OK, so tea’s OK, too

There’s no secret about our extolling of coffee’s benefits.

But just to be fair to all you tea drinkers, we’ll throw some leaves your way. Via the New York Times’ Upshot column, here’s some of tea’s health benefits:

At the end of all of this, I’m a little less impressed with the body of evidence regarding tea than I was with that of coffee. I admit that this is an interpretation, and others may disagree. The lack of a dose response in many of these trials, coupled with the fact that so many were performed in countries with markedly different tea consumption from our own, makes these results less generalizable than those of coffee were.

But the conclusions I would make are similar. I wouldn’t strongly recommend that anyone take up tea based on these findings. But there seem to be few harms, and some potential benefits. Drink it if you like it. It, too, seems to be a completely reasonable addition to a healthful diet.

Click on the link to get a whole mouthful of different studies.

We of course like this conclusion, giving coffee its great due. But maybe for those who want a little less of a boost in the afternoon… you can have your chai.

Posted by Steve

A surfing lesson you can apply to your yoga practice

I’m on day nine of 10 down here in Encinitas that I got out in the water and surfed. (We’re 10 for 10 when it comes to getting in the water.) The surf hasn’t been anything near epic, and the promised swell that is supposed to begin arriving today hasn’t yet. But that hasn’t stopped me, and it hasn’t stopped me from A. having super fun in the water and B. finding some fun, often little, waves when there weren’t supposed to be any.

Proof the surf hasn’t been that good.

Thursday’s session was the best case in point.

First, though, one example of the process of figuring out where, and whether, to surf. Surf reports. Online surf report have pretty dramatically changed how surfers find ways (most dramatically enabling big wave surfers to drop everything, get aboard a plane and get halfway around the world for a huge swell). It used to be rumor, guesses based on the past and some general following — if you were really serious — of long-range weather patterns. (Which, back then, weren’t accessible like today.) I’ve got three different reports, from which I try to triangulate my own best guestimate. Right now, they are suggesting we’ll get a 3 to 5 foot swell tomorrow, more likely later in the day (that arrival has been pushed back); today, they are saying 1 to 2 foot (or less) around Encinitas.

Figuring there wasn’t much out there, and maybe hoping to give myself a little rest (I won’t bore you with the painful “research poses” I found myself in this morning, so rest is welcome), I just trotted down to Stonesteps, near where we’re staying and where I’ve mostly surfed. (Reason? See the phrase “just trotted down.”) It was pretty low tide, but that maybe was going to help.

After paddling out — which didn’t take much — and catching a couple of closeouts, I began to realize that this might be the worst waves of the trip. And that was coming on a day when, a few days ago, it was supposed to be picking up and maybe be among the better. Maybe I ought to just make it a really quick session, I thought.

Then the horizon lifted, just a bit, and a little wedge of water grew up just north of me. A few paddles over, quick turn around, some strokes in and the wave held up (maybe just kissing the sandbar I’ve been staking out) and an opaque, seaglass green wall of water, shimmering and reflecting the midday sun, appeared before me as I angled in, long enough for a few pumps of my board, chest high, enough power to get the board moving, before I tucked into the barrel and got surrounded for a second or two with the familiar rush and roar of a breaking wave.

(Quick digression on that board. Self-shaped, the first I’ve ever done after 35 years of surfing. Hanuman carrying the mountain of herbs on the deck; red; and a slightly modernized ’70s-shape single fin. The point was to have something a little more laid back, a little less in need of rapid turns and slashes. A different style of surfing, and I’m still figuring it out.)

A wave to make the whole session worth it.

I briefly hoped I might have lucked into the front edge of the swell, but that was mostly it. There was a handful of other closeouts, and a final wave that also was worth it. (I’d decided I’d come in after I caught another wave that made me happy. And that could be the surfing lesson to apply to your yoga practice, but it isn’t.)

But if I had listened to the surf reports and, more importantly, listened to myself after the first two waves, I would never have gotten that ride.

The lesson of this session, I thought to myself as I bobbed in the water, said hello to a passing woman on a bodyboard and waited for another wave, was: “You won’t know until you go.”

It really is the lesson of all my sessions. Each time, I’ve found a wave that was far better than the report said. (I surfed a spot on Wednesday, mostly alone, that wasn’t supposed to be any good and kept directing fun, waist-and-a-little-higher waves my way.)

I wouldn’t have found them, wouldn’t have known they were there if I didn’t go.

The same is true of a yoga practice. And it is the reason to give poses that might be beyond you or maybe someone hasn’t “given” you yet a try. (A try, I say, not a “do it all the time.” Although, maybe.)

You won’t know what they will do for you, what the experience will be, how they might help you, until you do them. You won’t know until you go.

Come to think of it, that’s certainly how Bobbie has approached Third Series. Second, even.

This isn’t to dismiss the extreme value of a teacher. (This post helped kick off our time down here. Also, don’t dismiss the value of surf reports.) But you won’t know until you go. Reading about poses, watching videos of people talking about them, studying books, etc. etc. only will get you so far.

On a lot of the material for the Ashtanga Yoga Center, Tim Miller has a quote: “My goal as a teacher is to inspire a passion for practice. The practice itself, done consistently and accurately, is the real teacher.”

You won’t know if he’s right until you go.

Posted by Steve

The teacher wails on you until you get the point

I’ve posted plenty about taking classes from Tim Miller. And Bobbie pointed out yesterday that they follow roughly the same formula: A description of how much Tim wailed on me.

The same happened Wednesday night, in his evening Led Primary class. But from there the story takes a turn.

First, though, the usual suspects: Tim adjusted the hell out of me. I can’t even give you a count; I know I more or less woke up in Tiryam Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana, wondering how we’d gotten there. I know there was Tim and an assistant (I don’t know which one, but Chungsue and Lauren were the two working the room [side side note: Thanks again!]) on me in down dog. And again in backbend. And, according to Bobbie, two other times.

I want to pause for a quick second. I think we’ve referred to Tim as the hardest working man in yoga before. I suppose that might rile some folks up for think their teacher deserves that title. Well, as Evidence A: Tim was doing all this work — and it was hard work, because I’m no cakewalk to move and adjust — 12 hours after arriving at his shala. By the time he brought us back to life from savasana, he’d been there 13 hours. Even on days when he isn’t training 40 people about Third Series, his day on Wednesday starts with 6 a.m. pranayama and ends with that 5:30 to 7 p.m. Led Primary.

That’s hard-working.

Here’s the turn to the story. I realized (with no little help from Bobbie) that Tim isn’t just trying to wrench me into the closest approximation of the poses as possible. Well, he’s doing that. But he’s also attempting to show me both where it is possible for me to get myself and where I should be trying to get myself — in order to move deeper into the pose, into the yoga. My head should be closer to my knee here — and it is possible. The twist ought to be deeper, and it can be.

He’s trying to show me what’s possible and what the poses offer, if I keep going.

Call me a slow learner.

But I was able — to some extent — to put that learning to practice this morning during Mysore practice. Tim was busy with a lot of the Third Series people, who provide him other problems to address as they learn those poses, I imagine. (No offense intended!) And I probably waved him off at the start (which always is stupid, but… jump up a paragraph: That comes with being a slow learner). But being left mostly alone allowed me to seek out where he’d gotten me in those poses just 14 hours or so earlier.

I think I have a little sense of what he is trying to do, so undaunted by my intransigence not to let him. And that’s some sort of start.

Posted by Steve

Have mat, will travel: Two places looking for an Ashtanga teacher

We’ll pass this one along via Ashtanga.com — for you teachers out there (or folks who know teachers who are looking for a place to land):

1. Ashtanga Teacher Needed – Silicon Valley, California
Looking for Mysore teacher for a small but growing Ashtanga community in Silicon Valley. Studio is in downtown San Jose, CA, 5 mins from San Jose International Airport (SJC). Month-long or longer term commitment preferred. Contact info@downtownyogashala.com if interested.

2. Ashtanga Teachers Needed – Koh Phangan, Thailand
Orion Healing Centre offers a monthly work/exchange program. They have 6 morning Ashtanga classes per week, one of them a led class, and a once-a-week evening led class. Contact info@orionhealing.com (subject: Ashtanga teacher) to apply.

I know a few Ashtanga practitioners who, in the past year or less, have moved to Silicon Valley; plus there’s Google et al — a bounty of potential students. I know a lot less about Koh Phangan. Pretty much I know that’s in Thailand, and I know that based entirely on this ad.

I’ve only come across a few ads along these lines over the years; often they have been for some fairly exotic location that needs a temp teacher. I wouldn’t hazard to say this is the first in what might be a new way to get teachers, but I wouldn’t rule that possibility out.

Posted by Steve

What qualities do you most value in a yoga teacher?

Last week we highlighted a piece — I’m assuming online only — at Yoga Journal about guidelines for yoga teachers.

It got me thinking about a related — it may even be flip side — idea: what qualities, as a practitioner, do I most value in my yoga teachers?

Some are obvious: deep knowledge of yoga — from the Sutras to the asanas. I’ve written about the importance of a sense of humor before. (As far as I can tell, it’s still drastically lacking.) There are more subtle, but at the same time more concrete, factors like parampara. I suppose. That doesn’t do anything to guarantee someone is a good teacher. Or a good person.

For me, though, if I had to put one at the top of the heap, I’d say “understanding.” And I’d put it at the top because I have found it so rarely. The vast amount of yoga teachers I’ve encountered really don’t seem to understand — or empathize with — students that don’t have their strength or flexibility or even their eating habits. (Admittedly, I’ve only read about people having encounters with yoga teachers who complained they smelled like meat when they sweat, but those stories ring true.)

As a result, their instruction — their teaching — is incredibly limited, even if it is limited to enough students to fill their classes.

Hmmm… that really reads harsher than I intend it, although I do think there is a great divide between what most yoga teachers are capable of teaching and what most potential students are capable of practicing. (But, again, for most teachers they are able to get enough capable students in their classes.) And I don’t mean to muddy my question (although muddy it I probably have): What qualities do you most value in a yoga teacher?

Posted by Steve

David Garrigues on how a yoga teacher motivates students

Home Ashtanga practitioners may know better than anyone the real value of a teacher.

It’s just that knowledge comes from a lack, not a positive reinforcement of the practice. A lack of motivation, of encouragement, of going beyond the limits thanks to the teacher shakti.

Bobbie and I are now in the home practitioner camp, which makes the not-often-enough trips to the Ashtanga Yoga Center all that more valuable.

David Garrigues has a new post up about the role of the yoga teacher. Link is here, and the section that resonates the most with me:

Joy: But a student’s limit can change, correct?

David: Yes. Ashtanga yoga is potent because it helps you to do or be what you never even dreamed. But of course there are challenges involved, a lot of limits are also quite fixed, and thus they remain somewhat stable. And so as the teacher you must be patient, some of the instructions, the patterns you want to help the student change, the new thing you want to introduce to them, you must wait…and you can wait a long time— maybe.

Ashtanga is potent, that’s for sure — and it is most potent when the teacher is there helping and guiding.

Posted by Steve

Don’t stress out: How yoga can save millions of dollars — maybe

We’re all familiar with how yoga can save us from the endless cycle of rebirth and get us to samadhi.

Every given thought to whether yoga could save millions of dollars — especially for the government?

That’s the topic of a piece online at Forbes that ties together the growing amount of research into yoga’s positive effects on health, ability to reduce stress and prepare us to handle the vagaries of daily life. This sort of sums things up:

The issues the country is facing – the massive dropout rate of school kids, substance abuse among all age groups, PTSD among veterans, the staggeringly high incarceration and recidivism rates – cost the country volumes in human potential, not to mention trillions in dollars. There are no single solutions, but the evidence suggests that some or all of these problems may be amenable to the practices that have been shown to redirect attention, improve concentration, increase self-control, and endow people with reliable and healthy coping mechanisms in the face of stress and trauma.

The idea here is that we can roughly estimate how much cost there is to society from someone dropping out of school, for example, or ending up in jail, or even being held back a grade in school. If one figures that there is a way to avoid those results, it is possible to begin drawing some lines and adding up some numbers. You might need to spend $30,000 for a yoga teacher to come to a school, let’s say, but that teacher could reach maybe 100 students. (I’m spitballing here.) If just a few of those students end up on a better path, then the return on that $30,000 investment in the teacher begins to grow: if it costs $250,000 per year to keep an inmate in prison, for instance, your investment suddenly looks pretty good.

The Forbes story has an example of a $5,000 program that trains 50 teachers who reach 1,000 kids. The cost per kid is then just $5.

So get every kid some yoga, you’re saying, right?

Now, I’m going to throw a little cold water on this. In my day job, I work on a few issues that draw very similar lines regarding the return on investments of social programs. It is a compelling argument, but it doesn’t close the deal necessarily. And, frankly, yoga — or mindfulness — is probably a bigger stretch for U.S. policy makers than many other, more “established” education or health programs. (To a certain extent, too, because there’s not a broad push for yoga programs, there isn’t a lot of data-based push back. Just, you know, the religious-based one.)

So this all sounds good. But don’t expect publicly funded yoga to pop up near you any time soon. But if someone within the Forbes online universe is writing about it, it may be a beginning.

Posted by Steve

Blog highlight: Who is the teacher and who is the student?

Steve’s Sunday Conversation topic got me thinking about teaching. It’s been much on my mind, because I’m in the middle of revising the writing course I teach at UCI. Part of my job is to not just run the course, but to train new teachers of writing, and every time I teach my Led First class at Jörgen’s, I ponder the meaning of teaching because, although I’ve been teaching writing for 28 years, I’ve only just started teaching Ashtanga. So I draw on my knowledge as a mentor teacher (of writing) to inform my role as a new teacher (of Ashtanga). I have a few observations that may answer Steve’s question.

There’s a difference between a guru and a teacher. In one of my teaching circles, in academia, we never use the word guru, of course. It carries some powerful colonial connotations, and none of them wanted. But we do mentor. I can say unequivocally that in every case where I’ve had a mentoring relationship with students, they’ve come to me. Some of these relationships are fifteen to twenty years old now, and I’m always a little astonished by it. I believe the student chooses the guru; the reasons have to do with the guru’s weight and light, but they have even more to do with the student. I used to put a quote from Bruce Lee at the top of my syllabus: “One is taught in accordance with one’s fitness to learn.” I’ve chosen my guru, I have no doubt.

But let’s just stick with the second word after Steve’s slash: teacher. At the start of each quarter, I pass out a long document listing the requirements of the course, my aforementioned syllabus. I always tell my students my syllabus is my contract with them. It’s not just what they’re promising to do in good faith (come to class regularly, work with focus, participate actively, etc.) but also what I’m promising to teach them. They should come to class with an expectation to learn from me. They should tell me when they don’t feel like I’m serving them well, so I can be better. A teacher recognizes that responsibility. When I show up to class, I am there to give knowledge. By showing up, I’m agreeing to do that. I want to do that for my students.

In the same vein, a teacher has to recognize the best way to impart knowledge to any given student is going to be different each day, each meeting, each student. A teacher has to demonstrate alacrity and adaptability, and a keen evaluative eye. One student may require a lot of, shall we say, firm encouragement—you might need to kick some ass. Another student doing the same task, even the same way, may require more support and compassion. You can never do the adjustment the same way twice. Knowing how to adapt requires a lot of experience.

The only way to get experience is to fail and learn. This means that all good teachers are first and foremost good students of their own art. When you set the right learning environment, students are willing to join you on this journey, accept your failures to serve them well, accept your apology, and try again with you. That process of learning the best way to learn—together—is an amazing experience, a sort of electric moment when the student no longer needs you, and you will now know more about how best to teach. The posture is now done with lightness and joyful confidence, and you can both move on.

So ultimately, the goal of all teachers should be to teach yourself into redundancy, to let go and point the way forward, beyond you as a teacher, into the art itself—to teach the student to be his/her own teacher. This is really the goal of learning to write well. It has some similarities to being an Ashtanga teacher.

Posted by Bobbie


Waiting for the asanapiphany

One of the things that I’ve noticed over my years of teaching writing is the delay time involved with learning. It’s true for writing. It’s true for Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

Steve’s been pondering what makes a good teacher. I’ve written about it. But one of the main qualities is a huge heaping supply of empathy for this slow burn, and, I believe, presentness. Exteme presentness, in fact. The kind of presentness that borders on mind-reading abilities.

When I was a young teacher, I had neither of these. I would treat each essay that crossed my desk in the same way, with the same set of standards of what was “correct.”

Of course, standards are..well, they’re standards and you have to have them. But what I learned as I grew more experienced is that there are many paths to “correct.” It takes a trained eye to take a good look at an essay and decide what’s needed to get the writers where they need to go.

This is where the long view comes in. And the empathy.

I had a student years ago, during my first year as a professor, who came into my office in tears. She told me my class was too demanding. That it was too hard for her. That she didn’t feel she could do it. She wanted to quit. I soothed her, I spent hours encouraging her, making sure she felt she could do it. But at some point during this meeting, I began to understand that all was not what it seemed.

Four years later, after she’d taken maybe six more literature classes with me—in crisis at the end of every one of them—and was once again in tears in my office, I looked at her, held out the box of Kleenex, and told her get out of my office and go finish her work.

It didn’t take me long to get to know her, and figure out that in order to do her best, she had to freak out.

There’s a phrase in Latin for this: modus operndi.

I’ve noticed that knowing when to spend hours supporting a student with encouragement, and when to say get the hell out my office—and knowing that both these actions will result in the same level of success—requires the ability to fully focus on that the individual student, and that it may take a while for what you’ve taught to sink in, and that until then, things might get a bit repetitive.

This is the explanation I have for the sudden understanding that comes upon me when practicing, that shock of what you might call the asanapiphany. You’re humming along, you’re doing your practice, when something that you’ve heard your teacher say what very well may be literally a thousand times, suddenly makes sense.

Let there be light!
Let there be light!

Or your body just slides into the place that your teacher has put you into over and over again—no teacher present. Like magic. And you go, “Oh!” in a little surprised internal voice. (Sometimes it’s an external surprise voice.)

Tim Miller, case in point, has, for years now, put his thumb on my sacrum in trikonasana, and pulled it (what feels like to me) down. Each and every time he’s seen me do that pose.

“Wha?” has been my reaction for years.

Tim patiently gives me this adjustment. No matter where in the room he is, no matter how long I’ve gone without seeing him, and no matter where the practice room itself is, he will zoom over and do this thing that I totally don’t understand—yet.

But I know, one day, I will be practicing, and through his patience, and his empathy (knowing that I will one day understand, because he understands me better than I do), I’ll get it. Until then, this bafflement is my modus operendi.

I’ll take this one step further. I know that I’ll get it, because it’s happened so many times in the past. Tim has taught me how to trust that one day I’ll get it.

Every term, I write up at the top of my syllabus a line from Bruce Lee: “One is taught in accordance with one’s fitness to learn.” A good teacher attracts good students. The experience of good teaching is what brings me to his shala. I know I will learn. But also, our patience as good students has taught Tim to empathize and be patient himself.

I used to think I wrote that quote at the top of my syllabus for my students. Now, I know it applies as much to me as to them. In order to teach, you must be ready to learn.

Posted by Bobbie

Ashtanga Teacher Wanted!

It's this beautiful right now in Santa Barbara.

When I was in my first teacher training with Tim in Tulum (Tulum has been much on our minds lately), there was a group of Ashtangis from Texas (“The Ashtangi from Texas”–that novel needs to be written) who had all been practicing in a garage and had no teacher. They were starving for knowledge. At my second training in Encinitas, there were Ashtangis from across the globe who were there because they had no teacher and wanted to take the practice back home to Columbia or Brazil.

I myself have been shala-less. It’s not a good place to be.

So when a fellow Ashtangi, also shalaless, asked if  The Confluence Countdown could help her find an Ashtanga teacher for The Santa Barbara Yoga Center, I said, heck yes. Here’s the info:

The position is for a certified Ashtanga teacher to teach 6:30 – 8:30 am Sun-Fri. Please contact Jasha Stanberry at the Santa Barbara Yoga Center, 805.965.6045.

Interested? I know a few people who would love to meet you.

Posted by Bobbie