Shuffling My Way Through the Pandemic

UnknownA ten kilometer fun run sponsored by Palo Alto Parks and Recreation in late spring 1986. An easy run that takes a sea of colorful souls from the smooth macadam near the golf course and the city’s single runway airport through Byxbee Park to the gravel packed levees that criss cross the Baylands on the Adobe Creek Trail. It’s a blindingly bright, still morning edging from warm toward hot and the tidewaters are retreating. There is the sharp stench of sulphur produced by bacteria digesting dead phytoplankton. In other words, on the day of this 10K, it stinks.

The uneven surface of the gravel levee slows my pace and the morning sun’s reflection on the water pierces my eyes like shards of glass. But I continue to force myself forward even as the runners overtaking me make me feel as if I’m not moving at all.

And then I stop. My body is like a horse refusing to move any further forward. I rest for a moment and consider my options. And then I begin to walk. The walk becomes a slow jog and then returns to walking as soon as my body realizes what my brain is trying to make it do. This back and forth between my brain and my body continues until I see the 10K Fun Run banner indicating the finish line. I shuffle across, collect my tee shirt, and, conceding there was nothing fun about this run at all, go home.

After that 10K my running schedule became erratic. I loved running but it was clear I needed a brief hiatus. It wasn’t my intent but my hiatus lasted twenty years, give or take a few. Running became, for me, like an old romance. There were wonderful memories but painful ones, too. Over the years I often asked myself, “I wonder what it would feel like to run again?”

I can tell you. It sorta kinda feels awful. But I expect that to change.

My bookclub chose for it’s May reading pleasure Kelly McGonigal’s latest book, The Joy of Movement. And recently the New York Times reported that there’s been an uptick in folks strapping on their old running shoes.

Armed with a nearly new pair of Hoka’s I decided to be one of those folks. It hasn’t been easy. Or pretty.

There have been years when I’ve not been particularly kind to my body but I’m in good health (knock on wood) with no heart, bone or blood pressure issues. With that in mind, and knowing my return to road running would be slower than the opening scene from Chariots of Fire (cue Vangelis) I didn’t feel the need to ask for a doctor’s approval. Instead I checked in with my favorite senior marathon runner and took additional advice from Juan Vigil’s book Seniors on the Run: Extending Your Life One Step at a Time.  Then I hit the streets.

On Day One I shuffle the length of one whole block. Four hundred feet if I’m lucky. And then I walk for two. I time my four hundred foot shuffles for when neighbors can’t see me. I know the exercise won’t kill me but it is quite possible I’ll die of embarrassment.

Seven days later and I’m no longer embarrassed by my shuffle nor am I embarrassed by my fifteen-minute-mile pace. I’m not looking for speed and I don’t intend to break any records. I’m shuffling to become reacquainted with a part of me that I miss. I’m shuffling because I never forgot how good running made me feel. Especially in the cool mornings with the smell of jasmine in the fresh dawn air. I’m shuffling because Kelly’s right. It’s joyful.

Besides, it’s never too late to begin again.


Avalon Teacher Training Program

This past Sunday marked the end of my six-month teacher-training course at Avalon Yoga Studio in Palo Alto, California. While I don’t often speak for a couple dozen or so other people (at least not all at once) I believe it’s a safe bet they’re as ecstatic as I am to see the return of a weekend for the first time since the beginning of September. I’d be lying, however, if I didn’t confess there is a part of me that will miss the gathering – the friends I made, the philosophies I embraced and the moments that tested and challenged me.

The teacher training at Avalon is unique.  Where other programs train to a certain method or school, the comprehensive 200-hour program at Avalon introduces participants to the major styles of modern yoga.  Guest instructors lead us in sessions of Iyengar, Jivamukti, Restorative, Dharma Mittra and more.

The program places a heavy emphasis on recent scholarly research that suggest the asana practice we believed was thousands of years old is actually a 20th century construct.  Not everyone is ready to accept this radical re-thinking of our discipline’s history.  For me, however, knowing Surya Namaskar arrived at the beginning of the last century and not centuries before brings a sense of relief. Understanding how asana practice evolved gives me permission to participate in the evolution.

The program also offers an examination of the yogic texts.  Most of us won’t be scholars on the subject but yoga teachers should at least be familiar with the Sutra’s, the Gita, Pradapika and Upanishads.   Fortunately, the teaching at Avalon made the philosophy of the ancient texts relevant to our hectic 21st century.

The Avalon faculty is a diverse group. Standouts for me are psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal, yoga historian Mark Singleton, restorative yoga doyenne Judith Hanson Lasater and musician Girish.  We can’t forget beloved local Iyengar instructor Shastri and Jivamukti dynamo Giselle Mari. Although Jivamukti doesn’t resonate with me, Giselle is an amazing teacher full of life and energy. She even softened my hard-edged opinion about the use of music during asana practice.

Avalon Studio Owner and Director of the Teacher Training Program Steve Farmer is a generous man.  During the duration of the training participants are invited to attend any yoga class at Avalon for free.  He encourages us to build our teaching skills by inviting us to teach free classes for the community at the Avalon studio.

All this is great.  Without a doubt the Avalon Teacher Training Program is an excellent educational opportunity. But like most teacher training programs it is not without its flaws.

I entered the program with a beginner’s mind and eighteen years of teaching experience.  I wanted to learn.  But there is an art to teaching people how to teach and I found too many guest lecturers did not have that skill.  While they are more than able to teach yoga blind folded with two hands tied behind their back, they don’t have the skill set for teaching people how to teach. I found this frustrating, and a bad attitude began to crowd out my beginner’s mind.

And while the opportunity to practice our teaching skills through the free community classes is a generous one, someone with limited prior teaching experience might find the prospect too intimidating to consider.  My feeling is that the program should offer more opportunities to teach in the classroom right from the start and that those teaching moments should include a peer review.

I am not the only one who feels in-class teaching time was too limited.  The issue was discussed in an open forum on our last day of class.  Steve easily agreed and is working to add more teaching peer reviews.

The Avalon Teacher Training Program is not perfect, but do I recommend the program?

Absolutely.  Without a doubt.  It’s the best non-residential yoga teacher-training program I’ve seen.

Why?

It happened about four months into the training. One of my long time students approached me after class.  She said, “You know, Mimm, I’ve always enjoyed your classes.  But something’s changed. It’s your teaching.  You’ve become a better teacher.”

Wow.

My first thought was “after eighteen years it’s about time.”

But then I realized that despite the moments when my beginner’s mind failed and arrogance overwhelmed me; even when I wore my bad attitude like a heart on my sleeve, I still learned. When I disagreed with an instructor, my faith in what I believe yoga is grew stronger.  And when the words I heard resonated in my heart – which was often – I learned even more.

The Avalon Teacher Training Program stretched my teaching wings.  It pushed, encouraged and enlightened me.  My confidence as a teacher has grown but more than that I now know with unstinting certainty there is room for the style of asana practice I embrace in the continuing evolution of modern yoga.  And I have the Avalon Teacher Training Program to thank for that.


Perfectionism: The Voice of the Oppressor

Cover of "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions...

I don’t know that I could have picked two better books to read simultaneously.  If Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct is the brain of the operation, then Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is the heart.

I know everyone has already read Bird by Bird.   Most likely in 1994, when it was published. I was a little busy that year.  Plus, I have a stubborn streak and if someone says to me, Oh, you’ve just got to read this book! (or see this movie, or meet that person), I won’t.  Just to be stubborn.  It took me twenty years to see E.T. the Extraterrestrial.

Still, even if you loved Bird by Bird when you read it seventeen years ago chances are you’ve forgotten why. I’ll remind you:

Here are Anne Lamott’s thoughts on perfectionism:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.  It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.  I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.  The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Meanwhile, back on the pages of Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct we find studies that support Anne’s heartfelt commentary and advice on how to relinquish the desire to be perfect.  Kelly explains why offering compassion and forgiveness to ourselves instead of layering on the guilt for our missteps strengthens our ability to see the big picture. 

I didn’t expect Bird by Bird to make me smile as often as it has.  And I didn’t expect The Willpower Instinct to be so easy to take.  I expected an overly sweet Bird by Bird to have me in a literary sugar coma by page forty, but Anne Lamott’s practical advice is seasoned with just the right enough bite to balance the moments that bring tears to your eyes.

I thought Kelly McGonigal’s book would be like any other book I’ve read about goal setting.  I thought I’d be writing lists, repeating affirmations and by the end of the day – with few items on the list accomplished – calling myself a failure.

The truth is, Kelly’s book is about forgiveness. It’s about settling down.  Giving yourself a break.  And she has all the scientific evidence we need to see why this is important.

My intention was to break my Hulu habit by reading eight books in six weeks.  That’s not going to happen.  Why?  Because I chose an astoundingly unrealistic goal.  That’s typical of me and, according to McGonigal, typical for many of us.  But don’t blame Hulu. While I haven’t severed my attachment to Hulu completely (a once-a-week, twenty-two minute dose of The Big Bang Theory after a long day is medicinal) I’m certainly no longer sliding down a steep slippery slope toward a self-inflicted Hulu-lobotomy.

A more realistic goal is four books in six weeks.  Today Bird by Bird returns to the bookshelf.  The Willpower Instinct, however, is staying out.  Now that I’ve read it from cover to cover my intention is to go back and read it again – this time actively working through the exercises provided.  I’ll keep you posted how all that works out.

The book I’m beginning today is John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. No, it wasn’t on my original list. I’ve chosen this young adult novel because I’m working on a young adult novel (yes, again). The book has a bit of buzz on it and I’m looking forward to digging in.

Next time:  An update on the meditation practice I committed to in January or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Whole Food’s Meat Counter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Day One. Reading, Writing and Meditation

I’ll be the first to admit that I lean a bit toward the odd.  In a good way I hope, but still.  I allowed myself one last moment with Jimmy Fallon (“I Gotta Have More Cowbell!”) and then broke the news to Hulu:

“I think I need a break.”

“Did I do something wrong?”

“No, Hulu – it’s not you.  It’s me.”

“You want to spend more time with Facebook, don’t you?  I know the two of you are tweeting.”

“No – that’s not it at all, Hulu!  It’s just that…well…it’s just that I want to…”

“You want to what?  Go on, Mimm.  Tell me.”

“I want to read.”

“What do you mean you want to read?”

“You know.  Books.”

“Is this a joke?”

“No, Hulu, it’s true.  I want to read books. I have a goal.  Eight books in six weeks.”

“Don’t make me laugh.  You’ll never do it.  Two days from now when the latest episode of Glee is available you’ll come crawling back.”

“I don’t think so, Hulu.  Not this time.”

At that point I said good night.  I thought I heard a sniffle as I closed the laptop, and then I set my alarm, rolled to my side and went to sleep.

Today I determined that all eight books amounted to about 2300 pages.  I have thirty-six days to make it from cover to cover on all of them.  That means reading at least sixty-three pages per day.  No problem.  I hope.

I’ve begun with Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct.  Even though I had dipped into the book earlier, I decided to begin at the beginning.  Here’s what I discovered today:

It turns out my recent commitment to meditation is doing more than creating a calmer Mimmsy.  Meditation is helping my brain to build grey matter in the prefrontal cortex and other regions of the brain that support self-awareness.  In other words, my meditation practice strengthens my will power and bolsters any skill that involves self-control.  Like reading.

In addition to Kelly’s book I’ve decided to read a chapter per day of Bird by Bird, the wonderful book about our writing life by Anne Lamott.  Today I read the introduction.  I’ll leave you with a Wendell Berry poem, The Wild Rose.  Written for his wife but used by Anne to describe how writing feels to her sometimes – like a person – “the person who,” Anne writes, “after all these years, still makes sense to me.”

Sometimes hidden from me

in daily custom and in trust,

so that I live by you unaware

as by the beating of my heart,

Suddenly you flare in my sight,

a wild rose blooming a the edge

of thicket, grace and light

where yesterday was only shade,

And once again I am blessed, choosing

again what I chose before.