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.