Thursday, December 31, 2009

Feliz... return?

So, I’m, um, back from Mexico a little early. Make that a lot early.

It’s a little humbling to be typing that. The reasons are justified, I think—a horrible experience getting to my destination city, food poisoning immediately upon arrival, pick pocketing, etc—but I can’t help feeling a little defeated.

 I’ve always placed qualities like “determined,” “indefatigable,” “adventurous” on my “must-be!” list. I can’t help thinking that a younger, more inspired version of myself would have seen those experiences as minor setbacks and gone on with the trip as planned. I just couldn’t shake what had happened, though, and as I found myself crying the second night and just wishing I was at home with the cats, I realized I had absolutely no obligation to stick anything out.

 I got my butt on the first plane back to SoCal, my kitties, and my yoga. I’m so glad I did.

Still, that feeling of being defeated is hard to shake. A friend emailed me, saying, “you are lucky to be alive, in my opinion. You took a lot of risks on that trip.”

 I don’t think that’s the lesson here. I’ve done a lot of traveling (went to China alone when I was 20 and haven’t stopped traveling) and am a pretty smart girl. I feel like so many folks have this exaggerated idea of the dangers of foreign travel, and while I may have had bad experiences this time, I know that it’s an exception and not the rule.

I’ve already written about the idea of not giving into the fear, and I couldn’t help thinking of this again as I was driving home from yoga this morning, my first class since I returned. It was a brutal class—super hot, crowded, and you know how it is: your mental state really guides your experience in the classroom. I was not in a good place, as the cliché goes.

On the way home, I started beating myself up because my standing backward bend is still pitifully shallow. I was thinking about how forceful the dialog is for this posture: “Don’t be scared! Try to fall down backward! Just try to KILL YOURSELF.” Because of that line, I called Bikram “Nazi yoga” for a really long time. But I see now that the dialog is so extreme here because that pose seems unnatural to us. Our minds go, “No! I’m scared! Don’t go back far, take it easy now and make up for it later.” But the body needs and loves those backbends. The mind just has preconceived notions about what you’re supposed to be able to do.

I think that is the same attitude I am trying to take toward this trip. OK, so maybe I had a really crappy experience in Mexico and that it was appropriate for me to come home. But I can’t let this one bad experience sour me on anything: not Mexico, not travel, not going against the grain of traveling where I’m “supposed” to travel as a single female.

So, my mantra for 2010, at least for the first few weeks: “Don’t be scared! Just try to fall down backward.”

Feliz año nuevo!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Taking the Yoga with Me

"Hey! Why you all leaving? Are there cookies out there? Santa?" Today's day-after-Christmas class was a killer, as evidenced by the amount of people fleeing the room for a breather. I've found that when the studios get really packed, I get anxious and don't have as strong a practice as in smaller classes. I guess I wasn't alone!

I understand that doing the yoga forces you to face your fears, whatever they may be--body issues, social anxiety, fear of failure, etc, or all of the above. You "take up arms" against them in the class and they don't haunt you quite so much in the real world. Today's class was hell, quite frankly, but I did it, and I know that doing so helped to quiet my restless, planning mind.

Tomorrow, I'm flying out to a spot in Mexico for a few days. I'll be practicando el español and enjoying the big colonial city. Alas, there's no Bikram Yoga in this city (believe me, I checked ;-). So, in the anticipation of missing the yoga, I've been reflecting on what the yoga has given me this past year. There's definitely some apprehension about going, but surviving the yoga class today and all the previous days fosters a calm confidence that I'll be able to survive this and other challenges.

That ... openness to experience, for lack of a better word, is probably what I'm most grateful for. It quells the social anxiety and prompts me to trust that I'll be able to handle what comes my way. Earlier this year, I ran my first half-marathon, but it didn't give me half the amount of "confidence" a week's worth of yoga gives me. There's just something about this practice that has the power to gently uplift you. I'm sure I'll be taking a part of the yoga with me to Mexico.

Namaste, feliz año, and see you in 2010!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sit Down More! ... Or Not.

Yeah, it’s the end of the year. I’m a teacher, and the end of the semester is a bittersweet time—the students I adore and the students that drive me halfway up the wall are moving on. At the same time, there are so many demands pulling on me. When do I hunker down and indulge in moments to myself? When do I surrender to the demands? What a careful balancing act.

One of the things I love about practicing Bikram yoga is that the dynamics of your daily life play out in the hot room. It’s like the practice serves as this little microcosm for you to test the limits of your mental and spiritual self as well as exercising the body. In my personal life, pop-psych-y phrases like “establishing boundaries,” and “accepting my feelings as valid” have been rattling around in my brain lately. I can’t help seeing yoga as a safe space to test out new ways of being.

After a ten-year hiatus, I’ve been at my current Bikram studio a little over six months. The teachers all know me and my abilities by now, and some of them aren’t hesitant to call me on it when they think I’m slacking. While I love this about them, there are days when I know I need to ignore their personalized instructions: “Come down more, Elisa!” or, better yet, “Zebra-stripe towel girl, why you letting the dog walk you? Don’t be scared; fall down more backwards!”

In an odd way, I think it’s progress to occasionally not heed the teachers if they encourage me to do more if I don’t have it in me that particular day. Yoga isn’t always about achieving the fullest expression of the posture, right?

Still, being in the yoga room feels like a constant negotiation—where’s the line? When do you listen and trust the instructor who says to work harder, and when do you back off? That “listen to your body” stuff? Easier said than done.

I was having a hell of a class last week when this dilemma came into play. Since the winter hit (yes, we get winter even here in San Diego!), the room has been much cooler than usual—100 degrees versus the usual 115 degrees. The class was particularly full that day, and the instructor had me move directly in line with the heater that was spewing hot air across my face. In the mirror, my hair was blowing around like a model in a photo shoot, although with buckets of sweat and a red face, I looked decidedly not like a model. By awkward pose, it became apparent that the day’s class was about just making it through the postures without bolting from the room in a panic.

Then came triangle pose. For whatever reason, even though I’m quite flexible, I have always had a hard time getting my hips down in triangle. My hips look more like I’m gingerly stepping over a puddle than sunk firmly into the beautiful 90 degree angle the instructions mandate.

That day, though, the teacher wasn’t going to let me get away with it. “Sit down more, Elisa,” she instructed. No movement on my part. I was already at my limit just being in the room, I told myself. But the teacher persisted: “Elisa, SIT DOWN MORE. I know you can do better. I saw you in the other postures; I know what you can do.”

Even though it was only a few seconds before I reacted, my mind raced with emotions and questions. What would it mean if I listened? What would it mean if I didn’t listen? Couldn’t she see I was already being unfairly punished by the heater blowing the Saharan desert across my face? What would happen if I grabbed my stuff, ran out of the room, and never came back?

This time, I trusted the teacher, and I’m so glad I did. I listened to her instructions again, got my hips down, and glancing at myself in the mirror, knew that I had never expressed the posture so fully. And you know what? It actually felt better to go into it without fear than it did to hold back the way I had been all these months. I was even able to get the hips in line when I went to class the next time!

I think that sometimes when we negotiate, the answer comes back as “take it easy. Today is just about making it through the class, the hour, the moment.” But sometimes those hips will come down and stay there ;-)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What's in the Name?

So, why, “eat the yolk?”

The other day, I was standing over the kitchen sink with two hard-boiled eggs and a post-Bikram yoga appetite. The eggs were peeled, cool, and flecked with the right amount of salt. Before I bit into one, the question, “should I eat the yolk?” flickered across my mind.

I’ve forsaken many indulgences in the interest of “being healthy.” It’s no secret that eggs are loaded with cholesterol and have a substantial amount of saturated fat. But if you skip out on the yolk, enjoying only the bouncy white encasement, you also miss the protein and trace amounts of minerals like vitamin A and iron. Not to mention the velvety texture that coats your tongue as the egg slides smoothly down the hatch. And, if you don’t eat it, what do you do with the leftover yolk?

Contemplating the question at the kitchen sink made me think of standing bow-pulling posture, the nemesis of my Bikram practice. The pose requires the perfect balance of kicking and stretching, which must be “equal and simultaneous, 50-50” so that you don’t fall out. There’s a tendency for neophytes to enter the posture cautiously in order to avoid moving like a weeble-wobble or falling completely on the face before the 60 seconds is up.

There’s also a tendency for you to give yourself one hell of a hard time in postures like standing bow. Just a couple of the ideas that dart across my mind: “Keep your stupid knee locked! Why is my leg coming to the side of my head and not on top of it? You’re gonna fall! Why am I so afraid to bring my body down more?”

Of course, if you don’t give it your full 100% effort (or 110%, as Bikram demands), you’ll never get to see yourself with your body parallel, your standing leg firmly rooted into the floor, your spine arching backwards as your arm reaches toward yourself in the mirror. Without a doubt, if you leave the fear behind and go for it, you will fall out, time and time again. But it’s also doubtless that progress will be made, millimeter by millimeter, second by second. There’s always a second set, and there’s always tomorrow’s class.

Knowing this doesn’t keep the fear from grabbing at me and trying to get me under its influence. But I think that fear can be lessened, and I tell myself, “Screw it. Do it.”

To eating the yolk!