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!

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