Sunday, January 31, 2010

Proud Mama!

There is nothing more exciting to me than seeing new people come into class, try the yoga for a few days, and get it.  They moan and grimace through their postures, sure, but their eyes light up like fireworks after class.  I work at the desk at my studio, so I get to talk to a lot of students, and the excited newbies are the best part of the job by far.  I'm not even teaching the classes yet, and I still get a rush every time I see that little spark of yoga land in someone's chest and catch fire.  I don't know how or why it happens, and that's part of what makes it so special.  The process just works.

A friend of mine from Boston just sent me an article from a local website entitled "Hot Yoga Mama or Mouth Breather?"  She said, "I'm sure your happy smiling face contributed to her new love of yoga."  Oh wow!!  I totally know who this person is!  She's been asking me tons of questions about food and water and electrolytes while I work at the desk, and I sold her a class package last night.  YAY!  She is so hooked!  I really can't take much credit for this one, since all I've done is blab with this woman after class for 5 minutes a couple of times, but I feel like such a proud mama anyways.  "It takes a village," right?  I am definitely a contributing member of the Bikram yoga village.  That's a good way to put it.

This makes my night!

I can't imagine how I'm going to feel when I'm actually teaching the classes and people have this kind of response.  Holy crap!  This must be the best job ever!  Give me just one of those every few days - heck, even every few weeks - and I should be able to put up with all the other stuff that comes with the territory.  The crazies and the endless laundry and the long sweaty days?  No problem, as long as people keep coming in and getting it.

The article is hilarious, by the way - Nicole is a great writer - so be sure to give it a read!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Home practice, for a change

"Don't look so sad, don't look lonely!"  - Bikram, on the class CD

Today I practiced my yoga the old-school way; at home, in my bathroom, with just a little heat from the overhead heat lamp and steam from the shower.

It was just a silly chain of events that kept me from getting to the studio for a normal class.  I slept in pretty late this morning (since I was out late celebrating my birthday last night!), and I couldn't go to the noon class because of an afternoon appointment.  I had a late lunch and planned on going to the 6:30 class.  Then at 4:29pm, one of my friends texted to say that she'd gotten me tickets to Avenue Q for my birthday, tonight at 8pm.  Hooray!!  I love Avenue Q!  I saw it with the original cast on Broadway in 2004 when it had only been out for a few months, and it's remained one of my all-time favorite musicals.  So this was totally excited, but it dashed all my plans of going to 6:30 class, and it was way too late to get to the 4:30.

I pondered this situation for about 3 minutes, then decided to take action.  I turned on the heater in the bathroom (which probably brought it up to a balmy 71 degrees), put on some leggings and a fleece sweater, grabbed my mat, ran a hot shower for 5 minutes to steam the room up, and pulled up Bikram's class CD on my iTunes.  I like listening to Bikram's instructions and chatter, and using the CD meant I'd have to do a full 90 minutes, no slacking!

I had a fun little practice.  I broke a sweat (just a little), I did all my good compression and extension, I carefully created tremendous stretching sensations (though the range of the stretching was a lot smaller than usual), I got my heart rate up, and I moved my spine in all directions.  I give myself -5 for lack of heat, but +2 for motivation and +2 for creativity.  I'm counting it as a class, because my personal goal for this challenge was to do my 26 and 2 at least once every day, and I did get that done.

My roommate came in halfway through and nearly died laughing when she saw what I was doing.  I re-enacted my most creative moment for her: in full locust pose, I stuck my left arm out over the tub and opened a door to put my right arm in the cabinet under the sink.  Here is a picture.

Silliness aside, I liked "roughing it" for a day because it made me feel connected to all the awesome yogis who practice this way all the time!  The home practice, or "bathroom Bikram," has a long and proud history.  This is how a lot of people learned the series back in the day, before it became a big popular thing with studios in (nearly!) every state.  People learned from the book and practiced on their own, without much heat, with only Bikram's picture to keep them company.  Then they went to meet Bikram, took heated group classes for the first time, started teaching others, went back home, and opened up studios.

Plenty of people - hello, readers! - still practice this way, when they can't get to a studio regularly.  I'm always really impressed by anyone with a consistent home practice.  It seems like it must require a special kind of discipline, to just get up and do your yoga every day without a teacher to motivation you.  It strikes me as a very authentic way to practice, because when you're alone in your home there is really no one to impress; your practice is completely for you.  It's also a very traditional way to practice; as I understand it, the big group yoga class is a relatively modern invention.  When Bikram first had the idea of teaching yoga to many people at once, his guru told him that it would never work (though he later changed his mind).  Plenty of other traditions still suggest that you should practice your yoga on your own, and just check in with a teacher now and then for corrections and tips.

So today, I'm paying tribute to all the noble bathroom yogis around the world.  You may be the only person in the room when you practice, but you shouldn't feel too left out, because you're never really alone.  There is always someone else in the world doing exactly the same thing, listening to the same words and practicing the same postures, at the same time you are.  You are connected to the history of Bikram yoga, as well as its present and its future.  Rock on, yogis, and just try not to hit your head on the cabinet under the sink...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Demystifying Bikram's advanced series

Ballsy title, right?!  I wonder what's gotten into me.  All this yoga must be going to my brain.

I made it down to LA yesterday to take advanced class with Emmy.  It's a couple hours in each direction, so it's a bit of a hike (plus gas = $$), but I'm going to try to make this part of my weekly routine from now until April.

I figured that if I'm going to bring up this class at all, I might as well talk about the advanced series a little bit.  It seems that plenty of students don't even know that it exists, and plenty more have heard of it but don't know anything about it.  And then it becomes this big mystery, which I find slightly silly.  The class is plenty interesting on its own, without an extra aura of mystery around it.  Since I have a decent amount of information, I will try to answer a few of the questions that people always ask me.

- What's the advanced class LIKE?

Instead of 26 postures in 90 minutes, it's 84 postures in about 90-120 minutes.  Right away you'll notice, holy shit, that's a lot more postures!  Yup!  Advanced practice is very different from beginners class, and one of the biggest differences is the pace.  The pace is fast.  It's not like beginner's class, where you get to try each pose twice and hold it for up to a minute.  For most of the poses in advanced, you get one good try and then you move on.  And you don't get to take savasana after every pose, only after mini-series of poses.  For example, instead of "cobra-savasana-cobra-savasana-locust-savasana-locust-savasana..." the spine strengthening series is "cobra-locust-full-locust-bow-LONG savasana while your heart stops beating out of your chest."  That means it's not as much of a healing practice as the beginner's class; it's a practice for uninjured yogis who are interesting in opening and strengthening their bodies in new ways.

It's also a led class; the teacher does the postures instead of teaching by dialogue.

- What postures do you do?

All 26 postures from the beginning series are in the advanced series.  More accurately, all the postures in the beginning series come from the advanced series, which is the original set of postures that Bikram studied and practiced in India with Bishnu Ghosh.

So it's the 26 postures you know, plus the 58 that Bikram didn't think you (Westerners) would need in your daily practice.  These include: sun salutations (yep!), a bunch of postures in lotus position, splits, arm balances (like crow), shoulder stand, really deep backbends (like full camel, full bow, and wheel), headstands, forearm stands, and handstands.

- Can I read about it anywhere?

There's a book on the 84 traditional asanas listed on Tony Sanchez's website (84 Asanas ), and Bikram says that he's working on a book too.  (This is a pretty new development, by the way.  He used to say that he would never write a book, probably because he thought people would end up trying stuff they weren't ready for and injuring themselves at home...)

- How do you get into an advanced class?

Advanced classes are typically for teachers, plus any experienced students who are training for the yoga asana championships.  (That is how I got into the series, by the way.  I was invited to my first advanced class in September 2007 when I was training for the New England regional championships, and I've practiced it off and on ever since.)

Bikram also holds Advanced Seminars which are open to everyone, no experience necessary.  The last one was last July in Palm Springs, CA, and there's another one coming up in Barcelona in about a month.  A seminar with Bikram is a great introduction to the series.

- Why don't we have advanced at my studio?

The 84 postures are not a part of the teacher training curriculum.  There are a number of teachers who do have enough experience and ability to lead the series, but there just aren't enough of them to go around yet!!

- I bet I could do all that stuff.  Will my teachers let me practice advanced with them?

The situation totally varies from studio to studio, and it's always at the discretion of the instructor.  Some places are cool with inviting students into class, and sometimes they prefer keep it closed to teachers.  There are plenty of good reasons for the latter.  Number one, advanced isn't "safe" the way beginner's class is; you can definitely hurt yourself if you don't know what you're doing!  And that is the last thing that any yoga studio wants.  Number two, some people might be comfortable "leading" the series with people who already know it, but aren't ready to "teach" it.  (Those are two completely different things.)  And number three, sometimes they just want space to talk about "teacher stuff" without their students listening in!  (One of the advanced classes I used to go to went "teachers only" for a while because, according to my teacher, "we have to hold ourselves back when you students are around!"  My response was, "This is you when you're holding back?!"  Those guys were hilarious... )

If you're interested in learning more about the series, I don't think it ever hurts to ask your teacher a couple questions or express interest in trying it someday!!  Just, you know, don't be whiney about it!

- How do you know when you're ready to try it?

You don't.  Your teacher does.  (You can only guess.)

- What's your first class like?

It's pretty much like taking your first Bikram class all over again, but in a fun way.  Don't into your first advanced class thinking, "I hope I'm really good at this!"  That's the worst thing you can do.  That was exactly my attitude the first time I did advanced (maybe partly because my teachers bribed me into it by telling me, "You will be really good at this!") and I was NOT a happy camper.  Because I SUCKED at it!  I could not do any of the postures at all.  But... now I can.  It really just gives you the opportunity to be a total beginner again.  "I felt like a beginner again!!!" is an almost universal response.  It teaches you humility and it opens up your world.  It's probably a good thing to do right out of teacher training, because it will help you really identify with your beginning students!

- Well, that sounds great.  Now I'm bummed that I don't get to do advanced.  Am I missing out??

Not really!!  The series of 26 and 2 is really all your body needs.  I can't emphasize this enough.  For example, you do NOT!!!! need to practice full camel to get deeper into your backbends.  I develop my backbend by doing regular camel, in class, two sets, every day.  I still think that the regular camel is more challenging, because it requires more technique and finesse.  Full camel is less technique, more flexibility - you just go as far as you can.  Doing full camel is diagnostic for me - if I can get farther into the posture than I did last month, then I know I've been doing something right in my regular classes.  I'm not gonna lie... the advanced class is really a lot of fun... but it's a bonus.  Icing on the cake.

And that's all she wrote, folks.  Did I miss anything?  Are there any more questions that are burning?  Is anyone going to come to my house and try to hit me with a shovel?  (I hope not.  I've tried to be accurate!)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Looking in the MIRRRur

Today I took on a little task that I've wanted to do for ages.  I sat down and made a recording of myself reading the dialogue.  (I got as far as the floor series before I had to take off; will finish tonight.)  I want to have a recording of myself delivering it verbatim, so that I can play it in the car and basically "sing along" to myself - get it rolling off my tongue like second nature, so I don't even have to think about it.  I've done pretty well at learning the words off the page, so now I want to get used to saying them!

The obvious side-effect of this exercise is that I have to actually listen to a recording of my own voice!  AUGH!  It sounds so weird!!  This is true for almost everybody, right?  You hear a recording of yourself on a voicemail and go, "Whoa, my voice sounds like that?!"  Well, now I'll have to start getting used to it.  I played some of it back, and started really noticing how I pronounce different words.  Like "mirror."  Oh man, that word is in the dialogue about 4 billion times (1 Sagan), and now that I'm paying attention, I don't even know how to say it anymore!  I really do not en-nun-ci-ate on that word.  When I'm talking fast, it practically turns into one syllable: "Look in the MIRRR." Or else it's just a little dying fall at the end of the word: "Look in the MIRRRur."  Now that I think about it, I doubt I've ever actually said "MIRR-OR" in my life.  (Should I start now?!)

Yes, this is the kind of thing that occupies my mind these days.  Yes, my life is pretty easy.  I know.

But I do have another observation to make here...

I've been noticing lately how many new people have an incredibly hard time just looking at themselves in the mirror.  (OR in the MIRRR.)  Their eyes dart around the room to land on anything except their own reflection.  And today it occurred to me that for many people, watching your body while you move it must feel just as foreign as listening to your voice while you say something.  I never had this problem because I came from years of ballet training, so I was used to studying my own movements in the mirror for hours on end.  I never quite realized just how weird it must be to observe yourself doing something - standing, sitting, speaking - that you normally do without self-observation.

I guess that looking at yourself - like listening to yourself - must be something that always feels bizarre the first time.  And then over time it become natural, because your brain starts to build connections.  "Aha!" it says.  "If I want to put my body in that shape, I just have to move myself this way.  If I want to make a word sound a certain way, I have to do this with my lips and breath."  In other words, the mechanisms of cause and effect slowly become transparent.  Instead of acting mindlessly, guided only by habit, you start to understand the technique.  And once you have techniques, you can apply them to create a very precise outcome.  You can direct every part of your body, down to your fingertips and toes, down to the motion of your lungs.  You can modulate your voice, its pitch and dynamic and inflection.  And it all starts with observation.  Looking in the mirror.  Listening to yourself, as you say, "Look in the mirror."

And this process is always so weird at first!  But it seems to work...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Freaking awesome!"

Today was a nice rainy and stormy day, and I spent most of it at the yoga studio.  Practice, meeting, desk work, sign-in, practice, more desk work... good times.  I did my second practice at 4:30pm, which was a pretty small class, probably due to the rain.  People in southern California just do not seem to know how to handle real weather!  (The 6:30pm was huge, though.)  There was just one first-timer in the class, a nice average-looking guy in his early 30's or so.  I signed him up before class, and when I asked if he needed a mat or towel or anything, he held up his gear and said, "nope, I called yesterday and found out about everything I had to bring!"  He was so ready to go.

So we start class, and everything is swimmingly along nicely, business as usual.  I wasn't really watching the new guy, but he seemed to be going right along with everything, working pretty seriously and doing a good job.  When we got to "party time" after eagle, the teacher addressed the new guy by name, and asked him how he was doing.  Most people respond to this question with maybe a grunt or a thumbs-up at this point.  But he looked up with a sudden smile and said:

"This is freaking awesome!!"

It absolutely made my day.  My friend who was teaching the class said that it made her year.  I don't think I've ever seen someone express that kind of enthusiasm after their first 30 minutes of Bikram.

Then I thought about it, and remembered, yeah, the first 30 minutes are freaking awesome!  You get to do this crazy breathing exercise that opens your lungs and works them like they've never been worked before.  In the first posture, you get to flex your spine in every direction.  Then you get to work all the big muscles in your legs while working on your balance, and then you get to open up every major joint in your body while standing on one leg.  And you're hot, you're sweating, and your heart and lungs are working like crazy.  Your whole body is awake.  Yeah!!  What a brilliant thing to do!!

Newbie was still just as excited when he finished the class, and I'm pretty sure we'll see him again within the next 24 hours.  There's nothing better than seeing someone get hooked and knowing that all kinds of great things that are about to happen to them.  "Freaking awesome."  I'm still smiling.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Salt Water and Fresh Air

I cut one of the last threads to my "old life" today when I went back to my school to clean out my desk and turn in all my things.  I meant to do this weeks ago, but I... put it off.  Sometimes I have trouble with endings, even when they're good, and this is a pretty big one.  So long, old life!  No more grad school, no more lucrative and respectable engineering career.  I'm a free agent, now.  Traveling yogi, soon enough.  It feels radical and right.

After, I walked down to the beach.  Today was a beautiful day.  We were supposed to have pouring rain all week here, but by mid-morning the rain had stopped and the sun had come out.  The waves were higher than usual, and the wind was cool and salty.  There was seaweed all over the parking lot that had blown up during the storm.  The ocean was big and wild.  I liked it.

I tasted the air and felt like I was ready to really move forward.

I heard a saying once.  "The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea."  My usual medicine is sweat, but sometimes the sea can also give you what you need.  (So can tears.  Months ago, I sat in my car at 6am at that same beach and cried, and then when I was done, I knew exactly what I needed to do next.)

Duffy gave a beautiful quote today, from Rolf Gates:  "Letting go is the opposite of fearing death; it is trusting life.  When we let go of something, our hand opens and we are able to receive."  I read that, and wondered who had let him into my head.  When we let go of something, our hand opens.... Yes.  Letting go means opening a window and letting the old clutter rush out, to be replaced by fresh air.  Then you can breathe.

Move on.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

360 Degree Angle Stretching

So I was thinking about the dialogue today.  (Like, what else is new?)  One of these days, I will write the list of all the reasons I like it, and I will describe what it actually means (in my opinion!) to teach a really good dialogue-based class.

For the moment, I have just a little observation.  I think that ultimately, the key to really teaching with the dialogue - as opposed to simply reciting the dialogue - is to understand the meaning and intent behind every line, enough so that you can convey it clearly to another person.  As a teacher, if you have "perfect" dialogue but have no clue what it means, then you won't be convincing in your delivery and you won't be able to address any individual situations that arise.  And if you've memorized the dialogue but don't appreciate why certain parts are significant, then you'll probably just drop those parts out entirely - which is too bad!

ANYWAY... (sheepishly sneaking back down off soapbox...) I was thinking about "360 degree angle stretching" today.  That is the phrase that is used in hands-to-feet pose and standing separate leg stretching pose.  (It's also what you're eventually doing in the final stretching pose.)  There is also "360 degree backward bending" in camel, which some people (no names...) are always complaining about.  (Heehee.)  I was wondering how many people "get" what this means and how many people think it is nonsense.  It always kinda made sense to me... but that might be because I can do it.  SO... I decided to attempt an illustration!!  Here is hands-to-feet pose and camel pose (click on the picture for a much larger view):

"Eventually the whole body is stretching, 360 degree angle, inside out, from bones to the skin, coccyx to the toes, coccyx to the forehead..." 

No nit-picking on my drawing skills, please!  I think the arms keep changing length, and hair would just have confused me.  Anyway, the purple bits show the part that is stretching.  I put "360 degrees" in quotes for the backbend because most people's heads do not come all the way around to touch their butt when they do regular camel.  (Full camel - I mean the TRUE full camel - actually is a complete circle, with the head coming through between the knees.  The "full camel" that you usually see people like me do is just stage one out of three or four.)

Anyone else find this cool??

Thursday, January 14, 2010

News flash: It's HOT in there!!

I'm just gonna say something for the record here.

I say this as someone who has practiced off and on for the last 5 years, mostly "on" since 2007.  As someone who laughs in the face of 100+ day challenges, because I've lost track of how many challenges I've done.  As someone who has, repeatedly, taken classes led by Bikram, in really hot rooms, with upwards of 300 bodies in attendance.  As someone who does back-to-back classes with a devil-may-care casual attitude, views this behavior as perfectly normal, and occasionally says, "sure, why not a third one?"  With all that said...

Did you guys know that these yoga rooms get REALLY FREAKING HOT?!?!?

I want to say this for posterity here, because more often than not I am that girl.  You know who I mean.  The girl who wanders out into the hallway after class, feeling lovely and refreshed, and asks in total innocence, "Wait, really?  It was hot today?" as all the other students and instructors lie around gasping and trying to regain control of their various bodily functions.  I've gotten some nice death glares in my time.  When the teachers who I considered to be crazy heat freaks started accusing me of being insane, I knew I'd really been doing this stuff for a while.  It just kinda comes with the territory, right?  You practice a lot, and your body acclimates.  The room gets comfortable.  Pleasantly warm.  It feels great to sweat.  You're not even thirsty.  If the door opens you think, "hm, I'm not too crazy about that draft," but you don't get upset about it either way.  There's no problem.

Some of the time.

And then... it kicks your ASS.

Our little studio was pretty near capacity this evening - maybe 45 people?  That's a whole extra row.  (An average evening class in December had maybe 25-30 students, and only two rows.)  I was practicing in the last row, just for a change of scenery, which put me pretty close to the back door, so I figured I was in for a nice juicy practice, with a nice cool draft coming in periodically to keep things under control.  Standing series went great.  Hot and great.  Then, for some reason, when we got to the floor... it just felt HOT.  Hot, hot, hot.  Or rather, humid, which we all know makes it feel a lot hotter.

And at this point, I know that it's okay, it's not going to hurt me and there's nothing I can do about it anyway.  But also: HOT!  So I had this fantastic internal dialogue going back and forth between the calm, collected yogic side of me and the pissed off, uncomfortable, my-face-is-burning-off side of me.  (Warning - I like to cuss.  I read an article that said cursing makes things hurt less, so you should just let it rip.)  So things in my head went a little bit like this:


ok, sweetie, that's fine.  that's how it's supposed to be.  don't worry about it, just let it out.  this is good practice.  what do you feel right now?


ok, go ahead, that's fine, just say what you need to say and then we'll be done with it and move on


yup, that's fine.  this teacher is our friend, remember?  she is awesome.  she is doing a great job, this is a really good class tonight, great energy, i love this.


yup, hey look!  we're in savasana!  this is a nice chance to relax and be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  breathe in cool, breathe out hot.  all that oxygen coming into our body is so nice and refreshing!


oooh, here comes half tortoise, this is such a nice posture for getting some relaxation and lowering the heart rate and cooling things down.  this will be nice.


And sometimes... that's just how it goes.  I was calm and collected on the outside, laughing and bitching on the inside.  The whole thing was hilarious to me.  Just gotta go with it!  It really was a good class.  But just remember - none of us is immune.  Sometimes I love this yoga because it feels so good in my body.  Other times, I love it because it kicks.  My.  Ass.  And then it feels good when it's done!  Actually, I remember hearing a fantastic comment about Bikram yoga once: it teaches you the joy of instant gratification, because you feel SO much better the instant the class (or posture) is over!!  It's just a new adventure every time...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Time sure flies. Sweat does, too!

I do not have a thesis tonight... just a couple of tidbits from my life.  :-)

First of all, I keep on having a tiny heart attack every time I look at a calendar.  It was October when I decided that I was definitely going to go to the teacher training session in April.  At that time, training was SIX months away, which seemed like a nice, manageable chunk of time.  Now it is January, and training is THREE months away.  And the last three months went by really quickly, so I have every reason to believe that the next three months will do the same.  Holy crap!!  What's going on around here?!  I gotta organize my life!!!

I love getting all these comment from teachers about how to get ready from training.  Everyone tells me, "learn some of the dialogue before you go, if you can!"  You guys are sooooo sweet.  Also, you have never been stuck in a car with me.  When Mei and I went on our little trip last month, she had to listen to my dialogue up through triangle - which I got almost verbatim, except for that stupid balancing stick - before we stopped for gas and got distracted.  To be honest, that's about as far as I can get right now.  But I'm pretty solid that far, and I plan on knowing the whole thing in my sleep by the end of February.  This is pretty easy, because I come from awesome dialogue studios, and I also was born with a freakish memory.  I don't know why.  I've been accused of having a "photographic memory" many times in my life.  That's not precisely how it works for me.  It's more like a tape recorder.  But I digress.  If you want to help me study, which I absolutely love, start asking me tricky questions, like "how many times, and in which postures, does the dialogue tell you to look at the floor?"  (I got that one from a friend yesterday and thought it was a great question.  I got it right, too!!)  I haven't fully studied all of it yet, but the whole dialogue is fair game.  (One of my friends today just said, "Triangle... second side."  What a jerk.  I love her.  "Quick, right arm stretch up, you're going to touch the ceiling pretty soon!  .... that's all I got.")

Second of all, I did another back-to-back double tonight and enjoyed the heck out of it.  Our studio was humid today, enough that after the 4:30pm class, my studio owner asked me, "Will you really be hydrated enough to do another class?"  Happily, the answer was yes.  (I had some Zico and some little tangerines in between.)  The 6:30pm class was a trip, but I got it all done without missing any postures.  Though in the interest of full disclosure, some of my postures were kinda short.  Eighth set of standing bow for the evening, I did a nice 15 seconds or so and was like, "Ok thanks, I'm good."

I was just impressed, as ever, with the sheer quantity of sweat that my body can produce when I do more than one class!  Every time I do two in a row, I find that my body is just primed to sweat in that second class and skips the warm-up period altogther.  By the second or third breath of pranayama, I was literally watching the sweat drip down from my elbows onto the carpet during the inhales.  Good grief.  The whole class was like that.  I really don't know where all that water comes from!  But it felt good up until the very end, at which point I was telling myself, "Ok, two more postures... one and a half more postures... one more posture...." 

I kept getting sweat stuck in my ear, which made the teacher's voice sound strange.  Between the humidity, the sweat, and the impaired hearing, I felt like I was underwater for a while!  Back when I practiced in the humid Boston summer classes every day, I remember having the crazy feeling that if I kept this practice up, my lungs would be able to operate underwater pretty soon.  Tonight, my lungs were doing a pretty good job of that task.  They also felt... huge.  What a weird sensation, to feel that your lungs are bigger than they were three hours ago!  It felt like breathing was a lot of work, not because I was out of breath, but because I had so much space in my body that I needed to take in more and more air to fill it up.  After class, my teacher said that I'd had a really nice "yoga glow" going on the whole time.  Must've been all that oxygen.  And sweat.  And prana, I suppose!  I'm not an expert at the terminology, but I know a good yoga glow when I see one, and it's not just made of hydrogen and oxygen!

And that's all she wrote, folks!  Hope you all have been enjoying your classes as much as I have.  If not, cheer up!  Last week I wasn't enjoying my classes at all, and now I'm starting to feel great.  We just cycle around and around...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

On Preferences

Wow, I think I've painted myself into a corner.  After writing about death, fear, and faith in my last piece, what can I possibly say to follow up?!  Let's just move along...

I'm really enjoying my return to daily practice.  Today marked day nine of the 101 day Bikram yoga challenge, and I did my first "double" of the year this morning, taking the 8am and 10am classes back-to-back.  Felt great!  Since I'm heading to teacher training in a few months, and my semi-unemployed status leaves me with plenty of time to kill, I think I will be doing a lot of doubles in January and February.  It should get my body better prepared for the training (where we do 11 classes every week), and I actually enjoy doing ridiculous amounts of yoga.  Disclaimer: I'm a little bit of a freak.  You don't necessarily want to try this at home.

My second class today was interesting, because my body was super flexible right from the start.  This might sound terrific, especially for a 10am class, but I could tell right away that it was going to make the postures tricky.  Extra bendy + little bit tired = body parts flopping all over the place!  In that first half moon side bend, my whole upper body just went flop down to the side, and then I was belatedly trying to line everything back up with my body bent over at 90 degrees to the side.  Oops.  Being all loose and limber meant that I really had to work to keep good form!  I kept imagining the voice of one of my teachers telling me, "Use your muscles!"

It's funny how many of the goals we like to set for ourselves are based on depth: straighten the leg, see the wall, touch the floor.  Because in my experience, being very flexible does not make your life any easier in class!  I was recently talking with a friend about early morning Bikram classes, and she was saying that she just hates practicing in the morning because she is more stiff, so her classes are "bad."  But I don't believe that being a little bit stiffer makes your practice bad; it just makes it different.  You get to focus on so many other things, like strength, alignment, and technique!  All of these aspects are just as valuable as flexibility. 

Earlier this week, I was re-reading a passage in my favorite book that talked about the "harassment of preferences."  You know what I mean by preferences, don't you?  We decide that we love one posture, but hate another one.  We prefer a certain teacher, a certain class time, a certain temperature in the room.  We love being flexible at night but hate being stiff in the morning.  We love balancing but hate falling.  And we get so freaking attached to these preferences!  I've convinced myself of all kinds of ridiculous things.  For almost my whole yoga career, I have loved the second side of standing bow but hated the first side.  What is that all about?!  It certainly doesn't help me at all.  It's a silly example, but a true one.

The catch is that none of these preferences really serve us.  When we think, "I only like this," "I really hate that," it just creates discontent.

According to my little book, one of our goals in practice is to move away from those preferences and bring some kind of equilibrium.  Instead of going through class thinking, "this part rules!" and "this part sucks!", you eventually want to remain level.  Whether you're flexible or stiff, a virtuoso or a beginner, your emotions shouldn't be affected.  Instead constantly telling yourself "this posture is my worst one" or "this posture is so easy," you can just tell yourself "this posture is."  And then do the posture!

Simple in theory, more difficult in practice.  But like always, a lot of benefit comes from trying...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"don't be scared."

"Backward bending, everybody together.
Your back is going to hurt like hell, don't be scared."
- Dialogue for Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class. Verbatim.
"Don't be scared" is a good instruction.  Because there's no doubt that backbends are really scary at first.  Fear is what really restricts people's backbends in the beginning, much more so than inflexibility.  But why are backbends scary?

They're uncomfortable at first, that's for sure.  They're also unfamiliar - many people have never experienced the particular sensation of backward bending.  They're exposed - the whole front of your body is open and vulnerable, especially your pelvis, your chest (heart), and your neck.  And they're disorienting.  Especially in the beginning.  If you're like most people, you're stuck in a limbo somewhere looking at the wall or ceiling.  You can't see in front of you.  You can't see behind you, not yet.  You feel like you're going to fall and you have no idea what's going on!

The technique of the posture makes it nearly impossible to actually fall backwards.  But in the beginning, you don't know that you have a safety net.  Whatever's back there, it's an unknown quantity.  Someone is telling you, "Go back, way back, more back," and you're probably thinking, "Are you kidding?!  I am NOT doing that.  Can't do it.  Something bad would happen.  I don't know what's back there." 

Amazing, the day when you stop being scared, take faith, and just go back.  That's when you cross the border between what you thought you could do and what you can do.  It's great on the other side.  And that's when you realize: those teachers were right all along.  And it's okay.  They were never going to let you fall. 

Many of you heard by now that one of Bikram's senior teachers passed away last week.  Maybe it means something to you, maybe it doesn't.  I wrote about it last night here: Dedicated to Ren.  I was freaked out.  Sad.  Scared.  This just didn't seem right, that a youthful and vibrant yogi should suddenly be dead.

Death must be the ultimate unknown.  There's something back there, but we don't really know what it is.  We try really hard to figure it out.  We interrogate the people who have been nearly dead or dead for a few minutes.  We build religions.  We even try to create order and make rules: if you do this when you're alive, then this will happen when you die, and if you do that, then something else will happen.  But really, I guess the only way to know what happens after death is to experience it.  And once you've gone over that edge, you don't get to send any postcards back home.

But here's the thing.  When someone told me, "now he is everywhere at once," I knew that she was telling me the truth.  It actually felt true.  I'm not sure if that's what you would call "faith."  But maybe, maybe, just maybe... this whole "death" thing is just another instance of "don't be scared."  Maybe, when it's the right time, you just lean backwards into the unknown, and you are caught, cradled, and cared for.  Or you dissolve into stardust and light, and you go everywhere.  You disperse into your separate parts.  You remain.

Maybe that's not so scary...

Monday, January 4, 2010

Your Own Worst Enemy

"Juliana, in pirouettes you are your own worst enemy to yourself!!" ~ Awesome Russian ballet teacher to me, many years ago
Here's a fun observation on my own practice.

Yesterday morning I was super tired and uninspired in class.  I just couldn't wake myself up and wasn't really "feeling it."  (You know, with these challenges... sometimes you start strong, and sometime you start slooooow!)  I fell out of the first set of standing head to knee QUITE a few times, which is pretty much unheard of for me, and didn't even have the energy to care.  One of those classes where you do every posture, but you're mentally dragging yourself by your fingernails every time.

Usually when I feel this way it's a sign that I'm getting sick, and sure enough, I felt even crappier for the rest of the afternoon and woke up feeling like uuuuuuuuuuggggggggh.  So naturally, my aspirations for my morning practice today were low.  I went into the corner of the room and totally gave myself permission to just take a "hot nap" the entire time.

Whaddaya know - I ended up having a totally decent class!

The most interesting part of the class was the balancing series.  I had just taken everything slowly during the warm-up, being very precise, working veeeery gradually into full depth, and not thinking about anything.  Our newest teacher was leading the class, and since she is fresh from training I think she has the best dialogue at the studio right now, so I just listened to her.  My brain was off.  Too tired to bother.  And guess what?  Standing head to knee was totally successful.  No falling whatsoever in the first set, and in the second set I got my head on my knee, held it for a good long time, and somehow came out exactly the reverse of the way I went in (which is something that I still tend to fudge even on my "good" days, though I'm getting better).  And standing bow pulling, which has been SUCH a love-hate-but-mostly-hate posture for me recently, was totally fine.  I've been in this phase where I get stressed out about this posture (there are reasons, but it's a long story), and it just makes things 100 times worse.  Today I just did the freaking posture, no drama whatsoever, et voila.  Not a problem.

I liked this.  It was a new way of proving an old idea: when you get your own mind out of the way, the yoga just does its work.  If you start thinking too much, you become "your own worst enemy to yourself."  (I love that redundant turn of phrase.)  Borrowing Bikram's terminology, I could rephrase that and say that "your self is the worst enemy to your Self."  Some days, you have to become a body without a brain.

Of course this only truly works if the teacher sticks to the dialogue without adding too many additions, subtractions, and incorrect "corrections"... but that is a messy topic for another day!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Here we go!

"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." - Attributed to Goethe
For once, I am genuinely excited about the new year.  Mainly for selfish reasons.  I think this might just be the best year ever.

I'm "checking out" from grad school on Monday, and I suppose I will get a diploma in the mail at some point, or something.  I can put an M.S. behind my name if I want to.  And then I am free, to do whatever I can dream up... and I have some pretty big plans, just wait!

I'm finally, finally going to teacher training in April, come hell or high water!  I'm getting more excited about this every day (as if I weren't excited enough), because certain beloved teachers of mine are talking about being more involved in this next training and spending more time with us... I'm not gonna start any rumors, but my fingers are crossed...

And of course, the 101 day Bikram challenge launched today!  I dragged my slightly hung-over self into the 4:30pm class and did a respectable job at getting the postures done, all things considered.  I got a couple really good (and crucial) corrections in triangle last month, and now I feel like I'm doing the pose for the first time.  (So THAT'S why everyone says it is a hip opener!  Aha!!)  We're seeing a huge influx of newbies at my studio already; half of the back row had never done Bikram before.  I love having the newbies around!

Anyway, this here is kind of a placeholder blog entry, because I already did my "serious" writing for today at the Bikram 101 blog.  I will be writing there on Tuesdays and Fridays from now until April 11th.  (We are being all organized.  We'll see how long that lasts.)  Today's entry is here: DAY ONE: Just "kill your self."  Enjoy!

And of course... HAPPY NEW YEAR!!