Tuesday, September 27, 2011

5 (+1) Ways To Become A Better Teacher

In my other life I work in interactive marketing and I'm told that if you write lists in your blog, you get more "hits." I am tempted to joke about how I know how to avoid being hit, but instead, here's my list of 5 Ways to Become a Better Teacher - with one BONUS way!

These tips were developed with yoga and aikido in mind, because that's what I teach. But who knows, they might be useful for teaching sports, music lessons, even physics! 

#1 Develop Confidence in your voice and in your demeanor.
If you're having trouble with this, start with your voice and your demeanor will follow.

#2 Watch Your Students.
I'm always amazed at how many teachers get so wrapped up in what they are saying and thinking that they miss the very confused looks their students are giving them, or the fact that their students are doing some thing totally different than what they were asked to do. You can learn a lot about the quality of your teaching by watching your students. And certainly you can help them more.

#3 Give each student One Thing to think about.
I think this was the first thing I learned as a teacher, back when I was 16 and a friend asked me to give her guitar lessons. I had no idea what I was doing, but if I could come up with one thing to say, I was teaching and she was learning! From the student's perspective, when you're trying to learn something difficult, it's a lot easier if you can focus on one area. If you can get better at that one thing, you become more confident, and a student with confidence will learn better. Not only that, but as teachers, working to find the one thing that will improve a student's practice is excellent for developing our own powers of perception.

#4 Explain the Benefits of what you are teaching for the student's practice.
When you give a little reason why, it gives them a reason to keep doing it. This sounds obvious, and yet many of us fall into bad habits: "Bend the wrist," "Push into the balls of the feet," "Extend farther," "Don't overextend." All these instructions need to have some context so that the student can begin to feel the results for themselves. Ultimately you want them to be their own teachers, not just automatons following your instructions.

#5 Find a way to relate what they are learning to Daily Life.
In the long term, if your students feel that what they are learning from you has benefits off the mat, they will keep coming back to this practice for their whole lives.

BONUS WAY to Become a Better Teacher
This one's worth all the rest!

#6 Slow Down.
In aikido, students (and instructors) often want to practice at "street speed," thinking it's more realistic and therefore a better way to practice. In yoga, some teachers have a tendency to go from pose to pose without pausing. And, unless guided to do otherwise, students will often jam themselves into poses rather than finding them gradually. 

Unless we practice slowly, the mind has no time to process the very delicate feelings of the body that are involved in doing the technique or asana correctly. When we are moving slowly, we listen to the instructions and try to make them happen in our bodies. But as soon as we speed up, we go back to old habits.

Maruyama Sensei is fond of saying that if you practice junk 1000 times it's still junk. The best way to make sure you're not practicing junk is to practice slowly. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Mona Lisa Smile

In his book "Peace is Every Step," Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

"When I see someone smile, I know immediately that he or she is dwelling in awareness. This half-smile, how many artists have labored to bring it to the lips of countless statues and paintings?..Mona Lisa's smile is light, just a hint of a smile. Yet even a smile like that is enough to relax all the muscles in our face, to banish all worries and fatigue. A tiny bud of a smile on our lips nourishes awareness and calms us miraculously. It returns to us the peace we thought we had lost."

Remembering to bring this small smile to the face can do wonders, not only for our own mental state, but also for the way we treat others. But how much harder is it to retain this relaxed, calm state when engaging in self-defense?

I remember about 10 years ago watching Maruyama Sensei experimenting with this half-smile. I would see him in quiet moments at the side of the mat, smiling a little more, a little less, until he had the perfect relaxed smile. It was at that time that he began to throw people with this same relaxed face, so that even the most dynamic throws looked absolutely effortless. I have looked at hundreds of photographs and video frames of Sensei throwing uke in every situation, and (unless he chooses to look otherwise), his face always looks absolutely calm and relaxed.

I realized just how extraordinary this was when I saw photos of myself during an aikido demonstration. I had worked hard to prepare my mind, and at the time I thought I was at my most relaxed. My face showed the truth.

So, I have something to aim for. What would life be without hopes and dreams?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I'd Rather Be...Here, Now

Recently I made up a few of these stickers. I put one on my car. I'm hoping that that next time I'm in traffic, whoever is stuck behind me will be reminded to stay present.

I have a few extras; if you'd like one, please let me know. Or you can make your own using Graphicsland (or a lot of other similar sites). One request if you do: please make extras and give them away!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Gently and Friendly

I work for a marketing company, and one of our clients is owned by a Japanese firm. The Japanese owners recently introduced a new marketing tagline: "Gently and Friendly." The American division decided that this tagline, although it might be suitable for Japanese audiences, did not convey the way that they were driving, aggressive and technology-focused, and so they are using a different tagline.

I was thinking about this issue on the way home from teaching the first aikido class of the semester. Maybe this "tagline" would not be suitable for most martial arts, because it doesn't convey the driving, aggressive, "win at all costs" attitude that they want to portray. But perhaps "gently and friendly" would work for Kokikai Aikido?

Don't get me wrong, I don't think we need a tagline!  But it's fun to think through the idea... So,"gently" might represent the way we use less effort, staying as relaxed as possible.  "Friendly" could refer to the result, which is that nage (the person who is defending) always retains control of the situation, having the ability to suit the throw to the strength of the attacker (throwing both smaller and larger people exactly as hard as they need to be thrown) and to the situation (for example so that our training, while remaining realistic, doesn't have to be a bruise-fest). Sometimes Sensei jokingly says, "Aikido is love and harmony," (as he effortlessly tosses some weight-lifting 3rd degree black belt to the ground from a standstill).  Maybe that's "gently and friendly!"

"Gently and friendly" stayed on my mind as I practiced yoga, and realized that it applied here as well. In yoga we don't usually practice with partners, so I used the idea of being gentle and friendly to myself throughout my practice.

In fact, the more I think about it, "Gently and Friendly" would make a pretty decent bumper sticker.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Attention is precious. Our attention is like food that supports our purpose. There are significant consequences to how we focus our attention. If our attention is turned toward the purpose of being kind, being less greedy, being present for someone, our attention will feed that purpose.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I ran into a friend yesterday who is going through a painful divorce. It was difficult to see him this way. Once a champion bodybuilder, he had lost weight, his thoughts were scattered, he looked and sounded defeated. He was so wrapped up in his anger that he was unable to experience or appreciate anything else: not the caring of the friends who were offering support or the helpful advice that they were giving him, not the delicious food, or the lovely summer day. It sounded like he had been in this state for months, and it may be many months, or years, before he is able to resolve the things that are making him unhappy.

Maruyama Sensei has said that in the context of fighting, "being angry is like having your eyes closed." My friend is in a fight and the outcome is vital to him, yet he is holding onto his anger as if it will save him even though the opposite is true.

Why do we hold on to our emotions as if they were weapons? I don't have the answer. I just know that my emotions do not represent reality; many times they obscure it. And I know that reality is precious: it's all we have!

Whenever I find myself battered by unpleasant emotions, if I can step back just one step, if I can open my eyes just one bit, I'm on the path to more equanimity and understanding. When the emotions are strong, this can be very, very difficult to do: more difficult than lifting heavy weights, daily sparring practice, or a three-hour workout. But it does get easier, and the rewards are great. After all, don't you think that you could solve your problems better if you had more equanimity and understanding? 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Float Like a Butterfly...

Shuji Maruyama Sensei has been characterized as being "like a cross between a butterfly and a piece of heavy farm equipment." When Rick Berry said this at a dinner celebrating Sensei's 35th anniversary in the U.S., it really struck me and has stuck with me these last 10 years. I was thus very surprised to see Thich Nhat Hanh described as "a cross between a cloud, a snail, and a piece of heavy machinery - a true religious presence." (by Richard Baker, in the introduction to Nhat Hanh's Peace is Every Step)

Each of these great teachers has reached a profound level of understanding about the capability of human beings. But Maruyama Sensei teaches Kokikai Aikido, a martial art, and Thich Nhat Hanh teaches Zen Buddhism, a way of peace and individual transformation.

Isn't this interesting?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Instructing the Instructor

Recently I attended a yoga class during which one of the students corrected the instructor. I'm sure she had the best of intentions. She is another teacher in the same studio, she has more experience, and she did it in a whisper where she thought others couldn't hear. Nevertheless, it was inappropriate.

As we gain experience in yoga, aikido or any "internal" practice, we inevitably face this impulse to "teach." Sometimes the urge is very strong. A little voice tells us that we are being helpful, that the instructor will benefit from our experience and knowledge. Unfortunately this is not the case. It doesn't help the instructor in question, nor his students, and it doesn't help us either.

First, consider how it feels for the instructor who is "corrected" by a student, especially by one with more experience. He may already be nervous with this person in the class. Now his fears are confirmed. His confidence is weakened, he may have difficulty regaining his focus, and the flow of the class may suffer.

The students are unlikely to miss what has happened, no matter how quietly it's done. How do students react when they see their instructor is being corrected? They lose confidence that they are being well-taught. Their focus, which should be on listening to the instructions and trying to translate them into their own actions, now drifts to the teacher and the question of his ability. In the long term, if it's not discouraged this behavior can spread, contributing to a culture in the studio or practice group in which no teacher is respected, and all teaching comes into question.

The most compelling reason for me to resist the urge to "teach," however, is that resisting it is better for my practice. When I fall into focusing on what the instructor "should" be doing, it's evidence that my attention has wandered. I'm no longer paying attention to how my body feels, where I am relaxed or tense, where I am sourcing my power.

In internal arts like aikido, yoga, tai chi or qi gong, it's the coordination of mind and body that brings growth and progress. One of the most important goals of practice is to bring the attention of the mind to bear on what we are doing with our bodies. Certainly I often fall short of that goal. The mind strays: this is its nature. But when I become aware that I'm critiquing the teacher, I can use this awareness as a sign to point my attention back to my practice.

I can think of only two situations in which it might be acceptable to interrupt a martial arts or yoga instructor with a correction. One is on the very rare occasion when the teaching puts someone in imminent danger. The second is if there is a mutually-understood teacher-student relationship between you and the instructor. Even then, your critique is better expressed in a quiet moment after class.

Monday, September 5, 2011

On Bringing About World Peace

"Peace must first be developed within an individual. And I believe that love, compassion and altruisim are the fundamental basis for peace. Once these qualities are developed within an individual, he or she is then able to create na atmosphere of peace and harmony. This atmosphere can be expanded and extended from the individual to his family, from the family to the community and eventually to the whole world."

H.H. the Dalai Lama
from the Foreword to Peace is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh