So my next class is tomorrow morning at 10 at Z&Y. I like to have a plan going into class, or actually a few plans on different levels. My primary plan for this class is pretty simple. I want to work students pretty hard, getting pretty darn physical, for most of the first hour. I’m going to introduce a lot of sequences with movement. As of this moment the only static poses planned during this section will be a few twists and a couple standing asana such as Virabhadrasana 2. All else will be dynamic. I want to see if I can raise some sweat with simple yoga-related movements, but nothing too very advanced. I’ll use two Sun Salutations, their level of complexity depending on the attendees. Then we’ll move into the last twenty minutes, starting with some pranayama, then a fairly brief bit of meditation, then restorative poses (probably legs-up-the-wall and Supta Baddha Konasa) and lastly Savasana. So the flow will be from movement toward stillness. I think this is a fine template and I’m interested in seeing how it works.
Then I’m thinking about a kind of thematic approach. Oddly enough one of my favorite sources for yoga ideas happens to be the writings of Malcolm Gladwell. Perhaps because he’s such a great storyteller; also, he seeks out stories that have to do with how people tick, and he’s interested in the sort of neuroscience stuff that grabs me. So yesterday at the library I hadn’t intended on taking anything out, I’m already in the middle of Jonathan Kozol’s Letters to a Young Teacher, but my eyes fell upon Gladwell’s latest, What the Dog Saw, and I just had to pick it up, and then check it out. So Kozol gets put back a rear burner for a while, sorry buddy. The first essay in Dog is called, “The Pitchman… Ron Popeil and the Conquest of the American Kitchen”. It’s about one of the first pitchman to go on TV, and how he became monumentally successful. His forebears and relatives were in the business and also very successful, but Ron is the king. And at first I thought this essay might be a chore, because I’m like the opposite of a salesperson. I hate to sell things. But Gladwell once again pulled me in and hooked me good. And he delineates several principles of the selling game which I found not only fascinating but possibly even useful.
The first thing is that these guys were obsessive about making really good product. This kind of surprised me, because I’ll admit to a bit of elitist disdain for the infomercial crew, but Gladwell tells how much work, love and inspiration they put into the stuff they sold. So this is a great principle: have a great product.
In terms of drawing a line to what I do, I have no problem with believing in the benefits of yoga and exercise. Okay, I realize that at times I can seem a bit curmudgeonly, in that I don’t accept at face value a lot of the New Agey bullshit that one encounters in this field. I am not going to try to sell you on the more esoteric aspects of yoga, because I don’t have much direct experience of that stuff. And I think a lot of what people teach about yoga history is plain hooey. But as regards the physical and psychological benefits of yoga, I have no qualms whatsoever. It’s accessible to anybody who gives it a try; when taught well it’s safer than almost any form of exercise; it calms you down, tones your body, and makes you more comfortable in your skin. What’s not to like? In fact… what’s not to sell?
And then Gladwell describes how they always made the product the star. This is a huge point in his essay, which he returns to again and again. These guys had charisma, but they used it in stepping aside whenever possible, always first clearing the way for the customers to see what they had going on. The cameras would begin with the product, not the salesman. And then the task for the salesman was to carefully and relentlessly walk the potential user through learning the product. This is the central concept, no pun intended. “…his gift was to make the Chop-O-Matic the star. It was, after all, an innovation… Like most great innovations, it was disruptive. And how do you persuade people to disrupt their lives? Not merely by ingratiation or sincerity, and not by being famous or beautiful. You have to explain the invention to customers – not once or twice but three or four times, with a different twist each time. You have to show them exactly how it works and why it works, and make them follow your hands as you chop liver with it, and then tell them precisely how it fits into their routine, and, finally, sell them on the paradoxical fact that, revolutionary as the gadget is, it’s not at all hard to use” (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, p. 16-17).
So this is my other plan for next time I teach (and most likely the time after, and…). Similar to the Chop-O-Matic (or even better, Ronco’s premier invention, The Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ!), hatha yoga can be disruptive. To do yoga you have to work it into your life, into your routine; you have to make time for yoga class or home practice. Not a lot of time, compared to all the time you sit at your desk at work or on your couch watching Criminal Minds. Still, it’s a disruption, so the customer must be persuaded to work it into their lives and make it stick.
And then there’s this to bear in mind: it’s not about the yoga teacher. The teacher is only the facilitator. The teacher needs to use any means necessary, charisma and clear instruction and humor, all of this and more, to get out of the way, so the student can see the beauty of moving the body in these asana and exercises. Strangely, the “product” in yoga is the human body and psyche. But if one can show this product to the customer, the fact of positive changes in their body (or bodies if one counts the five bodies of yoga), then they will see the beauty of the teaching.
So I want to be aware of these concepts and play with them. I think already in my teaching I try to make everything clear, clarity is a favorite word. Wasn’t claritas one of the key watchwords espoused by Stephen Daedalus in Joyce’s Portrait of The Artist As a Young Man? And yesterday morning I saw Charlie Rose talking with golf instructor Butch Harmon on CBS News and Harmon said that no matter who you’re teaching to, you pitch it at a second grade level. And really, that’s true. There’s no reason to overcomplicate matters, one needs to simplify, and repeat, and repeat. That’s the teacher work. I hate to criticize others but sometimes one takes classes and wonders what the hell the teacher is talking about, and you feel it’s about them showing off their knowledge, rather than stepping out of the way of the teaching. I’m sure I’ve been there, done that, but that’s not my intention, certainly. And like Ron Popeil, one has to stress that these asana and exercises are easy! They’re a cinch, especially if you understand that you just do what you can do, and start there, and continue on.
But wait, there’s more! Then one has to repeat the instructions, and make sure they get it. So it has to be clear. The benefits need to be presented, but presented with sincerity, not by rote, but rather from true feeling and from experience. That’s where the enthusiasm comes in. If I believe in this stuff, and I do I do I truly do, I need to make sure the class knows this, that they feel that passion. No, I’m not a salesman, not really. And I don’t believe yoga is something that needs to be branded or sold as such, not in any kind of cynical way at least (have you seen the latest freaky John Friend video leak?). However one student recently wrote me about my passion for yoga, and I think that’s a part of teaching, and teaching is a kind of selling, it’s about convincing the student to find the enthusiasm in themselves to do something. And I like that idea.
So that’s my plan, and I’m sticking to it. The Yog-A-Matic Sessions… ha! See you there, hopefully.