Happy Yoga Birthday!

by Ann Chrapkiewicz

Last month marked my 15th year of practicing Bikram Yoga.  I was fortunate to find this healing practice when I was just about to turn 25.

This past week, I turned 40.  (And I got to hear Happy Birthday in Triangle Pose – in 3 different classes!  Great for the lungs, people!)

I feel so much better at 40 than I did at 24.  And I credit this almost entirely to yoga.

Age 25, at Bikram Yoga Ann Arbor, after 9 months of near-daily Bikram Yoga. 

This photo was taken just a few weeks after I had fractured two of my lumbar vertebrae on the porch of my co-op house.  I think I must have been so excited that my back was feeling better after each class…that it warranted a photo. 

Otherwise, I simply had no interest in anyone seeing my body or my postures.  Class was so hard, I did not perceive any strength or ability in my practice, and I had no idea how important it was to share the practice as widely as possible.  (Plus, this was the age of disposable Kodak cameras, and even the rare people with cell phones sure weren’t taking photos with them.)

Representation

Although 95% of the transformations are on mental, emotional, and other levels that aren’t even representable in photographic form, I still wish I had a true “before photo.”  Or some photos of me attempting postures with my fractured back bones. 

Oh well. 

(This is why I bug all of you for posture photos ALL THE TIME.  You will be glad they exist, and to have physical and visual proof of your transformation for all of your friends and family who cannot understand your love of the 90-Minute Miracle known as Bikram Yoga.)

Birthday Celebration!

And this is the “same” human, right around her 39th birthday.

In any case, as these years pass, I realize and appreciate – more and more – what an amazing system it is.  New realizations of all types happen for me on a near-daily basis. 

Yet the lineage and tradition of Bikram Yoga is struggling in many parts of the country these days. 

First, various hot fitness franchises sell themselves as similar, or as capable of providing the same benefits as Bikram Yoga (even though they are nothing like it). 

Secondly, Bikram Choudhury’s personal issues seem to be quite serious, and outsiders mistakenly believe that we independent yoga school owners are some how financially connected with him, or supportive of his behavior in some way.

(Some other traditions actually love to speculate and gossip about how “impure” and definitely not spiritual Bikram Yoga must be because of the imperfect person who brought us this lineage from Calcutta.) 

Yet once people realize that we are committed to carrying on a transformative yoga system in mom-and-pop-shop fashion – once they realize that this yoga’s healing power is not about the flawed human who brought it to this continent – once they hear or experience or see firsthand that this yoga is saving lives every day – all of that gossip usually sounds empty, ignorant, or selfish to them.

What is really at stake?

Amidst these ultimately small and silly battles of gossip and perception, there is a massive thing at stake.  People’s lives.  And the yoga system itself.  Its potential and ability to transform suffering into realization in a way that – for so many people – nothing else can. 

So, it is becoming more important to me to share some of the wisdoms that have been passed on to me, or the little insights that come to me every day when I teach or practice.  I have books worth of things to share, yet most of it only comes through in class or in conversation or at the yoga school.

Here is my birthday commitment to share through more writing, better apprenticing, stronger mentorship.  And I invite you to join me.  To being part of the leadership community who carries this lineage forward in strength, intelligence, and honesty.  Who takes it to areas of the country and school kids that don’t yet have access to it.  Whose actions support existing, traditional Bikram Yoga schools many decades and generations into the future.  Your leadership, your love, and your courage will make this possible.

Recent Writings

I started this blog with the simple intention to share something I wrote from this past spring! 

Finally, here it is, in case you want to keep reading:

Over the past year or two, it has been a lot of fun to try to sort through and communicate some of the things about Bikram Yoga that make it so powerful.  You can find some of these ponderings in print or online at Healthy & Fit Magazine.

If you would like something fairly quick to ponder this coming week, the list here is an excerpt from one of my articles in mid-Michigan’s print publication, Healthy & Fit Magazine.  It was my attempt to sort out and describe Six Elements that Make up a Traditional Yoga Practice. 


  • SEQUENCE: The sequence of postures is central to a therapeutic or hatha yoga practice. Foundational sequences are always practiced in the same order. Changing a sequence is only done with master guidance and for very specific reasons.

  • PRECISION: The precision with which each posture is attempted is really not up for debate! While there are infinite levels of depth and expression – depending on body size, shape, strength, and mobility – the precise, specific form of attempting each posture is not changed. Keep trying the right way and you will realize more about yourself.
  • STILLNESS: There is complete and total stillness in every single posture, for no less than 20 seconds. Each posture is done 2 or 3 times, and nearly every posture is done for the same number of repetitions. Practicing one set of each posture is considered a backup plan for occasional use only.
  • BREATHING: Breathing must be normal at all times during yoga postures. This means the air only flows by the nose, the breathing makes no sound at all, and the flow is relatively even (the inhales and the exhales take about the same amount of time). Certain portions of Bikram Yoga and Ghosh Yoga insist on a 5th element:
  • REST: After every posture, a rest period is taken. The rest period should be at least as long as the posture immediately preceding it, or longer.

Bikram Yoga, in particular, adds in a 6th element.  Which, contrary to public perception, adds to the accessibility and effectiveness of the therapeutic aspects:

  • ENVIRONMENT: Carefully controlled heat, humidity, and fresh air in a well-designed Bikram Yoga school make the yoga sequence more doable for the stiff-jointed, more effective for the athlete, and more noticeably powerful for anyone looking for mental relief from anxiety, stress, and our culture in general.

It is my joy to be of service and to facilitate healing through this yoga method.  I look forward to seeing you in class.

Leaving the Prison of Pain and Nothingness

backbend lunge skeleton yoga

by Ann Chrapkiewicz


Would I rather feel Pain?  Or Nothingness?

This is the broad choice I have been given, the dominant set of options I was born into.  Not just me, personally, but I, the human of 20th and 21st century North America, and probably many other places and times.

Whether I am experiencing emotional pain and choosing alcohol…
In the process of childbirth and being pressured to get an epidural….

Anxious about my family’s split-up and eating mindlessly, or counting calories compulsively as a numbing tool…

Stressed about my status – or exhausted from that status – and seeking temporary sexual pleasure as a distraction…
Having menstrual cramps and popping Motrin preemptively because that is just what you do

…this body has been relegated to an annoyance.  Something to be quieted.  A disturbance of the peace.

The peace of our neurologically, physically, and proprioceptively defunct collectivity.

If I feel something unpleasant, I want it gone.  Now.  The body should work well and do what I want it to do.  It should run for miles on pavement without negative effect.

I should be able to stuff it with hardly-passable food or poison it with my stressful thoughts, and it should still accept my commands for movement, rest, and ease.  This is a one-way street, and I am in charge.  I tell it what to do, and it listens, right?

I talk.  You listen.

I don’t want to hear from my joints.  I don’t like hearing from my connective tissue.  Not a fan of headaches.  And I certainly don’t want to hear from my uterus.

I was not trained to listen to the body’s intelligent calls for assistance or its innate wisdom.  I am in control, and the body is unpredictable.

So when I feel something unpleasant, my first instinct is either to ignore it, or to numb it.  With a prescription or without.  Legal or not.  It doesn’t really matter, just make it stop.  As soon as possible.  And distract me until then.

In our Civilization of Defunct Physical Intelligence, pain and discomfort are simply hindrances. Not tools for the learning process. Not methods of liberation from the body-silencing culture I was brought up in. Not training for childbirth. Not wake-up calls that I have been abusing my body for decades.

 

We live in a culture that does not teach us how to use the human body we have been given.  We only repeat the bodily-abusive patterns of the elders, the experts, the chemists, and the authorities around us.  We are human, after all, and we mostly absorb the collective wisdom.  Even if that wisdom is killing us slowly.

Is there a way out?

Well, sure.  Death would be a way out of the body.

But what about a way through all of this while still inhabiting the human form, and experiencing life.  Life on the third planet from a random star in deep space?

Is there something other than PAIN or NOTHING?

Well yes.  There is infinitely more.   Every color on the visible spectrum of light is possible.

I can feel my sciatica when I have worn bad shoes (i.e. most shoes!).  I can feel my lungs when I am slightly anxious.  I can feel my intestines when things are not quite right.  I can feel my back squeeze a little bit if I have not done a backbend in a while.  I can balance better in Standing Head to Knee – and breathe extremely well in the second part of Awkward Pose – just before I start my period, so I guess I can feel my hormones.  I can feel my body in early labor (during class!), 6 hours before any contractions, because I felt those hormones every month for the 3 previous years of practicing the same yoga class.  After 3 hours of the pushing stage, I can feel that something is just not right with the contractions, and that we need assistance.  And I can communicate that to my midwife so she can help the baby out gently.

I can feel deep grief for my friends who have lost their parents – and I can I cry about it deeply.  I can feel fear of losing those I love, experience it and cry about it.  And then try to start again with immense appreciation that we are still here.

I can feel the compression of my throat when I try to put my forehead on my knee.   I can feel the sharp pull in my knee in toe stand sometimes, and respectfully only go into the posture 80% of the way for a few months to let it heal.  I can feel the body telling me that I need to sit down.  And sit down again.  And again.  (I think I knocked the influenza virus right out of my body on more than on occasion – just by showing up to class and doing what I could.  And no, that was not a “bad” class when I sat down all those times.)

I can contract my abdominal muscles or let them stretch, and hold totally still with either sensation.  I can feel my breathing for 90 minutes straight, when I hold still in each of the 26 postures that Bikram and his teachers have – thank god – managed to preserve.  I can feel my heart beat pretty slowly throughout the class – although for the first 10 years I practiced, it beat a lot faster and harder.  I can feel more and more as time goes on.

But before starting this yoga, I was mostly stuck in the black and white realm, believing that pain, nothingness (i.e. no particular bodily sensation), or temporary surface pleasure were the three menu options.  For many years before doing Bikram Yoga, I even lost the ability to feel hunger and satiety.  I had detached so fully from the physical intelligence.

Physical History

Each of us could – and maybe should – write a history of our physicality.  Of our bodies.  Of how we have listened to them – or of how we have specifically not listened to them.  Of the times we had traumas or dull aches, and how we responded to them.  Of when we used the supposedly “rational”, calorie- or fat-gram-counting brain, to decide what was best for our systems, even when they were trying to tell us otherwise.  Of how and why we have abused them.  Kept them in a cage.  Ruled over them.  Confined them, or scattered them all over the place.

When I fractured my back, what did I choose?  Did I take the experts’ advice and ingest prescription narcotics for 4 weeks?  Did I accept their order not to do yoga (whatever they might have though “yoga” meant) for at least 6 weeks?  Or did I refuse all of that authority over my human system and haul my broken body into the Bikram Yoga room?  Did I move as slowly and mindfully into postures as I had ever moved in my life?

How would each of those choices have served me?  What would I learn from all of the possible courses of action?

Bikram Yoga and Physical Intelligence

Bikram Yoga is not the ultimate or final solution.  It is, in fact, only the beginning.  Bikram Yoga can be used as numbing tool just like anything else can.  I have seen students and teachers retreat into auto-pilot mode and tune out for 90 minutes….(but man, they sure “detoxed” so it must have been good, right?)

At the same time, though, Bikram Yoga has been used by many – and hopefully the majority – of us as a user manual for the human body.  It has been the first of many steps into acknowledging the infinite physical intelligence deep within each of us.  Into feeling every muscle and joint in the body.  Into looking at our weaknesses, behaviors, and patterns with equanimity.  Into putting the mind into its rightful place (hint: it is not superior to the body).  Into transforming how we walk, how we breathe, how we eat, how we move, how we talk to others, how we live.

And one of the best parts is that there is no rhetoric needed.  No special vocabulary about sensing energy.  No new-agey talk about anything.

Just put your toes on the line and your body weight on the heels.  Interlock your ten fingers underneath the chin.  Keep a nice grip.

Start please.  Inhale.

Wait for me please.

Stay with the words. (It keeps your brain with your body…which helps you develop your physical intelligence!)

Breathing always normal.