Special Guest Teacher Mike Morris visits Bikram Yoga Capital Area
I was 43, singing songs and playing guitar in bars, and living with pain in my neck and low back. I had attributed it to a lot of long drives, heavy gear and a less-than-healthy lifestyle. I also thought the pain was a normal part of getting older. When I went to play at a local radio station, I was given a six month membership to Bikram Yoga Portsmouth (New Hampshire). It took me six months to walk in and take my first class. It was hot, and hard. It felt like a good workout, and the bike shorts I was wearing felt like they weighed 10 pounds after class.
I had been practicing for a year or so when the studio director suggested that I go to the yoga training. “I’m too old,” I said, though secretly I really wanted to give it a try.
The Worldwide Bikram Yoga Community
I trained in Las Vegas in 2009. The first person I met was Erik, a 20-something heavy metal drummer from Sweden. My roommate was Bob, a 60-year-old waiter from Massachusetts. There was a 19-year old massage therapist from Australia, and an “age unknown” healer from China who communicated mostly in smiles.
All of us had, like you, walked in to our first class, and the yoga had brought us all together. I’ve probably taught some 4000 yoga classes since then. I still have the first pair of proper yoga shorts I ever bought, though the elastic has long since worn out of them. My back and neck feel good, and I don’t mind the New Hampshire winters as much as I used to, though I still like to complain about them.
I’m still making music. I’ve also become a husband, father and yoga teacher. And like you, I’m still a yoga student. I still force myself into posture every now and then. I’m much better at noticing it.
A few years ago, I was going to the park with our youngest daughter, who was 3 at the time. She had bought herself a kite, and was excited to try it out for the first time. When we got there, there was no wind. Nothing. “I don’t think we can fly a kite today, Lily,” I said. “Maybe we should wait for a windier day. “Daddy,” she said back, “we can try.” That was a good yoga lesson. Walk through the door, and give it a good, honest try. Show up, and keep doing it, and the yoga will give you tools towards building a strong body, a clear mind and a full heart.
This yoga is challenging every time we step into the hot room. It is also beautiful, inspiring, empowering and, most of all, healing. Take as many classes as you can, one at a time. Ask questions of your teachers. Share your story. Work hard, and breathe soft.
I’m excited to be visiting you next week. See you soon. We’ll try together.
Triangle Pose in Summertime
Mike playing music at a New Hampshire Farmers’ Market
You will find Mike teaching – and maybe even singing! – at BYCA over the 2017 holidays as follows:
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!!):
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: 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?”
“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:
“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.”
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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?
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 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.
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!
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.
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….
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!!
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.
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.