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.

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