Flattery and Criticism: An Introduction

by Ann Chrapkiewicz


Over a decade ago, one of my most influential yoga teachers at the time presented me with a quote:

“To the Yogi, criticism and flattery are no different.”

It made sense to me on some levels, and I thought I could relate to not caring about the status quo.  I had a history of peacefully withdrawing from certain social circles and finding my own way. In fact, I thought of myself as relatively independent.  (Ha! The narratives we keep so dear…)

Throughout my childhood – and to this day – my dad regularly expressed some form of Who-cares-what-other-people-think? when telling stories of his past or present.

In high school I had even left the “cool” lunch table midway through 9th grade to venture out on my own.*

This was just an embryonic stage of independence from social pressures, but it felt significant to me at the time.

Early Yoga?

Looking back, I recognize these scenarios as (potentially) a very early stage of yoga.

Little did I know at the time how utterly wrapped up I was in the need for flattery and approval.  And in the crushing power that criticism could still have over me.

3 Signs I Was Dependent Upon Flattery and Approval

1. Throughout most of college and for several years after, I never felt sexy or thin enough.  I apparently cared that an imaginary, ideal male out there had a perception of me that was not ideal or attractive.  My self-worth was tied up with all of that made-up nonsense that has been written about extensively.  I apparently DID care what other people thought of me.

Crap.  Not immune at all.  That cultural, gendered conditioning is many layers THICK.

2. At one point, I chose a pretty serious relationship with an abusive, wounded person… and gave up a nurturing, loving, friendship and potential partnership with a healthy, inquisitive soulmate.  Why?  Because the former laid on thick compliments and immediate physical and sexual approval; the latter was peaceful and did not fill the holes of my self-loathing.  (I do not fault him for being so healthy!)

OMG, I gave up an incredibly healthy interaction for an unhealthy one.  WTF, Ann?  Seriously?  I eventually stopped regretting my weakness and choices.  Eventually getting to a place where I deeply appreciate everything I have learned from them.

3. Then, when emotional insults and manipulations were delivered thickly, my response was that I needed to try harder to be better.  (I later learned that this was part of the classic cycle of power and control in domestic violence.  This should be taught in high school!)

I was so conditioned to respond to criticism or flattery, and I naively believed that all other humans always spoke the truth.  I could not see abusive behaviors as reflective of the abuser and his pain, wounds, and conditioning.  I thought they were reflective of me.

Wow, did I really need for some yoga to happen! 

Luckily, I was able to remove myself from the harmful situation.  But it still took several years and a lot of internal work for me to see what I was participating in.

Fast forward

In the past 20+  years I have benefited from the wisdom of many therapists, nutritionists, sociologists, friends, domestic violence advocates, Eckhart Tolle (I highly recommend that you read A New Earth ongoingly for the next 10 years), and feminist scholars.  Their perspectives have empowered me, given me invaluable tools and perspectives, and made me feel less alone (who has not gone through some of this stuff?)

But two things have changed my energy in ways that no theory, counseling, research, or other “rational” thought could touch:

1. Bikram Yoga

At the very beginning of my practice, the mirrors, lights, heat, and postures created a situation which made it literally impossible for me to maintain the toxic stream of thoughts I had been carrying for 10 years.


“Not-thin-enough”… “How many calories can I eat later?”… “Can I get through today on 800 calories?”…”When will I be able to fit in those pants?”…”I can’t stand my thighs”….

“Oh my god, I was holding my breath while thinking all of those thoughts.  I apparently can’t do that and get through the next posture!”

“I guess I have to breathe instead of think about nonsense…otherwise this is going to be a hellish 90 minutes!”


This all seemed to happen on a level that was before conscious thought.  (Char Brooks has described this yoga practice to me as “pre-verbal”; I can relate.)

What I learned right then and there – and on a super embodied level, was that:

Concentrating only on my breathing and the teacher’s words was a physical necessity.

No thoughts of thighs or calories was going to happen for 90 minutes.

Freedom!!!

This all led to the neurological reality of having a clear mind….which led to a complete fresh start in my real and imagined social relationships.  During my first full year of daily practice, I could tell when I missed a day – the thoughts would start to creep back in.  Luckily, after that, they stayed away and have never returned.  It has been 15 years this year, and there have not been any relapses into bulimic thinking yet.

Yet we are always works in progress.  It was soon time for the next layer of internal and interpersonal healing.

A few years later, Bikram Yoga provided a quiet, consistent, and stable situation where I could see that I had gotten myself into an extremely unhealthy, abusive relationship.  These things are thick and heavy and very hard to see, and I have total compassion for anyone still stuck in one.  Bikram Yoga gave me a safe, neutral space – free of abusive commentary, impossible expectations, or mean energy.

And Standing Head to Knee Posture gave me a place to practice my mantra of strength, which I badly needed at that time.

Nothing is going to push me over, no one is going to knock me down, you are not going to make me feel weak.  I AM GOING TO LOCK MY F’ing KNEE and you are NOT going to stop me.

That period of time is when I started to really GET that posture, and experience its 99% mental nature.

2. Isha Yoga

As far as I can tell, this is the real deal when it comes to an all-encompassing yoga process.  Sadhguru is the only human I have spent time with who seems to be fully realized.  If you are even a little bit interested in yoga in its total manifestation, check out Sadhguru’s YouTube videos or blog posts.  Or take an Inner Engineering program with Sadhguru and see where it takes you!  Once you have completed that program, you can learn the Yogasanas (postures) for home practice or take more in-depth immersions.

Here is one of Sadhguru’s ways of expressing the topic of our need for flattery and ultimately the way that this makes the spiritual process impossible:

Society is training you to hold an opinion on everything; otherwise you will have no self-esteem. Your self is such hollow nonsense that it needs people to tell you, “Oh you are a beautiful person.” You are thriving on opinions, not only on other peoples’ opinions, your own opinions. You are a person only because of the opinions that you hold.


Practicing Yoga

Many forces would lead us to believe that yoga is a stretching-oriented exercise class that can be mixed and matched, mished and mashed, soundtracked and pumped up with weights…anything goes, right?  That “doing yoga” is equivalent to practicing postures.

Oh, gods and goddesses, yogis of all ages, Jesus and Mother Mary, can I apologize on behalf of my country?

Both Bikram Yoga and Isha Yoga have taught me that practicing a system of yoga postures (with the right approach) is just a preparatory process…something that can help yoga to happen within you.

They have both shown me that we must practice a consistent system daily, performed exactly as instructed, without omission or addition.

So that you can learn something about what is going on deeply with yourself.  So you can operate on more subtle levels of awareness.  So you can have the strength to hold your mind on one thing in total stillness and then see what happens.

That does not mean that you cannot do other things with your time.  But in order to initiate a yoga process, there are certain things we must not give up.

Perspective

Although Bikram does not transmit kriyas or other energetic processes of yoga, he taught thousands of us to put the asanas in perspective.

“Postures are not the goal of Yoga. Postures are the tools.”

What I have experienced is that these tools can create infinite possibilities for self-reflection, for rearrangement of internal energies, for pre-verbal transformation, and for the yoga process.

They have helped me build increasing immunity to criticism, and – just as important – increasing immunity to flattery.

So, if you give me a compliment, I will love you all the same, but it will not have power over my day – or my direction – like it used to.

 


* This was no easy task – I spent most of 5th and 6th grade praying at night to god and Mother Mary that I could someday be part of that group, and magically – on the first day of 7th grade – it became a reality.  I suddenly and inconsiderately left my old friends for this popularity.  But eventually I found the various factions and “fights” of 7th and 8th grade pretty tiresome.  About halfway through 9th grade, I came to the conclusion that the topics of conversation at the time (cigarettes and boys) were of zero interest to me. In any case, it was really scary at first – to go and sit alone in that intimidatingly social scene – but ultimately, my need to watch the whole thing unfold was stronger than my need to remain approved of.

There is No Such Thing as Monday

Toe Stand - Original Hot Yoga - Bikram Yoga

by Ann Chrapkiewicz


A few Sunday mornings ago, I was teaching* class.

It was one of those lovely classes where everyone spaced themselves so beautifully in the three rows of our practice room; people hardly took their eyes off of their focus points for the entire warm-up portion of class.

We were finishing up the standing series, on the second side of Toe Stand, when one of the great yoga lessons emerged.

One of my long-time students, Amy, – who has been with us for around 120 classes, since summer 2013 – was in one of her usual spots in the third row.  She smiles quite a bit in and outside of class and really enjoys the learning process.  She is a joy to have in class and at our school.

Communications in the Moment

Expressions of Toe Stand vary from person to person – many people are much closer to what looks like a bent-over tree pose – but Amy happens to be able to sit down quite easily – kind of like these humans (Eric, I love so much that you can hold a phone and use it while in this posture!!):

Toe Stand - Original Hot Yoga - Bikram Yoga

Some Deeper Expressions of Toe Stand, Spring 2015 – Lauren, Eric, Melissa, Jess

I saw that her left knee was high up above her right, as was common for her.  I thought I would see if – through our constant teacher-student communication in class – we could make the next posture adjustment happen for her.

My instructions directed her to push her left knee towards the ground and stretch her spine up towards the ceiling.  I encouragingly repeated the instruction a few times to see if a physical response was ready or possible in that moment.  It probably sounded something like this:

Stretch your spine up to the ceiling, hips up

A little more

Stretch your spine up

Suck your stomach in

Top of the head towards the ceiling

Left knee down, Amy

Both knees in one line, parallel to the floor

Left knee down a little more, please

I noticed that instead of trying these things, Amy was very focused on something else; putting her hands together in front of the chest.  Nothing wrong or ultimately bad about it, but – as long as she is not having knee pain – it is not where the posture would be most beneficial for her at this point in her practice.  The hands element is relatively unimportant relative to the leg, spine, and abdominal control in this posture.

Dialogue bikram yoga teacher teaching
New Teachers’ Foundation for leading Therapeutic Hatha Yoga in the Ghosh Lineage – Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class

Dialogue: Checking In

The direct instructions of the Dialogue that we initially learn as Bikram Yoga teachers really is and – in my opinion – can/should be used constantly as a dialogue.  When used well, the teacher is gaining at least as much information about the student as the student is receiving from the teacher.

So, in those moments, I did not perceive that my instructions had gotten through successfully.  After everyone had rested in savasana, I checked in with her.

“Did you have any pain in the posture?  Was your left knee bothering you?”

“No.”

“Ok, well that’s good.  Did what I was saying make sense?”

…Amy thought about it for a second, and then said…

“It’s been a long week.”

I repeated back to myself quietly, “It’s been a long week.”

“Ok,” I thought….

And then I laughed out loud and said,

“No!  No, no, NO!!”

“Does what happened yesterday, or what happened for the past several days, have control over your ability to focus in the moment?”

Amy smiled and said, “No.”

“Is last week in control of what you do in toe stand?”

She smiled again and shook her head.

And then the words just flew out of me:

“No!” 

“YOU are in charge here!!  In the moment when you are in toe stand, or any other posture – you are breathing, you are calm, you are trying, you are following the words…

…and last week does not exist.  Does that make sense?”

By this point, Amy (and half the class) was smiling and nodding quietly.

“Monday does not exist.  Friday does not exist.  These labels are made-up entities when it comes to your ability to breathe well or absorb an instruction. 

Please do not let them control you.  They only exist for the purposes of getting to the right place at the right time with the right people.

Days of the week are for scheduling function only.  

When you are in toe-stand, just be in toe-stand.”

bikram yoga toe stand

One of the infinite correct expressions of Toe Stand

Then I settled down and we all had a lovely, light, quiet minute in savasana.

The Personal is Political, or Cultural Baggage = Personal Baggage

Yoga leads to nothing less than self-transformation.  Yet so much of what I call “myself” or you call “yourself” is essentially the cultural baggage that we have picked up along the way.

I think I am original in my suffering.  You think your stress is special.  And we actually try to preserve our suffering and stress in order to be unique, post-modern, identity-based individuals.

All of this is an aspect of human nature, of course. But it is not permanent, static, nor completely inevitable.

And that is what the yogis have always understood.

The deeper I go down the yoga path, the more I see how subtle this process is.

The stories we have culturally, collectively created and absorbed have so much power over us that they affect our individual, moment-to-moment ability to breathe.  To focus.  To listen.  To do a task at hand.  And to live in our physical bodies in a fully alive way.

We not only are emotionally, neurologically, and respiratorially** controlled by things like “TGIF” or the dread of Monday, but by a stressful week that is 100% in the past.

Yoga leads to nothing less than transformation of the cultural stories that control our bodies.

bikram yoga teaching coaching locust pose

What is Yoga?

Just your friendly reminder that this is not a stretching class.  Not a fitness class.  Not a sweat box.  (Although all of those things do occur.)

It is you, your cultural baggage, and ultimately, how you live your life.


Ann is an amateur ethnographer who happens to have experienced, witnessed, and facilitated ridiculous amounts of healing and transformation through Bikram Yoga, Isha Yoga, and medical anthropology.

*Lately I have decided to stop calling myself a “yoga teacher”; it has become meaningless in this country.

**I admit that I made this word up, but I am sticking to it.

Big Girls Bend: My (Ongoing) Journey as a Fat Yogi

by Marini Lee, Ph.D.


I’ve been practicing bikram yoga for almost 12 years now. According to the Western world (and my recovering internal body critic), I should look differently. I should be thin by now!!!! Shouldn’t I?

Well, I’m not.

First of all, being and/or getting “thin” is not (nor should be) the goal of yoga. Yoga means “union.” It is my understanding that this union is about optimal health – mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically.

So let me tell you what I have experienced as a result of practicing this healing yoga.

MENTAL CLARITY

That monkey mind is a TRIP!

Yoga has helped me to quiet the chatter in my mind, even if for only 90 minutes at a time. Those 90 minutes are usually the most mentally calm 90 minutes of my day!

Sometimes my mind is racing so much with what I “should” or “need” or “didn’t” or “must” do next, right now, always, that I even have to catch myself in class and say, “Where are you now?” That happens less – much less than it used to -, but one of the aspects of this practice where I have experienced the most growth, is in my mental clarity, inside and outside of the studio. Inside of the studio, I pretty much know that I’m not going to die from the heat or from any of the postures.

I can focus and concentrate because I know I am strong. I know I am a work in progress. I know all I have to do is try. I am enough.

I’m still working on transferring that mental strength outside of the class, but I’m getting there.

ardha chandrasana half moon bikram yoga bigger bodies

EMOTIONAL STABILITY

The emotional self is the roller coaster the monkey (mind) LOVES to ride! Besides the increased mental focus I have experienced over the years, I am also extremely proud and really in awe of the emotional stability I have cultivated and am continually learning to cultivate. Again, while I am a work in progress, I am much less apt to “go off the deep end” emotionally when things go awry – and also when things are great.

There are times, in poses, particularly back bends when a rush of emotion will come over me, but as I breathe into it and “simply” allow the emotion to run its course, it becomes less powerful in its ability to overwhelm me. I’m not even sure how the practice does this, but I think it must have something to do with the heat.

It’s really hard to be sad or even elated when you are trying to balance on one foot with the other stretched high in the air.

There’s really no space for emotional instability in the hot room, and I’m actually grateful for that.  Because then I can focus my energy on healing.

bikram yoga original hot yoga fat big plus size locust pose

SPIRITUAL RENEWAL

Many people erroneously equate yoga with a religion. To me, religion is the box you put God in to make sense of your/our purpose and existence. Again, from my understanding that yoga is about union, you can’t put the practice into such a box. I do believe the practice can make you better at your particular box, but it is not a box itself. Some may use it as a way to and through their respective boxes, but if anyone is worshipping sweating in a room for 90 minutes, you’ve got a bigger problem than we have room to discuss in this blog.

So, while I don’t feel that yoga is a religion, I do feel like this practice has made me a better Christian. I am MUCH more patient with myself and others.

I no longer cringe on the inside (or smirk on the outside) when a newbie talks during class or sets up in “my spot” or mouth breathes or moves during a balancing posture. I am more compassionate with myself and others. Especially now that I am experiencing difficulties in postures because of my size, I am much more empathetic to beginners who are challenged (and intimidated) physically by some of the postures.

I have learned to forgive myself for not being perfect. I have learned to seek peace instead of being right (i.e. focusing on the breath, effort and balance as opposed to striving to make the postures look pretty).

 

AND FINALLY….PHYSICAL WELL-BEING

Now, don’t get me wrong. Despite not having the perfect bikram body and in fact being the biggest I have been since I started, there have been many positive physical manifestations of my years of practice (and buckets of sweat). My half moon is SWEET! My backbends are EXCELLENT! I can do Standing Head to Knee pose AND KICK OUT!

When I visited a studio in Texas, a teacher asked me to model Standing Bow Pulling Pose because he said, “Your spine is ready for this. You just need the confidence to match.” I may be the heaviest I have ever been as a yogi, but I am also the strongest and most flexible I have ever been.

Now, there are plenty of poses in which I am not as proficient as I would like to be (and/or have been in the past with a smaller body), but I am proud that I approach each class, each posture as if I CAN and/or WILL, someday. That’s that mental game again.

And so, as you can see, this blog (and journey) really isn’t about being fat at all.

No one IS fat. I have fat on my body. Period. More than you probably, but I am the happiest I have ever been and that is because I realized (a long time ago), that this practice, this life, is SO much more than the physical.

I pray that any yogi, with fat or not, has the opportunity to experience the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical freedom I have since I became a yogi many many moons ago.

NAMASTE


Marini Lee, Ph.D., age 39, is a native of Richmond, CA.  She is a Teacher Educator at Michigan State University’s College of Education.  Over the past 12 years she has practiced Bikram Yoga in Ann Arbor (both studios); El Cerrito, CA; New Orleans; Denver; Atlanta; Allen, TX; Charleston, SC; Toledo, OH; Detroit; and now East Lansing, Michigan.  Her passions are learning, teaching, and community healing.

Marini recently became an adoptive mom, and on this she says: “I’m still in awe and shock that I am responsible for the well-being of another human being.  This is the most spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally, economically challenging – and yet the most important – experience of my life thus far.”

If You Can’t Laugh….Breathe!

You cannot breathe deeply and worry at the same time.

by Char Brooks

Screeching into the parking lot, as I walk through the open door I know I’m out of the slammer.  I’m about to partake in something — and I have no idea what I’ll discover as I find my way onto my mat.  

And that’s the good news.  Within minutes of making my way panting through the door, I’ve seen someone familiar and feel at home again.

As a regular student who practices at least 3 times a week, I have learned over time that I’m best off when I drop my story about whatever is wrong, difficult, or dramatic – much like I drop my bag on the floor in the locker room before entering the hot room.

Then I am ready to hear or try something new – potentially something major.

I’m often surprised by the “just perfect” wisdom I hear from our teachers.  The other day she said this:

“What if your only two choices were to breathe or laugh?”

Well, that may not be exactly what she said – but it is what I heard.  (The difference between what someone says and what I actually hear is a story for another blog!)

You cannot breathe deeply and worry at the same time.

Thinking about breathing

After class, I thought a bit more about this.  

I asked myself a couple of things:

  • While someone else is talking, I am only listening and breathing?    The honest answer is no.   I don’t actually know what I’m doing when someone else is talking as a general rule.  So, I tried this.  What I noticed was that my shoulders dropped and for that split moment, I stopped clenching my teeth.   Rather than preparing my response, I noticed I had a question.  It took me a few seconds to find the words.  I was  more curious about their experience.  This was me being the friend I really want to be!
  • While I am talking, am I actually aware of my breath?  Well, I must say that I haven’t tried this much.  (It sounds like writing with my non-dominant hand.  A little time consuming, dontcha think??  Not really, actually.  

Even this back-and-forth inside myself is an example of me engaging in thoughtful conversations in a totally new way.  

Resistance

But I have to be honest, my mind reacts when I propose this approach.

“But don’t you know I’m in a hurry?????”

Me:  Really????  What’s so important that I don’t have time to notice my breathing??  How much time does that actually take?

I don’t know.

Well then, how about you just try, Char? 

Experimenting with breathing

Where is your breath right now as you are reading this?  Do you even know?  It’s okay either way.

There are no have to’s – there is no right way to breathe for goodness sakes.  There’s your way – and you can experiment with this concept.  Or not.

But consider this.  Could noticing your breath affect you in the moment?
My experience is that just periodically checking in with my breath throughout the day positively affects my thoughts, attitudes and actions.

Breathing and laughing

If you are laughing, your breath takes care of itself.  Sometimes I laugh so hard, I have a hard time catching my breath.

What does that mean??

Something was so funny it actually brought tears to my eyes . . . or took my breath away . . . . or made my stomach hurt from laughing so hard!!!  Or the breath took care of itself as I cracked up into oblivion.  Either way – I’m relaxed and at ease and enjoying something that hit me just right.

Ease and Enjoyment in the Hot Room

In Bikram, “breathing always normal” is one of our mantras.  One time in class, I cracked up in the middle of a posture.  I’m not sure what struck me as so funny but whatever it was – I simply couldn’t settle down.   

And then she said, “Breathing always normal – focus deeply on the standing leg.”  

Guess what?  For me to focus on my standing leg requires a lot of attention.

Pay attention to your breath = Breathing always normal.

Bikram is my playground for the real world – I get to practice breathing through my reactions to whatever I like, don’t like or any other random thought going through my head.  

My experience has been that though my breathing may be normal – the repeating ticker in my brain is anything but still.

Stillness comes by staying with my breath.   Regardless of the “breaking news” that is scrolling by almost constantly on my inner ticker.

And outside the Hot Room

So what if outside of class, you focused on your breath – while listening, talking, eating, driving.

And what if outside of class – when you find yourself cracking up – you remembered that your precious body has just given you that remarkable gift that keeps on giving – the breath!

Come to class and tell us all about it.  We’ll listen, breathe and laugh together.  

About your guest blogger:

Char’s after-class glow!

Char Brooks is a 61-year-old Bikram Yoga student who has been practicing this form of yoga at BYCA for 11 months.  She has practiced and studied yoga for over 40 years, beginning when she was about 20, and she has practiced meditation daily for approximately 15 years.  Char earned a teacher training certification in vinyasa from Jonny Kest’s Center for Yoga and has practiced Iyengar, Kripalu, Restorative and Yin yoga.  She continues to meditate twice daily and practices with an online studio regularly at home in addition to attending BYCA approximately 4-5 times a week.

No, YOU! YOU are ready for yoga!

all ages full locust bikram yoga
by Ann Chrapkiewicz

Are you ready for yoga?

As inclusive as North American yoga wants to be, yoga in its deeper dimensions demands certain qualities.

Are you ready for yoga?

Well, I have a yoga mat and I hydrated well.  So yes, I think so.

But the question again: are you ready for yoga?

The yoga clothing companies would like you to think you are.  They would like you to picture yourself as one of those long, lithe, young bodies, wearing their pants.  And maybe you have that body.

But most people don’t.  And the tragedy therein is that you might not think that you are ready for yoga.  You might even think you need to look like that in order to start yoga.

Getting ready for yoga

After spending 3 days and nights off the grid (literally), it was a joy to come back to my other favorite place – the hot room – on Labor Day to teach the evening class.

30 humans prepared themselves.  They were ready.

They brought themselves to class and faced themselves in the mirror for 90 glorious minutes of their days off.

You may have heard from various sources that that is really the hard part of the class.  To stand there, to look in the huge mirrors at your own self, and to not try to fix anything.  Not to mess with your out-of-place hair, not to fidget, and especially not to try to solve any problems your mind has decided needed solving.

Instead, you stand still and breathe.  You physically transcend and transform the mental disturbances.  You live so fully in those uncomfortable moments when you choose to only breathe.

In any case, we had a fun little exchange tonight in the front-and-center, right in front of that giant wall of mirrors, 70 feet long and over 8 feet high.

“I am not ready for yoga.”

A week or two ago, a retired man – visiting from the Middle East – started taking classes with us.  It was his first time practicing yoga, but even before he took his first class, I could tell he was ready.

And tonight I found out that he is much more ready than he thinks.

This man is cheerful.  He laughs at himself.  He stands in the front row in the center of the room.  He laughs and smiles with me when I fold up his hand towel and have him hide it under his mat so it will not tempt him.  We discuss the salty sweat that drips into his eyes.

He tries so hard.  He communicates – often only with his eyes – when he needs a break.  He listens to me speaking constantly in his not-native language.  He persists.  He is already loved by our morning regulars.

At one of those special, irreplaceable, and almost indescribable group of moments that happen in class, it all came out in a little dialogue tonight.  All of a sudden, in between standing postures, I fully understood something and immediately shared to him:

“Mr. M, you are SO ready for yoga!”

He replied, in friendly disagreement, and with a smile:

“No, I am not.  She is.”

He signaled with his eyes to the young woman standing immediately to his left.  From outward appearances, she is young, lean, flexible; the yoga “type”.

(And certainly she may be just as internally ready for yoga as he is.  She in fact has an extremely calm and focused practice.  But that was not the point here.)

I said something like – and I meant:

“NO.  YOU are ready.  She is bendy and beautiful.  Being flexible has absolutely nothing to do with being ready for yoga.”

I could not stop there.


“YOU are ready for yoga, Sir!  

Why?  

Because you are not afraid.  

You are not afraid of the mirrors, you are not afraid of me, you are not afraid of yourself.  

You are not afraid of the yoga process.  You are ready.”

 


Be not afraid!  That is the only thing – and everything – you will need.

 

9:30 am Class Bow Pose

 

USA Yoga Participant Bio – Ann Chrapkiewicz

Ann Half Spine Twist Cropped 2017 Mid West Chicago

by Ann Chrapkiewicz

My practice history

I started practicing Bikram Yoga in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2003 – shortly after returning to the United States after 2 years of living in rural Japan.  I was working in the kitchen of the People’s Food Coop at the time and attended on the invitation of one of my coworkers.  I do not think that either of us “liked” the first class – she did not ever return for a second class (that was hard!).  But there were reasons I had to return.  Day after day, almost every day of the week.  For that first couple of years, I hated how it felt if I missed a day.

Ever since childhood, I had struggled on a daily basis to get a good, satisfying, deep breath.  I was never diagnosed with asthma or any other pathologies, but it was noticeable in my daily life.

After that first class, I remember doing some grocery shopping and feeling like every breath was deep, wonderful, heavenly.  I felt like I was floating through the aisles, light as a feather.  Even though that first class was the hardest thing I had ever done – and I sat down five times before triangle posture! – I knew I had to go back.

Dramatic healing

Within two weeks, my chronic blood sugar imbalances disappeared.  I didn’t crave sugars so desperately, and I naturally started to eat better foods.

Within one month, the carpal tunnel syndrome that had been developing was gone.  And my chronic sluggish digestion was changing for the better.

Within two months, my bulimic mindset of nearly 10 years almost completely vanished, and after the immersive practice of teacher training the following year, it stayed away permanently.  I gained so much time and freedom in my life after living in a sort of obsessive prison of dieting, compulsively overeating, and body-loathing since high school.

The 30+ pounds of excess weight came off later, but by that time I truly didn’t even care about the appearance of my body.

I just felt so stupidly good on the inside.

Eight months into practicing, I slipped and fractured two vertebrae.  The first part of the story of that injury can be found HERE.  Thanks to Bikram Yoga, my pain was gone in 20 days.

Only a few months after my back healed, I attended and completed Bikram Yoga Teacher Training at La Cienega HQ, Los Angeles, in August of 2004.  I loved it.  There is nothing like a 15-hour-a-day, 5+-day-a-week, 9-consecutive-week immersion in a yoga practice.  People say it is hard to leave their lives and homes and families and jobs for 2+ months.  That it is hard to do two 90 -minute+ Bikram Yoga classes every day.

But in my experience, living for a decade in a mental prison – of body-loathing, what we call “OCD”, dieting, eating uncontrollably, counting calories, desiring external validation – was much, much harder.

Half Spine Twisting – La Cienega HQ, Los Angeles, CA – Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Summer 2004

Supporting more than one life

Throughout 2006 – and until the day my labor started – I practiced Rajashree’s Pregnancy Yoga at least 4 days a week.  It took away all of my morning sickness, relieved my back pain, and kept my blood sugar steady in each trimester.

8 months pregnant – Standing Bow Pulling – October 2006

I had a healthy home-birth largely due to the physical awareness I had developed with this yoga.  After 3 hours of the last “pushing” stage of labor, the baby was still stuck, the contractions were irregular and debiltating, and I could tell something was not right.  Upon communicating this with my midwife, she found that he (although I did not know the sex at the time) was coming out with his hand resting against his temple.  Thanks to her skills and my ability to breathe and relax, I was able to give birth without injury to either of us.  Without question it would have been a cesarean section in any of the best hospitals.

As a toddler and young child, my son had experienced some traumas and was very anxious.  Thanks to this yoga, I was able to physically carry him and support his needs, yet maintain the health of my body and mostly stay out of muscular pain.

Year-by-year, the benefits continue

In the years since then, I have used the Beginners’ class and other Ghosh lineage practices to:

  • relieve the pain from sciatica and plantar fascitis,
  • build strength and maintain more calm when dealing with verbally abusive individuals / pathological narcissists,
  • reduce anxiety and insomnia, and
  • nearly eliminate premenstrual cramps that were previously debilitating.

My environmental allergies occur at only about 10% of their former severity.  I used to have to take something daily in the spring; now I take an allergy pill maybe once a year.  If things are really bad.

I am currently in a sort-of maintenance mode, where my health issues are under relatively good control.  But I know that life can bring challenges at any moment, and I am so appreciative that I have this yoga to use for both healing crises and everyday life.  It is my primary form of health insurance.

And these are only the benefits that have occurred on the most surface layers.  The deeper ones are much harder to describe.

Participation in the USA Yoga Championship

I believe that encouraging younger generations to get interested in a therapeutic hatha yoga practice is of vital importance in our world.  To support this belief, I established weekly (free) Youth classes at BYCA over one year ago.  This past winter I also volunteer-instructed at a Lansing Public Schools 6th-grade classroom.

I am participating in this year’s championship for three main reasons:

  1. to inspire people to start, maintain, or intensify their therapeutic hatha yoga practice,
  2. to continue to build an inspirational healing yoga community in mid-Michigan
  3. to develop more balance in my personal yoga practice

Instead of training in more advanced postures, this year I am happy to demonstrate the “natural” point in my practice.  Sort of like a snapshot in time.  Without pressure or expectation.  Without thoughts of what others are thinking. (What a glorious waste of time and energy, no?!)

Just my best focus in the moment, demonstrating the amazing communication superhighway between the mind and the body.  In every class I practice, and hopefully in the moments when I get up on the stage.

If you did not yet read my philosophy of competition and competitiveness in yoga, here it is.

One of my longer-term goals is to practice sustainably so that I can eventually participate in the Senior Women division (ages 50+) of the Championship.  I am excited to support the USA Yoga organization and events with the hope that they are still around in 12 years!

For our health, for the health of our elders, and for the health of our children…

December 2014

USA Yoga Participant Bio – Lindsay Gray

Lindsay working on Toe Stand

by Lindsay Gray

My practice history

I started practicing Bikram Yoga six years ago and have had the pleasure of practicing in many different places.  Having started in Honolulu, and then in Houston, Austin, Boston, and Berlin before ending up here at my most favorite of studios. (Aren’t we lucky!!)

I am forever indebted to a close friend of mine, a former dancer like myself, who introduced me to Bikram yoga.  I witnessed how she seemed, through her practice, more focused mentally, to physically glow, and to be able to use all the toxic stuff with which the dance world infuses you for a positive means.

Lindsay working on Toe Stand
Lindsay Working on Toe Stand (Padangustasana), 2016

Acceptance and discovery in yoga

Yoga, unlike ballet, focuses on the process and on the acceptance of where you are with a posture, and, ultimately, that’s what’s really spoken to me about this practice.  In dance, I hated racing to the finish line of who could become the best the fastest.  My brain is just not designed for that kind of race; the pressure of that level of competition is soul-crushing for me.

I love how, with yoga, I am constantly tinkering with a posture and working toward minute improvements that may some day add up to some form of relative perfection.  The trusting in that process of discovery, of all the psychic and physical subtleties within me, is the best lesson in self-acceptable and faith.

Participation in USA Yoga Championship

I wanted to participate in the USA Yoga championships for two main reasons.  I have been slowly working to expand my practice through engaging with some of the intermediate postures, and the championships seem like a good opportunity to re-enter the performance realm within a safe and supportive environment.

For the championships this go-round, I chose relatively simple, seated intermediate postures.  This way, I can participate but not make myself crazy with anxiety about sticking a posture on-stage, alone with no mirror, and a bunch of people watching.  I’ll worry about doing that maybe next year or in ten years. It’ll be a process.

10 Signs I Need a Beginners’ Yoga Class

by Ann Renee Chrapkiewicz

…..

Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class is truly that.  A place for beginners to start the yoga process.

However, there seems to be a part of the human mind – and if I may propose, especially a noticeable portion of the American mind – that would like to believe that it is not a beginner.

It is sure that it is already an expert.  It does not want to follow discipline from within or without.   It does not want to be challenged or changed.  It has learned everything it needs to know.  And it especially does not want to take total responsibility for its reactions to every single thing in the outside world…or to every passing thought in the inside world.

It is definitely someone or something else who is creating my suffering or lack of happiness.  Not me.

It is mad because so-and-so cut me off in traffic.

It is in a rage because I had to spend 2 hours on the phone setting up my health insurance payment.

It is stressed because my co-worker – or my ex – or my family member – is being a narcissist and creating drama and blaming me for all of his/her issues….again…..and again….

Its reactions are natural and automatic consequences of other people and other situations.  Not my choice.   And it will get lots of validation by sharing all of this on social media.  Lots of likes and loves and angry faces that will both soothe and energize the reaction.

The Mind Encounters Yoga

When this part of the mind comes into contact with a transformative therapeutic yoga practice, it often has intense, negative reactions.

As humans, reactions usually control us for some portion of life.  They control our decisions, our actions, and our paths forward in life.

But the yoga process is a process of freedom, because it opens up alternate possibilities.  It creates a bit of space or time – or maybe even a pause in the entire space-time continuum – from which you can actually make a conscious choice, rather than being imprisoned and controlled by the reactivity.

So, whether you are someone who is ready for a true and lasting internal change, or someone who has tried a yoga class and had any of the below reactions, this list is for you!

…the List…

So….I compiled a list of just 10 common things I have heard over the last decade and a half – whether from someone else or from within – that show me (or you) that I am (or you are) a beginner at the mental aspects of the yoga process.

And that I (or you) need to go to yoga today!

But just as I was about to publish these, I thought it would be more fun to hear from YOU.

And then I will publish a combination of my list and the collective one.

So, the questions:

1. What have been some of your strongest, most recurring, or “favorite” negative mental or emotional reactions to this yoga practice?

 

After all, once you get some distance from them, these things can be pretty funny!

2. What reactions have you heard from others who have never tried Bikram Yoga?

3. What reactions have you heard from others who have tried Bikram Yoga but who do not currently practice regularly?

 

To encourage your ability to share honestly, I have created this totally anonymous survey on Survey Monkey to put in your answers.

CLICK HERE to go to the survey.

One guideline to keep in mind: by sharing and acknowledging these reactions, we do not have to judge them.   Observing the mind’s operation without looking down on it – or the people themselves – is really key.

If you would like to have your input considered for my initial Top Ten List, please submit by May 25, 2017.  I am looking forward to collaborating and sharing!!

 

“Just Try” – Why It Matters and What It Can Do

by Char Brooks

Before reading beyond this first sentence, I invite you to pause, take a nice deep inhale, pause another second, and then a long slow exhale – and consider what the phrase “just try” means to you.

*************************************

Did you do it?  Maybe?  Not sure?  No problem.  Whether you did it or not – just try…again.

Just try.  Just the teeny tiny-est bit of attention to lowering your tailbone towards the floor.

W-h-aaaa-t??  What does that even mean?  What tailbone?  What floor?  What are YOU talking about?

And then, as if the teacher was reading my mental reactions and resistance, she says, “It’s ok if you don’t think you can….

“JUST TRY.”

 

You may recognize this phrase from class.  I recognize it from my very first class at BYCA.

Sometimes in my brain I hear “Just  $@%^-ing  try”.  However, that is only the meaning that I add to the instruction.  The teacher didn’t actually say that!!

Beginnings

At first, in my head, I was extremely defiant.  

“You can’t make me!”  

“In the middle of this pose where I feel like I can hardly breathe, you want me to find my left big toe???  Are you kidding me?”

“Leave me alone – I’ll do what I want here.”

At the same time, the smallest part of me was just a little willing to consider “just try” as an invitation to pay attention . . . . to my breath, my body, and to staying engaged in the practice.  

Over time I became more interested in keeping my attention on my own practice, focusing my mind on my body, and breathing normally.

Six months in….

Here’s what “just try” means to me right this minute.

It means to breathe into the sides of my waist.  As I do this – while I’m typing – my back straightens up, my shoulders relax down my back, my chin lowers, and the top of my head stretches towards the sky.

Wow –  I feel much better than I did 30 seconds ago, when I was hunching over my laptop!

And I’m not even in class!!

What does “Just Try” look like?

That is what it looks like for me right now.  That is what it feels like.

Not just a phrase…a way of life

“Just try” has actually been a cornerstone of my practice.   And of my life in general since I started (in October 2016).

No matter what the pose, or where I am, I do my best to just try.  

How does “just try” show up when I’m in class?  

The teacher says to “just try” and pull in and up from the sides of my waist…

But for me, I can’t see that my attention is even in that area of my body.  And I know that I am doing my best to put my attention right there.   I start to notice just where my attention actually is as I continue to stay with the teacher’s voice and allow myself to be led into the postures.

And miraculously, over time, over the course of several more classes, I notice that the shape of the middle of my body is more visible.  Right below my ribs on both sides. I can actually see it move a teeny tiny bit as I breathe into it.  Just the teeeny-est bit of aliveness shows up there.

So why does this matter?

I can see the muscles of my stomach.  I couldn’t see them before.  

In fact, I had never, ever – not until 6 months into practicing this yoga – seen them.  Not when I was a skinny 7-year-old in a red-and-white ruffled bikini.  Not when I was newly married and quite thin.  Not when I was pregnant, not postpartum.  Not through all of the yoga practices I have done over the past 40 plus years.

So this is just another post about someone’s abdominal muscles?  About someone looking better from doing a yoga class?

No, not even close.

This is a reflection on me starting to believe that it makes a difference what I pay attention to.  

This is the real game-changer.

This is a reflection about how this yoga practice has shown me that I can focus my brain in an area of my body and that my body actually has the ability to respond.  It has created a new kind of faith in myself that keeps me going back to class every day.

And why does that matter?

Why does it matter that I go back every day?

Because over time, my experience has been that my arthritis doesn’t hurt as much.  

I am finding that I can make decisions easier.

I now can balance the checkbook in under two minutes.  

Conversations which were difficult ones for me to have before are now easier to have because my responses are actually honest, reflecting my true feelings.

Char's after-class glow
Char’s after-class glow!

And why does all of that matter?

Because I love feeling good.  

Part of feeling good is having less chronic pain.  But I also I feel good when I make decisions that reflect my true feelings.  I feel good when I can handle my finances efficiently.  I feel good when I’m laughing and having fun.

For me, the phrase “just try” is now an integral part of my daily life.  Many times a day, I take a deep breath as I transition from one thing to another – I “just try” and before I even know it, I’m drinking more water, eating more nutritiously, and getting 8 hours of sleep on a consistent basis.

Who knew that the phrase “just try” would be the secret ingredient to successful, happy living?  

Certainly not me.  I’m just so grateful I was willing to just try.

About your guest blogger:

Char Brooks is a 61-year-old Bikram Yoga student who has been practicing this form of yoga at BYCA for 7 months.  She has practiced and studied yoga for over 40 years, beginning when she was about 20, and she has practiced meditation daily for approximately 15 years.  Char earned a teacher training certification in vinyasa from Jonny Kest’s Center for Yoga and has practiced Iyengar, Kripalu, Restorative and Yin yoga.  She continues to meditate twice daily and practices with an online studio regularly at home in addition to attending BYCA approximately 4-5 times a week.

Physical Meditation

Bikram Yoga is often referred to as a “90-minute moving meditation”.

Lately I have started to prefer the term “physical meditation” over “moving meditation”.  It is true that we move our bodies, but the emphasis of class is always on stillness.

Physical Meditation as the Beginning Point

Physical Meditation is a term that makes sense for me because it describes the heart of how anyone can practice, just by stepping in the room, and regardless of any flexibility or ability.  For a beginners’ class, it is an incredibly effective way to start.

Plus, concentration on and precision in the physical realm includes so many things!

What the breathing is doing, what the eyes are doing, what the muscles are doing, how the skin feels, where the weight is distributed, which muscles are relaxed, which muscles are contracted, the pace of the heartbeat….you get the point.

These things can best be noticed when the body is being held completely still.  Completely still in any given posture, and completely still immediately following each posture.

Stillness to the extent of, “Don’t wipe the sweat.  Focus on one spot in the mirror.”

Why so “rigid”?  That’s not yoga!

Many outsiders or beginners to the practice see the discipline of Bikram Yoga as stifling, or authority-driven, or even “military”-like.  It has been looked down upon by some for decades, and the internet makes these complaints even easier to find.

(While at first I was frustrated with the lack of understanding and the spreading of ignorance, I have come to accept it as something which will probably never go away.  I now just try to educate and model instead of reacting with frustration.)

Empowerment through physical stillness

We practice not wiping the sweat off, not messing with our clothing, not looking around.  Why?

We are doing this in order to practice the discipline of not reacting dramatically to our surroundings.  And this is only the “grossest” level of non-reactivity.

As we adjust to allowing a drop of sweat to roll down a cheek, or into an eye, we learn to tolerate 3 seconds of discomfort.  Not harm, not abuse, not pain.  Just discomfort.  Something that initially we do not “like”.

Do I have the patience to sit still and let the sweat drip?  To watch water drip?  To watch a lake melt?  I highly recommend trying.

Lake Michigan Melting - February 2017 - Empire, MI
Lake Michigan Melting – February 2017 – Empire, MI – photo by Ann C.

What can I possibly learn?

What is a common, unconscious reaction to sweat dripping into your eye?

“Get rid of it!   I don’t like that!  It is annoying.  And sometimes it even stings a lot.”

What is a common, unconscious reaction to someone asking us to leave the sweat there?

“Oh my gosh, don’t tell me what to do!  This is my body and my eye, and I am going to do what I want with it.”

But is this the only way?  Can there be an opportunity here instead of a reaction?

What if?

When you notice a reaction or a habit, one of the best questions you can ask yourself is, “What if?

“What will happen if I do?”

“What will happen if I don’t?”

“What will happen if I change my pattern of reacting?”

“What will happen if I don’t compulsively enact the habit that I am convinced is necessary for my comfort and survival?”

Discomfort as information

Over the years I have learned to use the sweat in my eyes as a way to understand my biochemistry.   Granted, I am not analyzing the sweat in a laboratory, but I can feel the difference in it when I have accumulated stress, or caffeine, or a food chemical that I am not used to.

Last week the sweat in my eye created a stinging sensation that I had never experienced before.  I have experienced the sting of caffeine, the sting of extra salts in my body, the sting of stress in my body.  But this was different.

I later thought about what I had consumed the previous day.  The only two not-usual things I had eaten were some Grapefruit Seed Extract (in an experimental recipe made by Lisa Marie) and a frozen pizza that had some very questionable ingredients.

If I really wanted to test this, I could isolate the variables and see what happened in subsequent classes.

Experiment or fitness routine?

Many of us start yoga to get fit or improve our physical health.  And there is nothing wrong with this in the slightest.

But if yoga remains a fitness routine, stagnation, boredom, or frustration eventually set in.  Physical habits and compulsions are usually not addressed, let alone the mental and emotional ones.

On the other hand, if yoga practice is approached as an experiment and a path to realization, it will always lead to deeper understandings and experiences.

The discipline of physical stillness is one of the first stages in a beginning hatha yoga practice, and it is a great place to start.