28 October 2012

Opposite Ends of the Yoga Spectrum: Bikram vs. Kripalu

The other week I got a wild hair and decided to try out Bikram Yoga at Yoga Crossing. After having a brief conversation about my yoga experience with the instructor at the front desk, I entered the heated, silent studio about 10 minutes early. The room was notably hotter than what I'm used to at Inner Strength Yoga, but as always, very welcoming to me as the constantly freezing chick. The floor was made out of a material I'd never seen before, and it already felt slick as I walked to an empty place to set up my mat. Within that small time frame, I was able to enter into a yoga nidra-like state, which felt wonderful.

When the instructor entered, she flipped all the bright lights on, which was kind of jarring for me. I noticed there were mirrors in two directions, which was kind of nice. (At home, I have a mirror and use it to check my alignment.) We started with Seagull Breath, which is where you interlace your fingers with the palms together, placing them under the chin. On the inhale, you lift the elbows up and as you exhale with the sound "Ha", you slowly lower the elbows while tilting the head back, pressing the chin up with the hands. (This is how Kripalu teaches Seagull Breath anyway, as a Pratapana, or warm up.) What struck me about how the instructor at Yoga Crossing guided it was that she strongly encouraged us to really "push" our heads back, and to bend our backs so we could look at the back wall. This warmup is challenging for me because my shoulders are tight, and what she lead seemed kind of intense right off the bat. Although my perfectionistic part wanted to keep pushing, I was feeling pain in my back and in the compassionate style of my Kripalu training, gave myself permission to make it gentler that I interpreted the instructions to be.

We then proceeded through each of the 26 Bikram postures. The sequence started with several standing and balancing postures, which the instructor didn't ever model. (I model most of the time in classes I teach because many of my students don't have enough experience with the postures to know what they should look like, plus my cuing can still sometimes use some work!) One interesting posture for me was what she called Triangle, which had a very bent knee and felt more like a Side Angle Lunge. But what really struck me throughout the class was how quickly the instructor was speaking. At times, I couldn't even understand her, she was talking so fast! I got exhausted just having a moment's thought about teaching this way. She also stated--and several times, in a drill sargent-like tone--that we should "feel pain" in various areas of the body, that we should "lock our knees", that we should "push". This felt like the complete opposite end of the spectrum to me from what I teach as a Kripalu instructor--which is to honor your body's limitations and never feel pain. She also had us keep our eyes open at all times, which prevented me from cultivating some of the blissful introversion I often reach while practicing yoga. Because of the speed of the class, there was little time or space to sink into the postures. At one point I did feel my heart beating fast--there's no doubt in my mind to the cardio effect of this practice, which is often a debate about yoga.

After an intense first half, we received a two minute break in corpse pose, with our head facing the instructor. We were again told to keep our eyes open. This was so foreign to me, but I tried to experience it as a new, more active way of doing the posture. We were then told to roll up to sitting, to grab our big toes with our peace fingers, and (what I think was) to bounce, but honestly it took me several round of this (with some looking around the room) to decipher what to do, since I couldn't make out her rapid words. We then rotated back around to face our instructor on our bellies, and did a back bend two times. Then back to shavasana for a mere 30 seconds! I soon learned this was part of the sequence for part of the second half: a posture two times facing the instructor with a 30 second corpse pose in between. Transition-wise this seemed inefficient to me. However, the limited time in shavasana did encourage me to relax everything as quickly and efficiently as I possibly could. It kind of reminded me of an extremely abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation exercise. I enjoyed the instructor's imagery in full locust pose, which was to create one leg by pressing our two legs tightly together. And before I knew it, I was put in shavasana and allowed to close my eyes. As soon as that cue was given, the instructor told us we could stay as long as we like, said "namaste", and left the room. This also surprised me, that there was no guided relaxation.

I could immediately hear other students putting away their mats and leaving. Given how intense the practice was, however, I was determined to stay and relax my body. Even though I didn't feel as though I stayed long, I was one of the last ones to leave.

On my way out, the instructor told me I'd "done well" for my first time. She said I clearly knew my body very well and adjusted appropriately whenever I was told. I mentioned to her that I usually use a strap for some of the postures where you need to grab the foot, not always because I can't reach, but sometimes because all the sweat makes it difficult to hold onto the foot with the hand. She told me that it's part of building up my grip--I imagined it meant my fingers, hands, and wrists could use some strengthening, which is likely true. (There were no props of any kind available that I could see.)

Since a single drop in was $19 and a week's worth of classes for newbies was $20, I had opted for the extra dollar and went back the next day, figuring I would see if I had any different thoughts after having gone through it once already.

The second time through I had a different instructor, who I liked better than the first one. She still spoke quickly but she was clearer in her instructions and actually seemed to take a breath between words. Also, knowing the sequence and what to expect made it a little easier. I did get "called out" (by name) for changing my grip on my foot when I couldn't keep my fingers from slipping, which I wasn't thrilled about. There was still a lot of talk about how this "hurts", to "hold it", "feel the pain", "this will be uncomfortable", and to "push it", without a lot of mention of using the breath. It still felt like a lot of forcing rather than allowing the openings to occur naturally, though I will say that sometimes I was surprised at what I could do when mindfully moving into postures that did bring me some pain, such as steeple position with my hands (especially in Balancing Stick position). In some postures, such as the Wind Removing and Rabbit poses, I thought I started to feel the benefits of the opposition in the stretch that I created with my own body, but it was over so quickly I couldn't be sure.

I caught myself several times closing my eyes (especially in forward folds), and had some difficulty keeping the fingers tight together instead of spreading them wide apart for a better base. One thing that worried me a bit in the cuing was about Cobra and the lower back. I don't remember exactly what was said, but if there were other the perfectionists / people-pleasers in the room who were still in their ego during the class, I would be afraid of them injuring themselves. As I looked around, I noticed several students dropped down into Child's pose though, so maybe they were self-aware enough to stop when it got to be too much. Personally I stopped once as well, since I felt my heart pounding again with a slight bit of nausea (I hadn't eaten anything for breakfast, so I'm not sure whether that's why or not--though I couldn't imagine having eaten prior to class!) Again I noticed the lack of space between poses to transition, integrate, or even grab a sip of water. It occurred to me that the rollups from corpse pose could really help strengthen my core, and that the quick moving aspect of Bikram did keep my mind focused. I really didn't have any space to think about anything else!

Would I go back? Not sure. I've tried doing more traditional Ashtanga primary series sequence from time to time, because there is something about a regimented sequence and pace that does attract my busy mind and my competitive nature. But lately I've started to appreciate the gentler forms of yoga like Kripalu, Restorative, and Yin; although not what I gravitate to naturally, they really are more balancing for me.

Isn't it great that there's a yoga for everyone out there? Write in with your experiences and/or your favorite style of yoga. And if you are curious about yoga but don't practice because you're worried you can't do it, or haven't found a style that's right for you, don't fret. Keep trying. You'll find the yoga you're meant to find!

21 October 2012

Emotional Chutes and Ladders

Kripalu Yoga teaches us to "ride the wave" of emotion using a technique abbreviated "BRFWA" -- Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, and Allow. But what happens when your waves seem more like endless pits of darkness and despair?

I've sometimes found it difficult to relate to the wave analogy, but I've come full circle back to it, and wanted to offer several other analogies one might call to mind when standing in the face of strong emotions.

Moods move (if you ALLOW them to)
First, I see parallels of this wave analogy with several forms of therapy that focus on emotion regulation, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). These teach us that moods always move. Positive and negative, they're like a sine wave graph--up and down, up and down. Like the weather in New England, our moods always keep us on our toes! But knowing that moods naturally shift can provide us with a sense of freedom. Feel bad? If you WATCH patiently it's very likely that your mood will naturally shift.

Unfortunately we humans have several tendencies that make this whole process difficult:
  • We reinforce bad moods with automatic negative thoughts (a self-harming behavior)
  • We assume our moods are dependent on changes in the outside world (though these internal states of mind would change regardless)
  • When we're in a low state, we're more likely to recall all the other times we felt the same way--this is called "mood congruent bias", and it reinforces the thought that we must always feel this way (an over-generalization as well as technique used to avoid the present moment)
  • We fail to trust in the process--for moods we label "bad" in particular, we try to "solve the problem" (rather than radically accepting what is)
Alternatives to the wave analogy
One of my friends from yoga teacher training once told me that even if I dig my own hole, I know how to get myself out, and that I would. While this made me feel a little better at the time, it didn't quite capture the depth of what I was going through. In conversations with a another friend who seems to experience her emotions as deeply as I, I started to think of it like this: instead of a hole, it's really a well--I visualize something like the one from the movie "The Ring". And when things are bad and I start to feel myself falling, I have two choices.
  1. I can try using my nails to claw at the dirt on all sides, flail my feet and my legs to try and find some footing to prevent it from happening, scream in terror at my misfortune, etc. 
  2. Or, I can let go and surrender --using my BREATH to RELAX my whole body until I land with a splash at the bottom. I can take in my surroundings (FEEL), maybe learning something new or discovering some message I'd left myself the last time I was down there. I'll trust that I'll find the stashed rope ladder when I'm ready to, and then with the energy I've conserved from not fighting the fall (brahmacharya!), I'll use it to climb back up into the sun.
Another analogy that came to mind for me was the game Chutes and Ladders (am I dating myself here? :-). If I can freely and easily slide down--maybe even learning to find some small pleasures in the ride--I'll have the strength to climb back up the ladder when its time.

What about you? Is this the first time you've heard about BRFWA and riding the waves? Do you simply ride the waves like an expert surfer? An awkward beginner? Do you find this as challenging as I do? I know a lot of people currently who are going through difficult times--what analogies have you created to help yourself (or a friend) get through them?

14 October 2012

How to Replace Complaints with Contentment

A few months ago I was in a yoga class, and the instructor said something to the effect of:

"Complaining is simply a rejection of the present moment, which is all we have."

A Google dictionary search defines "complain" as:
  1. Express dissatisfaction or annoyance about a state of affairs or an event
  2. State that one is suffering from (a pain or other symptom of illness)
  3. State a grievance
Leaving the distinction between pain and suffering for another day, I'll admit it: I'm someone who's gotten into the habit of complaining a lot.

Santosha is the second niyama, or observance that yogis should follow. Santosha means "contentment". In other words, it's the exact opposite of complaining: it's cultivating gratitude for everything (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) that's going on in your life, right here, right now, regardless of whether you'd prefer to be / have something / someone / someplace else. It's not jealousy or envy but rather, radical acceptance.

Sigh. Whether or not you feel as though your life as a whole is going well, practicing santosha day to day can present us all with a challenge every now and again.

Much has been written about santosha and how the ego plays a large role in keeping us in a state of perpetual complaint instead of being satisfied and even hopeful about what is. Fortunately, several fellow yogis join us in this struggle, and offer practical advice about how to cultivate more contentment in our lives. Here are a few of my favorites:
Hopefully, the more we focus on being content with what is, right now, the less room there will be for complaints! How will you replace your next urge to complain with contentment?

07 October 2012

Chanting Your Way to Joy

My First Kirtan Experience
My first kirtan happened over 12 years ago, probably among one of the first couple of times I visited the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. Back then, they had a long weekend program that included elements of yoga and Buddhist practices, both of which I was starting to explore. If memory serves, most of the four days involved an hour of yoga, an hour of seated meditation, a meal. Rinse and repeat, multiple times a day. In the evenings (before we practiced loving silence) there would be a special event of some sort, such as a lecture or group discussion. One evening, there was something called a kirtan.

I had no issues with the silence. I was shy and loved not having to worry about "making friends." Although I was getting better at meditating for an hour at a time and tolerating the caffeine-withdrawal headaches that thumped my skull against my head to the point I feared others could see it, I anticipated these evening events; they were somehow more engaging than what was going on in my thoughts or in my body. Even though I'd been forced into music by my parents as a child, I welcomed listening to music as a distraction to all this, and was curious about the strange instruments, such as the harmonium, which I saw before me on the makeshift stage.

Looking back, I realize now that while I did yoga (asanas) to strengthen and stretch my body, and meditated to focus my mind, kirtan was the third point on the triangle--the one that got at my emotions and caused me to question who I really was. I enjoyed the music, and sang along though I had no idea whether I was saying the words correctly and had no idea what they meant. But what stood out to me, which I still remember, was the spontaneous dancing. Sure, my foot was tapping, and I may have even clapped a bit. But every now and then, someone would stand up, move to the outside of the room (maybe), and dance freely, in whatever way the music moved them. It was as if the song animated their bodies from the inside, and they were oblivious to things like, say...how they might look to other people. As someone who had always enjoyed dancing, I was envious, but completely self conscious. What would people think of me if I got up and started moving in "weird" ways? I had only ever done ballet--where I was shown the steps and like most other things in my childhood, told many times when I got them less than perfect. I just couldn't do it.

That was when I saw her. A woman had stood up from her back jack and pink square cushion, and started dancing in place. She had long gray hair (which may have been in braids, breaking multiple other "rules" that I had learned about women and aging). As I watched her, my thoughts began to shift. I felt admiration toward this strange woman. In that moment I asked myself, "how do I want to live my life?" "Do I want to be the kind of person who cares so much about what others think of me that I won't do something my body is aching to do, something I know I will thoroughly enjoy?" After a few more moments, I got up and let loose.

I still don't always pronounce the words right. I still don't know what many of them mean. And I've never lasted long in a chair or cushion at a kirtan since. I'll say "thank you" to that woman, whoever you are. That night, you were my guru (teacher).

Benefits of Kirtan as a Spiritual Practice
I attended Krishna Das' "Heart of Devotion" workshop, where we chanted and he talked about how kirtan was his primary spiritual practice. He told us he chanted because he HAD to, describing it in a way that sounded as though his very life depended on it. Given that I've been going through my own personal hell recently, I could relate.

So what makes kirtan such a powerful antidote to people's "dark places in the heart", as Krishna Das describes? What is it about chanting that an help us find the happiness that resides within?

For starters, it can be an alternative for those who have trouble meditating while sitting still, in silence, or who fear yoga as something that requires twisting their bodies into pretzels. Focusing just on the sounds from the instruments and people singing has a way of drowning out unwanted and automatic negative thought patterns.

Additionally, some believe that the very practice of sounding (of which vocalizing the Sanskrit language is one possibility), has healing properties--correct pronunciation is helpful, but an open heart is more important in order to receive the benefits, which include inner peace and a sense of joy.

And then there's the sense of community and belonging that attending a kirtan with friends (and even strangers) can help one feel again. In an age where communication happens primarily via technological devices and where in many cases, regular "church going" has fallen by the wayside because of the unpopularity of religious dogma, it's just NICE to sit in a room with other kind, compassionate human beings and sing. Plus, there are now some scientific studies in contemplative neuroscience that help explain why rituals like kirtan can create a kind of "buzz".

Is Kirtan for Me?
If you're interested in learning more about kirtan, the best advice I can give you is to just jump in. Listen to music online, buy a CD for your car (in my opinion, kirtan is fantastic for helping one handle traffic jams!), or find a meetup near you. For those in the Boston area who are up for an experience, check out the Boston Yoga and Chant Fest coming up in a few weeks! It's sure to be a memorable experience.