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!

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