Saturday, January 30, 2010

Starting from Scratch (Again!)

I’m entitling this post with a saying Bikramites are all-too-familiar with. Most of you have heard it about 8,582 times, but for those who haven’t, Bikram yoga instructors will often break out this saying, especially when you’ve finished a particularly grueling set of poses: "Never too late, never too old, never too bad, never too sick to start from the scratch once again." There’s always a second chance, there’s always a second set. No matter how many times I hear that saying, I never get tired of it.

I mentioned in my previous post that I was having some health issues that prevented me from getting to class for a while. My doc diagnosed me as hypertensive (I know, right? What the hell?) and insisted I stay home from work and skip rigorous exercise until the medication kicked in.

I walked into my first class back feeling a little cocky. My blood pressure was back down into the “acceptable” range, and the preliminary blood test had come out perfect. Although I was little tired, I felt I was ready for a triumphant return—no more troubling symptoms! Plus, my previously abnormal cholesterol, thyroid, and glucose levels? Back to the optimal range. Kidney and liver functions? Baby, I’d tell you, but then I’d have to live in fear of the organ harvesters.

That confidence was shaken by the end of pranayama deep breathing. My arms actually got fatigued by the end of first set. I barely made it through Eagle pose (the third pose in the series) before I had to sit down. The rest of the class I must have looked like one of those ping-pong balls. You know, the ones tied to the paddle? I was up and down throughout the entire standing series. I could barely stay in the room.

Even though I wasn't working hard, my heart rate felt high, so I just kept to the floor for most of the class. At one point I stole a glance in the mirror and could see my heartbeat vibrating in my belly. As the rest of the class was lifting into elegant Bow pose, I was crying into my towel thinking “this is it. I’m dying in here. I won’t be able to do this anymore.”

By Fixed Firm, though, I had gotten it together. My teacher tells us occasionally that every day, every body is different. To get through the class, I would have to reframe it. Today, the yoga was not spending half of the class on the floor; the yoga was doing 13 of the 26 rigorous postures in an intense environment while my body was adjusting to the new medication. I’m still getting benefits, even if I’m not “performing” at my usual level.

I still had one hurdle to clear. The doctor told me to get a blood pressure monitor and to check it occasionally. I could not let it get up to the level it had been before. I knew that if I was hypertensive after getting home from yoga, I’d have to rethink everything.

But guess what?

OK, you yogis guessed it. After I’d gotten home, I checked the blood pressure and it was fine. In fact, it was the lowest it’s been since I started the medication. I was so relieved I almost started crying again.

So, as I did in the class today, I’m trying to reframe this whole experience. Yes, I had a health scare last week, and yes, I have to go on medication that has some weird side effects. Yes, I still have to get more tests. But—and I don’t want to exaggerate or jump to conclusions--I must point out that the preliminary blood test results are optimal, where they were slightly abnormal before doing the yoga. I had the opportunity to demonstrate the tremendous benefits the yoga can offer.

I’m going to have to adjust my expectations. Big time! So long as the doctor continues to give me a green light, though, I can continue practicing. And guess what? I have the opportunity to start from scratch. Again!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

And just when you thought things were getting on track...

Ay, it's only Wednesday, and what a week. I had a chance to visit another studio on Sunday, but aside from that class, I haven't been able to practice. I have been having some health concerns lately, and the doctor insisted I take a few days off from work and rigorous exercise.

Of course, during the office visit to the doctor my concerns were largely about yoga. He wasn't familiar with Bikram yoga, and after I described it, he asked, "Why do you go so often?" In response, the words, "it saved me" popped out of my mouth. Maybe that's a slight exaggeration--I don't have any life-threatening illnesses (so far!) that Bikram cured me of. But, as I've posted here numerous times already, the mental and physical benefits are so life altering that, in a way, it did save me. Y'all know what I mean: we are our own worst enemies, and yoga is a tool that can save us from ourselves.

Admittedly, I'm in a kind of scary place right now. I am humbled by being told that it would be dangerous for me to practice for a while, but I'm also worried, of course, about missing too many classes. Ugh, a whole week without doing this?? What am I supposed to do with myself?

One cool thing: the doctor was so interested in the yoga that he listened to me prattle on about it and its benefits for a while, and he even asked me to bring him some information on it next time! He said he has a studio near his house and might be interested in trying it.

Thanks for letting me vent! :-)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

I see you!

Yesterday was one of those “WTF?!” classes. You know, you’re squatting there in Eagle pose, thinking, “Yeah, baby, these joints were just built for Eagle!” and you’re feeling all in tune with your body. And then you start listening to your body instead of your ego, ‘cause that’s what the practice is supposed to make you do, and you’re, like, “What the f**k!?”

I was tired, achey, and nauseous throughout the class. And with no discernable cause--just the body being weird, is all. I only sat out one set of one posture, but I came up early in some of the others. Goodness… get in touch with the body and who knows what you’ll find!

I’ve been thinking lately about the senses and how they are used in class. One of the principles of meditation is to become increasingly aware of the body. I think one of the reasons folks of certain religions take issue with meditation is because in a religion like Christianity, there is a de-emphasis on the body in favor of more “moral” or “spiritual” thinking. (I don’t intend the quotes to come off as sarcastic—more as a nod to other ways of looking at things.) Maybe I’m way off-base here, but in the religion I grew up with, we were taught that the body was something that needed to be disregarded, de-emphasized, in order to attain a higher purity of thought.

Please, correct me if I’m wrong, but meditation insists on an awareness of the body. You can’t have real stillness without first really experiencing the function of the breath, the way the air moves around the arms, the spaces between the arch of the foot and the floor, etc. You can become so attuned to the tiniest detail.

On what I hope will be a related note, any vision-impaired yogis out there? Have any of you practiced with or taught a blind student? For the first time, I have a blind student in one of the writing classes I teach, and the experience has made me rethink so much about my teaching. Stuff like MLA format (i.e., where to put the header for your paper, font size, margins, etc) seems so trivial. It all rests on the assumption that a uniform visual experience is extremely important. How do you sell a person on the importance of attending to minute details they can’t experience? How do you sell a body on something that has nothing to do with the merit of the writing's content?

These questions are pretty specific and relevant only to my job, I suppose, but I’ve been thinking lately how a sightless person would fare in the yoga room. Obviously, the important instruction to “see yourself” in the mirror becomes moot. But I don’t think the “Look at yourself in the mirror” part is what makes the yoga effective. Taking in the appearance of the body through our eyeballs is not the yoga—it’s the attention and concentration on the body, the awareness, going beyond the ego. And you don’t need perfect vision to be able to do that.

I do think the whole discussion of the senses ties in together. While we work on focusing on what messages the senses give us, I am not sure it’s the ability to receive feedback in the form of touch, hearing, seeing, etc that does it.

I realize that this question treads on delicate territory—attempts for “abled” individual to consider the experiences of disabled individuals are always problematic. But still, it gives one pause :-) I’d love to hear your thoughts, challenges, whatev. ॐ

Monday, January 18, 2010

When Life Gives You Liz Lemons

Tonight’s class was just peachy. There are two visiting instructors to our studio, both of them former yoga champions. Or finalists. Or something. Anyway, they rock—as teachers and, obviously, as practitioners. Sometimes, one will practice with us. Admittedly, if I fall out of standing bow or head-to-knee a little early I will sneak a peek at their picture-perfect postures.

As a teacher, this particular chica has just got it down. Great balance between motivating individuals and sticking to dialogue. She is disciplined about allowing the full 20-second savasana between the postures, so I always feel nice ‘n ready for the second set.

The other fun thing was that the entire girls’ tennis team from some high school showed up. As a result, the late afternoon class, which usually has about 15 people, was totally packed with giggling teenaged girls poking fun at each other when they realized, again and again, how hard it was. Although I had groaned inwardly upon seeing the vibrant youngsters crowd the lockers, their silliness wasn’t irritating—there was just this fun energy in the room. The teacher harnessed it well and hammed it up for half-locust: “good for tennis elbows!”

OK, so, you yogi vets, think back to the time when you started practicing up front. Remember the doubts—“Am I ready to stare at myself so closely for 90 minutes? What if students think I think I'm some sort of model yogi? Am I ready for the possibility that other students will be looking at my ass?"
Talking to a Bikram vet helped me get over myself. She reminded me that we are there to meditate on ourselves and not other students, so of course it’s OK if I’m in the front. Even if I fall out of standing-head-to-knee sometimes.

I also think that the goal is less the execution of the postures and more focus, more… the ability to be still. That’s been the priority for me since I came back to yoga. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I’m really proud of myself that I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not fidgety anymore, especially between the postures. Admittedly, I wipe sweat before the forward bending poses, and I usually sneak a drink of water before triangle and fixed firm. It’s all a gentle unfolding, right?

Anyway, I’ve given myself permission to stand in the front lately, and I love it. I’m curious about what others think about practicing in the front. Anyone have to fight the, “I don’t want anyone to think I’m an arrogant SOB” feeling?
For no particular reason, please enjoy this picture of Liz Lemon/Tina Fey. She is my TV alter ego and I find her dorky self-deprecation quite amusing.

"Why do you sound surprised? I love America. Just because I think gay dudes should be allowed to adopt kids and we should all have hybrid cars doesn't mean I don't love America."

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Empty that Glass

Lately, I’ve been reading Bikram’s book, Beginning Yoga Class, and am getting a lot out of it. If you haven’t read it yet, get it. Now! It’s funny, it’s helpful, and you can come back to it again and again when you have questions about how a pose is performed.

Did you get the book yet? :-)

There are some pretty cool insights there. I keep coming back to a passage in which Bikram talks/writes about what we get from quieting the mind enough to hear the inner voice, what he calls the “third ear.” Here’s an excerpt:

"I keep problems and thoughts of outside world away from you here in class, to allow you to be empty, like glass into which the god is waiting to pour sparkling pure water of the truth. . . . So each day here in class we work on that, on emptying the glass just a little more, so you can hear better and better. When finally you are completely empty, and we wash you in Lemon Fresh Joy so you can see your own reflection, then you will fill with truth and you will hear with clarity and understanding, hear beautiful things you did not think possible" (127).
I don’t want to muddy the lovely passage with a pitiful attempt to interpret or explain why it’s relevant to my life. I will just say that Bikram ain’t kidding here, and that the image of being washed in lemony dish soap makes me want to laugh and cry simultaneously.

God, have I been drinking the kool-aid or what?

That said, I’m looking forward to trying out another studio this weekend. About ten years ago (can’t believe I’m old enough to say that now!) I practiced at the first studio that came to San Diego. I haven’t been back since I took up Bikram yoga again last June, so I’m looking forward to visiting the studio again. I’m also a little excited! The studio has a rep for being extra hot and stocked with tough teachers.

Happy MLK weekend, all!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"So tell me what ya want; I'll tell ya what you need"--Tegan and Sara

Warning: cliche alert!

You can’t always get what you want, as some old guys used to say.

Something I'm learning is that even if we can’t get what we want, we can learn to trust that we can get what we need. I’m back to the classroom now, and while that means I might not get to the hot room as much as I have been, there will definitely be a greater need for yoga’s balancing power in my life :-) I'm thinking that’s just an essential part of why the yoga exists—we need its ability to temper the effects of our chaotic lives. This past month, anyway, demonstrated just that.

I'm pretty sure that it was yoga that helped me march out of the dark tunnel the “failed” Mexico trip I wrote about previously dropped me into. The first few days I was practically housebound—I didn’t want to see anyone, couldn’t fathom going to the mall, much less think of the school semester starting again. I was just done.

After one day of "in bed with the cats" recovery, though, I managed to get myself back to yoga and practiced consistently. Notwithstanding a couple of amazing friends who dragged me out to dinner and a movie, it was the yoga that quickly got me back to normal. Better than normal, in fact.

OK, so, yeah, I wish I’d had a better experience in Mexico. But being humbled by my perceived failure actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Admittedly, the first couple of days back in the hot room were monstrous. I could barely look at myself in the mirror. I was scared that someone was going to eviscerate me in the back-bending postures. It took every fiber of my being to stop myself from leaving the room. But by the third day back, something just happened.

Usually, I have an insane amount of negative self-talk when I practice. I try and see yoga as an opportunity to work on silencing those demonic voices throughout the class. My “self-image” outside the class had improved dramatically since I started. The need for this to happen was why I came back to Bikram Yoga in the first place! However, in the class, statements like “You suck! You are lazy! Look at you, you look terrible. You are too weak do this!” have been part of my internal dialogue.

Therefore, I was shocked to notice in standing head-to-knee pose that day that the disgusting inner monologue had been put on mute. No, the postures weren’t any easier, but what joy to realize that I’d lost a little of that self-hate and gained more self-acceptance along the way. Imagine the desire to engage in a bad habit—something like biting the nails, going for meds, drinking the gin, whatever—just disappearing, totally without effort.

I don’t think I would have had this breakthrough if I hadn’t been broken down by the trip. Maybe I had some sort of inflated, tough-girl-conquers-world attitude that needed to be dismantled. Maybe I faced head-on my fear of failure. (Insert greater clarity here :-) Regardless, I’ve made strides in the last month, in the physical expression of the postures and, more importantly, in tweaking the ever-troubling ego.

I wanted to have a grand adventure abroad. As it turns out, I needed to stay here.

I’m so excited about 2010, the new semester, and this wonderful online Bikram community. Even though I’ve just started blogging and reading others’ posts with more regularity, it’s already been such an enriching experience. Thanks, y’all, for listening to the ramble :-)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tumbling Down the Stairs

Yesterday, I was having lunch with a dear friend of mine. As usual, I was touting the virtues of yoga. I think I was rambling on about how it helped pull me back to center after the debacled Mexico trip. She expressed interest, and I encouraged her to try it out.

Before I could send her an email inviting her to attend class with me, I got a text saying, “I went to Bikram after lunch. I don’t know what to think. It was so intense.” Turns out, we had been in class (different studios) at the same time!

From what she told me, she did fabulously—never left the room, tried all the poses. Awesome. I have to share a funny tidbit with from her account of what spine-strengthening series was like: “I thought I was going to have a heart attack, but when I looked at the guy next to me I could see his heart pounding through his back. I figured I was OK!” Oh, bless her.

(I’ve actually never seen a heart pounding through skin. Is that something he should have checked out? ;-)

What struck me about our conversation was that all of what she recounted to me was so familiar—the panic, the buckets of sweat, being intimidated, and feeling like failure was imminent. I don’t think it’s uncommon to feel that, even after months of practice. I certainly do, all the time. I suppose the intensity or frequency of the “I’m gonna die!” moments is scaled back a bit now, but hey, they don’t say, “Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber” for nothin’!

Although I acknowledge the intensity, that there are moments when my body feels it’s going to explode into thousands of sweaty pieces, I can’t minimize the progress. When I started, I never made it through a class without sitting out a posture—I would even occasionally leave the room. Now, the reverse is true: I never leave, and I don’t have to sit out postures. Well, usually ;-)

In recent article for the LA Times, one of my favorite performers, Tom Waits, was asked about learning how to act. He admitted he didn’t really have a method or system for acting, and that it was more like “falling down the stairs. Ideally, you do it gracefully.” Ain’t that just like a yoga class? It’s all just a fall down the stairs. But since it’s the same flight of stairs, maybe we can learn ‘em and make the fall look alright. Ta-da!

And while we’re on the no0b vein, I have an urgent update on Mr. Smelly Dog Tag Jingle: He was back, and he was neither smelly nor jingly. Good for him! 

My friend and I made tentative plans to go to her second class together. Heck yeah, there’s Bikram tenacity for you!

("Carefully fall" sign)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Two Wild and Crazy Guys

Be quiet, brain! Shut the f@#* up!

That was the mantra for tonight's class. I was in a pretty non-yogi mood when I got to class and was initially bummed that my usual teacher wasn't teaching.

Initially, I was even more bummed when a cloud of sickeningly sweet cologne set up his mat behind me--a newbie, as it turned out. Very self-righteous thoughts churned in my brain: "Someone shoulda told him to wash off that cologne. My tongue is starting to swell up, it stinks so much! And who wears dog tags to class?! They clink every time he moves! What's up with that beeping watch?! Oh, and the instructor sounds like Steve Martin. If I were a guy, would I be wild and crazy?" ...and on and on.

Akroyd/Martin on SNL

My mind continued churning through the first set of awkward, when I realized that chatter wasn't exactly conducive to a strong practice. And it had been a while since I'd had a really strong practice.

Then, a phrase one of my regular teachers is fond of saying popped into mind: "Bikram yoga is 90% Raja (mental/spiritual) and only 10% Hatha (physical)." I remember it sounding a little counter-intuitive the first time I heard it! How could such a physically intense form of yoga be about what goes on in your head?

It is, of course. From what I understand, Bikram has designed the series with a Western audience in mind. According to Bikram, we're just not ready for deeper meditation and other forms of yoga--we need the heat, the rapid-fire dialogue to quiet the mind and get us to a place where we can look our selves in the mirror and just see.

I figured that if the class was only 10% physical, my senses should only be 10% as distractable as they normally are ;-) I figured I could just let Mr. Smelly Dog Tag Jingle go. It was his first class, after all, and he finished without leaving the room! I figured, good for him.

I ended up having a great class. I kicked out in standing head-to-knee (a real toughy for me) and managed to stay in standing bow, chest way down, most of the first set and the whole second set. Most importantly, I was easy on myself when I didn't do the poses according to my expectations. I felt like for most of those 90 minutes, I succeeded in getting an infantile grip on my racing brain.

OK, OK, I will admit it. Occasionally, visions of Steve Martin danced in my head.

"You mean I'm gonna stay this color?!"