Saturday, June 26, 2010

Maximum relaxation?

Regular practitioners of Bikram Yoga often hear the phrase, "Maximum exertion to maximum relaxation." (Teachers: is this part of the dialogue? Or just a Bikram-ism?) It's a good reminder. You work, struggle, and sweat, giving 100% in the posture, and then you let go completely, allowing your body and mind to restore its natural rhythm and prepare for the next pose.

But I've always found that whole relaxation thing to be, ironically, a big struggle. I remember when I first came back to yoga, those savasanas between the postures were the times where I really had to keep a handle on my bucking bronco brain. By the time I hit the floor, I always wanted to bolt from the room. I was usually OK during the postures--relaxing between each was the problem. 

Fortunately, that part of class has gotten easier with time. In fact, I am to the point where I can really sigh and sink down into the floor, enjoying each of those juicy, nourishing 20 seconds. Too bad it's not floating over into my outside life a bit more!

I can't help see the connection to the seasons of a teacher's life! Like may people, I think I crave that perfect balance between work and fun, between business and relaxation. I don't want to be up to the gills in teaching and all that comes with it, but I don't want to feel bored or purposeless. Maybe striving for that "perfect balance" isn't realistic. If we don't give it our all sometimes, how can we ever see what we're capable of? And if we don't allow ourselves to relax completely, how do we ever truly come back to equilibrium? Part of learning to accept the moment is acknowledging that the moment is often not what we want.

I mentioned in a previous post that I'm off for the summer. I went from the maximum exertion of the regular semester to the relaxing dolldrums of summer. Occasionally, I need to work on losing the desire to "bolt from the room." I'm learning just sit with who I am and what's around me. (It's actually getting better! I bet that by the time I get the hang of it, school will be starting again ;-)

I'm in an extended 20-second savasana. I should just take it, right??

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Plateaus and progress

Hello, blogger friends! OK, so... while I've been reading your blogs avidly, I have clearly been lacking on doing posting of my own. Maybe I'm in the doldrums of summer, or maybe some recent (good) changes in my life have distracted me a bit. Another likely culprit is that I'm at a bit of a plateau in my practice, and I want to cocoon into that, rather than blogging about it.
In class, I have to struggle to turn off the negative, cynical narrator I've got in the back of my head: "oh man, I'm still only here in Standing Head-to-Knee? I can't get past step two." Lately, I have to remind myself that progress isn't necessarily reflected in an ability to go deeper into the postures. It can be manifested elsewhere, outside the hotroom.
I had an interesting experience last night in another, Ashtanga-based class. Just a litle bit of background: when I was 16, I started taking Ashtanga classes and practiced Ashtanga quite regularly for about ten years. Toward the end of those ten years, I did "pure" first series at least twice a week.
Now, there's a posture in first series called Marichasana D.
It's like the Bikram Spinal Twist on crack! Marichasana D was my nemesis. Every time I'd get to that part in the sequence, I'd think, "It doesn't matter how flexible or strong I get. My body isn't built for this pose; I'll never do it without the help of the teacher." Well, last night at the Ashtanga-y class I took with a couple of my dear friends, the teacher gave us an opportunity to try it. And I slid right into it.
Mind you, I'm sure I didn't look anything like the picture. I think my right knee was off the floor. But I was able to do it! And I did it after a two-year hiatus from Ashtanga.
The experience was such a great reminder. You don't always see the progress right away. It's not a steady, uphill climb, with the mountain top getting closer and closer. Sometimes, the evidence of your work happens later--much later--and in unexpected ways. I may still be stuck in Standing Head to Knee, but there is progress in my life in other areas: I can easily do a four-mile jog. Panicky and racing thoughts are stilled much more quickly after beginning this practice. I've actually taken up sitting in meditation each morning (now that is the scariest undertaking of them all!)
It was also cool to note that only after a steady Bikram practice that I was able to get into that pose. I guess the series, "simple" as it may be, really does prepare you for everything else!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Strawberries and Shaktis

Today in class, I thought of strawberries. It's summer, and I've been eateing them, standing over the sink and nibbling them up to their little green tops.

As I set up for class this morning, I caught a look at myself and my new, strawberry-colored Shakti outfit. Me, a yogi, wearing Shaktis? Not so unusual, you seasoned Bikramites might say. Let me explain. It's actually my first pair. I've been practicing Bikram yoga for a year now, and it took me three months to rock the sports bra in class. I tend to be a fairly conservative dresser, however, and I just haven't felt comfortable enough to wear Shaktis.

However, I was in need of a new bathing suit, and Shaktis? It says right on the label that they're great for surfing. Clearly, they're cute and well-made, so why not skip the hassle of shopping around and just get what will work?  I bought the strawberry-red pair, and in my dresser it sat for a week. Today, though, I wore it to class. Just to see what all the fuss was about. Just 'cause I need to be in the know.

And... I can definitely see the appeal. They attract attention. My teacher applauded me for finally putting them on. My mat buddy said, "girl, you look great. You look so skinny in those things!" (Kinda mixed reactions about that comment ;-) I guess they are flattering. They do feel super-comfortable when practicing, and they stay put in the, uh, essential areas. But I quickly realized that I was more concerned with my appearance as I was practicing. Maybe it was just because it was a new outfit, but I kept looking at myself in the mirror to see... how I looked in the mirror. That's not really where I want my mind to be while I'm practicing, but that's right where the mind was, spinning off on the reflection of my body in the mirror.

Then, 'cause of the whole strawberry thing, my mind darted over to this little anecdote in this lovely book I'm reading called Everyday Zen, by Charlotte Joko Beck. In it, Joko recounts a classic Buddhist story about a man chased off a cliff by a tiger. As he clings to a branch, he looks at the tiger above, and sees another tiger below. He knows he's doomed. But he also sees a ripe strawberry within reach. So what does he do before plummeting to his death? He eats the strawberry. You can guess the ending of the tale.

What's the point? And how does that point relate to the silly outfit story? Well, the story is another reminder of the importance of being in the moment, regardless of how tempting the circumstances swirling around ourselves might be. As Joko asks, "Isn't every moment the last moment? There is no moment other than this."

So, uh... comparing looking at my legs in a new red outfit in a yoga class is nothing like being able to savor the last moment before certain death by tiger mauling. But it's one silly example of how distracted we can get, and one more example of how we should pay attention to the moment, even if it's not a juicy strawberry, and even if there aren't tigers at our backs. The moment deserves our attention.

I think I'll reserve the Shaktis for boogie-boarding and body surfing. At least for now :-)

*Please note that I am in no way dissing Shakti activewear. I am especially not dissing the wonderful wearers of Shaktis. In fact, I love my outfit. I may wear it around the house come summertime! If I were slightly less distractable, slightly less concerned about my appearance in public, and slightly more rich, I'd probably have four pairs and rock them in every class. They're great. I just have some hangups, is all, and I felt like blogging about 'em :-)

Friday, June 4, 2010

What surprised you?

What surprised you when you started practicing yoga? What continues to surprise you?

It's been almost a year since I've been back to Bikram yoga after a ten-year hiatus. I've never written a "why I came to yoga/what it did for me" post. Some of that is just too personal to post here, although I've alluded to most of it in the 44 posts I've written since establishing this blog. But maybe framing this discussion as "what surprised me" about practicing yoga is a way to approach it. 

My first surprise in coming back to Bikram yoga was a strong and sudden conviction to do so. I was training for a half-marathon, and I'd started getting migraines more frequently. I'd also stagnated in progressing in my training for the run. I knew something had to change. I'd noticed a Bikram studio had opened up near my house, and there was this little bug in the back of my mind consistently chirping, "Go back to yoga! Do the yoga!" It had this whole... cheesy... meant to be feel about it.

What also surprised me was that first class back felt like home. I'd been there before, even though I was an 18-year-old spring chicken the last time I'd practiced. In class, the teachers often say that the yoga has a cumulative effect, and I felt that. I remembered the postures, I remembered the fear, and I remembered the dialogue (hearing "Knee is solid, concrete, lamp-post!" was like hearing an old mantra or prayer).

I knew after the first class that this was going to be a major part of my life. In practicing just twice a week, the migraines quickly went away, and I've only had one since. My tendons, muscles, and ligaments opened up like thousands of "flower petals blooming." My back pain from the scoliosis lessened considerably. My butt tightened up. My thyroid levels normalized.

Best, best, best of all is the surprise I won't into too much detail here. I don't struggle nearly so much throughout the day. It's like I was spending my life swimming back to shore, and suddenly I was handed a surfboard and could use that instead. It's still an ocean--I'm still going in the same direction--but I have this great tool at my disposal to help get me there.

And then, there's the blogging community itself! Talk about unexpected. I remember Googling "Bikram yoga blogs" and being so pleased to find The Dancing J's blog, and later the lovely likes of Hannah Just Breathe, Back to the Mat, and Svadhaya 101. (I wish I could list 'em all.) The support I feel in exchanging comments, tweets, and FB posts is beyond encouraging. And as a result of the blog, I've made at least one deep friendship that will likely last a long, long time. Now that, I didn't expect! Look what can happen when you open your heart to it.

There's so much to be grateful for! Namaste! (and thanks for putting up with such a sentimental post ;-)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Why twice?

Summer is on its merry way, and in yoga class today, my thoughts turned toward the swimming pool. I think the train of thought went something like this:

"OMG, I can't believe how much I'm sweating already. It's only Awkward pose, and already my clothes are soaked. I look like I just got out of the swimming pool. Swimming pool, yeah, like when I was little kid. My brother and I could stay in that pool for hours."

"Yes! Now it's Eagle pose, and then we get a water break."

"But Mary, mother of God, why do we have to do every pose twice? Why twice?!"

My thoughts drifted back to the swimming pool now and then during that class, and I ask the "why twice?" question a couple more times. Sometime during savasana between the standing and floor series that I thought of my first swimming lesson as a child.

I was three or four years old, and I had never gotten my head under the water before. As you swimmers might remember, getting the head underwater is a huge step for beginners. I was in the shallow end with the teacher--an old, firm, but calm woman--and she had thrown plastic sea creatures onto the bottom of the pool. After we got into the pool, she very quickly and very precisely touched the back of my neck and said, "You're going to get the sea creatures! GO!" and pushed my head under the water.

I came up coughing and frightened, but I got no sympathy from the teacher. She asked firmly but kindly, "Did you get the creatures? Did you get them?" I remember shaking my head no as the tears rolled down my face. Before I was fully able to process what was happening, she said, "OK, you'll get them this time." Before I had a chance to protest, she said, "breathe in!" and shoved my head underwater. This time, I reached out my hand and grabbed one of the plastic toys before she released her grip.

I remember that feeling of "I did it!" when I came back up. It was mixed with fear, of course, but I felt a sense of pride and elation. Even better, when I left the swimming lesson wrapped in a big towel, the teacher handed me an enormous home-made cookie to nibble on as we drove home.

My mother later told me she was horrified when the teacher pushed me under like that. But you can't argue with results, and the teacher got them right away.

I'm thinking that this little story might relate to the "why twice?" question. For beginners especially, the poses are foreign and frightening. Even for experienced Bikram yogis, the body in the asana varies so much day-by-day that they can seem a little like being underwater for the first time. There are days when I feel like I'm doing Camel for the first time. So much comes up, and so much feels new. But we get to try it again, to go deeper, to get it right this time. And, we get to try right away, before we have a chance to protest.

Maybe our yoga instructors are like that swimming teacher. They push us into a world we are not familiar with, and then they push us into it again. And eventually, we can learn to breathe there, to really be there. That's where the sense of accomplishment comes in, and that's why we leave the class feeling better than being nuzzled in a towel and eating a freshly-baked cookie.

OK, well... the sense of accomplishment is great, but I'll still take that cookie!