Thursday, March 08, 2012

Free-Range Yoga *cluck, cluck*

I've kept my mouth shut (fingers still?) on all the latest scandals, slanders, and fuss--partially because I don't have anything new to say and partially because a lot of it seems to be about generating hype.  I don't want to contribute to any more ill-deserved page hits.  

However, with each new revelation, I'm struck by how much Big Yoga is starting to resemble Big Ag.  You would think people so concerned with health and what they do to their bodies would embrace local, sustainable models for their yoga like, I assume, they do with their veggies.

Instead, there seems to be a drive to incorporate, brand, and standardize the practice in order to deliver a sleek, well-muscled, high-fructose Yoga ready for market in nine short weeks.  Fast, cheap, mass-produced spirituality available at your nearest yoga franchise.

Where's the farmers' market version of yoga--lovingly grass-fed, allowed to graze and develop naturally in a small herd, led by an independent farmer?  A bit more expensive, maybe, a bit more variation in quality--but, all in all, healthier, safer, and, as I said before, more sustainable.

The food poisoning outbreaks of the last few years in the yoga world seem closely tied to production practices: powerful executives, unquestioning producers, self-directed quality control, and a fixation on the bottom line.  We should be community-based and student-centered.  We should celebrate our local studios and support individual teachers.  We should encourage a yoga that meets the need of many students, not just the urban and the leisured.  

And while I love the energy of (some of) the internet community, this is ultimately a practice of human interaction and personal contact.  Let's stay in touch with our own neck of the woods, even as we inform our practice with connections around the world.  A teacher needs to know and see her students--no microphone necessary.  A student needs to receive personal attention and have an interactive relationship with her teacher and  class--no numbered mats in a giant conference hall.

If anything is learned from this winter's shenanigans, it is that yoga needs to get small again.  Not to withdraw or detach from the larger community, but to bring the focus back to the personal level.  To cool it with the corporate crap and the fast buck.  Let's stop admiring superficial beauty and return to the essential and internal (sorry, not Olympic event material).

I want my yoga like I want my, but with access to a tidy coop with protection from foxes.  Eggs with big orange yolks. 

(that last bit of that metaphor is open for interpretation--but it's what I like!) 

The girls at Grass is Greener Gardens--making my eggs for this week...

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Takes One to Know One

Last week I had a new student in class.  She slipped in the back while I was still taking roll and I didn't notice her until we were about to begin, so I didn't get to do my usual spiel about how the class works, modifications, etc.  So, as I do with all unfamiliar bodies, I kept a close eye on her to make sure my instructions made sense and she wasn't over-doing anything.  It quickly became clear that she was doing just fine--more than just fine--and I had nothing to worry about.

Although, as I hope is the case with many of you, then my worries really began (Tell me I'm not the only one who falls prey to self-doubt in the face of stern, accomplished yoga).  "Am I boring her?  Is this too basic?  Am I talking too much?"  And then it dawned on me--she is probably a teacher.

And sure enough, after class, we had a lovely chat. She'd just moved to the area and had Iyengar teaching experience and found the class very familiar.  Whew.  She was delightful and warm and very yoga-teacherish.

Except, how did I sense that?  A couple of other times I've come across people who turn out to be teachers, but I sort of already knew that.  How Come?  Do we give off a scent only discernible to other teachers?  A glow?  A secret handshake (well, I hope not, cuz I missed than in the training)?  Is it something familiar in the demeanor?  Or maybe in the practice--a carefulness or thoroughness in the execution of asana that suggests the prompts are being spoken in the head?  

Is it the same with other disciplines?  Do teacher just know other teachers?  Why?  I'm curious if anyone else has had this happen and why they think it does.  

Is this what it feels like to be a Mason?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Eyes Wide Shut

We did ardha chandrasana last week.  Against the wall.  Most of my students are older and the strength and balance needed to hold the pose in the center of the room take it off the menu for them.  It’s such a great pose, that’s it’s a shame to eliminate it, so we do it against the wall and it becomes a release pose.  Really, it does, you should try it.

Against the wall, it’s all the extension and expansion of Hand-to-Big-Toe--a lengthening, a stretch, a core/thigh engagement with a comforting presence at the back, except in Half-Moon you have a bit more of a gravity challenge, but not too much.  Once every one gets past the “tipping-over” fear, it’s really quite nice.

People closed their eyes.  

I love to close my eyes during a pose.  To remove one more distraction and turn the focus inward.  You have to really know where you stand when you close your eyes, because you lose all visual information that might assist balance.  You have to depend on your sense of touch, maybe hearing, but sight is gone and the brain has to focus on the limited input to keep you in the pose.  So you focus on the limited input and, as a result, your sense of the pose sharpens and you really feel it.  And it starts to make more sense because you perceive the arrangement of your limbs from the inside, instead of just seeing what it looks like.  

(Technically this is proprioception--a really interesting neural phenomenon in which the brain uses muscle and inner ear/balance information to determine the body’s position in space rather than sight--why you know your back arm is at shoulder height in Warrior II, without looking at it)

Emotionally, it feels like flying.  As you remove one sense, the others intensify to fill the void...without the visual you float, without falling (once you get used to it).  Anyway, I highly recommend it for Mountain, Tree, Headstand, Down Dog, Triangle.  You need to feel safe and supported, confident in your skill, but the rewards are lovely.  

“See” you at the wall...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Apples and Oranges

One of the things you learn right away in a class on experimental design, is not too include too many variables.  If you want to test the effects of a certain treatment, better to test on organisms as similar as possible so you can be sure you’re measuring the effects of your treatment, rather than something else.  

Apple trees may respond differently than orange trees to a certain fertilizer, because they are reacting to soil conditions, temperature, and insects as well as the fertilizer.  Maybe one tree just grows more slowly than the other.  So, when you want to discuss how much the trees are affected by fertilizer application, you also have to acknowledge all these other differences.  Your experiment doesn’t tell you much, except that apple trees are different than oranges trees and we already knew that...didn’t we?  Best to pick one type of tree in the same field with similar light and water and soil conditions and then look at fertilizer effects (and it could be compost, so don’t worry about this being an inorganic example).

Judging by revelations of the last week, including Yoga Dawg’s link of “average” yoga teachers’ salaries (and the vastly superior correction), and It’s All Yoga Baby’s discussions (here, and here) of the NYT article about yoga injuries (apparently, hour-long inversions are bad for your neck!), the notion of difference and variability is often forgotten when the topic is yoga.  I’m not sure you can average anything or use blanket statements for yoga, but that doesn’t seem to stop the critics.

Skeletons are hooked up differently, joints have different amounts of mobility, digestive systems process fats differently, teachers have different hourly schedules, Iyengar is different that Bikram.  Surprise!  If you want to measure anything, discuss anything for comparison, how about controlling for a few of those variables, so your conclusion actually has meaning.  

Of course if you do yoga consciously and participate in the yoga community, you know most of this stuff is pretty silly anyway.  Generalizations make better press, and clarifying details make headlines and search terms so complicated and boring.  It  wouldn’t be half as compelling to discuss how a well-trained, carefully-taught class can be so beneficial (or not, studies seem to show that you have to believe yoga will help you, for it to actually help you).  Or to show a break-down of teacher salaries based on region, or place of employment, or class size.  Can’t sell as much advertisement.

So that’s my take.  Yeah, people sometimes get hurt doing yoga.  Sometimes they don’t.    What’s really interesting is why...and if you’re comparing apples and oranges your answer is going to be a lot broader and have a lot less meaning than a look at what’s going on between those two Pink Ladies.  Narrow the focus, people!

Monday, January 02, 2012

Honoring the Sleeve-Passions

I once went to a talk by members of the Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre.  One of the actresses was recounting her career path from med school to the stage, noting her parents’ disappointment and eventual acceptance of her choices.  “I think you know what you really want to be when you grow up, when you are a little kid.  At that time in your life, you wear your passions on your sleeve,” she said.

I thought that was a brilliant observation, and I often consider it when making my next move.  And my moves have been sort of disparate, but they still follow a me-specific logic that, I hope,  stays true to those sleeve-passions: journalism, art history, costume design, yoga, more journalism, and, now, biology (in preparation for some sort of teaching/writing).

My mom gave me a priceless gift for Christmas.  It is a neatly-compiled volume of much of the materials of my young writing life, all self-illustrated, self-published, and--as I’m about to relate--self-distributed.  About 1974-78 is represented and all in print from, as this was about two decades before the Internet was introduced.  Three decades before GTTSB went online.

The starring entry from among the Mothers’ Day cards, Narnia-esque stories, and haiku collections is Brenda’s Bugle,  a two-page, monthly newsletter I typed and sent out to various friends and relatives from 1977-78.  The articles range from interviews with my family, crafts fairs at my elementary school, book reviews, to ice cream drink recipes, comics (many lifted straight out of “Wee Pals” and “Archie”), and an obituary for my sister’s gerbil.  I even invited this sister to contribute towards the end of BB’s run...I think because I was running out of ideas to fill the last page.

Of course, the content is hilarious (R.I.P. Sausage, the gerbil), but what kills me is the writer’s voice of the ten-year-old me.  I don’t really sound all that different in tone and I’m really curious what I was modelling myself after:

                               Brenda’s Bugle Vol. 2, No. 5 (March, 1978)

Ah, ink (and White-Out)-stained wretch that I was...yet I hear some of the quality of GTTSB’s conversational tone in these early entries.  

Reading these back issues of BB inspired a resolution to return to the blog and do some none-academic writing this semester.  It’s hard to find the time for anything, but I’ve missed the exercise of working a thought out in print...and, of course, the exchange.  The chance to interact with readers and other writers was tamped down this fall and I’ve missed it  (even the editor of BB had a survey every once and paternal grandfather “loved” the articles, but felt the puzzles were “not for me”; my great aunt “read it from start to finish--enjoying everything in it”).

Maybe this week of reflection and looking forward is a good time to revisit “sleeve-passions.”  Was the young you onto something that the current you has forgotten or ignored?  Or maybe the young you was the inspiration for your present endeavors?  Either way, it makes a good story and I’d love to hear it...

Brenda’s Bugle Vol. 2, No. 7 (May, 1978)

Friday, September 16, 2011

More things yoga ruined...

It was fun to think about things that yoga ruined.  You all came up with a good list and now, with some continued thought, I've come up with some more...

Long To-Do Lists  I've tried to get all digital with my lists but, instead, I still keep a piece of paper with tasks organized by due date and a little square drawn by each, so I can cross it off when I finish.  Instant gratification when that X marks a chore.  And, it helps me clear my mind so a lot of random obligations aren't tumbling around getting in the way of Cell Biology (yes, the fall semester has started with its demanding science classes hogging up all the room in my brain).  

However, it has come to my attention that making a daily list that is achievable is a far preferable action to just listinglistinglisting everything.  I don't need any additional help to feel overwhelmed, so the list stays short.  A wise friend (and mother of three) said, "What needs to get done will get done."  Why deny the lovely sense of accomplishment that comes from a completed list?   

Rage  Now, I'll admit, sometimes its fun to get mad and make up clever arguments or insults in defense of whatever you're mad about.  I suspect it burns more calories than feeling good about finishing your to-do list, but that burn comes at a price.  Sleeplessness, distraction, tension, gritted teeth (and the attendant dental bill).  Please.  Surely there is a better use of time than getting all lathered up about fictional match-ups?

I think it's why I tend to avoid the Yoga Wars these days; how can you argue with some one about their beliefs (and that's fundamentally what all that is about--what everyone believes their yoga to be)?  There's no mind-changing when it come to faith, at least not from an external force, and it usually degenerates into name-calling.

There's a place for anger if it leads to constructive action but, again, it's not the act of anger itself that is useful.  Feeling superior gets you nothing.  I'm trying to take the deep breath, put the lady down, and let some one else do the fulminating.   I need my shut eye.

Wasted Energy In parenthood, endurance sports, daily life, there's no place for wasting energy.  Some things are compelling to engage in--like over-swinging your arms when you run or trying to predict the future--but do they actually contribute?  Does the excess worry, annoyance, confrontation, or drawn attention actually help, or is it just a distraction from the really important stuff--a good meal, an interesting conversation, playing soccer with a kid. 8 hours of sleep (probably, biologically, the most important of all). Sort of like balancing chemistry equations (Monday's quiz), you want the two sides of the reaction to be even; don't load the one side up with molecules of rage if you're not getting a useful solution on the other side.

(Okay, the last metaphor was a bit of a stretch.  But you get my drift.)

I still engage in mental sparring and get agitated when it seems like there's too much to do.  But I'm trying to get better about pulling back and looking at the big picture.  Or not looking at the picture at all.  Maybe it's age, but I feel like I'm starting to get it...the "life is too short" kind of thing.  Unfortunately, yoga hasn't completely ruined these things for me, but it certainly has made them less appealing...

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A Not Un-familiar Metaphor

I've been Xtreme gardening lately. After about three years of benign neglect (courtesy of little boys who need close supervision outside), I've been able to turn my attention back to massive prairie weeds and runaway ferns. Cathartic, if exhausting.

The neglect was not completely without engagement. I've been watching--sun patterns, aggressiveness of certain perennials, wet and dry spots. So even though my garden is a bit scraggly, I feel pretty aware of what's going on--what and what not to introduce. Some of this knowledge just comes from waiting and observation, some from internet research, some from talking to other gardeners. I'm not a Master by any means, but I know what I know.

I am struck by the similarity of gardening to teaching. No, I'm not going to draw a parallel between nurturing and mentoring or guiding immature seedlings or creating something beautiful from dirt. I've been teaching about as long as I've been seriously gardening (that'd be seven years) and, though I still feel pretty immature myself, I'm starting to get a sense of what makes me better at each discipline.

That would be experience. Not more trainings, more classes, more workshops, or more instruction. Sure, all that helps and gives you more information to work with (see the discussion at Linda S's house). But what I think I really pushes a teacher/gardener to the next level is actually doing the work itself. Having to be there in the moment and make choices on the fly, instead of endlessly discussing the options.

And then there's the peripheral knowledge that just comes with life experience--things picked up along the way that are relevant eventually. In fact, that's what I love about using the blog to figure out my yoga; often these connections don't become obvious until I'm thinking about them while writing. Which eventually leads back to the classroom. Or the dirt (so that's why you prune lilacs early).

Of course, useful life experience is impossible to quantify. How do you make an exit test? What does it certify? You certainly can't design a new revenue stream around it. But I guess, to me, it is the most useful instruction of all. It's why I prefer older teachers, especially in yoga (prejudiced, I know, but that's what works for me). Experience gives you a framework to understand all the subsequent training and makes all the information that much more relevant.

Get out. Dig in. Feet first. Just Do. Then you can step back and think, but first, Get Dirty.