Wednesday, March 20, 2013


A few weeks ago I got a text from Coach on a Friday night, asking me to contact him.  It's been about three and a half years since I stopped fighting, and I haven't actually seen Coach I think in about a year, but when he texted me my response was the only one it could have been: "How can I help?"  Coach's name is Juan Moreno, although I'd never call him that to his face.  I think I'd just as soon eat a cockroach.  He is a three-time Olympian in the sport of taekwondo, having won silver medals in Seoul '88 and Madrid '92.  Furthermore, he coached two athletes to bronze medals in the London Olympics last summer, both of whom I am proud to say were my teammates when I trained.  He is, as Don Corleone would say, a serious man, to be treated with respect.  Here's why I jumped to help him when he contacted me out of the blue....

In the spring of 2005 I was scraping along the bottom of a nine-year battle with drug addiction.  Some of the lowlights included an overdose, a divorce, and even a ten day stint of homelessness when my mother kicked me out of her house for stealing her bottle of vicodin (she had recently been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma).  Pretty scummy.  Whoever came up with the old cliche "you only really regret in life the things you didn't do" clearly was not, or never knew, a junky.   By the end of that summer I was just starting to turn the corner.  I had sorted myself out enough to move back in with my mother, I had a job, but I was still doing hard drugs.

So in the fall of 2005 I realized that I wasn't going back to New York as I had originally planned when I left a year ago before, and that I wanted to give the sport of  taekwondo another try.  You see, I had begun doing taekwondo when I lived in New York in an effort to take the reins of my life, which was spiraling out of control.  It didn't really work out at the time, but a seed was planted.  In January 2006 I made the pivotal decision to seek Coach out and started driving up to Miami from Key West (a three-hour drive, give or take) twice a week to train.

Coach took me on, and took me in, and something finally clicked.  As my body got into shape I had a slowly unfolding epiphany: I couldn't keep doing both drugs and this sport. I had to choose, and I wanted to do taekwondo more.  It still strikes me as absurd that none of the other crazy shit I went through, including the lowlights mentioned above, got me to quit drugs and get my life straightened out, but training at this sport did.  When the student is ready, the teacher will appear, as the old saying goes.  I eventually moved to Miami so I could train six days a week.  I stopped fighting in 2009 and completed a transition into yoga.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Through Coach and taekwondo I learned tapas, I learned courage, and I learned the unflinching patience that it takes to do a thing for a higher goal week in and week out even when it sucks.  These things, obviously enough, have been absolutely crucial to my yoga practice.  It wouldn't be exactly accurate to say Coach saved my life, but I will say unequivocally that he helped save my happiness, and helped me become an actualized adult.

Giri is a japanese word meaning duty, or obligation, or even burden of obligation.  If you are indebted to somebody worthy, then that debt is an honor.  I have been born under a lucky star vis-a-vis teachers in my life, and I am happy to fulfill whatever obligations to them I can. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

a triptych

Panel One:  No margin for error

In a shala where Mysore-style Ashtanga yoga is taught there is great potential for hurt feelings.  We all know this, and teachers get to experience both ends of the equation.  This is why teaching is a heavy responsibility, not to be taken lightly.  Recently I had a student come in for her first Mysore-style practice.  She said she had been coming to Miami Life Center for some time, taking the Saturday morning full primary class.  As it turned it out, the new student didn't really have anything memorized at all so I let her go to navasana and stopped her there.  She left upset, saying she had hoped for more of a workout (she told me she did triatholons) and that she felt rushed.  Now 9.78346 times out of ten I would have vetted a new student more than I did this morning.  For the life of me I don't know why I didn't today.  I wasn't particularly sleepy, the room wasn't particularly busy.  But because I didn't talk to this new student and adequately explain to her how it all worked and what to expect not just for today, but in the overall arc of her experience with yoga, her feelings were hurt.  There's a chance, probably a good one seeing as she was hoping for a "workout," that this student might have been put out even if I had talked to her more first.  People who do endurance sports often feel that if they haven't taxed themselves to their absolute limit then they've done nothing.  But we'll never know. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.  This has eaten at me, as you see.  It's a tough hustle, but you've gotta be on point every day.  Feelings and bodies can be hurt, and as a teacher the buck stops with you.  This analogy is extreme, I know, but it's like having an infant in a bathtub or a pool: you only have to look away for a second for something bad to happen.  No margin for error.

Panel Two: An Aikido concept is applied to yoga

The Japanese martial art of Aikido is practiced with a partner.  One person attacks in a given way, and the other practices the technique required to neutralize the attack.  The terms for these roles are uke  and nage, respectively.  In The Principles of Aikido,  Mitsugi Saotome explains: "If you think in terms of attacker and defender, it is likely that you will regard the role of nage, the one who is attacked and executes the technique, as the important role, and the role of uke as merely giving nage a body on which to practice his technique.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Ukemi is the art of being uke, and the quality of nage's practice depends on how well uke has learned his art... In short, uke is responsible for creating the conditions that allow nage to learn."  I've had ukemi on my mind these days because I've taken on apprentice/assistants a few days a week.  Most of my students have been receptive, some have been resistant.  I still remember the resistance I got when I began assisting in my own apprenticeship.  I want to protect my assistants.  I don't want them to go through some of the ball-busting that I went through.  So I hereby exhort my own students and students every where to practice good ukemi with new teachers.  Nobody issues forth from their mother's loins a good teacher of anything.  Teaching is a skill that must be learned through practice.  In practice mistakes are made and hopefully learned from.  We can all agree that it sucks to get a crappy adjustment, in fact sometimes it can be dangerous.  But I think students can help themselves in the long run by helping new teachers learn.  Nobody says you have to sit there and take an awful adjustment, but an opportunity to show generosity and compassion is there.  Try giving feedback in as nice a way as you can.  Try practicing good ukemi.

Panel Three: A eureka moment with Chuck Miller

A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of taking a workshop and then breaking bread with Chuck Miller. I always love being around teachers who spent an extensive period of time with Guruji and I try to soak up as much of the shakti as I can.  (For the layperson, shakti could be thought of as mojo, and it gets transmitted from teacher to student throughout the generations.)  As we talked over dinner on Lincoln Road two things were increasingly apparent to me: Chuck has great love and respect for Guruji, but he also disagrees on a number of issues with how Guruji taught.  He differs as he defers, as my postmodern aesthetics professor from college would say.  My eureka moment came as I realized how parental the guru/student relationship can be.  Unless you were raised by Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, or John Phillips (from the Mamas and the Papas), chances are you're going to, or rather you should, raise your children the way you were raised.  That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't some things your parents did that you'd just as soon spare your own children of.  I think the same applies to teaching yoga, but that doesn't mean you can pick and choose what to pass on and what to pass over higgledy-piggledy.  The discrimination must come from adult experience.  As I conceived and executed this blog I had another eureka moment, a formulation that I will leave you with.  I posit that there is a roughly one-to-one ratio in years of development as a human being and as a yoga practitioner.  By this formulation, relatively few teachers, the Sharaths, Chuck Millers, Nancy Gilgoffs, Eddie Sterns, etc. who have been practicing for twenty or more years are adults.  Even my teachers Kino Macgregor and Tim Feldmann are barely in high school.  This puts me in about first grade.  Sounds right to me.  I have much to learn.