Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Starting from Scratch

"It's never too bad, never too late, and you're never too old or too sick to start from scratch and be born once again."  - Bikram, after Bishnu Ghosh

"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe."  - Carl Sagan

In Bikram yoga, we are reminded that it is always possible to start from scratch, to go back to the beginning and have a new, better life.  But what does it really mean to start from scratch?  How many layers do we need to peel away from our bodies and our minds, and how deep does the rabbit hole go?

On the surface, we have the layers of our habits.  An everyday yoga class gives good example.  Our habits become so natural to us that we don't even notice them; we think that this is "just the way we are."  Out of pure habit, our minds tell us so many things.  I need to stand in the cool part of the room.  I'm not good at standing head to knee.  That teacher doesn't like me.  I could never wear a sports bra with my stomach.  I can't get through triangle pose.  I can't do more than one class a week.  I really need some extra water.  I need to leave.  I'm too stiff, I'm too old, my back doesn't bend, my elbows don't lock, my knees don't straighten, I'm not strong enough, it's too hot, and I could never wear those short shorts!  These thoughts are all habits!  "Just the way it is" is a lie that holds us back.  Patiently, one by one, we need to peel these ideas away, release them, and let them float away into nothing.

On our bodies, we wear the layers of the years.  Like rings on a tree, our bodies tell the stories of our lives.  In a very real and physical sense, the body has a memory.  Look at the set of your shoulders, and you'll find the years that you spent hunched over at your desk job.  Look in your joints, and you'll find the marathon that you ran a few years ago.  Look at the weakness in your heart and lung muscles, and you'll see the year that you stopped exercising.  Look at the tension stored in the fascia, the deepest layer of tissue that runs through your whole body, and you'll see the stress and unhappiness left behind by your years in an unhappy relationship.  It's all in there.  But through yoga practice, these things can all be cleared away, until eventually the slate is wiped clean.

And we can go deeper.  Think about how subjective all of your experiences really are.  Imagine that you're in a yoga class with 30 other people.  You all are in the same room, listening to the same teacher, hearing the same dialogue.  At the end, have you had 30 identical experiences?  Of course not!  Thirty completely different events have just taken place in those 90 minutes.  (Thirty-one if you count the teacher.)  So why do we all hear the same words so differently?  Because the world we experience today is colored by everything we've done and thought in the past.  If we've been harsh and critical toward ourselves in the past, then even the most gentle correction can sound like a harsh reprimand.  If we've struggled with our own self-worth, then the simplest helpful reminder can feel like yet another blow.  In a way, these mental patterns are simply the deepest layer of habit.  But they are very sneaky.  They are hard to observe and difficult to break.  In order to truly "start from scratch," these are the thought patterns that we eventually need to dig up.  Don't worry; the yoga helps.

Now let's have some fun and look at the body again.  How far can we really break it down?  The body is made up of about 50 trillion cells (give or take a few), and each cell contains so many atoms that it'll give you a headache to think about it.  And when you get down to it (and remember your high school physics class), each atom is about 99% empty space.  So where does that leave us?  Roughly speaking, we are 1% sub-atomic matter and 99% energy.  Another good word for "energy" is "light."  You only thought that you were solid.

Carl Sagan says, "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe."  The same can be said of the human body.  Just think of where you came from; think of all the cosmic events that led to the creation of you.  Through divine energy or an accident of physics (depending on your viewpoint), the universe was created.  The big bang is dated at about 14 billion years ago.  The universe begins, and then expands.  Our sun is born, and our planet.  After a few billion years, single-celled life emerges.  Two or three billion years later, multi-celled life finally forms.  Fast-forward through another couple billion years of evolution, and here we are, walking, breathing, talking, and thinking.  Fifty trillion cells, capable of perceiving, hurting, giving, understanding, and loving.  Just think of it!

We are constantly in a state of renewal, and it's always possible to start from scratch.  As we turn over the calendar, to a new year and a new decade, now seems like perfectly good time to get started!  Sure, the calendar is arbitrary.  But don't underestimate the power of the collective.  When the bulk of the world's population wakes up on January 1st and thinks, "Okay, this is a good time for renewal," there's got to be some power in that.  Take advantage of it!

Happy New Year!!

P.S.  Be sure to visit Bikram 101, on blogger and on facebook, for the worldwide 101-day Bikram Yoga Challenge that begins in just a couple days, on January 1st, 2010.  It's a good way to kick off the decade.

P.P.S.  I am a shameless nerd, and I share a house with a future astronomy professor.  Here is the weird, funny, and beautiful video that inspired the Carl Sagan line of thought.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cold Hands, Warm Heart

I really love being around my New England families.  I've got my "real" family at home in western Mass., and my yoga family just a couple hours away in Boston.

We keep each other so warm inside, I don't even notice the snow.  There is more than one double meaning in that sentence!

I really can't give a blow-by-blow recap of this week, partly because there is just so much, and partly because some of the best moments and details are mine alone, and I need to honor them by holding them close.  But here are some of the things I've loved since I've been here:

Being reunited with one of my best friends in the world for an evening and seeing her dance on stage.  I hadn't seen her in maybe a year, and it's crazy how when we're together, it seems like no time has passed and we've never been apart.  Are some friendships just like that forever?

Seeing one of my first teachers again and practicing side by side like sisters, sharing stories, technique, ideas and laughter.

Walking into class in Bikram Yoga Boston after almost a year away and being greeted by half a dozen familiar faces.  I finally feel like I've been gone for a while, because there have been two cycles of teacher training since the last time I spent time here and there are all these teacher who I don't really know, but plenty of the regular students who I used to see every week are still around!

Hearing the dialogue EVERYWHERE!  New England rocks.

Having long meals and even longer conversations some of my favorite people, the New England yoga teachers and studio owners who got me started and filled me up with love before I went out to make my own way in the world.  Brad and Tomo, Jill, Diane, Charlie, and of course ALL the members, new and old, of the Tuesday afternoon West Roxbury lunch brigade.

Staying with the oh-so-lovely hannahjustbreathe (and her cute cat!!) for a few nights, sharing ideas, and finally getting her into Diane's class!  (Muahaha.)  We took Diane's class side by side, and it was fantastic to share that with her.


Bookending my trip with a couple of totally killer and delicious classes in the little BYB studio on Lincoln Street.  (I actually started and finished my east coast visit in exactly the same way: class at Lincoln Street followed by soup at Pho Pasteur!)  The word for that room is "cozy" if you love it and "small" if you don't.  I absolutely love it.  Plenty of bigger and better practice spaces have since been built , but this one is the original Boston studio and my original Bikram home.  Call me sentimental if you like, but DAMN the humidity in that little room feels good on my body!

And of course, it was wonderful to see my FAMILY again!  I only had four days in my hometown (Northampton, in western Mass), and it wasn't long enough, but they were a good four days.  I finally had the chance to tell both my parents about my new life plans in person, which was great.  (Sometimes email and phone just aren't enough!)  Family gatherings are extra fun when you have some big news about your life that you're actually excited to share!  My sister and I spent one whole day baking Christmas cookies, we watched Love Actually for the 256th time (approxmiately) on Christmas Eve, and we did ALL the cooking for the Christmas dinner with no mess or stress.  We are a pretty rocking team in the kitchen.  The star of Christmas Day was definitely my cousin's 9-month-old baby, Spencer.  He's the first baby we've had in the family since my sister was born 22 years ago; it's the start of the next generation!!  And of course I'm biased, but he is absolutely adorable.  Another highlight was when Christmas carol singing evolved into Broadway show tune singing, with my step-sister's fiancee on the piano.  I know the words to a LOT of Broadway music.  And it turns out that my cousin's husband does a killer job on Pumba's songs from The Lion King - I could barely get Timon's part out because I was laughing so hard.  My family has expanded a lot this year and I really like it!

I'm flying back west at 6am tomorrow, and we will then return you to your regularly scheduled programming.  HAPPY HOLIDAYS to all, and enjoy the last days of the DECADE!  The next one is gonna be a really good one.  I can already feel it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

LA Headquarters, Olympic Spa, and Boston!

I am writing happily from snowy Boston right now!  We got some snow in Boston today and I was totally delighted to be here for the year's first big snow.  (The news kept calling it a "blizzard" but it is definitely not that bad, and it seems a bit warmer than it was a couple days ago.)

This week has felt long and PACKED, and it's been awesome.  I guess the last time I wrote was late on Tuesday night when Mei and I had just returned to my house after our road trip to San Francisco.  We got up early on Wednesday, packed up our things, and drove down to LA for a couple of classes at Headquarters.  We took the 10:30am as a "warm-up" for the advanced class, and it turned out to be FANTASTIC.  A woman named Francesca (spelling?! no idea) taught, and she was incredible.  I'd seen her in classes in LA before, and had no idea she was such a powerhouse.  She had this beautiful, strong, melodic voice with a British-sounding accent (I'm really bad at identifying accents), and her class was a just a treat.  She was powerful when she needed to be and comforting when she needed to be, and she definitely carried me through.

We went straight into advanced class after that, which started at about 12:15 with Emmy.  It was a pretty full class, with lots of familiar faces and strong yogis - both of this year's SoCal champions were there, along with Esak Garcia and his wife Stephanie (who is also a champion and was spell-binding to watch).  There were probably about 30 of us, and the guys were proud that they NEARLY outnumbered the girls this time.  Not sure if they were counting Emmy.  Girls - ahem - I know there are some of you from LA who read this - you'd better come and represent next time before they take over!!

My advanced practice was, uhh, passable.  I've barely done it at all this fall!  So sad.  One of my goals for next year is to do advanced series once a week again, preferably with Emmy!  But it felt good to take my body through that range of motion again.  Some parts were predictably uncomfortable (like the super deep backbends that I hadn't done in ages), and others were unexpectedly great.  (I did the best "short man" of my life, totally out of the blue, balancing without a problem until I felt ready to come out.  Weirdly enough, so did Mei.)  But even when my personal practice is not at its peak, I always really enjoy being in the room with Emmy and sharing the great energy with all the other dedicated yogis.  And I accidentally set myself up directly in Emmy's line of vision, so that earned me a couple of corrections, which was good, too!

After class, we made an ill-fated attempt to get lunch at Govinda's buffet (which was closed by the time we got there!), had some cheap Indian food, then turned around and went to THE SPA.  Olympic Spa in Koreatown is one of my favorite spots in LA.  It's a traditional all-female Korean style bathhouse.  The day pass is $15 and gives you access to all the pools and saunas.  So we recovered from our many hours of yoga and 900 miles of driving (!!) by soaking in the REALLY COLD and REALLY HOT tubs, sweating a little in the saunas and steam rooms (I didn't steam for very long, but they have the best steam room EVER there), drinking lots of water and free tea, lounging on the couches, and napping in savasana on the warmed floors.  It was lovely.  By the time we had dinner and headed to my friend's house to sleep for the night, we were ridiculously wiped out, but feeling goooooood.

I woke up late on Thursday and made my flight out of LAX by the skin of my teeth (so to speak).  Spent the flight from LA to Denver chatting with a sweet guy next to me from El Salvador who was heading to Arkansas to see his sister.  Planned to spend the flight from Denver to Boston reading a book; I got three pages in and then passed out asleep, woke up on the descent with a crick in my neck.  Whoops!!  Here's the highlight of the day: I was taking the subway into the city after I left the airport, and at 7:30pm I was passing through South Station, right around the corner from my original yoga studio, and I thought: "Hey, what time is the last yoga class today?  Isn't it... 7:45?"  So I hopped off the train, with backpack, bag, and suitcase in tow, and rolled down the block to Bikram Yoga Boston in Chinatown, where a good friend of mine was getting ready to teach the 7:45 class!  Hooray!!  I took her class and it felt amazing.  Incidentally, this gave me a great idea: yoga studios in airports!  Travel would be infinitely improved!!  Anyway, we went out for Pho in Chinatown after class and had a great time catching up.  It was such great luck to catch her like that.  Couldn't have been better if I'd planned it!

Much more on Boston later, but I'll leave it here for now...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Santa Cruz, Global Yoga, and Hearst Castle

Yoga road trip = GREAT SUCCESS, and it ain't over yet!

Let's see, where was I?  Last time I wrote, Mei and I were getting packed for our trip up to San Francisco.  After 700+ miles of driving and a few hours of quality sweating, we are right back on my couch where we started, doing some laundry and getting ready for the next (and sadly, last!) leg of the trip.

We drove up Highway 1 to Santa Cruz in the rain on Friday and met up with the fabulous Mckinley (aka ilovesweat) at his place.  He's got some awesome real estate there; fruit trees everywhere!  He was ridiculously sweet and generous, loading us up with fresh fruit, locally baked cookies, Kombucha, and some great Mexican food for dinner.  The three of us practiced together at Village Yoga in Santa Cruz, and I give huge props to that studio, because I was totally impressed with my experience there!  The teacher was great - encouraging,  technically accurate, experienced, and funny - and the room was packed with enthusiastic students.  It feels so good to be in a room full of rocking yogis.  (And I had McK right behind me keeping me honest!)  Between the rain outside and the sweaty bodies inside, I think I produced more sweat in that class than I have since August.  (My regular studio has been so dry lately!  Darn weather.)  It felt fabulous.  After class, we ended up hanging around with a couple of the instructors, and one of them (Shawn) did some Synergy with me and Mei.  Synergy is a fun partner-yoga thing that complements the Bikram series really well and feels absolutely fantastic.  Natural human traction with a partner.  Mckinley grabbed some cool pictures - HERE.

We continued up to San Francisco to spend the night, since a friend of mine had offered us the use of her temporarily vacant apartment right in the middle of the city.  I am still happy that we managed to NOT DIE driving up Highway 17 at night in the rain and mist, which was honestly one of the scariest driving experiences I have ever had.  I mean, the conditions were so terrible, it was like a joke.  It looked like a Stephen King book.  The one fabulous part was that when we got up to Los Gatos (i.e. return to civilization), I stopped in at a gas station to buy a coffee, and the sweet Hindi (?) guy who was working there saw my Bikram Yoga sweatshirt and asked if I do yoga.  I said "Yes, I love it," and went to pay for my coffee.  He said "Don't worry about it" and wouldn't charge me.  I thought that was a nice karmic moment, and what a nice guy!

So that was Saturday.  On Sunday morning, we called Global Yoga and found out that Mary Jarvis was teaching that day at 5pm, so we slept late, got lunch at a great 50's style diner down the street, and then basically just bummed around my friend's apartment for the afternoon, listening to the rain. (I actually had a paper due on Monday for school that I was still finishing up!)  Getting to the yoga studio was another fun driving adventure.  I had never been to San Francisco before.  Let me tell you, for those of you who have never been there either - when they say that San Francisco has hills, they mean that San Francisco has HILLS!!!!  Holy guacamole. We went up and over Divisadero St, which is apparently one of the more steep hills.  I swear to god, those streets go up at more than a 45 degree angle.  So for about 7 blocks, each block goes UP and I go "oh crap oh crap oh crap" as I power my car up to the next intersection.  (My car actually did great.  I love my Toyota.)  Then we get to the TOP and OH SHIT - I had not realized that what goes UP must come DOWN.  I mean, maybe the yoga studio could have been on TOP of the hill?  But nope!  We get to go back DOWN at, I swear to god, like a 60 degree angle.  So for the next 7 blocks, I'm going "oooooooooh Jesus lord!!" every time I inch over another crest.  I think Mei was entertained by my dramatics.

After somehow surviving the hills, and finding street parking in only 15 minutes (go me!), we made it to Global Yoga and met up with our blogger friend and hostess Lucille.  The 5pm class was PACKED, largely with teachers.  The teachers at Global Yoga all practice in the back of the room, with no water, so I set up camp near the back of the room too so I wouldn't feel left out!  Haha.  I think the back two rows were all teachers except for me, and one new guy.  Seriously, there was fantastic energy in that room, ALL over the room, but especially in the back part of the room!

Mary's classes were fantastic.  I have to give her credit right away for knowing who is in her room at all times, because she was on the ball!  I'd thought about introducing myself before class, but didn't see her when I came in, so I thought, "Oh well, that's cool, I'll just be anonymous right now and then go say hello after class."  Hah.  We get as far as the set-up for half moon before she goes, "Where's Juliana?"  I give her a smile and a wave.  She says, "Hi, I just saw your message on facebook, sorry I didn't respond earlier..."  (I had written just to say that I was going to be in the area.)  I am impressed.  I hope I am that good with names when I am a teacher!  Then about half a posture later she goes, "Where's Mei?  Congratulations on finishing teacher training!" so we are both totally busted.  So much for anonymity.  Heehee.

So we took Mary's class two days in a row, Sunday and Monday, and I'm so glad that we did.  She is great, and it's easy to see why she has such a strong following!  She's been doing this yoga stuff, and doing it really well, for a really long time.  She definitely does her own thing to some extent, having been trained by Bikram way before the dialogue was invented.  If you've taken her class, you know that it ain't dialogue, but the technical content is good and true.  It was very interesting.  I'm kind of hitting a wall here when I try to describe her style - I think I am still "processing."  Maybe I will try to write about this again later!!  But I got a lot out of it.  Mary definitely zeroed in on my technical problems pretty much instantaneously, so I got some very clear instructions and corrections that I am excited to work on.  So thank you, Mary!!  And I'll tell you, I did camel pose like I've never done it before.  It made my whole body tingle.  It might as well have been the first backbend of my life - it felt that strange and freaky and interesting.  (That was the word of the weekend - interesting.  "Be interested, not interesting.")

Some of you folks may not be aware that any politics exist between yoga studios.  Good for you, ignorance is nice, enjoy it!  Those of you who have been around the block a few more times have probably noticed that - gasp! - not all Bikram yoga teachers and studio owners agree with each other on everything!  Well, what do you know, that's life.  There are some things that are definitely different at Global Yoga, and it was great for me to actually practice there and get a feel for how things are done there and why.  Food for thought!  There were a lot of things Mary said that were totally 100% consistent with the things I've learned from my favorite dialogue purists, so that was lovely.  I feel like all the best teachers really are saying the same things, just in their own ways.  And I will borrow from Lucille, and I hope she doesn't mind, because I think she's got her head on straight and I was inspired by her.  She says - paraphrasing just a little - Fuck the camps!  Just be in your own camp and learn everything you can, from everyone you can.  Bingo.

And for the record, Mary is not "scary"!  Good lord.  I mean, I'm sure you could piss her off if you did something totally asshole-ish.  (Then I'd be pissed off, too!  Be scared of me!!  Just kidding.)  But she has a great way of saying, "It's not that you're an asshole, but your actions are those of an asshole," hypothetically speaking.  And the famous "no water" thing at her studio is only a "rule" for teachers and is not really a big deal.  We all ditched our water bottles and were fine.  And she's nice!  Like super nice.  She's not there to bust your balls, she's there to help you out.  I really liked her.

In between classes, we stayed at Lucille's cabin up north of the Golden Gate bridge, which was a gorgeous, cozy spot with a killer view.  Lucille is a seriously great hostess and a fabulous cook.  And her dog is adorable - a labradoodle named Higby.  (Labrador + Poodle = Labradoodle!)  There's nothing better than enjoying a homemade dinner with a couple of awesome yoginis, while talking about yoga and life to your heart's content, after working through your whole spine in a yoga class.  Mmm, mmm, mmm, that is the life.  I could get used to this traveling yogi thing. 

This is taking me too long to write!!  Damn "second wind."  I'd better go finish packing for Boston.  The last thing that I wanted to write about was Hearst Castle, which has nothing to do with yoga but is COOL.  I expected to be totally underwhelmed by it - I mean, it's just a castle, right?  Wrong!  It's like a museum combined with a scavenger hunt, and it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.  I couldn't stop taking pictures.  Will post a couple later.  And we got to see the wild zebra herds of California.  I did NOT know that this existed, but Mei spotted them!  "Those horses... they look like they have stripes... OH IT'S THE ZEBRAS!"  We were so excited.

Off to fold laundry and sleep.  More later!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Here, there, and everywhere!

I am sleepy and have packing left to do, so this will be short and sweet.

This week has been very long and bittersweet, as I've felt my grad school career finally coming to an end.  (It is MOSTLY done now, by the way - I got a reprieve on the thesis paper until Jan 4th, so I will go off and enjoy my Christmas, and then bring that to a close when I get back from vacation.)  I get very sad around endings, even when they are good endings that are leading to better things.

But on the bright side, I had two fabulous visitors yesterday afternoon - Michelle and Mei came to stay with me!!  It was so fantastic to see them.  Right now Michelle's journeyed on to see another friend, but Mei is sitting next to me re-packing her suitcase for our weekend travels and trying to get Spice Girls songs stuck in my head.  (Now we're listening to the Beatles.)

We had a great time.  I put up the Christmas lights in my house 5 minutes before they pulled into the driveway.  We had lunch, walked around the neighborhood (though no beach since it was RAINING, which is bizarre for this location), practiced yoga class all together at my studio, made soup and pasta for dinner, read Mei's teacher training yearbook, told jokes and a little gossip, talked a little about yoga...  We all slept late this morning and then took Mei's class at noon.  Let me tell you - don't listen to anything Mei says - she is a freaking AWESOME teacher, and I don't say that lightly!  She had TONS of energy, tons of great dialogue, no bad habits, great presence and HUMOR, and she was watching her room the whole time, knew all the new and new-ish people by name and took care of them.  She pushed hard when it was time to push hard, but was gentle and soothing when it was time for that.  I was sooooo impressed with her class. And practicing with Michelle was great, too.  She is exactly how you would expect in class, just strong and humble and focused.  It was so strange that I was meeting these two girls for the first time, because right away I felt like we'd been friends for years - we already knew each other's faces, each other's voices, each other's stories.  Very cool and lovely.

So as I mentioned in the blog title, we (Mei and I) will be here, there, and everywhere for the next week or so!  We're driving up to Santa Cruz in the morning, meeting up with our friend M of ilovesweat, and practicing at his studio in the evening.  Then we're spending the next few nights in San Francisco, accepting the hospitality of the fabulous Lucille, and hopefully studio hopping a bit.  Then back down through Big Sur on Tuesday (hoping that the sun comes out!), back to my place on Tuesday night, and then on the road again to L.A. first thing on Wednesday morning, to take (and in Mei's case, teach!) at Headquarters.  Will hang around L.A., hopefully hit the SPA, and then we're both flying out of LAX on Thursday morning - me back east to Boston, and her back home to Malaysia!  And of course, in Boston I will get to practice at my old studio downtown, have lunch with my first studio owner Jill, take class and have dinner with Diane D., hang out and plot with hannahjustbreathe (who is lending me her couch for a couple nights), hopefully see Danielle in advanced class at Diane's, and then head over to western Mass with Charlie and take class back in my hometown on Christmas Day.  And then back to Cali the next night.  Phew!!  Blog posts may be few and far between for a bit, but I will be storing up plenty of pictures and stories for those of you who I WON'T get to see this month, don't worry...

For the moment, happy holidays to all, and I hope that you are surrounded by friends and family at some point during the month!!  I feel so lucky.  I have a wonderful family at home, with parents who've learned to take my strange life in stride and have been nothing but supportive lately.  And I have this incredible yoga family stretching from coast to coast, and it's so precious to be able to spend time with so much of that family.  As they say in my favorite post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas feel-good movie - "... love actually is all around."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Whine, whine, whine!


Ow.  Ow.

Freaking OW!!

My body hurts!  And I feel a little bit sick.  And I still have 2 long papers to finish writing before Friday.  SIGH!  At least I managed to do my yoga this morning and now I am curled up with a fuzzy blanket, in my big ridiculous pink Bikram yoga fleece (I look like a yoga marshmallow), drinking some kind of awesome ginger drink from Whole Foods before diving back into work.  And at the end of the week, all the craziness will be over, so life ain't too bad.  But still... at the moment... UGH!

In a disgustingly predictable turn of events, I hid in my office at my computer and just didn't practice all week.  (At the same time, I kept periodically hopping on facebook and fixing up the Bikram 101 fan page for the 101 consecutive days of yoga that we're doing in January.  That irony was not lost on me.)  At the end of this week, I have an observation to make.  NOT doing yoga hurts WAY MORE than doing lots of yoga!  Holy.  Crap.  It is ridiculous.  I spent the week just sitting at a desk in a cold room, getting zero exercise and being stressed out - which seems to be how a lot of people are forced to spend their lives on a regular basis - and my body freaking KILLS!!  Legs, neck, and whole spine - lower back, middle back, upper back - just completely shot.

So my last couple classes - last night and this morning - have been interesting exercises, to say the least.  They haven't been fun, but they've definitely been instructional.  I definitely had some new experiences.  (Be careful what you wish for... )  Like um, not being able to lock my knees in freaking padahastasana (which I could do in my first class in 2004 - I was a ballet dancer at the time.)  Like not being able to do a backbend.  You know how the first part of the backbend is "drop your head back, look at the floor behind you"?  I think this was the first time I ever dropped my head back and couldn't see the floor.  (At this point you're all thinking, Yeah, yeah, yeah, cry me a fucking river!  Hah.)  Holy hell!  I didn't know what that felt like!  I've gotta say... it really SUCKS.  If that's what "normal people's" spines are like, then yes, everyone definitely needs to start doing yoga.  I barely even went back in the first set - leaned back a little, got dizzy, and stood back up.  Second set was okay, as I remember "don't be scared!" and just got my arms back and went for it, but it was pretty uncomfortable!!

With half-moon pose and hands-to-feet pose being a total and utter train wreck, it was surprising that a few postures didn't give me ANY trouble.  Awkward pose.  Eagle pose.  Freaking STANDING HEAD TO KNEE, which I absolutely NAILED - did all 4 steps, put forehead on knee, hung out there for a bit, then backed it out step by step.  Totally bizarre.  That's actually, finally, become a good posture for me lately.

I feel like having a messed up body is a test of technique, more than anything else, right?  If you know the right techniques, you should be able to apply them to your body no matter what condition it's in.  You just have to think about it a bit more when your body is not in its usual condition, which can be a good thing!

Oh, and I think I broke my butt!  Sigh.  Not really.  But my left glute (or maybe very top of the hamstring) was bugging me a bit a week or two ago, and then I guess I pushed it a bit too much yesterday, cause now it kinda hurts.  I DID completely baby it today (hence the bent knees in padahastasana and my forehead being nowhere near my feet in paschimo), but too little too late.  Oops.  What can I say - I've never done that before!  I didn't realize what was going to happen!  Any thoughts?  I'm hoping it's just a mild strain that'll get better FAST, as I have a lot of yoga plans coming up!  I tried a heating pad last night and that made it worse.  Maybe ice?  It's so cold, I just can't bring myself to sit on an icepack!  Maybe Arnica and Aleve...

So to sum up:

1.  Whine whine whine.

2.  You always have your technique.

and 3.  Just don't stop going to yoga!!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Micro blog post

"Lock your knee," he says.  It's too hot, too hard, and everything's a mess. There's no way this shit will work. She's back tomorrow anyway.

(140 characters including spaces.)

This post was inspired by The Times Twitter microfiction competition - loved the winning entries - because "Anyone who cannot handle 140 characters should not be trusted with a whole paragraph."  It's harder than it looks!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bikram 101 starts Jan 1st!

This is a quick update with a plug for a fun new project that's been started by a bunch of people you may know... :-)

We are doing a 101 day Bikram challenge starting on January 1st, 2010. That's 101 classes in 101 days. We are trying to get a whole worldwide group of people to do it with us! We've made a blog page for it already, along with a twitter account and an email address, and we will have a facebook page shortly. Everything is still being set up this month, so if you have any suggestions for something you'd like to see, please make yourself heard! And most of all... please join in!!

It'll be great for your practice, and also, if you like, you can be involved in an active online support community. You'll get a link to your blog, a group page where you can share your tough times and your victories with fellow challengers, and of course you get a snazzy little logo to put on your personal page. (See top right corner of screen.)

I'm actually really excited for this one, more so than I have been for a challenge in a while. Those of you who know me know that I've never exactly been a slacker when it comes to going to class. I did my first 30 day challenge back in September 2007, and I honestly don't know HOW many challenges I've finished since then. I did well over 365 classes in my first full year of regular Bikram practice. It was great! But lately, my personal practice has really been on the back-burner. I still get into class at least 5 or 6 days a week, but it hasn't been the same! I think it's been more than a year since I really zeroed in on my personal practice for longer than a few weeks and said, "okay, self, let's see what we can do here." So New Year's Day is now the date when I am coming back to where I started and really giving my own practice some time and attention.

Also, this challenge is scheduled to end about a week before I go to teacher training! Perfect timing. Sort of. Conventional wisdom says that you should seriously take it easy right before going to TT, so that you're not burned out when you get there. So I'm planning on doing tons of doubles (or triples, or...?) in January and February so I can finish by March and take a mini-break in April. Basically: balls to the wall for 2 months, normal daily practice for 1 month, total laziness for a couple weeks, and then I will be perfectly set up for 9 weeks of daily doubles at teacher training! (But this is a special situation - if you're not about to go to training, it's probably best to just do one class a day, every day!)

Everyone will have their own reasons for signing onto this challenge, but those are mine!

Who's in?! Visit the Bikram 101 homepage, drop us a note, tell your friends, and get involved...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hey baby, nice spine...

Mmmm... I am soooo yogafied right now.  (That's yoga-fied, not yoga fried.  Small but distinct difference.  Yogafied is blissed out.  Yoga fried is, Stick a fork in me, I'm done!!)  Did a few good hours of yoga this morning with some visiting friends, took my body for a spin through some of the advanced postures at the end of it.  Hadn't done that in quite a while, and it went better than I had any reason to expect it would.  Fabulous.

I keep thinking about the spine this week.

(Ok, that doesn't make that week very different from any other week, but bear with me, I'm trying to make a point here.)

Between my work-study position as front desk girl at the yoga studio (I am the welcoming committee) and my (mild!) evangelizing to friends, co-workers, and family, I've spent a decent amount of time trying to describe Bikram yoga to other people.  You guys know the spiel.  First the basics.  It's 90 minutes.  It's the same 26 postures every time.  It's for beginners.  It's how hot?!?  But then what do you say, after you've laid down the basics?  There are a few things that make the Bikram series unique in my view.  First is its effectiveness as a healing tool.  Next is its completeness - the fact that it somehow manages to work virtually your entire body, including muscles and organs that you didn't even know you had.  (To be honest, I'm still not sure where my pancreas are or what they do, but I know that I am working on them!)  And then there's the spine.  I've been in plenty of other physical disciplines in my time - ballet, pilates, other yoga - and I've encountered nothing that zeroes in on the spine the way this series does.

The thing that's become transparent to me about the series is that every posture is a spine posture.  Every single one.  Just try to prove me wrong!  (Any takers...?)  I like to picture what a spine would look like as it goes through a Bikram class.  Take off all those extra moving parts - feet, hands, legs, elbows, brain - and just visualize your spine, from coccyx to neck, as it goes through 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises.  Picture it lengthening, stretching, bending from side to side, from front to back, lengthening and twisting, until it comes out all healthy and happy at the end, wrung out and scrubbed clean, as shiny and new as your car when you pull it out from the car wash.

It's funny how there are so many other body parts that we fixate on in our culture.  Everybody wants those great legs, that flat stomach, those high cheekbones.  It's always, check out her boobs, check out his ass!  Nice high heels, baby...  But we're missing it!  We're missing the most important one!

The online Bikram yogis crack me up.  Someone will post a picture of themselves arched backwards in a killer floor bow, and there will immediately be a dozen comments saying, "Wow, great spine!" and "OMG your spine is soooooo sexy."  I love us.  We are the only people I know who do this.

I knew I was in deep when one day, before class, I was checking out a boy who was warming up a few mats down from me.  Gorgeous boy, blonde California kid, super toned body.  He was practicing rabbit pose.  The only thought that came into my head - and I am not making this up, I swear to you - was, "whoooooaaa.... that is a NICE spine!!"

I wish that Cosmo and GQ would get on board with this idea, because if our society collectively started fixating on the health of our spines instead of the size of our asses, I suspect we would live in a much different world...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On giving thanks

And the best ones were the ones I got to keep as I grew strong,
And the days that opened up until my whole life could belong,
And now I'm getting the answers, when I don't need them anymore,
I'm finding the pictures, and I finally know what I kept them for,
I remember, I can see them....

~ Dar Williams, "The Blessings"

I really like that song these days.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.  Which to me, is just plain weird, because I grew up in New England, so I still expect Thanksgiving to be cold.  But last year on Thanksgiving, it was 80 degrees out and the hills were on fire.  Welcome to southern California.  Today I went out in a long sleeve t-shirt at lunchtime and got a pumpkin pie smoothie for lunch.  (It was delicious.)

As a kid and a teenager, I was totally cynical and bit too smart for my own good.  I remember making a big deal over being offended by Thanksgiving, because we were celebrating the displacement and genocide of a native people.  (Seriously, I had a dismal view of humanity.  I read Lord of the Flies when I was 12 or 13 years old and didn't get over it for years.)  And it's true, the history behind this holiday is fairly messed up.

But... I do like the concept of the holiday, these days.  It's a great idea to have a day that reminds you to literally give thanks for all the things in your life that are good.  As I think about the history of the holiday, I wonder if there's another metaphor in the story.  It's not that people always do the right thing, or that there won't be huge mistakes along the way, or that everything happens the "right way."  But everything happens.  And it's not always obvious why.  And sometimes it's weird and strange and messy, and people act imperfectly, and bad choices are made.  But at the end of the day, here we are.  And if all those crazy things hadn't happened along the way, we would not exist as we do today.  So give thanks for that.

I am so thankful for where I am right now.

I'm thankful for the weird and imperfect state that my life was in two and a half years ago.  I'm thankful for all the crazy choices I made that brought me to that moment when I decided to close the door on ballet, after 15 years of investment, and turned to Bikram yoga to fill the gap.

I'm thankful for the first friend from work who brought me to a class in 2004, and the other friend who brought me to class in Boston the year later, and to myself for going on my own.  I'm thankful to my first teachers in Boston for coaxing me into the practice, for planting those first seeds, and I'm thankful to them for watering the seeds and letting them grow.  I'm thankful to all my teachers and mentors along the way.  I don't know where I would be without them.  There are some names that burn brightest in my mind, but if they're reading this, they already know exactly who they are.  Thank you so much.

I'm thankful for the many uncomfortable and imperfect situations I've been in that have forced me to find my own position, stand my ground, and establish myself as an independent person.

I'm thankful for the late, lonely nights when I was missing my old home, friends and family, because those days sent me to the online community searching for connection, and I found it, and I made true friendships, and the course of my life actually shifted as a result.

I'm thankful for all the times I couldn't go to teacher training, no matter how hard, because now I am going at exactly the right time.

I'm thankful for my family, because when I told them (separately) about my new life plans, my mom said, "You are going to be so amazing," and my dad said, "Thank you for telling me."

I'm thankful for bad days, bad weeks, bad months, because they make me appreciate the good ones even more fully.  Not only that - which seems overly simplistic - but I suspect that the best times couldn't even exist without those other times.

I'm thankful for my body, for everything it can do and everything it can't do yet.  I'm thankful for the postures that I am not yet able to do.  I'm thankful for the knowledge that in time, everything is coming.

I'm thankful for every time I've fallen out of a posture and every time I've gotten back in.

I wouldn't change any of it.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"I came to this country half Jesus Christ, half Elvis..."

I went down to Bikram's class yesterday morning, and I'm so glad I made it, cause this was a GOOD one.  An epic two hours of laughter, sweat, and tears!  (Not that I cried... but the dude with the body cramps in the back of the room didn't seem too thrilled.)

Let me back up a bit.

Bikram was in a great mood.  Tons of energy, even for him, which is saying something.  He came in and told us that he'd been teaching at teacher training every day this week and "killing them," so "I am in a killing mood!  There is no insurance!  You have your warning!"  I said oh shit to myself and just started cracking up.  I couldn't tell at first whether he was really out to get us.  He was having a great old time making fun of us in half moon: "This is a real pussy class!  None of you is locking your elbows!"  Totally in good humor - in the first set, he said, "I know what you are all thinking!  You are thinking, Bikram!  Go fuck yourself!"  Wahooo!  I had a friend in class who was visiting from NYC.  He'd practiced to Bikram's CD a lot, but never practiced to Bikram.  After class, his comment was, "Wow, the CD is the G-rated version!"

Knew it was going to be a really fun one when he hopped down to help a girl in her half moon backbend.  In the first set, he singled out a girl in the front row and said, "You!  What are you doing?  You're not even trying!  Not even doing anything!  Posture hasn't started yet!"  She came out and looked at him with a little bit of a deer-in-headlights expression, and he said, "It's ok, I'll show you."  After padahastasana he had her do it again by herself.  That time she did it better, and he decided to help her more.  He hopped down and stood about a foot from her face and said, "What country you from?  Korea?"  She said "Japan," and he instantly started speaking to her in very fast and intense Japanese.  The look on her face was priceless.  I have NO idea what he was saying to her, but she started giggling hysterically!  Great image - Bikram right up in this girl's face with this hardcore serious expression on his face, and this girl just dying laughing.  Then he helped her with the backbend.  First time I've seen him do this in person - he holds under the back with one hand, taps on the sternum with the other hands, and says, "fall on my hand, fall on my hand!"  Girl ends up basically hanging off his arm with her knees totally bent and everything - BUT - she went back about 2 feet farther than before.  Now she knows what it feels like!

Class continued with high energy.  And I have to say, he totally was going easy on us.  A 2 hour Bikram class is an easy Bikram class, because it means he is talking a lot.  He gave us short postures and long breaks, which was fine by me, since I was getting TOTALLY light-headed!  Probably the combination of a hot humid room with about 150 people in it and the fact that I missed several days of practice this week.  So I sat down on my knees during a lot of the breaks between postures, but I did not miss any postures at all, and my postures actually felt really good.

There was some drama in the opposite corner of the room when some guy went down with full-body cramps, or something.  He was practically the length of a football field away from me, so I didn't see much of that, but Bikram was all over it.  Saw the guy go down, knew what was going on, told him to go out in the hallway and take a break.  When the guy didn't go anywhere, Bikram was like, "Why don't you go out?" and the people around him said "He can't get up!" so Bikram told them, "Why don't you carry him out?!  Take his arms, take his legs.  At teacher training I have 25, 50 people every day 100% unconscious, we carry them outside and put some water on their head."  So this guy was more or less dragged out into the hall to recover.  Drama!!  It wasn't psychotically hot in the room, but it WAS really really hot, and also humid with all those bodies.

But speaking of teacher training, Bikram bragged to us a bit about how great the current trainees are doing.  "They improve SO MUCH!  You have NO IDEA!"  He is impressed with their ability to get through class without anyone sitting down or puking.  Says that he started off teaching them 2 hours classes and now they can do class in 88 minutes.  Hee.  Awesome.  Go trainees, go!!

Taking Bikram's class is a little bit like drinking from a firehose.  There's such a constant flow of information and chatter thrown at you that it's hard to hold onto anything.  In maybe 50% of the classes I've taken with him, I have absolutely NO recollection of ANYTHING he said once the class is over.  It just flows right through you.  You hear it, but you don't hold on.  You remember his comments later, once you're doing the poses, once they're relevant, but when you walk out of the room, you have NO idea what just happened.

A pattern does emerge, though.  You are going to hear about Richard Nixon and the phlebitis thrombosis in almost every class, guaranteed!

There were a few things he said yesterday that I wanted to remember.  One was the taxi/bus/train driver analogy (which some of us are very familiar with... yay....)  He says, "you want to go somewhere, you don't know where you're going, you get in the car, the driver takes you there."  Same thing with the mind: he says that we can just step out of our minds (for class) and let him drive.  He says, "I know the path.  I've been there already.  I go back and forth every day, taking people with me."  I like that idea: the yoga teacher as a ferryman, carrying loads of passengers every day from one shore of consciousness to the other.

He also made a neat distinction: "Before you can do yoga, you have to learn yoga."  And, "Once you've learned it, you don't need me anymore."  I'll let that idea just sit.

The car analogy of the day was related to traffic.  He says, all your life it is like you are driving in Santa Monica during the "work hour" at 10 miles an hour.  You have no idea what that car can do until you take it out at 3am when the streets are empty and hit the gas pedal.  And that, I guess, is yoga class.

He also bragged about his speeding tickets, told us a story about how he passed out doing yoga practice in a sauna, and gave advice on masturbation techniques.  Yep, you read that right.  Sometimes I'm not sure whether I should laugh, roll my eyes, or start throwing tomatoes, but usually I just laugh.  He is incorrigible - incurably himself.

When I got home from LA, my roommate asked me, "Did you have any life changing conversations today?" and I said, "Not THIS time!"  But I did have lunch with a few teachers, AND I discovered that a girl I know at HQ is also going to the Spring TT session!  So we were very, very excited about that, and exchanged numbers, and are planning to start meeting up to study and practice.  And she knows one OTHER person who's going to training, a guy who's practiced at HQ for ages, so the SoCal teacher training posse is starting to take form.  We are so totally gonna be the cool kids.  (Which will be the opposite of my grade school, middle school, and high school experiences.  Hah.)  So exciting!

Friday, November 20, 2009

The road to training - Picture preview!

I'm kind of addicted to pictures from the teacher training sessions right now.  Just the image of all those people in the room together... ooooh... it's so cool.  Bennie Shapiro, a current trainee in Vegas, has been taking and posting some really stunning photographs.  Clearly a multi-talented individual!  (Aren't we all?) Here are just a few for your viewing pleasure, copied with his permission.

(For the first three, you have to click the image to see the full picture.  If anyone has any better tips or tricks for posting full size images to blogger, let me know...)

Crazy wavy effect with the mirrors in the back!

Possibly my favorite picture ever of Bikram teaching.

Yeah, Coca-Cola really should sponsor him.  "The world is yours..."

Final savasana (TT staff Christina Mead)

U.S. champion Joseph Encinia in scorpion handstand

Love these.  Thanks for sharing, Bennie!  And now I'd better get to sleep, as I am getting up early in the morning to drive down to L.A. for Bikram's class.  Hope he doesn't kill me TOO bad...!  More later.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Let me sum up...

"Let me explain.  *pause.*  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up..."
 - Name that movie!  Bonus points for character, actor, and scene...

Good news for me!  I took my last (ever?!) exam on Monday afternoon, and gave my last (academic) oral presentation on Wednesday.  Yesssss.  Now all I have left to do is finish up my TA-ship and write 3 academic papers.  So yes, I still have a huge pile of work to do, but now it's down to 3 large tasks which I've somewhat started.  This is a huge improvement from this time last week, when I had 5 large tasks and half of them were untouched.  I can see the light at the end of the tunnel of grad school.  And this time (as we used to say when I was an undergrad), it is NOT the oncoming train.

In my yoga world, well, my body is kinda shot at the moment!  It is soooo stiff and I think I strained a muscle a week or two ago.  I didn't practice on Monday or Tuesday (or sleep, really), since I was working on all my other projects.  But you know... I don't really care, because it's so temporary.  I rolled into class last night, sleep-deprived and stiff, and I was so excited to be there.  My postures wouldn't have made the cover of Bikram Yoga Magazine (heehee), but that is irrelevant.  It felt good to sweat, it felt good to move, it felt good to take my body through its full range of motion for that day, and it felt good to wake up my spine.  (I actually get pretty sore when I miss classes sometimes - go figure.)

I am really looking forward to building a new routine once I move out of this phase of my life and into the next one.  Finally, yoga gets to be top priority.  (Well, that and making a living.)  Yoga every day!  Advanced class every week!  Maybe even backbends and handstands!  Yeah!!  It's been a while since I really moved my practice forward.  I recently found a list that I wrote last winter that outlined the things I still had trouble doing and some of my yoga posture goals for the year, and I was like, "yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaah."  I have accomplished... zero percent of that list.  What can I say?  Life happened.

(I DID accomplish a number of things that I never thought to put on that list.  Such as, you know, figuring out what I want to do with my life.  So that was good!)

But next year is a brand new year....

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Vintage Bikram

Guys!  Guys!

(Yes, hannahjustbreathe, that was for you.)

Some clever person (over at Bikram HQ, I'm guessing?) just posted a handful of absolutely classic vintage yoga videos.

I discovered these yesterday morning while I was finishing up some desk work at the yoga studio, and I called over a couple of teachers to watch them with me.  We must have spent half an hour just screaming over these videos.  His hair!!  And the crazy yoga tricks!  Oh man!  Bisu runs over Bikram with a motorcycle while he's lying on a bed of nails!  Bishnu Ghosh is on some kind of Japanese talk show!  And holy hell, what is that dude doing with those frogs?!?  (I loved Cristina's response when I posted that one on facebook: "Don't know if I will laugh or cry or do both at the same time!")

The video that I'm posting below is mainly just interviews with Bikram and his students.  I'm trying to figure out what year this footage is from.  It must all be late '70s or early '80s.  Kareem Abdul-Jabar started with Bikram in 1976 (according to Wikipedia!) and Juliet Prowse must have been with him a few years earlier, since she was the cover model for the red book that also came out '78.  Here's the crazy part.  Bikram's in his early 60's now, so he's gotta be in his early 30's in this videos.

He is exactly the same.

(Except for the hair.)

Ok, I'll be serious.  His hair is completely different now, and he's finally getting a couple wrinkles.  But seriously, when I listen to the way he talks and look at his face and his mannerism and his body, there's essentially no change.  It's absolutely uncanny.

He even says the same things.  I think my favorite part of this video is the bit where Bikram's in his speedo and Juliet Prowse is in this shiny black unitard and he's coaching her through a TV yoga demonstration.  She goes into padahastasana, and right away he says, "Pulling is the object of the stretching!"  Pretty much verbatim dialogue, and this must be almost 20 years before he ever wrote that thing down.  (Incidentally, anyone happen to know what year the dialogue made its first appearance at teacher training?  I believe it's relatively recent - more than 10 years ago, but not too much more.)  And then: "From the side, at the beginning everyone look like an American club sandwich.  But now she looks like a Japanese ham sandwich!" 

As I was telling my friend, you really have to give respect to a guy who believes SO strongly in what he's doing that he'll stand around in his underwear repeating the same thing, over and over, to more and more people, for 40 years or longer!  Don't you think it would get just a little bit old?  But he still teaches with energy.  I've still seen him hop down off the podium and come across the room to come help a first-time student get their arms wrapped the right way in eagle.  Wow, Bikram... who are you?!

For your viewing pleasure.  Share and enjoy!!

The rest of the uploads are here.  It's awfully orange, but be sure to check out the Ghosh TV videos when you've got 10 minutes to kill.  They are pure gold.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Days in Death Valley

Despite the obvious connection, this is not a post about swelteringly hot and torturous classes.  My classes have been sweaty and pleasant recently.  It is a post about the actual Death Valley, the national park.  You might be surprised to learn that Death Valley is also quite pleasant, at least at certain times of year.  I went last spring and the weather was perfect - 70's and sunny during the day, 40's at night, and all the wildflowers were in bloom.

I visited on a whim, with my roommate.  I woke up one day and said "I need to take a trip," and 36 hours later we were in the car heading east.  We were there for just two days and one night, and it was fabulous.  We saw the canyons, the dunes, the salt flats, the creeks, the badlands... we camped out in the middle of a valley and listened to the wind howling at night... we went on a hike with a ranger in the morning... we saw a pair of foxes... it was an amazing little get-away.  Here are a few pictures to give you an image of the place.

The valley where we camped.

Sand dunes

Golden Canyon

Salt flats

As you can see, it's an incredibly cool place!  It's been on my mind a lot this week.

I was at a kind of weird place in my yoga practice at the time of this trip - lots of questions - and visiting this park gave me unexpected clarity in a couple of ways.

First, it made me appreciate my body.  A strong, healthy body is such an incredible gift.  Death Valley attracts a cool group of visitors, because it's not as touristy and "commercialized" as some as the other parks.  People come to Death Valley because, for one reason or another, they really want to be there.  There were many return visitors, and many others who had spent years watching the Travel Channel or reading travel books and dreaming of seeing this park.  Most of the visitors were middle aged, much older than my grad school roommate and I.  And many of them were in poor physical condition.  Some were simply aging; a little slower, a little stiffer, a little more cautious.  But I particularly remember a  man who was visiting from Boston for a week with his wife.  He was overweight and walked with a cane.  He couldn't follow along with the guided tour because it took him too long to climb a few 12 inch high rock ledges.  His wife came along and chatted with us for a bit, then went down to help her husband.  She said that he would probably be able to get up and see the canyon, but they were going to have to go at a slower pace.

I felt empathy for this nice guy from my home city, but more than that, I was struck by a realization.  For a huge portion of our population, this is now the standard of living.  People's bodies aren't taken care of, they break down long before their time, and they never reach their full potential.

And this is why it matters: because we live in this world, filled with natural wonders, and your body is the vessel that carries you through it.  I felt this intense gratitude for my body that day, and I felt so much joy in my ability to scramble up rocks, hike through sand dunes, and sleep out on the plains.  And I felt that this is why we really need yoga in our lives.  Not because we want to look pretty in standing bow pose or have a cute butt in our Shakti shorts (although those things do happen along the way!)  But because yoga gives us the gift of a strong, healthy body, for life, and everyone deserves that.  We don't even have to age, at least not in the way that it usually happens.  And in these bodies of ours, we can experience the entire world.

The national parks bring out the philosophers in us all!

The other thing that I experienced was a sense of scale.  Especially in a place like Death Valley, where you can see millions of years' of history etched into the canyon walls, it's impossible not to feel that there are things much larger than yourself.  The rocks themselves appear as living things, but their lifespans are measured in millennia.  We followed a knowledgeable park ranger, a slim, quiet woman, who told us the Buddhist saying: "There is no death, there is only matter that changes form."  Like I said, everyone is a philosopher here...

I was watching a public TV special on the National Parks last week, and I was blown away by the words of one park ranger.  I don't have the precise quote, but he said something to this effect: When you visit the parks, you see that something exists that is so much bigger than yourself, and you see that it is majestic and powerful, and you see that you have a place in it.  And then you realize that, if this power (energy, chi, spirit, god, or whatever you'd like to call it) exists inside of you, then it must be inside of every other person, too.  And once you feel that understanding, once you realize that tangible connection, the way you relate to your fellow man is forever changed.

Holy cow.  This sounds like some serious Yogic philosophy to me, and it's coming from a park ranger, describing how he feels in Yellowstone National Park among the trees.

But he's absolutely right.  And I felt this, too.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The road to training - "This is not a test!"

Uh oh, here she goes, talking about herself again...

Last winter, I spent a few weeks convinced that I was ready to drop out of grad school and go to teacher training in the Fall.  This obviously did not happen, for a number of reasons.  (That session is going on right now.)  But I believed it strongly enough that I told a number of studio owners about it (or rather, I told basically all the studio owners I know), and I told my mother about it, and I didn't renew my housing contract for the fall.

But as it turned out, that one wasn't "it."

I was rather embarrassed about getting everyone all excited and then having to say, "ummm, nevermind guys, just kidding, not doing it, sorry about that..."

I decided that next time around, I would have to make sure I was securely past the "point of no return" before I went off and told the whole world that I am going to Bikram Yoga Teacher Training.

Guess what?

As they say... this is not a test.

As in: I talked to the department assistant for my graduate program about a week and a half ago and told her that I wasn't going to complete the Ph.D.  She said, "Well, do you have enough units for a Master's?"  I told her I didn't think that was possible.

As it turns out, once I finish this quarter I WILL have enough units for a Master's degree, as long as I do one extra paper for the one class I'm taking to bump it up from 3 units to 4 units.  All I have to do is finish my coursework, finish the research paper that I was already working on, and write up a 10 page thesis paper based on my existing work (which I can essentially do in an hour of cutting and pasting from my other work.)  And then I will be able to graduate.  In 5 weeks.  Well, 4 weeks and 6 days, now that it's past midnight.

Whoa.  That's it?!

In the last week I've talked to my advisor, my supervisor, the department head, the grad division, the registrar, etc, and told them that I'm going to terminate with a Master's and leave in December.  It's shocking how understanding everyone is.  They basically all said, "Hey, it's your life.  Go, be free, be happy."  There was one person - the one I've worked the most closely with - who was quite sad.  He was the hardest one to tell.  He's been so sweet to me.  But he understood completely, and quickly realized that this was a great decision for me.  He said he envied me a little.  I promised him a free yoga class this summer, and bought him a coffee and a cookie to help with his shock.  (Very Jewish of me, buying off my guilt with food!!)  The paperwork is mostly done; it should be finished by the end of this week.  Five more weeks of working my butt off, and then I am done done done with formal education.

And then, come April, I get to embark on an entirely new sort of education...

This is the real one, and it feels good.

On a regular basis, I get asked by strangers at the yoga studio whether I'm a teacher.  By "regular", I mean at least once a week, occasionally every day.  Once I walked into the lobby, and a woman signing in at the desk said, "Hey, I had a dream last night that you were my yoga teacher!"  No lie.  I didn't even know her name.  This stuff kills me.  But when I've been asked this question recently, I've stopped saying "No, I wish."  Instead I'm saying, "I'm going to the next training and I will be teaching this summer."  I love this.

Testing 1 2 3... this is not a test!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Mind to body, body to mind

The more I practice yoga and learn about the body, the more obvious it becomes to me that the mind-body connection is a two way street.

We all intuitively understand that our mental state has an effect on our body.  When you're angry, you tense up.  When you're scared, you shrink into yourself.  Your breathing changes.  But I think we tend to underestimate the magnitude of these effect.  We don't notice how gradually, over time, our mental states are imprinted onto our bodies.  I love the way Mabel Todd expresses this in the first pages of "The Thinking Body."  The first lines of the book say, "We sit and walk as we think.  Watch any man as he walks down the avenue, and you can determine his status in life."  She goes on to say:
"Living, the whole body carries its meaning and tells its own story, standing, sitting, walking, awake, or asleep.  It pulls all the life up into the face of the philosopher, and sends it all down into the legs of the dancer. ..... Behavior is rarely rational; it is habitually emotional.  We may speak wise words as the result of reasoning, but the entire being reacts to feeling.  For every thought supported by feeling, there is a muscle change... man's whole body records his emotional thinking.  The explorer and the pioneer stand up; the prisoner and the slave crouch; the saint leans forward, the overseer and the magistrate lean back.  The marshal rides, Hamlet walks, Shylock extends the hands, Carmen requires the weight on one foot, hands on hips, eyes over the shoulder. ... Personality goes into structure - by denial or affirmation into person again.  It is an aspect of life in evolution."
In essence, the human body is an open book to the trained eye.  If you're not convinced of this, just trying standing in front of one of those trained eyes for a class or two!  I've heard Emmy quoted as saying, "If you ever what to know what a person is like, take them with you to yoga class.  By the end of half moon, you'll know everything that you'll ever need to know about them."  I believe her!

What about the other direction?  Now, that's where things get REALLY interesting, because it's been well documented that this process goes in both directions.  When people clench their fists, they are more inclined to feel anger.  When they speed up their breathing, they feel inexplicably anxious.  There was a neat study done in 2000 (Davis and Palladino) where participants were asked to watch cartoons while holding a pencil in their mouth.  Half the participants were told to hold the pencil in their lips, which prevented them from smiling, and the other half held it in their teeth, which allowed them to smile.  The people who had the pencil in their lips rated the cartoons as funnier than the non-smiling group did.  This is a great little study, and it shows that this "happy smiling face" business is NOT just a throw-away joke!  Your facial expression has a real and powerful impact on your mental state.  If you've never smiled during yoga class, try it.  Relax your face.  Relax the spot between your eyebrows, move the corners of your mouth closer to your ears, and see what changes.

And that's just the face!  What happens when you improve the state of your whole body?  Well... that's what yoga does.  And that's why it works.  That's why we actually feel different after we practice for a while.  We feel unmistakably better.  Because even though we can fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, we do not exist "from the neck up."  Just as your experiences have shaped your body, now your body is impacting your day-to-day emotional experience.  No question... it works!!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Interlocking pieces

Me me me me me me!!  Ok, that's enough about me for now.  Let's talk yoga! 

I noticed something interesting last night in standing bow pose.  I've developed a problem where my kicking leg keeps on "turning out" at the height of the posture.  This ONLY happens on the right side.  It's very annoying.  I can SEE it happen, but it happens on its own.  I keep trying to just do a better kick (kick BACK more), but it doesn't always straighten it out.

Well, last night I noticed ANOTHER problem: my left shoulder wasn't coming all the way under my chin.  It was over to the left a little bit.  That meant that I wasn't stretching my left arm forward as much as I could.  So in the next set, I paid attention to stretching my arm and got it in the center right away.

BOOM: my leg stayed in the right place.

On one hand, well yes, of COURSE that would work.  If you don't coordinate coming down AND kicking AND stretching, you end up with trouble.  But it just did not occur to me that a little laziness in my left arm would be the cause of all the other problems!  I've had quite a few teachers in the last couple months tell me to fix my leg, but no one ever thought about the other parts of the posture.  The answer is not always obvious.  Sometimes the trick is to find that "keystone," and once you slip it into place, everything else automatically stabilizes.

This is just one timely example of one of my favorite aspects of the series, which is expressed neatly by the founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir: "When you try to pick out anything by itself, you find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

It's pretty amazing.  There is nothing in the yoga that really exists in isolation.  The different components of the individual postures are physiologically linked, the postures themselves work together in synergy, and then of course everything that happens in the yoga room is inextricably linked to your life.  I could list SO many examples, but here's another small technical one.  I had a little epiphany about "chin up" when I was doing the first part of awkward pose the other night.  The hardest part of that posture for me is getting the backbend in the lower spine.  It finally occurred to me that when you lift your chin a little bit, so that there's a tiny arch in your neck, it triggers the backbend in the entire spine.  I moved my chin maybe a millimeter higher and found an awesome curve in my lower back.  That was cool!  There are so many interlocking pieces in these postures.  I never get tired of them.

I laughed at myself when I wrote the opening paragraph of this post - "I'm not going to talk about me anymore, I'm going to talk about yoga!" - because it's almost impossible now to talk about one without bringing up the other.  That's when you know you're really in deep.  You can't talk about yoga without weaving in pieces of your self, and you can't tell a story of your life without yoga in it!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A person is not a car!

First things first: thanks for all the support on the big Teacher Training decision!  You guys are amazing, and it's totally lovely and flattering that I already have my own little cheering section!

Now that I've announced that I'm going to the training, I want to talk about something related to teaching.

One of my teachers recently reminded me of my one big potential weakness as a teacher.  I do not want to think of it as a weakness so much as a massive learning opportunity!  But here's the thing: I've been flexible for a long time, I've never had any serious injuries (knock on wood!!), no chronic pain, no arthritis, nothing like that.

< Pause for a quote:  "Here, wanna watch me tempt fate? 'Could this day get ANY worse?' See, I said it ironically, so I should be safe."  Major props to anyone geeky enough to identify that reference! >

Ahem.  So here's the thing: tons of my students are going to be dealing with issues that are purely theoretical to me.  I can understand it academically, I can sympathize, I can relate by analogy to my own experience, but at the end of the day, I still can't remember a time when I couldn't touch my toes.  So where does my credibility come from?  When I say, "yes, I know it's hard, but it will get better," I believe in it with all my heart, but it's from second-hand experience.  So this will be interesting for me.

A yoga teacher is essentially a human mechanic.  The job is to go in, identify the problem, and then rearrange the body in a way that fixes the problem.  In Bikram yoga, it's even simpler, because the protocol is already written.  Switching metaphors for a moment (sorry), the medicine will work even if you don't know the diagnosis yet.  So the problem of how to move the bodies is purely mechanical, purely technical, and it's something that can be studied and taught.  When a mechanic fixes your car, he doesn't need to know what it feels like to be a loose electrical connection.  He just goes in, finds the bad connection, and repairs it.  Problem solved!

Here's the only difference: a person is not a car!  (Sigh.  I guess that would make life more boring.  More simple, but way more boring.)  The auto mechanic doesn't have to worry about wire and gears and filters turning around and saying, "Hey, I can't do that!" and then doing their own thing.  He can bend and bang things back into shape without worrying about the pain and discomfort that they experience.  And he sure doesn't have to worry that the engine will get up and run away down the road while he's trying to fix it, never to be heard from again!  So while mechanical knowledge is wonderful (and essential), technical expertise alone is not going to get the job done.

I guess I will just need to keep listening, be compassionate, and be aware.  That should work.  But it's an interesting puzzle, right?  I will have a lot to learn.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Teacher Training Spring 2010

I'm actually kind of scared to post this.  Don't ask me why.  For the past couple days, I've been telling this to anyone who stands still long enough to listen!

But, yep.

You all guessed it.

I'm going!

I started figuring this out a few weeks ago, and lately a lot of things have come together fast.  This is definitely, beyond the shadow of a doubt, something that is meant to happen right now.  Just in the last few days, since AFTER I wrote that entry about pieces falling into place, a couple other big things have happened that proved I am on the right track.  I need to wait until a few things are finalized, but I have some cool stories that I'll be sharing eventually.

But I'm ready to say this much: Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Spring 2010, starting on April 18th in Vegas - or maybe starting on another date in another location - doesn't matter!  Wherever and whenever it is, I'm going to be there.  I'll be teaching classes by the beginning of the summer.

Where's the CAPS LOCK and exclamation!!!!1!!1!! marks, you ask?  Oh man, I've just used them all up.  I've gone all the way through excited and come out on the other side, and I think I need a nap.  They haven't invented a punctuation mark that comes close to conveying how I feel right now.  I don't have the vocabulary for it.  I am just SO happy right now.

Dialogue is playing on permanent loop through my head and I'm still 6 months out.  Whoa boy.  These 6 months are going to FLY past.  I just want to enjoy the anticipation!  Every morning when I wake up, I feel like I'm a kid at 6am on Christmas morning, in that moment when you still have to wait quietly because it's not QUITE time to open the presents yet...  It's a little bit like that.

More later...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A better mousetrap

Bikram always says that when you do this yoga, you do not have to chase money, money will chase you.  You don't have to chase the gods, the gods will chase you.  You don't have to chase the world, the world will chase you.

Umm... I think it's started working.

It's really cool.

This is a ridiculous analogy, but it kind of remind me of the game Mousetrap.  Did anyone else have that game as a kid?!  It's a game where you assemble this really complicated contraption with wheels, cranks, slides, springboards, buckets, all kinds of stuff.  I think there was a kicking boot involved in there somehow.  When the whole contraption is set up, you turn a crank that sends a little metal ball rolling  through all the different parts until it gets to the end and sets off the mousetrap, which catches the mouse.  (That's how you win the game.)  I hope that made sense to people who never played the game!  Will a picture help?

ANYWAY... I suddenly have the feeling that my life so far has been like the part of the game where you're just putting all these strange pieces together into a contraption that has no logical order or purpose.  And then a week or two ago, somebody started turning the crank, and now all hell has broken loose, but in a way that is predetermined and logical and perfect.

Sorry for being such a GIANT tease here.  I promise to tell the key parts of the story in a few weeks, but there are a couple things that I need to sort out first.  You can probably guess at one part of my plans, though.  (It's something that will make you guys really happy!)

In the meantime, I've got "No Such Thing" by John Mayer playing on repeat (and I was never a big John Mayer fan), and here are some lines from "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver, one of my all-time favorite poems:

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lock the Knee

We hear it almost every day.  It's spoken to million of students, in hundreds of studies, in every different language, in countries all over the globe.

But what's the big deal about "lock the knee"?

Number one, it's hard to do.  It's so hard to do, in fact, that everyone on earth is guaranteed to be unsuccessful when they start practicing it.  Standing head to knee is purely an exercise in locking the knee (the other parts are basically distractions), and it is the only "advanced" posture in the beginning series (other than savasana).  So it is first and foremost an exercise in patience and determination.  And self-control.  (Don't cheat.)  And concentration.  (Don't blink your eyes.)  And faith.  (It will happen if you keep trying the right way.)

That all sounds great.  But is that it?

There are so many interesting things that happen in standing head to knee, especially once it becomes accessible to your body.  I've found that the more physically capable I become in this posture, the more of a mental challenge it is.  That last stage, the part where you bring your head down onto your knee, really seems to give everyone a hard time, even if they have no difficulty getting their body into that same position when they're sitting on the ground.  I always have called it the "ultimate mind-fuck."  (Ahem.)  Because your mind goes crazy when you start advancing to a new stage (whether it's kicking out, elbows down, or head down). 

Lately I'm fascinated by that moment in the posture, because it tells you so much about yourself.  What I've often noticed - and I don't think that I'm alone in this - is that I experience a moment of absolute panic when I'm on the brink of success.  It reminds me of that famous quote: "Our deepest fear is not that inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."  There's this sudden, uninvited rush of doubt - "oh no, I'm not going to be able to do this" - and as soon as that happens, it's all over.

So how do you get through that moment, to find the thing that's waiting for you on the other side?  How do you overcome such an overpowering instinct?  It's shockingly simple.  You fill your mind with one thought only, the one thought that will lead to success, because it drowns out everything else.

Lock the knee.

That's it.  And you have to know - not think, but know - that it will work.  That you are ready.  That everything is in place.  You take a look in the mirror and tell yourself, okay, Self!  This is it.  Just concentrate and meditate, keep fighting for it, and don't be scared when it works

We've heard it over and over and over: the secret to success in life is just to lock the damn knee.  And you know what's funny?  I think it's actually true.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Boss" in the Media

I've been talking quite a bit about Bikram himself in the last couple days after introducing my friend Tanya to his class.  Suddenly our friends from yoga all want to know, "what is he LIKE?"  (They never asked me that... hmph!)

I always have trouble describing him because he loses so much in translation!  He says these things that make him sound like a total asshole on paper, but when you hear the same things in person, you're rolling on the floor laughing.  Tanya put it really well, actually: "It's definitely tough love, but you always feel the love part."  Yeah, he acts like a total lunatic, has a huge mouth, and makes some ill-advised business decisions.  But the thing that I was most struck by when I met him in person the first time was how affectionate he is!  All smiles and hugs and "sweetheart"s, all totally sincere.

Anyway, since I am in a Bikram-appreciation mood, here are two of my favorite interviews.

Bikram on 60 Minutes - I'm always surprised when people haven't seen this piece from 2005, because it was on the front page of the Bikram website for EVER.  I forget that not everyone is obsessive like me.  I've watched this over and over, and even though the interviewer grates a bit, Bikram totally manages to charm her and it cracks me up every time.  "Not THINK!  That's the only way it works."

This article from LA Yoga Magazine (also from 2005) is really fun too, cause the interviewer just quote him verbatim.  If you read it after watching the video, you will hear his voice SO clearly.  I love the bit where he talks about why he does this work; it resonates with me so much.  And the metaphor at the end, just classic.  "People are born as babies and they die as babies before they even know who they are.  How sad.  Every human being is a gold mine."

This guy needs some better media representation, and so does Bikram yoga in general, come to think of it.  Somebody should do something about that....