I am on my way home from Omaha, Nebraska where I spent the weekend teaching a Weekend Immersion at The Lotus House of Yoga. I taught three asana classes and 8 hours of Teacher Training on Sequencing Strategies. We had an amazing turnout, with a mixed level group of all ages and levels of experience.
Carole Westerman, one of the owners of Lotus House, is a certified Prana Flow teacher and has over 500 hours of training with Shiva Rea and is a seasoned teacher and teacher trainer. She has studied in a variety of methods and approaches to yoga and in addition she is a mother of three awesome girls and has been married to the same person for 20 years! (what a modern-day hero, right?!) She invited me to come to Lotus House to teach shortly after I resigned from Anusara yoga and so we've been planning this weekend for many moons.
One thing that was notable in the students was how well-trained they were. Lotus House has a very vinyasa-oriented approach to asana as well as an interest in alignment so it was really great to teach to people who are strong from their vinyasa-based practice and who were also trained to listen well, execute subtleties in flow and who were eager to learn, refine and explore new approaches. To me, when alignment and flow come together you get a very tasty treat- kinda like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, which some of you know is one of my favorite candies! As a teacher it seems clear to me that the learning process of alignment requires certain times of slowing down, starts and stops and demonstrations, but once those tools and insights are integrated, alignment meets flow quite wonderfully, in my opinion.
Another observation I have had over the years in well-trained vinyasa practitioners is that they become very good at listening to instructions and implementing them without always having to understand them first. A well-seasoned vinyasa practitioner will generally try out a cue without always knowing the why's and what's of the cue in the moment. Because they haven't always had demos and long explanations in class, they do not rely on them to learn in the moment. Of course, there are some cues, and nuances that absolutely can not be "learned on the go" and there are some cues we should question and there are some less- skilled vinyasa practitioners who do not listen at all and, as always, there is an endless variety of permutations on what goes well and what doesn't work and why. At any rate, a lot was going very well at Lotus House from what I observed.
Another cool quality I observed in these students was a real openness to the eclectic asana approach without a loss of focus or quality. Like I have written about before I know plenty of purists in yoga systems and I am totally cool with that. When I am in their classes, I do my best to just get on their ride and take the class that is being offered. And I know a lot of people who mix approaches, and in fact, I turned out to be one of those teachers while I wasn't watching. I also know a lot of people who say they are open to different ways but when you get down to it, there is a lot of evidence that suggests that just really isn't true. There is a lot of "right and wrong" and/or "this is real yoga that is not real yoga" bias in their comments and viewpoints. The students this weekend seemed to have a strong foundation and to be truly interested in seeing new vistas and exploring new ways. So fun. To me yoga is more about an approach to learning and an approach to self-inquiry than it is about the content or information itself or even the specifics of techniques.
And its funny for me to say that because I am a big technician and I love techniques. But the techniques, in my opinion, serve self-inquiry, self-examination and the development of self-awareness. So often I watch people debate the outer techniques and forms endlessly and even violently. To me, they are tools for another discussion altogether. Certainly, I think some techniques serve better than others and have greater degrees of efficacy depending on what you want to get out of them, but they are not the end or the definition of yoga for me. The techniques point us somewhere and that somewhere is the point AND that somewhere is a much more interesting discussion than "who is right", "who does real yoga", and so on that is so rampant in certain circles in the yoga world these days. (In my opinion, of course!)
I spent Saturday and Sunday afternoon in teacher training teaching Sequencing Strategies. I have taught this course several times this last year and a half and I really enjoy it. I go over types of students and the context of sequencing, how to use a general template as a guide for sequencing, we examine a basic Level One full-spectrum practice and the explore how to make Level 1 poses into peak poses and how to use level one poses to help peak to other poses. So there is potpourri sequencing guidelines as well as peak pose strategies. I think it is a great course.
Also, what was fun to observe was that my own ideas about sequencing have been shifting and changing and so I am going to re-work the course materials a bit. I also have some good ideas for some visual aids and learning tools for future courses I am excited about.
One shift that is happening for me is I am moving away from as much peak-pose strategy in my practice and teaching and moving more toward intelligent, full-spectrum types of classes for several reasons. Of course, it is never all-or-nothing and I still see great value in working up to a peak pose and will not abandon the approach entirely, I have just been reflecting on how valuable the balanced practice is and the sometimes slower outer achievements that come with full-spectrum sequences but the deeper, more integrated progress that comes with not going too far in one direction at any given practice.
I think perhaps my work with Asana Junkies sequences have influenced my thinking here as well as my foray into Brikam Yoga. Also, it seems to me that more and more classes are mixed-level classes and to go super-deep in any one direction is not always great for the general practitioner. Like so many things in yoga, IT ALL DEPENDS and there are pros and cons to whatever strategy you use, but I have noticed that fewer students these days are able to handle the long forays into forward bends and the long forays in the back bends that I was brought up on. And of course, a peak pose sequence can still be quite balanced, when it is done well. At any rate, I do think the main point in sequencing is that while there are pros and cons to whatever approach we use, having a clear approach is helpful since it gives an organizational strategy to our efforts in planning.
All right, I could go on about the weekend but that's a general overview. It was a lovely time for me and I really enjoyed being there. More soon.
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.
A Bit of the Back Story
Several years ago Kelly and I began to dabble in whitewater kayaking. After many years of living in the Arizona desert, we were thrilled to move to San Marcos, TX where there was a little whitewater park called Rio Vista about 5 minutes from where we live. The San Marcos River is an amazing river- it is a clear, beautiful, spring-fed river that is 72 degrees year-round, making it one of the warmest rivers around and pleasure to boat in.
So back in 2006, Kelly and I took an introductory kayak courses with Power Olympic Outdoor Center and Ben Kavlani, a former Olympic Athlete. All in all, we got a great introduction from an expert boater, we fell in love with the sport and we learned a new way to be outdoors together, be in the water, tackle fun challenges in the water and we learned a few tricks. Over the next few years, we would spend some time down in San Marcos playing in the waves and enjoying great camaraderie fellow boaters and outdoor enthusiasts. We gained confidence, a few skills and had a ton of fun.
Welcome to Buena Vista, Colorado
Kelly and I came up to Buena Vista, Colorado on July 4th to enjoy the cool mountain air, the great hiking, biking and kayaking opportunities that abound here. (This also has a bit of back story but if I keep telling back stories we are never going to get to the point of this blog!)
Buena Vista sits at the foot of the Collegiate Mountain Range and on the banks of the Arkansas River. Right in town there is this awesome whitewater playpark. Monday, Kelly and I were down in the first wave playing in our boats and there was another boater in the water who was getting lessons from his coach, who was sitting up on the rocks in a chair observing, giving tips, etc. Kelly and I introduced ourselves to the coach (Dustin) and the boater (Max) and played for a while which for me, mostly consists of getting in the wave, getting thrown around, spinning if I am lucky until I flip over and get tossed out of the wave. (I say this to describe my basic "style" of boating which is somewhat haphazard and also super fun. But I am also outlining this part to make a contrast later in my story between "skill-based fun" and "haphazard fun". More coming on that topic)
So, later that night Kelly is looking up boats online and runs across a video about the new boat he was interested in and saw that the guy who was promoting his boat was named Dustin. A few youtube searches later and we find out that the guy we met at the wave is kind of a big deal. You can see some footage below about Dustin Urban, his wife Katie and Katie's brother, Jed. Take the time to watch- it is pretty amazing stuff.
Small Town Goodness
And so, like in any small town, where relationships cross boundaries and connections cross-pollinate, we came to learn that Katie, Dustin's wife, is a yoga student of Jenna Pfingston, who has a lovely yoga studio here and who is a long-time student of mine. So Wednesday night, Sam, Rachel, Kelly and I went down to the local brewery after boating all day (another fun story!) and ran into Dustin, Katie and another local business owner and put some of these connections together. The conversation went kind of like this:
Katie- "Oh my god, you are Christina Sell, right?"
Dustin- "Like the yoga teacher? Wow, I didn't know I was watching Christina Sell in the wave..."
Me-"Yes, well, dude, I looked you up and I had no idea Dustin Urban was actually watching me in the wave. That's a little embarrassing."
and so on... It was more than a little funny.
So to make a long story short, Katie and Dustin offered to take us out on water and give us some help with our boating. We make a plan and on Friday we meet up for our lesson.
So, Friday morning we meet up on the river. (We actually ran into each other at the local distillery the night before when we were all there listening to music. That gave me plenty of time to warn them that I am not a good boater and to give my usual disclaimers about my ability and lack thereof.) Dustin asked us what we wanted to learn and I told him that mostly, I wanted to learn some skills that would give me some control in the wave and that while I can roll my kayak and while I enjoy being in the wave and occasionally can do some cool tricks in the wave, it is mostly accidental and haphazard. I explained I haven't had lessons since 2006 and so mostly I just play and try to figure things out with greater and lessor degrees of success. So I explained I would love to take some of the accidental component out of my boating and bring in some intelligent skill. So that was my learning goal: To be a less haphazard boater.
So, there we are with Katie and Dustin who, if you watched the video above, you now know can do front flips in the wave in their kayaks and they can turn cartwheels in their boats and so on and are well, shall we say, um, champions in their sport. (So like, they are really good.) And guess what the experts teach us first? The lesson begins with -- get this-- the importance of posture. Turns out sitting up straight is the first lesson in kayaking. Who knew kayaking had the equivalent of tadasana or mountain pose and that everything in play boating starts from sitting upright the same way everything in yoga begins from standing upright? How cool is that? Of course Lesson #1 also involved me learning that I sit way too far back and Kelly learning that he sits way too far forward so we got the lesson in optimal and the bad news that we have some habits that are not-so-optimal. So far so good. I am into it.
And another interesting insight about this posture lesson is that one of the things I started doing on my own in the wave back home is leaning way far back in boat to surf the wave. It is super fun and I can zip back and forth along the wave just leaning back and having a great time. So this, in and of itself, is no problem- it is fun and I am a recreational boater. I like fun. Fun is well... fun! The problem with this self-taught/self-discovered approach is that this particular body position is very limited. It is somewhat of a dead-end when it comes to play boating because I can't really do anything else from that position, where as from upright I could, theoretically, do many different tricks. For instance you set up flips, cartwheels and spins from upright but the only thing you do from leaning way back is well, lean back.
Of course I saw yoga parallels right away because I know lots of yoga practitioners who like to do yoga how they like to do it. They have a way of executing the postures that is fun for them, feels good and is just fine. And there is nothing wrong with that. (Remember, fun is fun.) But some approaches lead to deeper postures and some don't. For instance, you can do bakasana with bent arms. You really can. But if you want to learn kukkutasana, it is going to come much easier if you have learned how to get your arms straight in bakasana. So the poses have a progressive relationships to each other. The technique and the alignment on the basic postures teach us how to execute the harder stuff. So even though the Level 1 pose may not need such precision and is often more fun to do without the details, eventually, we hit dead ends without good technique and access to more advanced poses is denied. This dead-end aspect is just like my learning back approach to kayaking. Leaning back is fun for what it is but it will never take me beyond itself, whereas an upright posture will set me up for more possibilities in the future and help me improve faster.
The Basics teach the Advanced Moves
The lesson continued with basic drills in how to get control in the wave, how to clean up our stroke technique and how to spin and even continued to some fancier stuff. I have a list of insights about the length of my arm to share from my time on the water with Katie and Dustin but a few things really stand out in addition to the posture lesson, the first of which is that the basics of Kayaking 101 form the foundation for all of the fancy tricks.
It is kind of mind-boggling to look at someone turning flips and cartwheels in those fluid, gymnastic-like ways and to really grok that those power-moves can be broken down into component parts such as knowing which side of your boat is high, where your paddle is in the water and in relationship to your boat, where you look and when, and basic stroke technique. A cartwheel is a composition of basic skills the same way advanced yoga postures are a composition of basic postures and actions. And while what Dustin and Katie did in the wave appeared to be intuitive, they actually can analyze and explain the exact placement of their paddle, their boat, their posture, their gaze, etc. while being in a moving medium like the water that is constantly changing. Talk about presence of mind and yogic awareness! Really, it was pretty awesome to witness.
Since we have been here, several people have told me that "Dustin is a natural" but I have to tell you that it is rare to meet "naturals" in any field who are that analytical, that able to explain the "how-to" to others and who are that clear about the step-by-step progression involved in what they are doing and who can explain it to other people to help them further along in their own progress. Nope, I think mastery is too often confused with "being a natural." Mastery is more often a result of hard work meeting talent and passion through sustained practice. Just saying.
I have so much more to write about my lesson but this has already gotten long so I will save that for my next entry. I had such a rich time on the water learning from such great teachers and this entry is really just scratching the surface. Next time- more on the basics, on giving up "fun" now for boring technique can yield a a "bigger fun" later, on how intentionality and focus makes all the difference in the world, and much more.
I taught this weekend in the Woodlands, TX at Woodlands Yoga and it seems like I kinda hit the ground running upon my return. Kelly and I are heading back up to Colorado for a few weeks of much needed R&R doing all things mountain- whitewater kayaking, hiking, mountain biking and so on so these last few days have been full of all of the usual activities (practice, planning, webinars, etc.) as well as preparations for our trip.
I woke up early this morning, did my morning practices and now I have a few moments to reflect more on the weekend.
This was my third visit to teach at Woodlands Yoga. The first time I went was when its founder and original owner, Vicki invited me to come and teach. Vicki is a long-time practitioner and teacher with deep roots into Iyengar Yoga and she was probably one of the first members of the Anusara Yoga community, being around at its inception right there in The Woodlands, TX. Two years ago the studio was under the direction of the Anusara Yoga office and I went there to teach there in August, shortly after the Anusara Inspired-teacher's Gathering in Tahoe. And here we are now, with the studio under the guidance of my friend and colleague, Sue Brooks, who has brought a lot of fresh energy, insight, honesty and creativity to the community there.
I think the thing that stood out for me the most this weekend was the honest level of discussion present about the shifts and changes within their personal yoga landscape at the studio these last few years as well as the good-hearted enjoyment of exploring the postures together, regardless of what brand the yoga is called and who was teaching. The students worked hard, laughed a lot, asked good questions and really seemed to enjoy being together for the weekend. Given that The Woodlands is John Friend's home town, the students there have gotten a fair amount of exposure to his new style of yoga and the new aspects of alignment he is teaching. We had some fun times talking shop about alignment content as well as my favorite topic which might best be summed up as "the context of learning yoga" which boils down to exploring the ways and means that we might navigate similarities, difference, tradition, innovation, general instructions and specific needs with the open-minded, open-hearted scrutiny of mature discernment.
Yep. Think about that. Open-minded. Open-hearted. Scrutiny. Mature. Discernment. Scrutiny without openness is too tough, will close us down to new insights, new influences and new avenues of exploration. Openness without scrutiny leaves us too impressionable, gullible and even manipulatable as students. Maturity means that our "yes" and "no" to the teacher is neither blind obedience nor reactionary rebellion but a measured, intelligent and adult choice to engage or to opt out. And well, discernment, to me, is the wisdom that arises when our heart and the mind are working together in our own best interest.
Yoga is such an interesting endeavor to me because the classroom can be such a microcosmic representation of life and our relationship to the process of learning what it means to be a student of life's lessons, our own experiences and our own wisdom. That old adage that says "how you do anything is how you do everything" can serve us well when we examine our learning styles, our relationship with our successes, failures, competencies, and challenges on the mat. We also get to see our habitual ways of coping and not coping with uncertainty, paradox, similarity and difference. The field is rich with metaphoric meaning and provides us with fertile ground for self-examination and growth. I always find myself with plenty of material for self-observation both in formal class and in my practice where I am both teacher and student.
And as rich and meaningful as the classroom environment is, and as much as I believe in its potential for transformation and growth, I personally want to change some of the way yoga gets presented in the average classes and workshops and just take it down a notch. I know I can't make a global change but I can change the way I talk about the poses, about alignment and about what is possible in a general class and I did that a lot over the weekend.
For instance-- Why does one practice, like asana, have to be both PT and gymnastics? Why do people look at scorpion pose and expect it to not flatten their thoracic spine? (I am not saying that the pose has to do that but I am saying if you want to practice it, don't ask it to be what it isn't.) It seems obvious to me that some postures maintain very healthy curves of the spine and work with a very normal range of motion and it is fine to see those postures as therapy. But seriously, other poses are part of different endeavor, in my opinion, that might best be summed up as "self-observation at the edges of what is safe, normal, and reasonable." Some of the advanced stuff, is so far from therapeutic that it would be better to claim in big letters- "THIS POSE IS DANGEROUS. If you have skill, you can mitigate those dangers and live to tell the tale and perhaps push the boundaries of your understanding about who you are as a physical being. But do not be confused, these poses are not necessarily going to conform to any semblance of anatomical neutral!"
Why can't we just acknowledge that well, the poses are risky and we can't promise that anyone will stay safe if they do them?
Why can't we make some distinctions about what is realistic to expect in a group class? I mean, really, even if there are some general principles of alignment that are reliably good for most people there is no way for one teacher to tell a group of 6-200 students one set of instructions that will work for everyone. Those general instructions have to applied to each person's specific situation to bring optimal balance to that person's structure within any given pose. That process is not a general endeavor but as teachers we have to speak in generalities because it is a general class. Do not get me wrong here- I have no issue with generalities. I have an issue that yoga teachers often claim, and yoga students often believe, that these general instructions are specific and that confusion leads to a host of problems for both the teacher and the student. And there is no way for one teacher, no matter how good their observations skills are, to monitor everyone's specific performance in a general class and to make sure everyone's needs are met. Impossible.
I could go on and on and on and then this blog entry would end up being more of a rant than I intended it to be this morning. Really, NONE of this is in itself a problem for me. I just find the lack of clarity around these types of issues are often breeding problems. Mature discernment, to me, means that we bring common sense to yoga and catch ourselves, our students and our teachers when we hear magical thinking like "yoga will heal everything" and "if you believe it it will happen" and "this brand-new alignment will keep you from needing a hip replacement" and "if you do good alignment you will never get injured" and "yoga is better than medicine" and "green juice, raw food, smoothies and supplements will fix all your problems" and so on.
I mean, really, this awesome path of being human is more complex than any quote posted on Facebook or any Twitter update can capture, no matter how inspirational it seems at the moment. Learning how to apply yoga- inside and out, in all of its paradoxical glory, to our unique situation so that we evolve and grow stronger, more resilient and more capable of making distinctions about what serves and what does not is not the stuff of a weekend workshop, it is the stuff of life.
And that, well, it takes a lifetime.
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