This is NOT what I set out to write today. But here it is anyway:
Some things I’ve witnessed in yoga classes: mobile phones, sunglasses-on-the-head, coffee, smoothies, body odor, bad breath, stinky feet, burps, snoring, weeping, groaning, yelling, bags, shoes, jeans, jean shorts, someone’s 7-year-old, hair, toenails, jokers, players, bullies, prima-donnas, high-fives, gallons of sweat, butt cracks, side-boobs, side-balls, and yes, side-vag. (This should be set to music.)
I have heard and smelled farts, but I have never farted in a class. I have never seen someone faint in class, but apart from tunnel vision once from digging a once-inch splinter from my fingertip with a pocket knife, the yoga matt is the only other place I’ve almost blacked out. During a series of postures all involving padmasana, my left knee popped wetly then immediately tightened, probably from trauma-swelling. I kept going. I was once asked by an instructor to demo halasana and then so promptly thanked and asked to release it that I’m certain something unbecoming was visible to all. I myself have dripped face sweat twice into the eyes of people with whom I’m partnered for handstands. I’ve perspired so much during one class that I was able to wring moisture from my t-shirt. That’s been topped by a classmate who lifted his towel-covered mat after savasana and dumped a bucket of sweat onto the floor. Oops, he said, I’ve been on antibiotics, and people around him nodded with knowing approval. By now I’ve been so exposed to foot bacteria that I’ve surely developed my own living, protective patina. I’ve seen two gigglers ejected from a class before it even started, never, as far as I know, to return. I’ve assisted the most overweight yet strong and flexible yogi I’ve ever met to go from a backbend to a handstand to a forward bend and gotten my arm fully lodged in the rolls of his gut along the way. I’ve been scolded by a misinformed, mean-spirited elf before class not to walk on the recently-sanitized mats and wasted the entire practice thinking of what I should have said to him.
I have participated in group teacher training cleansing rituals where I’ve willingly threaded a rubber catheter into my nostril and out through my mouth. I’ve chugged a gallon of warm salt water to trigger a vomit reflex, and succeeded. Once, after a day’s worth of classes ending with a particularly unfamiliar spine-twisting sequence, my eyes crossed involuntarily for about a minute. I’ve gone to bed and woken up with more aches than when I built a house. I’ve dropped 15 pounds in one week. I’ve sometimes lost strength and flexibility with an increase in yoga. I’ve stood up from a back bend and reflexively hugged the startled teacher holding my waist. I’ve undergone so much physical limit-pushing that my only remaining coping tool was a gutteral hum. (I figured at least my voice could escape my body at that point.)
Here’s the classy part: after EVERY practice, I leave feeling better mentally and physically than when I arrived.
I’m not comfortable with “comfortable”. That word is supposed to mean “causing no pain”. I agree: painlessness is good! We strive for comfort; we want to sleep well and eat pleasant food, we don’t want nasty surprises, and we generally want to control the roller-coaster of life as much as we can. The problem is, we very easily start to confuse “comfortable” with “familiar”, and that’s where things can start to get twisted. By repetitively subjecting ourselves to the same, familiar circumstances over and over, we can ironically often find ourselves in a great deal of emotional and/or physical pain, the extraction from which is a challenging if not frightening prospect. Tickling is fun. Tickle too much, and you draw blood. (This is the most appropriate example I could muster without being political or offensive…feel free to quote me!)
But wait: exposing ourselves to the same thing for ten thousand hours…isn’t that how someone becomes an expert, you may ask. No – experts are people who have willingly subjected themselves to a thorough, far-reaching, full spectrum of experiences on a particular topic so that when the need arises, they can draw from a vast reservoir of first-hand knowledge to solve a problem. An expert finds comfort in the unfamiliar.
When I teach a yoga class, I have a duty to make sure that students don’t injure themselves. I watch their faces, I check in with them, I empower them to speak up (and no, I don’t tickle them). But I also have a duty to make sure they’re exposed to the unfamiliar. The breadth of yoga postures combined with a bit of creativity takes care of that, and I’ll ease students into those unfamiliar postures step-by-step. But then, I present them with the abstract idea of finding comfort in a posture that to them at that point in time is incredibly uncomfortable. They might feel like a mess, and I’m telling them that somewhere in that pool of sweat, fatigue, and disorientation is a sweet-spot of what they will come to see as effortlessness. This takes a few sessions to achieve, and some sequenced physical conditioning leading into the posture is necessary to build strength and flexibility. But this is really the warm-up for the brain. Exposure to the unfamiliar is CRUCIAL in yoga. By association, this means it’s also crucial to living.
We moved from Hong Kong to Los Angeles recently, and despite having moved across the planet two years earlier from Boston, adapting to life in LA has been harder. For one, there isn’t the insta-friend expat support network like in Hong Kong; despite living in DTLA, my life has been rather monastic as we’ve renovated our place, set up a new yoga studio and continued with consulting contracts.
I realized recently that a good deal of the struggle has been because of trying replicate the great life in Hong Kong. For stupidly obvious reasons, this is wrong; Los Angeles is a different city, with different people and a different landscape. I’ve been looking for familiarity, when really I should have been looking for new things that make me happy and comfortable. The world changes around us constantly. Our bodies and minds are constantly changing. We have no choice but to embrace unfamiliarity and search out the things that make us happy and comfortable within those new circumstances. The great thing is that the more we take this approach, the easier it gets.
I’ve only just started telling people at parties that I teach yoga. To be honest, in the past when other people have told me they’re a yoga teacher, I’ve smiled, said “yoga is GREAT!” and stepped away. These people looked like yoga teachers, and I’ve been a little wary of them. Even though I myself practiced yoga, I equated teaching it with a misguided sense of commitment. They might as well have said “I create synergy”. Yes, unfair. In fact, I once met a yoga teacher who actually has the word yoga in her name, and to my pleasant surprise wound up being a wonderful, level-headed, self-effacing and inspiring friend. Until recently, meeting a chef may have evoked a similar response…oh, they’re a cook, but something has changed in a handful of ‘affirmative’ professions, where maybe some celebrity attention and trends focused on self-improvement have increased their perceived value. Other, long-protected professions seem to have lost luster; I’ve met lawyers who actually shrug apologetically when they reveal their job, because they know that you’ll pass judgment (hahaaa! get it?) based solely on what you know from TV, despite the fact that they may well be very good lawyers who have helped lots of people. I happen to really like lawyers (I know eleven (wow! I just counted. Hmm.) many of whom are friends, and one of whom is now also a yoga teacher), and I think it’s because I’ve had the stressful occasion to need one (whole other story) and I now understand that they too are often tasked with deeply personal connections, so the stigma is gone. These preconceptions are rooted in our own laziness.
So my approach until recently was to describe myself as a yoga teacher by including other things about my design and strategy career to add credibility: “Well, I teach yoga, but I also do consulting for product development and strategy and I really actually see a connection between the mental and physical of any challenge blah blah blah…” The result: complete disinterest. My attempt to elevate one skill with another is absurd, like offering someone a glass of water, or, if they’d prefer, a shoe. I was diluting both professions and doing myself a disservice. Finally I made the leap and just told people I teach yoga. It was incredibly liberating, and people immediately warmed up and spoke about their own yoga experiences. Of course, this doesn’t always happen; at one gathering a woman told me through her cigarette haze and unfocused left eye “you’re a yoga teacher? but you speak very well” (to which I replied nothing.) Very often, as well, people then proceed to tell ME all about yoga. But this is actually fine – they’re engaged, relaxed, and showing me that yoga is something they’re actively learning about. One person I connected with so well that before leaving I boldly declared “let’s be friends!”. Only kids do that.
The stupidly obvious thing I’ve learned from this: talk about things that make you happy, be truthful and simple and enthusiastic, and you’ll find other people with an interest in the same level of happiness. Disinterested people will self-filter by walking away, and that makes your life much easier.
I was in Tokyo last weekend and went to yoga classes at two different studios. I wanted to know what yoga was like in a foreign place. A Japanese friend in Hong Kong had given me a list of studios with classes held in English. As it turns out, an English class is still conducted in Japanese. Both teachers asked, “so you don’t speak any Japanese at all?” I guess it’s unusual for a visitor to spend part of a long weekend trip trudging around doing yoga classes, so they probably assumed I lived there, and like all expats, had no choice but to learn the language. I shook my head sheepishly. They seemed worried, and not for me.
One place was fancy with nice lights and new floors, and the other was…er…vintage. Everyone was welcoming. In one class, each student introduced themself to me. The familiarity of the studio setting was incongruous with the fact that my ‘comfort language’ did not exist. I have so little understanding of Japanese that I didn’t even know when someone was asking me a question or making a statement. But I felt so included that it didn’t occur to me that my nod/smile response might not have been to a greeting, but to “You stink”.
What I learned: Yoga is not owned by anyone; we all share it and barriers are erased when a class starts. It’s one of the few activities that bears a universal language (the actual language, Sanskrit, of course, but also the tone and intent of the class) supported by MANY years of history and understanding. When I did the classes in unfamiliar surroundings with new people, I still felt like I was tapping into the same thing. I imagine this happens with soccer players, swimmers, and wrestlers too, but it’s really the only one that strikes a balance of individual and shared familiarity.
On a more superficial level, the experience got me thinking about ‘style of yoga’ vs teaching style. One of the classes was Jivamukti, which I had never tried before. Apart from having China Gel rubbed on my back and shoulders by the instructor while I was in a posture (which was nice! mind you, I’m such a sucker for any form of attention that she could have rubbed me with manure and I would have felt special) everything was familiar. A fellow student asked me after class what style of yoga I practice. I really wanted to say Hatha because that’s the correct answer, but I found myself stumbling to mutter a few varieties that I’ve tried over the years. I think it’s important for teachers and practitioners to remember the distinction between style of yoga and teaching style; Jivamukti, or Anusara, or Vinyasa are not styles of Yoga. They’re styles of teaching, and they’re all just different ways of getting to the same thing. The fact that I couldn’t understand what was being said in the japanese classes made this even more clear, since the opening dialogue and spoken adjustments generally are the things that separate one style from another.
The only down side to yoga in a foreign place: starting within about a minute of one of the classes, I had to pee; the prospect of rudely disappearing OR of trying to announce to what would become the whole, foreign-to-me class that I was not adult enough to go before the session and that I needed to know where the toilet was, if there even was one, encouraged me to stay put. And I was fine. From this I learned yoga takes your mind off peeing, whether you’re in Tokyo, Berlin, or possibly even Niagara Falls.
I’ve thought about simplicity a lot in my design career; what is the simplest form for an on/off switch? What is the simplest way to prevent false triggering? What is the simplest arrangement of symbols and lines on a sign to make sure everyone escapes? (Those last two are not things I’ve ever worked on, but someone has, and let’s hope they did a good job.) Sometimes, you can arrive at a simple solution to a problem very quickly, but we’ve been taught that when we find a simple solution to something, we’re getting off easy and something must be wrong. Not true. Here’s the reason: we often confuse simple with half-assed, or easy. Easy is time and effort-based, and simple is result-based. But sometimes the result of simple is easy, and that’s a good thing. But if it takes a so much work to achieve it, why does anything really need to be simple? The value is in the payoff. Confused?
Here’s why I’m writing about this on the blog: There are always simple ways to achieve yoga postures, but half-assed ways are impossible. You can’t hide in a posture; either you’ve achieved a variation of the posture or you haven’t…part way there isn’t the posture. And you need to get to some form of the posture in order to reap the mental and physical benefits. So how do simple and easy work into this? Partly by rethinking how we understand those two concepts. Yoga postures can be broken into a few main categories like balance, twist, and bend. Many postures have overlapping categories, but they each still have a basis in only one. Here’s an example of a posture that looks like a confusing, complex, intimidating mess.
It’s an advanced posture, but in this case it’s advanced because the brain needs to wade through it, not so much the body; once in the posture, not much strength or flexibility is required. This is a BALANCE posture and I struggled with it, until one day my instructor said “why aren’t you leaning forward more?” His tone was a mixture of empathy and incredulity that helped push the right button in my brain, so to speak. By looking at me sweat and contort, he pinpointed exactly what I needed to do in order to achieve the posture. Granted, once I was there, it was ROUGH and SHAKY and MOMENTARY, but I had touched a mental and physical sensation from long ago: learning to ride a bike.
He pushed me then let go of the seat. After that, all I needed to do was refine the posture by playing with it, exploring, and of course, trying both sides. (Yeah, that’s a whole other thing that doesn’t link to prior knowledge of riding a bike, unless, I suppose, you also want to learn to ride backwards.)
Side note: Ah, if only we spoke Sanskrit…because if we did, the incredibly descriptive names would help our brains and make things EASIER. Western names are no help; how does calling a posture ‘peacock’ tell us what to do? (no, peacock is not the above posture, bike or mat)
So, back to simple. This looks like a complex posture, with arms and legs supporting and twisting and extending in all directions. But it’s not the appearance of the posture that we should be concerned with in order to achieve it; it’s the simple idea that it’s based in balance. There are many helpful ways into the posture, and those are basically ways to break down the problem into steps that happen to suit your particular body and brain, influenced by your own past experience. AND, like riding a bike, this will not be achieved immediately and easily. But if you ask yourself what’s the easiest way to properly achieve something, you are using a reductive approach (simplifying the issue!) that always works, whether you’re solving a work problem or working your way into a posture. Easier said than done, right? Yes. Sitting on a yoga mat, watching others in different stages of their practice do the same posture while listening to an instructor bark or sing out commands seems counter-productive to the process, but that just points at the need for open-mindedness and patience, and to the reality that none of us lives in a hermetically sealed bubble, on or off the mat. In fact, like it or not, we benefit from the chaos around us; we have access to a constant stream of ideas that we can steal, absorb, and shape into methods that suit us.
Every five years or so, I try to introduce my family to the benefits of Yoga and I fail. Until, I think, now…because I’ve finally stopped trying so hard.
Last year, after her unlucky string of injuries and trips to the hospital, I bought my 69-year-old mother a gift certificate for ten classes at her local yoga center. I thought it would be a good way to get her out doing something and it would get her back some of the strength and balance she was lacking from before and after the injuries. She seemed delighted; she bought herself a mat, a special outfit, and went to a class that week. Then she went to another class the following week. Then she brought her husband with her to a third class. And then she never went back. Sigh. Twelve years earlier, I had brought them to a Bikram class with me, and she left the class twenty minutes before the end. Similarly, after dragging my brother to a hot class he declared, to my expectant, smiling face,”that was the most disgusting experience of my life.” In retrospect: WTF was I thinking?!? I’ve struggled to understand why my family doesn’t do what I say. I’m an expert! I share everything I learn with them! I want to spoon-feed them help! After a recent family visit, I think I finally have the wisdom, patience, and evidence to start to understand what’s going on.
My partner’s parents just spent three weeks with us in Hong Kong. They’re both around sixty, and actually don’t look much older than fifty. They’re in great shape. They live in Newfoundland, and have spent the past eight years building a stone (!) house using only locally-available stones that they painstakingly gather, haul with their pickup, and, when the weather permits, carefully position in an ever-higher mass of hand-mixed mortar and rock. It’s beautiful, and it’s a labor of love that requires constant attention, patience and careful timing due to the rather harsh climate. the seven winter months of the year are spent working on construction inside.
Unfortunately, as a result of years of physical feats, my father-in-law has inflexible ankles, an injured knee, an injured shoulder, thickened fingers and wrists, and an injured back. I offered to show him some stretches that might help relieve some of these problems, and we actually did two 45-minute sessions. He appreciated it, I think. I hope he learned something. Here’s what I learned:
• All pain is bad to him, whether it’s from stretching or from exacerbating an injury.
• He doesn’t have a mental picture of the bones, muscles, and organs interacting in his body.
• He has the capacity to improve drastically after only two sessions.
• He, like many, has so firmly identified with his injuries that he hasn’t noticed that some of them are no longer injuries (for example, 40 years ago (!) he apparently hyper-extended both feet backwards (!) in a wrestling match during police training (!), and has since then NEVER kneeled on the floor with feet underneath his butt (!)…I had him try this, and to his and my surprise, after day two he could sustain this posture for up to ten seconds.)
• He, like many, seems to have been told by doctors that if you have an injury, you should never use that body part again.
• Many doctors don’t have a clue what they’re doing.
• Attention is important to him, like to all humans, and there’s a difference between the attention he gets and the attention he needs.
• To get strength, balance, and flexibility in his body, he needs it in his brain.
• His body learns FAST.
• His brain learns FAST.
• He’s going to be FINE.
…and the biggest thing I learned during their visit (and it relates to diet, exercise, and overall life-balance) is that he actually deep down already knows everything I can tell him that is worth him knowing. I can preach until I’m blue in the face, and it’s not necessary, and in fact might be counter-productive. He knows. In fact, to my surprise at the end of the visit, he described physiotherapy he’d had years ago to fix his other shoulder that had been injured in the same place. The therapy had worked. This made me happy, albeit confused (and a little irritated). I suspect this is the case for most people who watch TV, read newspapers, and live on earth: they know. Sure, people might not know that broccoli contains calcium, that talk therapy can replace medication, and that breathing rapidly does not increase oxygen intake, but they do know that too much or not enough of something is bad for you, and that moderate amounts of exercise, good food, and being social helps you live longer. People choose to not do what’s good for them. It’s not just information that people need, it’s the encouragement and the empowerment to understand that they’re responsible for their own good health. Not their doctor. Not their wife or husband or kids. Not their son’s partner. Yoga classes and one-on-one sessions are there to equip people with information about their bodies so that they can take control, not to fix their problems for them. My family is amazing and will be fine, and it won’t be because of me.
Welcome to Vessel. For those of you who don’t know, Vessel as a source for yoga instruction is a departure from many things Vessel has been in the past: product development, licensing, retail, distribution, business and design consulting. Since we first started to use the name, life has been a roller-coaster dragging personal and business events through highs and lows. What stuck through all of that was the importance of balance, so when trying to think of the right name for this new yoga effort, Vessel still seemed very appropriate. (Our bodies are vessels…get it?) So here I am, on the other side of the planet, doing something I’ve been aiming at for years. If you’re in Hong Kong, sign up for a class. I’m proud to say that I really want to teach people about the benefits of a solid yoga practice, and I believe I have much to offer you.
I’ll be updating these posts on a regular basis with things I think are of interest to humans. I’ve already got a list…check back soon…