training, yoga

Moonwalking with Yogis

How memorization in learning contributes to teaching a dialogue-based yoga class.

The last blog post mentioned “rote memorization” as part of a teacher training.  There is a negative stigma of rote memorization. It conjures up images of index cards and late nights.  It is often met with the visceral sense that one is sacrificing personal agency & one’s own voice for sterile, cookie-cutter consistency.

This is of course a possibility.  Strict adherence to a teaching script for the duration of one’s career takes this methodology to an extreme.  But for a new teacher, the heuristic of dialogue-based teaching provides a means by which you develop a working understanding of how to effectively & confidently instruct groups of people using only words.

Moonwalking with Yogis

“A memory, at the most fundamental physiological level, is a pattern of connections between neurons.  Every sensation that we remember, every thought that we think, transforms our brains by altering the connections within that vast network.  By the time you get to the end of this sentence, your brain will have physically changed.”

In Moonwalking With Einstein Joshua Foer investigates the work of mental athletes, or “memory champions.” This look at a very unique niche of people speaks to three aspects of the evolution of teaching a dialogue-based class:

  1. The methodology of memorization in learning
  2. The role memory plays in creativity
  3. The transition from mediocre to expert

Strangeness without worthiness

You can’t learn without memorizing, and if done right, you can’t memorize without learning.“

It is very possible to memorize information and not be able to analyze or solve problems. Think “book smart.” However the marriage between memory and analysis gives way ingenuity.

Mental athletes can memorize 100 faces and names in 30 minutes, a deck of cards in under forty seconds, an unpublished poem in ten minutes, just to name a few.  And the usefulness of these feats is, to quote Francis Bacon, a “matter of strangeness without worthiness.”  With the invention of the printing press and more recently the internet, the usefulness of memorizing may seem even more trite.  We now have external memories.

But, Foer also speaks with teachers and scientists that find extreme value in the art of memorization.

“… education is the ability to retrieve information at will and analyze it. But you can’t have higher-level learning – you can’t analyze – without retrieving information.”  … The dichotomy between “learning” and “memorizing” is false.”  

As a new teacher, you do not have experience to guide you. The teaching dialogue is set-up in a way to provide the safest and most effective ways of teaching the postures to the public. And once this basic knowledge is established, informed analysis can come: Why is the set-up so long? Why is this breathing cue here?

“Memory needs to be taught as a skill in exactly the same way that flexibility and strength and stamina are taught to build up a person’s physical health and well being.  Students need to learn how to learn, then you teach them what to learn.”

Creativity as future memory

Memory, imagination, creativity: All of these things give way to dynamism. As a Bikram yoga teacher, I am not trying to invent a new class, but I am trying to teach a dynamic class.  I am interested in how every class is different and how my teaching may or may not contribute to that uniqueness.  Sometimes it’s about offering a fresh perspective and sometimes it is about holding space.

“The Latin root inventio is the basis of two words in our modern English vocabulary: inventory and invention.  And to a mind trained in the art of memory, those two ideas were closely linked… In order to invent, one first needed a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on.”

“…the art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas.  Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new and hurl it into the future so it becomes a poem, or a building, or a dance, or a novel.  Creativity is, in a sense, future memory.”

From your teaching foundations you can hurl your knowledge, experience, and passion into the future and lead informative, connected, and dynamic classes.

Deliberate practice: taking the Leap from the “OK plateau”

My favorite part of “Moonwalking with Einstein” is a section on what distinguishes mid-level professionals from experts.  And it is all about deliberate practice. Continuous effort.

Before I went to teacher training, I thought I would come back after nine grueling weeks having acquired enough “yoga credit” that I wouldn’t have the desire or need to practice as often.  I was definitely wrong. And just like practicing, being an effective teacher means continuous effort. That effort may be in continued education, prompt feedback on classes, and time spent on new delivery.  And the quality of the effort is key. Deliberate practice is:

  1. Focused, concentrated, structured
  2. Challenging.

“[top achievers] tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine. … They develop strategies for staying in a “cognitive phase” using three things:  focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance.”

Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.

“Once upon a time, there was nothing to do with thoughts except remember them.  There was no alphabet to transcribe them in, no paper to set them down upon. Anything that had to be preserved had to be preserved in memory.  Any story that would be retold, any idea that would be transmitted, any piece of information that would be conveyed, first had to be remembered.”

Today it often seems we remember very little. [Various] technologies of storing information outside our minds have helped make our modern world possible, but they’ve also changed how we think and how we use our brains.”

In yoga, whether as a practitioner or teacher, there is no end point or destination at which we arrive.  It is an infinite journey of discovery. Parts of this journey may involve something simple or lackluster, such as memorization. Other parts are fueled by creativity and ingenuity. Other parts seem impossibly distant, such as experience. But the pathway to continued success involves all of it. The goal of authentic yoga is liberation. And for liberation to occur, we must remember who we’ve been and how we’ve felt so that we might be free in where we are right now. In an age of excessive external memory, yoga can help us remember how to remember.

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