Sunday, November 28, 2010

"Welcome to your new life, Terry Two."

If you don't know the source of that quote instantly - off the top of your head, without pausing to think about it - you should probably go out, pick up a copy of Bikram's blue book (i.e. this one), and read it.  Cover to cover.  If you have it on your shelf gathering dust, pick it up and crack it open.

I've had a copy of the book since 2007 (and it actually lived on my bedside table for a year), but I'm telling you, every time I read it I still find something new.

I picked up the studio copy of the blue book and re-read the first 50 pages over my lunch break a couple days ago. And it turns out that reading it as teacher is a totally different story, because I am even more amazed at how complete it is.  Please forgive me for stepping onto my soapbox here, but this is really good stuff.  All the concepts that I'm always trying to explain to my students, over and over again?  It's all in there.  In like, the introduction.  In the first 6 pages. 

For example, here's a paragraph from the 2nd page:

"This Hatha Yoga is for everyone and every body.  It doesn't matter how well you do each posture, only that you try the right way.  Even if you can only do part of the posture, you will recieve one hundred percent of the benefit medically if you try the right way.  I explain this by giving you step-by-step instructions for each posture." 

The book also show the crazy, fun, and gentle side of Bikram that you don't get to see so much in the media.  He's really kind to his new students, no weird aggressive drill-sargent stuff whatsoever.  He tells his newbie student:

"All beginning students are scared, and it is the biggest obstacle you must overcome to make progress.  Don't fright, don't scare, I will take care of you.  Okay?  You do just as much as you can honestly do the first day.  You don't have to be a hero.  The best you can do is all that I ask.  That is perfection in Yoga, the best you can honestly do on any particular day."

Now that is a nice little opening speech!  Much better than the lecture filled with rules that you often hear: "stay on your mat, don't fidget, don't drink you water until after the 3rd pose, only drink in between sets, don't move when people are balancing, don't leave the room..."  None of that!  Just "do your best, don't be scared."

The book is also very funny, especially when it's describing what the postures feel like to beginning students, the "ideal" versus the "reality."  After explaining how the postures SHOULD be done, the book also explains what will probably happen on the first try.  For example, here's what it says about pranayama:

"After a couple of inhalations and exhalations, you'll swear your arms had been poured full of lead.  You'll begin to cheat by cocking the wrists and flapping your arms like waterwings.  Soon even your hands will grow heavy... By then your toes will have crept apart, your knees will have bent (not necessarily both in the same direction), and as you try to correct those problems you'll forget if your chin was supposed to be going down while the arms were going up and whether you were inhaling or exhaling and why.  You will understand the meaning of eternity at last, for surely you've done many more than ten cycles, and yet the class just keeps going on and on."

Now that is spot on.  Don't you remember your first class?  That is definitely what I felt like when I first started!  But then the book also gives a very lucid explanation of what it means to breathe through your throat, and I've gotta say, there are students who have practiced for YEARS who still don't know how to do this properly.  But it's right there, on page 7, in black and white.  This book is like a free posture clinic; it can answer your questions about your practice that you didn't even know you had!

One of my teacher friends made a comment about the "reality" section a few days ago, saying "teachers should know that shit inside and out," and I really couldn't agree more.  (I am still working on this, by the way.)  It's basically the text version of Bikram's week 9 lectures at teacher training, where he goes through the postures and discusses them in the context of a very new and struggling student.  I think it's so important for us to remember what our students are going through, so that we can address them with compassion and understanding instead of just thinking, "Dang, what's wrong with that guy?!"

My favorite new discovery this week was a very simple little sentence hidden in the middle of page 43.  In the middle of the paragraph, there's this one short line: "With Yoga you add to yourself, and thus to the world."  That's a big deal.  Think about it...

Now I'm gonna hop back off my soapbox - thank you for your indulgence - and go stretch my poor body, which is feeling awfully creaky today.  My last request is that you go and read something written by Bikram, instead of just written by me, because an awful lot of the stuff that I talk about is really from him.  And then let me know about your favorite parts... cause you'll probably find something that I have missed...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"A" Apple, "B" a Bat, "C" a Cat

A couple days ago, my studio owner and I had Jim Henson on the brain.  (One of our mutual friends posted a note about him on Facebook, and we are both slightly compulsive Facebook stalkers.)  In case you live in another country (or under a rock) and you are not familiar with Jim Henson, he was the guy behind The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal (which I still need to see!) and all kinds of other brilliant stuff.

We had fun with our Jim Henson theme.  When she was teaching standing separate leg head to knee pose in the morning class, my studio owner S was like, "Turn your hips 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 times... I sound like The Count!"  ("Vun, two, three...")  I carried this thought into my evening class, and in between sets of balancing stick I told my class: "You know, this is really like Sesame Street yoga if you think about it.  Make the letter 'H'!  Make an 'L' as in Linda!  Make a 'T' as in Tom!  This posture is brought to you by the letter T!!"  That actually got everyone laughing, and for second set my dialogue went something like: "Your-body-should-look-like-a-T-as-in-Tom-THIS-POSTURE-IS-BROUGHT-TO-YOU-BY-THE-LETTER-T-body-down-leg-up-chest-down-leg-up-stretch-and-stretch-stretch-stretch!"

I rarely improvise with my dialogue, but this was a great hit...

But in a certain sense, in all seriousness, this is totally Sesame Street yoga.  That's one of the things that I love about the instructions.  Bikram takes a truly challenging subject - classical yoga asana practice - and breaks it down so that anyone can understand it.  You can take any average idiot off the street and say the dialogue to them, and they will do a pretty respectable approximation of good yoga asana on their first try!  No joke.  We've been getting a huge influx of beginners at my studio - I taught a class a week or two ago with 40+ people and 17 first time students - and it's taught me one thing: the dialogue fricking works.  We get people from all walks of life - it's not like I'm teaching rooms full of professional athletes or rocket scientists here - and pretty much everyone can pick this stuff up.

Bikram definitely teaches this way on purpose.  At training, he always told us, "No one else can make it so easy!  So simple, just like 'A' apple, 'B' a bat, 'C' a cat, 'D' a dog, 'F' a father."  (He always skipped the letter 'E', and he never used his favorite 'F' word, even though we all thought we knew what was coming...)  When we studied together, my roommate would always say, "I looove how Bikram breaks it down Sesame Street style!"  So simple.

And why do we make it so simple?  Well, that's the point.  The yoga is meant to be accessible to everybody.  It's actually easier to teach a class for advanced students full of jargon and Sanskrit and technical language.  But that's a form of discrimination; if you teach that way, you discriminate against the raw beginners and the people with no yoga background.  Bikram also told us that he intended for the dialogue to be a universal language: "No discrimination."  That's a big deal!

On that note, I've gotta go put together a 7-layer dip for a yoga party.  Our studio finished an awesome 60-day challenge today (which I should talk more about later), and we are having a potluck tonight after class to celebrate.  Hooray, I'm so hungry.  More later!

Edited to add:  Just for fun, here is one of my favorite old Sesame Street videos.  So many great moments in this one.  "Dum, dum, dum, cha cha cha."  "Me just, uh, sauntering by..."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pointing at the Moon (I Have Rediscovered "Zen")

Okay, so I'm still kind of wrapped up in this little Zen quote book that I picked up at the used book store last week.  I'm not actually reading it straight through - that's not really what you do with a quote book, right? - but I'm picking up bits and pieces that are really resonating with me right now.

I was tossing ideas around in my head for a few days before I got around to reading this little definition on the first page of the book:

"Zen is a Japanese translation of a Chinese translation (ch'an) of the Sanskrit word (dhyana) for meditation."

Oooooooooooh.  Okay.

This makes great sense to me, because all this meditation business comes back to the same damn thing!  I've gotten used to talking about meditation in the context of yoga and Sanskrit (though I could never quite keep track of all those foreign words that Bikram would tell us in the middle of the night).  At the same time, I had a vague idea of what "Zen" meant that was floating around in the back of my head, but I hadn't give it any thought in a long time.

But language is just language, and all these words are pointing back to the same thing.  "All talk, as the Chinese masters of old say, is at best a finger pointing to the moon.  The finger is not the moon and cannot pull the moon down."  So that's all that we're really doing when we talk about "Zen", "meditation", "dhyana," or even "yoga"; we're just pointing fingers at the moon.

Of course, here I still am, writing more words.  But pointing is still fun and helpful.  "Look over there!  Look!  It's behind that tree!  Can you see it?"

I've caught a common thread, in my yoga and in all this "Zen" stuff, that talks about meditation through action.  Everyone's heard of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," right?  "Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine. (Shunryu Suzuki)"  That's your basic Zen, right there.  You simply meditate by immersing yourself on whatever task is at hand, so that your ego disappears, your self disappears, and you are pure concentration.  Bikram says exactly the same thing.  People ask him when he meditates, and he says "I meditate while I'm waxing my cars.  I meditate when I'm teaching yoga, when I'm shopping, watching old Hindi movies, driving, dancing, singing, talking, eating and spending time with my kids. (Orange book, pg 78.)"  Same, same.

A lot of people have this mistaken idea about meditation, that it involves being very still and thinking about absolutely nothing.  Well, I guess that's one kind of meditation, but it's certainly not the only kind! In the kind that I understand, you're not thinking about nothing.  You're thinking about something, with such focus that everything else falls away.  You don't necessarily need training to do this.  You do it naturally when you're totally concentrated on a task or physical activity.  You might get this feeling when you're running, playing sports, working on a math problem, writing, or dancing.

In other words, "The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something. (Koun Yamada)"

A lot of people get this feeling at yoga class, which is really what we're going for in there.  We give you so much to concentrate on, so many instructions to follow, that you cannot think about anything else.  It takes such tremendous focus to stand on a locked knee for 60 seconds that everything else falls away, you forget your job, your problems, your life, everything!  And that is your meditation.  When five, ten, or even 90 minutes go by where you don't think of anything else - you just listen to the words and move your body - that is meditation, that is yoga, and that is Zen.  We can't just tell you, "Okay, start meditating!" - that doesn't really work on you guys - but we can keep so busy with all those instructions that you end up meditating without even realizing it.

And my Zen?  These days, I practice, I teach, I practice, I teach.  I work with my body, I walk the neighbor's dogs, I go to the store, I eat good food, I write, and I teach.  I like browsing the antique stores before going back to teach a class.  I like the feeling of the cool Fall air and the sight of the colored leaves.  I like spending time with other wonderful yoga teachers and students, and I like spending time with the brand new students and welcoming them in.  It feels great.  I am having so much fun.  It's supposed to be fun!!  I'm pretty certain about that.  And right now, it really, truly is.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Bikram yoga.  It is repetitive.

Everyone knows this.  If you've done it more than once, you know that the class is the same, the postures are the same, the heat is the same, the words are the same, it's the same damn thing over and over again!

If you're a student, even just a casual one, you repeat the same postures, in the same order, every time you come to class.

If you're training for competition, you repeat the same routine and the same advanced postures over and over and over again.  There really are no short-cuts.  You just do it again, and again, and again.

If you're studying to be a teacher, then WOW, repetition has to become your best friend, because it's the only way you're going to cram those 40+ pages of text into your brain, word by word.  You say the dialogue out loud all day long - in the shower, walking to class, walking to lecture, in your sleep.  In posture clinics, there are plenty of cases where the only "homework" for the struggling teacher-to-be is more repetition.

If you're a teacher, then your job consists of saying the same instructions over and over and over, almost every day, often two or three times a day.  And you guys know - I've talked about it enough - that there's so much else that goes into teaching, and it's such a joy, but still.  I have said, "From the side, your body should look like a Japanese ham sandwich" a lot of times!!

So yes, monotony is a fact of our yoga life.  But today, as I was browsing through the (awesome) antique bookshop down the street from my yoga studio, I found a fantastic little book with bits and pieces of Zen-type wisdom, and in the book I found this quote:

"Monotony is the law of nature.  Look at the monotonous manner in which the sun rises.  The monotony of necessary occupations is exhilarating and life-giving."
              - Gandhi

Wow.  Instant clarity!

And we all know this already, in our hearts, but it's good to be reminded.  Because yes, life is monotonous.  Every day we wake up, we do work, we eat food, we go back to sleep.  The earth turns on its axis.  The planets go around the sun.  The seasons come and go.  The tides come and go.  We breathe air, in and out.  Monotony is not just a necessary evil in life; it is also life-giving and therefore joyful.  Our hearts beat out a rhythm, that same monotone beat, keeping our bodies alive.

Just because something happens every day, that doesn't make it less miraculous.  Every day, the sun rises.  Every day, our bodies turn oxygen into life.  Every day, we get another chance to do our work and do our yoga.  What a gift, to do the same necessary and beautiful things over and over again.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hello, Shoulderblade-Scapula!

Right before I left for San Diego, I finally sucked it up and registered myself as a competitor for this year's regional championships...

(For those of you just joining us, or for those who are new to the concept of yoga competition, please refer to this post that I wrote up last winter: Yoga Competition?!  I was very organized and did a whole little mini-series of posts on the international championships last February.)

Everybody on the same page?  Great.  So I was a huge wimp last year and didn't compete.  I was still in grad school at the time and my practice was at kind of a low point, so I had a good excuse.  But this year I'm a fricking full-time yogi, so I had no excuses at all.  Time to dig up a leotard and get my butt on stage!

The championships for my region are happening in one month.  Plenty of time, right?  Sure.  Starting this week, I'm doing beginner's series pretty much every day, advanced series 2 or 3 times a week, and practicing extra postures on my own almost every day.  Also need to start actually doing my 3 minutes routine...

So far it's totally been worth it.  Okay, "so far" I've only been practicing for comp for 4 days!!  But to my total surprise, I've already had a little breakthrough.  I've started practicing some extra backbends, working on finding my upper back muscles, and I'll be damned.  I found my shoulderblade-scapula muscles!  I can actually move my scapula forward and glue my shoulder onto my chin in standing bow!  (Finally!  Finally!  Finally!)  This has always been a goddamn struggle for me.  I mean, I think every teacher who I've ever practiced under has been like "J, shoulder to chin, shoulder to chin," and it still was fricking killing me.  I can do it in a do-or-die situation (which I discovered at teacher training when I was trying out for demo and Brandy said "Anyone whose shoulder isn't touching your chin, you can leave, you're not in the demo."  Magically, my shoulder stayed on my chin that time.)  But normally, in class, there's this big fricking gap that just comes and goes and generally drives me nuts.

But now... I can actually move my shoulder forward to the right spot and glue it there!  I have a muscle that does it!  And it's easy.  And it took me, like, 3 days, I shit you not.  I'm so baffled.  But delighted.  Definitely not complaining.  Shoulderblade-scapula, you will not defeat me anymore!  Folks back home, you will be so surprised when you see me practice again.  Even my studio owner was already like, "Um, whoa, what did you do?!"

I sure hope I haven't jinxed myself by writing this post.

And that's probably the second-most exciting thing that's happened to me all week.  (The most exciting? I had 18 first-time students in my class last night!  I love Groupon.)  Aah, the glamorous life of a yoga teacher.  Now I'm off to Trader Joe's... I need me some microwave pad thai!