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.

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