Monday, July 25, 2011

Open All the Doors

"When you do yoga, all the doors is open, PLUS you create hundreds and hundreds of new doors and windows." - Bikram, teacher training, 5/27/10.
For more than a week, the city has been slumped under another "record breaking" heat wave, with heat index values in the triple digits.  It was a humid one.  I'd shower after the morning yoga class, get in my car to do errands, and immediately feel like I needed another shower.  Instant sweat!  Phew!  I don't mind sweating when I'm in my cool little yoga outfit, but sweat-soaked dresses, shorts and t-shirts are another story.  My friends and I have mostly spent our afternoons indoors, hiding in air conditioned basements and watching old movies on Netflix.

Today - it rains.

Not just a little bit of rain, but a full-on, glorious, noisy summer thunderstorm.  I got back to my apartment just in time, and my roommate and I shut off the A.C. and opened all the doors and windows. Cool, fresh air - fantastic!  We let the indoor cat run out onto the porch, since she wouldn't go far with the rain.  When a big noise scared her in the street, she bolted from the front porch, through the house, and all the way out onto the back porch.  (She is still out there happily, crouching under a chair and munching on green things.)  It's cooled down so much that I tossed a light pashmina scarf on over my sundress, feeling slightly chilly from the breeze.  The rain is still coming down - drip, drip, drip - the weeds are already growing at twice their normal rate, and lots of interesting crawly things are coming out of the ground.

And as we threw open all the doors and windows, I felt a little tickle at my memory, and I remembered Bikram, in the middle of another late night lecture at teacher training, saying something about yoga.  Yoga opens all the doors and windows, and then makes new doors and windows.

I love that.  When I think of those words, I can practically feel the breeze that swept me away from my old life and into something new and strange and wonderful.

I've got another one: Yoga is the rain after a heat wave.  Yoga is the fresh breeze, and yoga - ironically! - is the cool air.  Yoga is water in a dry ground.

You come to yoga dry and brittle, tired.  Yoga wakes you up.  Yoga opens up all those parts of your body that have been neglected and underused, and it brings the circulation and vitality back into them.  You thought you were getting old?  Emmy always said, "you are only old when your joints are no longer juicy."  Yoga is the oil can - yoga makes your joints juicy.  It opens up your spine so that the life force can get back in.  Yoga makes you drip sweat out of every pore - did you even know there was that much water in your body? - just to let you know that you are alive and you are growing.  Yoga comes like the rain and makes things change and grow - tomorrow, when we step outside, everything will be greener.  Everything will look new.

The heat wave diminishes, and a new cycle starts.

Yoga is fresh air in your lungs.  Yoga is relief.

Yoga is rain.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Basic Needs of Human Survival

For number 517 (approximately) on my list of "Reasons Why Teaching Yoga is the Best Job," I want to share some words from a musician.

Karl Paulnack, the director of the music division at Boston Conservatory, gives a speech to incoming music students about how music is a basic need of human survival:

"Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

"If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.”

Yoga teacher trainees, take note.  This applies to us, too.

Every day, students walk into the hot room, some of them for the first time.  Some of them will need saving - from broken hearts, from turbulent minds, from aching souls.  And it's not like the E.R., where the wounds are obvious - you might never even know which people need saving.  But sometimes, you might save them anyway.  It depends - partly - on how well you do your craft.  So practice with attention, with care, and with love.


Note:  I read Paulnack's speech at this photo blog, written by a very talented young lady who is recording her time as a Swedish exchange student - worth a look!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Soon in Your Lifetime

I am visiting a studio in Virginia this week as a guest teacher, and it is really a joy to be here.  The teachers and students have been so welcoming.  I'm staying with a friend from my teacher training, and we've been staying up well past her bedtime looking through our yearbooks and reminiscing.  (When will that get old?)

When I did the "traveling teacher" thing in Lexington last month, I felt that it took me a few days to really get my footing on the podium.  It was tricky to learn all the different names, manage the different room, figure out the different atmosphere.  For just those first couple classes, I felt like I was starting from scratch!

I'm not sure what's different this time - it's probably just practice - but I felt comfortable teaching here from the very first class.  Is comfortable the right word?  Teaching is never truly easy, just like the practice is never easy - it's a mental tightrope, a challenge every time.  But I felt really good - calm, relaxed, breathing normal, everything under my control.  I was able to learn almost every single name within the first 20 minutes.  I had some rapport - when I cracked little jokes, people actually smiled and laughed.  (It definitely helped that my friend was in the class!)  I guess I hit the ground running.  This never happened before!

I sure hope I'm not jinxing myself for tomorrow's classes...

There's a great expression that I heard somewhere (and I am probably butchering it here) that goes like this: "It is the teacher's job to hold up a higher vision for the students until they are strong enough to hold it for themselves."  And I feel that way now, a little bit.  Since all the other teachers here are kind enough to hold up this high vision of me - "Here she is, our special guest teacher!" - I feel myself stepping up a little bit more.  Stepping forward.  Okay, sure.  Here I am, and here is what I do.  Here is what I have to offer.  If you want it, please take it.

The whole point of teaching is that it's a gift, or a prayer, that you give to someone else.  There's nothing to actually hold on to.  And it seems like ego, to ever think of myself as a "good teacher," but it's not about me.  The further I go, the more I want to keep going and learn more.  I'm barely even scratching the surface.

When I was practicing advanced series with some of the teachers this weekend, a little piece of a song drifted into my head, sometime from a tape that I listened to when I was a kid.  And that's the real purpose of this post, typing away half-formed thoughts on a late Sunday night - I just wanted to send these words out into the ether, for you to read over your coffee in the morning.

Soon in your lifetime, something will happen
All at once for a moment, it will flash into view
And from that moment on,
It's all up to you.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Summertime, and the living is easy!  Humid days.  Iced tea.  Warm nights.  Afternoons on the porch.  Dialogue at the pool.  (One of my students is going to the next TT, hooray!)  Fireflies.  Outdoor music.  And summer reading!  Oh, how I love summer reading.

I've just finished the newest (?) Malcolm Gladwell, What the Dog Saw.  It's a nice thick book of his various works from The New Yorker, and it's been keeping me happily occupied.  Yes, XKCD, I am living the dream.  In case you're not familiar with him, Malcolm Gladwell has written a string of non-fiction best-sellers (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers) that all try to make you see the world in a different way.   Blink, for example, is about the split second-decisions that happen behind the closed door of your unconsciousness, and it's fascinating.  As examples, Gladwell talks about how art dealers instinctively identify frauds, why tall-dark-and-handsome types earn higher salaries, how hospitals should really diagnose heart attacks, and what makes the best car salesman in New Jersey so successful.  It's an awesome book, the kind of book that has me telling me friends, "Oh, I'd lend it to you, but I've already loaned it to somebody else."

Anyway, What the Dog Saw is a loosely strung together collection of essays on various topics - hair dye, football, the Challenger disaster, etc.  One of these essays is about ketchup.  It's called "The Ketchup Conundrum."

Here's the question: "Why are there dozens of varieties of mustard but only one variety of ketchup?"

Never thought about it, did you?!?

For a long time, there was only one type of mustard: French's yellow mustard.  Then, about thirty years ago, Grey Poupon launched a really successful marketing campaign to become a household name, and that spawned the whole mustard section that we have in the supermarket today.  Meanwhile, we still just have Heinz ketchup, plus a few specialty varieties that never hugely took off.  (Apart from Muir Glen at Whole Foods and some supermarket generics, there's not much out there.)

What works for mustard should work for ketchup, right?  They're both just condiments!  So eight years ago, a guy name Jim Wigon from Massachusetts decided to do for ketchup what Grey Poupon did for mustard.  He started a business called World's Best Ketchup, using all sorts of premium ingredients that you can't get in Heinz.  Build a better ketchup!  This guy Wigon poured his heart and soul into the project, all kinds of research and taste testing, but it never took off.  Why not?

Because the flavor of ketchup, as it turns out, is universal.  The human palate recognizes five fundamental tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.  When the Heinz company developed their ketchup, they ended up hitting every single one of these notes, in a balanced composition.  Heinz ketchup is one of the only products on the shelf that pushes every single sensory button.

So how can World's Best compete with this?  Jim Wigon made World's Best using different sweeteners and more tomato, but in doing so he changed the balance.  The ketchup experts - and shoppers of the world - said that it simply wasn't ketchup anymore.  A quote:
World's Best Dill ketchup on fried catfish, for instance, is a marvelous thing.  But it also meant that [Wigon's] ketchup wasn't as sensorily complete as Heinz, and he was paying a heavy price in amplitude. "Our conclusion was mainly this," Bhuchholz (a ketchup taster) said.  "We felt that World's Best seemed to be more like a sauce."  She was trying to be helpful.
Ouch!  So much for building a better ketchup.

What the heck does this have to do with Bikram yoga?  Oh, I bet you can guess by now!  

Bikram yoga is ketchup.  By a combination of cleverness and luck, Bikram put together a class that hits every single note in the human body, in just the right balance.  

When I first started Bikram, I had done plenty of other exercise and yoga in my life, but I remember walking out of class thinking, "I think I just used every part of my body, and half of those were parts I didn't even know I had.  What happened in there?!"  Because unlike everything else - unlike dance, Pilates, running, sports, hiking, or even other types of yoga - Bikram's class hits every note.  You've heard the spiel before - you're using every part of your body, every system, every muscle, joint, organ, and major gland.  Inside out, bones to the skin, fingertips to the toes, blah-de blah blah blah.  We say it all the time, but man oh man, we say it because it is true!

Just think of it.  In 90 minutes, you stretch and strengthen lots of different muscles.  That part is easy to see.  But there's also tons of stuff happening inside your body, and it's easy to forget about the things you can't see. You're working your cardiovascular system (heart), your respiratory system (lungs), your digestive system, your immune system, and the rest of your endocrine system.  You're working on strength and flexibility, plus balance.  And you're working all the mental aspects as well - your determination, concentration, self-control, patience, and faith.  All of this in perfect balance.

That is Bikram yoga.  There can be only one.  Bikram yoga is ketchup.

And if you change anything?  Take things away, add other things in, try to build a better hot yoga?  Well, my conclusion is mainly this: although it might be delicious in its own way, that seems to be more like a sauce.