My current Everest

A few years after I started practicing yoga, I started to notice little habitual movements I had formed in class.  I would scratch my head during awkward/utakatasana, take an extra breath or three before lifting my leg in eagle/garurasana, and the biggest tick of all, suddenly becoming tired right before rabbit/sasangasana when I had been just perfectly fine a few seconds before (and then skip a set).

Despite becoming aware of them, some of these ‘ticks’ continued.  Fortunately, as a teacher, I am forced into facing my own weaknesses and quirks.  Because one thing I never wanted to be was hypocritical when I would ask students to challenge themselves.

So as part of my ‘service’ in this yoga progression, I will share with you what I am working on right now.

I have always struggled in rabbit, hence my reaction to it in class. I would look on with sadness when people are able to get the posture correctly because I wanted to feel so badly what they felt in the posture too.  When I am in it, I feel like a drowning rat.  Tucked chin, compressed belly, holding onto the heels, while sweat is dripping in my nose.  Yay.  Not.

Earlier this year, I’ve decided to dedicate more time in understanding the posture and let go of my built up limitations (long spine, horrible forward bends, the list goes on..).  Finally, I felt that extension of the spine I never had before!  Although it was short-lived, I was able to taste and feel what I was missing out on for almost six years.  Six years!!!

With the decision to open myself up to rabbit (figuratively and literally), I started picking up knowledge that I ignored in the past.  Like earlier this evening, a fellow teacher with similar woes sent me some notes from a senior teacher’s seminar (thanks, Jo) and instead of having an avoidance reaction, I am excited to try them!

So maybe I was supposed to feel like a drowned rat until I let go of my inhibitions.  Who knows.  But I do know that I have new things to try in my next class.

And perhaps this post can inspire you to let go and try something that’ll challenge you.  You never know what you may discover 🙂

Gloria Suen, 2012 International Yoga Champion

Gloria Suen, 2012 International Yoga Champion

Photo courtesy of IYSF.

Loosening the grip: The pain of slowing down

I’ve been missing my hatha yoga lately.  Bikram, as you know is my yoga of choice.  Work, studying, and teaching is the formula I’ve been running as of late.

Unfortunately, I’ve been practicing less and less so when I do get my chance in the hot room, I push as far as I can go.  I want sweat dripping and pooling around me.  I want to go to my edge in the postures so I can go further next time.  I don’t allow myself to sit.

Until I am forced to.

The crappy mix of little practice, lots of work, not enough rest, too much intensity has finally caught up to me in the form of  illness.  Twice.  In a month.

Naturally, I had anger and frustration, as this has taken away what little practice I could squeeze in.  I was a yogi.  A teacher.  I needed my practice.  So at first I didn’t let it stop me.  I dragged myself to class, when I could.  It wasn’t an ego thing, but more of a ‘maximize what I can in the little time what I have’ thing.  I cram as much as I can into my days, as if the days are shoeboxes being filled with old photographs.  Yoga was in that shoebox.

What I had realized after my last disastrous Bikram class, was that I have been spinning and running and working so hard that I crossed the line between dedication and obsession.  I’ve been so focused on certain goals that I had applied the same level of intensity into everything else around me including yoga.  And I’ve become unforgiving to anything and anyone that got in my way.

But like any grip that is too tight, or a plant that receives too much sun or water, intensity can be harmful.  Even Bikram says ‘too good is no good!’

It gave me some food for thought: are my struggles lately been because of too tight a grip on those goals?  Would I have more success if I eased up a bit?  Am I willing to take a chance that I’m not going to fail if I slow down a just a little bit?

My challenge now is taking a step back, see what I might gain.

Only time will tell, and I’m resisting the urge to shove that into the shoebox, too.

There is no try.

I can’t remember a specific moment or injury that caused weakness in my left knee.  I also can’t remember when I finally attempted toe stand years ago.  Every class since, I’ve tried padangustasana, and every class, I’ve fallen out or released the left side of the posture because of pain (including in teacher training).

Yesterday, for the first time in a very long time, I thought, what if I stayed in tree. But because of habit, or years of practice, or the need to do the series as a whole, I went in even while still contemplating about not doing it.

Let me rephrase that – my body was doing things my mind was saying it could not or would not do.

My body, so disciplined in this yoga, went ahead and left my mind in the tiring debate of ‘to do or not to do’.

While this was just one posture, it was the one to show me what a regular practice has done for me.  It isn’t to help me be incredibly flexible, or build the strongest body but to eliminate the cant’s and the wont’s.  Who would’ve thought that was toe stand’s benefit?

In the words of Yoda, ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ 

Yin-ning my yang: A Bikram yogi’s hot, sweltering day

After 5 years of Bikram Practice,  I have grown to embrace the challenge of the hot room.  Give me heat and the dialogue, and I’ll be the first in line.  But give me calmer, more subdued yoga, and I am a fish out of water.

Earlier this week, I excitedly signed up for my first Yin yoga class.  I’ve heard good things about it and finally decided to try it out.  I wanted to try new things and challenge myself.

Shedding my Bikram yogi shell, I had every intention to enjoy the experience, absorb it all in, and open up these chakras – as they say.

I walked into the beautiful studio.  The candles were lit, music turned on, lights were dimmed.  The teacher distributed bolsters and blocks and a couple of pillows, too.  Most students grabbed a blanket, but the neat freak in me passed.  While I have no reservations about sweaty towels and mats in the Bikram studio, a communal blanket I could not do.  Baby steps here.

Then class started.

The teacher spoke so calmly, her voice reminded me of a softness I’ve long forgotten.  This was good, I thought, I could do soft.  Baby steps.

While we were in the midst of opening our shoulders, I somehow gained the superpowers to hear every single sound happening around me.  The pipes, the ambulance outside, the rain, my eyes darting back and forth.  I struggled to go back to her voice, she was speaking of the seasons and changes in our bodies.  But oh man, the plants beside me were lulling me to their lush green leaves and the windows needed someone to look out through them…

About 20 mins in, struggling to be patient in the postures, I looked over to the dude to my right (whose girlfriend dragged him to class) thoroughly enjoying himself.  There he was, smiling from ear to ear, joy emanating from his body amidst all the props the teacher had supported him with because he was so tight.  That’s when I realized I had a look of horror in my eyes.  A look of horror at my own self.

So at that moment, I made a conscious effort to soften my face .  I realized had to let go of my need for control and succumb to the candles and the music, even just for that one class.

Finally, the sounds of the pipes and the traffic disappeared and all there was was silence.  Ahh peace.  I think I may have finally found you.

Near the end of class, the teacher had us all lying in savasana, eyes closed, again rocking us softly to calmness and peace with her voice.  I thought to myself, ‘I could do this.  This will be good for me.  I could do candles and music and softness.  Soft is good….’

Then she asked if anyone who would like to be tucked in with their blankets.  My eyes bolted open, horrified at the thought of anyone tucking me in such a public space.  And just like that, I was back to the present.  The Bikram yogi reappeared, peace quickly dissipating like sand through my fingers.

Bikram mentions in training and in his books to ‘imagine you are stuck in rush-hour traffic in the middle of summer.  It’s about 102F degrees outside, your air-conditioning is broken and your window rolls down only halfway.  You’re 45 minutes late for the most important meeting of your life, the same wonderful human being in the blue van just cut you off for the third time, and you really have to pee.  Now if you can feel peace under those conditions, then you can meditate anywhere.  My yoga class is that sweltering day.‘ (Bikram Yoga, p. 75-76)

Yin yoga may just be my sweltering hot day.  I guess this means I have to return and find out.

Yin yoga, yes.  Communal blankets, no.

Damn baby steps.

On body image, yoga, and food

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Like any other person, I’ve had my share of teenage angst and self-image issues.  I’ve obsessed about my hair, my looks, my body.  I knew the jungles of thinness and fatness and brownness like the back of my hand.

Then one day, I had enough.

I re-discovered a different world of food when I learned how to cook.  I even had a run at vegetarianism (where I learned that just because you’re vegetarian, it does not mean you’re healthy).  While I am gladly eating meat now, I learned to respect vegetables and fruits for what they were, not as side kicks or afterthoughts to a great dish.  Or diet food.

I stopped seeing things for their calories and fat, and instead, I saw them for what was possible.  I learned about the importance of fresh ingredients, of cooking from what nature provides, of understanding that we need fat and calories and carbohydrates in order to be nourished.

In order to be happy.

While I cannot claim to be unscathed by the occasional bouts of self-doubt and self-criticism, I am better at understanding where that comes from and how to move away from it.  Instead of being hard on myself when I’m feeling less than beautiful, I pack my yoga bag and head to class.  I sweat away the reasons I doubt myself or criticize myself, and create reasons to be proud.  I also drink water, I run, watch a movie, laugh, and my favourite, I cook or bake.

I don’t do those things as punishments for a pound gained.  I sweat and work hard because I need to respond to my internal dialogue through respecting my body.  To remind myself that while I may be feeling all those things at that moment, I know a way to lift my spirits back up.

And respect doesn’t come from self-loathing.  It can only come from loving yourself unconditionally.