Modern art, modern food, sometimes yoga

Every year, it is the same. I come home to Chicago for the holidays, shop the suburban malls I grew up loitering in, eat a ridiculous meal at the suburban steakhouse Wildfire on Christmas Eve, then collapse into bed, eagerly awaiting the gifts under the tree. After we have transformed the family room into a wrapping paper war zone, the apple galette is baked and a sumptuous dinner prepared and eaten, and we get ready for our Day of Culture.

The Art Institute is officially my mom's favorite place in the world. This year, she snagged us lunch reservations at Teazo Piano, the elegant restaurant in the Art Institute's new modern wing. The space was gorgeous, and the food even more so.

That spaghetti squash, burrata and kalamata olive flatbread was just the warm-up for a divine lamb ragout tagliatelle pasta. After the finale of hot chocolate and homemade peppermint marshmallows, my parents drank coffee and relaxed. My sister and I ambled around the Renzo Piano-designed space, gazing at familiar paintings we grew up with by Matisse, Picasso and Magritte that somehow fit so much better in the soaring, angular white space that captures Chicago's skyline along with the art than the museum's old-fashioned marble corridors.

And every year, once the holiday bustle has ended and our house rhythms morph into watching movies, knitting, reading and cooking, I also do yoga. My parents' house is the first place where I got my butt kicked by a Shiva Rea DVD and watched in amazement as my sister did those impossible arm balances right along with Shiva. We do yoga together every year, usually in the frigid basement. But my sister left early for a yoga retreat in Costa Rica (grrr, boo, hiss), so I have been going it alone. This year I definitely thought I would be happy practicing at home.  I'm teaching now, I've got the series down in a whole new way. It's gonna be great!

Nope, non, not so much.

I've done it twice and both times, I craned my neck to look at the clock every 10 minutes. I finished the Baptiste series in record time, even after I threw in a few handstands and other core work. I wondered what my parents were doing.

It wasn't hard to figure out. I missed my yoga community. I love my studios. I love the ritual of seeing who will be in class that day. I love hearing what my teachers have to say. Other people inspire me, move me and keep me going. I'll be happy to get back.

In the meantime, my mom, who adorably does yoga too, recommended her favorite home practice companion.

Can you tell who is on the screen? Let's take a closer look.

Hi Rodney! For the next couple of days, bud, it's just you and me.


Beating the alarm on Winter Solstice

My inability to function in the morning is well documented among my coworkers and friends. My friend KGB learned that if she tried to chat before 10 a.m. at the office,  I would only grunt in response. She resorted to instant messaging.

But today, on this very important, life-changing morning when I was to finally, officially become a real, live yoga teacher who taught real, live paying students, I popped up at 4:30 a.m. I beat my alarm by an hour on the darkest day of the year.

I managed to go back to sleep, have a few restless yoga dreams and wake up at the much more appropriate hour of 5:30 a.m. before I trotted off to the New Studio for my first class. I was already a little nervous, then was further rattled by the appearance of a fellow assistant from the Neighborhood Studio. I could pretend with most of the class, but if I messed up, SHE WOULD KNOW.

Shake it off, N. Shake it off.

I did, and managed to enter the classroom with my seven students and teach quite a decent class. Sure, I forgot to explain some things in ways that made sense. Sure, my music was kinda loud and blaring for the early hour (note: dance music is not so great at 6:30 a.m.) And yeah, I might have had them do the same foot in triangle twice, but just so you know, that's because I was checking the time and internally flipping out that I had a good half hour of yoga poses that needed to be squished into 10 minutes. That seemed like a much bigger problem than calling the right foot twice.

After class, one of the staffers who practiced said I sounded great and she couldn't tell it was my first class. I'll take that compliment and tuck that away for safe-keeping. Meditation even worked out. A friend told me to just chill out about guiding meditation and do what came naturally. I listened to the Jack Kornfield CD, then decided the friend was right. I talked to the class (just one student) about breathwork and listening to her body, then let her meditate for 20 minutes. And it worked.

I'm exhausted, I'm exhilarated and mostly I'm relieved. I was more than ready to get that first class over with. And I won't ever have to do it again! It's a day deserving of a Hallelujah.


Procrastination and meditation

I'm really good at procrastinating. It comes with being a writer.  I spend a lot of time at work justifying my creative process. Great writing takes time! But I think this might be the first time I have ever procrastinated by writing. That's what I'm doing at this very moment, instead of listening to the contents of this CD:

I'm not avoiding me meditating. I like meditation. I find it emotionally cleansing. I scold myself for not doing it more. If this CD was just for me, I would have opened it by now (note the intact plastic wrap.)

But meditating in class or on my own is not the same thing as leading other people in meditation. Starting Monday and for future Mondays, that's what you'll find me doing. My new 6:15 a.m. class at the New Studio is an hour of power and includes an optional half hour of meditation afterward. Can't everyone just opt out? Please. Please.

I've asked some teachers for help. One of my teachers is exceptionally good at banging a gong during meditation. I'm not really envisioning gonging. I don't think a gong will work for me just yet, although it is also a clever way of keeping the students alert. It would more helpful if I had another vision besides no gong (though I really dig that word.) For now, all I have is this CD.

Jack Kornfield -- my soon-to-be bff -- it's now or never. This better be good.


Yoga is like a red Subaru Forrester

I have a red Subaru Forester 2001, and it only has 75,000 miles on it, but it has seen everything I have seen for nine years. It has taken me up winding, rural roads that other cars feared, it has braved hellish city traffic and it survived four, ice-packed winters in Anchorage without studded tires. I love my car.

But my car also likes to spring the occasional, costly surprise on me. I was stunned when the battery died. I dread every 15,000 miles. And it surprised me last week with a flat. Now I get to buy my beloved car a new set of tires. Presents for everyone, including the Subaru!

All of this brings me to yoga. Yoga is like my car. It has seen me through some intense emotional times, preserves my sanity when work is overwhelming and makes me happy. It also gets me big-time in the finance department. Last week I learned about liability insurance.

Liability insurance is a teacher thing. I'm finding there's a lot of teacher things in yoga. Of course I'd rather not get sued if something bad happens during class. I'd rather have the nice insurance company deal with it. It's an investment in my future. It comes with a free subscription to Yoga Journal, although being a very good yogi, I already have one. But I wasn't glad to pony up more money in the midst of the holiday season. It's very non-yogic of me to be slightly resentful, but I am. Just for a minute.

OK, I'm over it. Thanks.


Upgrading my yoga classroom

For the past month, this has been my view while teaching in my friend Maria's apartment.

It's a perfect studio for one, or three. But teaching for one, while it may sound less nerve-wracking, is in many ways more difficult than teaching a group. With a group, something I say may not resonate with all the students, but it's more than likely someone will hear me. With just one student, I found myself wondering if I was reaching her. If she didn't follow cues, I wondered if it was me or was she just just ignoring me? (The answer sometimes was ignoring me, I later found out. I should have put her into frog.)

During feedback, I found out I am doing everything better, especially calling the flow and breath. But I still need to work on a lot. It's a practice for the teacher too. I spend a lot of time listening to other teachers now and aspire to teach like them. In time.

But in just one short week, I leave my classroom of one behind for - if I'm lucky - five. 6:15 is early for everyone, not just me.


Resolution 2010: Become morning person

I have T minus 11 days to make myself into a morning person. Because in that many days, I will be teaching my first, full yoga class at 6:15 a.m! And it will become my regular class starting next year. I feel like doing a jig. And I don't jig.

It all went down this week. With temperatures outside in the 20s and 30s, my office was frigid and I was shivering at my desk. A 90-degree yoga studio sounded like bliss, so I ran over to the New Studio for a lunchtime class. I got there five minutes before class started, and I rushed into the teacher changing area. One of the owners was at the computer, and I say hi.

She turns to me. "I've been meaning to talk to you. So how would you feel about taking the 6:15 a.m. Monday class? That class is the first of three for me that day." How do I feel about it? Like crowing YES! In reality, I say calmly, "Yes, I would love to take that class." Once she does some financial juggling, I will start in either January or February. Then she asks me to substitute for her on Monday the 21st at 6:15 a.m. YES.

I can't believe my own enthusiasm. I usually drag myself out of bed around 7:30 a.m. I will not only have to get up, I have to leap up and lead. But I knew an early morning might enter my life. As a newbie teacher, I still feel like I need some more experience before taking on packed evening classes. As a teacher with a full-time job, there's not a lot of time left in the day. It will be a blow to my current circadian clock.

My schedule in January now presents itself this way: Monday teaching at 6:15 a.m., Tuesdays and Thursday evenings assisting and Saturday, teaching at noon. Yowza.

(I know, I need more pictures on this blog. Any suggestions on what? Besides mediocre calendar pictures I take with my phone?)


There's no take backs in yoga

After class at my Neighborhood Studio the other day, a friend asked me about the New Studio. She was interested in trying it out and saw my name on the Web site.

STOP THE PRESSES! My name is on the Web site?!

Sure enough, when I checked, my bio is listed with the rest of the instructors. Yes! It's my first official yoga teacher bio. I know it will happen again. But I know it won't ever be as exciting as the first time.

I've moved beyond denial and no longer worry they'll take it back. But the New Studio has this awesome vision and is already such an incredible community that I love. And I'm really happy to be part of it.

Here's a (slightly edited) version of what went up:

When Nicole started practicing yoga five years ago, she discovered her practice was the one place she could calm her mind and be present. She was soon drawn to the dance-like flow, hands-on teaching style and heat of Baptiste-style power vinyasa yoga and devoted herself to the practice.

Then yoga started to infiltrate all aspects of her life, as yoga tends to do. She attended retreats and weekend trainings with master teachers Rusty Wells, Ana Forrest, Shiva Rea and Bryan Kest. She fell in love with chanting and singing at satsang and kirtan events. She wondered how to fit in more yoga and share its incredible gifts with others.

Nicole believes that a teacher's role is to empower students and grant them the space to grow physically and mentally. She promises to bring lightness, authenticity, freedom and love to her classes and help students be present, tap their inner yes and find their own truth. Nicole is a writer by day, and in her spare time, when she isn't teaching, assisting or practicing yoga, she can be found doing of one of these activities: hiking, skate skiing, cooking, trying new restaurants, playing violin or checking out new music.


Don't leave the students hanging

I lucked out today. I had the day off, and jaunted off to the studio for a morning practice. Turns out I was the only one interested in taking a class at 9:30. Hooray!

I've taught private one-on-one classes, but have never been on the receiving end. Since I'm counting down the days until I start teaching at the studio, my teacher S. turned it into a flow/assisting workshop. He suggested giving me assists and then I would try them out on him.

Working with an experienced teacher revealed all sorts of ways to improve. He gave me some nuanced feedback on pressure, talking me through how to set up an assist before deepening someone into a posture and using the arch of my foot to press down on a student's foot rather than pinching with the outer edge. We even did frog. When done right, he showed me, the hips start to open even more. Ahh.

We discussed personal space, especially between men and women. He lets someone come to class for a week before he attempts assists beyond light contact. Most teachers know their boundaries, but it can still be a sensitive thing for some students. With that in mind, he gave me some alternatives for deeper assists in camel, when I might not feel comfortable kneeling face-to-face. Assisting can be awfully cozy. Basically: mind the body parts.

He also said to focus on the basics while teaching: breath, flow, alignment and tempo. Once I master those, then I can layer in spirituality and other elements. Do it too early and you'll break up the flow. He is a master of all those layers, so it was reassuring to hear from him that I did not need to go there just yet.

All that was swimming around in my head tonight while assisting. This time, I led 23 students through the balancing series. It felt a little clunky at first when the class was handed off to me, but I just focused on breath, alignment, flow and tempo. The time flew by.

Afterward, my teacher gave me some suggestions (also known as "opportunities.") About that flow: I held the poor intro students way too long on one side for airplane (I hate it when teachers do that! Doh.) I need to find new ways to explain what they should be working toward (don't dump your weight into your hip). I need to cut them a break and not leave them hanging in a pose. Have FUN.

But it was her first time seeing me teach, and she had praise. She felt ease in the way I spoke and liked that I found new, unique ways to say the same old things. She said I push students without making them feel pressured to do it, which will be a great skill for more advanced classes. She said she was so happy she was verklempt.

Now I call that a kick-ass day deserving of a kick-ass treat!

My new bar for class size: 29.

Sometimes yoga doesn't come first. Monday was one of those days. Me and my class of two all had Monday Meltdowns. There was only work; there was no yoga. There was no Day 3.

But Tuesday was a whole new day and one of my regular days to assist. Any time I get to assist, I'm pretty much the happiest girl ever. I love assisting. But I've also been chomping at the bit a little. The main focus so far for me is provide adjustments during intro classes to make sure the students are safe and help them learn alignment. The eventual goal is to have us teach parts of the class. I've stood before the students a couple of times so far and talked about the theme of the day, like being present. But teaching has the same effect on me as terribly chemical and terribly delicious Sweettarts (which I should give up but can't.) Give me one and I gotta have the whole roll.

On this day, our teacher asked if we wanted to teach class. Because of Thanksgiving, we had a lot to speed through. She gave us each an assignment. One assistant would talk philosophy, another would teach balancing, and I would start class off with the integration series. It's the simplest one to teach with just three poses and OMs. I should have been overjoyed. I wasn't. There were 29 students in there. If you're keeping track, that's an almost six-fold increase in class size. Gulp.

But then I walked into that warm studio, looked at all those students, and suddenly felt OK. I brought the students into child's pose. I talked breath. I talked alignment. I talked turkey. The teacher signaled me to speed up, and I somehow got them to standing at the top of their mats, their hands pressed together at heart's center. We OM'ed. And it felt great.

I want to do it again.


We made it to savasana...

I'm on Day 2 of Three Days of Teaching. I hope one of my friends has a partridge waiting for me at the end of Day 3.

I started off today practicing with another teacher to gear myself up after a somewhat unsatisfying Day 1. I felt tentative while teaching that class, like I was tripping over the words. I didn't have all that much to say and running out of words is not a good feeling. During my morning practice, I paid close attention to what the teacher did. She did a lot of streeeetching out of words, set a theme for the day and then continued with it throughout class. Great teachers really are incredible wordsmiths.

It was all in preparation for my largest class to date: five students at my friend Angie's condo clubhouse in Bellevue. My big experiment was adding music to class. Until now, I've taught in silence. Some people say music is a crutch. I get that. But I really love a good song to add energy through the flow of warrior poses and twists or to motivate for core strengthening.

I zipped through my ipod before class and threw together a playlist with a couple of energetic songs from Hercules and Love Affair, added a dash of Krishna Das for some of his solemn, soothing chords and mixed in a song by The Weepies because it's cute and I haven't listened to it in awhile.

What I learned in real time is songs go really fast once you turn them on. Also, it helps to remember to turn the music off or else Krishna Das will be playing before you know it and not during final rest. All of which leads to today's note to self: Have more than four songs on the playlist. Yeah.

Today's class also verged on comical. People kept coming in and out of the clubhouse with holiday decorations. At one point, a woman waved me over. "Do you live here?" No. "You can't use this clubhouse." My friend lives here. "You're supposed to sign up to use the clubhouse." OK. I went back to teaching. Five minutes later, she came back again. "A lot of us would love to have a yoga class here, and we'd love to have you teach. Would you consider teaching a class here?" I don't know, I'm in the middle of a class. She told me to call the management company. (I probably won't. Shh.)

It's always a relief to get to final rest. I got the class to savasana, but not before I accidentally blasted them with some Krishna Das as they were settling in. (Another note: check the volume.) But they didn't seem to mind, and I think the head massages while lying on the floor helped. Then Angie rewarded us with some hard-earned homemade croissant bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. Mmm, I can't imagine a better end to Day 2. Thanks Angie!


Mindfully saying yes to too much food

 I was mindful today on this national holiday. The moment fullness set in, I stopped eating and looked at my plate. I then (very intentionally) ignored my stomach's plea for mercy and plowed ahead, finishing the other half of my Thanksgiving dinner. I followed two kinds of stuffing, moist turkey, fluffy mashed and sweet potatoes, silky green bean casserole, fresh rolls, salad and cranberries with a piece of flaky, lovely apple galette I only make during the holidays and a tartly sweet slice of pear cranberry cake baked by my friend and fantastic dinner hostess KGB (best initials ever.)

In case it was somehow unclear, I'm not a vegetarian. Also, I really, really, really like to talk about food. Food and yoga are in a dead heat for the two topics I like to talk about most. You'll probably read a lot of posts about food in the guise of writing about yoga. Like this one. (Pictured below: KGB peeling back the butter-laden cheesecloth from her magnificent turkey.)

I also had a few genuine moments of mindfulness today. My favorite way to start off this particular holiday is at the yoga studio with a Thanksgiving morning practice, and not just because I used a stick of butter in the stuffing. There's something extremely soothing about having time during the day to put the food aside for a moment (just a moment) and really consider gratefulness.

My gratitude this year and the opening I feel from following a new yoga path feel so boundless. But if I had to pick a theme for my gratitude, it would be space: my home space, the space to love the people in my life, the space to bring in the practice of yoga and the space I offer as a teacher to students who need a little room in their lives to stretch. I know there are so many people who have done the same for me, and I didn't even know. Thank you.


Wine, chocolate mousse and a yoga job

I still haven't figured out the normal way to get a yoga teaching job. In my current line of work, it involves the typical cover letter, resume and writing samples. Am I supposed to have a yoga resume?

But after I got back from Mexico, I knew I wanted to teach. I knew I wanted to teach at a new studio two of my teachers were on the cusp of opening. I didn't know how to do it. But training gave me a lot of chutzpah, so three days after I got back from Mexico, I marched on down.

I didn't really have a plan. I just heard through the grapevine that one of the teachers was basically living there trying to get it ready in time, so I popped my head into the construction zone and asked for him. He was in the back with the lighting designer and definitely frazzled. But he took a break and heard me out. He said, "Wow, I didn't know you wanted to teach. That's so great. Sure, we can figure something out. Just email me times that are best for you for classes, and we'll go from there." Then he went back to the lighting designer.

That's really almost exactly how it went. It seemed suspiciously easy. That night, I emailed him and the other owner. She got back to me and we had coffee a few days later. Everything she said thrilled me. My vision for teaching meshes with their vision for the studio: empower others by creating space for people to grow. I want to do it in class, and they want to do it through the studio, eventually starting a nonprofit. Once we got that out of the way, she said she wanted to have a donation-based community class that would make the studio accessible to everyone and also be a place to nurture new teachers like myself. She showed me the pay scale. She asked me what times worked for my schedule. I said, "Weekends are better." She said, "How about noon on Saturday?" Done.

Then I got really, really scared. I'm nervous about teaching, but I was more nervous that I made the offer up, even after I was invited to a teacher dinner and the first meeting. I thought that they might take it back. They haven't yet.

I feel really lucky to be part of the birth of this studio. They have gathered an incredible group of teachers in a gorgeous, thoughtful space. Their energy is so inspiring. They held their grand opening recently, and it was my kind of party, with wine, champagne, cheese and chocolate mousse. There was a huge crowd there for the opening ceremony and the studio's first round of "om." I'm still assisting and learning insane amounts, but I also can't wait to get going teaching. SOON!


Wanna know a secret? Yoga is expensive.

I've spent a good chunk of my paycheck over the years paying to practice yoga at an excellent local studio. But it's nothing compared to training to be a teacher. It's a little scary to add it all up: a weekend teacher training, weekends studying with visiting master teachers like Ana Forrest and Bryan Kest, the weeklong training in Mexico.

But I'm very clear on how much I spent this past weekend: $500. OK, it was two weekends. Isn't that better? (Say yes.) Yoga training is calculated in hours and this past weekend was the culmination of 24 hours learning hands-on assists. When broken down, it's $20 per hour, which seems semi-reasonable to insane yoga people like myself. But I'm still grateful (most of the time) that yoga has become a black hole for my time, and dinners out have pretty much come to a screeching halt. I've reallocated my resources.

But despite the achy upper back and 12 hours confined to a hot studio, I loved the whole weekend. I'm ridiculously happy to spend hours every day talking and thinking yoga, refining postures and luxuriating in some hip opening. My shoulders feel the effects of being lifted deeper into wheel. My wrists are sore from pulling on people's legs. Yes, assisting involves a lot of contact with really sweaty people. I can't even pretend it's appealing to the sane. But I'd do it every day, all day. It's incredibly fun to see people light up when you deepen a twist, get them into the right alignment or help them into a headstand.

I'll help you too. Remember, the free class deal is time limited!


Free Classes! Really!

I came back from my teacher training a month ago with yoga neurons firing: I'm ready! Let me teach! I'll be awesome! But I just started assisting at my studio, and it will take some time before I can teach there. I did finagle a community class that starts in January (how that came to be is a story for another day), but that's too far away for impatient me.

So I have been offering my friends free classes. It's been spectacularly easy to convince people to be my guinea pigs. They have no idea what they're getting themselves into. Yes, I will make you "om," even if there's only one person there. (And this only lasts until January, so if you want in, speak now or forever hold your peace.)

I recently taught a class of three (3!) at my friend Maria's place. I got everyone into child's pose, then realized I had nothing to say. My brain was not functioning and stalled completely once I had the floor. I was slightly panicked. I made them breathe a lot. I'm pretty certain it's going to happen again.

But I had spent some time that day with a homeless woman. She has huge blue eyes and a composed demeanor. She shared some intensely personal details about her life. And she was amazingly, utterly un-resentful about it all. She doesn't get mad that people ignore her in the streets. After she searches for cigarette butts in ash trays, she clears all the other butts and throws them away. She's had trouble getting her food stamps this month so she's been hungry. But she told me all she really wants in life is a cozy place of her own. A car would be nice, if that works out.

I am always looking bigger, higher, wanting more. I have more. In class, I eventually worked my way into a story about gratitude. In some ways, it was a clobber-you-over-the-head kind of gratitude, but if you met her, you'd feel compelled to do the same.


About this blog

Hi, I'm Nicole. I’m a yoga teacher and writer who started this blog to combine two of my biggest passions and shed a little light on This Yoga Life. I live in Seattle, but grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. I have been a resident of states as various as New Hampshire and Alaska, but feel most at ease in the brilliant, beautiful Pacific Northwest.

Seattle also is where my passion for yoga took root. I have been practicing yoga for several years, and teaching since 2009. Since this blog began, I have completed 200 hours of training with Baron Baptiste, and now teach Baptiste Power Vinyasa Flow at several studios around the city.

Through this blog, I have been documenting my teaching journey as I turned what once was a side gig into a full-time job. Besides yoga, there are the usual detours into meditation, into yoga clothes, into playlists and sometimes into food, because if I'm not thinking about yoga, I'm most likely thinking about what I'm going to eat next. But mostly, I'm here to share what a wild ride it is. Welcome.

If you want to send me a personal message via email, please click here.
Header Image from Bangbouh @ Flickr