve just learned so much, so much from him. And Richard is such an understated personality and teacher, he’s a very unsung teacher, a really important, contemporary unsung teacher. Also I’ve learned so much about working with the breath.
YTM: I’ve read his writing but I’ve never taken classes with him.
JC: And he’s remarkable. Really dry, really dry. And so if you get Richard, if you get that he’s really dry and really caring but also there’s no b.s., like he will do nothing to try to make you feel good, that’s not his karma. If you need someone to console you or pamper you he is not the person. That said, he’s actually very loving and sweet, but if you don’t get an accurate read on him, it’s hard to appreciate his personality.
YTM: Makes sense. And Ramanand Patel?
JC: Ramanand to me is someone who is just so experienced and so immersed in the philosophical and the technical aspects of the whole big picture of the yoga practice, let alone the asana practice. To me he’s one of the few people that I’ve ever experienced that – there is a little bit of a feeling of transmission, that when you are in that room with him you just know he’s a person who’s been at this for a long time.
YTM: I had a question about the traits and hallmarks of great teachers, but we’ve covered some of that ground.
JC: I think there are a couple things that come up for me with traits and hallmarks. One is I think good teachers have to be deeply steeped in their subject matter, whatever that subject matter is, they have to be deeply and rigorously steeped in that. And they have to have a very deep and skillful and precise knowledge. I mean there is a certain amount of knowledge and technical detail, especially with this subject matter, that’s required. We often forget that there are a lot of things at play when we practice yoga. A lot of it is subjective and personal but not all of it is, there is an actual subject matter that requires commitment and structure and actually a fair amount of objective understanding. We can easily forget that.
YTM: In other words it can sometimes slide into the New Agey, we’re-all-here-to-feel-good dynamic, without some basis in the scholarship.
JC: Exactly! And that’s the counterpoint to the earlier part of the conversation when I said teachers want to find their own voice. Well they do want to find their own voice but it has to be in the context of deep study, and rigorous study and then through a long experience. It can’t just be Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in Yoga. On the other hand yoga is also a subjective experience. So it’s an interesting commingling. Teachers have to learn a fair amount of objective material in a rigorous, prolonged way with real commitment to understanding the subject at hand, and at the same time teachers have to allow their students to explore a little bit on their own, and students have to learn how to listen to their own body and then have to listen to what’s happening inside, not just learn to repeat what they’ve been told and so I think what makes a good teacher is this balance between objective and subjective, this ability to toggle, to help their students learn a certain amount of information but also have the space to make it their own, the space to listen to their own experience. And teachers also have to learn how to say something really important, which is, “I don’t know the answer. I don’t know the answer to that, let me refer you.”
YTM: That can be hard for any educator.
JC: Really hard for any educator but it’s even more important for yoga teachers, and the truth is, if yoga teachers don’t know how to, or don’t have the internal strength to say “I don’t know,” sometimes they are putting their students at risk. Because a lot of times the question that you have to say “I don’t know the answer” to has to do with an injury or illness or discomfort.
YTM: There’s that responsibility.
JC: Yes and it’s a responsibility to not play doctor. To me that’s another hallmark of a good teacher, knowing what you don’t know, right, it’s really dangerous to not know what you don’t know, and it’s really important to know what it’s appropriate to get feedback on, and know what your boundaries are. It’s huge, it’s huge, and it’s rare. It’s rare that a teacher will say, “I don’t know,” or “I’m going to help you find someone else that is a different professional that might be able to help you safely and effectively.”
YTM: How would you answer if someone pointed out, perhaps with some pointedness, that all the teachers you cite are men?
JC: It's true that the teachers I cite as my greatest inspiration are all men. And, honestly, I'm aware and sensitive of this dynamic. So, first, let me say that I've learned a ton from many, many teachers that I don't cite − including several women, most notably Mary Paffard and Patricia Sullivan. If I listed every teacher that I’ve been inspired by it would be a long, long list. And I’m not going to bump someone up my list to portray greater gender neutrality. I also have several contemporaries and friends like Stephanie Snyder, Kira Ryder, and Natasha Rizopoulos that I think are some of the best teachers of my generation. I don't think I have a blind spot when it comes to female teachers − I honestly think it's largely coincidental. I've just resonated most deeply with Rodney, Richard and Ramanand. Hey! That's it: it’s not the gender, it’s the "R"!
YTM: Ha! That must be it! Thanks so much for your time, Jason.