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.... :)