I do not sugar coat. I regularly yell: Ladies, the fastest way to die is to fall and break a hip! Not on my watch Not if I can help it! Now stay in the pose and hold it for 10 more breathes.
Why should I lie to my students? I am must make them stronger yet keep them safe while they gain muscle memory and brain plasticity around balance. I play favorites. I shamelessly dote on one student. I regularly announce at some point in the class, that all students can go to Le Madeleine for brunch because I only care about one person. The only person I care about it Thetis. Why? She is 76 and she is a rock star.
True, I have my strong adroit 25 year old dude, but Thetis can hold plank longer and in better form than he ever has. Why? She has been working with me for over three years. Since working with me she ceased taking her asthma medication. Her wrists and hands no longer curl up. She balances in the center of the room now while before she would steady herself on the wall. (Please see her on the wall in an l-shaped handstand!)
The joy of seeing students improve keeps me enthused about teaching. For my vintage demographic, it’s not about looking good in stretch pants, although they are all adorable. For these vintage models, victories on the mat lets them leave the studio beaming and better equipped to be balance in many situations. This confidence goes far beyond yoga.
They are stronger and more nimble. They age backwards. They stand taller. More importantly, they brag about how they are my golden girls. This corps group of women have become seven strong and they continue to invite their friends. They come and study yoga. They travel together. They gang up on me together. They discuss geriatric specialists and they defy ravages of osteoporosis by doing smart, slow, safe yoga with my hawk eye to create classes just for them.
Now, I must be careful with my vintage models. Because they are slower, I have more alignment cues built in to their sequence. They like more rest between poses. We use sand bags to add weight bearing elements. The Golden Girl Crew likes to work hard. They often do crow. They are pictured here doing l-shaped handstand on the wall. With my assistance, they can often jump into handstands in the middle of the room. The stretching makes them longer and the core work makes them groan and complain. I am deaf to their complaints. The strong core and back makes balance easier.
I do workshops for them inspired by the book Yoga for Osteoporosis by Loren Fishman, MD and Ellen Saltonstall. I have found ways to hold them in the poses longer to create just enough good stress on their long bones and especially the hips. We work feet diligently so arthritis does not rob the toes of gripping power.
The best strategy I have to teach them to fall. I let them know that 25% of older people who fall and break a hip will die within one year of the accident. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/04/science/a-tiny-stumble-a-life-upended.html) I intentionally stand them on blankets or one block so they learn to navigate through the instability. The fear of falling is always with them. I make falling part of their lexicon. They fall smart and flow to the floor instead of freezing up and receiving a blunt flow.
Our mantra: It is good to fall. Now get back up. You must fall well. You’re okay. Now get up and try again. They have quad strength to lower down slowly.
I give them preferential treatment. I work with them closely. They do not push themselves. They have nothing to prove. They chat about grandkids and little aches and pains. They celebrate each others’ victories. One student learned to get up from the floor without using a chair after two sessions. For an 85 year old, she now has a victory that means life continues with dignity.
My mom inspired this class. I designed the class to keep her strong and bendy. I am interested in having her healthy vibrant. Her mom and dad both lived into their 90s. If I am blessed, she will still come to class 30 years from now and do yoga with me at 100! I want her to continue pestering my dad so he keeps working out too!
The great Iyengar Teacher Mary Dunn gave me the idea. I often went to her classes in New York and her mom was often in class. I thought, “I want that too! I want my mom to be in class when she is 90!” With any luck and lots of yoga, I will have my wish and prayer come true. Until then, I will invest in my mom and all my 60-77 year old students all the love and joy I can give.
They are growing young. I only hope I can keep up with them.
You are ready to start yoga class. You sit tall. You quiet your face. You soften the space between your eyes. You listen. You wait. Your yoga teacher commences her dharma talk. At first it is interesting, but then, she pontificates on irrelevant topics and meanders about rambling. She refuses to shut her cake hole and just start class. You fidget. You scream inwardly as every joint hurts and your right leg tingles from lack of blood flow. Thoughts of amputation cross your mind. You open one eye and peep at the clock, those six minutes of a 60 minute class vanish like a yoga high during the commute home in rush hour traffic.
I cannot to be that teacher. Toastmasters educated me: stand up to be seen, speak out to be heard and sit down to be appreciated. I shall speak profound and interesting and sage words but sometimes that inner critic yells, “Really? Really? How can one strive over obstacles? That is yoga babble, Nicole. It makes no sense.”
Erudite is an adjective I’d love to earn. Pithy is a word I’d get tramp-stamped on my sacroiliac. Laconic ought to be my nickname. Yet growing up with an English teacher mom, acquiring a BA in Literature, completing the Radcliffe publishing course, writing for the New Orleans Tribune and learning the subtle art of vituperation in law school makes me a vulgar sesquipedalian. (sesquipedalian defined)
One student’s eyes grew wide, when she overhead me upbraid a student who surreptitiously, cloaked her phone with a strap and pirated my class. The next day, when the yoga pirate failed to show, my faithful student quipped: You are definitely a great yoga teacher, but first you will always be a lawyer. Mea culpa.
Words can be great vehicles of understanding and justify my logophilia. (10 Words Every Book Lover Should) Or words can obfuscate. I will bet my Light on Yoga that every Manduka toting yogi has at some point heard: Press into all four corners of the foot. I’ve always thought, yet dared not question a triangle shaped foot having the qualities of a square. Only when Leslie Kaminoff analzyed The Art of the Foot did I see that the foot doesn’t really have four corners. At best, one might say press big toe, pinky toe and inner/outer heel.
Even telling someone to breathe into her belly is an anatomically impossibility. We have no lung tissue in the stomach. However, the softening of the belly and expansive breathing into the entire lung conveys what most teachers mean by viloma-pranayama.
I die death by paper cuts when my teacher trainees pepper their scripts with crutch phrases and dilute their yoga potency. I pray they will expeditiously grow out of these fillers as they learn to control their nervousness, manage class energy and succinctly deliver alignment cues. Sadly, many seasoned teachers never cut the fat from their language.
Again, Toastmasters made me Ah Counter and I tallied ahs, ums, likes and we’re gonnas. During teacher training, as a gentle reminder to stop saying “ah”, I clink the meditation chimes as an alert them to every single offensive phrase that leaves their neophyte lips. The newbie teachers flinch under a shower of chimes. I do not care. These teachers must be ready to teach in the park to 150 people while a siren blares and a yoga heckler throws chestnuts in their yogic path. (Why anyone heckle a yoga class? But I digress.) I intend to groom yoga teachers with power and not puffery in their prose. Do we really need more mediocrity?
Although yoga cultivates its own navel-gazing habits, other industries and every day conversations are replete with filler language too. Years ago, in a Manhattan bar, I stood transfixed as a would-be-host for The View tried to sip her Martini and not say the word LIKE. Barbara Walters hired a coach to spend 24 hours with the woman to cut the word like from her vocabulary. She could not complete a sentence without her coach correcting her. She soon sipped her drink and opted for silence.
In a yoga class well-placed silence is good. Eventually, a yoga teacher must speak. The students come to hear you teach. Mantrika shakti instructs the power of words. Students often tell me why they are too weak, too old or too _____ (fill in the blank) to do a pose. They advocate on behalf of their weak habits. If they win, they get to keep their habits and stay stuck in their comfort zone of mediocrity.
I defend my student’s strengths, ability and diligence. I champion their cause. I insist they stretch and grow. I am yoga defense lawyer for my student’s best selves so that they do not suffer at hands of their own inner critics as I often have.
Language can empower the mind, the mind can empower the body and the body can work miracles in the world. If I don’t uphold this teaching of the Upanishads, I am guilty of yoga babble. I abjure.
“Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; for it becomes your destiny.” Upanishads
I lose my things. I lose my mind. Everything must stop until I find my hat, glove or shoe. In the midst of a monomania tear through the closet to find my Brooklyn Nets cap, I got a strange feeling to call my student. She had been in turmoil lately. This mental text message seemed urgent. I made a mental note to call her. I continued my search. When I finally picked up my phone., she had called. Such events no longer startle me: yoga helps me listen to the inexplicable and notice people’s energy shifts.
We all have the ability to use our minds and bodies beyond our expectation but yoga amps up this ability. Although I have no idea what half the buttons on my dashboard do, the mad scientist in me delights in pushing buttons just to see what happens. I experiment on my mat. I share what I learn with students. Lesson number 3,686 is that not experiences are comfortable.
Last week I failed to listen. I found myself in crazy events spiraling more and more to disaster. I did not panic. I awoke early, I did my morning practice focusing on warrior 2, I did my meditation, and I wrote in my journal. When I finally stepped out into the world, my sense of calm was so strong that I traveled on a rail. I stayed calm and peaceful no matter what. I stood my ground.
I have grown accustomed to the centering rituals of warrior 2 held until my quads mutiny. I no longer question why strong legs instill calm. The discovery moment came when a big shot lawyer who regularly argues in front of the United States Supreme Court told me that my assertiveness and calm helped him make cogent decisions in the madness that faced us. He could not have been so strong without me.
“Who little ole me? “, I thought. “But I am a retired, lowly scrappy Brooklyn housing court attorney and you are a legal god who just argued in front of the Supremes last week.”
Could it be that I had skills and buttons on my dashboard that he, for all the dignity of the high court, had not used or even pushed. Could there be value and pulling my tiny 5’4 1/5” body to its full height and standing in mountain pose while unscrupulous opposing counsel got inches from my face so I smelled the rancor of his ashtray mouth. I felt spit droplets landing on my face. Could it be that calm in the wake of inappropriate comments made by a bully attorney about menstruation has value? Had my yoga practice added to the calm strength?
I would have elected NOT to feel rage and helplessness and frustration had I the choice. Yet those off road conditions lead me to discover the four-wheel drive button and ferocious traction when chaos swirls around me. Warrior 2 made me mentally strong and better able to serve and help those in need. I told my student to find the buttons on her own dashboard. She looked skeptical and decried her situation. I smiled and told her this was a gift that some people never receive. I told her to keep trying. The gift of learning to be scrappy and brave comes from standing in warrior two over and over. Growth isn’t always comfortable and that is okay.
The Ninth Limb of Yoga?
Teaching yoga in Dallas means running around to different studios and homes and offices. Tonight instead of a breathtaking view from the W Penthouse, I gave thanks to seeing my double bed piled high with pillows… I came home, pushed pillows to the floor and collapsed after teaching three classes. Usually, my Tuesday evenings are spent teaching private yoga to Kidd Kraddick and Lisi, his fiancee. David Craddock suddenly died on Saturday. I can barely rinse sadness from my brush so that I ineluctably painted melancholy blue classes when I most needed a palette to register joy for students suffering their own woes. I pushed my students unforgivably and then had them feel their hearts beating and think of Kidd Kraddick (a true trickster) lest they take life and laughter for granted. Laughter heals. Kraddick was a yogi of the radio!
As a result, I employed laughter mercilessly and shamelessly for the rest of class. Sometimes, I need to laugh to keep from crying because life hurts. I put my own oxygen mask on first so that I have energy to help my students. And if I yank the cord to start the flow of laughing gas instead of oxygen before putting the mask firmly over my nose and mouth, so be it. I bring enough laughter for everyone. Sullen, stingy yoga teacher, I am not.
All things being equal, I fall into Gunpati’s trickster tribe…I honor only the safety of my student and I irreverently employ laughter as a didactic tool and therapy. I transgress against the serious, self-important yoga pompassity that infects the yoga industry. Why does having a puss on your face make you a better yogi?
Question: Should a yoga teacher be funny?
Funny does not necessarily mean good yoga and dry doesn’t mean bad yoga. I can get high from a boring, dry yoga class THAT IS CONTENT RICH because I no longer use yoga as a chew toy like a teething puppy. I used to be a puppy yogi. Bored puppies will chew and destroy anything because they have no discernment. Boredom often indicates pranic stagnation.
A freshly walked puppy, a child just in from the playground, a yoga student subdued by 10 surya namaskars can often sit still and absorb teaching. A good teacher ascertains this and plans accordingly. Good teaching takes the boredom out of folding and makes it joyful. Boredom today is a dangerous adjective that often reflects a mind bereft of intellectual curiosity.
Perhaps you didn’t get the text, tweet or instant message? We yogis are pushing back against evolutionary decay…certainly the opposable thumb we grew should do more than text and undoubtedly the mind is meant to do more than surf channels and watch the Kardashians? FYI: Our jaws are weakening because we eat processed foods with no cellulose or ruffage. Our minds are slack because we expect to be entertained…
Aside: An interesting Atlanta Ted Talk by Sally Hogshead describes the modern attention span as 9 seconds whereas in the past it was 20 minutes. Yoga teachers are at our best neuro-plasticity sculptors in our aim to samsara halahala, n’est-ce pas? A strong mind is the sexiest boon of yoga and dharana is a pre-requesite to nirodhahcittavrttis and the elusive dhyana.
Eddie Murphy said a mind is a terrible thing. I think he took that from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. When the student is ready she learns from EVERYTHING…learning is why yoga slows Alzheimer’s and removes depression and ADD…it is an acquired taste to focus the mind. Yoga also cultivates listening. But really who listens anymore? Ah, that is another ranting post…
Yoga provides the entry point to divinity through an infinite variety of teachers and styles. We yoga teachers sing into a class room the way one might sing into silent piano strings and that one note will vibrate and sing back. The rest will sit quietly…those silent strings may fancy themselves BORED but that singer just didn’t call out to those notes.
People who want to study with a shaman, shape-shifter, trickster, healer-yogini will come to me. If I had a dollar for every student who comes up to me and thanks me for making yoga fun, well, I might be BIKRAM ;-p. In contrast, one student (a 99% Pitta, 65 year-old Israeli Jew) told me he could do without the stand up routine. I get it. Overtime, this grumpy old man fell quite in love with me.
After I nudged him into his first crow with the assurance that Dallas is replete with plastic surgeons should he do a face plant, he stayed after class to admit that I had an edge because everyone loved me…versus he was so off-putting that he was lonely.
I teach mula bandha…as if I could teach a mula bandha. The audacity, the hubris of teaching a banda is comedy straight no chaser. I brazenly suggest that I will know if and when students are working their mula bandha because their right eye will shut and it will look like they are doing long division…I also inform them that I will not check to see if mula is engaged because it is not that type of class.
If Billie Halliday sang good morning heartache, then Rumi wrote the same in the Guest House. Now, I can barely stop sadness from bleeding into the room since learning this tragic news. Laughter is the counterpose. Two weeks ago, I suffered terribly when I saw a mullet. I held my students in horse for two minutes so that they too could know suffering and learn compassion.
IF YOU CANNOT STAND BURNING QUADS FOR TWO MINUTES, HOW CAN I TOUGHEN YOU UP FOR THE TRULY UGLY THINGS IN LIFE, LIKE SEEING A MULLET IN 7-ELEVEN WHEN ALL YOU WANT IS A BIG GULP?
Paxil is an artificially manufactured happy neurotransmitter…but we yogis manufacture our own happy neurotransmitters. We are our own pushers and molecule jockeys and yoga addicts through the eight limbs of yoga. Humor may not be the ninth limb of yoga but humor is sometimes all we have. Sometimes humor is enough. Otherwise we have inspiration piped into our lives through radio by a mensch like Kraddick. I will miss David but I will keep laughing in his memory.
Yoga Teacher of Dallas, Texas
Yoga ruined my life. As a young lawyer, I was perfectly content to verbally skewer evil landlords and opposing counsel in Brooklyn Housing Court. Okay, maybe I had anger management issues. I lacked awareness of my vitriolic tendencies. Anger, in addition to well-drafted briefs, allowed me to hold my own in Court. My attitude fostered, promoted and cultivated a formidable opponent to my court room adversaries. My clients were impressed that they had hired the baddest legal counselor money could buy.
Adrenaline accompanied acrimony. My intolerance grew. I sought anger fixes everywhere: in cabs when the driver selected a circuitous route, in restaurants when the food failed to impress, and in department stores where draconian exchange policies prevented me from returning my stilettos.
In New York City, a force field of anger protected against the desultory side effects of urban living. With shoulders pinned into my back and a what-are-you-looking at scowl, I gained prized space on subways and thwarted the catcalls of construction workers. Patients in post operation might walk hospital hallways dragging stands with morphine in a plastic baggy on an IV drip, but as I strode down Broadway wearing this mad mask, I dragged an IV of rage.
Yet in moments of solitude, I admitted to myself that this lifestyle left much to be desired. The rage was taking its toll. Chewing cherry tums failed to stop my stomach’s churning. My digestive health worsened. The gastroenterologist hypothesized that irritable bowel syndrome or maybe Crohn’s Disease plagued me, but all test results were normal. Nothing worked: mild food, chocolates or shopping for Jimmy Choos. The doctor suggested yoga.
I had dabbled in yoga regularly since suffering test anxiety in law school. Yoga was paying off in some ways. My biceps were to die for (look out, Michelle Obama). Still something was missing. Like water eroding a stone, yoga is cumulative and works over time. I was looking for a quick fix. It didn’t happen. Yoga transformed me slowly. Gradually, the physical side of yoga led me to meditation and mindfulness. I was succumbing to calm. And I liked it.
I can still litigate but I choose not to. Yogic equipoise ruined my litigator’s edge. Perhaps ruin is too strong a word. If my love affair with anger had to end, then ruination was not so bad. I stopped litigating when I started treating my court room negotiations like breathing exercises for a yoga class. Opponents were never the wiser as I synchronized my breathing with theirs. The settlements flowed smoothly and amicably. My angry bowel syndrome disappeared.
Not surprisingly, I shall need a lifetime to learn yoga poses demanding flexibility and surrender while poses requiring strength and ferocity come easily to me. Sometimes anger ambushes me but I no longer hear the Wicked Witch of the West theme song hummed by people sucked into the wake of my path. Now, I hear only the sonorous, soothing sound of Om.