Secret ingredients

Ever seen cooking shows like Iron Chef America or Chopped? When I occasionally watch these cook-offs, I quite enjoy them. In well under an hour, chefs must whip up culinary masterpieces using “secret ingredients” revealed at the last moment. Their dishes must be creative without overshadowing the ingredients or sacrificing taste—classic yet extraordinary.

Maybe I somewhat relate to the dramatic tension. In Iyengar yoga assessments (yes, there is a connection), candidates also face a list of “secret” poses 40 minutes before teaching them. Candidates also perform under time pressure, observed by a panel of judges. While candidates’ personalities differ, teaching points must not stray too far from accepted standards: Garudasana must look like Garudasana, just as plantains must taste like plantains. Talk about grace under pressure.

When I watch those cook-offs, I enjoy seeing not only what the chefs create but also how they behave. Are they calm or nervous? Are they versatile or one-trick ponies? Can they recover from minor disaster? Sure, it’s an artificial environment, but perhaps speed cooking does reveal their knowledge, adaptability, and imagination. Similarly, while I originally considered assessment to be artificial and possibly unproductive, I now consider it an effective process to distill teaching to its fundamentals.

ICA1011_battle-plantains_s4x3_lgSometimes, when an ingredient is revealed, I pity the chef. Buffalo. Crawfish. Beets. Offal. (I had to Google that one.) How lucky to get lemons or almonds! Luck of the draw.

But, really, the whole point is to be ready for anything. Nothing should faze an Iron Chef.

Likewise, those who choose to be assessed must be ready for any pose at their level of training. Some poses are almost unanimously considered harder to teach (Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana and Supta Virasana come to mind). But, by assessment time, there should be little (or less) distinction. Besides, we’re given poses specifically chosen for us, based on our own asana performance. (So our required poses aren’t really random like those surprise ingredients.)

This ability to turn anything into a masterpiece also reminds me of  a conversation I had with a Hawaii surfer. We were talking about surfing competitions. “At the elite level, isn’t it random who wins ’cause every wave is different?” I asked. “It’s not like skateboarding or snowboarding. What if someone gets a junk wave?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “The top guys can make every wave look good.”

That stuck with me. It seems to apply to everything that we do in life. No complaints or excuses. We should learn to turn any circumstance to our advantage.

Image: Iron Chef America, plantains


  1. Dear Yoga Spy: I especially loved this post as I have been struggling with finding sukha in the Parivrtta asanas this week. I’ve been giving thought to what I will report about facing the challenge — both physical and mental. Thanks for providing even more “food for thought”!


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