Basic Does Not Mean Easy and It May Get Worse Before it Gets Better
So- if you didn't read my last post, Lessons from the Wave, Part 1, the back story is there.
To recap a lot of the last post about my kayak lesson, I could sum it up by giving yet another yoga metaphor. In yoga there are many categories or types of practitioners but one dividing line or line of demarcation is between the “freestlye flow” folks and the “alignment junkies.” And obviously, I know there is plenty of overlap as I am as often seen in an alignment class as I am seen enjoying a good, sweaty, vinyasa-style practice. But when you talk to people about the issue of alignment, some folks love it for the technicality, the focus, the depth, the insight and the intellectual exercise it provides while others see it as a tool to use- to greater or lesser degrees- that serves something else. So most vinyasa folks have some technique and most alignment people move and breathe and yet, their relationship to the different elements of what makes up a yoga practice can be quite different.
We might draw a simliar analogy in the world of dance. For instance, modern dance has technique but it is very different than classical ballet’s technique. And both are considerably diferent than contact improv, which has its own rules engagemnt. And still different is just going out into a room with a bunch of people and dancing your heart out for fun and for personal expression. It is all dance, it is all awesome, it all serves the dancers and I am not putting the different styles in a hierarchy. My point is that I notice similar parallels in how people practice and relate to the component parts of practice in asana.
What does this have to do with my kayak lesson? Well, in terms of asana I lean somewhat heavily to the side of technician. And while I can rock out a fluid flow, I learned technique first and technique lives underneath all that movement when and if I go there. I know plenty of people for whom the exact opposite is true. They learned movement and breath and enjoy the dance of the flow and use alignemnt when something hurts or if they want a new trick in their repetoire and so on. It’s all good with me- truly, this is not an axe I grind anymore although that doesn’t mean I can functionally and happily teach everyone but I am very clear that yoga, pracitced in amny different ways is beneficial to those practicing in both similar and different ways. But I digress.
So, back to kayaking, the thing is that as a kayaker I am much more like a freestyle vinyasa practitioner than a technician. So we could sum the entirety of my lesson up byt saying that for a few hours on the river, I was a freeform-vinyasa-style boater having a lesson with BKS Iyengar, the king of technique and alignment!
Funny, right? Ironic even, in a lot of ways. But the thing is that everything we set out to learn in our lesson with Katie and Dustin-- from boat control to front flips and cartwheels came back to basic skills. But the interesting thing to watch in my learning process was that when I had to swtich from my intutive free-form vinyasa approach to conscious set-up and conscious strokes, I would go absolutely blank. Honestly, time and again, I would get to the wave and go, “Uh, duh, I know I am supposed to do something now, like a push with my paddle or a pull with my paddle but I can’t remember which and how.” And more than half the time I couldn’t even get into the wave when I was thinking about it even though a few days before getting into that wave was no problem at all. By changing my approach, I was an absolute beginner to the new way, even though it was ostensibly “more basic” and theoretically “easier” than what I had been doing.
I think this is relevant for those of us who teach because many times we are teaching people something they have not learned before and there is a “stupid factor” that comes along with being a raw beginner at something, even if we are just a beginner at a new way of working with something very familiar. I forget about this as a teacher a lot and my lesson gave me new appreciation for the internal freeze (and sometimes accompanying personality manifestations that result like eye-rolling, leaving class, emotional outbursts, projections of all kinds, etc.) that can happen when our students get invited, cajoled or otherwise catapulted out of their comfort zone of the usual way they do something and into being beginners at a new way.
This could all be summed as “sucking at something well, sucks” and while the basics are important, they are not necessarily easy and to be a beginner at one thing means we give up our expertise at what we are used to doing and giving up any measure of expertise-even temporarily- is just not easy. The good news is that “forewarned is forearmed” so if we educate ourselves about this stage of the learning process then we can see it for what it is- temporary- and not identify with it or hook our feelings of self-worth up to the temproary stage of which I am unceremoniously continuing to call “sucking at something new.”
Case in point- by the end of the lesson, I could get in the wave again and I could spin again but much better than my frestyle-vinyasa spin I was doing before the lesson. Better in this case means more consiously, with better stroke efficiency and technique, with better spotting (spotting in kayak lingo =gaze or drishti in yogaspeak), with more consistency and with more ability to do more spins in a row. And even though it was “fun” before it was actually “more fun” to be better at it and to be more in control of my boat and my actions.
Which leads me to my second topic: The Problem with Fun.
The Problem with Fun
When I was learning yoga back in the early 1990’s fun was just not part of the yoga conversation at all. It wasn’t like the yoga was dark and bleak either. I personally enjoyed the lessons and I enjoyed my practice but the learning environment of yoga in those days--the culture of learning yoga, if you will-- had no emphasis on, or feelings of obligation to, fun. Yoga class was a fairly stoic affair that was somewhat dry and focused primarily on the introspective aspects of practice. I was learning strong asana practice so I am not saying it was some kind of quiet chanting with tea drinking that we called yoga or anything like that. It was hard stuff--with strong work, lots of details, precision and very little fluff or filler. The teachers I had back then did not feel obligated to our self-esteem improving, to our psychological needs being met or to affirming our personalities with praise or applause. (Don’t get me wrong here, I have benefited from the praise that I got when yoga for self-esteem came in vogue in the early 2000’s! All I am saying is that in the early 1990’s the mood was different.)
So my point is that over the last few years, fun has entered the conversation of yoga and the yoga learning environment now is generally expected to provide an element of “fun.” Sometimes, depending on where you are, fun is the main aim, but that is another story for another time. And once again, just so we are clear, I am all for fun. Fun is fun. i like fun. And I am all for a class being enjoyable. And I do believe that if we have a good time at practice we are more likely to keep practicing. So I do not think fun is a problem but I do think that there are some problems with fun. The problems with fun come if we don’t understand that while yes, we learn through play, delight and enjoyment, there is also a very real stage of learning that can sometimes be somewhat demoralizing and humiliating. (ie: not fun at all.)
My lesson brought this to mind because it was clear to me that to improve as a kayaker would require some time in my boat doing drills and practicing technique and sucking at the basics which would also mean giving up what is currently fun in terms of my freestyle-vinyasa approach to kayaking. If I have an hour to give to boating and I want to get better and my own explorations sometimes yield improvement but just as often end up turning into dead-end habits (see the previous post) then I might have to give up my current “fun” to suck for a while so that I can have more fun later. But then again, I might not. I mean, I might just want to play how I play since it is fun. I really might.
And of course, we see this all the time in the yoga world. In fact, I’d be a wealthy woman if I had a dollar for every yoga teacher who talks to me about how frustrated they are that their students want to do more advanced postures, want freedom from injuries and yet won’t shift their practice to do the things that would yield those very outcomes. Truth is, to give up the practice we have now that we enjoy, to invest in the practice we might have with some inteliigently applied effort and skill is both a risk and a sacrifice.
It is a risk becuase we may not actually know for sure that changing our approach will yield different or better results and we might like the fun we are currently having. That is a blog entry in and of itself. In my case, with my lesson, I had no doubt that Katie and Dustin knew a lot more than me about how to get better at the sport, given that they are, well, world champions in kayaking. And over the last year, I have some help reworking my approach to some postures and backing off my usual expression to get some remedial stages corrected and I went along with it - not because the new way was fun but because the people showing me the new techniques were, shall we say, better than me at those poses. Better, in this case, simply means, able to do more advanced physical expressions than I can right now. Nothing moral, spiritual, etc.
However, there are many reasons, in fact, the reasons are too numerous name, why our students might not buy into our approach, why maybe they shouldn’t do what we say and why we ourselves, as students, might not do what the teacher says or thinks we should do. It’s a mixed bag. Sometimes its resistance, sometimes it’s good wisdom, sometimes it’s ignorance, sometimes it’s a lack of awareness, sometimes we just don’t want to do the work because we gave our energy all day long at the office and so on. A couple of months ago I had the experience of instructing a student about how to get their legs straighter that was met with a very sharp comment to me that “I have hperextension issues!” and I said as nice as I could, “I know, these actions are to help with that...” but the student didn’t perceive my help as help. My sense is because she’d never been in my class before and because I was new at that studio and because she’d never been corrected like that before, she doubted my knowledge/expertise and didn’t want to take a risk with me. Makes perfect sense. Not fun for either of us, but perfectly understandable also, when you look at it that way. Again, this is a year’s worth of blog entries.
So all I am saying is that we never really know for sure if a new plan is going to work and so it is a risk. And we all deal with risk and the unknown differently. And sometimes it takes years to see the results of an experiment or risk and whether it worked or didn’t and how. (So, teachers, keep this in mind and it starts to feel a whole lot less personal and a whole lot more understandable, right?)
The second part is the sacrifice. I really believe that there are plateuas we hit that will require NON-fun work to move beyond and to shift patterns and habits we have to be prepared for periods of hard work that can not be categorized under the heading of fun. Anyone who has ever broken up with a toxic lover or friend, tried to quit smoking, lose weight, save money, stop drinking, get clean, stop lying, etc. understands this concept very well. It is not just an on-the-mat thing. We can, however, see the principle alive in yoga for sure. So while, some aspect of entertainment is useful to the learning process, only entertainment leaves a gap in our education that shows up later and can lead to stagnation, plateaus, and the inability to engage the optimal effort needed to shift towards a higher or more advanced expression. Plain and simple. And sometimes we are willing to make sacrifices and sometimes we are not.
But it all comes down to intentionality because all of these lessons came to me after Dustin and Katie asked me what I wanted to learn. They didn’t look at me in isolation and offer unsolicited advice about how to improve. The whole lesson rested on my learning goal which was “1. Be less haphazard. 2. Have more control. 3. Make things happen in the wave rather than just have things happen to me in the wave.” And so, the degree to which I really want those things is generally the degree to which I will be willing to take intelligent risks and make reasonable sacrifices to achieve my aim. (Which is actually another conisderation for the yoga class environment and what people want from it since some want to be left alone, some expect to get help, some are willing to ask for help, some do not know how to get the help they need and some do not even know they need help. And so on. Lots of layers to this one to explore.) But the point of this segment is that aim and intention have a lot to say in the conversation of risk and sacrifice.
Which leads me to my final point: Intention Makes All the Difference
Intentionality Makes All the Difference
At some point in the lesson I realized that yes, my brain freezes and yes, I am feeling inept but this other thing was going on, or maybe more accurately not going on. I realized that each time I went to the wave to try a trick, I wasn’t really clear on what I was going in there to do. I never ever do a yoga pose without knowing what pose it is or what is involved in exectuing the posture. Never. I never accidently end up in scorpion pose. I plan it, prepare for it, think about it, all before even placing my foundation. It was a Eureka Moment for me because how will I take control of something that I am only halfway particiapting in?
Certainly in water one needs to be responsive, not just controlling, becasue you are executing moves in a changing medium but knowing with clarity what I am practicing when I approach the wave determines so many subsequent actions from set up, to boat position, to paddle placement, etc. I shared this insight with Dustin who told me he once taught a friend of his who came to the same realization that I did. He recognized he had a passive approach to kayaking that was a perfect metaphor to the passive approach he had in his life. He realized he lets things happen to him in life rather than assuming a proactive stance in the face of challenge. So great, right?! The metaphors are endless.
One of the things I learned from Afton Carraway this last year is to know the one thing for every pose you regularly practice that will make it better. She leads the practice I go to a lot and is known for stopping and asking someone, “What are you working on in that pose right now? Do you know? You need to know.” She wins yoga championships and so this is advice from someone who practices asana with a certain kind of clarity. We do not always need to know how we are going to do the pose in its entirety but its a great exercise to define for ourselves what the key insights, actions, openings, etc. are that we need to make our next step of progress. If we can identify that we can work with more precision and clarity.
In kayaking that is a lot to do with the approach and how you set the boat in the water and how you approach the trick. Knowing what we are trying to accomplish, having intentionality is key. Same with asana, we can simply do the poses and get what we get and sometimes that is a great approach. But if we are stuck or if we want to break through some roadblock, it can be very useful to get super clear on what we are actually working on in the pose. And same with life. Its not that we can control the water of life’s circumstances. We can’t. But if we have a clear intention we are more likely to be in charge of our response and our approach to the waves that come our way.
Well, I could go on and on and yet, this is already very long. I guess that is what happens when I write on the plane!
Anyway, I am on my way to Omah for a weekend of teaching. More soon.
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