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.
Header Image from Bangbouh @ Flickr