Florence travel journal (part 1): Firenze as home base

 

YogaRose.net travel journal for Florence, Italy
Part 1: Firenze, Italia as home base

–>Trip snapshot

–>Five sketches from Florence and Tuscany:

–>A word about the travel journal
–>Future posts in this series

>>TRIP SNAPSHOT<<

Some visitors to Italy fall in love with Venice. Others fulfill their dreams by making a pilgrimage to Rome. For me and my finance, Scott, the trip of a lifetime took us to Firenze, Italia, our home base for a seven-night visit that included New Year’s Eve. We walked and ate our way around Florence and left the city limits for a day to peek into some of the hill towns of Tuscany. Thanks to frecce alta velocita, Italy’s low-carbon-footprint and fantastically fast train line, we also got day-trip glimpses of cities to the north and south that capture so many imaginations.

Italy is a country we have independently longed to visit, and what better time than half a year before our wedding, after which time it’ll be…well, time to settle down. This was our chance to make sure we would never have to say, “If only we had…” It was our honeymoon before the honeymoon — a chance to revel in the kinds of culinary beauty and artistic genius that only Italy can offer, and an opportunity to take some of that inspiration back with us to deepen the hues through which we view the world.

Scott and I unloaded our suitcases not too long ago — we’re back home later than scheduled, thanks to a delayed departure in Florence, a near missed connection in Amsterdam and unfavorable headwinds back across the Atlantic. But of course we’re already asking ourselves if we’ll ever return. We hope so. To help our odds, before we left Florence, we paid homage to a popular bronze statue of a wild boar and did as many visitors do — slipped a coin into the mouth of the cinghiale, rubbed its snout and made a wish to return to the city that historically was the cradle of Renaissance arts and personally has become a cradle of new shared memories.

I’m starting this travel series with five sketches from our week there. Check back for future blog posts that will include:

>>Five sketches about Florence and Tuscany<<

463 STEPS
Not for the weak of heart (physically or romantically): What a cathedral whose dome became the model for Renaissance domes can teach us about confidence and faith

On our very last evening in Florence, we capped off our trip by climbing the 463 steps up to the cupola of Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore), Florence’s stunning Gothic cathedral. What makes this cathedral remarkable is not just that the dome, which took 14 years to build, was the first Renaissance dome, or that it was the largest since Rome’s Pantheon. What’s incredible to me is the story that’s told about the cathedral — that it was originally constructed with a gaping hole where the dome would go, because no one quite knew how to create a dome that could span that space. Can you imagine the immovable belief that things will all work out? And indeed, things did work out, because architect Filippo Brunelleschi came up with an ingenious double shell construction in which the skeleton of a dome was filled in by interlocking bricks fashioned together in a herringbone pattern. This created a dome that relied on its own support as it grew slowly upwards.

Not surprisingly, the 463-step trek up is winding, steep and claustrophobic (there are several passes so narrow you get pretty intimate with tourists making the return journey), and there’s really not much of a warning about any of that when you slide over 8 euros (about $11) for the entrance ticket. I would have expected an impossible-to-miss notice for anyone who is pregnant or has a heart condition, but perhaps that is the overly cautious American in me.

Neither the guidebooks nor Duomo officials adequately prepare you for the trip up — or for the view at the pinnacle. We arrived around 6 p.m. on a perfectly clear evening and marveled at the Campanile, the 270-foot bell tower designed by Giotto. Walking around, we could see the Accademia, where David — created by Michelangelo Buonarroti when he was just 26 — is showcased. Here were all the avenues lined with holiday lights and over there was the Uffrizi Gallery, where you can find Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. We could easily see Santa Croce Church, famous for housing the tombs of Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo. We slipped one euro into the binocular stand and looked with disbelief into the windows of the rooftop restaurant where we had enjoyed our divine New Year’s Eve dinner a couple nights before.

After the initial shock of this perfect view, it seemed most couples realized the romance of the winds and the perch, and shared quick kisses or longer expressions of their gratitude for each other.

>>IF YOU GO. We started the climb about an hour before the last entry, and we’re pretty sure we got lucky with the best possible conditions anyone could have walking up. Florence’s high season is April though October, although July and August can be unbearably hot. It must be a snail’s pace up to the top when the crowds are in town, and I’m sure temperatures rise accordingly in those narrow corridors. After this trip, Scott and I are sure we prefer traveling during a destination’s off season, even if it means cooler temperatures and higher chances of some closures. No matter what the season, if you go, take into consideration whether you want a daytime or nighttime cityscape, and get in line very early in the day or late in the evening. Make sure you’re hydrated going up (that’s the yoga teacher in me), but not so much so that you’ll need to use the bathroom any time soon.

>>LESSONS FROM THE CLIMB. Rick Steves describes the Duomo climb in his guidebook as “463 plunges on a Renaissance StairMaster,” but the journey reminded me less of exercise and more of a journey of faith that all these stairs were leading somewhere worthwhile. You’re placing your feet on each stony step, unable to see ahead and cognizant of the futility in looking back. I had this same type of feeling many times during Hilltop Yoga’s tough 300-hour yoga teacher training program, when I was wondering whether I should stop the emotional and physical gauntlet — a good yoga teacher training program provokes some heavy and often unwanted self-reflection — and turn around. But after the formal program ended and I taught my first Ashtanga class — after I saw the practice of yoga from that vantage point — I knew it had been the right journey.

If you’re ever in Florence, take the climb up, and see what the journey evokes for you.

WHO NEEDS A CAPPUCCINO
Try the cioccolata calda instead

Americans do not know how to appreciate hot chocolate. Italians do. People always talk about Italy and the espresso and cappuccino available there. But what about the hot chocolate? The first time I ordered a cioccolata calda I looked around to see if anyone else was drinking the same thing, and whether they were pouring milk or something in the cup to cut it. I couldn’t accept the fact that the beautifully thick, smooth molten chocolate inside this cup was mine to enjoy as is. What do Italians do when they visit the United States and have their first cup of hot chocolate? Crying seems like an appropriate response. I might not mind winter in Michigan so much if we had this kind of creamy expression of warmth. (OK, I’d probably still mind just as much, but it would at least be a little something to look forward to on the coldest days.)

>>IF YOU GO. Try cioccolata calda in Siena at the Caffe A. Nannini. And by the way, about cappuccinos — for Italians, it’s a breakfast drink. Restaurants will serve it all day if that’s what tourists want, but if you want to do as the locals do, only order this frothy goodness in the morning.

>>LESSONS FROM THE SIPS. Too often, I try to split the difference. In my brief visit, I found that Italian culture fosters making a commitment — whether it’s heavy hot chocolate or a three-hour dinner — and that, in turn, can allow you to live more fully in the moment.  

WILD FOR WILD BOAR
Giving something a (second, third, fourth…) chance

Cinghiale (cheeng-GAH-lay), wild boar, is a noted Tuscan specialty. I’ve never loved the other white meat (though as you know, I’m having issues with the main white meat these days), but when I paid a visit to Memphis a couple of years ago and had ribs down there, I understood, for the first time, the appeal of ribs. Following in the same spirit, I gained a new appreciation in Florence for prosciutto (cured ham), salami and cinghiale. When done right, these meats have a refined and comforting flavor. My single favorite dish from the entire trip (more on that in the next blog post) was pappardelle di cinghiale, wild boar with Tuscany’s extremely wide, flat ribbons of pasta.

>>IF YOU GO. Unless you’re a vegan or vegetarian, don’t be afraid to try cingahle in a few of the various forms available — in pasta, as salami, as a main dish or in a stew. If you hate it, at least you’ll know you gave it all the chances it deserved.

>>LESSONS FROM THE BITES OF BOAR. Location, location, location. I’ve learned that about so many things now — that you risk missing out on something pretty cool if you are too quick to write something off when you haven’t tried it in the right context.

THE TOWN OF SIENA IS DELIGHTFUL 
Who wants prenup?

Drive 35 miles south of Florence and you’ll hit Siena, Florence’s historic archrival and interestingly the first European city to ban automobile traffic from its main square. Siena is, in a word, delightful. An intense horse race called Palio di Siena is held twice every year on the grounds of Il Campo, the town center.

Our local tour guide explained that the city is comprised of 17 neighborhoods, or contradas. It sounds as intensely tribal as a city can get. Each contrada has its own church and fountain (and sometimes museum too), along with its own flag, a mascot (our tour guide made sure we knew she was from the rhinoceros group) and a rival neighborhood. Each neighborhood has a horse that, if chosen by lottery (the town center can only accommodate 10 horses out of the 17), runs the Palio di Siena. It’s a bareback race, and the first horse to cross the finish line — with or without a jockey still hanging on — wins.

Laughing, our tour guide also explained that two people from different neighborhoods who get married will sometimes determine their children’s allegiances in a prenuptial agreement. That sounds to me like a Michigan State University fan and a University of Michigan fan signing a prenup determining if the kids will wear blue or green. Incredible.

>>IF YOU GO. Don’t breeze through town like a tourist, reading the guidebook and looking at buildings and architecture. You have to talk to local residents to realize why this town sparkles. I know that’s true of pretty much any place worth traveling to, but it’s so true here.

>>LESSONS FROM THE TOWN. That I need to go back to spend more time there.

 CARING ABOUT CARBON FOOTPRINTS
That’s the ticket

Floating around one of our guidebooks as a bookmark is my Venice fast train ticket. Right on the ticket there’s a number — 26 Kg — that’s confusing if you’re not used to taking these trains. It turns out this number indicates the estimated amount of CO2 saved by taking this particular trip you’ve just paid 43 euros for. The trip we took to Rome — also at 43 euros each way for second class — saved 32 Kg of CO2 each way. What a sensible idea — telling people in concrete terms how the decisions they are making right now are making a difference right now.

I also learned on this trip that Smart cars — which as you can image are ubiquitous in this part of the world — can also park perpendicular to the curb, as seen here:

People say Italian drivers are crazy. After this trip, I see why and while I agree, I’d add that they are crazy skilled. It’s beyond me how people can drive even small cars through some of these narrow streets, navigate confusing city-center traffic-free zones, snake their way into a too-small parking spot, not kill anyone along the way, and keep their cool the whole time.

>>IF YOU GO. Don’t rent a car. Period. Let professionals (taxi drivers, bus drivers and train conductors) get you from point A to point B.

>>LESSONS FROM THE RIDES. Every single trip I’ve made to Europe (I’m up to four now) has underscored how much farther the U.S. could be when it comes to public transportation. The technology is there — we just have to care enough to put the policies into place that would make it happen.

>>A word about the travel journal<<

I’ve long wanted to follow up my various trips with blog posts that offer something of a yoga-themed travel journal, but it simply hasn’t happened, mostly due to time constraints, I suppose. On this trip, I spent seven hours on fast trains getting to and from Venice and Rome, and nearly 20 hours on planes to and from Florence — so I had time to start in on some blog posts before returning home. I hope that with this post, I’ll start to make it a point to do similar types of guides when I travel — some heavier on yoga and others, like this one, much less so.

If you’ve been to this region, please share your experiences and tips in the comments! I would love to hear about your trips, whether yoga-related or not.

Ciao, till the next post.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

YogaRose.net Explainer: What does ‘RYT’ after a yoga teacher’s name mean?

I have officially received my 500-hour certificate of completion from the Hilltop Yoga teacher training program and I officially registered that status with Yoga Alliance last week — which means I am officially allowed to use this logo you see here, and I am officially listed accordingly in the Yoga Alliance database of teachers:

But what does that designation even mean? Here’s YogaRose.net Explainer‘s take.

What does it mean when yoga teachers have “RYT®” after their name?  

When you see RYT® after a yoga instructor’s name, it stands, not too surprisingly, for “Registered Yoga Teacher.” RYT is registered by Yoga Alliance, an organization formed in 1999 that describes itself as a “national education and support organization for yoga in the United States.” The organization’s mission statement continues:

We work in the public interest to ensure that there is a thorough understanding of the benefits of yoga, that the teachers of yoga value its history and traditions and that the public can be confident of the quality and consistency of instruction.

There has been so much controversy — yoga drama! — around this designation. I’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s first deal with the straightforward questions.

I’ve seen RYT 200 and RYT 500. What do the numbers refer to?

Yoga Alliance has created a national registry of Registered Yoga Schools (RYS®). These schools have to submit an application demonstrating that their teacher training program adheres to certain guidelines that include the number of contact and non-contact hours with instructors who meet certain faculty requirements. Once approved to train students at the 200- or 500-hour level, they are able to graduate students who, in turn, can register with Yoga Alliance and use the RYT designation.

Instructors can hold certification after 200 hours or 500 hours of a program that includes training in five categories:

Techniques Training & Practice: Includes asana, pranayama, kriyas, chanting, mantra, meditation and other traditional yoga techniques. Hours may include (1) analytical training in how to teach and practice the techniques, and (2) guided practice of the techniques themselves.

Teaching Methodology: Includes principles of demonstration, observation, assisting/correcting, instruction, teaching styles, qualities of a teacher, the student’s process of learning and business aspects of teaching yoga.

Anatomy & Physiology: Includes both human physical anatomy and physiology (bodily systems, organs, etc.) and energy anatomy and physiology (chakras, nadis, etc.). This includes both the study of the subject and application of its principles to yoga practice (benefits, contraindications, healthy movement patterns, etc).

Yoga Philosophy, Lifestyle and Ethics for Yoga Teachers: Includes the study of yoga philosophies, yoga lifestyle and ethics for yoga teachers.

Practicum: Includes practice teaching, receiving feedback, observing others teaching and hearing/giving feedback. Also includes assisting students while someone else is teaching.

By the way, there are other designations as well: E-RYT 200 is someone trained at the 200-hour level but has, in addition to that, taught for two years and taught for 1,000 hours. An E-RYT 500 must have taught for four years after completing the 500-hour certification, and shown 2,000 hours worth of teaching experience. There are also designations for those who teach children’s yoga (RCYT) and prenatal yoga (RPYT). See a table breaking it all down.

Does an instructor need the RYT designation to teach yoga?

Generally speaking, no. Institutions ranging from gyms to schools to dedicated yoga studios offer yoga classes, and they determine who they hire. So individual organizations determine if this designation is necessary. Will that change down the road? As yoga becomes more popular and increasingly mainstream, and as more and more teacher training programs pop up, I have to imagine that competition for teaching spots will start to increase to a point where having this certification is seen as a “yoga resume boost” of some sort.

Specifically speaking, some styles of yoga have their own standards for when a person is allowed to teach. In the Ashtanga yoga system, the Shri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute based in Mysore, India, has an official list of teachers who have gone through the rigorous process and made the necessary commitments leading to receiving the blessing to teach.

Can American instructors teach Ashtanga without that imprimatur? They certainly do — and I am a good example of this. I have never been to Mysore — not that I wouldn’t love to, but you pretty much have to be a full-time yoga teacher willing to spend months at a time in Mysore over several years to receive this authorization — and unless something drastic changes in my life, I will never be able to get on the track of being “certified” or “authorized” (two different levels granted to teachers by the institute).

Now, should instructors be allowed to teach Ashtanga if they don’t have the official authorization? Many in the Ashtanga community would say that no, someone who is not on the official list should not be teaching. That could be a whole blog post unto itself.

Those studying the Iyengar yoga method have their own set of rigorous standards.

Should someone try to stick to classes taught by instructors with RYT or E-RYT?

Here is where this YogaRose.net Explainer post stops reporting the facts and moves to inserting opinion. Just as some of the smartest people I have known don’t have a college degree — whether it’s due to life circumstances or they were unwilling to jump through academic hoops — some of the most compelling yoga teachers out there would never — ever (ever!) — register. Read why one particularly vocal (to say the least) yoga teacher, Bryan Kest, has argued that “standardization is scary.”

Should you not check out someone’s class just because they don’t have this Yoga Alliance designation? Absolutely not. Should you go to someone’s class just because they do? Absolutely not. You need to find yoga teachers who are steeped in the practice themselves and know their stuff — teachers who have your best interest at heart, who help you progress at your pace, and who communicate in a way that speaks to you (among a host of other factors).

Do I hope or expect more students come to my classes now because I am a registered yoga teacher at the 500-hour level? Again, absolutely not. I hope students come because of how much I truly love and believe in the Ashtanga vinyasa yoga system, how passionate I am about sharing this practice, and how much I try to share, both in the studio and through this blog, what I know (and to say when I don’t know). I hope they come because I try to find out what they are working on, what they need, what they are curious about, and what confuses them, so that we can work through all that together. And if my style isn’t for them, I hope they find a teacher who does fit what they need.

If you feel that way, why did you bother getting the 500-hour certification?

That is a good question. And it requires a long answer. I will try to get to that in a separate blog post. :-)

You promised to tell us about some yoga drama. I’ve already spent a lot of time on this post. Where’s this controversy?

You are right — you have read through a lot of text!  Thanks for bearing with YogaRose.net Explainer.

I’ll first note that everyone I’ve dealt with at Yoga Alliance, and those I’ve interacted with in the burgeoning online community that Yoga Alliance is trying to nurture, have been helpful, supportive and insightful.

That said, I think it is fair to say that Yoga Alliance as an organization is not well-loved in the yoga community.

For an overview on the bad feelings that exist, read YogaDork’s post from earlier this year, “Make Up or Break Up: Yoga Alliance, What Have You Done for Us Lately?” Perhaps one of the biggest issues, which this YogaDork post mentions in passing, is that a contingent in the yoga community at large blames Yoga Alliance for opening up the Pandora’s box of states starting to require yoga studios to register their teacher training programs, which costs studios money and places them on the radar of state regulatory authorities. To understand this aspect of the debate, read this New York Times story from 2009 about the fight over yoga certification in New York:

The conflict started in January when a Virginia official directed regulators from more than a dozen states to an online national registry of schools that teach yoga and, in the words of a Kansas official, earn a ‘handsome income.’

[Hold on! YogaRose.net Explainer feels compelled to insert a commentary on this point: This Kansas official was clearly misinformed. Yoga teachers can be well-paid — those who give private lessons to celebrities, for instance, or those who own their own studios (depends on the demographics of the community and the popularity of the studio, of course). There are yoga teachers who do not own their own studios, but teach full-time and can make a decent living (I should note, however, that they usually do not receive health benefits or other benefits that other full-time workers usually receive). For the most part, I don’t think yoga teachers earn a ‘handsome income.’ Far from it. There are teaching arrangements in which instructors are guaranteed a minimum, such as in this example, or — better yet — a minimum plus but a certain amount (say, $3, per student above a certain number of students). There are also arrangements in which instructors teach a class but — depending on the promotions or coupons the students in the class used to pay for the class — don’t take home any pay. Not a dime. It’s a reality of the system. If this topic piques your interest, glance at this 2010 elephant journal blog post about whether yoga teachers should unionize, based on speculation sparked when highly respected yoga instructor Annie Carpenter left YogaWorks — note that the comments are meatier than the post.]

Until then, only a few states had been aware of the registry and had acted to regulate yoga instruction, though courses in other disciplines like massage therapy have long been subject to oversight.

The registry was created by the Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit group started in 1999 to establish teaching standards in an effort to have the industry regulate itself. In a recent newsletter, the alliance warned its members that nationwide licensing might be inevitable, ‘forcing this ancient tradition to conform to Western business practices.’

‘We made it very, very easy for them to do what they’re doing right now,’ said Leslie Kaminoff, founder of the Breathing Project, a nonprofit yoga center in New York City, who had opposed the formation of the Yoga Alliance. ‘The industry of yoga is a big, juicy target.’

For more on the state certification issues — which I can’t even begin to get into here — start with the It’s All Yoga, Baby blog post from 2010 on “texas hold’em: yoga teachers stand up to govt regulation,” check out another YogaDork post from 2010 on a meeting with Yoga Alliance President John Matthews (scroll down this page to see someone’s pencil drawing of Matthews — seriously?) and read some of the comments in this yoga teacher training forum.

The Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita tell us that the ultimate aim of yoga is to help us reach a state of liberation by realizing that we are all essentially cut from the same cosmic cloth. Clearly, when it comes to the politics of certifying yoga teachers in America, we’re reminded of how very human, and how very of this earth, we all are. It’s OK, though — I’d rather see the spirited discussions than everyone accepting without exception, because it shows that if nothing else, we’re passionate about our yoga practice and our efforts to ensure that those who teach yoga are qualified to do so.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.