Thursday, February 25, 2010

My New Job!

That's right, I got a new job this week!  Woo hoo, go me!  (I've spent half my time bumming around and being slightly broke since I finished grad school, and it's been getting kinda old.)

My new job is a part-time gig with an SAT test prep company.  (This one, if you are curious.)  I'll be teaching weekly classes, doing private tutoring, and running a few workshops.  So far, I'm really impressed with the company.  I like the people who I've met and I like the way they've put together the curriculum.  I applied for the job online (after finding the craigslist listing, of course), went through a little Skype interview, and then got invited to a 2-day training session, which they consider their "second interview."  The training was on Monday and Tuesday of this week.  I spent the whole weekend watching their training videos and cramming like crazy.  (Thank goodness for my memory!)  At the end of the first training session, my new manager said, "Ok, I'm really impressed, I'm gonna be hiring you, and are you interested in teaching an SAT writing workshop at the high school on Wednesday and Thursday?"  So I spent all day Tuesday going over material, went to my 2nd training session on Tuesday night, and then spent all of yesterday and today at the local public high school, teaching high schoolers.

Let me repeat that - I just taught high school students.  I find this bizarre and shocking and totally exciting!

Some of the classes were well behaved.  Some of them were totally crazy and out of control.  Some of them were filled with distractions - school bulletins, lunch, the end of the day, the sports teams' victories, etc.  I taught the same 2-day workshop to 4 different groups, and every one of those periods was a unique experience.  You know how teachers always say that they learn the most from their students?  And it's kind of a clique, because it's been repeated so many times?  I totally get what those teachers are talking about now, because I learned tons!  I learned how to improvise.  I learned when to laugh and "go with it," and when to take control and use my "loud voice."  I learned how to adjust my plans based on time, based on attention spans, based on teacher feedback, and based on blind guessing.  When I say that I "learned," what I really mean is that I started to learn, because these are all huge things that I hope to get better at with practice!

I am shocked at how much overlap there is between this SAT test-prep job and my future Bikram yoga teaching job!  First, let me state the obvious: teaching high schoolers has got to be great practice for teaching yoga, because it's hard to imagine that any group of yogis could be harder to manage than a group of average high school students.  (No offense to any readers who are high school students themselves!  Come on - you go to high school - you know what some of the kids in your classes are like!!)  At least yoga students, for the most part, really want to be there and have some interest in learning!  With high school students who don't even care about the SAT, you're fighting an uphill battle all the way.

I've also noticed tons of overlap that I didn't expect.  The very first page that my trainer had me "teach" for her during training was a page about getting in the "test zone."  In a nutshell, it was saying that there may be tons of distractions in your surroundings that you can't do anything about (when you take the test), so you have to worry about the things you can control: your physical state and your state of mind.  Um... hello?!?  Is this not one of the biggest, best, and most important things that we work on in Bikram yoga??  I had no trouble teaching that page.  I was in my element!

This job also gives me a great opportunity to work on my speaking voice and energy.  During the training on Monday, we did a mock teaching thing where I went through and delivered parts of the curriculum for a couple people.  At the end of the session, my trainer told me that I speak very concisely and clearly - thank you yoga, thank you blogging!  She also said that not only do I have a lot of energy (which I knew), but I also have a lot of control over my energy (which was a surprise).  Apparently I was very focused whenever I spoke, and I also brought my energy up every time the energy in the room started to dip down.  I had no idea that I was doing that.  How cool!  This was the most exciting feedback ever!  I felt pretty good about myself after that...

Unless my feelings change, I definitely plan to hold onto this job when I come back from teacher training; the pay is good, the work is fun and interesting, it keeps me on my toes, and it'll be a way to earn a bit of income without sweating my balls off for 4+ hours every single day!!  Hooray for conservation of electrolytes.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Practice, practice, practice! (Comp. Report Part 3)

This is the last championship follow-up post, and then I'm moving on to other things!

A few people have been asking about how someone becomes a yoga champion.  How much of that skill comes from hard work vs. natural ability?  How do people chose their "optional" postures?  How do they train?

I can answer all of the above with two words: "It depends."

The choice of optional postures really depends on the competitor's experience level.  If you're a student who is new to competition, you can pretty much depend on your teachers to suggest a few optional postures for you.  They know your practice, they know your strengths, and they know which postures will show you off the best!  If you're more experienced - you've done the advanced series for a while, you've been around the block a couple times - then you'll already have an idea of which postures work well on your body (though you can always ask a coach for advice).

It's good practice to work on more than 2 optional postures - maybe 4 or 5 of them.  You can choose 2 postures that you're already good at, along with 2 other postures that are challenging but possibly achievable.  When the competition comes closer, you make your final decision.  This year, people could (and did) change their optionals at the last minute.  Word from the judge's clinic (thanks Libby!!) says that in the future, competitors will be required to commit to 2 optional postures before they go on stage.

The training for competition can be as simple as going to a couple advanced classes for coaching and spending an extra 10 minutes after class to run through the routine... or it can be as extensive as going to a 2-week long championship training retreat and spending hours a day on extra practice.  It really depends on the individual - their level, their goals, their time commitment, etc.  There are some teachers - Mary Jarvis, Esak Garcia - who really specialize in preparing yogis for competition and who teach lots of extra exercises, such as backbends down the wall and other "homework."  I don't know too much about it, having never participated in one of these workshops (yet!), but a lot of medalists have been involved in these trainings and these techniques clearly produce results!  On the other hand, many competitors do very well by sticking to their basic 26 and 2 plus advanced classes and feedback.

What about "hard work" vs "natural ability"?  I'll tell you one thing right now: NO ONE is winning championships based on "natural ability" alone.  It's true that there are some people who are naturally very flexible or very strong, but the championship judges are specifically looking for a balance of strength and flexibility that can only be achieved through really hard work.  I've seen some champions who had incredible natural range of motion, but those people worked for years and years to gain the elements of strength, technique, and control that are necessary to harness that flexibility and produce a truly excellent yoga demonstration.

I also want to mention Joseph Encinia (hi Joseph!), who has been the U.S. gold medalist and international silver medalist for the last two years.  Besides being an all-around sweet guy, Joseph is a true Bikram yoga success story.  He was very unhealthy as a child - he was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and had a heart attack at age 13 - and came to Bikram yoga totally out of shape and overweight.  And then he just practiced.  Class after class after class.  Now his postures are some of the best in the world and he's in great health.  It can be done!!  Practice, and all is coming.

You can watch his routine, along with all the other top routines, at the Yoga Cup website.  I'm so glad that they've updated the page with all these great videos!  I could watch them over and over...

After all this inspiring competition talk, I need to mention one thing.  Competition training is great and amazing, but it is not the most important part of our yoga.  The most important thing is health.  Always. I talked to a friend over the weekend who owns one of the newer Massachusetts studios.  Her studio has been open for a couple years and has not produced any yoga champions yet.  Maybe it never will.  But my friend doesn't really care.  That's because her students are all getting healthier, sometimes to a miraculous extent.  She has a 73 year old student who "couldn't kneel on her own knees" when she started coming to the studio.  Now this lady comes to class every day, has no problem kneeling on her knees (or doing the rest of the postures), and is recruiting all her friends.  It's hard to imagine a greater reward than that!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

If At First You Don't Succeed... (Competition Report Part 2)

Okay, let me talk about some of the things that I noticed and learned at the championships last weekend.

But first, let me refer you to this article which I wrote for "Oh My Bikram," an awesome new Bikram yoga blog based out of Toronto.  There's some excellent content posted there.  (I loved the last discussion about standing bow pulling pose!)  I've had a couple of guest posts on there and have now been dubbed the blogarazzi.  Hehe.  So the article on OMB is my big competition overview, and I'm going to keep posting bits and pieces here until I run out of things to say.  Or until I get distracted by something else.  (Ooh, shiny!)

Now let's have some shop talk!

Over the course of three days, there were 117 routines performed by 93 yogis, plus 21 routines performed by the boys and girls in the youth division.  (The U.S. and international finalists performed more than once.)  That's 117 standing head to knee poses.  I got to watch almost all of them - I missed some of the U.S. men when I was guarding the door from the outside - and I don't remember seeing a single person fail to execute the pose.  As far as I saw, all 93 people were able to balance with their forehead on their knee.

Think all standing head to knee poses look the same?

Think rabbit pose is kinda boring to look at?

Try watching 117 of them in a row.

It is the most interesting thing ever.  No really, you guys, I am dead serious!  Because at that level, after you watch for a while, your eye starts to recognize all the nuances and subtleties of the posture.  The tiniest technical details - a slightly higher leg, a slightly bent wrist - start to jump out at you.  And since every body is unique - short torsos, long legs, long spines, short arms, muscular and compact, slim and flexible - you get to see what correct execution looks like on all these different bodies.  You get to understand the postures better just by seeing how the champions' muscles move...

It's great.  And strangely exhausting!  I was sooooo tired after a full day of just watching other people doing yoga.  I did not envy the judges.  They really had a tough job!  By the way, Bikram and Raj didn't judge, but the panels were all made up of very senior/experienced teachers - Emmy, a bunch of Indian folks, Jim Kallet, Diane (yay!), and tons of previous world champions.

(Incidentally, I am watching the Ice Dancing from the Winter Olympics right now, and I'm pretty impressed by watched these guys do a position resembling standing head to knee, on ice skates, while they spin around in a circle at about 500 rotations per minute...)

Another highlight of the weekend was hearing all about the judging from Emmy and Bikram at the Monday advanced class after the championships.

They both talked a lot about basics and the dialogue.  I really appreciated hearing this stuff!  They both said that, even if you get "advanced," that doesn't mean you can stop listening to the dialogue.  The dialogue is your foundation.  Back to basics, yay!!

Emmy spoke quite a lot about the placement of the grips.  Standing head to knee is THREE INCHES below the toes.  I took a look at mine.  Uh oh, busted.  I was SO not holding 3 inches below the toes - more like an inch two inches at best.  Now my balance is a little wonky, but I can already see that the posture is getting better.  The grip for standing bow pulling pose is at the ankle, with straight wrists.  The grip for bow is 2 inches below the toes, STRAIGHT WRISTS.  If the wrists are bending to let your hand wrap around the foot more, it's cause your fingers need to get stronger.

Emmy and Bikram both talked about locking the knees.  (News flash!  Hehe.)  Apparently tons of people got deductions for not fully contracting their thigh muscles and getting rid of the gap under the knees in the stretching pose (paschimo).  Emmy said that from where the judges sit, any gap at all is very visible.  They also talked about really contracting the top thigh muscle of the kicking leg in standing head to knee.  (Oh!  Oh!  I totally called that one.)  Emmy reminded us that you should already be practicing this action with your legs during pranayama and half moon pose.

Bikram also gave us a great description of how to place the kicking leg in standing head to knee.  Lots of people's legs "floated up" a little bit on stage.  Bikram asked us, "You remember the dialogue?  What did I say in the dialogue?"  Leg exactly parallel to the floor, no higher, no lower.  But then he pointed out that the leg is maybe 3 inches wide at the ankle but 10 inches wide at the thigh.  So... which part of the leg do you look at when you're trying to find parallel?  He said to forget about the flesh and look at the skeleton.  Look at the bones.  (Oh man, I called this one too!  This was the first time I've heard Boss describe this concept explicitly, and it made me so happy.)  Bikram says that parallel means the heel should be in line with the hip bone.  He also said that you can't tell on your own whether it's in the right place - like balancing stick, you have to ask someone else to take a look and tell you whether you're straight.

I really appreciated that Bikram and Emmy brought everything back to the fundamentals.  They pointed out that no matter what level you're at, even during competition, the goal isn't to do the "prettiest" posture.  The goal is always to do the posture the right way, for the greatest medical benefits, just the way it's described in the dialogue.  For the most part, competitors didn't lose points because they forgot to point their toes while they wrapped their ankles around their necks and stuck their feet in their faces.  They lost points because they didn't follow the set-ups given in the dialogue.

As they say: If at first you don't succeed, try reading the instructions.  Love it.  :)

More later!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

World's Best High School Reunion (Competition Report Part 1!)

After throwing up my hands saying "I don't know what to write!," I took a walk to the grocery store and realized exactly what I want to write.  (Walking always helps me think!)

One of the very best things about Bikram yoga is the people who do it.  I don't know what it is, exactly - a camaraderie, a bond, an understanding, a common desire, a shared experience, a mass psychosis (?) - but there's really something that holds us together.  I've been a part of many different groups in my time - a church, a ballet company, a marching band, a high school, a sorority, a college, a summer math camp, a research group - and I never quite felt like I had found my People.  But when I started really spending time in the Bikram yoga community, I had just one thought.  "Holy crap.  I think I've actually found my People."

And we're not quite normal people.  To be perfectly honest, we're kind of a bunch of freaks.  But in a brilliant way!

I hated high school.  I don't know if I'll ever go to a high school reunion.  But at these championship weekends, when all the generations of Bikram yoga teachers and students come together for a few days, I always think, "Wow, this is what a high school reunion would be like if you had really loved high school!"  It's great.  All the teachers get to catch up with friends from their teacher training classes.  My friends from Fall Spring 2005 kept bragging about how they have the best TT class, because so many of them were there, including almost ALL of group one!  They took a class picture with Bikram that had about 30 of them in it.  Three or four of the women from that class had tiny babies in strollers this year.  (Sarah Baughn's baby kept on stealing the show - I think she had about 15 babysitters, including Bikram, who adored her.  He is GREAT with babies!!)  It's actually more like a family reunion, except that the family has hundreds of people in it and none of them are related by blood.  (Blood is thicker than water, but maybe sweat is thicker than blood!)

The whole thing is kind of a circus.  You've got all the competitors in their leotards and nice hairstyles, running around in sweatpants looking focused.  You've got the volunteers in red t-shirts (including me), running around trying to keep people from going OUT the "no exit" door or IN the "no entrance" door.  You've got coaches giving last minute advice, judges working hard up at the front table, video guys trying to fix the live feed, and Bikram hanging out in his white disco suit having a great time.  In the ballroom, when the competitors go on stage, you could hear a pin drop.  Outside in the hallway, you've got all the different vendors.  There were 3 or 4 different yoga wear companies, which put on amateur (but good!) fashion shows during the "commercial breaks."  There was a guy selling "yoga swings" who looked like a refuge from a 1980's David Bowie movie and claimed to only sleep 1-3 hours a night because he spends so much time hanging upside-down.  (No one's really sure who invited him.)  There were some people selling an "oxygenated" yoga mat which, by Emmy's sardonic description, "is supposed to do all the work for you so that you don't have to work."  Hilariously, Bikram bought one; he practiced with it during advanced class on Monday.  Things that are supposed to start at 10am start at 10:30, and things that are supposed to start at 2pm start at 5:30, and the thank-you speeches last for an hour, and everyone has flashbacks to their teacher trainings.

And then there's the party.  Every year, Bikram celebrates his birthday on an evening during the championships.  (For the record, the actual date is Feb 10th.)  The party includes a buffet of Indian food and some mind-boggling yoga demonstrations from the reigning yoga champions.  And then Bikram gets ups and talks, and I can't remember half of it, but I laughed until I nearly cried.  Because he knows how he is.  He gets up there, already laughing, and says "You guys really want to hear my speech again?"  Everyone thinks of their 5-hour teacher training lectures, laughs, and says "Yes!"  Then he breaks out all his favorite lines and all his favorite stories.  He says, "Having doesn't mean anything if you don't know how to...?"  Two-hundred people call back "USE IT!" and he cracks up, legitimately delighted that we've been listening to him all these years, and then we crack up, because there's something honest and infectious about his laugh.  I overheard a guy walking past me, talking to himself, saying "Thank God, he never changes."

And then there's the disco.  It's everything that your awkward middle school dance never was!  Bikram says, "I invented disco, I just took off the -theque."  That man turned 60-something this year, and he still knows how to shamelessly get down.  It's such pure, ridiculous, glorious silliness.  I spent half the time just watching the dance floor, totally entertained by the craziness that is Bikram, but finally I grabbed a friend and jumped in.  The DJ played "Celebration" - "Celebrate good times, come on!" - and we all sang the "Woo hoo!"s.  At one point I was dancing next to Bikram.  He started doing this little cross-over side-step, and Libby and I fell into step with him on his right while another girl fell into step on his left.  It was too funny.  This is our Boss.  Who else can say that, besides a bunch of Bikram yogis?!

I love us...


I met Cira on Sunday, and she's written some great stuff about her experience here.  It was great to meet her, and a couple of other readers, too!  Hi, guys!  Thanks for making me feel slightly famous!!  It was surprising and fun.  :)

Also, when I say "Part 1," that means there is plenty more to come, so keep sending suggestions for things you'd like to hear about!

What a weekend!

I got home from championship weekend yesterday afternoon, slept all morning today, and am still trying to unpack my brain...

The weekend went roughly as follows:

Thursday night:
Drove down to LA to stay at a friend's house

Took 7am class at HQ with Courtney Mace, last year's female champion
Went straight to hotel and signed in to volunteer.  Spent all morning guarding the door, from both the outside and the inside.  Then went in and got to watch the U.S. women.  The whole thing (including awards) went on until maybe 8pm.  Got dinner at hotel restaurant with a bunch of teachers, then ended up hanging out at the hotel bar until 1am talking about yoga, and crashed in a friend's hotel room.

Took 7am at HQ with Leslie (not sure last name), who was the champion from the very first yoga championship 7 years ago.
Went to hotel for international championships.  These went on all day and were awesome.
Got dressed up, went to dinner, then went to Bikram's birthday/disco party.  Good times.

Totally overslept and missed the 7am class.  Was tired!
Watched the Youth division.  Oh man.  The kids are getting GOOD!!!
International finals - top 10 men and top 10 women.  Best yoga I've ever seen in my life.  These guys seriously BROUGHT it.  The winners were Brandy (USA) and Kaspar (Netherlands).

Took 7:30am class at Hermosa Beach.  Went to Jamba Juice.  Practiced dialogue with another spring 2010 trainee.  Took 12:15 advanced class with Emmy.   (Bikram was there for the first half of it, then he had to leave to go to the judge's clinic.)  Drove home.  Had to stop halfway to get salad.  Totally beat, in a great way.

This is NOT my championship report.  I still need to write that.  I'm just having trouble unpacking my brain.  Yoga overload!

Tell me what you want to hear about!!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Yoga Competition?!

Yoga competitions!!  What's up with that?!

I'm heading down to LA tonight for the weekend of the national and international Yoga Asana Championships.  Woo hoo!  Good times.

When people first hear the words "yoga" and "competition" in the same breath, the typical response falls somewhere in the spectrum between a puzzled "Wait.... what?" and an aggressive "What the fuck?!"  Now, I could go over all the talking points for why yoga championships are a fine idea (like the fact that they've been doing them in India for centuries or the fact that it's a yoga asana competition, not a yoga competition), but first I just want to share my personal competition experiences.

The first time I competed was in the New England regionals in October 2007, at the request and encouragement of my studio owners.  I was still pretty new to the world of Bikram yoga, and I had never heard of a "yoga competition" before, but I was interested in trying something new and learning a little more about yoga, so I said, "Sure, why not?"  So I started training, with a group of other students and teachers, and I learned how a yoga competition works.

It goes like this: each participant has exactly 3 minutes (no longer) to demonstrate a routine of 7 postures on stage.  The first 5 postures, the compulsories, are taken from the beginning Bikram class and are the same for everyone: standing head to knee, standing bow pulling, bow, rabbit, and stretching.  The last two postures, the "optionals," are where you get to strut your stuff a little bit and demonstrate something that you are especially good at.  Those postures are usually chosen from the advanced series.  The goal is to demonstrate strength, flexibility, and balance.  Each of the postures is scored out of 10 points based on form and technique.  There's also a subjective score for "grace."

I had a lot of fun training, because all us students started working together after class to help each other improve in the postures.  We started sharing tips and trick and stories, and it was the first time I started being really social at yoga.  (Of course now I am Miss Social Butterfly, but in the beginning I didn't talk to anyone!!)  I learned a ton about the postures, and I gained so much confidence.  Before I started training, I really never wanted anyone to watch my postures.  After a couple months, I was totally comfortable going up to any teacher after class and asking them to watch my routine and give me feedback.

One of the most important things about yoga for me has always been the lack of judgement.  Yoga class was the first place in a very long time where I was able to just see myself instead of constantly judging.  So this idea of getting up on stage to be judged was unsettling, at best!  I went up to one of my coaches after a class in September, all teary for some reason, and told her that I didn't like the thought of going to stage to have everyone judge me.  She said that I shouldn't think of it like that; I should just think of it as "show and tell."  It was a chance for me to go in front of my teachers and peers and show them what I'd been working on, nothing more.  I liked the idea of "show and tell."  I decided that my goal for the performance would be to demonstrate everything that I had learned in the past months, so that other people could see how wonderful my teachers were.

I was scared shitless before I got up on stage, but once I was up there I had SO.  MUCH.  FUN.  Time went in slow motion.  It was a crazy extended adrenaline rush.  I held all my postures and I was so proud of myself, because I'd made my teachers proud and I'd done something that I didn't think I could do.  The whole team went out for a celebratory dinner that night, and I was the happiest I'd been in a long time.

I competed again a year later, in November 2008, in the southern California regionals.  I had just moved cross country a few months earlier.  This time, I didn't have a team of coaches and teachers and friends.  It was just me!  I did it to challenge myself, because I didn't especially feel like doing it, but I knew it would help me to grow as a yogi.  I practiced my routine on my own and got feedback when I could.

My postures definitely improved through training, but that year was all about the social networking!  If you're new in town and you want plug into the local community, showing up on stage at the competition is a pretty good way to do it!  The best part of competing that year was spending time backstage with other local yogis and getting to know all these cool people.  Competitions are just like these big old yoga conventions.  They are the least competitive things ever.  We all hang out backstage and help each other with our routines.  We watch each other from the wings and hold our breath, wanting to see everyone else do their best.  Everyone winces when someone wobbles and cheers when someone does well.  Some of the people who I met at that event are now among my best yogi-friends in Los Angeles, so it was totally worthwhile!

As far as the actual performance that year, I was totally relaxed backstage, giving last minute tips and cracking dirty jokes, and then I was scared shitless when I got up on stage!  It was very dark, and Emmy was in the middle of the judges' table - yikes!  I wobbled pretty badly coming out of standing head to knee and was sure it was all over.  But as soon as that happened, I thought to myself, "Whoops, well that's that, oh well, too bad!"  I put a big smile on my face, relaxed completely, and finished the routine very cheerfully.  (My friend in the audience said that I was the only one who smiled, like, at all.)  Whaddaya know - I got third place.  Didn't qualify me for nationals (that's first and second place winners only), but it was something to write home about.

I didn't get to compete this year, so that's the extent of my personal experience on the yoga stage!  (I'm really gonna have to do it again next year, though, or certain people will kill me.)

Since my experiences have been so positive, I always encourage people to get involved in their local events.  They're inspiring to watch, they bring the community together, and it's empowering to be a part of them.  "Competition" gets a bad rap, but it's not inherently a bad thing.  When good people compete with each other - not against, but with - without malice or pettiness, everyone improves from it.  Bikram likes to point out that competition is the foundation of democracy, and I think he's got a point.  Without competition, you have either a monopoly or a caste system, right?!  Everything in life is competition, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  Let's compete with each other to see who can raise the most money for Haiti, and we'll see if anyone's worse off at the end of the day.

I'll be in LA all weekend for the national and international championships, and it promises to be a fun time!  (Yoga family reunion!!)  Maybe I'll see some of you there!  For those of you staying at home, the events will both be streaming live online.  You can watch on Friday at USA Yoga and on Saturday and Sunday at Yoga Cup.  The schedule of events is here.  Enjoy!!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dancing Juliet

"The preparation that's involved in dancing a dramatic role is know and learn and read the book, and then forgetting about it.  Then learning the steps, and then forgetting about them.  And then finding everything you know of that person in you.  So really, when I'm playing Juliet, I'm playing me, as Juliet."
- Ballerina Alessandra Ferri on dancing "Romeo and Juliet"
These lines from an old ballet video have been floating around in the back of my head for months now.

This, in a nutshell, is my explanation for why I am so devoted to studying and internalizing the dialogue, even though I would have no problem "getting through" teacher training if I didn't look at another page of it between now and April.  Because for me, this is the goal: to learn the story, the words, the steps so well that they become second skin, second nature, and I can forget about them completely.

In my former life as a ballerina (see my last post on Bikram 101 for a little more about that), this was something I knew.  You cannot perform a piece of choreography in a 100% convincing way if you are still just trying to remember the steps.  You have to learn the steps so well that you don't even have to think about them.  You have to dance the choreography as if you're inventing the steps yourself, for the first time - without ever missing a choreographed step.  This is hard to do!!  But when you really know the steps and the story and the reason behind them, inside and out, forwards and backwards... then it just flows.  Then you can inhabit the steps, find yourself inside them, and create something absolutely new.

How can you be yourself as a yoga teacher, if you use the same words as everyone else?  Silly question.  How many ballerinas have danced the same exact steps as Juliet?  And how many of those Juliets have been the same?

In the words of Stephen Sondheim: "Anything you do, let it come from you.  Then it will be new."

I think this concluded the run of dialogue-obsessed posts.  Tomorrow I will start reporting on the weird and wacky world of the international yoga asana competitions!!

*Here is the Romeo and Juliet video that I was remembering.  It's pretty stunning.

**HUGE musical theatre nerd points to anyone who know what musical the Sondheim quote is from.  Not you, Mom.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Dialogue or Monologue?

I'm just gonna go ahead and declare this Dialogue Week here at Lock the Knee! blog, since I keep on realizing that there's more stuff I want to talk about.  Don't worry... I'm going to the yoga asana championships in L.A. all next weekend, so that'll give me a whole new set of ideas to think about!

So, the dialogue.  There's only one person talking in a Bikram yoga class - the teacher - so how the heck can we call that a dialogue?  I'll let Bikram answer that one:
"People always say to me - and you may be thinking this right now - "Bikram, don't you know a dialogue is when two people are talking with each other?  Since you're the only one talking in class when you give instruction, this should really be called 'the Monologue.' "  Let me tell you something: My English may not be perfect, but I know the difference between a monologue and a dialogue.  When my teachers and I are talking to a class, telling you what to do, there is a response.  From what we can see as you struggle to perform the asanas properly, your body is giving us information as well - it is talking back.  There's a connection, there's communication, and that's why it's a dialogue.  You follow me?"
- Bikram Yoga, pg 96-97
Okay, fair enough.  But how does this work in practice?

I'm always talking about "good dialogue classes."  What does that mean?  To me, it means that the teacher is using Bikram's very precise, very complete, and very sequential set of instructions as they converse with the bodies in the room.  The dialogue is a toolbox, and a great teacher can use those tools to reshape any body.

If someone has perfect, verbatim dialogue, but never looks at the bodies and never adds a single word of correction or encouragement, then they suck.  They're a robot.  Being a robot is not the goal.

If someone has great dialogue and delivers it with inflection and enthusiasm, adding personal corrections here and there, stressing different parts that they find significant, and slowing down to go over important details, that is a really good teacher.  I'd take that class any day of the week.  Twice.

If someone has all of the above and understands the entire dialogue and knows how to read bodies and tailor the instructions to every single individual, then things get seriously interesting.  When I took Diane's classes over Christmas break, I kept noticing the way she would target specific corrections at different people in the room without even changing the words or breaking the sequence.

Here's a made-up example using some lines from second part of awkward pose.  The dialogue is: "Knees up, chest up, upper body leaning back, spine straight. Come up higher on the toes, knees up toward the ceiling. Hips should not go down below the chair - you are sitting ON the chair." 

Here's a version that could be given during the second set, after you've seen what the different students are doing: "Knees up, chest up. Brian, lean your upper body back two more inches, spine straight. Everybody come up higher on the toes, knees up towards the ceiling. Joe, hips should not go down below the chair, come up more, yes, stop there! You are sitting ON the chair."

It could also be: "Upper body leaning back, not too much Joe, YOU can come forward a little more, get your spine straight."  Sometimes you just need a personal correction, with a name attached!  The dialogue is the backbone of the class, and it can be tweaked when appropriate.  Bikram has said this all along.  He says that he gives the prescription for the most general case, and then some patients need a little bit of special treatment.

It seems like so many people think they need to throw away the dialogue in order to teach a personalized and dynamic class.  No way.  Once you make it your toolbox and figure out how to use it, you can get the best of all worlds.  And really, when you think about it, it's right there in the fricking name.  It's called a dialogue.  It was always intended to be a conversation, not just a script.

"You follow me?"

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Creating the Cramp

Did you know that forgetting the dialogue makes you better at your postures?

There's a little truism which says that you teach the way you practice.  This is a pretty logical statement, and I've definitely witnessed it in action many times!  This statement also suggest that, when I'm practicing practicing the dialogue and trying to remember all the instructions, the bits that I forget to say are probably the bits that I'm forgetting to do.  This is one of my favorite side-effects of dialogue study.  Every time I have trouble remembering a line, I dig up another detail that I need to pay better attention to in my personal practice!

My absolute favorite so far has been a line in Standing Head to Knee: "You should feel tremendous stretching underneath both legs, create cramp on top of the thigh."  I went through a whole string of postures a week or two ago, and that was the one line that I completely forgot about.  So I said to myself, "Hmmmm.  I sure am using the top of the thigh on my kicking leg, but am I really using it as much as possible?  Am I actually trying to create a cramp?"

Big surprise: I totally was not.  I was just kinda hanging out a little bit.  It would look exactly the same to any teacher (except for maybe one of the psychic ones), but the intent to actually create cramp was not there.  Guess what happened when I started trying to create a cramp?  The answer is NOT! "I got a cramp."  The answer is, "I got about 500x more stable going into and out of the full expression of standing head to knee."  Whaddaya know.

I like this idea of trying to create cramp, because it's counter-intuitive.  In most activities, you try to avoid a cramp.  If you get a cramp when you're running, you might have to stop running.  If you get a cramp when you're swimming in the ocean, you die!  But if you get a cramp in yoga, it means you're doing good.  (Though you might want to eat a banana later.)

I love these directions that tell us to move towards discomfort.  There's a similar instruction in the beginning of class, in half moon: "You are trying to create a tremendous stretching feeling..."  Especially when you're new to it, stretching doesn't feel so good.  Like a muscle cramp, it's an unpleasant feeling that you would rather avoid.  But you have to try to create that feeling; you have to actually look for it and invite it into your body.  Eventually, it will feel natural and good.  These are the sensations of change and growth in your body.  But at first, moving towards discomfort this way will seem like a crazy and radical thing to do.

"Create tremendous stretching."  "Create cramp."  "Shoulders are supposed to hurt."  "Make sure your back hurts."  What's the point of these instructions?  Your teachers don't want to hurt you!  They just want you to inhabit that uncomfortable place where change can happen, instead of following your instincts and running away from it.  Change is always uncomfortable, and often painful.  It's so much easier to stay the way we are.  Stay in the same posture.  Stay in the same job, the same relationship, the same apartment, the same city.  It's easier that way.  But in yoga, we practice moving into discomfort, and we find out that it's not such a scary place after all.  (You thought it was going to hurt, but instead it made your body feel better.)

In other words, we learn courage.  One Standing Head-to-Knee at a time.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Playing the Blues

"I'll give you a little tip about the blues, folks.  It's not enough to know which notes to play.  You need to know why they need to be played."  - George Carlin

I was talking on the boards to a fellow Spring 2010 Trainee To-Be this week about learning the dialogue.  (Do I need a life?  Very possibly, but isn't that why you love me?  Let's move on.)  The guy was having a little trouble with memorizing dialogue and was kind of discouraged about the whole process, in a "Why do we have to learn this stuff?!" kind of way.

As anyone who's met me or read my blog knows, I freaking love the dialogue.  I believe that the dialogue gives you the strongest possible foundation to teach from, because it includes all the most important beginning instructions, for all the postures, in order.   It is precise, sequential, accurate, and complete.  When you really break it down, you can use it to answer virtually any question about a posture.  (I have used this trick on friends of mine many times.  Any time my roommate asks me about a posture, I usually just start telling her dialogue until we find the answer!)  There's a reason for almost everything in it, including (especially including!) the weird stuff.  It's pretty cool.

I mentioned my teacher Diane in the discussion, and another person piped up saying that she'd just taken Diane's class that weekend, and that it was the best dialogue-based class she'd ever had and the dialogue "sounded so dynamic" coming from Diane.  (Woot!  New England shout-out!!)

I loved that phrase - the dialogue "sounded so dynamic" - because to me it's always been obvious that the dialogue can be delivered with incredible dynamics.  Or not!  It's like a piece of music.  In the hands of an unskilled musician, the best Mozart works will sound boring and lifeless.  But when played by a master, you can hear the pacing, the structure, the nuances - the dynamics - of the whole thing.

My belief - though this may just be the scientist in me talking - is that is all comes down to true understanding.  Like the late and great George Carlin said about blues music: It's not enough to know what notes to play.  You need to know why they need to be played.

In my adventures with home recording equipment, I recorded audio of myself reading the entire dialogue off the page, so that I could study it in my car.  I noticed something really striking when I listened to the CD.  I can immediately tell which bits of dialogue I have really studied and which parts I was just reading off the page.  Triangle is the last pose that I had studied when I did the recording, and it sounds fine.  I studied separate leg head to knee and tree pose last weekend, and now the original recording sounds completely off - the phrasing, the emphasis, the inflection, everything!  I can't believe how blatantly obvious it is, at least to my ear, when I don't thoroughly understand what I'm saying.

It reminds me of the flute lessons I took for years, when my teacher was constantly telling me, "Phrasing, J, phrasing!  Why did you breathe there?!"  The lesson finally stuck; I listen for phrasing in music and in dialogue.  I find the little couplets and phrases that go together.  It's a song, not a grocery list!  It's not "Left leg locked thigh muscle contracted spine straight stomach in."  It's "Left leg locked; thigh muscle contracted.  Spine straight; stomach in."  It's "skeleton-muscle, skeleton-muscle."  Phrasing!!  I'm gonna have to re-record the second half of the series...

Hope the slightly rambling teacher trainee shop talk isn't boring the heck out of you guys.  I'm just a little obsessed with this stuff at the moment!  (It's my blog and I'll blog what I want to!)  Two and a half months 'til training... unbelievable.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Daze of our Lives

I did tons of yoga and tons of driving today, and then ended up wandering around Ralph's supermarket in a daze for like half an hour.

I know that you guys know what I'm talking about.  I believe the official term is "yoga stoned."  This is what happens when you do a lot of stretching and sweating and working hard, and then you find yourself wandering around for hours trying to remember where you left your own HEAD.

Back to my day: I trekked down to LA for beginner's and advanced class again, did some socializing, bought some stuff for my studio, and drove back up.  I snacked on trail mix in the car, so I wasn't too starved when I got home, but I was definitely in need of food.  Since I was stiff from driving, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and walk 10 minutes to the health food store near my house.

Plan A:  Go to health food store, get some of that nice egg salad, eat.

I get to the store and of course there's not any good ready-made food left, since it's the end of the day.  Also, everything is really expensive.  Ok, let's try the supermarket.

Plan B:  Go to supermarket, find egg salad, walk home, eat.

Of course, all the deli stuff at the supermarket is looking kinda nasty, too.  Forget that plan!  I'm doing a really good job of "listening to my body," but unfortunately my body hasn't quite decided what it wants me to put in it, so the two of us decide to just make a couple laps and find something that looks good.

Wow, pre-made guacamole!!  That sounds great.  Ooh, and they have whole-wheat tortellini on sale! Hmm, we're gonna need a basket.

Plan C:  Have pre-made guac and tortellini.  Need good chips and some frozen veggies, and then we're in business.

I made like 4 laps around the store trying to find chips that I wanted.  Hmm, where are the blue corn chips?  They're in the "natural food" section on the other end of the store.  Hmm, but all they have here is the huge party size bag, which I don't want!  Back to the other side of the store.  Meanwhile (or simultaneously), why am I buying guac when I could just buy some avocados?  Oh YEAH, I have those cherry tomatoes at home, those would be good in guacamole.

Plan D: Have avocados, whole-grain Tostitos, tomatoes (at home), and tortellini.  Still need veggies.

Fresh spinach is good, but expensive.  Check frozen veggies aisle (on other end of store).  None of these look good.  What about fresh asparagus?  Back to other end of store.  Hey, here's a cheaper bag of spinach.  Hey, don't I need crackers?

At this point my body is suddenly sending out serious hunger distress signals!  Uh oh.  I'm gonna need a snack for the walk home.  I'm sooo tired.  I'm not gonna make it!

Final contents of shopping cart: 3 ripe avocados, Tostitos, tortellini, fresh spinach, sugar snap peas (for snacking!), Triscuits... and CHEEZITS.  So much for the one-egg-salad shopping trip.

By the way, the peas and the homemade guacamole totally hit the spot.  In fact, now I'm pretty full!  Maybe I'll save the spinach and pasta dinner for tomorrow night.

And that's my exciting life!