Monday, January 24, 2011

"I can't die. It would ruin my image."

Nope, it wasn't Bikram who said that, although it really sounds like something he would say!  It was Jack Lalanne, "fitness guru", who died yesterday at age 96.  I found the quote in this brief article.

This guy was way before my time, but I started reading about him and watching his videos tonight, and I liked them so much that I just have to share them. Turns out, he was way ahead of his time. He opened America's first modern fitness center in 1936. He taught people to lift weights when doctors were saying that "working out with weights would give people heart attacks and they would lose their sex drive." He was on TV in the 1950's with the first syndicated exercise show, teaching people that they could feel better if they would exercise regularly and eat sensibly. The guy has a ridiculous amount of charisma - he practically jumps off the screen - and his advice is genuine and straightforward.

He reminds me a lot of Bikram as a young man; both of them trying to convince the skeptical American public that they would feel so amazing if they would just take up some fitness training or yoga class (respectively.)  Both delightfully charismatic, energetic people.

Here's one of my favorite Jack Lalanne videos that I've found so far:

Doesn't he just jump out at you? His approach in this one is identical to the approach that Bikram took in the 70's (and still takes today). He says, look, in America you have everything, but you are unhappy. In other countries, poorer countries, they have nothing, but they are still happy. Why? And how do we change this?

Another favorite of mine is the one about lifting one thousand pounds. "You know, there's a right and a wrong way to do everything, there's always a correct way to do something, there's always a way to accomplish an impossible feat.... If you have the know-how, then it can be done." Yes. I won't spoil the punchline for you. Here's the video:

There's much, much more where this came from, on YouTube and at I'm going right back to watch some more videos now, but I was just dying to share.  I'm watching this guy with a huge grin on my face, wondering if I should be taking notes.

I've never quoted a YouTube comment before, but there's a first time for everything. "No matter how long you lived, you died young." Well said. Rest in peace, Jack.

Jack Lalanne at age 95.

We will now return to your regularly scheduled programming...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

All Of Us, In Costume

This is a little something that I started writing last month and finished writing tonight:

When I first started Bikram yoga, I didn't own any "yoga clothes," and I liked it that way.  I'd go to class in rolled-up tank tops, old cotton sports bras, running shorts,  swim-suit tops, cast-off ballet clothes, cut-up leggings - anything I had lying around in my closet that would let me get through a 90 minute hot class without completely over-heating or over-exposing myself.  I didn't expect that yoga would become a regular habit (hah!) and I didn't want to "dress up" for it.  I wasn't there to look cute in spandex, I was there to get the job done.

A couple months after I joined the work-study program, which officially made me a "regular" at the studio, I broke down and bought my first part of yoga shorts. I got the classic black, side-string Shakti shorts. (I still have them, although by now they've shrunk a bit and I don't wear them much.) My first real yoga costume!

Have you noticed that the dialogue refers to your outfit as "your costume"? It happens a couple of times. ("Heel touching the costume, sole of the foot facing the ceiling.") It’s an apt description. We do put on costumes to do yoga.  Everyone has at least one article of clothing - a favorite tank top or pair of shorts - that is For Yoga. And when you put that clothing on, you are in your yoga costume, looking like a yogi, ready to try to do some yoga.

At first it felt strange to be wearing a real yoga costume. Hmm, can I take myself seriously in this? Does this fit? Do I deserve it? Is this really me? But I quickly got used to the feeling, and then I grew to really enjoy it. Yes, world, here I am! All dressed and ready for yoga!

When I teach, I have a different costume. I wear shorts or a leotard for practice, but I always teach in capri pants. And I always teach wearing my red Swatch. I’ve never taught a class without it. (I replaced the watchband last month because the plastic had cracked from the stress of constantly going from hot to cold.) In my first month of teaching, when my identity as a teacher was still tenuous and unfamiliar, there were only two things that made me feel like I was a legitimate teacher: one thing was standing on the podium and the other was wearing my teaching costume.

Years ago, I read a short piece called “My First Day in Priest Clothes.” It’s one of the stories from I Thought My Father Was God, a collection of stories compiled for NPR’s National Story Project. This particular story is about a young man who has just entered seminary, still a few years away from becoming a priest. The first time he wears his collar and black suit out in public, he is on his way to a dentist’s appointment. He describes how strange it feels to be out in public dressed up like a priest.  Here’s the punchline to the story:

"As I nervously and so very self-consciously made my way along the sidewalk to the office - dressed so strangely for the first time, looking like a priest, but not at all a priest - along came five or six small kids, running, dancing laughing.  They were dressed up in costumes!  A ghost, a witch, a bear... they were coming from a school Halloween party.  My first day in priest costume, and it was Halloween.  We were all in costume."  - Eugene O'Brien

Love this.

Isn't it true?  We're always, all of us, in costume.  We dress up for work, for exercise, for play, for everything.  I dress up as a yoga teacher when I go to teach class.  Then I dress up as a professional, all business casual-like, for SAT classes and school presentations.  I dress up in tights and dancing shoes for swing dance nights.  (This is quickly becoming my favorite costume.)  Last weekend I dressed up in a skirt and boots for a night out at the orchestra.  There was a reception afterwards, the kind of party where a bunch of "young professionals" stand around tables eating little tortellini and talking about things.  I, too, was dressed up like a "young professional," and I couldn't believe that everyone fell for it; they couldn't tell that I'll never work a 9-to-5 and that I spend most of my time dressed in spandex.  The costume worked!  It was rather bizarre.

They say that clothes make the man (or woman), and this is certainly fair.  Our clothing has a huge influence on the way that we are perceived, and it also affects how we perceive ourselves.  One of my favorite not-so-guilty pleasure TV shows is "What Not To Wear," because the women who get made over are always glowing by the end.  They don't just get a wardrobe makeover, they get a whole self-esteem makeover!  They are told that they are beautiful just as they are, and then they are taught how to shine on the outside just as much as they shine on the inside.  I love this!

But it's also nice to let all of that fall away, and that's what happens for me in yoga.  We all come into class in our costumes, carrying our identities and our ideas about ourselves.  But as the sweat starts to roll and the dialogue washes over us, all of that melts away.  When we look into our own eyes in the mirror, we start to glimpse something simpler, something cleaner, something more honest.  We start to see our true Selves, which have always been there, sitting quietly, underneath all the layers.

During the day, we wrap ourselves in our identities.  We wear them like costumes, telling stories about who we are.  But it is so good to do yoga and forget all of that, if only for a few minutes.  It is so good to sweat and open your eyes and breathe.  Forget everything, peel back the layers.  Just breathe and be.  We are all equals, and we do this thing together, as honestly as possible.  It is remarkable.  It is so beautiful.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Turning Towards the Sun

This whole year - all 10 days of it, so far! - I have been thinking about the different kinds of growth and change.

Sometimes change is big and dramatic, impossible to miss.  We've all gone through those periods of growth, when it seems that everything changes - changing jobs, getting promoted, changing apartments, moving out of state, starting school, finishing school.  Starting a new yoga class.  And we're always looking forward to the landmarks that show us how far we've come - the diplomas, the promotions, the engagements, the trophies, the celebrations.  In yoga, you look forward to those days when something big happens, the day when you finally do every posture, touch your forehead to your knee, lock your knees in stretching pose, wrap your foot in eagle, or touch your head on your toes.  And you should be excited about those milestones!  It's so exciting to see your body change and to measure your own improvement.

But I'm interested in subtle changes, too.  After all, every big change is the result of hundreds of tiny, incremental changes.  Those are the ones that are easy to miss, but they shouldn't be forgotten.

Here's an easy example: there's a terrific passage in How Yoga Works where the girl is coaching her student, the Captain, through a stretching pose.  She puts a stack of paper on the floor and has him touch the top sheet of paper.  Then she takes off one page.  "One paper a day," she says, "That's the right speed for your back."  (But that will take me months! he complains.  Yes, she replies, but think about how fast it is compared to how long you spent hurting your back in the first place.)  Taking away one sheet of paper is not exciting; the change is barely noticeable!  But sheet by sheet, day by day, those tiny changes will heal the Captain's back.

And after all, nature works the same way.  Ever since the Winter Solstice, the days have been getting longer again, at least in this part of the globe.  Today, the sun set 15 minutes later than it did on December 21st.  Between the weather and the lights of civilization, you'd never notice a difference; it's still dark by the time most people get out of work.  But before we know it, it'll be summer again and we'll be enjoying the light long into the evening, past dinnertime, having drinks and desserts on the porch.  Slowly, inevitably, we are turning towards the sun, into more light.

When we take control of this process, when we decide to take the steps to make those little changes happen, it all comes back down to gardening.

We must become
As gardeners.
                        (Yoga Sutra)

It's not enough to just plant seeds and then forget about them.  You have to nurture them, bit by bit, day by day.  You can't expect them to burst into bloom overnight.  Even when you can't see anything happening, you have to keep watering your garden.  Keep at it, whatever that "it" may be.  Keep finding little ways to turn your house into a home.  Keep going out and meeting new people.  Keep finding new ways to cook for yourself and nourish yourself.  Keep reading new things.  Keep going to yoga class and just trying the right way.  That's the only way to make your garden grow.

Under your tender care, one day all those seeds will sprout, grow, and open up - like a flower petal blooming!!  (Of course.)  When the conditions are right, it just happens.  Stay patient, stay passionate, stay vigilant, and keep on tending your garden.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Looking Forward

Since I am a huge mythology geek (and very proud of it, thank you), I always think of Janus when I turn the calendar page to January.  Janus is a figure from ancient Roman mythology, a god who is always shown with two faces, one looking backwards and one looking forward.  (This is, of course, where the month of January gets its name.)  He is the god of gates, doorways, beginnings, and ending.

I just learned something else about Janus, thanks to Wikipedia!  Apparently, lots of theology scholars have drawn comparisons between Janus and Ganesha, the awesome Hindu god with the elephant head, because they are both the guardians of gates and they are both associated with beginnings.  More specifically, Ganesha is the "Destroyer of Obstacles," which I guess explains why he is so popular.  So now I am thinking of Ganesha, too.

That was a bit of a tangent, but I thought it was interesting!

I'm interested in Janus and Ganesha and beginnings because, well, the beginning of the new year is the traditional time for such musings and it seems like a fitting moment for them.  Intention-setting can be done at any time of year, of course, but it's always a good exercise!  And if you do it like you mean it, it can have pretty significant results.  (Hello, law of attraction!)

I've made great resolutions, I've made lousy resolutions, and sometimes I've skipped making resolutions altogether.  For years, as a teenager, I would always resolve to stop eating junk food and lose 5 pounds.  (Don't even ask me why I wanted to lose 5 pounds!)  So on New Year's Eve, I would eat whatever junk food was available, and then on New Year's Day I would call it quits.  Since I made this resolution every single year, I'm sure you can guess just how successful it was.  (Not at all.)  But then... one year, in a fit of brilliance and inspiration, I made a different resolution.  I resolved to never go on another diet again.

That was probably six years ago now, and it's the one resolution that I've never broken.  The next year, I didn't need to make any resolutions at all.

Why am I thinking of that story now?  I guess because the "resolution" can work in two different ways.  One on hand, you can use it as a weapon against yourself.  It can become an excuse to find all the things that you think are wrong with you and vow to change them.  And then you set yourself up for failure, because you set the bar higher than you can ever reach, always striving for some unrealistic ideal.  Or... you can make your resolutions manageable and healthy.  Resolve to do things that will make you happier and set goals that you can actually achieve!  If your goals are aligned with your genuine well-being, then they will be easy to achieve, because they will feel natural and right.

This year, this month, I feel like I am at a pivot point.  Instead of trying to get somewhere, I am learning to enjoy being somewhere, which is a real paradigm shift.  And now that I am more or less committed to staying in one area, there are all kinds of things that I want to do.  On New Year's Eve, I was telling one of the other teachers about all my "resolutions" for the year: I'm going to paint my room, re-organize the kitchen, get more plants for the house, clean up the entryway, fix the feng shui (I bought a book)....  He laughed at me and said, "Those aren't resolutions, that's your to-do list!"  Okay, fine, that's a good point. But I'm still excited about doing all those things!  I want to create a good environment around myself where I can really do my best.  I'd like an environment that makes it easier for me to listen to good music, relax, cook more, read more, write more.  I already have bought a new bed frame, so I am no longer sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and I'm going to Home Depot today for paint!

My one huge resolution is that I want to get out more and meet people who aren't my yoga students.  You can hold me to that!  New Year's Resolution for Juliana: Get Out and Meet People Other Than Yogis.  I love you all to death, but I need a real social life!

I am very proud to say that I have already taken steps towards achieving this goal!  I went out last night (by myself) to go swing dancing!  It was great.  There's a group in my city that hosts dances (with drop-in lessons) every Monday and Friday night, and it's a really cool crowd.  There are lots of great dancers, along with lots of enthusiastic newbies, it's a fun young crowd, you meet tons of people, and the dancing is great fun.  I had fun watching the really good dancers at the end of the night, and I told the guy next to me, "Okay, that is my goal for next year!"  I think that I might have to sign up for the actual lesson series in a couple of months.  There's a series that starts tomorrow night, but it definitely conflicts with teaching.  Oh well... let's not get carried away yet!  I can easily see this becoming a new addiction...

As far as yoga goes, I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing.  (Hah.  Those of you who have been through posture clinics will understand the joke there!)  I've gotten lots of good feedback on my teaching recently, so I know that I am pointed in the right direction, and I'm just going to keep moving forward!  I have a couple of goals regarding advanced postures, but that's nothing new.  I did make New Year's resolutions for my students - you know, so-and-so needs to lock their knee, so-and-so needs to get up higher in cobra, everyone needs to kick out - so... look out for me!!  (Please picture me cackling gleefully as I say that.)  I told my students in class that the only resolution they need to make is to show up.  "If you've been coming once a week, try coming twice a week.  If you've been coming twice a week, see if you can come three times a week.  If you've been coming every day... *dramatic pause*... maybe you should take a day off!"

That goes for all of you, too!  Don't bite off more than you can chew, don't beat yourself up over what's past, and don't set yourself up for failure.  Just send up a little good thought to Janus, Ganesh, Buddha, God, or any other "Destroyer of Obstacles" who you like, and then keep moving forward.  Gently, confidently, joyfully, keep looking forward towards more happiness in your life.