Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Tent

So here it is... my visit to the Big Tent--Bikram's Teacher Training San Diego. I loved meeting Nameste blogger Josie. I loved being in the tent with 400 people, including one of my dearest friends in the whole wide world. I loved watching Bikram walk up onto the stage, and I loved hearing him speak the lines from the dialogue I'd heard delivered so many times by others.

I got there super early to ensure I wouldn't get slowed down by traffic or an unexpectedly weird parking situation. As I walked over to the tent, I was beyond excited to see Bikram standing by himself in the parking lot. I immediately felt giddy and childlike. Although I'd told myself to have no expectations, I couldn't help but let the excitement flood over me. I began to walk over, thinking, "there he is! He looks exactly like I imagined! What should I say to the guy who came up with the series that took away my migraines, helped me cope with stress, and keep me strong and flexible? OMGOMGOMG." And so on.

Well, as I walked over, I noticed he was on the phone, yelling at some poor sap on the other end. I figured he wasn't in the greatest mood ;-) So I decided I'd let him have his time to himself and called up Ms. Nameste herself instead.

The class itself was a trip. We are in the middle of an unusually humid and warm late September here in San Diego, and the tent encompassed that. I've never taken a class that had visible humidity. Yes, as Josie so beautifully put it, it was an Amazonian yoga jungle in there. Initially, it wasn't too hot, and it took me a while to work up a sweat. But once I did, ay dios mio. It was intense. And as you trainees and teachers know, Bikram stretches out the classes, so they are about two hours long. I don't think I've ever consumed so much water during class.

Nor have I fantasized so much about beer. I haven't had any alcohol in a year and a half, but due to the smell of beer wafting through the tent (thanks, Marti :-) I spent the second half dreaming of a Corona fria con limon.

I also dreamed about my humble studio's amazing carpet. Jeez-oh-man, the carpet in the tent is terrible. In standing separate leg head-to-knee pose, I kept feeling like I was going to fall into Chinese splits--I wanted to get my head to the floor just to prevent that from happening! And forget Triangle. No turning the towel meant no Triangle for me. Except maybe a Triangle shuffle ;-)

The Dancing J commented on one of her blog posts a while back that Bikram says all sorts of cool things you don't remember after. That definitely happened, and I think it's part of the yoga experience. You're in the moment, you appreciate what's happening, and then you let it go. What needs to stick will stick. But I do remember a couple of highlights:

--Everyone lowering themselves into Awkward. Seeing so many bodies moving in unison (and staying like that--no one fell out of the third part!) was moving beyond words.

--Laughing hard to myself when Bikram said that the only chickens in this world should be the ones going right into our stomachs. In fact, he said a lot about fear that stuck out to me at the time.

--Hearing Bikram sing a Bengali (I think) song while we were in between postures. There was something comforting about that.

--Ironically, laughing hysterically when he played some song from his album. Sorry--it was just so bad! He's better live! 

--Finally, my hat goes off to the trainees for their incredible strength and dedication. I admire you all for doing what I know I couldn't do. I specifically admire a couple of folks in the tent: Ms. White, who, I thought, got unfairly picked on throughout much of class. It also goes off to a Muslim woman in in full hijab who rocked the class a few rows in front of me. I couldn't imagine wearing anything heavier than my Shakti shorts! Good for her. 

What stuck with me most about the entire experience is how this yoga is so much bigger than the individual. Yes, Bikram put the series together. But he didn't invent the poses, and, like anyone, I'm sure he had a lot of help disseminating the series along the way, to say nothing of all the work it must take to set up and run teacher training. And that communal embracement of the good idea is what makes this series so magical. That's what will make the series stick around until our culture is evolved enough not to need it. But by that point, we'll all be levitating, so I won't hold my breath until it happens ;-) 

I definitely want to go back. I'd love to take a class with Rajashree... or Emmy... or who knows! And meet more of you lovely bloggers. Ms. Nameste, I can't wait for another Fuddruckers' burger! There's just so much to experience!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Yay, First-Timers! Yay, Teacher Training!

I dragged my first friend to a Bikram yoga class with me. (Well... OK. another dear friend took up yoga after hearing me gas on about it, but she did so completely of her own accord. Totally not my fault. Now she's way into it, but I can't take any credit (or blame!) :-)

Back to the main point. My dear boyfriend got up with me at 5:40 a.m. and came to the 6:30 class. Bless him--he's a gentle, mellow guy. He's in great shape and does a variety of yoga and other exercise, but he's not into intense workouts, so it means a lot to me that he came. He did great. But more on that later! 

I'm curious: what is it like for you when you bring a friend to class? The experience reminded me that yoga always provides opportunities to see our quirky selves up close and personal! The morning of the class, I was wondering if he should even join me. I spend much of my time trying to make things easier in my loved ones' lives, not harder! During the class, my little controlling self came out from time-to-time. I was so worried about how my guy was doing: was he too hot? What if he injured himself? Oh no, the teacher didn't warn him to watch on the first set of Standing head-to-knee! He's gonna hate me afterward!

I tried to set that aside and focus on the practice. The class is designed with beginners in mind, I tried to remember. He would be OK! Funny how the mind will take any opportunity possible to spin out of control.

Of course, he was fine, and he did so well. And the teacher was great, too--very supportive and not dogmatic. He initiated a little round of applause for my guy, and told him that he had to come back when I said so ;-) It was a perfect first class, really.

I don't think my guy will ever be a Bikram convert, but it was nice to have that experience with him. Now, he understands this part of my life more deeply. I'm thankful to have practiced with him, and I'm thankful for the encouraging and kind instructor, as well as the continued opportunity to see and work on my little controll-y self :-) Of course, it was great to hear him express admiration for me for practicing the yoga regularly.

On a completely different note, I'm hoping to visit Teacher Training and take a class with the Boss himself this week! Most importantly, I can't wait to finally meet some of you lovely bloggers!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

It's just One Long Class

Warning. In this post, I will be modeling unsophisticated writing. I will tell you what I'm going to talk about because I'm too tired to introduce it properly. In this post, I will talk about teaching, mask-wearing, and Cheez-it eating. (Ok, I can't figure out a way to talk about the Cheez-its, but I told The Dancing J I would, so I put it in my thesis :-)

Bikram Yoga Teacher Training started this weekend. I'm happy to think of lots of new teachers coming together to better their practice and learn strategies for teaching yoga. It also hits home even more because it's here in San Diego, and because, well, some of my favorite yogis that I've "met" online are attending (including, of course, the lovely Lush over at Nameste, with whom I share a birthday).  

So, I'm not a yoga teacher. I actually have no aspirations of being a yoga teacher, although if I were a little younger and more willing to throw myself out there, I'd be tempted! But I do teach, and I've been thinking lately: If I could go back to my 23-year-old self and tell her something before she walked into her very first classroom, what would it be? 

I think it would be not to put on a mask.

"A man wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it," George Orwell writes in my most-favoritest essay, "Shooting an Elephant."

We put on masks all the time--we smile at the cashier even when we're feeling down, we try to tell a joke when really we want to admit we're nervous, or we feign understanding when really what we feel is disbelief. And when teaching, jeez, it's tempting to put on the thickest mask we can dig out of the closet. You know, the Mardi Gras one, adorned with sequins and brightly-colored feathers.

And then, like Orwell says, we can begin to feel our faces growing into that mask. I know that I've started off semesters thinking I needed to appear funny, warm, smart, engaging, and super-knowledgable at all times. Sometimes, I fool myself into thinking I'm pulling it off, and that's almost the worst. It can begin to snowball and get out of control--we can worry about how we're coming off rather than truly being present with the students and the material.

But sometimes I remember to step back and pull off that mask, and that, I think, is where the show is really happening. This semester, for example, I'm teaching a new class. I started out with what I thought was a bang--I thought I was on top, that the material was great, and that the students would love it and they'd learn a lot and it would be this gooey educational experience for all of us. A few weeks in, though, I could tell they just weren't feeling it. Something was off, and my trying frantically to convince them it was awesome wasn't working. 

So, halfway through class one day, I just pulled the mask off. I stopped class and asked them for some feedback. I encouraged them to be honest. They were, and then I had them write down some feedback anonymously. You know what? It was so good I did that. Yes, they told me some stuff I dreaded hearing, but mostly, the feedback was positive, and I was able to take their suggestions and bring the class back on track. Hand to God, we're the better for it now. I'm more in tune with that class than with any others.

Now for how yoga ties in! It helps us tear down this mask. By the end of any given Bikram class, when my body radiates heat and my hair is plastered across my face, I've stripped myself of whatever layers I've carried with me into the yoga room. I thank the yoga teachers for always being there, for always teaching from their hearts these classes that allow us to melt away the veneer, allowing us to get in contact with our hearts.

I honor the Bikram Trainees who start in San Diego this weekend. Continue to leave the masks on the shelves and let your unique, inner light radiate. Your students will see it.


"Some place between Hollywood and its pretty happiness, and an anguish so infinite it's anybody's guess, is a place where people are all teachers, and it's just one long class"--Ani Difranco

Monday, September 13, 2010

Comfort and Complacency

Comfort and Complacency. They're our enemies. Destroy them.

I'd taken classes with this dude before. Typically, I'd describe him as a laid-back surfer who teaches mellow classes in a 72 degree room. You know, the classes where you hold "easy" stretching poses for so long that you forget your name, where you were born, and what the heck you're doing in asanas with cute-sounding names like Baby Pose. Child's pose. Pyramid pose. 

I went into the class, sleep-deprived and sunburnt from a fabulous long day on a boat, thinking, "This'll be a cakewalk. 90 minutes of light stretching and a long savasana and the bf and I will be off eating delicious vegetarian Mexican food."

As often happens in this life on the mat and off, I got so humbled. No wait--I didn't just get humbled, I got served.

This guy just quietly, politely worked us to death. I kept looking over at my boyfriend mouthing to him, "What the heck? Are you ok??" Because it was that tough. No, I wasn't pouring sweat. I wasn't trying to kill myself. But I came face-to-face with some monster in there.

The other students in class didn't seem to be missing a beat, but I was suffering. Man, they hold those poses a long time. And some of those poses take you deeply into muscle groups I didn't even know I was related to. It was somewhere in Twisted Triangle that I had a revelation.

"Jeez, man. This shit hurts," I thought, as I slid into a pose I vaguely remember from my Ashtanga days. (OK, no, that's not the revelation.) Twisted Triangle is a tough pose. It's like the Bikram triangle--the master pose--with serious pain. To do it properly you need hamstrings like butter and a ribcage that can spiral upward like tree branches. If you don't get into the posture fully, you struggle gracelessly trying to balance. I wrenched myself into the position and took the standard Ashtanga 5 breaths, thinking it would all be over shortly. But it wasn't. We kept holding it. And holding it! Let me tell you, I sent serious daggers of "OMG I HATE THIS. LET US GO." to the teacher with my eyes.

I realized that I've been hanging out on the edge of comfort and complacency. My cozy early morning classes are ones that I can power through. I can look good, not skip postures, and feel energetic throughout the classes. But it's like I'm in the middle of this little bubble of flexibility. I'm just hanging out, not pushing the edges at all.

The Bikram class I took this afternoon (San Diego studio, with Jim Kallett and a great, great friend) took this a little further. Jim has this very steady quality about him. Initially, you think you are doing fine, that it won't really be such a bad class after all, no matter what you remember or have heard about him. Halfway through it, however, you're on the floor, wanting mommy and a cold hand towel.

(An aside: please don't use the phrase "pouring sweat" loosely. When it really happens--when the sweat comes off your body in streams instead of drops and you feel you are generating enough heat to power a small town--it's an entirely different, almost frightening game.)
Jim said something that drove this idea home, though. In Half-Moon pose, he stated the "beyond your flexibility" idea in a different way. "Your flexibility is what it is," he said. "Find your strength. Use your strength in this pose instead of the flexibility."

I see a connection here with the complacency idea. Many of us are relatively flexible physically, emotionally, or spiritually. But that can almost make things worse. It's so easy to stay there. Someone who may be at point A can struggle and get more out of the experience than someone at point Q.

Why is it so hard to remember that we need to stay at the edge of discomfort, all the time, no matter what we do?

Speaking of discomfort, there's a pile of papers that aren't gonna grade themselves :-)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A hive of yogis

I'm a bee! I'm a bee!

I was thinking of that yesterday when the teacher told us (as usual) that our collective breaths should sound "like a million bees buzzing." It was a packed, steamy Labor Day class, and there was so much energy in the room that despite the heat I was humming with it. Well... for the first part of class, anyway. I spent the rest of it feeling sorry for myself and then trying to talk myself out of it: "Oh, I'm just a bee. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Don't get distracted, Self. You're a drone without a thought. But it's hot in here. I don't have mat space today. The guy behind me is loud. Blah!"

Lately, I've been distracted by how being distracted seems to be my default state of being. Papers are pouring in, and grading requires so much concentration and time management that I'm conscious of how monkey-minded I typically am. I think if you could see into my head, I'd be less like a bee in a tightly-constructed honeycomb and more like a lazy bumblebee flying drunkenly about.

This realization has been reinforced by a recent American Scholar essay by Christian Wiman I'm currently obsessed about, "Hive of Nerves." The title itself makes me think of yoga (what doesn't?). The essay is so rich--if you're at all interested in philosophy, meditation, religion, literature, or just about why stress is part of the human experience, check it out. It's dense, but each paragraph contains is a treasure box. Or a rich, sweet honeycomb, if we're gonna continue with the bee theme ;-) 

In one passage, Wiman explores the nature of anxiety. Or, if you prefer, call it stress. Distraction. A deep questioning about the nature of life. Whatever we want to call it, we've all experienced it.

He beautifully describes our perpetual state of restlessness: "It is as if each of us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music which, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant, because it demands the attention we are giving to other things. It is not hard to hear this music, but it is very difficult indeed to learn to hear it as music."

Let's unpack that a little. Don't we all know what it's like to hear some weird music in the back of our heads? Maybe it's literally a song stuck in our heads. Maybe it's our anger at the driver that braked too quickly in front of us. Maybe, if you're like me, it's the slow and steady hum of our inner critic tapping us on the shoulder to point out, yet again, what we've done wrong.

Whatever it is, it distracts us from the moment.

I think that concept is familiar enough to us! We wouldn't be practicing yoga regularly if we didn't have a commitment to bettering our bodies, minds, and hearts, and when we do that, all of the music that typically distracts us is heard clearly.

What struck me about the Wiman quote, however, was the line about learning to recognize that sound as music. Rather than trying to put earplugs in and shut out the sound, the point is rather to really listen to it, to pay attention to what's playing in the background. Otherwise, we'll only be half-hearing life itself--trying to ignore the background noise, rarely being fully engaged in what's happening. And who knows? Maybe when we actually pay attention to what's going on back there, it won't be half as distracting (or scary!) as it is now.

Is this all too theoretical and pretentious? Well, thanks for reading anyway :-) All I know is that practicing yoga on a regular basis can help us get to the root of what's making that pesky sound. And check out the article if that quote resonated at all--it's just loaded.

Buzz on, you lovely hive of yogis, you!

The hive