Tuesday, May 31, 2011

More Cities, More Yoga!

This is just a quick-ish kind of an update, since I am Very Busy and Important.  (Name that book/movie.)

I'm doing a little bit of a "traveling teacher" thing right now - I took off a couple weeks from my regular studio in Baltimore in order to go gallivanting around the country.  Okay, I really only gallivanted as far as Kentucky, but it was a satisfyingly long drive through the hills of West Virginia.  (I think that every single bug in West Virginia is now plastered on the front end of my car.)  It always feels good to be out on the open road, just me and my car!

I'm teaching at the studio in Lexington KY right now, and it's pretty awesome.  I've taught 4 classes here since Sunday, and they've all been pretty action packed.  First of all, I taught the Sunday and Monday morning classes of Memorial Day weekend, which is a big holiday weekend.  And second of all, the studio just did a Groupon deal last week, so there is a flood of new people coming in.  So it's been hot and humid and crowded and exciting.  I taught the two evening classes tonight and had ten new students in each class - I barely learned half of their names!  They all stuck it out through the class and did great - it was really fun.  Slightly tricky, but fun.

The travel is good for me because quite honestly, the first day at a new studio is always way out of my comfort zone.  And I hadn't taught anywhere apart from my "home studio" since December, so I was definitely due to shake things up a bit.  I had some butterflies in my stomach before I taught my first class here on Sunday morning, and it's been months since I got nervous about teaching a class.  I wonder if this gets easier with practice?  I've got some more travels coming up this summer, so I guess I'll find out.

I also had a good feedback session with Jodi, the studio owner, after my class on Sunday.  First of all, she busted me on a little phrase that I'd left out of my dialogue, so she gets props for that.  I don't get corrected on my dialogue very often.  We also had a good chat about the classroom interactions, and as I was talking to her, I put my finger on something: teaching the first class at a new studio is like going on a blind first date.  It's kind of awkward and kind of nerve-wracking, because you (the teacher) don't know them (the students) and they don't know you.  I'm used to having an easy rapport with most of my classes, but that's because I know all of my students!  I know when they started, how much they practice, how they're doing, how their dogs are doing, etc etc etc.  That makes it all easy and great.  But when you're in front of a room of total strangers, it's such a different feeling!  It's harder to read the room, and it's harder for them to read you, too.  First class in a new place, I crack a little joke and it's like....... *crickets*...... ooh, tough room.

But happily, that phase doesn't last too long.  And already, after only four classes, I'm much more comfortable with the whole set-up.  I'm getting to know the regulars (and the repeat newbies), and I'm learning how to assess the room much more quickly.  I'm getting used to looking around the room during the first couple of postures and figuring out, okay, here are the rock star regulars, here are the newbies, here are the ones working through injuries, here are the total weirdos.... check, check, check.

I really am loving it here in Lexington and I will have to post about it at greater length later, with pictures.  For now, I will just say that two out of my three evenings have been spent at lazy backyard barbeques, and all the yoga teachers spent Monday afternoon biking around Lexington with a huge group of people.  I could get used to this.  (But don't worry Baltimore, I'll be back.)

There are so many great yoga studios and so many places that I want to go.  It's always tempting to just chuck everything into my car and hit the road for a while to go everywhere - but where would that really get me?  The students that I love the most are the ones who I spend months with.  I guess it's important to have a home base.  It's exciting to go to new places, but it's sad to leave them.  Very Mary Poppins.  ("And what would happen to me, may I asked, if I loved all the children I said goodbye to?")  I was talking about this with Mike from my teacher training, who has been in Lex for the last couple of weeks. He's been to lots of different studios and he says that he is always really sad when he leaves.  I told him, "Yes, but your family is only getting bigger."  Every new place becomes a new home.

Apparently this is my idea of a quick update.  Watch out for the long one!!

Also, my next stop is Bonnarroo!  Anyone else going?!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"Groundhog Day" Revisited

I just want to point something out.

Most of you probably know the movie called "Groundhog Day."  It's an early '90's comedy flick starring Bill Murray as a weatherman who gets stuck repeating the same day over and over and over again.  It's one of those movies that frequently gets shown on cable TV over the weekend when there's nothing new to be shown.  I re-watched it earlier this year and was surprised at how funny and satisfying it actually was!

When we find ourselves repeating the same task over and over again - whether it's the same yoga class, the same job, the same chores, or the same studies - we tend to exclaim, "Ugh!  It's just like Groundhog Day!" I remember when I was halfway through teacher training and all the days started to blur together, my roommate and I agreed that there was definitely a Groundhog Day effect going on - it felt like we woke up into the same circumstances every day and we were doomed to repeat the same day indefinitely.

But here's the thing, the blindingly obvious truth of the matter, the part that we always forget: Bill Murray had a completely different experience every day!

Yes, it was still February 2nd every time he woke up.  But the day never went the same way twice.

And more than that - as the repetition continued, Bill Murray learned to live the day better.  After a few attempts, he remembered to avoid the puddle outside his front door.  He figured out how to get rid of the annoying acquaintance who would always accost him.  On a some occasions, he tried to throw the towel in by acting as outrageously as possible, getting himself arrested or driving his car off a cliff.  But then he really started to learn.  He found out when the little boy was about to fall out of a tree, and he learned how to get to the right place at the right time.  He knew what time he had to get to the restaurant in order to save the old man from choking.  He learned to play the piano, one lesson at a time, hundreds of lessons, all on February 2nd, until he was able to amaze everyone with his prodigy - "I've never played before today!"  He even - naturally, because this is Hollywood - figured out how to get the girl.  He got better and better and better, until he finally got the day right - and that, of course, finally released him from the loop.

But that's what Groundhog Day means.  It's not just doing the same shit over and over again.  (What's that saying about insanity?  "Insanity consists of doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get different results.")  Groundhog Day means that you wake up to the same circumstances every day and take the chance to tackle them differently, to live the day better.  Groundhog Day is an opportunity.  Groundhog Day is infinite possibility.  Groundhog Day is a chance to try lots of different things, and sometimes you'll succeed, and sometimes you'll fuck it up, but you still keep going back and trying again.

And if you're clever and persistent, if you just keep trying new things, then maybe - just maybe - one day, you can live that perfect day.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Driving Lessons

When I had just turned sixteen, my dad drove me down the street from our house, maybe a one mile distance, to the corner of Spring St. and Pine St., where there was a mostly empty parking lot.  Then we both got out of the car, he handed me the keys, and I got into the driver's seat of the car for the first time.

I remember the surprise I felt when I pressed the gas pedal and the car started to move!  I drove the length of maybe 5 parking spaces and shouted "Whoa!!" and my dad said "Brakes!" and I braked.  We cracked up for a minute, and then my dad took advantage of the teaching moment.  He made an excellent point which I will always remember.  He said, "Next time, when you feel like saying 'whoa', what you should do instead of saying 'whoa' is use the brakes."

This was my first driving lesson: gas pedal and brakes.

(Later in the day, I drove on the actual road out in Haydenville, a teeny Massachusetts town with a population of barely a thousand, and I got pulled over by the one cop in Haydenville for "erratic driving."  I told her somewhat tearfully that it was "my first time," while my dad helpfully pulled out the license and registration, and she kept a mostly straight face when she told me to "keep practicing.")

In yoga, I think, we need to learn the same lessons.  I don't mean the bit about erratic driving (although if you flail about too much at certain studios, you might get in trouble with the yoga cops).  I mean the lesson about the gas pedal and the brakes.  In every posture, in every moment of the class, you can chose to hit the gas and expend more effort or you can chose to hit the brakes and do less.  Your job - and it really is your job, ultimately - is to figure out which of these two things to do and how to do it.

It's easy to see the two big mistakes that students can make.  Some students come in and drive with the gas pedal to the floor for the whole class.  You know these people - the ones who come in and turn really red and breathe like they're playing rugby for the whole class.  (Bless them.  We've got a guy like this who is improving by leaps and bounds and I love him to pieces, in a purely professional way.)  This is the yoga equivalent of the guy who weaves in and out of traffic, tailgates all the time, and tries to go as fast a possible - and yet you still notice that he gets stopped at the same red light as you do.  For all his extra effort and gas, he doesn't really gain anything.

Then you have the students who are riding their brakes, or maybe they just can't find the gas pedal.  These are the ones who somehow flop through the whole class without contracting a single muscle.  This is the yoga equivalent of the old lady who drives at 45 miles per hour in the right lane on the freeway.  Totally oblivious.  Relatively safe, but there's not much actually happening.

Those are the most general and obvious cases, but the differences can be much more subtle.  In my last post, when I was talking about doing "less", I used the example of pranayama breathing.  For someone who is nice and healthy, there is no problem with pushing the head way back (as long as the spine is straight) - it's a fine time to use the gas pedal.  But for someone with neck pain, the exercise should be done to tolerance, so that it is uncomfortable but not horribly painful.  The person with neck pain might have to step on her brakes.

Even for just you, from day to day, you have to make judgments about how to drive your body.  For me, when I am feeling really great, I can go through the class giving 110% and feel great at the end.  (That's an efficient 110% - no heavy rugby breathing.)  But this week, I tweaked my back a little bit, something way down by the sacrum.  Don't know what I did, but it really kinda hurt.  So I pulled my practice back to like 70%.  I took out the sit-ups (which annoyed me for about 10 minutes), went slow in the warm-up, and did good spine strengthening series and camel pose but really wimpy forward stretching.  And after three days - which is nothing, really - I'm nearly as good as new.  That's because I knew that I had to lay off the gas pedal and just coast for a bit.  If I had tried to power through the class, I suspect that I'd have been hurting for much longer.

I love when I can coast my car along the freeway - no brakes, just a little gas as needed - because it is the  most efficient way to drive.  (I mean, gas looks like it'll be up at $4 a gallon for the whole summer - it's expensive to be an inefficient driver, even if I am using my miles as tax deductions!)  And really, when you get the hang of this yoga stuff, that's what a really good practice feels like: it is absolutely efficient.  No effort is wasted - none of that nonsense where you floor the gas pedal for one block, then slam the brakes all of a sudden when you come upon a stop sign.  No, you put the effort exactly where you need it, no more and no less.  In the beginning parts of standing head to knee, the effort goes into the legs and the stomach, and hardly anywhere else - face relaxed, breathing relaxed.  That's why your teachers can do standing head to knee and have a chat with you at the same time, if they want to.  (Isn't that annoying?)  It's all about efficiency.  Fuel economy.

Just remember.  The first lesson of driving a car: here is the gas pedal and here are the brakes.  And unless you learn how to use both of them properly, you'll have trouble getting very far.

Even in Haydenville.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sometimes "Less" is More

I spent this past weekend in the most glorious yoga bubble.  My studio just hosted a student seminar (Saturday) and teacher seminar (Sunday) with my mentor Diane.  It was a weekend of non-stop yoga awesomeness.  Almost impossible to describe.  I can still feel the bubble, actually - it hasn't popped, it just expanded when everyone left our studio and went back to their homes, their states, or their travels.

The students are still buzzing about how awesome the seminar was and how much they learned.  Everyone learned something different - "I learned that I can balance if I really concentrate," "I learned that it's better to stay with the class," "Class goes by so quickly now," "I learned that my triangle is actually pretty good!"  And we teachers have all sorts of great new information to share with the entire studio.  I gave one girl some new advice on a shoulder problem she's been having, and on the way out, her mom said to me, "I think you just gave us more than we've gotten from 8 doctors."  Information is so powerful!

As a precocious but new teacher, I cannot imagine a better learning exercise than this, which is what has happened for me:

1.  Go find a supportive studio to teach at.
2.  Teach there full time for 8 months, teaching approximately one third of the weekly scheduled classes, so that you really get to know all the students.
3.  Teach by the dialogue, nice and clean, to the best of your ability, including personal corrections.
4.  Get your studio owner to book a senior teacher for a seminar.  (This part takes some advance planning, since senior teachers tend to have full schedules.  We got lucky - Diane had a cancellation and we jumped the line.)
5.  Get all your awesome regular students to sign up for this seminar.
6.  Put all of your students in room with expert teacher.
7.  Sit back.
8.  Watch. And. Learn.

Wow, seriously wow.  What a terrific education.  It's like I've been building the foundation for a house, brick by brick, and then someone came along and said, "Hey, great foundation, this is going to work perfectly... and now here's how you build the house!"  A bit artless, but that's the best metaphor I can think of right now, and I'm not going to wait for a better one to come to me.

I'm a little bit lost for words.  It's hard for me to convey what a joyful experience this weekend has been. Language always has this problem - at its best, it is still just a finger pointing at the moon, never the moon itself.  Strong emotions can't be captured.  But if I had to chose a few words?  Grace.  Stillness.  Energy.  Compassion.

Love, of course.

And I feel confident, not in a reckless way, but in a steady and quiet way.  Because I can see the path laid out before me now, and I know what I need to do next.

Here's what I learned (and this lesson is going to guide me for many months now): it is so easy for students to do too much.  In Diane's estimate, about 3 out of 10 students need to use their strength more, and the remaining 7 out of 10 are being over-aggressive in their practice.  I didn't truly understand this until I saw how Diane worked with my students.  In so many cases, they were pushing a little bit too far into pain, trying to do something that the body wasn't quite ready for, and they needed to be pulled back a little bit.

Need an example?  Pranayama breathing.  Lots of people at the seminar with neck pain, way more people than I thought.  (Because you know, students don't always tell us these things.  Some of them tell us way more than we need to know, and the rest don't say anything at all!)  I've just been teaching pranayama by the dialogue, which includes (on the exhale) "look back until you see the wall behind you," "spine straight, no backward bending," and "push your head back until your neck hurts a little bit."  But - as it turns out - lots of people with neck pain are pushing the head back more than they really ought to.  Yes, you should try to see the wall behind you, but "spine straight" is more important, and "hurts a little bit" (which means discomfort but not really pain) is most important.  Clear as mud, right?  So for a lot of people, the correction was to "do less."  Do less, do less, do less.  Only to tolerance, not to pain.

That's just one example, of course.  (And I hope it's clear and correct - I'm just giving my interpretation here.  Diane, feel free to butt in if you ever read this!)  There were plenty more examples like this throughout the day.

At this point in my teaching journey, there are certain things that I know how to do.  Number One, provide correct information.  Check.  Number Two, provide encouragement and coax students to do more.  Check.  But now I have a Number Three: get students to pull back when they are doing too much. Oh!!

I've done "number three" to a small extent, but I've never made it my main focus before.  Now it is coming right to the front of my consciousness, and it raises so many questions - how do I identify when someone is pushing too much for their body, which postures and clues do I need to look out for, and how do I address this issue smoothly, within the class?

And of course, it is still important to encourage the class and to push the students who need a push, so I really need to figure how to push and pull, equal and simultaneous, 50-50, all within the structure of the class and dialogue.

Ooooh, this is so exciting!  And it feels so right.  This is just another puzzle piece falling into place - click - helping me become a better and more mature teacher.

Last winter, when I was staying over at Diane's house in the middle of a snowstorm, I picked up a book from a shelf and flipped through to a random page.  I don't even remember what the book was, but I remember what I read (and I may have mentioned this before).  There was a passage in the middle of the book that said: As you do less, you can accomplish more.  Eventually, you reach a state where you do nothing and achieve everything.

Well, I haven't gotten to that state yet - when that happens, I suppose I will levitate and disappear in a ball of light and never type on my little old MacBook again.  But "do less, accomplish more."  Yeah, I get that.  I think I can learn how to teach that.