November 26, 2009
Bikram yogis like to think of themselves as the workers, the pushers, the knee-lockers. We are the ones who sweat and sweat and sweat. We endure the heat, push our bodies to bend, and breathe in spite of our pounding hearts. We are rarely (if ever) seen as “Spiritual Yogis” and rarely do we label ourselves as such. Bikram himself says, “you are not ready for that kind of yoga. First you must discipline the body and mind, only then can you reach the spirit.”
This morning as I was practicing my yoga, on a holiday, sweating and bending, struggling through my little pains and my big pains – I thought about this. How can this not be spiritual? There is no other single activity I have devoted more of my time to on this earth than Bikram Yoga. I have practiced longer than I have been married or been a mother. Perhaps the only other activity that would come close is my own personal spiritual observances: prayer, reading, meditating. But in the recent months and years, as my life has shifted over to what it is now, the Spiritual Karen and the Yogini Karen are becoming harder to distinguish between daily.
I recently passed my one year anniversary of teaching. When I asked the boss lady how many classes I had taught in my first year she gave me a number that stunned me. 425. Four hundred and twenty five classes since I returned from Teacher Training. That’s a lot of hours of teaching. And not teaching alone, but in addition, I practiced another 242 classes in that year. That’s a lot of time, or dare I say, devotion?? Funny enough, that’s just at one thousand hours in the hot room in a single year, forty one solid days.
So, is it devotion? Is all this time a spiritual thing? Or, am I just addicted? To be fair, it could be both. I have benefited more from this practice health-wise than any other thing I’ve done. It’s helped me in immeasurable ways to be stronger, healthier, happier and more positive. But it has also served to center me, give me courage, teach me about my limits and help me through incredible emotional battles. There are days when I need to be on the mat, simply because it is my sanity. I crave it, I need it, I have to have it.
I do believe you can find spirituality through the physical practice of yoga. I believe one can find God in the struggle of the hot room just as easily as they can find God in a temple or on top of a mountain. Our bodies are not only connected to our spirits, but they are infused with our spirit. Move your body and the heart moves, the spirit wakes up and the search begins. The courage it takes to hold on in a posture can connect you deeply to the courage required to deal with the junk that plagues our lives.
What I am left with are three basic things. Practice. Discipline. Commitment. If you break them down individually, they are all virtuous qualities. But ultimately one leads to the other, which leads to the third. Without the practice, the discipline fades, without the commitment, the discipline is empty. And on it goes. It becomes a circle.
I have learned a few Yoga Mudras, different devotional chants. I even have a tattoo of the Om symbol on my wrist. I believe in the power of the spiritual devotion required to maintain a demanding physical yoga practice. I believe that God can be found in the hot little orange room, and that ultimately the spirit can be fed through the intense refinement of Bikram Yoga. I believe that sweating can be as purifying as praying (at times) and that each has a distinct place. I also believe that everyone must find their way to their own “mat” in life. Spirituality is deeply personal, as it should be.
I truly believe that this yoga practice really is spiritual. The ninety minutes, while purely physical effort to the naked eye, is as spiritual for me as anything can be. Many come to the hot room to heal their knees, fix their sore backs or lose a little weight. Many also come with depression, anger and hurts from their lives, just as I did. And they come to find that it is the process of healing their knees, fixing their backs and trimming their waistlines that brings them out of the haze of their personal pain.
There are no clear defining lines in any form of yoga that tell us where the physical ends and the spiritual begins. Maybe that’s the beauty of it. All I really know for sure is that journey is worth it.