Friday, February 04, 2005

Yoga Teacher Training, Weekend II (Friday)

This week the woman I work for asked me to collect some articles relating to health, economic development, and foreign policy for a panel she was speaking on today at the "Health Policy Forum." I asked her what she was speaking about and she said, "I haven't decided yet, just get some interesting stuff and I'll figure it out."

So I collected a wide range of articles: regressions showing that malaria causes poverty and not the other way round; an article condemning environmental groups who try to prevent developing countries from using DDT on a small scale to repel mosquitos from homes (since it is so effective at saving lives, and supposedly negligably damaging to the environment on such a small scale); an article analyzing the public good nature of research on developing country disease vaccines, and laying out details for incentives that could be used to induce Western pharmaceutical companies to invest in it more; an article on the relationship between the US and the World Health Organization (which is under the auspices of the UN, hence often suffers when the US causes the UN budget to freeze, yet often also benefits from extra-budgetary donations from the US, particularly for its AIDS programs); an interview with an epidemiologist who complained about the lack of international coordination and wasted effort in the tsunami relief effort (among other things, US Midwesterners have been sending sweaters in the mail - not the most efficient use of resources); a poll of American citizens about foreign aid showing that they were remarkably willing to spend money on AIDS relief, particularly in Africa - in fact, political experts on average underestimated their generosity by half. I also pulled up some OECD data on Official Development Assistance, as a percentage of GNP, by donor country, as well as specifically health-related assistance, by donor country.

I met with my boss and handed her the articles one by one, describing them. Then we had a little conversation about the psychology of American voters when it cames to foreign aid, and how they were disproportionately more willing to spend money on health-related aid compared to other aid where the benefits were more subtle and harder to explain or prove. I gave her my data. She nodded and rushed home to take care of her daughters.

This morning the articles were still in their place on her desk. She hadn't touched them after her conversation with me. The Health Policy Forum was all day, from 8:30am to 5:30pm, and she was speaking on the last panel, which began at 3:45pm. (Can I just mention that I hate hotel conference ballrooms? Good heavens. Gigantic underground caverns with no sunlight and vast steppes of tackily floral-motifed carpet, as far as the eye can see.)

Anyway, my boss was speaking at a different conference, in New York, in the morning - about the current account deficit - and was flying in on the 1:30pm, so she arrived at the conference about 15 minutes before her panel started. I saw her in the lobby looking through my data in a folder. "Hi," I said. "Do you know what you're going to say?" "Nah," she said. "I'll figure it out when I do it."

Two people were speaking before her, and they'd obviously both prepared extensively - the first person had an elaborate PowerPoint presentation. Then my boss strode up to the podium. She's a beautiful woman with long blonde hair, a strong chin, piercing eyes, and a penchant for stiletto heels.

There are few things more exhilarating than watching a display of sheer talent, so my boss's speech riveted me. Waving her hands gracefully for emphasis, she described the nature of a health-related global public good, as well as a national public good, and the different motives for funding them: self-interest, or a desire to aid development. She explained that curing tropical country diseases hadn't been in America's direct interest until recently, with growing research into bioterror defense, and related a funny anecdote from the Aspen Strategy Group (which, last summer, focused on just that.) And she waxed philosophic on the nature of the American voter.

To be honest, it wasn't exactly her arguments that impressed me so much; if I'd seen them written down, I would have been interested but not blown away. The several parts of her speech weren't quite logically linked together, and the anecdote about the Strategy Group, upon sober reflection, seemed a bit extraneous. But that wasn't the display of talent: it was the fact that she'd composed the speech, under pressure, in the space of about twenty minutes, while listening to her fellow panelists (and she really listened to them, since she responded to points they made) - and delivered it flawlessly and confidently, engaging the audience and convincing them that every word coming from her mouth glittered like a diamond.

Damn, she was a good performer.

Teaching yoga also involves performance, I am discovering in my teacher training. Teaching a vinyasa (flow) yoga class ideally involves moving your students through a complicated choreography, with every inhalation and exhalation accounted for, at a metronomically steady pace. I'm nowhere near this ideal; it is fantastically difficult. With a soothing, steady voice, with a tone that's both reassuring, and inspiring, with a stance and gait that projects confidence, you have to create a flow on the spot - not only creating the movements from pose to pose, but a planning for a balanced larger pattern of movement arching over the whole hour, often with a theme (recurring hip-opening poses working into a particularly intense asana), figure out the words to use to describe movement so that alignment is intuitive, communicate appropriate emotions in response to the lessons of the poses and your students' own performances, physically adjust your students' bodies to fix misaligned poses and to sink them deeper into stretches, and strike a balance between responding to your students' energy (slowing down the flow if they seem tired) and attempting to change your students' energy and inspire them into new life. And all this has to happen against a perfect rhythm of inhaling and exhaling.

It's in the performance aspect of this that the skill comes in. I can easily jot down a flow sitting right here. Teaching it is entirely another matter.

Today we broke up into small groups and took it in turns teaching each other standing flows. Here the home lessons I've been giving to my friends really paid off (Thanks, guys!) because it felt easy and routine. But the guy who taught me lost his train of thought a few times, or said "Exhale" when he should have said "Inhale," and didn't describe poses clearly, so that even when I knew them I found it hard to get into them. I think he was nervous. It's not that he didn't know his stuff; it was that he couldn't access that knowledge, through the anxiety.

I think part of what yoga teaches you - and what my boss already has - is the confidence, the inner strength, and the mental relaxation needed to practice a skilled creative process, under pressure, in front of a group of people. I've read a few articles on meditation for musicians which I think have similar ideas. When you're in that zone, time seems to slow down, and your mind feels as cool as a tall glass of ice water.

My friend Ben wrote about his idea that different people respond differently to pressure; some thrive and some crack (including, unfortunately, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.) What he doesn't mention is that this characteristic isn't necessarily static. You can learn to change it. And it's something I aspire to.

Not that I'll ever look as good in a mini-skirted suit and stiletto heels as my boss does.


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