Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bikram Diaries, Part 2: Why are you here?

That's the question my Bikram teacher asked us to ponder today as we lay on our mats in savasana.  Class was only halfway over, and seemingly the hardest part was behind us.  (Today, that turned out not to be the case for me.  Man alive, did I get my behind kicked in that class)

The first thought that swam into my sweaty, woozy head was, "I had a coupon."  The rest of the thoughts that followed...they're not the reasons I have for going to a regular old Vinyasa yoga class.  My reasons for doing Bikram, aside from the coupon and the desire to really see for myself what the teachers and studios are like, are honestly pretty shallow and ego driven.  This is summer, after all - I'd say "bikini season," but I'm not sure being in a bikini a total of like 4 times in 3 months qualifies as a full fledged season.  But I, just like anyone else, would always like to see myself a little stronger, more toned...you get the idea.  Practicing yoga in a ridiculously hot room where you're literally dripping with sweat burns a lot of calories.  Also, all that sweat apparently makes my skin look fabulous.

My next reason would be to test my discipline.  I can't decide whether this is an ego-based reason or not.  I think challenging one's discipline is always a good thing, but there's a difference between pushing yourself beyond your perceived limits and pushing your body to where it shouldn't go.  In my regular yoga classes, I'm hyper aware of what I'm doing at any given moment with my body.  I know where I am in the pose, where I'm working toward, what my alignment is.  In Bikram, alignment and poses are all slightly different (or very different, in some cases) from what I'm used to, so I'm really engaging my "beginner's mind" to soak up all the copious alignment cues our teachers are giving us.  The difference is, even with a phenomenal and thorough teacher in my usual classes, I feel very much in charge of my own practice.  I come out when I need to, I push when I can.  In Bikram, even if a teacher isn't an intimidating person, there is such an intensely Type A pressure to Achieve and Succeed in the room that you're pushing yourself to maximum intensity every second of every pose.  Again...not necessarily a bad thing - but it's not motivated by my mindful judgement of what my body needs.  It's motivated by my ego to do the pose perfectly and my unshakable "teacher's pet" / people pleaser mentality.  It just worries me.

However, now that I have found my teachers that I like, I'm trying to stick with their classes as much as I can.  I suppose that's not the best way to go about delving into this new world - I should probably be focusing on finding a variety of teachers.  But man, when you're stuck in that hot room with a teacher you discover rubs you the wrong way...it sure starts to feel a little like hell.  I love my blog and I love exploring new avenues, but even I have my limits.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bikram Diaries, Part 1

There are all kinds of, forgive the pun, hot topics in yoga.  Skyrocketing prices to take class at a studio or to wear the most fashionable yoga clothes, debates about alignment in certain poses, teachers giving hands-on assists to students, spiritual differences and beliefs - there was even a huge debate on a yoga forum about whether you can be a true yogi and drink.  (My vote is a resounding Yes You Can).

One of the more contentious topics you can raise among a cross section of different yogis is Bikram Yoga.  This is a school of yoga in which the same 26 poses (including two pranayama or breathing techniques) are taught in each 90 minute class.  The practice room is heated to approximately 100 degrees, sometimes up to 110, which obviously causes the practitioners to sweat.  A lot.

Its devotees swear by it, some practically deifying the founder, Bikram Choudhury.  They believe the detoxification the heat provides is paramount to health and long life.  Some, however, are uncomfortable by a perceived highly sexualized culture, with the half-naked practitioners dripping in sweat in close quarters.  Some find the idea of the heat itself to be dangerous.  Some are simply bored by the idea of doing the same set of postures, or think it's damaging to push your body too far in the same poses time after time.  Some are turned off by the more physical, almost athletic emphasis as opposed to a more gentle and spiritual emphasis.  And that's not even getting to the reputation that many Bikram studios and instructors have of being unfriendly bullies who believe humiliation is a motivational tool.

Why am I telling you all this?

I received a dozen or so coupons as part of my goodie bag from  Summer Solstice in Times Square. One of them happened to be for Bikram Yoga NYC, New York's first Bikram yoga studio, established in 1999.  I find that, despite having practiced hot yoga before in studios in Virginia and really enjoying it, I held a lot of negative preconceived notions about the practice of Bikram based on what I've heard and read.  I realized none of those things were based on my own personal experience, and decided to change that.

My feelings are so multifaceted and this experience has been so interesting so far that I knew there was no way I'd keep it to one entry.  For now, I'll settle with sharing the basic background of Bikram for those who may have been unfamiliar.  Today was my 5th class and the end of my first week.  I have three weeks left with Bikram Yoga NYC, and I may extend it to a 5th week with Bikram Union Square (hooray for coupons!).

So far, I'm enjoying it more than I expected, but it's also much more challenging than I remember.  I most often practiced hot yoga at a great studio in the Williamsburg, Virginia area called Body Balance in the summer of 2009.  I was there almost every day - that place was my summer home away from home and I could not get enough of the sweaty sweaty room!  I was surprised that I enjoyed it considering normally I am extremely sensitive to being too hot.  I'd rather be too cold any day of the week, but for some reason hot yoga really appeals to me.

I'm not sure if I'm just not used to it or if Bikram NYC's rooms are hotter than the ones I'd practiced in previously, but the first class I took there this past Friday, I was dying.  Luckily, I really liked the teacher and the environment he created.  I didn't think I was going to get yelled at if I came out of a pose (which can occasionally happen in a Bikram class) and I survived.  It's gotten mostly better, and I'm happy to report that of the 4 different teachers I've had, I like 3 of them tremendously.  One...not so much.  But I'll explore that more in a future entry!

So far I am enjoying it, I must admit.  I'm a much more touchy-feely-spiritual yogi and this major hardcore stuff is not usually my cup of yogi tea.  But I'm sticking with it and the best part of it - it's making the unbearable heat on the streets of NYC right now much more bearable!

Are you a Bikram fan or foe?  Or have you even heard of it?  Or does it sound insane?  Or, if you're my sister or Kendra, like heaven?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What feeds your soul

I've been sitting here for a good twenty minutes trying to figure out how to start this blog, and what exactly to say beyond my bare-bones idea.  This is pretty unusual for me - even when I'm struggling with what exactly to say, my problem is usually an overabundance of lofty ideas and run-on sentences, not a lack.  What makes this more ironic is that today I want to write about sources if inspiration.  Or maybe more accurately - what feeds or replenishes your soul.

Everybody has at least one thing.  Something that can make you feel calm, steady, and grounded even in the most challenging points of your life.

For me, it's the beach.  Water and swimming in general, the beach in particular.  Cliche though it may be, it's a cliche for a darn good reason.  Standing at the shore, watching the waves rush onto shore, listening to the the sounds of the water, the birds...and if you're lucky, not much else.

Stephen King, by the way, is the number-two source of soul replenishment.  Certainly less cliche than the beach, and probably a little insane to some people, but he has been my favorite author since I was 11 years old.

So in a strange connection between these two wonderful passions of mine, Duma Key is largely set near Sarasota, Florida.  I spent the fall-winter-spring of 08-09 in Sarasota working as an intern at the lovely Florida Studio Theatre, and the hands-down best part about living in Sarasota was that two of the most gorgeous beaches in the state were 10 and 20 minutes away from where I worked and lived.  I'd sometimes just go there for 20 minutes to sit and watch the sunset.  It's like taking a shot of peace of mind.

I finished the book yesterday, which is absolutely phenomenal, by the way.  I can't recommend it highly enough and could not put it down.

So what feeds your soul?  What does it mean when something "feeds your soul"?  I find I have a hard time going into detail to explain it - something quite rare for me!  The best I can describe it is it's something that is guaranteed to offer you peace of mind and contentment no matter what.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Do your best - forget the rest

Happy July, blogverse!  This summer is absolutely flying by, and it's been really wonderful so far.  I completed the 30 Day Yoga Challenge at The Giving Tree, and one of the many things it taught me was that I need to build up more strength in certain areas of my body that are overly flexible.  Now that we're in a new month, my next self-imposed 30 (or 31) Day Challenge is to focus more on weight training and cardio...more traditional gym exercises than my yoga practice.

When I graduated from college, I joined Gold's Gym and started running.  I was working temp office jobs during the day, and every single day after work I'd run, take a yoga or pilates class, or take BodyPump, a weightlifting class I sorely miss (no pun intended).  It was the beginning of my deeper passion for yoga, of placing more importance on the food I was putting in my body, and of my basic physical fitness.

Since moving to New York, running has taken a definite backseat.  It's made me a little sad, but I've had to make space for all the yoga, both personal and professional, and something had to give.  As for weight training - forget it!  I function best in a classroom setting, and I haven't found a class or the personal discipline to keep it up on my own.  And truthfully, yoga keeps me healthy and in shape, and gave me more definition in my arms than weightlifting did (hence my deep abiding love for Chaturanga Dandasana).  More than that, I know with yoga I'm getting a spiritual experience and will be leaving feeling relaxed and more clearheaded in a different way than finishing up a good run.

Coming back to the present - I'm finished with my 30 Day Challenge, so at the moment I'm not practicing at any yoga studios.  Marc, however, is 5 weeks into P90X, and I did my first P90X workout with him last week.  WOW.  I absolutely love Tony, the creator and trainer.  It's real butt-kicking stuff, but very inspirational as well. (Marc and I can't stop doing impressions of his signature phrase - "Do your best and forget the rest" - applied to every single aspect of our lives)  I've also gone back to running when I've gotten the chance, which I didn't realize how much I've missed.

What I keep thinking about when comparing weight training/cardio vs. yoga is where your mind is in all of these activities.  I was listening to Jillian Michaels's Podcast (love that woman) and she started talking about yoga in relation to the mind-body connection as well as building self discipline.  In yoga, she says, you "cannot allow yourself to be distracted."  The practice demands that you be aware of where each and every part of your body is in space so you can get the most out of the pose, protect yourself against injury, fluidly transition to the next pose, and most importantly, so you can focus on your steady breath.  Although some folks keep their mind locked on their intention or a mantra, that's still giving the mind as much importance as it is the body in your practice.

With running, on the other hand, there's more leeway.  A lot of people (myself included) daydream, think about their day, think about to-do lists, think about goals, focus on the music they may be listening to, any number of these things while running (or biking, or on the cardio machine of your choice) rather than focus on the insane amount of effort it takes to keep going.  While it's true that some people remain focused on their breath or their heart rate, there's less of a requirement to do so.  Your mind has more free reign - it's more a matter of preference than necessity.

This doesn't make one practice better than the other.  It does make some people prefer yoga to running or vice versa.  I've noticed since my asana practice has taken a major backseat to cardio and P90X that my meditation practice tends to feel more rushed.  I've started a 40 day japa mala practice (a practice I explained here) and I tend to catch myself speeding through or that while part of my brain is repeating the mantra, a larger part is completely on vacation thinking about something else.  Now, I wasn't like a gold medalist meditation expert before or anything, but it's just interesting to note.  It's become more challenging as my physical activities have become more aggressive and less mindful.

Any thoughts, readers?  If you run, are you a daydreaming runner or a present-in-the-moment runner?  What differences do you notice in your life when you take a yoga class versus not?  Do you agree or disagree with anything I've written?