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.