Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Clear Your Mind

Last week I was sitting at the front desk with one of our new teachers, waiting for our students to come in, and she said, "Oh my god, look at this." It was a picture of crying children from the school shooting in Connecticut. She was looking at the news reports online. She started to tell me about what was happening. Meanwhile, our students started to come in. Without even thinking about it, I told her, "Don't look at it right now and don't tell me about it." I didn't look at the news reports until the end of the day, after all our classes were finished. Then I went home, had dinner, and sat at my kitchen table in shock.

I was glad that I waited until I got home.

The great thing about the yoga studio is that it's a sanctuary, a place where you can go to escape, at least for 90 minutes. We don't need to talk about the news there. Anytime a horrible tragedy happens, the news media is saturated with information. It's all over the TV, the papers, Facebook, the radio - you can't get away from it! But at yoga, you can breathe and clear your mind.

As yoga teachers, sometimes we feel like it's part of our job to "say something" during tough times. We want to find the magic words, we want to help our students. It's a strong instinct. But the beauty of the Bikram class is its simplicity. We don't need to say anything - except the dialogue. We just need to take the class through the postures and allow the students to meditate, so that they can find clarity in their own way, in their own time.

Back in 2010, there was a memorial service for Jason Winn just outside the city where I was teaching. Jason was an amazing yoga teacher and a huge presence in the yoga community. (I only had the chance to take his class once, but I'm glad I met him.) Because of the memorial, there were lots of yoga teachers coming into town. I had been out of teacher training for exactly one week - I think I had taught seven classes at that point - and on the morning of the service, a couple of senior studio owners showed up in my class.

I thought, "Oh god, what do I say for them?" because obviously this was a really sad day for these people - they were mourning their friend. And then I thought, "Don't be crazy, Juliana, just teach the class." And that is what I did. Just the dialogue and nothing else, because hey, it was my eighth class, that was all I knew anyway.

Afterwards they both thanked me, and they specifically thanked me for giving them such a clean and simple class. They were so relieved that they didn't get some kind of hokey spiritual "woo-woo" class. A simple dialogue class was "just what they needed," because it allowed them to meditate and relax.

This really proved a point to me, and years later, I still think of it often. When students are going through a tough time - whether it's a personal tragedy or a national one - they're not in class to hear my opinion. They're not like, "My god, I just buried my mother, I'd better go take Juliana's class so that she can say something profound to make me feel better." Absolutely not! And it's a good thing, because I'm not really good at that stuff! I'm not a therapist. I just know yoga. The students come to the yoga studio for the yoga. They have other people who they will talk to for reassurance and sympathy. I will certainly give as much sympathy and support as possible, if I'm given the opportunity, but I will not make the mistake of thinking that it's my job.

Simplicity is amazing. For me, the Bikram class is a powerful form of meditation, especially when the teacher sticks close to Bikram's words. I've been taking classes from our new teachers lately, who both teach wonderful clean dialogue because it's so fresh for them, and it's amazing how much it sharpens my focus. It helps me forget about the outside world for a while. Sometimes the key to solving a problem or healing a wound is to stop thinking about it. When you have a problem, and you keep thinking and thinking and thinking about it, you just dig yourself into a deeper and deeper hole. You're picking at the wound, so it never has a chance to heal. But when you go to class, and focus on moving your body for 90 minutes, you come out feeling better - less angry, less hurt. Sometimes the solution to your problem just pops into your mind. That is the power of the meditation.

It's easy to invent new and complicated ways of describing the postures; it's a challenge to keep the class simple and clean. That's why I always come back to the dialogue. It's simple and it works.

The world is a crazy place. Sometimes it's wonderful and sometimes it's terrible. But at least we have yoga, this beautiful gift, that allows us to find clarity, time after time. As Bikram says - "When nothing else works - come to me, let me see what I can do." So simple. Just do yoga, and breathe. If more people could learn this, I think it would make the world better.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Cycling the Gunas (Not Quite a Book Review)

Last month I learned a new word: guna.

According to old-school Indian philosophy, there are three major gunas that twine together to make up all the qualities of nature. (I apologize if I butcher this explanation a little bit - I'm pulling it together from my memory and the internet.) All three gunas are present all the time, but their balance is always shifting. The gunas, in the order that I learned them, are:

- Sattva - Harmony. In a sattvic state, you feel calm and steady and you can see things clearly.

- Rajas - Activity. Associated with movement. In a rajasic state, you get a lot done. Too much rajas is associated with agitation, hyperactivity, over-stimulation.

- Tamas - Sloth. Inertia. Also a necessary quality of life (everyone needs sleep), but too much tamas is associated with lethargy, gluttony, dullness.

You will never find yourself 100% in one guna or another. Sattva is considered the most desirable state, but the literature tends to describe "seventy percent" sattva as ideal - you can't be purely sattvic all the time. To me, this is the interesting part. What happens in practice is a cycle - you cycle through the different gunas. My teacher described the cycle starting from tamas. In a tamasic state, you are lethargic. You're sitting at home, watching too much reality TV, eating too much processed food, drinking too much, sleeping too much. Depressed. From there, really the only way to go is into rajas, activity. You have to get up and do something! Go to the store, go to the bank, clean all the things!! Go and do some really strenuous, sweaty yoga practice. Go for broke. And then, from there, you can move into sattva, clarity. You don't want to do 5 hours of yoga practice anymore; you just want to sit. You find your balance, your harmony.

Then you fall asleep and the cycle starts all over again! Hee.

You know that feeling you get when you've spent ages trying to think of the perfect word, and then it finally comes to you? That's how I felt when I learned the gunas. This ties straight back into the post that I wrote last month - "Extreme" Yoga - which struck a hell of a chord with a lot of my fellow Bikram yogis. My "big idea" was that, even though Bikram yoga seems super hardcore and intense, it ought to have a calming effect in the long run. Bikram yoga attracts a lot of crazy people, but when done properly, when taught compassionately, it should help those people to become a bit less crazy.

Now I have the precise vocabulary. Bikram yoga is rajasic, especially from the perspective of a new student. But you are not meant to stay in rajas. At some point, you should continue the cycle and move from rajas (activity-movement-agitation) into sattva (clarity-harmony).

But I suspect that a lot of people move from tamas into rajas and then get stuck there for a while. And that is where things get a little bit weird.

Here is a hasty sketch that I drew of this cycle. Sorry about the crappy cell-phone camera quality. There's supposed to be an arrow going from sattva back to tamas but it's very faint.

Yep - some of my readers know exactly where I am going with this.

Now I can talk about Hell-Bent.


Hell-Bent is a book that was published just a few weeks ago by fellow yogi Benjamin Lorr. It is a very honest inside account of Bikram yoga, including many of its weirdest aspects - teacher training, competition training. Ben Lorr starts off his journey as an overweight (or in his words, "fat fat") couch potato looking to get back in shape. He struggles through his first Bikram yoga class, goes home, passes out, and goes back to yoga as soon as possible. A familiar story! He gets hooked. He loses the weight. Then he goes to one of Esak's backbending clinics for further training. (Back then they called it backbending - these days it's known as "Jedi fight club." I have never been.) Then he goes to teacher training, nine weeks with Bikram. Then he performs onstage in the national yoga championship, totally transformed.

Does he drink the kool-aid? Eh... sometimes. But he's a writer. He's a researcher. So he researches, he takes notes, and he writes about all of it.

This is not really a book review. It's just some thoughts I had after reading the book, which I've now done twice. The first time I read the book, it took me a couple of beers to get through the last couple of chapters and I complained vocally to my roommates the whole time. But there were parts that I really liked and parts that made me laugh out loud. I went through the book again tonight (this time taking a pen to the margins and scribbling things like "thumbs up!" "OR NOT," "classic HAHAHA," and "tsk tsk") and now I feel like I have a better handle on it.

It was hard for me to read this book, even though it's well-written, because I couldn't read about Ben's experience without reflecting back onto my own experience. And our experiences have been radically different.

Gotta talk about myself for a second here. When I started practicing Bikram yoga in earnest, I had just abandoned a rather miserable attempt at a professional ballet career. (I had also left behind the hardcore academic world of engineer to pursue said career.) I felt like shit, but I was supposedly at my physical peak. I was already a bendy, skinny little thing. I was used to practicing for hours a day and beating up my body. I dove into a daily yoga practice as soon as I quit ballet because I needed something to fill up those hours. Bikram yoga appealed to me partly because of the intensity, but mostly because of something else - the clarity, the lack of judgment.

At one point in his book, Ben write that "during class, internally, there is a perfectionism, a demand for an almost hostile conformity that works like metallurgy on the human form." This is where I wrote "OR NOT" in the margin. For me, it was the opposite. I was registering that "if you try the right way, you get 100% benefits." When I practiced yoga, I was able to focus on myself without judgment. It totally changed my relationship with myself. I killed my perfectionist self and figured out how to be okay with who I was.

In terms of the gunas, everything is perfectly clear. Ben was moving into the rajasic state, and I was moving out of it. And we both did a pretty good job!

So that's how I look at this book. There's a lot of truth, but it's only one person's truth. For instance, Ben's stories about teacher training are largely about breakdowns, stress, and one unfortunately hot class. If you've read my blog from a couple years ago, you'll know that I went to teacher training and basically had the time of my life.

It's all good. Both version are true. And actually, I have to give Ben a lot of credit for being clear about the purpose of his book. In his notes at the end, he writes, "I want to reiterate the obvious, and make clear that this is just the record of one person's experience, not a bead on the Truth of Bikram (whatever that may be), or an attempt at a statement on the beautiful, chaotic, confounding community that has grown up around him." I also have to say that I really like Ben, largely because he emailed me before his book was released. He reads my blog! Awesome! We've had a nice chat via email and he's promised me that we will get together for beer/tea/juice and hash things out if I am ever in NYC. (Ben, I am holding you to that!)

I promised that this was not a book review, but I want to run through a couple of points about the book.

First, there's a fair amount of dirty laundry on Bikram in there, which kind of sucks to read. It's not like any of it is secret. Bikram has never been Mr. Appropriate, and he's pretty brazen with his girlfriends. So like, we (the Bikram teachers) all know this stuff. We know that he's pretty crazy and not always in a nice way. And most of us love him anyway, or at least love his yoga, or at least have the good sense to keep Bikram in one mental compartment and his yoga in a different one. But yeah, seeing it in print - it's the difference between knowing that your uncle is a drunk and seeing his picture plastered on the front page of the daily paper for drunk driving. Every family has its issues, but they don't necessarily want to see those issues out in public. So there's that.

Second - and this is more of a concern for the "uninitiated" who may read this book and get a wrong idea - Bikram yoga is not just about pain. For me, it's always been about feeling better. The teachers who I look up to the most are the ones who teach Bikram yoga as a healing tool, not as a weapon. That's how I try to teach it, too. I wrote "tsk tsk" in the margins where Ben wrote about showing his teachers his aches and bruises and they told him it was a natural part of the process. If I had a student who was showing up with black-and-blue bruises from pushing too hard in the postures, I would tell that student to back the fuck off. It's not necessary! All these people going to great lengths to change their bodies fast - what's the big rush? It's a lifetime practice, baby. Just take it little by little.

Third, teacher training! Okay, there's some pretty funny stuff in that teacher training chapter, but there's a huge puzzle piece missing, and it's so glaringly obvious that it took me a week to notice. (Hah.) After the chapter on training, the book goes straight on to an analysis of Bikram's personality flaws, and from there goes back to the subject of competition training.

What about teaching??

If Ben has taught any classes, he didn't mention them in his book. I shall have to ask him about this when I finally meet him for drinks - I know there are plenty of stories that he didn't include. But here's the thing about teacher training - none of it makes any sense until you start teaching. You have to "close the circle," as they say. Without teaching the class, it's all just theory mixed with nonsense. You don't understand the power of the dialogue until you use it in your classes and see its effect. You don't understand why you put up with three hours of sweating every day at training until you realize that, to make it as a teacher, you'll need to spend even more time than that in the hot room and you'd better know how to take care of yourself. Even those crazy hot classes serve a purpose - they remind you of what your poor "fat fat," out-of-shape students will feel like when the room is set at a measly 105 degrees. So even though the book gives a good insider account of the competition training business, it's still - in some big ways - an outsider account of teacher training. Because there's nothing about the actual teaching! And the teaching is the good part!

Fourth, one last thing (I promise). I have to say, on the record, that Bikram himself has always been very, very sweet to me. Maybe it's because I first met him as a regular student in Los Angeles, and not as a teacher trainee, but it's a long time since I've been intimidated by him. He does shitty things sometimes, but in my interactions with Bikram so far, I've found the guy to be lovely and helpful. He's given me good corrections in class, along with occasional compliments. I worked really hard in training, and for that, he always remembers my face and gives me a big hug when he sees me. He's hard on people in class sometimes, but usually - like it says in the book - he knows exactly where to push and he gets good results.


Now I'm just trying like hell to wrap up this blog post! 

I've tossed out some big criticisms, but much of this book is fantastic. From the first chapter, which describes yoga competition as "this weird collection of antagonism and love," I was hooked. Parts are educational, parts are inspirational, and parts are laugh-out-loud funny. ("I nod silently and note that he poses this as a question.") There are some fabulous people profiled in the book - Emmy and Joseph are stand-outs for me - and I'm psyched for more people to know about them. The bit towards the very end about the "yoga effect," which I don't want to spoil here, is actually brilliant (especially from a Law of Attraction point of view).

I was worried that all the "dirty laundry" would scare people off, but based on the reviews I see online, a lot of the folks who read this book have been inspired to start yoga. Great success?! 

Anybody else who has read the book, I am interested to hear your thoughts. Please comment.... :)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

From Bikram, With Love

I have just returned from my annual teacher training visit - and it was great!

I was there for the 5th week of training, from Monday morning until Friday midnight. (That red-eye flight always seems like a great idea at the time.) It was such a good visit that I'm having a hard time writing about it because I don't know where to start! I tried to write a blog entry last night, and after 2 hours I had only written a few mediocre paragraphs, so now I'm starting all over from scratch. Ha! This may get terribly long, so bear with me.

First of all, the trainees are doing amazing. They are on the ball this year. On Monday they were working on delivering triangle pose, and they were strong. I sat in a clinic room with Johnny Salvatore that afternoon (yay!), and he did a great job of putting them at ease. I asked them, "Did all of you learn this before you got here?!" and they were like "Noooooo!" (Although some of them did actually learn the whole dialogue before training - you can always tell.) Lots of people with a good attitude, lots of people willing to embrace "the process." I saw plenty of familiar faces, including my two rock star students from Rhode Island, Briana and Stephanie. I met quite a few blog readers, which was super cool - you guys are always too sweet, making me feel like a celebrity. And I was totally bowled over when I reintroduced myself to a guy named Jason from Kentucky - apparently I taught him just once, in his first yoga class ever, back in June 2011 when I was visiting the Lexington studio, and now he is in the middle of teacher training! Small world, right?! I love the yoga family.

The beginning of the week was all posture clinic - double clinic Monday, double clinic Tuesday, and afternoon clinic on Wednesday. They started from triangle pose on Monday, and on Wednesday we got  almost halfway through cobra - fast! Bikram kept telling them, "oooh, you are behind the schedule," which I thought was pretty funny since they are way faster than any class I have seen.

On Monday I didn't contribute much to clinic since I was pretty dead from travelling, but on Tuesday and Wednesday I was able to lead or at least co-lead, so I really got involved. I feel like posture clinic management gets exponentially easier every time I go back to training - when I first started visiting, it was so weird and awkward, but now it's mostly comfortable and fun. (Still exhausting, though.)

My favorite clinic was the one that my friend Ignacio and I ran together on Wednesday afternoon. (Ignacio was lead, but he was nice enough to let me basically co-lead, hehe.) We've both been trained by a lot of the same people (in particular Diane and Teri), and we share the same philosophy for posture clinics. First of all (for me), you have to create a safe and friendly environment. If you stress people out, they have a very hard time performing well. (They're gonna be nervous already anyways, no need to torture the poor children.) Second of all, we made it clear that while the trainees have to learn the dialogue, we're not expecting them to be perfect. Dialogue study is a lifetime practice, and they absolutely have to keep studying and learn it as well as possible... but when they get up to deliver, they need to forget about perfection and just teach! And then we were able to give them quick but (hopefully) helpful feedback on their dialogue and/or their delivery. It was awfully fun. A lot of people who had been scared to go up because they didn't feel "ready" ended up jumping up there and delivering very respectable dialogue for cobra.

Bikram taught three nights that week (score!) and lectured on Wednesday and Thursday. I stayed for the whole Wednesday night lecture and said "hi" to Bikram at midnight during the break. I'm never totally sure that he will recognize me, but he always does - he looked at me for a couple seconds, and then it was, "Oooooh myyy God!" and a big hug. :-) He made a big fuss and told the room that I was "the best dialogue in 20 years of teacher trainings!", which is ridiculous (he also says, "Quincy Jones, my best friend!" almost every day), but terribly sweet. A few minutes later, I figured this would be the right time to put on my big girl pants and volunteer myself to teach a class at training... and to make a long story short, it worked out! I got myself on the schedule to teach the Friday morning class!

Now this is the part that I really want to talk about.

I've taught the big class once before, last year. And it was great, but it was terrifying. There's just no getting around that. It is overwhelming to teach a class of 400+ people who are all studying to be yoga teachers. When I look back on my post from last year, I can see that I was totally thrilled, but I didn't know what to make of the whole experience. I hoped that one day I would get another shot at it.

This year I felt so. Much. Better. I still got the nerves and butterflies, but it was a very small fraction of the terror that I felt the first time!

I also went through this interesting process on Thursday afternoon, since I had the whole day to think about Friday morning's class. At first I was thinking, "What do I want to tell them?" Because there's so much that I wish I could tell them. There are just a million things that I'd love to help them understand. So I spent a while tossing ideas around, trying to think of a few things to say. And then I read Bikram's letter. They've got a note printed out, from Bikram, that the staff gave me before the class. (I hope I'm not giving away any big secrets here - if I need to take this part out, I expect that someone will let me know. I also don't know when this procedure started - for all I know, no one has gotten this note except me!) Anyway, it's no big deal - all this note says is, "Please just say the dialogue." Obviously we are teaching corrections and stories and philosophy at our own schools, because the students are coming in so well prepared. But for training, Bikram is teaching the philosophy and corrections himself. (In the three classes of his that I took, I'd say at least 75% of the classes were devoted to individual corrections.) So he just needs the visiting teachers to say the dialogue - with energy, and crystal clear.

I read this, and thought about it, and it made so much sense. And it really took the pressure off. Just say the dialogue - well that's easy! I teach a dialogue class. I've been studying the dialogue continuously for the better part of three years. I know how to do that.

And then I realized - wow, it was so much my ego that wanted to add something "special." Pure and total ego. And I think a lot of teachers fall into that trap, especially at training. They want to make the class better by adding something special of their own. But what the trainees really need is the purest, simplest class possible. Just Bikram's words, Bikram's dialogue, that they are working so hard to cram into their brains in a very short period of time. They don't need a show. They don't need to hear what I, Juliana, think about the yoga or the training process. They just need dialogue, energy, and love.

Just say the dialogue. Show, don't tell.

I realized that I had been talking a pretty good talk in posture clinics, so now I needed to follow my own advice. The biggest piece of that was realizing (or remembering) that my class is not about me, it's about the needs of the students. And the other piece - also kind of difficult! - was remembering that it's not supposed to be perfect. I was tempted to pull out my dialogue and hide in my room to review, but I didn't! I'm so proud of that. I didn't open the dialogue once before the class, although I did carry it around for good luck. I told all the trainees "You're more ready than you think, just do the best you can." So for the Big Class, I had to follow my own advice or I would know I was a hypocrite. I had to just... trust myself.

And I did exactly that.

What can I say about the class? I did exactly what I intended to do, and I'm really, really happy with it. It was still a little disorienting being up on that big podium, with all the mirrors and speakers and people, and it was very fucking hot and hard to breathe up there, but I did exactly the job that I set out to do. And my god, but the trainees rose to the occasion!! Trainees, you rock my world. We were all on the same team that day, one hundred and ten percent. Bikram's words, my voice, your bodies. The trainees were so tired, so beat up, so exhausted, but I looked around the room during triangle pose and it looked like almost everyone was in the posture. And I didn't see anyone come out early. It was insane - I'm a little emotional just thinking of it. That wasn't me, that was us - all of us together. Dialogue, energy, and love, love, love.

I had to go out very quickly and sit down after the class! But then all day long, people came up to me and said, thank you for giving us exactly the class that we needed. Whew. It was very powerful, and actually very humbling, too. They were all very sweet to me, but even more interesting, a lot of them understood exactly what I did, and said, thank you for not adding any extra stuff and just teaching the class the way that we are studying it. So perhaps by sticking to the dialogue, I have made myself memorable?! There are worse things, I guess.

I also have to say that all the other visiting teachers and staff were very kind to me. I didn't get any catty or weird attitudes, and a lot of certified teachers turned up for the class. The staff members gave me kudos, the New England folks gave me shit-eating grins from the back row, and Nicole Duke and Cynthia Wehr (who both taught the Big Class that week) gave me some much-appreciated pre- and post-class support. Yoga family at its best!

Gotta say one more thing here, mainly addressed to the trainees. A few people asked me, "Is that how you always teach your class?" The answer is "yes and no." The biggest difference is that in a normal class, I make lots of corrections, I give a few more explanations between the postures, and sometimes I explain a philosophical point or two. Another difference is that normal classes don't require the same level of energy - I would never drive a 20-person class with the same power that I used for a 500-person class, it would be like running over them with a steamroller! But as far as the dialogue is concerned, that was absolutely my normal class. I did not study beforehand at all. In the two-and-a-half years that I have been teaching, I have kept the dialogue as my closest friend, because it makes a beautiful foundation for the class. Start with dialogue, energy, and some love - and then when you throw in the corrections, the explanations, the occasional jokes and stories, then you will feel that you are really teaching a class. That's been my approach, and so far it seems to work great.

Now I think it's time to call it a night. I had an amazing time in LA, but wow does it feel good to be home. Tomorrow I have my first legit day off in two weeks, and I am heading up to Mount Monadnock for a day hike to enjoy the fresh air and fall colors. I just need to look up the directions before then and figure out where Monadnock is.... take care of yourselves, yogis, and I'll probably write more soon.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

My Life as a GPS

I started this post months ago and somehow never got around to finishing it... until now! Never mind that 6:35am flight out of Boston tomorrow morning. My blog needs some love! (And if you can guess where I'm flying to at such an ungodly hour, you're probably right, but more on that next week.)


Here's an interesting question: why do people sometimes hurt themselves in yoga class, and how can you prevent them from doing it? I'm not talking about students getting hurt in bad/weird yoga classes (which is a whole different subject) - I'm talking about times when the teacher does everything "right"
and somebody still manages to get hurt.

All of the teachers at my current studio - including myself - make a point of explaining that you need to listen to your body in class. One of my favorite reviews of the yoga studio (of course I stalk our reviews online) said something along the lines of: "All the teachers maintain the 'push yourself' attitude, but always with something about listening to your body." Perfect! You have to work hard in class, but you also have to take care of yourself. But in one of our staff meetings over the summer, our studio owner told us that she'd gotten complaints from students who said that they injured themselves in class because a teacher told them to "push through the pain"... which frankly just doesn't happen here. To quote my friend Brandi, we only use those words after the word "don't," as in, "DON'T push through the pain."

Now my immediate response to this problem is: "UGH!! Why doesn't anybody listen to me?!"

But the topic is totally worth discussing, so let's get into it a little bit. Because there are plenty of people in the world who legitimately have no idea how to "listen to their body." 

I'm going to operate under the assumption that the Bikram series is essentially safe and therapeutic, when executed properly. Or as Emmy likes to say: "The yoga is always innocent." Injuries tend to happen when a) the postures are done incorrectly - wrong alignment, misunderstanding of the posture, or b) the practitioner is over-aggressive, not fully in tune with his/her body. (There's also (c), the fluke accident, which can totally happen but is not terribly common in the beginner's series.)

It's the teacher's job to teach correct alignment and technique. Safest way for us to do that is by teaching with the dialogue - by using the words of the dialogue, and by understanding the words of the dialogue, so that we can correct the students and steer them in the right direction.

Let's assume that the teacher is doing all of that. (We are sure trying, anyway.) It is now your job, as a student, to follow along carefully and pay attention to your body as you do so.

My favorite analogy is that your teacher is your GPS - you know, that annoying gadget in your car that's always giving you directions. (For the sake of my analogy, you'll have to assume that the teacher is a pretty good and accurate GPS - not one a stupid one like mine that starts hollering "Perform U-turn immediately!" every time you turn it on. It's not a perfect analogy, but I like it.) Just like your GPS, the teacher has already calculated the route that will take you to your destination safely and efficiently.

But just because you are driving around with a GPS, that doesn't mean you can close your eyes and ignore the road. You still have to keep your eyes open to watch out for red lights, stop signs, potholes, pedestrians, and crazy people trying to cut you off. You don't want to end up like those Japanese tourists who were following their GPS when they drove straight into the Pacific a few months ago.

(True story! I am still laughing about it.)

Remember, the teacher is always giving instructions for the whole class, for the full posture. If you're going into a posture and you start to feel some pain, just back off a little bit. It doesn't mean the GPS is sending you the wrong way - it's just your body's equivalent of a red light. It means, "wait here for a little while." When the light turns green, then you can make your next move.

Unfortunately, it's not always easy for a person to distinguish between the red light and the green light. (Or the yellow light - slow down.) It gets complicated because some of the postures are super uncomfortable, so we do actually warn you that some of the postures are going to hurt - mainly so that the new students don't get scared when they do the postures for the first time. (Hell, that first backbend still hurts like a bitch some days, especially first thing in the morning.) But we also tell you, sometimes in the very next posture, "take it easy, you're not warmed up yet." So there is definitely a balancing act that happens in the class. You have to go to the point where you're uncomfortable - sometimes deeply uncomfortable! - but not causing pain. This takes practice!

And in practice, you make mistakes sometimes (because that's what practice means). That's part of why so many beginning students strain their hamstrings - little bit overaggressive, doing too much too fast, without quite understanding the technique.

So here's the million dollar question: how do you learn what's right?

Here's my very favorite answer: If it works, then it's right.

If the yoga is working, you might have some muscle soreness ("therapeutic discomfort") after class, but your body will generally feel better and better as you practice more. That means you're doing good. If you have an injury or problem that keeps getting worse and worse and worse the more you practice, that means you're driving right into the ocean. Get your foot off the gas and recalculate!

"Listening to your body" means keeping your eyes on the road - at all times! Best way to catch problems early. This isn't just for beginners - in fact, the more often you practice, the more important it is! I had a funny tweak in my knee for over a month that I couldn't figure out until Diane told me I was sitting a little too low in the second part of awkward pose. I came up about one inch, and the knee stopped hurting after two days. Crazy! One of my really good students came to me a few days ago saying that she'd started having a little pain in her knee - she usually noticed it in fixed firm. That same day, she figured out that the pain was starting in bow pose (the one right before fixed firm). We did a little problem-solving, she eased up on that pose, and her knee felt better in two days. Trouble-shooting. It's part of the practice!

Slight digression: It always cracks me up when people come into class, start making up completely different postures, and say, "Oh, I'm just listening to my body!" Noooo no no no no no no. This is not an interpretive dance class. For our purposes, "listening to your body" is not an airy-fairy thing; it's tangible. If you go in the wrong direction, your body will give you pain. "Hey, I don't like that!" If you fix yourself, your body will give you a nicer response. "That feels much better, thank you!"That's how the body talks.

I could talk about this all night, but I really do have to pack!

At the end of the day, it's all a cooperative effort between the teacher and the student. The teacher has the directions, but the student is in the driver's seat. I may be a great backseat driver (just ask anyone who's ever been on a road trip with me), but I can only do so much.

So please, watch out for that Pacific Ocean. Apparently it can sneak up on you.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"EXTREME!!" Yoga

"Good morning everybody! Welcome to Bikram yoga torture chamber, to kill yourself for the next 90 minutes!"

Woohoo! That's great marketing. It's a hook. If you ever take class with Bikram, you can see that he is a born performer and he plays the cheerful sadist really well. "If you feel dizzy, nauseous, throw-up, you must be happy! Is a good news!"

But at the same time, Bikram understands his students. He is kind to the new ones. When I took his public classes in LA, the newbies were always like, "Wow, that guy was nice and really helpful." Even at teacher training, he always had an eye on the people who were struggling. In one minute, he'd be shouting at someone to push harder, but in the next minute, he'd be telling someone else, "Boss, take it easy. You don't look so good." I always remember the class in LA when he told a student to go into the hallway for 2 minutes, drink some Coca-Cola, and then come back. The student didn't want to leave the room, and Bikram was like, "No really, I am serious! Go out, just 2 minutes, then come back in."

My point is, Bikram yoga is not just about "killing yourself." It's also about moderation. Balance. You know.... yoga.

Bikram yoga attracts a lot of "type-a" people, a lot of fitness enthusiasts, and a decent number of masochists. It's easy to see why. The heat and the intensity are very appealing. Personally, I was totally crazy when I started Bikram yoga. I hadn't really figured out what I wanted to do with my life and I was going stir-crazy. I went to class as much as possible. I did a pretty solid 8 classes a week for months and months. I liked the busy, super hot classes. I left my water bottle in the locker room. At one point, the craziest teacher at the studio said, "And here's Juliana, who is crazy!" which she meant as a compliment.... and I was like, wow, if this person think I am nuts, I might need to take a look at my life.

Bikram yoga attracts a lot of crazy, hardcore people.... but when done properly, when taught compassionately, it should really help those people to become less crazy.

It took a few years, but after doing the yoga for a while, I started mellowing out. It seemed like the natural progression. I went to grad school, practiced at different studios, got a little perspective. I went to teacher training not because I wanted to get my ass kicked, but because I wanted to become a teacher. I was amazed to find people at training who were there specifically to get their asses kicked. I was alarmed to see that some people would even go and take classes on Sunday - our day off!! - in the name of some "yoga challenge." (Like teacher training is not a challenge by itself?) I was relieved to find that I was not one of those people. I'd go for broke in class for 90 minutes, but after that I'd rather go do things like eat, study, swim, eat more, or sleep.

Sometimes I hear people saying, "There's no such thing as too much yoga," and I'm just like, hmm. That's not how I remember it. I remember Bikram saying "Too good is no good!"

I've probably quoted this before, but here's a little piece from Bikram's book (the blue book, Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class, page 12):
"Anyone who tell you got to do Yoga every day for rest of life, or that they do full set of Yoga every day for years, he crazy or saint or both." [There are some saints among us....] "Regular people like us, we got to worry about the garbage disposal don't work, Tommy's scout troop has a picnic, there's a good movie on TV - important things like that.... Naturally, the more you do, the better health you gonna be in, mentally and physically. And if you go some medical problem like bad back or arthritis or old age that Yoga is keeping away, you got to do the Yoga fairly regularly, or you'll get it again. But the rest of us, once we got it.... we can relax a little bit - do it only two, three times a week."
There you go. If you've got a medical problem, you do the yoga as much as you can to take care of the problem. If you're a beginner, you go as much as you can. Once you've got everything opened up and you feel good, you don't need to bust your butt every day anymore.

I hear people talk about Bikram as "extreme yoga" sometimes, and it is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, because it over-simplifies the whole thing and it scares the shit out of people. It's a marketing tactic that only works on a certain people. If you've got a friend who is a big fitness buff and who thinks yoga is for wimps, then yes, go ahead and tell him, "I challenge you to try this yoga class! It is XTREME yoga! It will kick your butt!" (Then he will come to class, and we teachers will spend the whole time trying to get him to breathe normal, haha.) Bring your friends into class any way you can, that's great.

But if you're trying to get your mom or your grandma into class, you can't tell her, "This is XTREME yoga!!" No! She will run in the other direction! You have to tell her, "This is heated, therapeutic yoga. It's ok if you only do a tiny bit - just stay in the room, breathe, do what you can, and rest whenever you need to." Remember Elaine, who everybody loves, who practices every day (to keep away old age)? That's what her daughter told her before her first class, and that's what she now tells all the other students. Just do what you can, don't try to do everything at once, don't be a hero.

Even the advanced practice and the "competition" postures (which look pretty scary at first glance) are all about patience. I've been practicing the advanced series for, er, longer than I like to admit, and it is totally humbling. There are postures in that class that I worked on for years before I saw any progress at all - and I still got a loooooong way to go. By now, I can do some wacky, contortionist-looking postures - but even that doesn't feel so "extreme" to me, because I've been working into the postures soooooo slooooooowly over such a long period of time.

When I do the competitions, I do put some extra time into my practice, but I try to spread it out. I see people doing these crazy hardcore weeklong training clinics and I'm like, hmmmmm. Very interesting, but not for me. (Plus, what's up with all the blatant disregard for the first rule of Fight Club?!) When I get on stage, I want to demonstrate the progress I've made over the course of years - not the amount of yoga I was able to cram into a couple of months or weeks. I'm sure I could "get there" faster if I practiced for 10 hours every day - but what's the big rush?

In advanced class yesterday, I was telling my teacher, "I think I need more determination to go along with my patience, I feel like I should be farther along," and she (who knows me pretty well) said, "No, not really, just keep being patient." And then I had a nice little breakthrough in a posture, which was encouraging, and I noticed that I already have come a long way. So there you go.

What I'm trying to say is, I don't see any extra benefit in being "hardcore." It's really fun sometimes to go crazy with the yoga and see how much you can accomplish. I have nothing against that - more power to you! I just don't see that as the final destination. The goal is not to touch your head on your butt (even though that would be really cool). The goal is to have a happy, healthy, balanced life.

In the beginning (of this horribly long-winded blog), I quoted Bikram as saying, "Kill yourself!" But I cheated. That's not the real quote. The real quote is, "Kill your self." Your "self," with a small "s." Your ego, your image, your ambition. That's how you reach your Self - your true Self. The goal is Self-realization.

Self-realization is even trickier than touching your head on your butt. I might get to the second one before I make it to the first.

But I am trying!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"NO Lions!"

Autumn has officially arrived in New England! We've got sunny days and chilly nights, perfect for outdoor activities like walks in the park, corn mazes, and apple picking. I have done all of those things in the past week, because I'm a little bit dorky like that. I even went to the zoo this morning, with my Mom, who was visiting from out of town.

Whenever I'm looking for someplace new to go, especially if I'm brining a guest along, I check out the online reviews to see which places are worth a look. Last weekend, I checked the Yelp page for the Roger Williams Zoo to see what to expect. All the positive reviews were pretty accurate - nice little zoo, well-maintained grounds, not huge, great giraffes. And then of course there were a few negative reviews, including one person who was really angry because there were NO LIONS. This person went to the zoo expecting lions and tigers and bears, and her expectations were not met.

Of course there are plenty of cool animals at this zoo. There are elephants, giraffes, penguins, dwarf goats, red pandas, wild dogs, moon bears, seals, emu, flamingo, and a baby anteater. So I can't help laughing at the image of this poor person walking around the zoo, looking at all these fun animals, and growing more and more irate because they are NOT LIONS.

I guess some people's days are easily ruined, right?

I once noticed a review that gave only one star to a Bed and Breakfast because their caesar salad was missing the salad dressing. (I can't make this stuff up.) The gist of the review was: "This place is immaculate, the grounds are stunning, the service was impeccable... At dinner, the salad I ordered had NO dressing. It was JUST LETTUCE!!" One star (out of five).

In Bikram yoga, almost every studio has a couple of negative reviews written by people who went into Bikram expecting something else. I've seen at least one review of Bikram yoga that said, "This is NOT real yoga. In the whole class, there was NO downward dog!!" Like, what is the big obsession with that posture? Some styles use it, and some styles don't. Try to concentrate on the postures that actually are in the class, not the ones that are not.

Many of you probably read this stunning little blog post a couple weeks ago, written by studio owner Nicole Deacon, titled "Your Focus Determines Your Reality." (If you haven't already read it, you should.) Nicole's article talks about a paraplegic student who made phenomenal improvements to his fitness and his life through Bikram yoga. And the key thing with this student was that he focused on what he could do, not what he couldn't do. I have to quote this bit directly:
Do everything you can to the best of your ability and you will receive the benefits of this yoga.  Maybe all you can do that day is get to class.  Maybe all you can do is breathe.  Maybe all you can do is 10% of the posture.  Great!  Do that!  Come back the next day and do that again! There is a universal law called the “Law of Praise and Increase”.  If you want a dollar and have a dime and you curse the 90 cents you don’t have, you won’t get it.  But if you praise the 10 cents you do have, more will come to you.
That pretty much sums it up.

There's no use getting all caught up in the things that are missing from your day - or the things that you think are missing - because a) it will make you unhappy and b) it's counterproductive. There's no lions, there's no downward dog, I didn't get my salad dressing, I can't touch my toes. "No, no, no..." "Can't, can't, can't..." Stop that! Talk about something good, instead. Appreciate the good things that you already have - right here, right now. Drop your expectations.

"We love the things we love for what they are." (Robert Frost)

Oh, and if you have a few minutes, give your local studio some love on its Yelp page. I guarantee that your teachers will appreciate it.


Here it is, your moment of Zen:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What kind of Bikram teacher do you want to be?

The first time I ever taught a class, I was given one piece of advice before I went into the studio. This advice came from a fellow Bikram teacher. She was a little bit crazy, and also English was not her first language, so it was kind of funny. She said "Use your wise, and stay on your box."

I had completely forgotten about this until yesterday, when I pulled out some of my old yoga journals. But this was a truly great piece of advice.

I got out my journals again this week because I had to do some thinking, and then some writing, which always helps me think. I was thinking about a question from my studio owner, Molly. Molly does a great job of giving us teachers some thought-provoking assignments for our teacher meetings.  This month, she gave us a really simple question: "What kind of Bikram teacher do you want to be? Please write a sentence or two."

What kind of Bikram teacher do I want to be? In a sentence or two?!

I want to be a good teacher!

Is that not an acceptable answer?

Uhm... how about, I want to be a really good teacher!?

Whoa. Off the top of my head, I don't have a good answer to that question. I haven't stopped to think about that in a while. Who am I, and what am I doing?! (Where are we going and why am I in this handbasket?) Existential crisis!

I told Molly that she had given me an identity crisis with her question, and she said "Good, it wasn't supposed to be an easy question!" That made me feel less ridiculous. Then I took a nice walk on the beach on my day off and I started to get a little clarity.

The funny thing is, when I think of what kind of Bikram teacher I want to be, I think of a lot of "negatives" first. As in, I know exactly what I don't want to be. I don't want to be a jerk, I don't want to be over-aggressive, I don't want to be a robot, and I don't want to be a drill sergeant. I don't want to be the person who turns a student off from Bikram yoga! (It's fine if a student doesn't like the practice - the postures, the heat, the dialogue - but I'd never want someone to be turned off by my conduct.)

I don't want to be the "hard" teacher or the "easy" teacher, either. And this is where I got stuck for a couple of days. I don't want to be a "mean" teacher, but I don't necessarily want to be the "nice one". Because it depends, it always depends. It depends on who the student is. For a new student who is a little bit scared, I want to be the nicest and most encouraging person in the world. But for a student who has been practicing for a while and needs something more, I want to give a little extra push, a little more challenge. Some people need to come in and have some space, and some people need to be told firmly what to do.

So what kind of teacher does that make me? In a sentence or two?

I had to think about which teachers have really made an impact on me. Not just in yoga, but in anything - in dance, in college, in trapeze, in life. And I remembered what all those teachers had in common. First, they always care. Obvious, but important. And second, they always seemed to just know what I needed to hear. I remember a college physics teacher who wrote on a pop quiz, "I expected better from you." Rough, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. I remember my first little trapeze show when the instructor on the board was just like, "You've got this!" - totally the encouragement that I needed. I remember being in a deep backbend in a class with Diane**, and thinking "I cannot stay here any longer," and at that exact moment she said, "Okay Juliana, breathe and stay there just a few more seconds." Bikram and Emmy are pretty notorious for this mind-reading trick. (I suspect that Bikram is actually psychic, which is cheating.) I took a Vinyasa class last week with a really experienced teacher, and right at the moment when I thought, "Why the heck are there so many downward dogs in this class?" he said, "By the way, the reason why we do all these downward dogs is...."

So I want to be a mind reader. Um, well. That's a bit wacky, and not really a skill that can go on a resume anyways. And it's not like it's something you can get through a course, or through a training. It's not like they can FedEx it to you or something.

I am never going to be a psychic. But what I want is to be connected. And there's my answer. What kind of Bikram yoga teacher do you want to be? I want to be that teacher who is connected to the room, and who is able to offer the right tools - encouragement, instruction, energy, or even silent support - to each student in the class. If I only get one sentence today, I'd have to go with that one. I want that special sauce. I want the students to feel that I am on their side, from the moment they enter the lobby until the moment they leave the building.

Molly also asked us, "What would you want your students or other teachers to say about your class?" Oof. Again, that's hard with the students, because they are all so different. Sometimes my students tell me that I've said something that really resonated with them, and I love that. But as long as they keep coming back to the studio, and they keep seeing the benefits from the yoga, I'm happy.

When it comes to the other teachers, it depends. For the newer teachers (and we have had quite a few newbies coming through), I want to be a good example. I want to keep up a standard for precise dialogue, right energy, and good timing. For the more experienced teachers, well, I just want them to be able to focus on their own practice. I don't want to distract anybody from their yoga. I love when teachers take my class and say that they were just able to meditate on their practice. "My mind, your body."

I don't want to get stuck or burned out. I've been teaching 10 a week for just over 2 years now, and I still love it, and I want to keep it that way. I want my class to grow and evolve, so that maybe if someone asks me this question in another year, I'm going to have a totally different answer. I want to keep growing in the practice and discovering new aspects to explain and talk about - in the physical practice, and in the spiritual understanding as well. Nothing too crazy - don't get scared of that word, "spiritual." I just want to keep understanding what it is that this yoga does for people, so that I can become a better guide for my students.

At the end of the day, I just want to be a good guide, a good interpreter of the yoga. The forest ranger doesn't take credit for the forest - he just follows the trail, helps everybody find their way, and points out the wonders that are already there.*** That's my job. Bikram yoga is awesome all on its own. I just want to help people navigate it, understand it, and love it. If that works, then they barely even need me anymore. They can appreciate the forest all on their own. I'll just be there to keep them company, and say, "Isn't it beautiful here?"

Out of time now, gotta go take the laundry out of the bathtub and teach class. Thanks for reading this blog again after a particularly long hiatus. I have been out and about, enjoying the summer. Next week, off to Maine for a camping trip. Will probably write more when I return!


** When I first started teaching, my private answer for the question, "What kind of teacher do you want to be?" was, "I want to be Diane Ducharme!" This is because I love her and have imprinted on her like a baby duck. But now that I've been at this for a couple of years, that is not an acceptable answer. There's only one Diane Ducharme and the position has already been filled. She is her, and I am me. As it should be.

*** Very much inspired by this lovely throw-away line in a book: "'Interpreter' is what the Forest Service calls a ranger who is also a tour guide, and I love what the title implies: that a place is like a language." The book, in case you wanted to know, is Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Throw Away Your Lists

"As soon as you stop trying to control everything, you will see things start to go your way." - Rajashree Choudhury, Bikram's wife

Every time a catchy new article about Bikram yoga pops up online, it takes over my Facebook news feed. This week, the trendy article was a blog piece titled "10 Things NOT To Do in Bikram Yoga," a list of pretty basic stuff such as don't fidget, don't talk, don't eat right before class.

It's pretty decent as far as advice goes - I'm not here to hate on the writer, so I'm not going to break down her points or anything - but I'm not crazy about the basic premise. Ten things "NOT To Do" is already way too many NOTs for me. Right away, somebody commented on the article, "and number 11... do NOT... attend." If I didn't already know how awesome Bikram yoga was, that would probably be my comment, too.

It always kills me to see studios that print out these looong lists of rules for their students. One of my all-time favorite studio websites has a list of 15 rules under their studio etiquette section (including "no excessive jewelry" and "no colored water") and then, at the bottom of the page, it says "click here for our FULL list of class tips and yoga etiquette!" I always click there, because the full list of class tips is truly spectacular. Here are just a few excerpts from that list, some paraphrased and some not:

- "Feel free to watch the people in front of you if you are lost", but "please do not STARE."
- If you have an emergency (i.e. you have to puke), just let the instructor know and they will tell you when you may leave the room (i.e. between postures).
- Wash your yoga mat in the tub "biweekly."
- Make sure you are keeping hydrated with Zico, Gatorade, EmergenC, Smartwater, but do NOT actually bring these beverages into the studio.
- No smells, including body odor or cigarette smoke.
- No hangovers.
- Front row is reserved for people who "follow the rules of the studio."
- If you're not properly hydrated or didn't eat enough, don't come to class.
- And the list goes on...

So basically, what this list says to any new student is: don't come! This yoga is not for you!

Man, screw that. Yoga is for everybody. Even the junk bodies and the screw loose brains. Especially them - that's the whole point! The smokers, the partiers, the people who don't really know how to take care of themselves yet, the are the ones who need the yoga the most.

I never like long lists. There was another article that floated around for a while that was something like, "20 Things to Do In Bikram Yoga." Now that's more like it - a much more positive angle - but still, 20 things?! Too many things!

If I'm trying to get somebody into a Bikram yoga class, I usually just let them know that the room is heated, so they should come ready to sweat and they should not eat right before class. I tell them to bring a mat, a towel and some water. That's it!

When the new students get into class, they only need to do two things. And number one is not "stay in the room." Number one is breathe. Number two is "stay in the room." That's the whole opening spiel. Breathe (everything else is optional), and try to stay in the room for the whole class. If you need to take a break, just sit down, relax, and join back in when you're ready.

In my humble opinion, that is plenty of information! All that other stuff is going to work itself out naturally. Almost all beginners are going to wipe and fidget and breathe wrong and drink water at weird times and stare around the room. That's absolutely fine. As long as they make it through their first class and feel good when it's over, they'll come back for a second class, and a third, and a fourth. And by that time they'll start to feel more comfortable and get the hang of it, and they'll start to look like nice, disciplined yogis.... all on their own!

Keep it simple. It's only yoga.

It's actually kind of brilliant and radical, this whole mind-body idea behind the yoga practice. The idea is that if you improve the body, the mind will improve automatically. Or as Bikram would say, if you want to get the head, you just grab the ear, very sneaky, and pull. So as teachers, we really don't need to get overly caught up in any weird behavioral stuff - Stop looking around! Put down your water! Don't itch your face! If we can just teach our students to "lock the knee" - (and of course I say "just," but this really is the trickiest thing) - then the mental focus will follow naturally. Pull the ear, and you get the head. I love it.

All the list-making just feels off to me, and I finally put my finger on the reason for that feeling. It's something that my studio owner Molly said in class earlier this week, something that's been chasing me for days. She read us this quote from one of Rajashree's seminars: "As soon as you stop trying to control everything, you will see things start to go your way." And that's IT. All these lists - do these 20 things, don't do these 50 things - they're just grasping at control over something that really shouldn't be controlled. They're trying to create the conditions for a perfect class, a perfect practice. Drink lots of water, but not too much. Don't eat before class, but if you must eat, just eat some Saltines. Prepare everything just right or don't go to class at all.

Somebody commented on this post that she (or maybe it was he) really likes knowing what to expect, and she would have been too scared to go to Bikram in the first place if not for all those lists of "what to do" and "how to prepare." I thought this was such a good point that I pulled this post down for a couple of days because I wanted to say something about it.

It can be comforting to have a nice long list of "do's and don'ts." It's nice to know what's expected of you. On the other hand, some people will be freaked out and turned off by a big list of rules. It just kind of depends on your personality. (Plus, sometimes we think we'll do better if we know everything ahead of time, but we're wrong.) Here's the point that I want to make: while it's great to figure out some parameters that will help you do better in class, you don't need to make a whole career out of rule-writing. That's not the final destination of your practice. It's not like you're going to develop more and more rules for yourself as you practice for longer, until you've got a mental list of "200 Things Not To Do in Bikram Yoga" and nothing ever goes wrong for you, ever. The final destination - at least in my belief - is to simplify.

We all struggle to control the conditions of our yoga practice for a while, and it's so natural, it's such a normal thing. But part of the beauty of the yoga practice is that you can't control it and it's never perfect, and the sooner you embrace that truth, the happier you will be. Sometimes you'll have a great class when the "conditions" were all wrong - you didn't sleep enough, you ate a donut on the way to the studio, you had too much coffee, and you went to class anyway. Even if it wasn't pretty, if you came out of the room feeling better, then it was still a great class. I've had some of my very best classes on days when, if I had been following somebody's rulebook, I would have just stayed home. There's really no controlling the yoga practice. You can't control the teacher, you can't control the room, and you can't control everything that happens in every hour of your day, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No chance.

But as soon as you stop trying to control everything... things will start going your way.

Throw away the lists. Breathe a little easier. Just keep practicing.


** I was inspired to write this post by another teacher's great blog: "What to Do in Bikram Yoga."

** For those who are curious, I'll save you the trouble of searching for this article: "10 Things Not To Do in Bikram Yoga." It's really not bad - it was just the impetus that got me on this train of thought.

Monday, May 14, 2012

All Yogis are Good Yogis

"If we are here not to do what you and I want to do
And go forever crazy with it, why the hell we are even here?"

I'm not sure where to get started with this topic, so I will start in the middle and see what happens.

If there's one idea that I could really live without, it's this idea that you have to adhere to a certain set of behaviors or else you are a "bad yogi." Or as one of my best friends puts it: "Whenever I skip class and stay home to drink a beer, I'm worried that the yoga police is going to come after me!"

(Despite rumors to the contrary, there is no Yoga Police. I know this may be a shock.)

There's this very modern stereotype about what types of people do yoga (skinny, flexible white chicks) and how those people are supposed to behave (eat vegan foods, drink only juice, be pseudo-spiritual). I'm calling this a modern stereotype because, you know, yoga was originally started by dudes. And lots of men do yoga now. (This has been well documented in a long string of articles on the subject of "Wow! Men do yoga!") Many of my students - and many more of my regular students - are people who bear no resemblance whatsoever to the cover model of a Yoga Journal magazine.

This is not my main point.

If you just go to a few classes at a good studio, you'll see that any body can do yoga. My favorite studios are filled with all sorts of different students - men, women, kids, senior citizens, fat, skinny, stiff, flexible, healthy, injured, and everything in between. That idea about the "yoga body" is a pretty easy bubble to burst. There are some great inspirational videos out there showing students who started off crippled and end up healthy. (Most of them are set to music by Coldplay.) So this idea seems to be sinking in, and that's fantastic. We need to people to understand that yoga is therapy and that it is meant to be for everyone.

So much for the myth of the yoga body. 

But I've seen several different posts and articles passed around on the general topic of "I'm much less fun now that I've started yoga," or worse, "other yogis give me a hard time when I don't follow the yoga lifestyle."

What the fuck is the yoga lifestyle?!

(Is it anything like the gay lifestyle?*)

Yoga is an overall wellness program. As far as I'm concerned, the point of yoga is to help you feel better so that you can have more freedom and joy in the rest of your life. So go and have fun!

Some people feel better when they wake up early in the morning, drink wheatgrass and vegetable juice, take 2 classes a day (not drinking water), post inspirational messages on Facebook, enjoy a quiet night in with friends, and go to sleep early. That's wonderful! Some people are happier when they practice a few times a week (spending the rest of the time with their job/family/significant other), go to rock concerts, drink whiskey, stay out late. That's good, too!

Of course it's important to have "everything in moderation" including moderation. If someone, for instance, is partying hard and getting shit-faced drunk every night, that person is not really having a good time. That person most likely has a problem which needs to be addressed. And it's important to maintain some level of appropriateness in public. Lynn Whitlow gave a great lecture at my teacher training on "how to conduct oneself in public as a yoga teacher," and part of her message was essentially, "don't be a drunken slob out on the town because your students will see you, and don't post scandalous pictures on Facebook because I won't hire you." I completely agree.

But seriously, we are all human beings first and yogis second. One thing that I loved when I first got into Bikram yoga was how down-to-earth and real the Bikram teachers were. They didn't preach, they didn't always use their indoor voices, they liked to drink beer, and sometimes they used the word "fuck." (Sorry if I'm ruffling any feathers here.) These were my people! Eventually I met Bikram himself - the self-styled "Beverly Hills yogi" - and this explained a lot. You don't have to be poor to be spiritual; you can be spiritual in a Rolls Royce!

Allow me to submit myself as an example. I am a ballerina-turned-yogi. I am a lifelong vegetarian. I practice not-quite-every-day. I don't smoke. I tend to follow rules. I drink a lot of tea. I listen to acoustic folk music. I own a hula-hoop. I enjoy fresh juice. AND. I am an engineer-turned yogi. I am a huge nerd. I drink whiskey. I watch Game of Thrones. I eat Ben and Jerry's. I drink water in class - happily and shamelessly.** I listen to all kinds of loud rock music. (I saw Flogging Molly last Friday, which was awesome, and I am going to see Gogol Bordello in 2 weeks!) I stay up late. I swear all the time and people still have to remind me to use my indoor voice - sigh. I'm friends with the bartender at the neighborhood dive bar and he made up a drink for me and my friend called "the Yogatini." 

I am equally happy about all of these things. If you thought that was a list of "good things vs bad things," then shame on you. Those are all good things!

I like seeing my students when I'm out and about because it sort of demonstrates that you can do yoga and also have a life. One student recognized me on the edge of the mosh pit at Flogging Molly, pointed at me, and hollered "YOU'RE MY YOGA TEACHER!" We high-fived. We felt proud.

I guess what I really want to say here is, just be yourself

And if anybody has a problem with you, you know what Bikram says: "Tell them, eat shit and die!" Aw. Nah, not really. If anybody feels the need to judge you, that's really their issue and it has nothing to do with you. Just smile and nod, and keep doing what you're doing. You are perfectly normal and everything is okay.

Rock and roll, baby....


*Did you read the link? Did you play the video? Both are very good!

** I've thought about posting on this topic, but I'm a little bit scared to open that can of worms.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ready... HUP!!

In case anybody was wondering what I have been up to lately, I have a new addiction.


I took my first class at the end of January, for my birthday, as a one-time adventure experience kind of a thing. I used to watch the people doing trapeze lessons on the Santa Monica pier back in California, and it was always something that I wanted to try!

Of course, after your first class they offer you a buy-one, get-one-free deal, which was just too good to pass up, especially since I had some extra birthday cash burning a hole in my pocket. So I went back twice in February (once for trapeze and once for aerial silks), and then I went 3 times this month (the past 3 weeks in a row), and it is pretty safe to say that I am hooked.

Symptoms of this addiction include: bookmarking online trapeze trick databases, reading whole articles on the physics of flying trapeze, spending hours watching trapeze videos on YouTube, and measuring time in "number of days until next trapeze class."

Unfortunately this addiction is a liiiittle bit expensive and time-consuming (especially since the trapeze place is north of Boston, an hour away from where I live), but I am totally making it work. Did the special, got the Groupon. I practice yoga for free, so it's not like I've been spending money on any other activities. I am planning to sign up for the next session of their Intensive Flying Workshop (which starts in May), and my rationale for this decision included the thought: "I'm sure I can look for a cheaper apartment." (I am, in fact, on the market for a new apartment in June.) Once I realized what I had just thought, I laughed for about 5 minutes - but I am still serious!

What is so great about the flying trapeze? Well I'll tell you....

For starters, it's a great way to look fear in the face. The first time you climb up on that platform and get ready to jump off, it is scary as shit! Looking over the edge is the scariest part, even if you're not afraid of heights. The ground seems pretty far away, and standing at the edge seems like a Bad Idea. The first time I got up on the platform, it went something like this:

Instructor: Okay, come stand at the edge.
Me: Okay! *steps right up*
Instructor: No.... the edge.
I look down. There is still a 2- or 3-inch gap between the tips of my toes and the end of the plaform.
Me: Oh.... *shuffles forward* Eek.

So you stand there at the edge of the platform (in full safety harness, I must add, and with the instructor holding onto the back of your safety belt), and you get your both hands on the trapeze bar - which requires leaning forward so that you're dangling over this big empty space. (Ooh, I get butterflies even typing this.) Then the instructor says "READY," and you bend your knees. Then they say "HUP!" and you... hop. Not terribly gracefully or stylishly at first, but you hop off the platform, they let go of your belt, and you go swinging into the air.


Flying is great, and not really scary at all. The hardest part is just the anticipation - getting ready to take the plunge. (There's an obvious metaphor there and I am not going to beat it to death.) Once you get going, you just have to follow the calls and do exactly what the instructor says, exactly when he says it. (I feel that my yoga training has prepared me for this quite well.) As long as you keep listening (and don't try to skip ahead or second guess), most of the tricks are much easier than they look. You don't even need upper body strength (which I sorely lack) - it's all about timing. In the first lesson, my friend Eleanor and I both caught our knee hangs - which means we got our knees up on the bar, hung by our knees, reached out our hands, and got caught in the air by another trapeze person. Awesome!! I can't remember the last time I felt so accomplished and bad-ass at the same time.

The trapeze has been great for my yoga practice. It's actually started opening up my shoulders quite a lot, which is an unexpected bonus. But mainly, it's given me back more confidence and fearlessness in the hot room. Like - if I can do that, then of course I can do this. Standing head to knee? Cheesecake! No room for hesitation, no room for doubt.

Because of course, in the trapeze, you can't hesitate. When you're working on a catch, timing is everything. If you don't jump/let go on the HUP, then you're too late, it's over, you miss it! So you can't think too much. You just have to listen, react, and have some faith.

It's also helped with my teaching, I think, because it's making me go through this huge "beginner experience" all over again. The fear, the confusion, the frustration, the understanding, the success... the obsession... all that stuff. It helps me relate to my students better. It reminds me of how exciting it is to start something new, and how much it matters to have an instructor who cares about you and knows your name. It reminds me how much of a Big Deal it feels like when you're new at something - for the guys and girls who work at the trapeze school, this stuff is their bread and butter, but for me, it's the highlight of the month! I have to remember that this applies to my students, too. They don't spend their whole day at the yoga studio - their class might just be the highlight of their week, so I'd better bring them my best stuff.

I've been impressed with all the staff at the trapeze school. The instruction is all verbal (very similar to Bikram), and it is one-on-one (which is different). I like how their commands are simple, clear, comprehensible, and always appropriate to the level of the student. They don't try to tell you everything at once - they just tell you one thing to do on your next swing that will help you improve. This is a great rule of thumb for teaching.

I love watching my own learning curve. I can really only process one thing at a time. (At least in the beginning, this was very obviously true.) My most difficult lesson was the one where I had just learned the one-handed take-off. (A great skill, which I now love - far superior to the two-handed bunny hop.) I kept messing up the trick, because I was thinking so much about the take-off. I was getting instructions on the take-off (remember to swing the bar down) and on the trick (remember to pick your head up at the end), and I just could not do both those things at the same time. Sequential processing - one thing at a time! But the next week, I did way better and had my best lesson yet. So this is helpful to remember - there is often a delay in processing new information. This helps me understand how my students feel when I tell them to do something - lock your knee! - and they don't get it. Sometimes, they just can't get it yet. It needs to sink in.

Meanwhile, I think I nailed the new skill that I learned on Monday. ("Nailed it" for a beginner, at least.) I have just started to learn how to swing. Which sounds like nothing - like, you're hanging off a bar and flying through the air, you are going to swing where you want to or not! - but it actually refers to something specific. Swinging is the technique where you swing your legs back and forth (in a specific way, at a specific moment) to make you swing higher, and BOY is it fun! I actually managed to catch the correct rhythm almost every time - there are those listening skills again - so by the end of the lesson I was doing the full swing and then dropping down to land on my back. It's my favorite thing since the knee hang - partly because I know it will lead to a whole realm of much more exciting tricks, but partly because I just LIKE it.

Here is a really cute promotional video from TSNY:

Forget Fear, Worry about the Addiction: Most accurate slogan ever! I want to steal this slogan and use it for Bikram yoga.

Next lesson in 12 days. :( 


Updated for accuracy on 3/29: Next lesson in FOUR days because I have recruited a newbie to go with me. I didn't really need that week off.  :)

Note for any trapeze folks who may read this: I know that it is technically "HEP" and not "HUP", but I am still a newbie and to me it SOUNDS like "hup." In my head, it is totally "hup."

Monday, February 27, 2012

Elaine the Inspiration!

Here's a little bit of inspiration for your week.

This is a picture of me and Elaine, before yoga class on Friday evening:

Elaine is a student at my friend Teri's studio, Bikram Yoga Merrimack Valley, up in North Andover, MA. She is also something of a legend in the Bikram yoga world. She is 75 years old and practices Bikram yoga "every day and twice on Sundays." She hasn't always been active - she started yoga when she was 72 and her kids talked her into it. In her early days, she would stand in the back of the room, do a little bit of pranayama breathing, lie down and have a rest, and then they would prop her up against the back wall so that she could do the final breathing. (She couldn't even sit on her own knees.) Now she practices in the front row (in the far left corner) every day, does all of the postures, and puts all the young folks to shame with her rocking practice. I'm pretty sure her locust pose is better than mine. And she does it all with a smile!

Here is a great article about Elaine that was in the local paper a couple years ago. After her first year, she lost a lot of weight, her cholesterol went down, and her type 2 diabetes basically vanished.

Student Profile: Elaine, 73-year-old Yogi

At the time of that article, Elaine has just finished a 30 day challenge which turned into a 60 day challenge, and she planned to keep going up to 73 days, to match her age.

She ended up going a little bit further than that.

My fellow teacher Allison and I drove up to Teri's studio on Friday night because it was a special occasion. The studio was having a big potluck to celebrate Elaine's achievement: she did over 1,000 classes in 1,000 days.

Here is a picture I took with Elaine after Friday's class - number 1,005 for Elaine in 1,001 days:

"Yoga maintains youth long, keeps the body full of vitality, immune to diseases, even at old old old old age." - Bishnu Ghosh

Check out that happy smiling face!!

Everybody just loves Elaine to pieces. Don't blush, Elaine, you know this is true! (I asked her if she'd mind if I embarrassed her on my blog, and she said I can do whatever I want.) But here's the really great thing about her - she has inspired so many people who would have been scared to do this yoga. She is a one-woman welcoming committee for the studio. (Teri has actually made her an official "studio ambassador" banner.) Every time a new student shows up for class and is looking a little nervous or uncomfortable, Elaine marches right up to them and makes them feel welcome. She tells them, just relax, don't try to do everything on the first day, just stay in the room and take it easy and keep coming back. She can make anybody feel comfortable, because she's old enough to be their mom (or maybe their grandma) and she's got this bright smile and she makes people believe that everything is going to be okay.

It's awesome. If we could have an Elaine placed at every Bikram yoga studio in the world, it would make Bikram yoga the most successful wellness enterprise on the planet.

Because honestly, the best way to inspire is to lead by example. That's why it's so important for us teachers to love the practice and believe in it ourselves. And that's why word of mouth is our most powerful form of advertising. I suspect that the students who come to yoga because of a friend or family member have a higher success rate than the ones who just drop in randomly. And that's why the studio community is so important. I get such a kick out of listening to the conversations that spring up in the lobby. I could talk until my face is blue trying to convince the newbies to come back for another class, but it's infinitely better when another sweaty student tells them, "Oh, you did great - the first one is the hardest. Today was my third class and it was already a lot better." I love seeing the variety of students who show up for class - old and young, men and women, stiff and bendy, fat and slim - because then the newbies look around and think, "Well, if they can do it, then I can do it!"

I think that's a big part of why we love Elaine so much. She inspires that thought - "Well if she can do it, maybe I can do it." That's hope - one of the most positive emotions in the world.

Hope and love. Pass them on.

Friday, January 27, 2012

(A Little More About) How to "Make It" in Bikram Yoga

Wow - I expected to get some reaction, but I am surprised and encouraged by how many people responded to my last post about "How to "Make It" as a Bikram Yoga Teacher." I got so many positive and thoughtful responses - on the blog, on Facebook, and in my inbox. I think people responded because this topic is so often swept under the rug. (There are hundreds of blogs about the teacher training experience, but not so many about the practical teaching experience.) I'm thrilled that my post was helpful to so many people, especially the new teachers!

I think I covered the most significant points in my first post, but other teachers have pointed out some more excellent points that are worth a mention. So without further ado, here is Part II.

Continuing Education

Yes, yes, yes, yes. I know you just shelled out $11k for teacher training, but did you really learn everything there? Don't answer that, it's not even a question. The best content at TT is in Bikram's posture lectures towards the end, and by that point you are totally sleep deprived and overloaded. So keep learning!

Keep your eye out for seminars and master classes in your area. (Or even seminars not in your area - road trip!) Most of those events cost $50 or less for teachers, and they are incredibly valuable. So far I've been to two seminars with Diane Ducharme, a master class with Lynn Whitlow, one advanced seminar (in 2009), advanced classes with Emmy (which are free), and master classes with every international champion since maybe 2008. These have all been immensely helpful for my teaching. And did I mention that they are also great networking opportunities? You can often get on the schedule at a studio for a week or two when a teacher goes out of town for vacation. (I taught for a week at the studio in Richmond after I met the owner at one of Diane's seminars.)

Read books about yoga that inspire you. I have a list of some of my favorite over on the right-hand side of this blog. Just don't go crazy and start overanalyzing everything - keep it simple!

Keep studying your dialogue. I said it before but I'll say it again. Most studios want dialogue. Don't think, "oh, I'll study it more once I have work." That's backwards. Learn the material, get your shit together, and the work will come to you! This is especially true for the newbies. You don't have to be perfect (because perfection doesn't exist), but don't get complacent, either. I know teachers who have been teaching for 5+ years and still look at the dialogue every day. Just keep trying the right way.

And yes, go back and visit teacher training if you have the ability. It can be illuminating. I've been back twice now. The first visit was overwhelming, but the second one was incredible.

Teaching Overseas

I haven't done this yet, but there are definitely opportunities overseas. (I guess I should specify that I am American and writing this from the USA perspective.) Australia seems to be going crazy for Bikram, and there are lots of opportunities down under for teachers under age 30 (due to a quirk of their immigration rules). Sounds like fun!

Studio Ownership

I left this out on purpose because you really have to get some experience as a teacher before you can be a good studio owner - you can't put the cart before the horse! I think HQ requires a minimum 6 months or 100 classes experience before opening a studio (or something like that - maybe somebody can correct me here). In my opinion, that's still an awfully short amount of time. I wouldn't have felt prepared to be responsible for a whole studio after only 6 months! But of course a lot of people go to training from areas where Bikram yoga doesn't exist yet, with the specific purpose of opening a studio in their home town/country, and that's fabulous.

Opening a studio will cost about $150,000 on average, so you have to spend a lot of money to make money. But a lot of studio owners do quite well for themselves after a couple years in business. 

I might open a studio one day, but at the moment I'm not even remotely interested. Owning a studio will almost definitely cut into your teaching and practice time, plus it gives you a whole pile of extra responsibilities. I am very happy to operate as a full-time teacher with no extra worries - it lets me have more fun.

And Finally...

My friend Nikhil suggested that I should revisit the original question. 

I wrote about the question that people are most inclined to ask: "Can you make a living by teaching Bikram yoga?" 

But here's a better question, the one that is always in the air at the beginning of teacher training: "Do you want to change your life?"

It's a personal question. The answer is up to you. But if you are somebody who wants the life of a teacher, then I sincerely hope that this discussion will help you!

Comments are always welcome. I try to read and answer all of them.