Saturday, March 12, 2011

Read This! ("Mirror")

This may be old news for some of you (it's been posted and reposted by 28 of my Facebook friends today, and counting) but I just want to draw your attention to an article that appeared in the New York Times yesterday.

Bikram Yoga gets a lot of weird press - "bad boy of yoga," "teacher training sex cult," "Bikram vs. Charlie Sheen," etc etc.  Some of it is entertaining, some of it is offensive, and some is just plain silly.  It is rare to come across an article in the mainstream media that says something poignant and true about our yoga.  Paige Williams' story in Oprah magazine last year was one exception.

Here is another one:  Mirror

This article makes me want to punch the air and shout, Yes!  This is what we do.

All my fellow teachers and yogis would agree with me, except that I think they're all too busy looking for the Kleenex box.  Just a moment, I think I have something in my eye....

The video is worth watching, too....

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Forget about "Style"

"And it started to make sense... No fear.  No distractions.  The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide."  - Fight Club

This week, I've been reading a book called On Writing Well by William Zinsser.  It's exactly what it says on the tin: a book about writing non-fiction.  I found it on a bookshelf in my living room.  One of my roommate must have bought it at some point, or maybe a past roommate left it behind.  (My house is like that.)  Yes, I was trying to read the yoga anatomy book (and I'm still working on it), but this other book pulled me in.

I particularly like the sections where Zinsser talks about "style."  He says that most people who think they are writing with "style" are just doing messy writing, trying to dress up their sentences to make them sound good.  "Trying to add style," he says, "is like adding a toupee.  At first glance the formerly bald man looks young and even handsome.  But at second glance - and with a toupee there's always a second glance - he doesn't look quite right... he doesn't look like himself."  What's the alternative?  Say something substantial! Instead of taking a tired old idea and trying to dress it up, say something unique.  Your personality comes through in your ideas, not in your grammatical contortions.

Yoga teachers can tie themselves up into knots in similar ways.  (Please excuse the pun, I inherited my sense of humor from my dad.)  I've watched plenty of yoga teachers go through all kinds of verbal acrobatics in an effort to give instructions in a more personalized way.  This comes from the same thought process - the thought that you need to "add style" in order to express your personality.  Then you start to hear all sorts of crazy stuff that doesn't quite make sense, like "imagine you're painting a rainbow" or "motivate your core," along with filler phrases like "next we're gonna," "and then now," or one of my favorites: "you're gonna wanna try to."  Hey, we've all been guilty of this at some time.  But it doesn't improve the class.  Just like in writing, you have to strip your class right down to the basics (*cough*dialogue*cough*) before you can build up again.

A couple weeks ago, one of the teachers at my studio asked me to give her feedback on her class.  (It was the studio owner, actually - how cool is that?  I have a great boss.)  I practice in the back of the room and wrote down comments (all dialogue stuff) throughout the class.  This turned out to be a great exercise in multitasking.  I have a new appreciation for the teachers and studio owners who are responsible for giving feedback on a regular basis!  Anyway, it was really fun to take notes and figure out which bits could be improved.  It reminded me of proofreading a paper written by a friend.  (I do love the art of proofreading.)  Just like in editing, my task was to go through the words and identify which ones were necessary, which ones were doing their job, and which ones were having their meaning twisted around.  Of course, doing it in real-time is a bit trickier, but that just added to the fun!

When I'm teaching the class, I have to edit myself for clarity as I go.  I usually have the words right, and if I speak quickly I can get out nearly the entire dialogue, but then the words can get lost.  That is not the goal!  (I once read a Yelp review about Bikram yoga that said "The instructor leads by dialogue, which means that they talk very fast like an auctioneer throughout the class," and I wanted to bang my head against the wall.)  In my best classes, I am absolutely deliberate - I control the tempo, sometimes faster and sometimes slower, and I hear every word as it comes out of my lips.  Oh yeah, and I make it sound totally natural.  Or so I'm told.  I try.

Another Bikram teacher once described my class as "really personalized."  She meant it as a compliment, but it struck a little bit of horror into my heart.  Does that mean I'm off the dialogue?!  But here's the thing: I'm not off the dialogue.  I've checked.  So that means that, without embellishing the language, my personality is still coming through.  I can only guess that it's because I have something to say.  Substance wins over style.  For once, I have to flip a Bikramism upside-down: "It's not how you say it, it's what you say!"

Style is useless on the yoga mat, too.  Everyone has a style in the yoga room, some more than others.  Some people fix their clothing or their hair, some people look around curiously, some people more ahead or lag behind, some people are being dramatic.  But the only "style" that really helps is simplicity.  Stillness.  The total absence of stylization.  My best, most transcendent classes have been the ones where all the distractions disappeared, where I didn't even twitch a finger if it wasn't in the instructions.

The goal in all of these pursuits - in writing, in teaching, in practicing - is to strip away everything that does not matter.  All that murkiness just cover up what's real, like dirt on a mirror.  Like ripples in a pond.  The first yoga sutra roughly translates as "Cease the fluctuations of the mind-stuff."  Let everything which does not matter truly slide.  Forget about being a certain way, and just be.

That's yoga.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Catching Up...

Whoops... I had all these great blogging plans, and then this week seriously got away from me.  Had some rather urgent family business come up, the kind that involves long drives across state lines in the middle of the night.  To make a long story short, my 92-year-old grandfather is now recovering after a successful surgery, so everything seems to have turned out okay.  (Knock on wood.)

But back to this little blog - I'm finally caught up on everything (rent is paid, schedule is back to normal, washing machine is running, house is clean, chili is cooking in the crock pot) and I have been itching to write for days now.

First order of business: Chicago!  Assuming that no more emergencies arise in the next few weeks, I am going to Chicago for the weekend of March 19th.  I'm not mentioning this because I think you ought to stalk me.  (Don't be silly.)  I mention this because I am going to a yoga seminar with the one-and-only Diane Ducharme, and if you're in the neighborhood, you really should show up.  Her seminars are awesome, trust me.  More info is online at Bikram Yoga in the City.  (And no, I'm not likely to be teaching while I'm there - this is just a quick trip and I am going purely as a student.  Exciting for me!!)

Second order of business:  Blog comments!  I received some really insightful comments on my last blog post, the one about requiring "proof" for the benefits of a yoga practice.  Basically, my readers have been keeping things interesting even in my absence.  So if you haven't been reading comments, go and check them out!  It's never too late to join in the conversation.  It's been giving me a lot of ideas, including a gem of an idea for a new kind of Bikram yoga website.  After an initial spurt of manic excitement, I am thinking carefully about a couple of different projects, and I may bounce some ideas off all of you later....

And finally, my personal 30 day reading challenge is looking more like a ?? day challenge, but it is still on!  Yesterday I finished chapter 2, and now I am on page 139 (out of 594)!  Progress!  I am still shooting for 20 pages a day from here on, but not every single day.  (For example, when I take my trip to Chicago later this month, I'm not going to sacrifice time from my yoga weekend extravaganza to plow through a big heavy book!)  So now I give you:

?? Day Reading Challenge:  Day 10

I've finished the first two chapters!  Hurrah for me!

The first chapter is about "Movement and Posture."  It goes through a lot of technical anatomy terms, which would have been tedious reading if I didn't already have a solid foundation from the anatomy course at teacher training.  That was a seriously good course; Dr. Preddy knows his stuff!  There was some new-for-me material, though.  I finally understand the difference between concentric shortening and eccentric lengthening, though I'm not sure whether this will help me much in my day-to-day life.  It helps me understand anatomy textbooks, though.  (CliffNotes summary: Concentric = going UP the stairs.  Eccentric = going DOWN the stairs.)  The most interesting bit for me was probably the section on reflexes.  If you want to understand why you can stretch your muscles with a slow, steady pull, but NOT with bouncing and jerking, this is the section for you.

As far as the concepts about stretching, posture, and gravity are concerned, I found all of the conclusions pretty familiar and intuitive.  That's because I've read this kind of thing before and I have a lot of experience working with my body.  But the text gives enough detailed and rigorous information to satisfy the most curious questioner, and it's cool to understand the hidden mechanics behind familiar processes.

The author also has a tendency to editorialize, which is one of my favorite parts.  I feel like I'm reading Nabokov sometimes.  (Pale Fire, anyone?)  I really liked a section on page 29-30, where the author's [technical notes] go on for a full page and get gradually more and more tangential.  His last note is pretty far from the main point of the passage, but it's a really great point:

"If your complaint is that you can't understand a particular concept and do not feel competent to criticize it, don't assume that the problem is your own lack of intelligence or scientific background.  More than likely, the idea wasn't presented in a straightforward manner, and it usually happens that this masks one or more fatals flaws in the putative reasoning.  One dependable test of a concept is whether you can convincingly explain it, along with the mechanics of how it operates, to a third party.  If you find yourself getting your explanation garbled, or if your listener does not comprehend your argument or is unpersuaded, please examine and research the idea more critically."

Okay, so he did use the word "putative," which I had to look up (putative, adj, commonly accepted or supposed), but overall this is a fantastically clear point which I support 100%.  The "third party test" is a great test for any idea, whether it's a scientific point or a business plan.  (The business plan test says that that if you can't explain the purpose of your business to a third party in one sentence, you don't really have a plan.)

Returning to our immediate concerns: like in any good yoga anatomy book, chapter one is about posture and chapter two is about "Breathing."  This was a pretty cool chapter.  It includes a lot of suggestions for self-experimentation, and I was too lazy to get up and do any of the experiments because I was too busy lounging.  If I every get motivated, I will probably go back through this chapter and try some of these breathing experiments, instead of just conceptualizing and looking at the pictures.

The chapter does a good job explaining about the different lung volumes and capacities.  I still have to double-check the terminology as I read, but the main take-away point is that you never breathe your total lung capacity in and out (some air stays in your lungs so they don't collapse), and you rarely breathe your full vital capacity.  In normal breathing, your lungs are never completely full or completely empty, which is totally normal and fine, but it means that there is a lot of room for manipulation when you start doing yogic breathing exercises.

There's also a ton of stuff about the different anatomical ways of breathing: chest breathing, belly breathing and everything in between.  (There is a whole lot of middle ground.)  That's putting it very loosely.  I could relate a lot of it to my understanding of pranayama breathing, and kapalabhati is discussed specifically.

My favorite "practical" advice is nestled in between various technical discussions: "Rushing yourself or someone else into developing new breathing habits will only create anxiety and disrupt rather than benefit the nervous system (pg 120)" and "the poses themselves correct bad habits (pg 113)."

Now I think I have just enough time to read another 20 pages before going to take class at 7pm.  More later!