in sickness and in health

Cock Pose requires quite a bit of strength... though my knees are still far from my armpits, it's taken a while for me to even keep my arms straight and to lift my legs using strength rather than momentum.

Cock Pose: though my knees are still far from my armpits, it’s taken a while for me to even keep my arms straight and to lift myself using strength rather than momentum.

Yesterday, a bunch of teachers practiced advanced in Aptos with Zeb Homison, the 2014 US Asana Championship. I love when we get the chance to break from our normal yoga routines and gather– naturally, most of the time it’s for more yoga.

Shortly after my last post, I got sick (as did quite a few other teachers). I still kept up my daily practice, albeit armed with tissues. I managed to teach most of my classes, albeit armed with tissues and tea and throat drops. I have a renewed gratitude for my voice. Over a week of constant concern about the ability to be heard, about whether, when I open my mouth to speak, sound would come out. Even one of the work-trade students noticed I wasn’t my usual chipper self. Yesterday, she pronounced me well and back to full form as we danced around the front desk prior to my evening class.

51 days down, 9 to go!


Adventure: Byron Bay

Three days in paradise.

Byron Bay Beaches

Truly, paradise (the beaches of Byron Bay)

First, in recovering from a 12.5 hour bus ride from Sydney which included little sleep and of even less quality, I wandered the beaches and trekked my way out to Bikram Yoga Byron Bay to practice and put my body back to straights.

The next two days, I had surfing lessons for the first time. The verdict? I am not a natural: I’ve never been a quick learner (rather a persistent one). However, as I suspected, I loved it. Loved the challenge of it, the patience of it. So incredibly fulfilling and satisfying. So much like yoga: both require concentration, determination, patience, and physical strength (though surfing is more agility than flexibility). To excel, you must be mindful.

Extreme Concentration: if you blink your eyes, you might lose your balance!

Extreme Concentration: if you blink your eyes, you might lose your balance!

Small anecdote: in the morning, practicing yoga outside my tent to warm up before my second day surf lesson, I was about to put my head down in Standing Head to Knee pose (the most difficult moment for me to maintain my balance) when two wild turkeys rush past me, chasing each other. And by ‘past me,’ I mean ‘two inches from my standing leg foot.’ In that moment, I learned the limits of my concentration. I lost my focus, therefore lost my balance and fell over. Such a hilarious way to learn that lesson though!

Next Up: Teaching Yoga in Brisbane and Noosa

60-Day Challenge: Pow!

I finished my 60-day challenge yesterday! So grateful to have done it, also secretly glad it’s over. Just when I thought I was sailing towards the end, I caught a cold and struggled through teaching and practicing for the past four days. I am, however, overwhelmingly relieved that I have not lost my voice and that I was able to complete it!

like a champ

like a champ

The transformation from this time last year (when I accomplished my first 60-day challenge) to now astonishes me. It was still hard this time–I imagine that, like class itself, the challenges never get easy–but much less daunting. Last year, I was proving to myself that I was capable of doing it. This year, I was maintaining that dedication, so my approach was methodical and patient. Lots of my fellow challengers fell behind and had [consecutive] days of doubles or even triples in order to stay on track. I think I only did maybe four doubles; otherwise, it was a day-in, day-out time- and energy-management goal. I didn’t try to kill myself, ever. To make this practice sustainable for me, consistency and compassion are crucial.

In other, more inspiring news, this weekend was also the USA Yoga Asana National Championships, and I had the joy of coming home from teaching this morning to get to watch the Champion’s demonstrations–including Cynthia Wehr, who owns my home studio. Every time I see her perform, it’s absolutely breathtaking. She’s such an incredible human being–everyday, she’s so humble and sweet I think we all forget a little how privileged we are to have her. To have her teach me, to have her take my class, to practice with her. But boy, did watching this remind me! Especially her smile and quick exit…. never the glory-seeker, Cynthia. Just a beautiful mensch, inside and out.

Anyways, if you have time and would like to see the pinnacle of yoga asana grace, watch the champions or even the finalists. Even when they fall out of postures (they ARE like the rest of us, if only a little!), they do it with such charm they will astound you yet more.

Happy March, everyone!

the price and privilege of visibility

“When I began competing I was very nervous. Here you are, all alone on stage, demonstrating something extremely personal. But there is a shift the more you practice. I realized it just wasn’t about me. Win or lose, I was a role player, a participant along with everyone else … For me getting on stage to compete is an act of generosity, realization and love.”

-Courtney Mace (2009 International Yoga Asana Champion)

This is how it feels to practice as a teacher. My practice is no longer just about me. It happened when I started to work the front desk at my studio, and I resisted and resented the intrusion–my practice was no longer about just how I felt. I couldn’t be weak, or have a lazy class, because now others were looking to me as an example. Ugh!

After training, I have less resistance and resentment of this fact. After teacher training, thanks to camaraderie and humility, my practice is stronger and more disciplined. Even when my postures aren’t as deep, or I’m really struggling with resistance in my mind or a part of my body, I am more capable of carrying others. I can feel my presence ground the students around me.

The parallels to Courtney’s statement run deep. My personal practice, something I will always cherish and depend upon as necessary to my physical and mental health, was at first difficult to share (and sometimes, still is). It was mine, and I needed it. I didn’t feel like enough. I didn’t want to share; I wanted the anonymity of struggling along with everyone else.

Becoming a teacher, you lose that privilege–but it turns out that privilege is also a handicap. In being even more visible (as if all those mirrors weren’t enough, right?), and in having my practice be not just about me but about being strong for other people, I found more strength in myself. It’s easy to underestimate ourselves; harder to fail others. It seems that the limits of what we are capable of change according to our perception of our limits. And every day I practice I test (and therefore expand) both my perception and my limits.

So, yes, now my practice–in both its strengths and its vulnerabilities–is an act of generosity, realization and love.

With this in mind, I have signed up for the 60 day challenge. Not for me–I don’t need to prove to myself I can do it, I did it last year (with pneumonia) and then upped the ante with teacher training a few months later. I’m doing it because I think it’s important for my students to see me do it and to encourage them to try it. It begins, quite appropriately, tomorrow.

triple digits

5 years of practicing
2 years of wishing & working towards teacher training
9 weeks of training,
Now, 4 months later, as of this morning at 8:30 AM,
I have taught 100 classes!

(And just about 12 hours later, I’m up to 102! It was an appropriately yoga-filled day–taught 7 AM, 12 PM, 4:30 PM and then took 6:30 PM practicing right next to one of my very favorite BYTT buddies. Yoga class is a gas station, baby!)

Spine Twisting: #26 for a reason!

I did something stupid.

I should’ve known better and I DO know better, but I didn’t think it through…

My left hip/back has been off for a while now–the muscles just chronically tight. As loathe as I am to admit it, yoga was making the problem worse. As a result, the past couple months since training I’ve really had to scale back, both in terms of how often I practice and how hard I push when I do practice. It’s very frustrating for my athletic, die-hard, perfectionist (AND YOGA-CRAVING) personality.

Anyway, long miserable story short, I’d spent all day at work with it bugging me. So I decided to stretch it out– a dash of half-tortoise, then a dab of spine twisting. I felt a vertebrae shift into place (aaaaahh), then twisted a little further and felt something else move abruptly… in a not-good way. I took some Advil and went to bed, content that it would have solved itself by morning.

HOLY BEJEEZUS was I wrong.

I couldn’t get out of bed. I sat up (cue STAB-YOU-IN-THE-BACK, SUCKER-PUNCH-YOU-IN-THE-GENITALS-FOR-GOOD-MEASURE PAIN), and spent 20 minutes trying to get my muscles to relax enough to lay back down. I couldn’t life my left leg an inch off the bed. My back and hip muscles (in technical-speak, it’s most likely my psoas and some angry surrounding muscles to boot) were permanently contracted in a Holy Crusade-level of rage. I spent two days in bed, not moving (can you think of a more fitting or more brutal punishment for me?).

That was ten days ago, and tonight was the first night I dared to take class once again. [I’ve been teaching plenty, secretly jealous of my students every second of the way.] I’m happy to be back, even though there was very little I could do. Exhibit A: Half Moon–5° to the right, 5° to the left, a massive 10° backwards, and oh hey we’re just gonna hang out here in pada-hastasana ’cause actually pulling would be the WORST. IDEA. EVER. And that was only the first posture!

Super-frustrating to feel like my practice has taken a gigantic step backward, but I know it’s only a setback and not truly backward. Now, I will be more patient, more careful, and probably have an even better foundation by the time I’m back up to speed. Also, it makes me a much more compassionate teacher…. right?

The moral of this little parable?

There’s a REASON we practice class in the heat, and there’s a REASON why the postures come in the order they do. This way, they are SAFE and effective.

…..I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget that one again!

you learn more than you realize

I love following the public conversation around Bikram yoga. Not only because it’s deeply personal and important to me, but because it’s a highly polarizing topic and my love of philosophy and analyzing media lets me totally geek out (at heart I’m an academic). So of course I had to read this when it popped up in my Facebook feed (thanks, Yasuyo!):

Drugs, Sweat, and Fear: Bikram Yoga and Anxiety

I loved the epiphanies Ms. Spechler shares:

“One teacher, after admonishing us for wiping our sweat, said: ‘Stop responding to discomfort by reaching for things. We scratch. We smoke. We drink. Those are temporary solutions. Practice being still.’ Even now, whenever I feel jittery, I remember that advice.”

As a teacher, boy have I learned more than ever how very, very challenging it is for people to hold still. It’s how you can spot the experienced practitioners from a mile away–they’re a thousand times better at practicing stillness.

I have to admit that my first response, particularly after reading the holier-than-thou comment from the NYC yoga teacher, was something like this:

More wisdom from XKCD.

But after reading from the Orange Book, and thinking about it more, I’ve come to see a different and way more interesting aspect: Bikram yoga was the key. It didn’t solve her problems, it’s not a magical panacea….however much some of us may talk about it that way or wish it were so.

But Spechler tried, and it did open the door. She learned important lessons about determination and taking action. Practicing Bikram yoga was a part of her path towards recognizing and confronting her anxiety. She has stopped practicing hatha yoga (the physical exercises of, in our case, the 26 postures & 2 breathing exercises), which often gets mistaken as yoga itself and not merely one of the eight limbs of yoga. But she’s still practicing and gaining from yoga–particularly raja yoga (using the mind to bring emotions under control, as she works to do with her anxiety) and vedanta yoga (applied knowledge gained through experience, i.e. the lessons she learned from practicing). The  yoga she learned in the hot room has never left her.

Self-realization, my friends, is a long and winding road. And who knows? Maybe somewhere down the road, that path will lead her back into a certain, sweaty chamber and help her a little further along….

you don’t need to suffer

In the Bikram world, we talk a lot about pain, about suffering.

Your neck might hurt a little bit…. your back is going to hurt like hell, don’t be scared ….. elbows are supposed to hurt…. For goodness sake, it’s nicknamed the “torture chamber!”

There’s this masochistic mentality in Bikram yoga that the more you suffer, the more you gain. It’s one cultivated by Bikram himself (too many examples to list), and it trickles down and shapes every teacher and many students. I know I’m guilty of this a thousand times over. Students rave about how the teacher “kicked their ass,” how they “died,” even that the teacher was a Dominatrix or a Nazi.

Bikram yogis, like many athletes, find pride in the toughness, in the difficulty of the task. As teachers, we’ve been groomed to become bulletproof, fireproof.  The problem is that, of course, we treat our yoga practice like it’s a punishment.

Nobody looks forward to punishment. We fear it, we avoid it. So even as we take steps towards healing ourselves by making the decision to come to class and practice, we stunt the possibility of growth by approaching it from a mind and heart full of fear and the expectation of pain. How much change can possibly happen under those circumstances, when you are holding yourself back?

Mary Jarvis, who has taught Bikram yoga for 29 years and owns Global Yoga in San Francisco, pointed out to us recent training graduates that we should never revel in cruelty and that having students think of you as cruel should not and does not mean you taught a good strong class. You do not have to suffer to have a strong class and to receive the benefits of yoga.

Teaching yoga, like practicing, should be about love and healing and compassion. Instead of focusing on pain, she says, focus on the possibility that something magnificent and transformative is happening. And she’s right. As a teacher, I am there to lead the class. If I come with the goal of killing my students I am failing them. I am there to inspire them to believe that they have the ability to change themselves.

I tried teaching class yesterday with this wisdom of Mary’s in mind, in the hopes that it would help me to find that balance between pushing people to their edge (in order to accomplish change) and pushing students over the edge. I have no measurable way to tell if it worked, but I think it did.

What a great way to teach my 30th class!

double down

It’s funny how sometimes you need a little distance from yoga, so you can return to it and remember it’s importance.

That was this morning for me. I made myself do a back-to-back double, my first since January and my first double since leaving training five weeks ago. I won’t say it was easy–class so rarely ever is–but as always it was absolutely worth it.

My first class found me battling several days’ accumulated stiffness and some nausea. All my fault, I admit. I hadn’t practiced since Wednesday, thanks to a combination of conflicting work schedule/yoga schedule times and also a dose of laziness.

By the second-second set of half moon (Class 2, Set 2), I was wondering what I got myself into and whether I could still walk out of the room. I know, dear readers, that you have had this exact thought at some point in your practice…. or even at many, many points.

But I didn’t leave. That English bulldog determination set in (and ok, being totally honest, also a good dose of fear of the shame of leaving a class). I stayed, and focused on each posture one at a time. I didn’t back off, but I also didn’t try to kill myself in each posture– I just made my breath my focus. And oh my, that made all the difference. I felt so good throughout the floor set, where less than two hours earlier I had felt totally demoralized.

I love that yoga never fails to teach me the lessons I most need to remember. Today, it was that:
(1) Avoiding practice will not solve anything. Practicing, on the other hand, will solve almost everything.**
(2) Nothing in the world matters nearly as much as the quality of your breath, because how well you breathe determines how well you live.

** And actually, this one’s why you haven’t heard tell of my musings from last week yet. I went to yoga, and–you guessed it–didn’t really need a quiet day anymore. The concerns are still there, they haven’t gone anywhere, but they’re not quite as loud and pressing. Meditation, FTW!