Posts Tagged ‘yoga’

Being middle aged and not always remembering that at critical times I am prone to small injuries and other consequences of over-exerting myself.   And of course sitting in front of a computer for many hours doesn’t tend to help even when I do my best to stand and stretch regularly.  I’m also still ‘just’ middle aged and will prove that by not boring you with the details, but it’s pretty common for me to walk into yoga and let the teacher know that this or that has been strained so I’ll be “taking it easy” today.

I recently strained my back enough that I actually took a couple of weeks off from yoga (which is a pretty high bar for me).  So the first day back I used my normal line on the teacher and she said okay and everything was fine.  I suspect she kept a slightly closer eye on me during back bends and whatnot, and I did in fact take it easy on such poses.  But that was pretty much the end of it.  This morning, for whatever reason, I went a step further and asked the teacher what I could do to help with the specific issue I was having (new chair, more sitting in front of a computer, one particular muscle in my back was strained).   And  I received some wonderful advice about specific poses as well as the more general (and always useful) advice to keep my core tight and think about those muscles throughout the class – make that my intention for the day, so to speak.  And she helped with some hands on corrections during class.

That’s a pretty big bonus for just asking a polite question.  So why don’t I do that habitually?   Especially because I just spent 10 months feeling like a broken record.  Telling my high school students to please, please, please ask if they don’t understand something.  And using every technique I could come up with to re-enforce that message.  One might think that I would be better about taking my own advice.   It’s pretty darn good advice after all.

Well in this particular kind of circumstance hopefully I will in the future.  After all, I have proven that I can learn (if a bit more slowly than I would like).

But in the more general case, I think it comes back to the combination of mindset and general introversion – it takes a lot of energy for me to engage in that kind of conversation, so I need to keep in mind how pleasant it can be when it goes right.  And how much I can learn by asking questions.

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Señora reboot and I just returned from La Paz, where we spent a week studying Spanish in an immersion environment.  It was a really incredible experience and I intend to write a post about it in more detail sometime in the near future.  But I seem to be blocking on that for now, so here’s a quick juxtaposition of one of my biggest meta-learnings from that trip and something that popped up in yoga today.

Perfection is the enemy of good enough.  Or in the context of this trip – grammar (not even perfect grammar, just any grammar) is the enemy of staying afloat.  I’m just not at the point where I have enough vocabulary to be functional no matter how many grammar rules I may memorize.  As I spent time with my teacher we had to stop so frequently to define (or redefine) words that it really didn’t make sense to try to obsess over grammar or really over correctness at all.  By the middle of the week his mantra for me was “SVO” (subject, verb object).  Breaking my thoughts down into that size chunk is really, really, really hard, as I’m sure you know  by now.  But frankly I am just going to have to learn to live with that for a while.  And I’m going to spend my Spanish study time for a while doing as much as I can to just internalize a decent set of vocabulary.

So what does this have to do with yoga?  Well.  Coincidently, two different teachers at two different schools have mentioned in the last month that I am overly dependent on my joints.  What does that mean?  Well I hyperextend my knees.  I have lordosis of the spine.  I have perhaps a bit more flexibility than is actually healthy in a number of other joints.  So rather than using core strength and finesse to achieve some postures I just bend.  Now since I started yoga when I was forty and couldn’t touch my toes without bending my knees at the time, I didn’t have this level of flexibility in my joints then.  Which means to me that by trying to take as straight a line as I could to the ‘perfect’ versions of postures I muscled through some things in a less than healthy way.  So now my joints are a bit looser than they should be an I get to spend time trying to keep core strength whilst relaxing into postures.  So in the case of yoga, perfection may be even worse than the enemy of good enough, it’s the enemy of a healthy body.  Which kind of defeats the purpose of doing yoga in the first place.

That said, does anyone have suggestions for Spanish vocabulary building websites, programs or books (that don’t pollute the experience with trying to teach grammar at the same time)?

One of the things that started me thinking along the lines of “Reconcilable Differences” was a pretty firm case of “Context Matters” with a sprinkling of “Language is Hard”. I was working on Triangle Pose (Trikanasana) in yoga and the teacher kept telling me to isolate my upper body. Well in the competition dancing that I did as a youngster, the phrase “upper body isolation” was almost always used to refer to making your ribs go in the opposite direction from your hips. This is of course different in different kinds of dances, but for the kind of dancing that I did, it was a core enough concept that this kind of upper body isolation was part of my routine warm-up.

So when I heard a very similar phrase in yoga I immediately started moving my chest away from my upward hip, which body-feel-wise was amazingly close to the Latin dancing upper body isolation that I’ve done a million times. And of course, that was the exact opposite of what the teacher intended. In order to achieve Trikanasana, the chest has to be aligned with the upward hip and by moving it away I was making the problem worse. After several repetitions and a physical correction from a very patient teacher, I figured out my mistake. And since I have spent a lot of time doing “upper body isolations” I was able to make a good deal of progress quickly once I understood the issue, although this is still really hard. And dealing with nuances of language that have been heavily skewed by years of dance while trying to hold yoga poses is still really hard too, but it is really cool when something filters through my excessively think skull.

And while I’m thinking about dance and “Context Matters,” I have to relay my very favorite example. It is in the different ways that one “Partners” in ballroom dancing and Kung Fu. In Ballroom, the lead (which is the role I danced nearly exclusively) does everything possible to project to his partner where he is going. This is very very important to avoid foot trampling and other unfortunate incidents. But when sparring, you want to do everything possible to prevent your partner from knowing what you are about to do. This is very very important to avoid injury and humiliation even in a ‘friendly’ sparring situation. So I guess it’s a measure of my insanity that I actually went back and forth between doing these two kinds of partnering for years. Perhaps I should have switch to following in dance?

So while drawing on past (or even present) experience that seems relevant to what I’m currently working on is useful, understanding where they are different is equally important.  And of course language always matters!

Note: If you just stumbled upon this post, it’s part of a loose series. There is no need to read the whole thing, but you might want to scan this post for context.

One of the things that I value most about teachers of physical skills is where they are able to translate their knowledge to the context of my body. I’m a middle aged man who did nothing at all resembling physical activity from for my teens and early twenties, I’ll never have the same kind of physique as even a middle aged man who kept in shape his entire life.

So what are some of the differences in body type that have affected my practice of Kung Fu, Yoga, Dance, etc.?

Age, sex, muscle mass, stretchiness (there’s got to be a better word for this one), proportion of length of arm to length of leg, difference in core strength, proportion of torso to limbs, lots of other internal proportions, nimbleness of ankles, proportion of my height to my partner’s in partner dancing, proportion of my everything to my partner’s when sparring. Okay, I’m getting the bit off more than I can chew sensation again. But let’s see if I can take a couple of these to illustrate and I may have to come back to this list later.

The incident that spurred this line of thought was in yoga class. The (female) teacher was taking the class through a pose that was fairly new to the series that the school is putting together – the finger stand pose – (if anyone can tell me what the sanskrit name for that pose, I’d appreciate it). The way this teacher had been teaching the pose previously was to advise people to work their hips up and back between their hands until they could kind of fall into their hands an lift their legs. The last time she taught it though, she gave an alternative of thrusting your hips back and using the momentum to pull your legs up. When I asked her about it after class, she said that she added the alternative because a male student noted that he was incapable of doing the particular hip contortion that was necessary to manage the first variation.

But I do worry that male/female differences in yoga practice in particular can be overlearned. My favorite counter-example is Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward bow pose) – my sister used to do this all the time when we were growing up. I tried it a couple of times and failed (when I was 5 or 6) and assumed that it was something that was just easier for girls so just gave up. But that particular pose was introduced recently in a class and not only could I do it, but it feels really good. Beware of overlearning.

Another body type of difference that has been top of mind recently is the proportion of heights when partner dancing. Mrs. Reboot and I have been taking various forms of beginning swing lessons recently (East Coast, West Coast, Lindy) where holds are relatively loose and substantial height difference can pretty easily accommodated. We’re taking group classes where you might end up dancing with twenty partners of radically different heights during the course of the class. It is amazing to see the number of leads who lift their hands the same amount (or at least try to)when turning a sub five foot tall follow as a six foot tall follow. And then the worst variation of that is when they blame the follows on the extreme end of the height spectrum for not doing something right (I’m not quite sure what the “something right” is in their heads). But one of the great things about taking a group class like that is being able to quickly go through the various adjustments one can make to accommodate partners of different heights.

An alternative for a specific activity might be to find a coach who is as close to my type as possible. That’s never worked very well for me. Possibly in part because that tends to poke at my competitive instincts, but also the matrix of differences is so big that I’m not sure it’s really feasible to find that kind of match in all dimensions. So that brings me back to valuing coaches who can do the translation from their type to mine. And where partners/fellow students are involved both observing and learning from what they can do differently based on their physical differences.

I am going to start my first content post of the “Reconcilable Differences” series that is only marginally fits and adds a whole new category to my original taxonomy. But it so top of mind right now that I can’t resist.

Yesterday I was working with a student one on one. I was trying to get him to realize that in order to change the direction of a counter variable’s movement within a loop he could add a direction or speed variable in place of the constant 1 that he was currently adding to the counter. And then change the variable. The problem was I didn’t want to use the word ‘variable’ because I felt like that would just give him the answer. We had done similar problems earlier in the week (and had explicitly used a variable for something not too dis-similar in our opening exercise that day).

So after I spent several minutes trying to get him to figure out that he needed a variable, he politely turned to me and said “I think you think you’re telling me something useful, but I just don’t understand.” Ouch. Then I asked him to read the hint that I had provided for that question on the worksheet – verbatim it was “Think about using a speed or direction variable that can be positive or negative depending on which direction your counter is counting.” He still didn’t get it. So that is the point when I had to realize that whether he hadn’t heard it or hadn’t remembered it, he certainly didn’t have access to the information about what a variable is and how it is used. Ouch, again.

In any case, the teaching lesson is probably that more repetition is a good thing. And that repeating what you just repeated is essential. Although I keep hoping for the magic bullet to get the kids engaged enough that they actually care to remember, which is frustrating to say the least.

But before I get too depressed, let’s think about the learning side of this. I think the reason that I think I missed it in my original taxonomy was that as a learner it’s hard to know what you didn’t hear. Or what you misunderstood. And as you are learning a new skill, if you do it without feedback from others it’s really easy to go down some crazy rabbit hole of wrong learning (but maybe this has some chance of resulting in creating something new).

One way to combat this that I have noticed most recently in yoga class is that there are other learners around you, so there is some immediate feedback. And although I try to keep focus on myself while I’m taking class, there is certainly a different kind of feedback loop in this kind of physical activity than when you have a class of students sitting at individual computers. For instance, I’m taking a new (to me) series of poses at a studio which was recently only teaching the standard Bikram 26 pose series. And I’ve caught myself any number of times moving through the sequence I know so well without hearing the teacher’s instructions to do something different. But having the feedback of the students around me do the ‘right’ poses helps me to quickly get back on track.

How can I apply that to the programming classroom? Maybe take another run at pair programming? Or have the students that are ‘getting it’ help those that aren’t?   And how do I apply this to my own learning?

And for my own learning I definitely need to figure out tighter feedback loops for many of the things I’m working on.

In any case, when I revisit my initial taxonomy (hopefully after getting a few more related posts under my belt) I suspect I’ll have to add a “Simple Student Error” below the “Simple Expert Error” category.

I’m a bit worried that I think too much in terms of dichotomies, dilemmas, quandaries and paradoxes (especially because I could only spell one of those words without the help of the spell checker).  But this one hit me over the head from a couple of different directions in yoga class this morning, so what the heck.

First the rant version:  I got to class this morning and put my mat in the back of the room and headed to the locker room to change.  When I got back, a young lady had put her mat directly in front of mine.  Very nicely lined up, she probably spent some real time making sure she directly centered it.  Now this was in a fairly small class, so it wasn’t that big a deal to shift left a bit.  But this particular studio has markings on the floor so that in a full class you know how to set up your mats to get three rows nicely staggered so that everyone can see themselves in the mirror.  So was she just so focused on getting to a relatively early morning class that when she got there she didn’t think to be polite about where she landed?  I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I’m not sure.  Then there were the three people that walked into a totally silent room and snapped their mats open when clear and crisp  “bang” sounds.  One of these days that’s going to startle me enough that I’m going to pee my pants.   Then they’ll be sorry.  You betcha!  Or the guy that stuck his towel on the only open shower stall as I walked into the room and then proceeded to spend several minutes gathering his accoutrements to actually take a shower.  Are these people all just oblivious, so focused on what they are doing that they don’t realize that they’re being incredibly rude?  Or are they totally aware and don’t care?  The flip side of this is that I like to feel that I’m a reasonably polite person, but I know I can focus to the sacrifice of all else even when I’m not trying, so I wonder how many blog posts are out there ranting about the incredibly rude things I’ve done?  Possibly even just the incredibly rude things I’ve done this morning?

Anyway, now that that is off my chest.  Call it the rudeness corollary to the Focus/Awareness Quandary.  Let’s get to the meat of the issue, which is what got kicked off in my yoga background process by the first couple of incidents.

This class was a Hatha class that the studio is calling their “Fire” series.  It’s small variation on Bikram using a few additional poses from the Gosh 84 posture series and mixes up some ordering.  The point is that it is very close to a series that I’ve been doing for years, but was only the second time I had done this sequence and a few of the postures therein.   So I had to listen to the instructor more carefully than I usually do and keep an eye on those around me for queues and examples for where things were different.  The net result was the least focused class I’ve had in a long time.  But at the same time, I caught a couple of queues for poses that I have done for years that I had somehow missed.  Which tells me that even in one of the more focused activities in my life, broadening my awareness sometimes is probably a good thing.

The real question though is how to know how to mix that up most effectively.  It is certainly useful in Yoga (as in programming) to be able to focus so tightly that the rest of the universe disappears.  But how long should you do that for?   My back is telling me (in the programming case) that perhaps that time is shorter now than when I was a teenager.  Maybe I need to invent a programming egg where I can just close myself in and spew code.  Anyone know where I can get one of those?  I’d prefer the model where I can just think the code too, no typing required …

One of my favorite yoga teachers opened class the other day with an exercise that I had never seen done before although I think it’s more common in ‘softer’ yoga practices.  She asked everyone to turn to a neighbor and share a way that they use their yoga practice outside of class.  Well, since I’m an off the charts introvert (I am going to get around to writing that post one of these days), I managed to pause just long enough that as I turned to each of the people around me, they had already engaged with someone on their other side.  So no big deal, I sat and enjoyed a few minutes of meditation.

But near the end of the sharing time the teacher looked up from her conversation and commented on how relaxed I looked sitting by myself in the middle of the chatty room.  And of course she then put me on the spot to share with the entire class.  An introvert’s nightmare.  But I sucked it up and took the opportunity to very briefly share that I was volunteering to teach High School students Computer Science and since Yoga was one of the skills that was newest to me, I frequently took things I learned in Yoga to help me teach in that entirely different environment.

And this is why I find Yoga so much fun.  The response wasn’t a blank stare or a nervous laugh (either of which would be completely reasonable and somewhat expected when I allow myself to geek out in public), it was “Oh yeah, I use a programming example to help teach yoga sometimes.”  And went on to describe how she talks about how computer code reduces down to a series of zeroes and ones, each of which has meaning.  Which means that if one of those bits gets flipped for whatever reason your program may do something entirely different than what you expected.   And doing yoga is kind of like this kind of program – every instruction you send to your body is important at the most exacting level – crossing wires or flipping one bit can make your program crash or do something different than you wanted.  I particularly take this to heart in things like Chataranga (Yoga Pushups) where a very healthy exercise can quickly degrade into a shoulder injuring anti-exercise.

In any case, you should all be proud of me.  I  did not respond by breaking down the argument on the spot and trying to open a discussion about how this analogy may or may not be applicable and where it might break down.  I answered with something that I hope came out as a slightly more engaged version of “Thank You” and we went on with the class.

But since you’re here, let’s break this down a little bit.  Especially because I just reviewed binary numbers with my class and we’re going to do a check on error detection soon.  With my old Apple II which had no parity bit for its memory and had a dense enough instruction set that flipping a bit in an instruction almost certainly did something valid but different than intended I think the analogy is pretty accurate.  Especially because it wasn’t uncommon to have an occasion to program directly in machine code.  In the current world almost no-one including the deepest level system programmers write machine code directly (and yes, I know quite a few such creatures, was one myself not too long ago).  Further, with a modern computer almost all memory is error checked in some way or another so a single ‘bad bit’ will either be automatically corrected or something will error out rather than continuing to execute the error.

And now I am thinking about exceptions like Black Hat Hackers that probably do write machine code directly and certainly look for places where changing a single bit will make a program behave differently than intended.  But of course I could get myself stuck in an infinite loop here so I will stop and allow you to get back to something more important.  Like going to a good yoga class of participating in your favorite form of healthy exercise.

Or take a moment to add your thoughts on why programming and yoga (or your favorite form of exercise) are related. I bet my yoga teacher and I don’t have a corner on that market…

I was sweating away in yoga the other day doing a pretty good job of turning my brain off when a thought popped into my head so forcefully that I fell over – I was in Dandayamana-Dhanurasana (standing bow pose) at the time.

I continue to try to achieve the full standing meditation effect because I feel like it helps to keep me sane to do that.  But thoughts keep interfering.  Most of the time they are fairly orderly somewhat conscious lines, like composing a blog post.  While I’m not sure I am thrilled with the compromise (sanity is reputed to be pretty important, after all), it’s certainly productive time when I do that.

So on this particular day, the thought that just popped into my head was a solution to a problem that I had given up on solving.   One of the things we’re using to teach computer science is a book/website called CSUnplugged which is a great set of lessons aimed at late elementary school and up to teach basic computer science concepts without using a computer.  This is how we took our class through things like binary numbers, image representation, and text compression.

But we’ve got a somewhat unruly class of ninth and tenth graders (okay, that was redundant, wasn’t it).  So we have been building slide decks and adding some interactive material both of which are aimed a little closer to our target demographic.   But it takes a long time to do this kind of auxiliary material even when the core lesson is already built.  So I had given up on additional exercises since I couldn’t come up with anything good.

Then came along standing bow pose in a 105 degree room.  And into my head pops the idea to expand on the idea of removing vowels from sentences to a full on interactive experience.  Part of the original lesson had a sentence “Cn y rd ths?”   But since I had just been listening to some lectures that covered the history of  abjads (writing systems without vowels) and had a lot of fun composing some sample sentences without vowels for one of my slides, it occurred to me as I was standing on one leg that the kids would probably have some fun doing something related to that.  And like any revelatory experience I didn’t think this all through – the idea and a full picture of the mini-game of translating/compressing and retranslating decompressing two different phrases – one common one and one from lewis carroll just popped into my head and (almost) knocked me over.

Which leaves me with two questions.  First, for the yogis out there –  is this kind of experience part of what I should look for in meditation rather than the purely relaxing/restorative aspects?    And second for the teacher out there, is it worth falling over in the middle of yoga class to come up with a good classroom exercise?

P.S. My favorite “fine line” expression remains – “There is a fine line between genius and insanity.” May I always stay on the right side of that line (or was that the left side)?

One of the things that I’ve been struggling the most with in my attempt to teach programming to high school students is to get them to experiment.  This is particularly hard for me because when I learned to program I had no formal instruction for the first four years, so experimenting was by far the most used tool in my toolbox.

Because of this I’ve been emphasizing that there are many different ways to do things and showing (or getting the students to demonstrate) different solutions wherever I can.  And then I try to get them to compare the solutions again emphasizing that they both solve the problem and where each solution has advantages and dis-advantages.  But in so many cases, they seem to get into a mindset of doing something the ‘right’ way and then they get stuck.

As I was settling into yoga practice this morning, the teacher said something that really connected with me.  We were doing Child’s Pose, which for this style of yoga is one of the most basic and oft-repeated poses.  As such, you kind of feel like you know it after the first class.  But even though there weren’t any new students in class, she spent a couple of minutes encouraging us to experiment with the pose, settling differently in the hips, holding the hands wider or narrower, same with the feet, etc.  Because even in the most simple things, you can train yourself to do them more effectively.

That, of course, led me down the path of other physical training I’ve done including Kung Fu and dancing and marking patterns in how things are taught and how I learn them.  I’m not going to attempt to dump all of the details, but whenever I’ve found a teacher that takes the approach of “your body and your background is different than mine, so let’s try this a bunch of different ways until we land on something that works” I learn much more than the “this is the way it’s done and I’m very successful doing it this way, so let’s get you doing it exactly this way and you’ll be successful too” type of teacher.

So how does this relate to programming?  I’m pretty sure it’s almost the same concept.  For instance, almost any language has a bunch of looping constructs and you use them differently for different tasks and there are plenty of ways that you change up how each of those constructs are used depending on any given task.  And of course as anyone who’s worked with programmers for any period of time knows, there will be endless debates about what the ‘best’ way to solve a particular problem is, with the line often blurring between style and function.  Which is almost a direct parallel to conversations I’ve had with martial artists and ballroom dancers, now that I think about it.

And while I don’t think many of my 15 year old students spend a lot of time practicing yoga (or ballroom dancing, or Kung Fu), I suspect some of them have trained in high school sports like basketball and soccer.  And it seems like the same concept would apply.  Does anyone out there have a good example I can use in a more familiar (to a 15 year old) sport?  Or thoughts on how to draw such a story out of the aforementioned 15 year olds?

I just started reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants and while I don’t usually blog about a book until I’ve finished it I think it may have provided an answer to one of the more difficult problems I’m having in my volunteer teaching gig.

I’m having difficulty designing lessons that are challenging to the students that pick things up the fastest while not so challenging that I lose those that are having a harder time absorbing information.   While the school I’m teaching at isn’t fully an “alternative school” it is certainly a place where students that have been difficulty in a more traditional context land either by their choice or their parents.  I don’t have the experience to know if that makes the range of study skill, motivation, and foundation knowledge is wider than in a more traditional school, but it is really the range of all of those things is very wide amongst my students.

So one of the early examples in David and Goliath is a very short IQ test that involves 3 questions each of which is reasonably simple, but has a bit of a trick to it.  When people take this test ‘cold’ they often don’t think it through deeply enough to get the trick.  But some Ivy League types did an experiment where they gave a bunch of students the test written out in a barely legible font and the students that took that version of the test did significantly better on the test than those that took an easily read version.  The claim is that this was a case of making something a little bit harder makes it easier.

So as I was sweating through morning yoga, I started thinking about how this applies to things that I do.  And (since I was in yoga), the first place I looked was there.  Yoga also has a couple of additional advantages in that in the form I take, there are students of all levels being taken at the same time, and (unlike computer science, which is what I’m teaching) there can be no argument made that yoga is something that came easily to me. As I was saying, in yoga this morning, it occurred to me that there were several things in that very class that made it more difficult.  The yoga teacher, while obviously very experienced, had such a heavy accent that I had to strain to parse her instructions.  I strained a muscle in my neck a couple of weeks ago (as far as I can tell, by sleeping wrong) and being the cautions type that I am, this was my first class post strain so I was being very careful not to re-injure it.  And there were teachers in training running some of the exercises who were getting their rights and lefts mixed up.  The sum of all of which was that I had to concentrate much more than usual in that class than I normally do.  And I believe that on a less than scientific basis, I can confirm the hypothesis that I learned more in that class than a normal one where I’m not worried about an injury and there isn’t anything about the teacher(s) that’s making class particularly difficult.

All of that’s great, but how can I apply it in my classroom?  Well, I think I kind of did accidently and not to effectively already.  One of the experiences that I think I am subconsciously drawing on when writing assignment questions is the years of job interviewing that I’ve done on the interviewer side of the desk.  One of the aspects of a good interview question in my opinion is that it’s ambiguous enough that it requires the interviewee to ask clarifying questions.  I’m pretty sure I’ve done that on my in class assignments.  (How many of you know what a squarell or a spirograph is?)

Wait, you say, giving students ambiguous questions is going to help them?  Well, probably not the way that I did it in accidentally.  But now that I’m thinking this through in more detail, I think that if I make the questions very clear that get the students up to a ‘B’ level (don’t get me started on the actually grading process that the school district uses, it’s more similar to encryption algorithms than anything else I am familiar with), but then leave some room for creativity for the questions that bring a student up to an ‘A’ or would count towards extra credit I might be in a position to keep pacing for multiple levels of students working at the same time.  And maybe even the students that are currently struggling will benefit from some harder is easier effect.

But of course then I get back to the issue of figuring out what is ambiguous to a 15 year old who’s been programming for six weeks that might seem completely clear to someone who’s been programming for over twice as long as they’ve been alive.  Any suggestions?