Saturday, July 09, 2011

My Inward Journey with Yoga and Bikram

I haven’t written about my yoga practice here before, even though it has shaped a great deal of my life in Hawaii. Writing about my efforts to connect mind, body and spirit is difficult because it is an internal journey and one begins to sound pretentious or preachy almost immediately. That’s exactly what I am trying to unlearn with yoga. I'd like to try to write about my slow journey with yoga because I am starting to see the first blossoms of growth and perhaps it will encourage you on your path too.

My first yoga class was in college and I enjoyed it immediately as a way to cope with stress. So many of the stretches just felt incredibly good! I remember that I particularly loved certain neck stretches which eased tension in my shoulders. I dropped in on classes intermittently from then on, sometimes doing videos, sometimes joining classes for a few months at a time and then letting it fade away. I never got into the habit of regular practice.

When I arrived in Kona, I attended a Bikram class with a few friends. I’d done “hot yoga” before, but nothing like this. I was floored at the sheer athleticism of the class and the feeling that I’d really gotten a work out. I’d never experienced that in my other yoga classes which were mostly about stress relief and relaxation. With Bikram I sensed a way to build strength, concentration and endurance.

But what I sensed about yoga from the very beginning, was that this was exercise for more than just my body. My spirit and mind were also being trained. In that very first Bikram class, I surprised myself with what I could do. The heat helps your muscles to relax and go farther than you expect them to and I was able to really go for it mentally too.

And then my teacher Mark said- “Your spirit loves it when you take care of your body.” Those words rattled around in my brain for months. It made perfect sense, but it was a total revelation. When you care for your body, it becomes a place that your spirit wants to be. Of course. Exercise had always felt like something to grit my teeth and get through (like penance!) until that moment. Suddenly I realized that it was really about caring for myself, nurturing my spirit. A healthy body makes it easier to be present because your spirit isn’t desperately trying to escape all the time (with food, television, internet rabbit holes etc.).

I didn’t start practicing every day after that class. In fact, I still don’t. But my practice has become more regular. Those words stayed with me and brought me back to class again and again. I’ve seen incredible progress in my practice.

Since Bikram yoga is the same 90 minute series every time, you get to know each posture inside and out and you can feel and see yourself progressing. After a less than a year of two classes a week, I can wrap my palms around the bottom of my feet and put my head on my knees while keeping my knees locked. When I first began I could barely touch my toes with my knees locked. When I lie in savasana, my spine is completely flat against the floor with no gap between the floor and my neck or the arch in my lower back. In the same way I’ve seen progress in my body, I’ve seen progress in my spiritual journey as well. I’ve learned how to better control my thoughts and reactivity. I have learned how to quiet my mind. That journey is a long way from over, but it's nice to know that I am completely capable of remaining calm and centered if I choose to- no matter what the situation around me is. I am learning to be the hub, not the wheel.

This leads me (at last!) to Light on Life by B.K.S. Iyengar. I've just finished reading this excellent book and I am looking forward to sharing what I learned from it in another post.

What kind of exercise works for you? Yoga has become so pervasive, I'm sure most of you have given it a go. What did you think? Did it stir something inside you, or did it feel too hippy dippy? I'd love to know what you think about this topic- we women can be so hard on ourselves in this department and I'm tired of punishment and shame, but I don't believe in an undisciplined do only what feels good approach either.

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