The Yoga Of Dog Training

Shortly after we got Stella, I had an epiphany watching some corgis on an Instagram account I follow called Alfuku. 

The owners of these corgis are Japanese, and naturally they talk to their corgis in Japanese. 

When I heard them interact with these dogs, I had no idea what they were saying. But these corgis sure did. 

These dogs are beautiful and funny and trained. They know all kinds of tricks. They even dance in competitions with their owners, weaving in and out of them to music. It’s amazing.

But my epiphany watching them respond to commands in Japanese was— and everyone who has ever trained a dog, will go, “Duh” when I say this,— is that these dogs don’t understand the Japanese language, or any other language, for that matter.  They’ve just learned to decode sound patterns.  

They’ve translated what sounds to me like: ichi washi goobahya into: Bring the rubber chicken here, and drop it at my feet.

Once I fully grasped this, I consciously started monitoring my speech for brevity and consistency when I talked to Stella. No color commentary, no reasons, no verbal expressions of exasperation or complicated feelings and needs.  I needed to shut up, keep all that to myself, and just say,  Come! 

Same with body language. No dancing Shiva arm movements, no fancy footwork. If she was trying to decode me, I needed to send as clear a signal as possible.

One thing that makes Stella easy to train is her attentiveness. She makes eye contact. She seems to be trying to read me. 

When I ask her a question, or, more accurately, when my voice goes up at the end: “You wanna go for a walk?” She cocks her head to one side, as if to say, “What?” 

Then, if I put on my shoes and grab her leash, and always repeat those same sounds every time before a walk, “You wanna go for a walk?” is basically ichi washi goobahya except instead of fetching a rubber chicken, she gets to go outside with me.

My latest project is trying to train her to know the distinction between “Stay With” and “Stay Close.”

I want her to understand that when I say, “Stay With” she should stay within a close proximity to me, maybe 30 yards. I should always be able to see her, and she, me. 

I use Stay Close to mean what most dog trainers mean by “Heel.”  I want Stay Close to mean, “keep exact pace with me.”  

This training has been eye-opening. I have to be totally present and aware of what I’m doing in order to be effective.

 It’s a lot like practicing yoga. I can’t multi-task. I can’t make random, mindless movements or jibber-jabber to her in meaningless paragraphs of mouth noise. 

If I want the signal to be read, I have to reduce the noise. I have to breathe, slow down, make eye contact, be patient, be willing to fail, and try again. And again. I have to make it fun. I have to have treats on me at all times.

Dog training means paying attention to what I’m doing, and what she’s doing, and finding ways to connect.  I have to witness myself and I have to witness her. I have to create a relationship.

When I’m walking alone, without the dog, it’s different. I can and do carry on long conversations with myself, out loud. 

I used to get embarrassed if anyone caught me doing this, but now, in the age of wireless headsets, everyone appears to be talking to themselves as they walk along, anyway.

Yesterday Stella and I were walking on the Hike and Bike trail.  This is where I like to practice stay with, and stay close with her. She had her short, lightweight drag-along leash attached to her collar but I wasn’t holding on to it. 

 It was sunny and warm and I found myself striding along, happily talking to myself about my usual nonsense when I realized I’d lost track of her. And myself.

But thankfully she hadn’t lost track of me. There she was, up ahead, waiting for me to catch up. She was doing a great job of staying with. Whereas I had strayed. I had lost her. And myself. To thought.

Dogs teach us so more than we teach them, if only we would stop thinking and just observe them.

A long time ago I wrote this poem to another dog:

Shasta

My dog knows the universe with his nose,

sips the air for the scent of leaving

after the doorlock clicks.

I spend each day practicing to do

what he does:

Follow my senses,

observe the wind, 

respond to the sense of soil

and not to the flowering of each

fantasy, each upturned rock

of memory.

My pet, 

my guru, 

my teacher on a leash.

From the passing pick-up

it looks as if I am walking you,

but I am the student

following you each morning

from tree

to bush, 

probing the world of gravel

and weed, 

learning the proper response

to air, the infinite 

logarithms of light,

the script of sound

far beyond my range.

The Yoga Of Shoveling

We just got a big dump of snow. Everyone’s buzzing. People here like snow. Especially since it’s only snowed once, back in November. 

Snow days, when the snow is actually falling, are slow days: soup, hot chocolate, movies, naps, games.

But that’s only when the snow is actually falling

When the snow stops falling, and clean-up begins, that’s when a lot of people tend to lose their zen.

Here are some things you might want to keep in mind in the aftermath of a big snow dump.

1. Take your time. There’s no rush. It’s not a race. Do a little bit at a time and focus on your bio-mechanics. Lift with your legs, take a lot of breaks, and do some counter-stretches. Shoveling is a continuous act of forward bending, so you need to counter that. So stop. Take a breath. Look at the sky.  Then take a slow, shallow, little backbend. Do this at regular intervals. 

2. Ta-Da rather than To-Do If you have a lot of snow to shovel it’s easy to get discouraged when you look at what you have left to do. Switch your perspective. Look at what you’ve done thus far instead. Give yourself credit for even a modest effort. Don’t get discouraged. Just keep going, slowly, one shovelful at a time.

3. Become one with the machine.If you’re using equipment, it’s important to pay attention to how your equipment is operating and how you are operating your equipment. Take your time. Pay attention. Don’t get sloppy and go barreling through on momentum. Be deliberate and careful. It’s better that way.

4. Pat yourself on the back.When you’re done, admire your work. Even if it’s not done. Admire what you did. Take some more counter stretches. Then take a hot bath, preferably with epsom salts. Soak away any soreness. 

5. Enjoy a reward. Find some soft clothes to snuggle into and make a nice beverage and get comfortable and do something relaxing: read, watch a little TV, cook, take a nap, look out the window. 

The clean-up after a storm can seem like a daunting task, something you definitely don’t love. But it’s easier to fall in love with your reality if you can find little ways to make your reality easier to love. 

Being a Yoga Teacher Is A Great Gig

On Monday I had an amazing yoga class. 

Here’s what happened.

I started them in Mountain pose. There were about a dozen of them, a mix of men and women,— mostly people who’ve been practicing together for years.  

They know each other. 

They like each other. 

They’re yoga friends.

I started them in Mountain pose and then I called on them, one by one, to take us into the next pose. 

 It was like a Choose Your Own Adventure class. 

Nobody could predict what was coming next, or when their name would be called. They had to be thinking all the time: What will I do next if she happens to call on me?

And I had to be thinking all the time: Who is going to pick something challenging here? And: Who is going to pick something easier?

So I was kinda orchestrating it, based on what I knew about them, and what kind of practice they like.

I told them at the start the only 2 poses that were off-limits were Child and Savasana. 

They groaned. Then laughed.

What transpired was freaking amazing.  

Warriors, a triangle, a balance pose, and a Surya B.

There were some lunges, pigeon, and a bridge. Then fish, and a twist. 

Each person talked the class through their pose. Their sequencing was intelligent and fun. I did it with them. 

It was awesome. They were amazing. I’ve been telling everyone who will listen, about it.

I’ve had a perma-grin since Monday.

Being a yoga teacher is the best gig ever. 

Especially here. With these people. 

I’m so lucky.

Struggling With Consistency

I can’t seem to get any traction going. I can’t seem to get consistency on my big rocks

My scorecard this week: 

Writing 7/7, 

Meditation 5/7, 

Yoga 3/7. 

I blogged last week, so Blog 1/1 

The writing is the easiest. The blogging is the hardest, but since the blogging is only once a week, I managed, at least for the first week, to gut it out.

I credit Nanowrimo for getting me in shape to write 1K a Day. After having to hit that 1667 word-a-day benchmark every day in November, a thousand words a day is puh. 

As for the meditation, even though I haven’t been consistent, I really like the new meditation app I’ve been using. It’s Sam Harris’s Waking Up Course. There are daily, ten-minute guided meditations.  And even though they are talkier than I would normally be able to tolerate, I find, at this stage in my meditation practice, I kinda welcome his intellectual guidance. Having spent decades on the cushion doing zazen, and other techniques, and not quite understanding what the hell I was  doing, Sam’s guidance is causing some of the the mist to dissipate. 

My greatest resistance is to my 30 minute daily personal yoga practice.

Is it that I just don’t want to confront how inflexible I’ve become? How physically weak? 

Could be. 

I haven’t come up with a good time-slot for it, either, and that is a stumbling block. Plus, I have this thing about changing my clothes. I hate changing clothes. It takes everything I have to get out of my pajamas into day clothes. And then when it’s time to teach,  I resist getting out of day clothes into yoga clothes. It’s a ridiculous struggle. 

I was talking to a fellow yoga teacher friend and she practices first thing, in her pajamas.  But I don’t like yoga first thing. I like yoga, like third thing, after writing, and meditation. But then the puppy needs a walk, and then the day often derails.

The solution would be to take a regular yoga class. Plop down a lot of money and commit. I’m an Obliger. I need accountability. But there is no regular class or teacher around here. Mine are the regular classes. I am the teacher. 

This needs to be figured out. 

5 Ways To Be A Better Yoga Teacher

Yoga training concept

I’m a sucker for  Advice-driven posts like this. I cannot resist, “3 Ways to Achieve Enlightenment in Your Lifetime,” or “10 ways to Stop Cravings.”. I bite every time. So here’s my own “list post”  giving myself the Yoga Teaching advice I need.

Number 1. Don’t close your eyes when you teach.

This is really hard for me. I see so much clearer when I my eyes are closed.  But when I am a student and I am looking at the teacher and the teacher has her eyes closed I feel disconnected from her. I think (and rightly so) that she is in her own world, and what she’s saying has nothing to do with me. Selfishly, I want the teacher to be there for me. I want the teacher to be present.

When I am teaching and tell the students to close their eyes, that doesn’t give me permission to close MY eyes. I need to remember that. Teachers close their eyes because students are really distracting. Their behavior  can really throw you off.

But I must train myself to keep my eyes open at all times. And look at them. As individuals. Not as a “class.”

This is really hard.. I am still, after all these years, terrible at it. I need to force myself to do it, especially when I am centering them. I think the reason I close my eyes is that I am trying to center myself at the same time I am centering them. And that’s a mistake.  I need to remember to keep my eyes opened. All the time. Never close your eyes if you are a yoga teacher.

Number 2. Don’t be afraid to touch your students.

I am really bad at this, too. Every yoga teacher is taught how to assist. Some are way better at it than others. The ones who are good usually have had teachers who have assisted them really well.

I am afraid to touch my students because I am afraid that the touch will be wrong. The way to get over this is to just touch lightly at first. Just give a fingertip touch. The very lightest of encouragement or tweak.

This is hard to get over if you don’t know how. And sometimes students will take the touch as a correction rather than a cue. So you think maybe not to touch is just better. That is a mistake.  People are starved for touch. Even the lightest touch is a moment of being seen. That’s why everyone in a class should be touched at least once.

Number 3. Don’t talk too much.

Oh boy. This is what I really need to learn. It is okay to have a lot of silence in a yoga class. You don’t have to fill up all the space with chatter. I have to remember this because I am a very chatty teacher.

A few  well-chosen cues, widely spaced, can go a long way. I need to think of words as spices. You don’t want to over salt the dish, you want to go easy on the cayenne, the cumin, the curry.

Let there be space for emptiness and breathing and contemplation. Don’t talk too much. Err on the side of silence.

Number 4. Don’t forget to smile.

You don’t have to crack jokes or smile the whole time like a ninny, but learn to put a smile in your voice. If your students are deep in their practice, breathing and listening for the next direction, if your voice has a smile in it, it is really wonderful.

In oder to put a smile in your voice you have to have a smile on your face. You need to practice this. You know how nice it is when you’re on the phone with someone in customer service, and they seem to have a smiley voice? When you can hear something friendly in their voice, it makes the whole interaction go much better.

That’s what you should aim for in the yoga room. Not jokes, not inauthenticity, just warm friendliness. This takes some mirror practice. Work on it.

Number 5. Don’t pretend to know what you don’t know.

If you don’t live the yamas and niyamas, if you don’t struggle to live them in your own life, don’t bring them up. If, however, you do try to adhere to them in your non-yoga-class life, then by all means bring them up.  It’s like talking about weight-loss when you’ve never had a weight problem. Just don’t.

If you don’t practice handstands, don’t teach handstands. If you don’t have a daily practice, don’t preach daily practice.  Don’t preach about virtues you don’t aspire to, or struggle with, or have. If you’ve never had a chakra awakening, don’t talk about chakra awakenings. Stay honest. Stay in your lane.

The Spirituality of Whimsicality

IMG_0072

(This is an older post)

As a yoga teacher, the hardest and most terrifying class for me to teach is the first day of Beginner Yoga. The students walk in pale, fat, worried, neurotic, clutching their little bottles of Dasani like they’re some totemic objects that will protect them from weird, patchouli smelling Hindu spirits, and me.

I don’t claim clairvoyance, or clairaudience, but I can hear their thoughts as clearly as if they’re coming through a bullhorn:“I won’t be able to do this because I can’t even touch my toes for goddsakes. What the hell was I thinking??!! What am I doing? I’m sitting in YOGA for cryin out loud ! How do I get OUT of this??”

They don’t understand the activity, or me.

Yet.

At the opposite end of the yoga teacher “fright spectrum” is the day I walk into Day 27 of the April Yoga Challenge. OMG. Soooo easy!

What do we need today? Block? Strap? Are you going to kill us? Please don’t kill us? Oh shut up! I want to be killed! Kill us! Kill us! Can we do savasana for an hour?? I’m still aching from yesterday!”

Sometimes I wonder what a person eavesdropping on the other side of the door to my yoga room would think is going on in there. It certainly doesn’t sound very spiritual, that’s for sure.

When students step into my yoga room and encounter my style, which is slightly kooky, oftentimes irreverent, and frequently playful, they might mistake this approach to yoga as “not very spiritual,” when in fact, what I am doing is setting up the yoga room to be spirit’s playground.

I think when you follow your inner promptings, your intuition, your body’s wisdom, that is the act of honoring the spirit, the soul, the non-material part of your nature.

And this is a very hard practice. And a deep practice. And a self-revelatory practice.

When you are allowed, and encouraged, and truly supported in the act of giving yourself over to whimsy in your yoga practice and can throw away the script, ignore the cue cards, and disregard all social conventions that say you should act a certain way because you are “this old” or have “this important responsible job,” you open up a Pandora’s Box of Crazy.

A whimsical approach to yoga does not mean you deliberately set out to defy all conventions or act the rebel. I’m not saying that. It just means that you are permitting something deeper inside to come out. And in letting it out, you are honoring it.

Because this thing is dying to be expressed. It has been repressed and smothered and tramped on and beaten and thrown water on and shoes at. Whimsy has been conditioned the hell out of you.

Outside the yoga room, whimsy is not always well-received. Whimsy blurts. Whimsy can be juvenile, unseemly, and downright silly.

Whimsicality in yoga postures steps away from strict adherence to form or architecture, and may look a bit chaotic from the outside, but that’s just because whimsy has different rules, rules not fully understood from the outside, but completely known and understood from the inside.

The spirituality of whimsicality is the practice of allowing spirit out of the box. It’s the antithesis of liturgy. Liturgy is comfortable, predictable, reproducible, whereas whimsy is like letting a 3-year-old loose in a room full of balloons. Yeah, a few will break. Yeah, there’s going to be moments of startle, and tears, and mess. But man, it’s going to be a blast!

Tragically, whimsicality is one of the first things to get kicked to the curb in the process of maturing. And then, when we get older and realize what serious damage we’ve done, and what a huge a mistake it was, we then spend the rest of our lives trying to CPR some of it back into our lives, with variable success.

But if we can come into the yoga room and have somebody guide us into a whimsical practice, tell us to shake our tail feathers, and make horse sounds with our mouths, and jog in place and let our arms and legs go all loosey-goosey, what would happen?

If we are permitted the uninhibited freedom to snort like pigs, and breathe through alternate nostrils, and pump our stomachs like we’re trying to hork up hairballs, and go into our turtle shells, and kick away all the stuff that’s not serving us, and sigh out all our tension with a big, fat, audible ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh…..

Maybe, just maybe, the dying embers of what little whimsy is left in our bodies, hearts, and lives can be coaxed back to life.

And what if it turns out that this whimsicality is the deepest practice of all?