Monday, September 17, 2012
I spent a good portion of my weekend coaching, running, and in the yoga studio. I had a few moments to reflect upon the similarities and differences between these two roles during my time in the studio, particularly immediately before and after the classes I helped out with.
Aside from leading stretching, I think that run coaching and teaching/adjusting during a yoga class are actually fairly different. I suppose I see run coaching as more of a sister to leading yoga teacher training than it is to leading an actual yoga class. I don't have direct access to my athletes during a run workout because they are spread out in space and time. It is pretty much impossible to see everything at all times and similarly impossible to be heard by everyone. The moments of coaching running which matter tend to be restricted to before and after the workout, when the athlete is less able to directly apply a specific suggestion.
However, I think that pacing is actually fairly similar to adjusting in a yoga class and reasonably similar to teaching yoga. This might be one reason why I seem to gravitate towards all of these activities. The big difference between being an adjuster vs being a teacher is that the adjuster generally uses his or her own body parts to fine tune a student's alignment whereas the teacher generally uses words. Of course there is plenty of grey area, a good adjuster should speak quietly to one student at a time when necessary and a good teacher should be dishing out adjustments as well as speaking, and the teacher knows what is coming next whereas the adjuster may not.
Many runners are familiar with pace groups since most major marathons offer them as a free service. Find the stick that says 3:30 and that dream of qualifying for Boston requires the bare minimum of brain activity to stick with the stick. Pacing an individual is common in ultras but less so on road courses, especially ones with aid stations and race clocks at every mile. I must admit that many of my fondest racing memories are from pacing during road marathons. The thrill of making a positive contribution fuels me in a unique and effective manner.
Pacing a group is quite a bit like teaching a yoga class. As the pacer, you set the tempo, the tone, the effort, and you guide your athletes through the process, preparing them for what is coming without dwelling on the details or the past. A good pacer knows when to keep quiet and when to be vocal. A good pacer is constantly observing the body language of the runners in the group, trying to get a bead on who is holding back and who is pushing too much, who is serious, and who is just along for the ride.
A good individual pacer is able to dive into the mind of the athlete. This often takes a personal connection or prior knowelege of their personality. Is he or she the type who will self motivate at the end or will doubts likely surface? Is he or she the type to go out too hard, to be too enthusiastic too early, and will it be important to keep things under control for the first half? What motivates this person, does he like tough love, does she want to hear positive affirmations? How can humor be used? Is it best as a pacer to focus on the end goal at all costs, or on the process and conquering demons along the way? Some runners want to be distracted from the race in order to run their best, whereas some want to retain a tight grip on things and would prefer to receive mileage and pace information continuously. Some runners can be tricked into performing better than they thought they could, others are simply too sharp and must be given accurate information at all times or trust is lost.
Adjusting in a yoga class involves a lot of what I describe in the paragraph above minus the competitive element. To be good at adjusting, you have to be invisible and yet present, you have to be available but not in the way. The best adjustments are given when the adjuster and the student both know each other, when both feel comfortable in each other's space. I find one of the bigger challenges with adjusting is with reading the body language of someone I do not know. I frequently interpret a desire to be left alone and then I am told after class that my adjustments were actually well received. We all have different body language, and I think the key to to adjusting is projecting an inner confidence, which is so easy to say and so hard to do because it must be genuine and confidence is something which naturally ebbs and flows in all of us. When I approach someone, either a runner or a yogi, with the intent to create a better experience for them, the subtleties of this intention are received subconsciously. When I approach someone with uncertainty because of how they are moving, the difficulty of the pose, or whatever might be creeping into my head, I tend to have more trouble.
As the 60 minutes of class tick by, I notice myself gaining comfort and confidence with my role as an adjuster. At first it feels odd, as I noticed on Sunday when I wound up as the only male in a room full of women. I begin with the people I know the best, even if I've only talked to them briefly, because I know this will inspire confidence for all of us. From there I tend to gravitate towards those who I feel are most in need of help, often picking students who seem to demonstrate a lack of experience with their alignment or their facial expressions. More often than not, these are the ones in the back row, typically in the corners of the room, who steal a glance at the instructor or the person in front of them every minute or two. Honestly, while I think I help a little bit for these types of yogis, I find myself frequently challenged when adjusting a beginner I don't know. There is a definite uncertainty about how strong of a lead they would like, and some fear that I might underestimate their experience and somehow come across as insulting which causes me to err on the side of caution and a softer adjustment than I would otherwise.
Interestingly, however, it is the experienced yogis who typically benefit the most from an adjustment. Experienced yogis already know which direction their body should be rotating, extending, or folding and will follow my lead, encouraging me and taking advantage of the mechanics of my assist more than a lesser experienced yogi. I think this might be comparable to how an experienced female dancer learns to follow effortlessly from her male lead. It is over the second half of class when I start to finally feel that I am performing my role the way I'd like to, where I begin to give adjustments which I would actually receive favorably as a student myself.
The satisfaction I take away from pacing and adjusting is similar and fairly intangible. I hope that anyone I pace will remember their toughness, their ability to conquer a physical challenge, and that I will effectively disappear from their memories of the event itself. Similarly with my adjustments, I hope the class is remembered as an internal experience, a special mix of breath and movement which might have been subtly enhanced by a push or pull in the right direction at just the right time.