Loving your Body, Yoga, and Community

A few months ago, I had the pleasure to participate in filming this video about BYMV. I have seen my fair number of studios, but few could even attempt to rival the magic at BYMV– the loving details of the studio, the wonderful staff, our students.

They also managed to catch me talking about one of the biggest ways yoga has helped me: self-image. There’s a great quote from the spoken-word poet Andrea Gibson:

“I realized I was looking at my body like my body was my enemy, and if I didn’t learn how to be an ally to my body, I was going to feel like shit for the rest of my life.”
-Andrea Gibson

Yoga helps me be an ally to my body, and keeps me from feeling like shit. I ingested that self-loathing of the body that is all too common, especially for women. I hated how I looked, and so I hated myself. Even though I always played sports, and gained coordination and physical strength, it was only a stop-gap. It prevented me from feeling worse about myself, but it didn’t change me for the better. Only yoga has been able to do that.

Even if I never practiced yoga asana again (would not happen), the hours I have put in to so far have already irrevocably transformed my relationship to myself in ways I never could have predicted. I still have more than my share of moments of doubt and negativity, but I also have a well-worn path out of that dark place. I know what to do to help myself feel better. And now, when I practice, it is as a reminder to love myself. To be compassionate with the things I cannot yet love, and to appreciate all the rest.

Showing Up: Lessons from Chris

In yoga, we talk all the time about how important consistency is to your practice. The same is true of any other pursuit, and boy, have I failed when it comes to writing here! As with any other lapse, there are many reasons. One of the biggest was the death of Chris.

First it was because he was in his final days, then he died and we had his funeral, followed a few weeks later by a memorial at our studio. Much of my time and energy was devoted to planning & promoting these things, and stepping up so that our studio owner could have the space and time to process. Dying and grieving are two long arcs with no prescribed timeline.

I, unfortunately, didn’t have the chance to know Chris super well– the seizures that marked the diagnosis of his brain cancer happened about a half a year after I started at BYSJ, and after that point he wasn’t able to be at the studio every day anymore. But in all the time that I’ve been there, his impact shows in every detail of the studio.

A rare photo of Chris & me

Loved this guy, and so grateful for all he did that has made my life now possible

Chris’ impact on me is more about the ripple effect: for almost ten years, he showed up every day and simply cared about people and doing his best. His work at BYSJ was a great testament–especially in this time and technology-saturated area–that you don’t need a flashy career or materialistic wealth for your life to matter. It is enough, more than enough, to show up every day and be kind and helpful and care about others.

Lessons from Chris shared at his memorial:

  • Be aware of who you are being towards others in the world.
  • Have something you want to accomplish? Throw your hat over the fence and then figure out how to go get it!
  • Give encouraging words to beginning students & take good care of them.
  • Afraid? Don’t think you can do it? Just wing it!

I’ll talk to you again soon, friends.

Strengthening You Inside & Out: An Interview with Yours Truly

One of my students, Ajay, interviewed me a few weeks ago for an assignment for his journalism class. We had a long conversation, a few tidbits of which are included below. Mostly, I’m always gratified to discover I do make sense when I’m talking. My favorite part of the interview: in discussing challenging situations in the room, I mentioned how yoga allows me to be patient with crazy students as well as patient with myself when I get angry or frustrated at aforementioned students’ behavior. Ajay exclaimed that he’d never seen me get angry in class, and was shocked to think sometime I was. My answer? “Good! That means I’m doing my job right!” It’s not about me. I never want to express or take out my negative feelings on my students.

In any case, here is the result. I have edited out the parts introducing Bikram Yoga, since hopefully you are all already aware of the practice.

Triangle PoseEnthusiasm

 

 

 

 

 

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT : JESSICA PERFORMING TRIANGLE POSTURE ; JESSICA WITH HER SIGNATURE SMILE.

“It requires a lot of vigilance to avoid injury-which is the nature of any physical activity–and vigilance is one of the things that is continuously being taught in the room,” was her reply when she was questioned whether somebody could hurt themselves in the hot room. After hearing her reply, I was able to gather the reason as to why so much emphasis was always laid on being alert of your body. The vigilance in class supported safe practice of yoga.

She told me that having been practicing yoga 4-5 times a week has not only made her a stronger version of herself but has also made her more patient and compassionate. “It makes me a lot kinder towards myself and other people” she adds. When pushed into revealing more benefits of Bikram Yoga other than the obvious she jokingly replies that now she has got a “crap ton” more flexibility.

When the question arose as to whether the students should try to push themselves in the hot room in order to receive more benefits from their practice, she advises that students should try to improve every single class but they should also be aware of their own capabilities. Hence as long as you were performing with proper form and not with your ego you were receiving the benefits. “You never win an ego contest. Never, ever.”

When asked if there was any secret behind having a great class, she replies, “If you can smile in here (in class) you can smile anywhere.” Now I could figure out as to why she always had on her 1000-volt smile. I was sure that everyone who did hot yoga could completely relate to what she was saying because if a person who was trying to do a yoga posture against odds such as heat, humidity, sweat, mind-boggling thoughts etc. and still could smile, then it could be made damn sure that person could smile on the face of any challenges that faced in the outside world. After this our conversation ended and her words of wisdom kept ringing in my ears even after a few days literally (well not that literally but you should get the meaning by now).

Why do you do yoga?

When I got here, I used the chalkboard just outside the door to the yoga room to ask this question. We've got some cheeky students, and I love it!

When I got here, I used the chalkboard just outside the door to the yoga room to ask this question. We’ve got some cheeky students! (In case you can’t tell, the bottom line reads: “I don’t know. It hurts. It is difficult. It’s bloody hot. But I do like to be told what to do by sexy women.”)  Whatever gets you in the door? 😉 We’ll work on self-realization one step at a time…

mastering the mind

Using my vacation to artistically add to my teaching journal

Using my vacation to artistically add to my teaching journal… Happy new year from Colorado!

determination, effort, and 30 days down

A mini-celebration… gratitude for reaching the halfway point of my challenge today. 30 days down, 30 days to go!

I have met with my fair share of challenges so far: a few utterly ego-busting classes, new pain sensations from one of my vertebrae, struggles to hydrate while teaching full-time. But so far, this challenge has also reacquainted me with the need for patience (one posture at a time, one day at a time) and renewed my compassion for those new (and old) students in the throes of a particularly overwhelming class.

As I continue, I find myself increasingly looking for guiding wisdom to inspire me each class. I hope this one, taken from the Dalai Lama in The Art of Happiness, 10th Anniversary Edition: A Handbook for Living, resonates for others as well.

It takes a long time to develop the behavior and habits of mind that contribute to our problems. It takes an equally long time to establish the new habits that bring happiness. There is no getting around these essential ingredients: determination, effort, and time.

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.

bruised hips, drunk guys, tears… and a whole lot of love

This weekend, I had opportunity to share Bikram Yoga with a whole lot of people.

Our town was having their local Art & Wine Festival, and one of my studios had a booth. As much fun as it is handing out Introductory Offer cards to people who look at you and think you’re a nut job (or potentially associated with those evangelical Christians shouting about fearing God down the road….. I think regardless of your religious beliefs, we can all come together and resent the guys who try to shame you into the “right” path).

/End rant.

In any case, I found I was better suited to demonstrating postures than approaching strangers. I do a lot of talking with strangers and breaking the proverbial ice (hello, working in retail), and while I’m pretty good at it I never love doing it. Turns out, though, I do love doing yoga. Even on solid concrete. Even when I end up with bruises on my hips and feet from doing it over and over and over again.

Two of us would demonstrate the postures & breathing exercises (one set of each in a hold-maximum-expression-for-5-seconds, flow-y style), which left others to talk to the passersby. It was much more successful this way.

Doing Locust Pose in the middle of the street…. Yoga everywhere!

It was a fun day filled with interesting moments. I’m pretty sure someone recorded a video of us at some point. Also, got lengthily hit on by a drunk guy who didn’t understand personal space (it was a lot more fun watching him try Standing Bow Pulling Pose). All in all, I took 8 AM class, taught 10 AM, then demo’d yoga in the sunshine all afternoon with fellow teachers/friends….what could be better?

My favorite moment, however:

While demonstrating with the studio manager, I saw a woman roll her wheelchair-bound mother up to a spot right in front of us. They stood there, watching the demonstration from the beginning to our final bow & namaste. After, she walked up to us and asked us if we would mind saying namaste to her mother and explaining what it meant. We both approached her, brought our hands into namaskar, bowed, and said “Namaste.” Then Jen explained.

Namaste

I honor the place in you where the entire Universe resides
I honor the place in you of love, of light, of truth, of peace
I honor the place in you, where, when you are in that place in you,
and I am in that place in me,
there is only one of us.

As we left her, I could see tears in her eyes.

And that, my friends, is the full beauty of this yoga. It’s not just locking the knee so you get strong, well-defined quadriceps muscles or lose weight–though these things certainly help, they are only side effects. We can forget this sometimes. But really, it’s about finding and sharing the best in ourselves with each other.

And I’m lucky enough that I get paid to do this now. BOO YA.

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!

Week 9 Recap

Week 9 Lessons

Our last day of watermelon by the pool after the last AM class of the week–all the traditions, ending.

  • We will find the answer by experiencing it: I asked two questions on the first day during Bikram’s long-anticipated posture lectures, and he didn’t like either of them. I’m quite sure he didn’t understand my first question. My second, though…. well, it went something like this:
    [In discussing the first part of Awkward]
    Me: “Why is it six inches between the knees and the feet?” (I’ve heard it’s so you’re aligned with your shoulder/hip width.)
    BC: “Because that’s the way I want it. That’s a stupid question. I thought you were smarter than that.”
    Can you say, “OUCH!”?!?
    Later–after the humiliation and embarrassment receded–I realized that (1) had he said that yes, it’s 6″ because that’s the distance between your hips/shoulders, someone less intelligent and dialogue-driven than me would have started to tell students that instead (even if I never would); and (2) he didn’t want “why” questions about the dialogue because he believes it is our responsibility to learn “whys” of the dialogue by practicing with our own bodies and by teaching and watching other bodies. Yoga is not academia. Here, we learn by doing, by experiencing and feeling.
  • “You’re supposed to die. You didn’t do good enough, because you didn’t die.” -BC: Just in case I’d started to feel stronger & better, our last class kicked my ass. It was so hot and humid, it felt like week 5 all over again–even with a bit of that disturbing numbness in my hands. I suppose it was for old times’ sake? In any case, I’ll take it as a sign I did well enough since, as Boss had said in lecture earlier, if we’re not dead at the end of class we didn’t try hard enough. Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber, here to kill yourself for 90 minutes……
  • “Freedom brings uncertainty. So love your uncertainty. You’ll be 100% fine.” -Balwan: This last week felt like equal measures of terror of leaving the bubble and teaching your first class, sadness at leaving all of your amazing new friends, and relief at not having to keep up the same grueling routine. Balwan’s parting speech to us about our lives post-training was so apt and encouraging, though (and so in line with his wonderful spirit). It was very reassuring. I’ve never liked uncertainty, but teacher training, and this teacher training in particular (thanks, Week 7), has given me ample opportunity to practice equanimity and flexibility. So this quality I’ve been trying to learn, and will continue to practice.

Week 9 Highlights

Look at me with that hot little certificate in my hands!


  • Goodbye, deluxe torture chamber: Ok, so as hard as the actual last class was for me physically & mentally, it was also amazing. As soon as we hit final savasana, no one was dead. Everyone was standing, dancing, hugging, and crying their hearts out as one of Bikram’s songs was playing. Beach balls were hit around. It’s akin to simultaneously finishing a marathon with 400+ of your soulmates, only a thousand times more amazing. The hot room will never feel any better than that again.
  • “Ask me why”: Bikram’s posture lectures were so rewarding. Too short, as we ran out of time and he had to speed through things, but rewarding. I learned so many details and insights, even in that little amount of time! I couldn’t possibly summarize it all, so this will likely be something I’ll post about posture by posture [eventually] in the future.
  • Licensed to kill: Best of all, I’ve graduated and am officially a Bikram certified yoga teacher! Graduation was not that exciting (imagine any college graduation, add in typically Indian late timing and disorganization, you get the picture). But it’s over and done, we’ve said our goodbyes, and we’re packed, gone, and (in my case) even unpacked. The last night was a blast–I personally didn’t stick around for the disco/dance party in the ballroom (former known as the yoga room) but headed to a friend’s house where a ton of us were congregating. Then had a late night wandering session with my roommate and finally crashed at 5 AM. But most importantly, after 5 years practicing and 1.5 years of planning for TT, I’ve reached the starting line. I’m a frickin’ Bikram yoga teacher!