There’s no app for that: why the live classroom can’t be replaced

Halfway through another mindless FB scroll, I paused on an ad promising to get me into a one-armed handstand in 30 days. Whether it was the promise of achieving such feat, or the lovely chiseled fellow covered in watercolor tattoos pitching how, I don’t know, but I clicked and delved further.

The website was beautifully laid out, and lured me into several additional options. I could flow like a Goddess for 85 bucks. Backbend like Beckham in 6 short videos. Or finesse my footwork should I need to hoist a barbell twice my bodyweight overhead.

at Baptiste L2 2014

I’ve been teaching and taking classes around several towns since my teens. It’s in my fiber – the classroom approach to staying fit. And it’s worked. But with the extraordinary access these days to classes of every ilk – with some pretty damn awesome instructors – available on whatever electronic device I’m nearest to, it’s tempting to bag the brick and mortar version. There are times, whether practicing or teaching, I experience a spike in blood pressure simply getting my ass there on time. There’s a prearranged time and location to shuffle my other activities around. There’s the extra 15 minutes needed to assemble my gear into a duffle bag. And don’t get me started on hitting the mean, too-narrow, potholed streets of Boston where driving feels like a video game – dodging human bullets pulling u-eys whilst texting and honking. Big fun.

But here’s the thing. I will always go to the studio. The gym. ALWAYS. Because despite the bitch of getting from A to B, the experience of taking care of myself in the company of others can’t be replicated. It just can’t. Here’s why:

  1. Betty Badass Can’t SEE you. You might think you’re adopting her cues into the perfect backbend, but she has no idea. And neither do you. As a yoga teacher, my rule of teaching is Look, Listen, Give tools. In the early days I did it all backwards, spewing out endless cues to sound like I knew what I was doing, but it didn’t take long to realize my job to keep students safe and inspired was to LOOK at them. Their bodies, and most importantly, their eyes. To see if my words were registering.
  2. You’ll get a workout. But that’s it. You won’t get the opportunity to meet a cool chick who also likes to ride bikes in the town you just moved to. Or the sweet sound of the collective breath coming from fellow students. The moment of lightness when someone grunts inviting everyone to laugh and grunt with him.
  3. The studio door is a helluva lot harder to bolt from than the pause button on your phone. I spin at home. Most times I hang in there for the whole ride. But not always. Sometimes I just say fuck it and let my racing heart and screaming thighs win. That doesn’t happen at your local SoulCycle. Just sayin…

Online classes are awesome – to a point. To me, they stand as a great accompaniment to an overall fitness regimen. But never a replacement. The studios I teach at – Down Under Yoga – just received the Best of Boston 2017 award for yoga studios, and it’s because the magic in learning and growing comes from gathering and sharing with others. No app can cover that one.

Zero platitudes and so much space: how a brand new teacher sweetened my flow

His pronouncement at the beginning of our 90-minute yoga flow coursed through my Child’s Pose like poison: I’m a new teacher subbing this class. 

Uh oh…

This is my third week teaching, and I can’t wait to share all that I’ve learned with you.

Oh boy…

Before I allowed my inner asshole to emerge, I stopped myself, practiced some Ahimsa, and acknowledged two truths:

  1. I was a new teacher once. I’ve faced my share of annoyed weekend not-so-warriors staring back at me as I prayed inwardly not to fuck up my big chance at the front of the yoga room. God put me here for a reason this Sunday morning, and that’s to support this new fellow. Teacher to fellow teacher.
  2. I don’t know how this class is going to go. Could be awful, but then it could be awesome. To presume the class would suck because he was new to teaching yoga is bullshit. That’s misjudging, and I should know better.

After a lengthy preamble of how long and how often he practiced, why he loved yoga, reminders to take Child’s Pose where needed, he began teach. Really teach. Teach in a way I’m still working on five years into this gig. Since taking his class while visiting my hometown of Seattle a few weeks ago, I’ve thought about what it was that left me feeling awesome – yes awesome – as I left the studio. And I’ve since realized it’s what he didn’t do that really did it for me.

He didn’t do what so many new teachers feel they must do in the beginning to prove themselves. By avoiding so many must-do traps new and seasoned teachers frequently fall into, he delivered like a pro. Like a guy who’d been teaching for decades. Here’s what he didn’t do:

  1. Fill moments of insecurity with empty calories. I never know when it’s going to strike – that sudden jolt of self-doubt that threatens to paralyze me in any given moment of teaching. And I’ve taught long enough and frequently enough to know that no amount of preparation, memorization, planning, or high-octane coffee will eradicate the occasional moment of self-doubt. When it hits – say somewhere in the first Warrior Two – my default wants to cover it up. The coverup could show up in the form of an exhaustive succession of verbal cues (lift the arches of your feet! engage Uddiyana! soften your front ribs in! BREATHE!!!). Or perhaps a few laps around the room like a caged animal as I throw a couple of mindless assists in to avoid just standing there. But not with this new teacher. Standing in his True North alignment, he didn’t say a word. He held eye contact. Held the space. And implored the class to go deeper in every pose without needing to say anything at all.
  2. Hide at the front of the room. Sounds like an oxymoron, I know. But a teacher can effectively hide at the front of the room. Statue-like and frozen, one can be there, and not be there. My new teacher in Seattle moved throughout the room, and magically appeared next to me almost telepathically as I pressed into my first wobbly handstand. In my first few months of teaching, my feet were glued to a mat at the front of the room until a tough loving mentor/studio owner yanked my mat from me before teaching a group of 40+ students. That Oh Shit moment opened up a pathway of huge growth. No longer fearful of getting close to my students, I now relish in seeing what’s happening before me, and teaching to what’s needed – in the moment – not to what I think is happening.
  3. Impersonate another teacher. Yes, we borrow cues, sequence ideas, themes for class from several of the amazing teachers who’ve helped get us to the front of the yoga room. And that’s awesome. It’s how this process works. Lineages are passed down teacher by teacher. But the critical element that must be present is authenticity. I might repeat a specific cue gleaned from one of my teachers, but not before trying it on in my own body and practice and sharing it from a place of personal experience. Every time I share a kernel of wisdom I’ve learned from teachers before me, I ask myself: am I sharing it because I think it sounds good? To make me look good? Or am I sharing it because I firmly believe it will make a difference in my students’ experience based on my own experience? When I commit to the latter, the lineage can continue to get passed down to those learning from me, rather than disintegrating to a dust pool of half-assed empty platitudes. My new teacher that morning in Seattle shared 90 minutes of wisdom he’s gleaned from his teachers from a place of pure authenticity – including the offering of sweet, quiet space as a tool to enhance our morning flow. His calm and confident demeanor confirmed he’d embodied all the lessons he’d learned and chose to pass on to us.
  4. Speak instead of sing. Blessed with a lovely Indian accent that could easily be characterized as serenade-like, I never detected any hint of affectation or pretense. This WAS his voice. Not until I had to video my own teaching, review, and forward it to Baptiste certification reviewers did I notice how singsongy my own voice became in moments of insecurity. This was the toughest habit to break for me. Yes I amplify my voice to drive a point home, but when it hits a crazy high octave followed by 5-breath long syllable I know I’m overdoing it. It’s a classroom not Broadway Shannon.

Whether you teach, or don’t, are thinking about it, or thinking about those crazies who do, consider that even the newest teacher can rock a classroom. And if they don’t, with love and support from you – fellow students and teachers – they will very soon!

Real vs. Virtual: how some of my favorite phone apps can sabotage human connection

It wasn’t until I climbed atop my home spin bike, popped in my earbuds, and touched the little app on my phone to follow along with one of my favorite Peloton instructors that it hit me: there’s a perfectly beautiful bike leaning against the kitchen side door. My husband brought it up from storage last week to motivate us. Tires are freshly pumped, and the weather Gods have gifted Boston with a couple of glorious 70-something degree days.

And yet…

Instead of taking my real bike out on a real ride into the real world, I took a virtual ride. In my basement, plugged into cues from an instructor inside a NYC studio who wouldn’t be able to discern whether his Boston basement rider was actually riding or simply listening in while sipping gin out of her water bottle.

I completed my virtual ride, and enjoyed the workout (sans the gin – in case you thought I was serious), but realized afterward what I’d missed – an opportunity to connect – to life, to nature, to human beings I can see, hear and touch.

cycling the Cape Cod Rail Trail 2016

This basic desire – to see, hear, touch, connect – to other human beings is the number one reason I teach yoga. The burgeoning pile of apps hitting the market designed to save us time, get us fit, keep us connected – is in many ways doing the opposite. Get too ‘connected’ to any of my apps, and I could literally sequester myself to the basement with no connection other than an occasional interaction with one of my grumpy cats who’s come trolling for dinner (a bowl of kibbles ordered from my Amazon app).

Who needs a gym membership? 

I love my Peloton app. I do. And until a week ago, riding on a real bike outdoors would have involved a full length LL Bean parka straying into my gear chain, perilous streets with black ice and snow clumps, and a run-in with a pissed off driver cursing at our April Fools Day hit of snow (for real – in Boston). I’ll spin indoors, thank you. I also love that many once-yogaphobes are finally giving it a shot. My former linebacker Dad even asked what poses would heal his trashed-out knees (his words, not mine). If it takes an online app with the comfort of knowing one can practice in the privacy of their own kitchen floor to get someone to experience the benefits, I’m a fan.

But a virtual yoga teacher, personal trainer, spin instructor, can’t give you feedback or encouragement based on what’s really happening RIGHT NOW. They can’t put their hands on your back in Child’s pose when the expression on your face is screaming, “fuck this, I can’t go on.” A teacher in a real live classroom, fully present, is capable of assuring you that hell yeah, you CAN go on. There’s even a few 200-hour yoga teacher training programs offered online. As in, learning to teach a live class with real people – all from a laptop. Yikes. Alas…

I miss my Frangos

They’ve since been bought by Seattle Chocolates, taste the same, and the pretty little individually-wrapped truffles still come in the iconic hexagonal-shaped box I remember from childhood. Fellow Seattle natives know what I’m talking about, as these little delights still make their way into many a corporate gift basket every Holiday season. But it’s the origin of these precious little mints that I miss sorely. Purchasing a box today is simple as tapping the yellow smiley icon on my phone. Two or three clicks later and that smiley starts to look like a smirk: one more transaction taken out of the hands of a real life sales person behind a counter and into the virtual marketplace. Buying Frangos used to mean accompanying my mom to the grand, opulent, Frederick & Nelson department store downtown. We dressed for the occasion – and it was an occasion. You didn’t enter through the brass doors wearing yoga tights and sneakers. Not if you wanted any help from the well-groomed sales staff. Yes, there was parking to contend with, time out of your day to allot, the chance your size wasn’t available. But touching the goods, talking to others, extending the outing to include a lunch break nearby, made buying a box of Frangos an experience vs. a last minute I-forgot-to-get-my-uncle-a-gift swipe of the phone.

I shop online all the time. In many cases it’s just easier. If I bust my leg and need milk and bananas I’ll tap my InstaCart app. But I do that knowing I can’t ask the cashier how her day is going, or get advice from the guy behind the cheese counter on what’s the best brick of Cheddar. The clothes I buy to look halfway hip in are mostly worn when I’m out shopping, not tapping the Nordstrom app on my phone. I save that to make sure my nieces’ on the other side of the country get their birthday gifts on time.

So, I guess the message here is, use your apps, but don’t get swallowed into your phone. Get out and see, hear, touch people. And come to my yoga class while you’re at it 🙂

 

No wonder he stayed under the bed: a life lesson from Max

I’ve been face down on the hardwood floor cranking my neck to the right for the past seven days, and it has nothing to do with yoga. The kink in my neck and dust on my tights are not evidence of any pursuit toward enlightenment via a wild variation on Locust pose. Not at all. Rather, I’ve been trying to coax my rescue cat out from under the bed. Arm stretched to its limits, treat between forefinger and thumb, “here, Max, here!”, for the past seven days hasn’t gotten me anywhere. Except for an occasional “leave me the fuck alone” moment of eye contact.

Welcome home Max

Until this morning. My boy Max inched his way out as I pulled up a seat at the desk facing the bedroom’s corner window. Feeling defeated, I considered leaving the room entirely. But then, after slithering in figure eight fashion between my ankles, he hopped up onto the window sill and met me face to face. Spoken matter-of-factly through penetrating, pearly-rimmed eyes, he put it to me straight:

Give me time. Give me space. Don’t force your love on me.”

Alright, buddy. But honestly, I replied through my own pleading eyes, don’t you know you hit the rescue cat lottery here? It took a few minutes to see his point. Yes, his new set up certainly outclassed former stints in shelter cages and dark alleys, but until I could prove otherwise, how was he to know I wasn’t just another jackass about to dump him on the highway when things didn’t go my way? Just because I know, doesn’t mean he does. At ten years old, he’s learned not to dole out trust fleetingly. It’s how he’s survived.

Don’t rush the process”

This morning’s message from Max recalled another message I hear and reiterate in the yoga classes I teach: don’t rush the process. Getting fixated on goals and outcomes, I’ve learned, generally sends me back to square one in a frustrated heap. Handstand in ten days? Fail. Teaching a class ‘perfectly’ and connecting with every single student in the room? Bigger fail. Making my rescue cat love me in seven days? EPIC fail. Eradicating the goals and replacing them with intentions becomes a different story. Practicing handstands ten days in a row without a goal of nailing even one keeps me from giving up. Trusting my training and accepting that my best effort teaching is good enough keeps me on the path of growth. Tossing an expectation of when Max will come around (literally, figuratively) allows me to love him on his terms, not mine.

Since this morning’s conversation with Max, I’ve left him alone, given him space, and watched him begin to explore his new home. And if he wants to crawl back under the bed, so be it. He’ll be fine, and I’ll try out that wild variation of Locust pose somewhere else. On my yoga mat, perhaps.

 

 

 

How a cheap bracelet put a little gold on my heart.

I barely noticed him. It was dark, my eyes drawn to the Saturday night parade of young, scantily-dressed, impeccably groomed tanned and toned celeb lookalikes heading toward their next $30 cocktail on Collins Avenue in South Beach. By contrast, my post-beach getup of frizzy hair, flip flops and workout shorts didn’t catch any return attention save for a “Go Pats!” acknowledgement of my SuperBowl t-shirt. I was tired, it was our last night of vacation, and all I desired was a night in the hotel room watching CNN with an accompanying bag of peanut M&Ms from the honor bar. A few strides further along, my husband tugged at my arm. “Wait a sec, babe,” he commanded.

South Beach, Miami, 2017

South Beach, Miami, 2017

Then I noticed him. Crouched on a makeshift stool sitting behind a small table of bracelets, earrings and necklaces, he looked up and smiled. His skin was dark and leathery. Hair a salt and pepper tangle of wavy curls, he simultaneously blended in and stood out. “This one,” he said, pointing to a champagne hued stone leather bracelet. It didn’t sparkle or stand out, but looked handcrafted from what my naked eye could see. Nothing on the table cost more than ten bucks, and I really wasn’t interested. I rarely wear jewelry. Too much hassle. But over the next few moments, he convinced me this wasn’t just another cheap bracelet.

“I’m an artist. I lived in Amsterdam for a while before…” he rambled as he pulled out more bracelets to show me. His words were difficult to decipher. Could have been his accent, several missing teeth, or a perhaps a really hard life crafting and merchandising his wares everyday to absent-minded, distracted tourists intent on haggling his price down. But his eyes spoke volumes, and bore right into my heart. I looked through several  more bracelets, shared bits of my life and what brought me to Miami (my birthday, an escape from the New England chill – literally and a little bit figuratively too – sun, water and the simple delight of sand between my toes).

After 20 minutes or so, I settled on the bracelet he chose for me. He asked for $10, I gave him $15. He stood, shook my husband’s hand, and kissed the back of mine as what I now believe were small tears welling in his eyes and multiple thank yous.

Best piece of jewelry I’ve ever bought.

Gather round now: getting it together with the help of others.

Lying in a puddle of my own sweat atop a thin mat at the conclusion of a challenging 90-minute hot yoga class yesterday, I wondered for a moment just how it was I could be enjoying this. Sure there’s the relativity of the moment – compared to the countless thigh-torching Warrior poses and low push up transitions just prior – this felt like bliss. But yesterday I experienced something else. Beyond physical. I’ve taken hundreds (thousands perhaps) hot vinyasa classes over the past several years and know that final rest-in-your-own-sweat is a bizarre sort of reward we power yogis chase after. But this particular morning, my rest wasn’t self-centered, as it often is. Free of self-gloating (I nailed that handstand!) Or resignation (where was my focus??), I basked instead in the quiet harmony enveloping the room. Surrounded by 25 or so human souls saturated in their own sweat, I felt connected to every one of them. Didn’t know their names, what brought them to this practice, or where they came from. And it didn’t matter.

Because right now, in a time of monumental division in this country, I need to gather. Whether it’s in a puddle of sweat surrounded by others, on a video conference call with fellow yoga teachers from around the world, allowing the woman sitting two tables over at my favorite coffee shop to peer at my book and share that she loved that author too.

Gathering with yogis. Baptiste L2, Oct. 2014.

Gathering with yogis. Baptiste L2, Oct. 2014

Gather round the fire. The table. The yoga room. The coffee shop WITHOUT your laptop and headphones. The fill in the blank, wherever you like, so long as it’s congregating with others. This is what I’m discovering for myself is required when alienating, fear-inducing political shit keeps hitting the fan. I’m not writing a political piece here – just to be clear – rather a plea to gather round and connect with others regardless of where you’re leaning on the he’s awesome/he’s a f***ing disaster spectrum. Gathering round with others has proven especially comforting to me of late. It’s also kept me rooted in the now. The now of, for example, a fantastic sharing amongst peers of how to accommodate both an advanced yogi and absolute beginner in an all levels class, as we did on our group video call last week. In contrast, a walk alone earlier in the day left me with tunnel vision lost in thoughts of what to make of the morning headlines. Who knows how many dogs I failed to notice and pat along the way.

As yoga teachers, we gather. It’s what we do.”

Saturday nights are schedule-free zones when the man is in town. A typical evening could be warming a couple of bar stools and losing ourselves in french fries and micro beers, or allowing the cat to wedge between us on the sofa as we watch another episode of Breaking Bad. But me moseying off to a yoga teacher’s study group for 3+ hours is definitely breaking the don’t-touch-our-date-night rules. But with his encouragement I went. Because I needed to gather amongst a group of trusted teachers who too are teaching in really weird times. Our facilitator (Coeli Marsh) drove home the privilege, and all the responsibility that goes with it, of what we do by reminding us that as yoga teachers, we gather people. As I haven’t been teaching regularly since December, I left with a stronger resolve to get back to it.

Remember no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Many friends marched last week and shared their experiences gathering round amongst tens of thousands to support women. I’m not a marcher (and have a phobia of mass gatherings and parades of any kind), but appreciated the solidarity shown. Other friends shared experiences celebrating the Inauguration. Updos, gorgeous gowns and exclamation points embedded in their Facebook posts made me smile too. I love all my friends. Even those I don’t agree with. Whether in protest or celebration, gathering with others is powerful, and essential in making our world better.

Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” – Michael Jordan

Home gym, 2017.

Home gym, 2017.

A resolute intention to build more physical strength in 2017 has resulted in an amped home gym (and an excited husband who can now justify some hefty – pun intended – purchases from Rogue Fitness) and a twice-weekly date with a crew of rabid Crossfit 6:30 AMers. So unlike my yoga class comfort zone, most days I have no idea what the hell I’m doing ahead of time in Crossfit. Every drill requires additional instruction (just drop the barbell at the end of the set Shannon, you don’t have to make it look graceful), and a lot of encouragement from the new circle of friends I’m gathering round with. High fives, ‘you got this’, ‘we’ll see you Thursday, yes?’ are constant affirmations that I’m not alone, and that I can put all the political discord on the shelf and simply bathe in the support and hard physical/mental effort of the group.

Where do you gather and how has it helped? I’d love to know.

 

 

 

WOD the hell am I doing – why this yogi added Crossfit to the mix

The ripped girl with a pixie cut and sweet disposition beautifully masked any sign of shock as a never-seen-before variation of a standard exercise began to perilously emerge: “um, you might want to bend your knees, and please open your chest. ” Not every day a Crossfit coach lands a yoga teacher/barbell newbie attempting to turn a deadlift into a hamstring-lengthening Uttanasana (standing forward fold) pose.

handstand check, now working to complete a pull-up.

handstand check, now working to complete a pull-up.

And so it went like that from start to finish through my first Crossfit class. Accustomed to hauling my own  body weight around through poses, I found it comically difficult five minutes in to secure plates at each end of the barbell. Leave it to me to struggle with assembling the equipment before even using it. “Just pinch and snap, Shannon. You’ll get the hang of it!”

Later in, as I hung pathetically from a pull up bar that my body had no intention of cresting, I reached for my internal mental bat to slug away at all forthcoming negative thoughts: I’m not cut out for this; my limbs are too long; that dude next to me thinks I’m a sissy; oh God how the hell am I going to jump on that box without falling on my ass? Or get smacked in the head as this odd-shaped Wall ball rebounds?

“Awesome job, Shannon!” my ripped coach kept encouraging. And gradually, gradually, I began to believe her. Here’s why:

  1. I chose to show up and suck. I prattle this off to my newbie yogis all the time, but I’ve been practicing yoga for so long I’d forgotten what it’s like to show up for something new and give myself permission to suck at it.
  2. I chose this change. Last month, change chose me, in the form of my beloved yoga studio closing and being left without a routine of classes I loved teaching. But rather than crawl into a too-much-time-with-nowhere-to-teach trap, I opened myself up to new goals: guest teaching on vacation (recently at Baptiste Yoga SF), writing and blogging more, cooking instead of pre-heating last night’s doggie bag, and Crossfit.
  3. I chose to knock it off. To stop knocking it before trying it. Too much yoga at the expense of every other physical activity was bringing the snob out in me. I had a yoga answer to everything – spinning isn’t mindful, running isn’t balanced, Crossfit isn’t safe. Now I’m pedaling to phat beats on my home spin bike or alongside SoulCyle dynamos; running when my hip tolerates it; jumping on a wood block in front of a “you’re awesome!” supportive Crossfit coach. Can’t wait to discover what else is available by knocking it off with the yoga or nothing at all approach. Maybe boxing…
  4. I chose to believe. That I will get over that bar. That I will complete a deadlift correctly. That the dude next to me doesn’t think I’m a sissy – he high-fived me big time after class.

I’m off to a great 2017 thanks to choosing a few new beginnings. It’s that simple. And that hard, but worth it completely. How about you?