Monthly Archives: November 2011

Bad-guy Bikram

There was a time when I put Bikram Choudhury on a pedestal. I felt like he saved my life–and maybe he did. All I know for sure is that the sweaty hell he propagates forced me to confront my emotions in a way I’d never experienced, and the feelings I discovered were alarming enough to prompt some major insights and life changes.

I believe all asana encourages the balancing of energy and the emergence and release of emotion, but the particular conditions that Bikram requires made it impossible for me to repress my feelings: When all of my attention was going toward surviving the present moment, I wasn’t able to simultaneously keep my emotions in check. Feelings just bubbled up and overflowed, sometimes showing up as joy, but more often as anger or anguish.

More than once I was grateful that my red and dripping face was camouflaged by perspiration; more than once I had weighty revelations about my situation in life–I honestly hadn’t known I was unhappy until I was stripped of my ability to pretend otherwise.

So, yeah, I appreciate Bikram’s contribution to the yoga community. I really do. Even though I’ve since traveled a path that takes me farther and farther from his rigid sequence and aggressive approach, I carry with me the lessons I’ve learned and I don’t judge people who swear by his methods. I’ve been there. I get it.

But Bikram’s behaving like a greedy liar, and I’m getting sick of the commotion he’s causing. I don’t like to call names, but c’mon–the guy has millions of dollars and is still increasing the fees for his affiliates, and some of what he preaches is outright untrue. Though the money stuff disgusts me, I don’t pretend to understand–deriving profit from yoga is an equation I haven’t yet solved. But the lying thing is offensive.

I practiced for years at a Bikram-sanctioned studio that faithfully parroted his official dialogue, and I ate up every word. I blame myself for accepting without question many of Bikram’s claims, and I credit myself for eventually doing some research and learning how the body works. But Bikram nonetheless told me by proxy again and again that thirty seconds of balancing stick is the equivalent of forty-five minutes on a treadmill. Not. True. In fact, as William J. Broad’s upcoming The Science of Yoga explains, even the most rigorous yoga does not qualify as aerobic activity.

I wish I had the time and energy to go through Bikram’s entire dialogue and point out every instance of untruth or exaggeration, but since I don’t, you’ll have to do your own homework to conclude that his assertions are at least a little suspect. Which is why I don’t understand his greed. Given the mixed bag the man is offering–real benefits and false promises–I don’t understand why he isn’t satisfied with the success he’s already secured, and why he isn’t content to let others share and expand upon the groundwork he has laid.

I don’t understand why he’s suing studios that teach something similar but don’t use his name. I know there are legal complications with trademarks and the like. As with the money stuff, I don’t have a great grasp on the nuances. (But if you do, I would love to learn about them–I hereby offer a guest post to anyone who wants to explain!) I can see why Bikram wants, and is entitled to, control over his name and image. And to a point he does deserve credit for what he’s created–assuming he can prove he’s the sole creator.

But, seriously, suing studios that make yoga affordable and accessible to everyone? Demanding that he retain authority over an entire style of yoga, and that his followers cough up more and more cash to stay in his good graces? What are his intentions? And how do they align with yogic values?

There’s an interesting website that’s recently sprung up to explore such questions and the topic of yoga ownership in general. I think these are important conversations to have, regardless of where you stand on the issues, and I’m genuinely interested in understanding all angles. But even though the website says it’s not taking sides, I can’t help having an opinion: Something about the way Bikram is handling himself just reeks of wrong.

Too busy to breathe?

Life has been busybusy lately, mostly good, but somewhat stressful. And because there’s so much on my plate right now, I fought with myself all day about whether to force a blog post. Today is my imaginary deadline—it’s a personal goal of mine to publish something once a week—and I hate hate hate breaking commitments.

But if I post for the sake of posting, then what’s the point? I love this blog because I get to be myself, to say what I want, how I want, whenever I want—no editors, no proofreaders, no pressure. If I don’t have something meaningful to communicate, my time and yours is better spent elsewhere.

There is plenty that I want to share: I taught a group of kids over the weekend and impromptu invented a new yoga term; I helped a friend find sinus relief via the magic of neti; I counseled another friend about the nuances of lineage so she could decide where to practice in her new city; I discovered an overlap in yoga and business philosophy with one of my role models in the political/corporate world. And the list goes on.

I want to tell you about all of that, and surely some of it will show up in writing down the road. But despite thinking, “Ah! This would make a great blog post!” after every one of the aforementioned occurrences, I haven’t had time to get anything down in detail.

And now I’m up against a deadline of my own creation, self-imposing the very pressure I strive to avoid. I don’t know when the “publish once a week or else” mentality kicked in; it’s not like I have a production contract or an eager audience of millions (yet?). I don’t think a single one of you is going to bail on me because it took eight days instead of seven for me to say something new.

But I’m stubborn, and maybe a little OCD, and I haven’t gone more than a week without posting since January, and I don’t want to start now.

So I’ll post this egocentric explanation and cut myself some slack. I’ll relax my shoulders, feel better that I’ve met my personal expectations (however arbitrary they might be), and move along with my evening. And I’ll remember that no matter how crammed I let my schedule be, I’m never too busy to breathe.

Sometimes yoga is a poem

I went to my home studio on Monday, the place that officially trained me to share yoga. I was almost nervous on the way; I am certified to teach power vinyasa, and yet it’d been months since I’d had a vigorous practice. I felt sure that after class I’d be glad I’d taken, but during the commute, I wasn’t excited so much as resigned.

The sense of obligation wasn’t quite the same as a “should”–it was more like I couldn’t escape the idea that practice would benefit me. Back when I used to have self-discipline, I often went to yoga when I didn’t completely feel like it. But lately, not so much.

Last week when I hit the mat I realized it’d been a fortnight since my previous class and that upset me. I know better, understand the importance of a regular practice. And even though it’s vital to stretch in the shower and great to do a little morning qi gong, an hour or so of guided yoga is a more thorough way of recalibrating energy, and an opportunity for heightening emotional awareness.

So when my friend suggested I join her for practice on Monday it made sense to agree, and even after she had to work late and cancel, I decided to go ahead and drag myself to the studio.

It was weird coming home to my training studio, at first. I was happy to recognize the teacher–and pleased she recognized me, given my prolonged absence–and out of instinct almost asked if I could do something to help set up. But before I said anything someone else offered assistance and I realized there’s a fresh batch of teacher trainees eager to stack sweaty mats and organize rows. Of course I’d help if I was needed, but I wasn’t, and that was okay too.

I’ve been learning to love the ugly in me, the parts I’m not as proud of, and Lindsey’s class helped me make progress. She spoke with earnest eloquence about the importance of taking time to be with our bodies, to take full ownership of our experiences.

“If you’re having a great class, that’s all you,” she said as we hovered and shook in an extended chair pose. “If you’re having a rough class, that’s all you,” she continued, and I grinned, I agreed so much.

I had a vigorous practice; I haven’t sweated like that since summer. But I gently embraced the challenge, went slow and stayed true to my breath, and by savasana I felt peaceful release, calm enough to soak up an excerpt of a poem by Rumi that resonated deeply, and that I’d like to share here. Because sometimes yoga is a poem:

How does
a part of the world
leave the world?

How does wetness
leave water?

Don’t try to put out fire
by throwing on more fire!

Don’t wash a wound
with blood.

No matter how fast you run,
your shadow keeps up.

Sometimes it’s in front!

Only full overhead sun
diminishes your shadow.

But that shadow
has been serving you.

What hurts you,
blesses you.

is your candle.

Your boundaries
are your quest.

I could explain this,
but it will break
the glass cover
on your heart,
and there’s no fixing that.

Slow down and grow up

My increased awareness of “shoulds” in my life has made for an interesting week. I’ve caught on to a lot of judgment just by keeping an eye out for that one particular word, and it’s been a challenge to allow for what IS, as opposed to what I think SHOULD be.

I was expressing some frustration yesterday, and I danced around using the “S” word in my email to a mentor: “I realize that by now I could (should?) have achieved a greater measure of success, but…”

I give myself credit for questioning the “should” and sticking it in parentheticals, but I wish I hadn’t felt compelled to type it at all. Because not only is there nothing the slightest bit wrong with where I am, it’s possible that I’m exactly where I ought to be. A change may not even be necessary.

But what if it is?

I feel like I’m constantly seeking a measure of balance–how much action to take, how much stillness to settle into. This applies on a basic physical level–go to yoga or sit on the couch?–but it also affects my philosophical mindset. Is it okay for me to sit back and be content, or do I need to lean in more?

The answers shift depending on why and when I’m asking, but in general, feedback indicates I’m making progress and doing well. I can surely use a little push here and there, but since I tend to expect too much of myself (even if it feels like I’m hardly asking enough), I am trying to be more appreciative of where I am and all I’ve accomplished. Last night I had a realization that helped:

I deserve the same compassion I give to children.

I would never ask a child to grow up fast, both because children deserve their childhoods and also because children physically cannot speed up their growth. Can you imagine, being annoyed with a kid for not having lost all her baby teeth, or not having yet reached puberty? Some things aren’t meant to be meddled with: We grow at our own pace and a good deal of the process is out of our control.

And just as I would not chastise a child for needing time to develop vital life skills, I do myself no favors by rushing my adult self to graduate to the next level of my journey, whatever that may be. For all I know there might not even be a “next level.” Though I struggle to believe, the truth is that there is no prize at stake, no brass ring to swing for. This, now, is it, and it is wonderful, and I really want to remember that.

Slow down and grow up—what a relief to realize I can do both.