Sunday, October 23, 2011

Teaching the Big Room

As posted earlier today (here), Friday was a big day for me.  I taught a class at teacher training for the first time!  Excitement!  And I know that everyone just has one question - How was it?

It was awesome.

Oh, you want more detail than that?  Okay.

It was really awesome.

Sorry, sorry.  I do have quite a lot to say, and I will get to it in just a second.  But in all seriousness, teaching a big class like that - or teaching any class, for that matter - is an experience that defies description.    There's nothing to compare it to.  Have you ever stood up on an 8-foot tall stage in a chandelier-filled hotel ballroom, looking down on 398 sleep-deprived trainees, and told them, from the side you should look like a Japanese ham sandwich?  You have?!  Great, then you know exactly what it's like!  Oh, wait - you said that you haven't?  Well, then, I've got nothing.  There's nothing in the world that's quite the same.

I will, however, give you a bit of a breakdown.  I'm going to go behind the curtain a little bit - "breaking the fourth wall," as they say.

First, I must say that it was a huge honor and privilege to teach the class.  To everyone who thanked me throughout the day on Friday and told me "great class," thank you all, each and every one of you.  I wish I could hug you all, again.

Was I nervous?  Oh hell yes.  I got a phone call at 8:30pm on Thursday telling me that I was scheduled to teach at 8:30am on Friday, and I proceeded to quietly freak out for 12 hours straight.  I don't even think I slept - I just lay in bed with my eyes closed and pretended to be super relaxed.  (I stopped feeling nervous at approximately 8:34am, when the class actually got going.)

I was also excited and confident, because I had a plan.  I decided to set low expectations and manageable goals.  My first goal was "don't throw up and don't fall off."  That was actually my mantra for the better part of Friday morning.  Whenever another teacher asked me if I was nervous or excited, I told them, "I'm just going to try not to throw up or fall off the podium!"

I did not throw up or fall off the podium.  Goal number one: achieved!!!

My next plan was "smile and say the dialogue," because those are the two things that I am good at.  Know your strengths, right?  This plan may appear simple and obvious, but I did actually put some thought into it.

(This is about to get slightly technical and teacher-y, but bear with me.)

See, in a normal class situation, I am teaching a class that is completely based on the dialogue.  Most of the words that come out of my mouth are straight from the dialogue.  But on top of that, I try to do a lot of individual corrections and explanations, which is where the real teaching comes in.  I've spent the last year building up my ability to interact with the room and give corrections/instructions from within the structure of the dialogue.

For teacher training, I had a hunch (which turned out to be 100% correct) that I would not be able to see the room the way I normally do.  In a class of 5 people, I can pretty much see everything.  In a class of 20 people (normal size), I can scan every body in the room in every posture.  In a class of 40 people (big), I don't see everyone all the time, but I know exactly where my "hot spots" are (the beginners, the newbies, the experienced students who need extra attention) and I can still keep a good handle on the room.  In a class of 400?!?  All of that shit is out the window!  I have no idea how to keep an eye on 400 people at once, let alone assess how they are doing and who needs attention.

Hence, the plan - just smile and say the dialogue.

I played it totally textbook - might have been back in posture clinic! - and I think that was a good choice and a huge success.  I got resoundingly positive feedback from all of the trainees, all along the lines of "it was so nice to meditate on the dialogue," "that really helped me study," and "thank you for the straight-up dialogue."

The trainees were also really happy to have somebody smile at them, since they've had a lot of people yelling at them.  I can get tough if I need to, but man, they were freaking exhausted - end of week five, shit is hitting the fan in posture clinics, Bikram had them up late the night before - and they just needed somebody to be nice to them.  Nice is my default setting.  No problem.  A lot of trainees later told me that they would have sat out, fallen asleep, or left the class if I hadn't been giving them positive energy.  (Now to be fair, plenty of people still did sit out of postures, but what do you expect?  In a class of 20, you might have 2 or 3 people sitting out of a posture.  Scale that up to a class of 400.  Adjust for sleep deprivation.)  I pretty much just plowed along and kept the class moving, with various forms of encouragement (mostly in the less-than-creative form of "good! second set!")

Smile and say the dialogue.  Goal number two: achieved!!!

So those were the goals.  And once I got up on the podium, I managed to have a lot of fun.  I spent all of pranayama telling myself to relax and breathe.  That was the mantra in the back of my head the whole class - keep talking, relax, and breathe.  I actually saw the room much more than I'd anticipated, although it was still a lot like being a brand new teacher.  (All new teachers are blind.)  I couldn't take in the whole room at once, but I did have a sense of its energy.  I saw lots of individual bodies around me, I recognized trainees from the posture clinics, and I was able to call out some names.  That was honestly more than I had expected to do - I was mentally prepared for total new-teacher blindness, which thankfully never happened.  And I could see the group doing postures together, which was totally, totally different - visually different, I mean - from anything I've experience in my career.  It was really cool and I'm dying to see it again.

There was one posture where I really wanted to teach, and that was cobra, for a lot of reasons.  It's a widely misunderstood posture.  I'd heard Bikram yelling at the trainees about it all week, and I'd heard other visiting teachers tweak it in slightly the wrong direction, so I knew that a lot of trainees still didn't get it.  And they had just finished learning the dialogue for wind-removing pose, so they were about to spend their whole weekend studying cobra.  So I thought - aha!  This is a perfect opportunity to clarify something about cobra.

Here is the point that I made, in between the first and second sets of cobra.  The dialogue says, "distribute the body weight all over the hand-palms, equally the same."  This means that all of the body weight should stay in the palms of the hands - that's how you get your chest up so your elbows are at a 90 degree angle.  Even if you're really flexible and strong, you still need to keep the weight on the palms of your hands - that's how you work your upper back and get your shoulders down.  It's not "a little bit" or "10%" or "cheating" - these are common misconceptions - it's all of your body weight on your palms.  I told them exactly this, and I think that some of them were awake and listening, because they did it better in the second set.  And a couple of people mentioned it specifically after the class.  It was the only posture that anyone - teacher or trainee - mentioned in their feedback.

I am thrilled about that.  Because I really felt like I was out on a limb there, standing up on the big stage and saying, you don't understand this pose.  It was the only time in that class when I deliberately took a risk - the rest of the time, I was absolutely playing it safe.  Next time I teach one of those classes - oh please let there be a next time! - I want to take more risks like that.

Here is a testament to how nervous I was: after the second set of rabbit pose - that's 10 minutes from the end of class - I suddenly found myself thinking, "Oh thank god, I'm going to make it!!!"  I haven't had that thought since my first week.

And here is a testament to how awesome it was: I was high as a kite for like 3 days.  Especially walking around on Friday afternoon.  Trainees, you guys made me feel like a celebrity.  It was like Christmas, Chanukah, and my birthday all at the same time.  That kind of fame is fleeting, for sure, but it was an awful lot of fun!  Thank you all for being so kind to me.

In closing, this YouTube video sums up my feelings.

I feel happy of myself!  Thumbs up, everybody!  For rock and roll!

The Big Room

See that little person way up on the podium?

Yeah, that's me.  :)

This is my big news for the week/month/year: I taught a class at teacher training on Friday morning!  It was awesome.  I'm still pretty high from it.  There are almost 400 trainees in this class, plus the room can accommodate a couple hundred visiting teachers, staff, and guests.  These pictures don't even capture the scale of it.  These teacher training rooms aren't just big, they are huge.  The room is 13 rows deep, and about 3x as wide.  That's why the podium is so tall.  Huge.  Yoga.  Room.

I am going to write a nice long post about what it was like to teach the class, so check back later.  I just wasted a whole bunch of time messing around with my blog layout to make the text area wider, which resulted in a bunch of other changes, so let me know if it looks okay.  

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Postcards from the Edge of the Bubble

Alright folks.... this is just a quick dispatch from the yoga bubble in Los Angeles!

I'm right in the middle of my (hopefully!) annual visit to the Bikram Yoga Teacher Training.  This is my second time visiting.  I graduated Spring '10, went back to visit the Fall '10 training in San Diego, and now I am back exactly one year later to visit the Fall '11 training in Los Angeles.  I got here last Wednesday afternoon - the middle of the 4th week, for those who are keeping track - and I will be here for all of week five.  Woohoo!

Here's the tally so far:

Classes taken: 6.  (I skipped the Thursday night class, but then took the Saturday make-up class because one of my friends from my training was teaching.  Eddieeeeee!)

Classes with Emmy:  1, hurrah.  "Don't just wave your leg around in the air.  What are you doing?"

Classes with Bikram:  None yet.

Bikram sightings:  1 brief.  I did have the chance to say hi and give him a hug.

Anatomy lectures:  Er.... some.  Learned some good stuff but also took advantage of the "come and go" option.  Ah, the luxury of being a visiting teacher.

Free chiropractic adjustments:  1, awesome.  Lumbar spine goes pop.  My right hip is now in its socket correctly for the first time in some while.

Bollywood movies:  None.  Again, the luxury of being a visiting teacher.  The trainees had one late Bollywood night and they were pissed.

Visits to Traders Joe and/or Ralphs:  Approximately 10.  (Feels like.)  Both are walking distance from hotel!  Win!

Chocolate-covered peanut butter pretzels eaten: 1 bag.

Beaches visited:  2.  Malibu Beach and Manhattan Beach.  Great success, very windy.  Still have sand in hair.  Saw about 20 kite surfers - very cool.

Let's see.  This post is not very profound.  The profundity will come later, once I get back home and process everything.  I do have to say that it is great to be here meeting all the trainees!  A bunch of blog readers have come and introduced themselves to me ("Are you the Dancing J??") and that is super awesome.  Keep doing that.  Actually, if you're a trainee, quit reading this blog and go study triangle pose. This one could be a long week.  Don't ask me, I don't know anything, I just have a hunch!

I will also say that one year, for me, makes a big difference.  When I first revisited training in 2010 (blog post here), it was kinda rough.  By "rough," I mean "totally weird and confusing" and "I had no idea what the fuck I was supposed to do."  But the second time around feels much better.  I've spent enough time teaching now - and not just teaching, but also giving feedback, getting feedback, and spending time with senior teachers - that I actually feel like I can offer something beyond a friendly face.  I feel much more comfortable on the other side of the notebook.  I actually led a posture clinic room on my second day here - a prospect which I found frankly terrifying - and it was fine.  It was actually quite fun!  Challenging, for sure, but fun.  To my own surprise, I found that I had a good amount of helpful feedback to offer and I was able to give said feedback without blabbering like an idiot.  (Lessons learned from the last time around: talk slowly, be clear and specific, don't scare the children.)  We polished off balancing stick, did ALL of standing separate leg stretching, and finished up with 3 triangles!  (It was an afternoon clinic.)  The students are doing great and it feels good to be involved in their "process."

That's enough for now.  I may be opting out from some of the sleep deprivation, but I suspect that I will still be working hard this week.  More later... reflections and pictures will come next week!

P.S.  For all the TT blog junkies, I refer to you Brian Keith's blog.  It is fantastic!  I met him this week and he is such a good guy.  (Brian, I hope we will chat more this week if you're not dead on your feet!)  And his sidebar has a complete index of all the Fall '11 blogs.  Eat your hearts out.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Really Into Suffering" - Or Not

I spent last weekend camping and hiking out in Shenandoah National Park, in the mountains of Virginia.  It was absolutely beautiful out there - crisp mountain air, wonderful hiking trails, hardly any crowds, leaves just starting to turn orange.  I went with a friend and my sister and we had a great weekend.

We also had a cold weekend.  It was much colder than we'd expected - we were prepared for it to be down into the 50's or 40's at night, but it clearly went down into the low 30's, because we woke up on Sunday morning and saw snow.  When we made camp on Saturday night, it was cold, rainy, and windy.  It took us ages to get our fire started, and the wind actually blew some rain up the side vents and into our tents, so that everything was covered with a thin layer of water.  Long story short, it was the coldest sleeping experience ever.  It would have been fine with a nice all-weather sleeping bag, but we only brought our mid-weight sleeping bags, and the sleeping bags got wet on the inside.  Oh, and we pitched our tents on a slight hill.  So my friend and I spent the night with our sleeping bags pressed up side-by-side, trying to keep warm and trying not to roll down the hill.  It was totally worth it, but man was it cold!

A few days ago, I was in the yoga studio parking lot before class trying to organize my sleeping bag and tent (which had been hastily flung into the backseat of my car when we broke camp on Sunday morning).  I got talking with one of my students, Hugh, who was also there early.  Hugh is totally into camping, so he was interested to know where I had gone and how it was.

I told Hugh about our lovely cold-weather camping adventure, and he said, Hmm.  It sounds great, but his kids probably would not like it.  He has two young boys - ages 7 and 10, I think - and he wanted to take them somewhere over the weekend.  But, he said, the boys were not fans of cold-weather camping because "they are not really into suffering."

I thought that was great - hilarious and to-the-point - and for some reason, it stuck in my head.  I've been thinking about those words for the last few days, trying to unpack the implications.  Little kids, we have decided, are not really into suffering.  What about the rest of us?  Are we really into suffering?

Well, yes.  Kind of.  I mean, we don't really like it when it's going on, but we sure love to brag about it as soon as it's finished!  We come back home, out of the cold, and we just love to tell our friends how it was so cold.  Back in Shenandoah, on Sunday, we hiked up to a summit called Mary's Rock and literally sat in clouds of snow.  There were six other hikers up there at the same time - three 11-year-old boys and three middle-aged men.  (All of them were awesome.)  As we climbed back down, out of the wind and snow, one of the adults grinned at me and said, "This will really be something to tell them at the office on Monday!"  Snow hiking!  We get bad-ass wilderness points.  We get bragging rights.  Sweet!

In hot yoga class, people do this all the time, especially the new folks.  They're proud of themselves for surviving - and rightly so! - and they run right out to tell their friends about it.  I remember one lady who valiantly struggled through her first class.  After the class, while recovering in the lobby, she asked me how hot the room had been and how many people had been in the class - she wanted to text her daughter to brag about what she'd just endured.  Adorable.

Almost everybody does this, at least to some extent.  It's not limited to newbies, either.  Bikram junkies - you know who you are - we have all done this at some point.  After the brutal class, there is the Facebook status update: "Forty people in class today, 70% humidity, only sat out once."  Go, you!  (Yes, of course I have done this.  I probably wouldn't even sit down.)  There's also the overachiever version: "Just did 10 classes in a row - without drinking any water!"  And the teacher training version: "175 degrees in the yoga room, fingers and toes went numb after eagle pose, girl behind me puked, and half the class left the room including Bikram."  Ohgod.  Really?  Are we really proud of this?

It sure is fun to glorify our suffering sometimes, and it's totally fine and normal - up to a point - but is this really a great idea?

Hugh's two little boys are "not really into suffering," and this seems like a more reasonable approach.  Even Bikram says it, in his book: "You don't have to be a hero or a martyr."  Just do the best you can, one class at a time.

Here's the other interesting part.  The more we pay attention to our own suffering - you know, ohgod ohgod, I'm done, I'm dying, fuck all these turtles, stick a fork in me, I'm done - the more we actually suffer. I'm not against some creative internal cursing in class - that actually helps.  But if you clutch onto your suffering too tightly, you can prolong it.  If you lie on your mat chanting, it's too hot, it's too hot, it's too hot, you might not even notice it when the room cools down.  You'll miss out on the relief.  You can create a whole world of suffering for yourself inside your head.  In the meantime, reality might be doing something completely different.  The teacher may have taken pity and turned the thermostat down when you weren't looking.  Anything can happen!

It's all about noticing what's actually happening.  Don't get stuck inside your head.

Here's an example which I've just been dying to use.  In the dialogue for fixed firm, near the beginning, there's a line about the knees and feet.  "If your knees or feet hurt, you can open your knees."  [Yes, dialogue nerds, I am fixing the typo.]  One of the teachers at my studio has changed the line just ever so slightly.  (Unintentional, I'm sure.)  This teacher now says: "If you have any knee or foot pain, you can open your knees."

Now, this is so nit-picky that I feel bad about even bringing it up, but I see a big difference between those two lines.  If you ask someone, "Do your knees hurt?" - that's the correct version - you are asking them to assess their present situation.  The word "now" is implied.  Do your knees hurt now?  But if you ask someone, "Do you have any knee pain?" that is a totally different question.  That isn't a question about now.  That is a question about a person's history.  That will make the person think about how her knees felt this morning, yesterday, last week, last month, last year.  Any knee pain?  Yeah, in February my knee really bothered me.  Guess I'd better not do this posture.  Whoops.  Wrong question.

Your body is different every day.  And if you're paying attention, you can see differences from day to day.  Your past suffering doesn't matter, is not relevant.  Do your knees hurt now?  The answer can change, but only if you're asking the right question.

As Bikram likes to say: "Don't listen to your fucking brain!"  (I love that.)  Your brain may be totally into suffering.  Your body might tell you a different story.

My teachers in New England pointed out something really cool to me last month - something that I had already witnessed, but hadn't completely noticed yet.  As a teacher, I know that everyone comes into class with a different story.  Some people aren't too concerned about their stories - they just get in there and do the class as well as they can.  Some people are really concerned about their stories - they can't do the class without telling the teacher a laundry list of their (perfectly normal) aches and pains.

Which students do better in the class?  Well, by now I'm sure you can guess.  (If you think about it, it's obvious.)  The ones who are constantly retelling their tales of woe will have a hard time.  They tend to give up pretty early in the game.  But the ones who are open-minded and give it a fair try will end up telling a totally different story.  A new story.  A story that starts with these words: "I used to."  As in: "You know, I used to have so much back pain that I couldn't put on underwear, but now I am wearing underwear again!"  That's a true story.

Absolutely wonderful.

The lesson, I think, is simple.  Pay attention to your body, take care of yourself, but don't be attached to your suffering.  Don't glorify it.  Just let that story go.  Before too long, you'll have a new story to tell.

"I used to...."