Recently, I received the sad news that my last horn teacher died suddenly from a stroke. She was only my teacher for a little over a year, but there is still a list of important lessons that I learned from her.

She had an infectious love for horn music. What made her a great teacher was her ability to create space (in a very no-nonsense way) to help other people cultivate their own passion. She wasn’t playing in an orchestra. She wasn’t making recordings. She was a teacher and, believe me, she could play the @#$% out of the Brahms Trio.

One of my favorite memories was when the university paper interviewed her about being a female brass player*. Apparently, she told the student (who was likely expecting a feminist manifesto), “Look, sometimes you just need to learn to drink with the boys.” She taught me how to choose my battles. She spoke up for me when I needed it. She supported my decision to put my instrument down, even though she didn’t fully agree with it. She held the space for me.

When I heard the news, I felt simultaneous sadness of her loss and gratitude that I was able to study with her. I clearly saw the tremendous gifts, opportunities and responsibilities of being a teacher. I hope to hold the space for my students the way she held the space for so many young musicians. I realize that even brief moments of connection with a teacher can resonate throughout a lifetime.

I feel gratitude, inspiration and can’t wait to teach my next class!

*For those of you outside of the industry, being a female brass player it’s not for the thin-skinned. Case in point: the widespread use and acceptance of the word brasshole.

Vinyasa: Putting Things in a Certain Order

I am in power vinyasa yoga teacher training. I have three more weekends, a seva (community service) project, and dvd/critique to go in order to complete my 200-hour yoga-alliance approved training. I know power vinyasa yoga gets some flak, often categorized with things like super-sized xyz or extreme sports/makeovers – so let me break it down:

Power: Acting on your own behalf
Vinyasa: Putting things in a certain order
Yoga: Skill in action

Overall, I’ve been experiencing vinyasa off the mat. My second week of teacher training, I likened the experience of moving into a beautiful new apartment after months of anticipation. In this new space, surrounded by boxes without labels, I realize not everything is going to fit. The bookshelf that fit perfectly in the old place and held so many books is too wide, the kitchen does not have room for all the fancy appliances, and half of what I’ve been carrying and carefully packaging isn’t necessary. Writing yay is one of those metaphorical boxes that made it to the “to be unpacked” pile, but was low on the priority list.

It is intense and life-changing. Intense introspection like I have never experienced – getting behind my thoughts and really looking honestly at the ways I have chosen to present myself and live my life. I am emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of each weekend I have training. My homework is equally intense, designed to train my mind to look at life through different lenses (a.k.a. yamas and niyamas). I have come to truly appreciate the word “weary” and understand why this particular word (as opposed to “tired” or “exhausted”) is used in hymns and poems. I am pushed to tap into my inner power (see above definition) and learn how to speak powerfully from a place of stillness. Over and over, I ask myself the exhilarating yet frightening questions: “How did I get here, to this point in my life?” and “Where to next?”

Waltzing on the edge of beauty and terror, embracing the complexities of simply being human, I have often thought about one of my favorite Rilke passages:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.

My celebration of being human is not inspired by Michael Franti. (I feel it is important to make this distinction, despite fear of being excommunicated from the yoga community.) For me, it is inspired by Beethoven (Dresden playing the 7th to be exact), Walt Whitman, Bach, Patanjali, Kabir, the unconditional love of my dog, listening to Madeline Albright talk about diplomacy and Jonah Lehrer talk about the mind, watching the changing leaves, listening to falling rain, slowing down on the highway to see birds in the wetlands, pausing to feel the rumble of trains rattle the windows of my little house as many other have since 1916, smiling at strangers. With the community of training, I have felt the supportive experience of breathing in time with 31 people and been able to laugh, cry, succeed, and fail without judgment in front of others.

My celebration of being human is inspired by slowing down and living namaste. I want to always really mean it when I say namaste and bring it to each moment: recognizing that we are all the same by seeing the same fears, hopes, and joys in others that I feel so sharply and deeply.

I realize I love pranayama (breath work) and want to go deeper outside of teacher training. I remind myself to remind myself that each breath, each moment, is a gift and that it is my choice to accept or ignore these gifts. (No, there is not a typo in that sentence.)

It has been painful in many ways. One of my friend’s mother told her that she is feeling pain because part of her is dying and part of her is being born – both are painful processes. Relationships and perspectives change. My body aches after Sundays of 7:45 a.m. ashtanga (which my inner I-don’t-wanna calls asstanga when it is roused to get out of bed at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday and is subsequently chided for being so childish) followed by back-to-back practice teaching/practicing. But, as one of the seven axioms we learn in our training reminds us: Fear and Pain are Life’s Greatest Teachers.

In short, yoga teacher training is one mind@#$% after another in the process of metamorphosis. I am grateful, humble, and inspired.

Sound, silence, stillness

(I’m cheating a little bit on the writing challenge. I spent the weekend on the central coast and it was sunny. I was more focused on two straight days of uninterrupted relaxation with friends and good wine. Oh Paso Robles, I love you and your delicious hills!)

I had a few days off from work last week and took a yin class that I had been trying to get to for a while. The teacher is also a musician and we struck up a conversation about music theory and yoga before the class. I was in nerd heaven having a short conversation about yoga that included the sentence, “You can go I-IV-V, but you can also throw in a ii chord or change the key.” Then she used twelve tone music as a metaphor in class. I went home and listened to the Berg violin concerto. I need more Thursdays off!

Yoga, music, it’s the same thing – but don’t take it from me….

(This is how I remember this going down. It’s not verbatim.)

I was at work in April listening to a question and answer session at the conclusion of a master class with the Russian pianist Vladimir Feltsman. As I wrote earlier, it was after thirty minutes of him patiently working with a musician who was not prepared to play for him. One of the audience members asked him for advice on developing technique.

“Technique? What is technique?” He said, “Putting my fingers on piano keys? There are nineteen-year-old kids at Julliard with technique playing Bach Goldberg Variations faster and more accurate than I. There are better dressed men with technique making more money than I do playing Chopin. But it is empty. Just noise.”

He pointed at two people in the front row and asked, “You – where does sound come from?”

One said, “When I touch the key on the piano,” Feltsman frowned and said, “This piano is inanimate object. How can sound come from inanimate object?! You,” he pointed at the second person, “where does sound come from?” The poor kid was clearly terrified and said something that inspired Feltsman to say, “Absurd!”

“Sound,” he said, taking a deep breath and a long pause, “comes from silence. Now the real question is: where does silence come from? Silence comes from a stillness. I’m not going to lure you into some ridiculous metaphysical discussion, because nothing good will come of it. It would be a pointless dialogue. Music is one way, one language, to connect to that place, that energy, that stillness. There are other ways to get there. Music is one spoke on the wheel – the spokes spin on the wheel, all of them are important, but they revolve around a center that does not move. The center stays still. It just is…and that is where sound comes from – silence, stillness. Otherwise, it is just noise.”

I think I was holding my breath while he said this.

When we were leaving the venue, I told him that his words on silence helped me understand why I have found the practice in yoga that I have been searching for since leaving my classical music behind. He interrupted me, threw his hands in the air and said, with a sigh, “Yes! Music, yoga – all same thing! Why people always have to separate this from that is absurd!”

I loved that he didn’t want to get all metaphysical – sometimes you can really talk something to death. He asked what kind of yoga I practice, said some really funny things that I really appreciate about people who run off to Nepal and get fancy Tibetan titles, and left it at that. Less talking, more walking.

When I speak, I want my words to come from that still place. When I move, I want that movement to come from that still place. That in itself defines the practice on and off the mat for me.

Learning to fly

In April, I was watching a young college student butcher Beethoven in a master class with Russian pianist Vladimir Feltsman. I know it may sound harsh to say that, but I was sitting in the audience fuming that her teacher would not only to give her a piece she wasn’t ready to play but to offer her up as a candidate to play for Feltsman. She had no idea what she was doing – it was kind of hard to watch.

For about fifteen minutes, he worked patiently with her. He told her to stop moving her shoulders and other unnecessary movements (“less physical, more mental, yes?”). She pounded the piano at a fortissimo and he stopped her, “Why you touch piano like this,” he poked her shoulder, “would you touch a person like this? You touch person like this, they don’t like you and you hurt them. You touch piano like this, it doesn’t like you and you disrespect it.” Her tempos were inconsistent, she was playing wrong notes, and he had to tell her things like, “that’s not a half note, it’s a whole note.” He made her slow down messy passages and clapped behind her to keep time. He asked her if she had a metronome (“yes”) and if she practiced with one (shrug).

Finally, he stopped her and said, “Why do you try to fly when you can’t walk? First, learn how to walk, then learn how to run, and maybe someday you will learn how to fly.” He told her to find simpler pieces, practice scales, and work up to the Beethoven.

I heard the spirit of my first horn teacher telling me, “Fundamentals, young lady. Fun-da-mentals.” I heard a chorus of teachers who taught me how to practice. If I played a sloppy passage, break it down – what scale is this? arpeggio? Yes. Now play those and then play the passage. Take it to half speed and gradually bring it up to tempo. Change the rhythm, learn how it works. Fundamentals.

I heard my yoga teachers telling me not to recklessly kick up into headstand, but to engage bandhas and lift instead. I heard them telling me to drop to child’s pose if I’ve lost my breath.

The girl lacked a disciplined practice. She runs risk of injury from the way she moves her shoulders, elbows, and wrists. She will only get so far in playing the piece because she does not take time on the fundamentals. There is some flashy appearance of playing, but it lacks a sophisticated understanding the building blocks of the piece. All these things, summed up by lack of discipline in practice, could keep her from building a beautiful relationship with a piece of music, to get inside, make friends with it, and share its beautiful gifts with others.

Ever had that kind of practice throw its mat down next to you in class? Of course you have.

Ever had that kind of practice yourself? Me – absolutely.

Like when I thought I had successfully gotten to a point where I could incorporate chaturanga to upward facing dog through a whole class. I was looking up instead of down at the ground, lifting my heart from my toes to the top of my head. It was like when I got assigned my first Mozart concert and could play with the big kids. Then I wondered why my shoulder was hurting, even after correcting an ergonomic issue at work. Looking back, it seems so silly – like any one pose is better than another. I was so excited about being able to do a more advanced version of a pose, I got more interested in the idea of putting this in my repertoire than making sure I had built enough strength to do it correctly throughout the whole class. I was butchering Beethoven and needed to practice my scales. I caught myself. I dialed it back, built the strength and self-awareness to safely add the pose to my flow. Besides, I love low cobra. Just like in music, building a discipline is the core of a lifelong relationship with yoga.

So I’m thinking about tapas a lot this week. I just found out this week that I got accepted to a 200-hour teacher training that will start in September. I’m also finishing up assisting training and hope to be assisting over the summer before teacher training. I’m taking steps to deepen this practice. It’s filled a place in my life that has been empty since I stopped playing music. I am so grateful to the amazing teachers I had during my classical music journey – the lessons are 100% transferable.

I love Rolf Gates’ discussion of tapas in his book Meditations from the Mat. It takes place over a couple days, but here is a quote from Day 77:

Tapas is the spirit of inquiry; it is abut having the heart of an explorer. It is the willingness to work hard in practice, the desire to know oneself, the will to be honest. This desire will give us consistency. We will have good days and bad days, days when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and days when the opposite is the case. Years of consistent practice are not built on rigid self-discipline; they are built on the desire to know more.

I also really like Judith Lasater’s definition from this article on Yoga Journal’s website:

Tapas (Austerity)

Tapas is one of the most powerful concepts in the Yoga Sutra. The word “tapas” comes from the Sanskrit verb “tap” which means “to burn.” The traditional interpretation of tapas is “fiery discipline,” the fiercely focused, constant, intense commitment necessary to burn off the impediments that keep us from being in the true state of yoga (union with the universe).

Unfortunately, many people mistakenly equate discipline in yoga practice with difficulty. They see another student striving to perfect the most difficult poses and assume she must be more disciplined and therefore more spiritually advanced.

But difficulty does not in itself make a practice transformational. It’s true that good things are sometimes difficult, but not all difficult things are automatically good. In fact, difficulty can create its own impediments. The ego is drawn to battle with difficulty: Mastering a challenging yoga pose, for example, can bring pride and an egoistic attachment to being an “advanced” yoga student.

A better way to understand tapas is to think of it as consistency in striving toward your goals: getting on the yoga mat every day, sitting on the meditation cushion every day—or forgiving your mate or your child for the 10,000th time. If you think of tapas in this vein, it becomes a more subtle but more constant practice, a practice concerned with the quality of life and relationships rather than focused on whether you can grit your teeth through another few seconds in a difficult asana.

Tapas. The money for this training is no small thing to our household budget, so I want to stay as clear an focused as a can on this path – not take a moment for granted. I’m incredibly grateful to be here and have the support of my husband who has patiently seen me unsuccessfully search for this path on different instruments, art supplies, and a sewing machine. I couldn’t do it without him. Yay!

All this talk of tapas is making me hungry…and where’s my sangria?

P.S. I have another story from the Feltsman master class…I’ll post it one of these days.