Spiritual or not?

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.

I’m having a sort of off day.

I was sick for a while. I lost my voice, got sick, then got better. Then I got really sick again, then I got well. I hit bottom on Sunday evening when I just couldn’t talk anymore. The pain in my throat had gotten to critical level. I was sick, really sick. I proceeded to – as all enlightened, health-conscious yoga teachers do – drug myself. I rarely take medicine, let alone hardcore nighttime cold medicine.   But there I was, late that evening, standing in the cold and flue medicine aisle at the store.  I wanted the kind of relief that would put me so far to sleep I wouldn’t care how badly my throat hurt.  I got it.  I took that blue liquid and no more than 20 minutes later was as high as a kite.  No lie, I was done for.  You know how those packages say, Never operate machinery while using this medicine?  I now know why.  I barely made it up the stairs to my bed.  Dave must have covered me.  I slept very soundly for five hours.

Then I woke up.

The throat that was sore when I went to sleep now felt like razor blades had been forced down it.  If miserable sore throat were a condition warranting immediate medical care, I would have gone to the ER.  It was that bad.  I woke up crying, begging for relief.  I woke up Dave, who dutifully went down to the kitchen and got my Cepacol and crack Tylenol Severe Chest Cold Nighttime.  The Cepacol made my throat burn, it did nothing for the pain.  I took the Tylenol, prayed to God for mercy, and tried to go back to sleep.  It was a rough few days.

Then I woke up, and I felt human again.  It got worse before it got better.  I coughed, I moaned, I groaned.  I had no voice, nothing.  But it got better.

That was two weeks ago.  My voice is completely back.  YAY!  But as things go, I’m starting to feel, well..  off. I’ve been practicing more, trying to get in more classes with the teaching schedule.  It’s good.  I just don’t know what’s up with me.

As a student of yoga, and as a yoga teacher, I know that the mind and body are one.  I’ve had a lot on my mind lately.  My practice has been bringing up some emotional issues.  As I deal with those, sometimes setting them aside for a time, sometimes not, I find my body reacts.  I’m betting that these aching shoulders and tight hips are more than just surface issues.  So why am I so stubborn?  Why can’t I just rest and let myself recover, heal, and restore?  Why do I keep gnawing at myself day after day?

My body is telling me something.  I don’t need another bad chest cold to get my attention.  I don’t need to lose my voice again to understand that the energy in my body is moving differently.  What I need is to go back to yoga preschool.  I need to work a little slower on my mat, give myself some room to breathe, and relax.  I need to (as per the usual) heed the words I tell my students.  I need to take care of me.

I’ve written before about learning this delicate balance.  Teaching Bikram Yoga can be an exhausting job.  It’s hours in the hot room, sweating, and talking non-stop..  On the other side of that, there’s the emotional expenditure.  I walk in and very carefully encourage my students, I use the energy in the room, I try to discern how to best teach, how to motivate, when to push, and when to give compassion.  Often it’s the latter that wears me out the most.  We tell beginners and experienced students the same thing.  Every day is different, every practice is different.  Be kind to yourself and breathe.

I still need to learn these lessons.

So take me back to preschool.  I hear they have snacks.

Looking inward.

January 5, 2009

I was at the studio this morning, after teaching the 5:30 am class, and was trying to decide whether I wanted to use my spare hour to do yoga alone or go get coffee.  I struggled for a short moment.  I wanted to think, to be quiet, and to be alone.  So the question stood whether I wanted that in the form of a little sweat and stretching, or in a cup of milk and caffeine.  I stood there in front of my packed bag of clothes, looking at the shorts and top I had brought along for my “solo yoga”, and decided the yoga was better than the caffeine.  So I dressed, grabbed a mat and towel, and headed back into the hot room.

This doing yoga alone thing is kind of a new ritual for me.  Today is my second time to do it.  When I teach early, then stay to teach the 9:30 am class, I have a gap of time.  Prior to this new ritual, I would spend that hour or so eating breakfast and inhaling coffee.  But given my new career, I’ve found that my body needs more yoga time.  That empty hour or so was the perfect opportunity.  I’m already at the studio, I have access to the room, and I like to do yoga alone.  It’s something I miss from time to time.  I started doing Bikram alone in my apartment in Colorado nearly nine years ago.  It’s kind of interesting now, all this time later, to once again practice alone.  Now I have one of the best heating systems around available to me, a huge open studio, and plenty of mirrors.  It’s quite the contrast to the way I started out, but I’ll take it.  It’s nice.

Today as I stood in front of the mirror, I was critical of myself.  Too tired, Karen.  Not enough yoga lately, Karen.  You need to work on your posture, Karen.  These shorts look awful on you, Karen…  Blah Blah Blah. It’s interesting that I spend a great deal of my time when I teach encouraging my students to let these things go.  I tell them, Meet your own eyes in the mirror.  Face yourself.  Let it go. I could learn from my own words.  Maybe we teach the things that we really need to learn first.  I dunno.  But I did it, I started.  Breathe, breathe, breathe..  Inhale, exhale.  Again.  I did my hybrid Advanced Class/Beginning Class warm up.  I did my Salutes, my backbends, and I worked.  I didn’t feel particularly excited to be practicing.  The humidity was low in the room and I felt dry.  I had fairly shaky balance, my legs giving way as I worked on head to knee pose, my body not wanting to bend the way I wanted.  It was there that I was taken back to the Training room in Acapulco.

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about Training.  I went through a time when I got home of thinking about Training constantly.  Part of me wanted nothing more than to get back on the plane and go back.  Those formative nine weeks changed me forever.  The further I get from Graduation, the less I really want to go back.  Being home is better, and I know it.  Nobody is meant to live in that situation long term.  Teacher Training was but for a season and that’s OK.  But there are days when I’m taken back to that hot room and it all comes rushing back.  Today was one of those days.

I remember those nine weeks as a very complex emotional journey.  I spent the time separated from all of my friends and family here at home.  But during that time I built up a new support system.  I took care of me for the first time in a long time.  It wasn’t fun or easy or particularly comfortable at times.  In fact, there were times that were painful and I wanted out.  But the time passed and looking back, I have no regrets.

I read a note that a friend of mine from Training wrote today on her Facebook page.  She said that we leave such an intense season of change to return home where we require a season of rest.  Our hearts, minds, spirits, and bodies must recuperate from the intense therapy we have given them.  (my interpretation)  I agree with her.  When I came home, I was spent.  My body was irritated and creaky.  Over 100 Bikram classes in nine weeks left me sore and weary.  But now, a little less than two months out, now that I have rested a bit, I feel much better.  Some days I still feel like I am recovering.  There are times that I practice and my body complains.  There are times when I feel like I’m back in that hot room in Mexico, and I feel sentimental all over again.

The physical recovery is only one side, though.  Physically Training was very demanding, exhausting, and difficult.  But that’s only one part of it.  Emotionally and Spiritually I feel changed as well.  And maybe that’s really where the recovery is happening now.  The body, the most acute need, had to recover first.  Now the mind, spirit, heart, and soul can have some time to breathe.  As I stood on my mat alone today, I wondered at all the things that I’d been through.  It seemed petty and small to feel so frustrated with my inability to hold my posture in that moment.  I remembered the early days of Training when that posture wasn’t even happening for me at all.  How far I have come indeed.

But in the yoga room, and in my life anyway, I completely believe body and mind are intricately connected.  When the body hurts, or even reaches new depths, the mind and spirit react.  Yo-ga.  Union.  Hatha:  Ha (sun) tha (moon).  Opposites.  Union, togetherness.  All connected, and all the same.  Just as there is no *perfect* posture, there is no right or wrong emotion on the mat.  It is what it is.  This is perhaps one of my great lessons from Training.  Just letting it be.  If I am happy, or if I feel pain, if I celebrate holding my head on my knee, or if I whine because my back aches – it’s all the same.  Yoga, uniting, bringing together the mind and the body.

I will keep looking inward on my way as I practice.  I will have many more mornings in that room alone, I hope.  Maybe I’ll pick up some more insights.  I will continue to allow my soul, body, and spirit to rest and recuperate.  As Sean reminds me, I will continue to respect myself and afford myself a little kindness and balance.  I will continue to appreciate the lessons learned in Training, and continue to be thankful for the work that was done.

Namaste.

Day 28: Disconnect

June 28, 2008

Today was an interesting class. I had a pretty exhausting day yesterday and ended up staying up much later than I would have really liked. So waking up early was a stretch. Interestingly enough, being on the mat wasn’t as much of a problem as I thought. I almost felt disconnected from the class today. I was there, doing the yoga, working hard. But my mind was somewhere else. I know that we’re supposed to not even think, just focus on one breath at a time. Even though I didn’t feel completely ‘present’ in the room, I didn’t feel like my thoughts were racing either. I just felt, disconnected.

I’m not going to over analyze it. It is what it is. I loved Roy’s class today. It’s always nice to have new teachers, new voices, and I always feel like I hear something new.

Tomorrow’s a new day.

Goodnight.