Falling Forward

In standing bow pose, teachers tell us to stretch forward while kicking back and up, kicking and stretching equal and simultaneous, 50-50. And many times they remind us that if we have to fall, we fall forwards.

So I follow the dialogue, kicking and stretching. But the next thing I know, all my weight suddenly shifts into my heel; I lose the kick and the stretch, and I fall, backwards.

These past few days, in standing bow pose, I have been repeatedly falling backwards. And I’m not sure why.

So in today’s class, I tried to be especially aware of my physical movements and mental intentions as I progressed into the posture. I tried to pay attention to my thoughts as I moved deeper into the pose, in the hope of noticing what triggers my falling.

First, I considered the physics of the pose: the acts of kicking and stretching balance each other, so if I was falling backwards, my kick must have been stronger than my stretch forward. So why is my stretch forward not strong enough?

Somewhere along the deep breaths of the moist, humid air, somewhere along the drops of sweat that flow like rivulets down every curve of muscle and vein in my arm, I realized what was going on in my mind that made me fall out, time after time again. At the very root of it, I was scared. I was scared of what would happen if I kicked that much higher, because I’ve never been there before. It was unexplored territory. I was afraid it would hurt or I would panic, or lose my balance and fall out. So before I even got there, before I even kicked higher, I would fall out of the pose. My mind had fallen into a subconscious pattern of weakening my stretch forward every time I came close to kicking higher than I have before; thus making me fall out of the pose. By doing this, I was saving myself the risk of uncertainty. But I was also preventing myself from going deeper into the posture — I was preventing myself from improving.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us…” as Nelson Mandela once began a speech. As I thought about my standing bow pose, his words made complete sense to me: I was afraid of my possibilities. I was afraid of the uncertainty that inevitably comes with going somewhere farther than we’ve been before.

But I didn’t want to be afraid; I wanted to face uncertainty with courage. So I assured myself that it’s okay if I fall; I just have to fall forwards, because by driving our energy forward instead of backward, we are exuding confidence and trust. I had turned on my light: I gave myself permission to explore the pose with absolutely no fear.

So I kicked, and stretched, trusting my body and myself. When I moved into my deepest expression, I breathed, calm. There was this moment of intense concentration, where I could feel the focus and determination of the practitioners around me, our positive energy connecting us. It was so inspiring.

And then, I fell out. I fell forwards. No fear, just courage and a willingness to try again.

Within seconds, several other practitioners had fallen forwards too, after reaching their maximum depth. I took out a whole row with me. One of Mandela’s subsequent lines came to mind: “… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same …”

So in a sense, maybe I did 🙂

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A Special Layer of the Onion

Layers and layers, like an onion. We’ve all heard something along those lines at one point or another in our yoga practice. Bikram yoga helps us explore those layers, digging deeper, both physically and mentally. Some of the emotions that surface in the yoga room are tied to happenings from many years ago.

I was doing some digging earlier today. It wasn’t an emotional revelation in the yoga studio; rather, I had been digging in a literal sense, looking through some old papers in my room. But it was just as significant, because I stumbled across something really worthwhile.

Think back to your childhood. There is something really unique and inspiring about childhood–perhaps it’s because children see the world through such genuine and honest perspectives. There is a simplicity in their views, yet their simplicity can be at times so thought-provoking.

What I found was a poem I wrote in 6th grade. Though the storyline is direct, the flow truly mesmerizes me–it makes me feel like being wrapped in a blanket of rich memories and raw emotion, even as I read it years later. I thought I’d share it here, unedited, on the blog–feel free to interpret it however you need to in this moment.

Untitled
an lz original

The last zippers are zipped;
the last padlocks are set
You lie down
and pull the covers up to your neck
The bedside window is opened,
you look out to the night sky
The dark sky decorated by shining stars
and a pale ivory full moon.

You try to doze off.
There are too many thoughts
running through your head.

You open your eyes, groggy
you realize you hardly slept last night
yet you force yourself to get up
Today’s the big day.

You push a heavy cart with your belongings on it
An airplane flies over your head
You enter the building doors.

It’s time.
Everything has been done
There’s the sound of sniffling behind you
You hug your friends and family as hard as you can
But we have to part here.
There’s a lump in your throat.
You force yourself to pick up your bag
and board.

As you’re rising higher and higher in the air,
something hits you:
it’s not that you’ve been running around the airport all day;
it’s not that you can’t recall when you last ate;
it’s the fact that you’re slowly going farther
and farther
from
home.

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Remember Those First Moments?

It was a Saturday afternoon, and I packed shorts and a top, my water bottle, a towel and mat, and prepared to drive down a relatively busy street in my city.

I walked into the building, went down the stairs, and saw the sign on the door, “Bikram Yoga.” I breathed a sigh of relief–at least I had found the right place.

It was January 12, 2008.

It was my first Bikram yoga class.

And of course, I was nervous and hesitant. The studio website described the class as a 90-minute invigorating practice that heals all ligaments and organs in the body–the benefits sounded pretty good. However, the heated process sounded rather challenging, and to a first-timer, perhaps even a tad terrifying.

With a deep breath, I turned the doorknob, and entered the studio. I remember being immediately overwhelmed by the temperature in the lobby, much warmer than outside in the hallway. I remember seeing the teachers behind the desk clad in sweatshirts, and wondered how I was going to make it through this. Nonetheless, I introduced myself, and received Ingrid, the teacher’s, description of the first class: it’s hot, if you feel dizzy or nauseous it’s normal, all you want to do is try to stay in the room. Soon, Ingrid handed me a mat and towel and told me to go in the hot room and get used to the heat. “You’ll be fine, just breathe,” she assured me.

Cautiously, I entered the heatbox, and oh man, was I immediately overcome by the humidity! I was slightly worried–how would I be able to stay in here for the entire 90 minutes? I immediately set up in the back corner of the room, closest to the door: a strategic decision, with the mindset that if necessary, I can run out with the least disturbance to the rest of the class–or at least the fewest possible number of people laughing at my escape.

The actual class has not remained in my mind as vividly as the moments before class–perhaps the heat slightly dulled my sensual observations, or maybe I was too fearful of embarrassing myself with my inexperience to observe anything too astutely. Anyways, I do remember that I was exhausted by half moon, not knowing how all these people do it–my arms felt like lead as I raised them above my head. In fixed firm, I remember feeling a twinge of discomfort in my knees and violently jerking my knees out of their misery–only to have the instructor look me in the eyes and tell me to never, ever do that–always come out the same way I went in. (Funny how these moments stick in your mind.)

In floor series savasana, trying desperately to calm my pounding heart and regain my breath, I remember thinking that this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I had been an avid runner at the time, racing both road and trail, pushing myself through grueling workouts even in heavy rain or snow, but none of my workouts had prepared me for the unique intensity of Bikram: this yoga was on a level all its own.

After class, I was worried–I had committed to the 14-day introductory package–this was the craziest physical pursuit I’ve ever experienced, how was I going to bring myself back for the next two weeks, never mind even the next day? I was terrified at the thought of potentially putting myself through this torture again.

But somehow, I managed to drag myself back into the studio. I don’t know how I did it, but I returned to take a second class. And whoa, it was a completely different experience! None of the overwhelming from the first class, I felt like I was able to follow along and try most of the postures, and–dare I say it–it was even a little bit enjoyable! I was so pleasantly surprised–I came out of class that day bursting with enthusiasm, with the biggest smile on my face. Oh man, I had been bitten by the Bikram bug. On the drive home that day, I remember a quick thought passing through my mind:

“This is something I can honestly see myself doing for the rest of my life.”

At the time, I didn’t dwell too much on the validity of that statement. But well, two years later, I’m still here. Still going at it. Of course, there’s been those exhilarating upward moments, as well as discouraging downward slides, but that’s how it goes. But you know what? Looking back two years later, I can say with relative confidence,

Yes, my judgment on that second day still holds true.

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Peace

peace.
it does not mean to
be in a place where there is no noise,
trouble, or hard work.
it means to be in the midst of those things
and still be calm in your heart.

(author unknown)

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GUEST POST: Satisfaction

Hey everyone! Happy Sunday and hope your 17th day of the Bikram yoga challenge is going well!

In the pursuit of improvement, we constantly set goals and try to reach them—but is driving our yoga experience with hopes and goals ultimately an asset or a detriment? Check out my guest post on the Bikram 101 home-page blog, where I explore the concept of balancing ambition with appreciation: Satisfaction.

——

In the pursuit of improvement, we constantly set goals and try to reach them—it is only human nature to strive higher and try to improve ourselves. Within the yoga room, in the individual postures, we desire progress—more depth, more definition, more endurance. Although striving for improvement encourages us to be determined and put forth more effort, sometimes it helps to put our goals aside and truly appreciate what is there, in the moment.

The other night, I was moving deeper into Standing Bow pose with the intention of kicking back strongly while charging forward with determination. All was well… until I fell out of the pose, my palms hitting the top of my towel, leaving perfect handprints of sweat. I felt disappointed with myself, wishing I could have balanced in the pose for a little longer. Does this process sound familiar? We’ve all had moments of progressing into postures with the intention of executing it strongly, only to fall out of it and feel unsatisfied. We wish we could have kept kicking or stretching for just a few more seconds, and from there, it’s so easy to feel a little frustrated: why wasn’t I strong enough? Why did my strength and determination fall short? We’ve all been there; we’ve all experienced the negative spiral of emotions that sometimes ensues in the yoga room.

What causes these series of negative emotions? Our desire to achieve, to improve. Our goals can help us and hinder us at the same time: on the one hand, they inspire us to accomplish more; on the other hand, they can easily cause us to become frustrated with ourselves and our practice when we don’t meet our own expectations. When we have clear goals in mind, it is understandable to become results-oriented—but then, if we don’t attain a desired result or if we don’t feel like we are improving quickly enough within a posture, etc, it is only natural for negative self-talk to happen. In our yoga practice, it is, of course, good to execute postures with effort and determination, but does it really serve us to become disappointed or frustrated with what we don’t accomplish?

Plutarch (A.D. 46-120), a Greek personal essayist esteemed for his sympathy and sensitivity, once wrote,

“We must never consider a small good as a large evil, nor be ungrateful for what fortune has given us because it has not filled the measure as full as we expected.”

In class, I thought of Plutarch’s thoughtful words as I attempted second set of Standing Bow. This time, instead of doing the posture with the intention of achieving a certain depth, I decided to throw attachment of results to the wind. I chose to be truly grateful and appreciative of my progress—my progress itself, whatever it may be. This time, when I fell out of the pose, I didn’t let it initiate a series of negativity and self-judgment. Instead of criticizing myself for only staying in the pose for half the time and becoming frustrated because I fell out, I chose to appreciate the fact that I stayed in the pose for half the time, acknowledging the strength and balance that carried me through those few seconds. This time, I evaded the clutches of the self-criticism demon: by choosing to be appreciative, I felt a lot better about myself and my abilities.

It’s amazing how freeing it can be to let go of our attachment to outcomes. Rather than defining your practice by what you want it to be in the future (goals and expectations), instead, appreciate your practice for what it is right now, in the moment. Instead of using what you can’t do to judge or criticize yourself, appreciate what you can do. Be grateful for your efforts. Our bodies are fascinating and incredible—some 75-100 trillion cells working together in harmony—so be thankful for your body and what it is capable of, both in class and beyond. Take a look at yourself and your practice—what are you proud of right now? Maybe it’s a posture that makes you feel fabulous? Or maybe your overall perseverance and resilience? Take some time to appreciate where you are right now, at this stage in your practice.

In the yoga room, we spend so much of our energy striving for improvement—but take some time to define for yourself, what does improvement really mean to you? Improvement doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical effect, even though the general approach is to judge our progress by what is visible. We tend to feel satisfied after a class where we felt strong, achieved a certain degree of depth in the postures, etc. But these are only our self-imposed standards. How our bodies will react to each class can greatly vary and is often unpredictable. The yoga in its purest form is so beneficial—everything you do in the room, as long as it is done the right way with positive intention—will serve you in some way. And ultimately, how you feel about each of your classes is entirely your choice, so why not choose to feel good about it? Perhaps, improvement could mean being more open and accepting of your process in the yoga room, regardless of outcome. Perhaps, improvement could mean occasionally loosening your grip on your goals and expectations—don’t hold on so tight; appreciate all you have, in the moment.

Perhaps, improvement could mean satisfaction.

—–
LZ practices in CT and never fails to be amazed by the immense potential and power of the Bikram series. She strives to approach this 101-day challenge with patience and acceptance, while breathing with joy. She chronicles her explorations, revelations, and appreciation for this practice on her blog at 101 Days of Lampposts.

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"Turn the corners of your mouth up towards the ceiling!"

Smile. Go ahead, do it right now. 🙂 Think of something–anything–that makes you truly happy.

See how much better you instantly feel? It’s amazing how small, single actions can have an immediate and sometimes profound effect on how we feel. I’ve recently experienced this phenomenon in a yoga class:

Brendan, a teacher at my studio, is absolutely fabulous. He has this enthusiastic and vibrant energy; you can feel it when he walks into the room. Yet at the same time he is so assured and relaxed, always putting you at ease. His classes are upbeat, engaging, and precise — always spectacular. My practice, however, is not as predictable–I had a rough day and was exhausted, so I was nervous about how my body would react throughout class; thus, I moved into the first posture especially slowly. Absorbed in my own worried hesitancy, I completely did not expect Brendan’s next instruction:

“Turn the corners of your mouth up towards the ceiling!” Brendan joyfully said.

Pleasantly surprised by the instruction, I smiled. Then I smiled some more. The phrase blended in with the tone of the dialogue so well because the words themselves are phrased in such a Bikram-dialogue-esque way. The saying is purely brilliant, true words of wisdom. And Brendan’s cheerfulness is infectious; the enthusiasm with which he said it was priceless. Before I knew it, I saw myself in the front mirror with the hugest grin on my face. My worries had dispersed; I felt calm, assured.

Fundamentally, we are encouraged to relax in class. You may have had a teacher tell you to breathe through your nose rather than your mouth because breathing through the mouth sends signals to the brain that we’re in a panicked state, whereas by breathing through the nose, we physiologically affirm to our bodies that we are doing okay. It’s the same way with our facial expressions. If we’re exhausted or frustrated, we tend to hold tension in our faces. But our tense expression actually makes us feel worse, because it reinforces our exhaustion and frustration. However, when we smile, we affirm to ourselves that we are doing fine. Smiling sends signals to the body that we are content, so our entire bodies relax, and as a result, the practice comes more easily.

By encouraging students to smile in class, Brendan reminds us all to approach the practice with happiness. Because really, the yoga itself is so good for us. However, it is only natural to throw some judgments or expectations into our practice–it is so easy for us to worry about how we do in class or get frustrated over what happens or doesn’t happen. But does doing so really serve us? Or does it only make our experience harder and more stressful? So don’t let your practice be a source of anxiety; rather, just do the best you can and treat yourself with kindness and appreciation no matter what the result.

So next time when you hit a really difficult point in class, try this: relax and don’t take everything so seriously. And most importantly, try to find the joy in your practice:

Turn the corners of your mouth up towards the ceiling.

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Anatomy of a Decision

“Next pose, everybody arms up over your head, palms together.”

You would smile at yourself in the mirror and eagerly bring your palms together with enthusiasm… if only it wasn’t halfway through class; if only you weren’t exhausted. Your heart is racing and the room feels even hotter than usual. Standing with your arms by your side, you really don’t feel like doing this posture. Besides, in several earlier postures, you had already brought your palms together over your head many, many times. How can I ever do this, you wonder. I’m really tired right now, I’m not strong enough right now. You hesitate, unsure of whether to get in the posture.

Then, a surge of energy rises within you and you put your arms over your head, your palms meeting. You proceed further in the posture, reaching the depths of the pose. For several seconds, you feel solid. Then, you lose the engagement of a muscle and fall out of the pose, palms hitting the floor.

You’re discouraged. See, I knew I wasn’t good enough to stay in that pose. I’m having an off day. I’m tired. I just want to sit out the rest of this set. What am I having for dinner tonight? I’m still tired.

No, this really isn’t easy; it wasn’t meant to be. But then you consider that maybe putting your arms over your head again followed by a bend or a turn doesn’t require that much more energy than standing here. You realize that maybe it’s not actually that much harder to just slowly move into the posture.

You know what? You think to yourself. I have the strength.

I can do it.

And you put your hands over your head, palms together, and try again.

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