Sunday, October 21, 2012

From Bikram, With Love

I have just returned from my annual teacher training visit - and it was great!

I was there for the 5th week of training, from Monday morning until Friday midnight. (That red-eye flight always seems like a great idea at the time.) It was such a good visit that I'm having a hard time writing about it because I don't know where to start! I tried to write a blog entry last night, and after 2 hours I had only written a few mediocre paragraphs, so now I'm starting all over from scratch. Ha! This may get terribly long, so bear with me.

First of all, the trainees are doing amazing. They are on the ball this year. On Monday they were working on delivering triangle pose, and they were strong. I sat in a clinic room with Johnny Salvatore that afternoon (yay!), and he did a great job of putting them at ease. I asked them, "Did all of you learn this before you got here?!" and they were like "Noooooo!" (Although some of them did actually learn the whole dialogue before training - you can always tell.) Lots of people with a good attitude, lots of people willing to embrace "the process." I saw plenty of familiar faces, including my two rock star students from Rhode Island, Briana and Stephanie. I met quite a few blog readers, which was super cool - you guys are always too sweet, making me feel like a celebrity. And I was totally bowled over when I reintroduced myself to a guy named Jason from Kentucky - apparently I taught him just once, in his first yoga class ever, back in June 2011 when I was visiting the Lexington studio, and now he is in the middle of teacher training! Small world, right?! I love the yoga family.

The beginning of the week was all posture clinic - double clinic Monday, double clinic Tuesday, and afternoon clinic on Wednesday. They started from triangle pose on Monday, and on Wednesday we got  almost halfway through cobra - fast! Bikram kept telling them, "oooh, you are behind the schedule," which I thought was pretty funny since they are way faster than any class I have seen.

On Monday I didn't contribute much to clinic since I was pretty dead from travelling, but on Tuesday and Wednesday I was able to lead or at least co-lead, so I really got involved. I feel like posture clinic management gets exponentially easier every time I go back to training - when I first started visiting, it was so weird and awkward, but now it's mostly comfortable and fun. (Still exhausting, though.)

My favorite clinic was the one that my friend Ignacio and I ran together on Wednesday afternoon. (Ignacio was lead, but he was nice enough to let me basically co-lead, hehe.) We've both been trained by a lot of the same people (in particular Diane and Teri), and we share the same philosophy for posture clinics. First of all (for me), you have to create a safe and friendly environment. If you stress people out, they have a very hard time performing well. (They're gonna be nervous already anyways, no need to torture the poor children.) Second of all, we made it clear that while the trainees have to learn the dialogue, we're not expecting them to be perfect. Dialogue study is a lifetime practice, and they absolutely have to keep studying and learn it as well as possible... but when they get up to deliver, they need to forget about perfection and just teach! And then we were able to give them quick but (hopefully) helpful feedback on their dialogue and/or their delivery. It was awfully fun. A lot of people who had been scared to go up because they didn't feel "ready" ended up jumping up there and delivering very respectable dialogue for cobra.

Bikram taught three nights that week (score!) and lectured on Wednesday and Thursday. I stayed for the whole Wednesday night lecture and said "hi" to Bikram at midnight during the break. I'm never totally sure that he will recognize me, but he always does - he looked at me for a couple seconds, and then it was, "Oooooh myyy God!" and a big hug. :-) He made a big fuss and told the room that I was "the best dialogue in 20 years of teacher trainings!", which is ridiculous (he also says, "Quincy Jones, my best friend!" almost every day), but terribly sweet. A few minutes later, I figured this would be the right time to put on my big girl pants and volunteer myself to teach a class at training... and to make a long story short, it worked out! I got myself on the schedule to teach the Friday morning class!

Now this is the part that I really want to talk about.

I've taught the big class once before, last year. And it was great, but it was terrifying. There's just no getting around that. It is overwhelming to teach a class of 400+ people who are all studying to be yoga teachers. When I look back on my post from last year, I can see that I was totally thrilled, but I didn't know what to make of the whole experience. I hoped that one day I would get another shot at it.

This year I felt so. Much. Better. I still got the nerves and butterflies, but it was a very small fraction of the terror that I felt the first time!

I also went through this interesting process on Thursday afternoon, since I had the whole day to think about Friday morning's class. At first I was thinking, "What do I want to tell them?" Because there's so much that I wish I could tell them. There are just a million things that I'd love to help them understand. So I spent a while tossing ideas around, trying to think of a few things to say. And then I read Bikram's letter. They've got a note printed out, from Bikram, that the staff gave me before the class. (I hope I'm not giving away any big secrets here - if I need to take this part out, I expect that someone will let me know. I also don't know when this procedure started - for all I know, no one has gotten this note except me!) Anyway, it's no big deal - all this note says is, "Please just say the dialogue." Obviously we are teaching corrections and stories and philosophy at our own schools, because the students are coming in so well prepared. But for training, Bikram is teaching the philosophy and corrections himself. (In the three classes of his that I took, I'd say at least 75% of the classes were devoted to individual corrections.) So he just needs the visiting teachers to say the dialogue - with energy, and crystal clear.

I read this, and thought about it, and it made so much sense. And it really took the pressure off. Just say the dialogue - well that's easy! I teach a dialogue class. I've been studying the dialogue continuously for the better part of three years. I know how to do that.

And then I realized - wow, it was so much my ego that wanted to add something "special." Pure and total ego. And I think a lot of teachers fall into that trap, especially at training. They want to make the class better by adding something special of their own. But what the trainees really need is the purest, simplest class possible. Just Bikram's words, Bikram's dialogue, that they are working so hard to cram into their brains in a very short period of time. They don't need a show. They don't need to hear what I, Juliana, think about the yoga or the training process. They just need dialogue, energy, and love.

Just say the dialogue. Show, don't tell.

I realized that I had been talking a pretty good talk in posture clinics, so now I needed to follow my own advice. The biggest piece of that was realizing (or remembering) that my class is not about me, it's about the needs of the students. And the other piece - also kind of difficult! - was remembering that it's not supposed to be perfect. I was tempted to pull out my dialogue and hide in my room to review, but I didn't! I'm so proud of that. I didn't open the dialogue once before the class, although I did carry it around for good luck. I told all the trainees "You're more ready than you think, just do the best you can." So for the Big Class, I had to follow my own advice or I would know I was a hypocrite. I had to just... trust myself.

And I did exactly that.

What can I say about the class? I did exactly what I intended to do, and I'm really, really happy with it. It was still a little disorienting being up on that big podium, with all the mirrors and speakers and people, and it was very fucking hot and hard to breathe up there, but I did exactly the job that I set out to do. And my god, but the trainees rose to the occasion!! Trainees, you rock my world. We were all on the same team that day, one hundred and ten percent. Bikram's words, my voice, your bodies. The trainees were so tired, so beat up, so exhausted, but I looked around the room during triangle pose and it looked like almost everyone was in the posture. And I didn't see anyone come out early. It was insane - I'm a little emotional just thinking of it. That wasn't me, that was us - all of us together. Dialogue, energy, and love, love, love.

I had to go out very quickly and sit down after the class! But then all day long, people came up to me and said, thank you for giving us exactly the class that we needed. Whew. It was very powerful, and actually very humbling, too. They were all very sweet to me, but even more interesting, a lot of them understood exactly what I did, and said, thank you for not adding any extra stuff and just teaching the class the way that we are studying it. So perhaps by sticking to the dialogue, I have made myself memorable?! There are worse things, I guess.

I also have to say that all the other visiting teachers and staff were very kind to me. I didn't get any catty or weird attitudes, and a lot of certified teachers turned up for the class. The staff members gave me kudos, the New England folks gave me shit-eating grins from the back row, and Nicole Duke and Cynthia Wehr (who both taught the Big Class that week) gave me some much-appreciated pre- and post-class support. Yoga family at its best!

Gotta say one more thing here, mainly addressed to the trainees. A few people asked me, "Is that how you always teach your class?" The answer is "yes and no." The biggest difference is that in a normal class, I make lots of corrections, I give a few more explanations between the postures, and sometimes I explain a philosophical point or two. Another difference is that normal classes don't require the same level of energy - I would never drive a 20-person class with the same power that I used for a 500-person class, it would be like running over them with a steamroller! But as far as the dialogue is concerned, that was absolutely my normal class. I did not study beforehand at all. In the two-and-a-half years that I have been teaching, I have kept the dialogue as my closest friend, because it makes a beautiful foundation for the class. Start with dialogue, energy, and some love - and then when you throw in the corrections, the explanations, the occasional jokes and stories, then you will feel that you are really teaching a class. That's been my approach, and so far it seems to work great.

Now I think it's time to call it a night. I had an amazing time in LA, but wow does it feel good to be home. Tomorrow I have my first legit day off in two weeks, and I am heading up to Mount Monadnock for a day hike to enjoy the fresh air and fall colors. I just need to look up the directions before then and figure out where Monadnock is.... take care of yourselves, yogis, and I'll probably write more soon.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

My Life as a GPS

I started this post months ago and somehow never got around to finishing it... until now! Never mind that 6:35am flight out of Boston tomorrow morning. My blog needs some love! (And if you can guess where I'm flying to at such an ungodly hour, you're probably right, but more on that next week.)


Here's an interesting question: why do people sometimes hurt themselves in yoga class, and how can you prevent them from doing it? I'm not talking about students getting hurt in bad/weird yoga classes (which is a whole different subject) - I'm talking about times when the teacher does everything "right"
and somebody still manages to get hurt.

All of the teachers at my current studio - including myself - make a point of explaining that you need to listen to your body in class. One of my favorite reviews of the yoga studio (of course I stalk our reviews online) said something along the lines of: "All the teachers maintain the 'push yourself' attitude, but always with something about listening to your body." Perfect! You have to work hard in class, but you also have to take care of yourself. But in one of our staff meetings over the summer, our studio owner told us that she'd gotten complaints from students who said that they injured themselves in class because a teacher told them to "push through the pain"... which frankly just doesn't happen here. To quote my friend Brandi, we only use those words after the word "don't," as in, "DON'T push through the pain."

Now my immediate response to this problem is: "UGH!! Why doesn't anybody listen to me?!"

But the topic is totally worth discussing, so let's get into it a little bit. Because there are plenty of people in the world who legitimately have no idea how to "listen to their body." 

I'm going to operate under the assumption that the Bikram series is essentially safe and therapeutic, when executed properly. Or as Emmy likes to say: "The yoga is always innocent." Injuries tend to happen when a) the postures are done incorrectly - wrong alignment, misunderstanding of the posture, or b) the practitioner is over-aggressive, not fully in tune with his/her body. (There's also (c), the fluke accident, which can totally happen but is not terribly common in the beginner's series.)

It's the teacher's job to teach correct alignment and technique. Safest way for us to do that is by teaching with the dialogue - by using the words of the dialogue, and by understanding the words of the dialogue, so that we can correct the students and steer them in the right direction.

Let's assume that the teacher is doing all of that. (We are sure trying, anyway.) It is now your job, as a student, to follow along carefully and pay attention to your body as you do so.

My favorite analogy is that your teacher is your GPS - you know, that annoying gadget in your car that's always giving you directions. (For the sake of my analogy, you'll have to assume that the teacher is a pretty good and accurate GPS - not one a stupid one like mine that starts hollering "Perform U-turn immediately!" every time you turn it on. It's not a perfect analogy, but I like it.) Just like your GPS, the teacher has already calculated the route that will take you to your destination safely and efficiently.

But just because you are driving around with a GPS, that doesn't mean you can close your eyes and ignore the road. You still have to keep your eyes open to watch out for red lights, stop signs, potholes, pedestrians, and crazy people trying to cut you off. You don't want to end up like those Japanese tourists who were following their GPS when they drove straight into the Pacific a few months ago.

(True story! I am still laughing about it.)

Remember, the teacher is always giving instructions for the whole class, for the full posture. If you're going into a posture and you start to feel some pain, just back off a little bit. It doesn't mean the GPS is sending you the wrong way - it's just your body's equivalent of a red light. It means, "wait here for a little while." When the light turns green, then you can make your next move.

Unfortunately, it's not always easy for a person to distinguish between the red light and the green light. (Or the yellow light - slow down.) It gets complicated because some of the postures are super uncomfortable, so we do actually warn you that some of the postures are going to hurt - mainly so that the new students don't get scared when they do the postures for the first time. (Hell, that first backbend still hurts like a bitch some days, especially first thing in the morning.) But we also tell you, sometimes in the very next posture, "take it easy, you're not warmed up yet." So there is definitely a balancing act that happens in the class. You have to go to the point where you're uncomfortable - sometimes deeply uncomfortable! - but not causing pain. This takes practice!

And in practice, you make mistakes sometimes (because that's what practice means). That's part of why so many beginning students strain their hamstrings - little bit overaggressive, doing too much too fast, without quite understanding the technique.

So here's the million dollar question: how do you learn what's right?

Here's my very favorite answer: If it works, then it's right.

If the yoga is working, you might have some muscle soreness ("therapeutic discomfort") after class, but your body will generally feel better and better as you practice more. That means you're doing good. If you have an injury or problem that keeps getting worse and worse and worse the more you practice, that means you're driving right into the ocean. Get your foot off the gas and recalculate!

"Listening to your body" means keeping your eyes on the road - at all times! Best way to catch problems early. This isn't just for beginners - in fact, the more often you practice, the more important it is! I had a funny tweak in my knee for over a month that I couldn't figure out until Diane told me I was sitting a little too low in the second part of awkward pose. I came up about one inch, and the knee stopped hurting after two days. Crazy! One of my really good students came to me a few days ago saying that she'd started having a little pain in her knee - she usually noticed it in fixed firm. That same day, she figured out that the pain was starting in bow pose (the one right before fixed firm). We did a little problem-solving, she eased up on that pose, and her knee felt better in two days. Trouble-shooting. It's part of the practice!

Slight digression: It always cracks me up when people come into class, start making up completely different postures, and say, "Oh, I'm just listening to my body!" Noooo no no no no no no. This is not an interpretive dance class. For our purposes, "listening to your body" is not an airy-fairy thing; it's tangible. If you go in the wrong direction, your body will give you pain. "Hey, I don't like that!" If you fix yourself, your body will give you a nicer response. "That feels much better, thank you!"That's how the body talks.

I could talk about this all night, but I really do have to pack!

At the end of the day, it's all a cooperative effort between the teacher and the student. The teacher has the directions, but the student is in the driver's seat. I may be a great backseat driver (just ask anyone who's ever been on a road trip with me), but I can only do so much.

So please, watch out for that Pacific Ocean. Apparently it can sneak up on you.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"EXTREME!!" Yoga

"Good morning everybody! Welcome to Bikram yoga torture chamber, to kill yourself for the next 90 minutes!"

Woohoo! That's great marketing. It's a hook. If you ever take class with Bikram, you can see that he is a born performer and he plays the cheerful sadist really well. "If you feel dizzy, nauseous, throw-up, you must be happy! Is a good news!"

But at the same time, Bikram understands his students. He is kind to the new ones. When I took his public classes in LA, the newbies were always like, "Wow, that guy was nice and really helpful." Even at teacher training, he always had an eye on the people who were struggling. In one minute, he'd be shouting at someone to push harder, but in the next minute, he'd be telling someone else, "Boss, take it easy. You don't look so good." I always remember the class in LA when he told a student to go into the hallway for 2 minutes, drink some Coca-Cola, and then come back. The student didn't want to leave the room, and Bikram was like, "No really, I am serious! Go out, just 2 minutes, then come back in."

My point is, Bikram yoga is not just about "killing yourself." It's also about moderation. Balance. You know.... yoga.

Bikram yoga attracts a lot of "type-a" people, a lot of fitness enthusiasts, and a decent number of masochists. It's easy to see why. The heat and the intensity are very appealing. Personally, I was totally crazy when I started Bikram yoga. I hadn't really figured out what I wanted to do with my life and I was going stir-crazy. I went to class as much as possible. I did a pretty solid 8 classes a week for months and months. I liked the busy, super hot classes. I left my water bottle in the locker room. At one point, the craziest teacher at the studio said, "And here's Juliana, who is crazy!" which she meant as a compliment.... and I was like, wow, if this person think I am nuts, I might need to take a look at my life.

Bikram yoga attracts a lot of crazy, hardcore people.... but when done properly, when taught compassionately, it should really help those people to become less crazy.

It took a few years, but after doing the yoga for a while, I started mellowing out. It seemed like the natural progression. I went to grad school, practiced at different studios, got a little perspective. I went to teacher training not because I wanted to get my ass kicked, but because I wanted to become a teacher. I was amazed to find people at training who were there specifically to get their asses kicked. I was alarmed to see that some people would even go and take classes on Sunday - our day off!! - in the name of some "yoga challenge." (Like teacher training is not a challenge by itself?) I was relieved to find that I was not one of those people. I'd go for broke in class for 90 minutes, but after that I'd rather go do things like eat, study, swim, eat more, or sleep.

Sometimes I hear people saying, "There's no such thing as too much yoga," and I'm just like, hmm. That's not how I remember it. I remember Bikram saying "Too good is no good!"

I've probably quoted this before, but here's a little piece from Bikram's book (the blue book, Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class, page 12):
"Anyone who tell you got to do Yoga every day for rest of life, or that they do full set of Yoga every day for years, he crazy or saint or both." [There are some saints among us....] "Regular people like us, we got to worry about the garbage disposal don't work, Tommy's scout troop has a picnic, there's a good movie on TV - important things like that.... Naturally, the more you do, the better health you gonna be in, mentally and physically. And if you go some medical problem like bad back or arthritis or old age that Yoga is keeping away, you got to do the Yoga fairly regularly, or you'll get it again. But the rest of us, once we got it.... we can relax a little bit - do it only two, three times a week."
There you go. If you've got a medical problem, you do the yoga as much as you can to take care of the problem. If you're a beginner, you go as much as you can. Once you've got everything opened up and you feel good, you don't need to bust your butt every day anymore.

I hear people talk about Bikram as "extreme yoga" sometimes, and it is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, because it over-simplifies the whole thing and it scares the shit out of people. It's a marketing tactic that only works on a certain people. If you've got a friend who is a big fitness buff and who thinks yoga is for wimps, then yes, go ahead and tell him, "I challenge you to try this yoga class! It is XTREME yoga! It will kick your butt!" (Then he will come to class, and we teachers will spend the whole time trying to get him to breathe normal, haha.) Bring your friends into class any way you can, that's great.

But if you're trying to get your mom or your grandma into class, you can't tell her, "This is XTREME yoga!!" No! She will run in the other direction! You have to tell her, "This is heated, therapeutic yoga. It's ok if you only do a tiny bit - just stay in the room, breathe, do what you can, and rest whenever you need to." Remember Elaine, who everybody loves, who practices every day (to keep away old age)? That's what her daughter told her before her first class, and that's what she now tells all the other students. Just do what you can, don't try to do everything at once, don't be a hero.

Even the advanced practice and the "competition" postures (which look pretty scary at first glance) are all about patience. I've been practicing the advanced series for, er, longer than I like to admit, and it is totally humbling. There are postures in that class that I worked on for years before I saw any progress at all - and I still got a loooooong way to go. By now, I can do some wacky, contortionist-looking postures - but even that doesn't feel so "extreme" to me, because I've been working into the postures soooooo slooooooowly over such a long period of time.

When I do the competitions, I do put some extra time into my practice, but I try to spread it out. I see people doing these crazy hardcore weeklong training clinics and I'm like, hmmmmm. Very interesting, but not for me. (Plus, what's up with all the blatant disregard for the first rule of Fight Club?!) When I get on stage, I want to demonstrate the progress I've made over the course of years - not the amount of yoga I was able to cram into a couple of months or weeks. I'm sure I could "get there" faster if I practiced for 10 hours every day - but what's the big rush?

In advanced class yesterday, I was telling my teacher, "I think I need more determination to go along with my patience, I feel like I should be farther along," and she (who knows me pretty well) said, "No, not really, just keep being patient." And then I had a nice little breakthrough in a posture, which was encouraging, and I noticed that I already have come a long way. So there you go.

What I'm trying to say is, I don't see any extra benefit in being "hardcore." It's really fun sometimes to go crazy with the yoga and see how much you can accomplish. I have nothing against that - more power to you! I just don't see that as the final destination. The goal is not to touch your head on your butt (even though that would be really cool). The goal is to have a happy, healthy, balanced life.

In the beginning (of this horribly long-winded blog), I quoted Bikram as saying, "Kill yourself!" But I cheated. That's not the real quote. The real quote is, "Kill your self." Your "self," with a small "s." Your ego, your image, your ambition. That's how you reach your Self - your true Self. The goal is Self-realization.

Self-realization is even trickier than touching your head on your butt. I might get to the second one before I make it to the first.

But I am trying!