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

 

Blessings in the Form of a Broken Back, part 2

by Ann Chrapkiewicz

. . . . . . . . . . . .

I have learned a dozen lessons and received a thousand blessings from my back injury on March 17, 2004.

But before getting to those, let me finish telling you about that day.  If you missed the first part of the story, you might want to read that first.

Maybe you should get an X-Ray.

After I moved like a snail through that initial 6:00 am class with Lora, I moved like a snail back to my house, where most of my housemates were still sleeping.  A few were stirring though.  I was visibly moving strangely,  so I could not avoid sharing that I fell that morning…. and it hurt pretty badly…  and could you please help me get my shoes off because I can’t even reach my knees-let-alone-my-feet, and the like…

In the early afternoon I was to have my weekly 3-hour seminar with one of my most influential and favorite professors, Jennifer Robertson.  That semester I was taking her graduate course on ethnographic practice and writing.  I hung on every word in her classes, and it was she who inspired me to fall in love with the field of Cultural Anthropology.  She also had the biggest impact on my ability to write coherently.  She tolerated none of the fluff, distraction, or wandering that was initially present in my academic papers, and I am so thankful for that!

All this is to say that I really looked forward to Wednesdays, mostly because of her class.  I did not want to miss it.

However, at the rate I was moving, it seemed like the usually-20-minute walk to West Hall would probably take me about 2 hours, and putting my backpack on really did not seem like an option.  So I emailed Professor Robertson and told her what had happened.

She suggested that I go to the ER and get an x-ray, just to make sure it was nothing too serious.  I still remember the tone of her email; her genuine care for my well-being was as impressive and impactful in my life as her anthropological brilliance.

Off we go to the hospital

At the time, one of my dearest, life-long friends, A, was also living at Black Elk.  We had found each other in Japan in 2002, initially making each others’ acquaintance over a political disagreement.  Or perhaps it was a semantic one.

In any case, upon meeting, we quickly bonded in an existential, academic, artistic way that lasts to this day.  There were times when I wanted nothing more in life than to pick his brain and share my poetry.  If there is such a thing as a soul brother, he is definitely that for me.  We have often challenged each other, and it has not always been pleasant on the outside.

So, partly out of the obligation that a brother might feel when woken up by a sister in advance of his desired wake-up time, A drove me up to the University of Michigan hospital and dropped me off.  Or maybe he sat with me for a bit in the waiting room.  To tell you the truth, there are parts of this day that I don’t remember.

By the time we got to the hospital, it was around noon, and A had to be at work later that afternoon.  This was before cell phones (or at least it was before I caved); somehow it was acceptable to be left somewhere without a personally dedicated walkie-talkie to our friends and family.

The doctor said that everything looks fine

I do not know how much time passed before I was in the x-ray room, but I remember the immense pain and struggle I had, trying to follow the instructions to get in position for the camera.  It was interesting being 26 years old and moving in a way that I thought belonged to the realm of people in their 90s and up.

I do recall being in a room sometime in the mid-afternoon when someone brought me the x-ray results.  Nothing broken, she said.

I did not know what to make of that; the pain was still excruciating even after a hospital dose of ibuprofen.  Someone caring for me gave me some morphine to see if that would help.

A half hour or so later, they checked on my pain levels.

I recall that I felt a little more spacey and relaxed, but the pain had not diminished at all.

The doctors then were the ones who were not sure what to make of it.

Maybe you fractured your kidney

Luckily, I wasn’t sent home with prescription painkillers to treat the mystery injury.

Someone on staff suggested that I might have fractured my kidney.  All I could think was, “You can FRACTURE your KIDNEY?!?!  I thought they were soft.  You can break one?”

Anyways, they ordered a CT scan to rule that out.  So I drank the liquid that makes certain things glow, apparently, and was pretty disgusted.  My somewhat snobby veganism at the time could hardly imagine what chemicals I was ingesting, but I somehow managed to get it all down.

Later, in the CT machine, I remember feeling my whole body sort-of buzzing, and I felt like I was going to pass out and hyperventilate at the same time.  But I made it through.

The one who cared enough

By this time, it was getting on in the evening.  Much past dinner time and probably getting dark outside – although I was sufficiently in the innards of the hospital that daylight or sundown were pretty much irrelevant.

I just remembered that at one point quite late in the day, I was notified that I was being transferred to a different room.  I was taken to what seemed like an entirely different department.

It turned out that the main nurse who had started out seeing me really cared.  In a purely caring sense, but also in a detective sense.  She was so interested to find out what was going on with my pain that she had me moved along with her at her shift change at 8 pm.  It was a nice feeling to encounter someone so attentive to their work and to me.  I do not remember her name, but I will always remember that warm feeling.

Sometime in the 8:00-9:00 range my nurse caretaker announced to me that they finally figured it out!  This makes so much sense, she said.  You actually do have broken bones.  That would explain the intense pain.  I am so glad we found it.

The transverse processes on L1 and L2 were completely fractured.  Separated from the body of the vertebrae.

Tiny bones that connect to everything

The transverse processes in the lumbar spine come out of the body of the vertebrae at both sides of the main body.  Here is a You Tube video I just found, showing the anatomy of these very tiny bits of bone, and noting that is usually not possible to diagnose these fractures in an x-ray.  (Cheesy music, but good visuals.)

The main scientific – and I mean science via direct experience – conclusion I reached by the end of the evening in the ER was that these little bones apparently connect to everything.  There was literally nothing I could do that did not trigger movement of the transverse processes.  Breathing, coughing, sneezing, sitting down, standing up, rolling over in bed, turning my head, picking up a light object, putting on a shirt.

Everything is connected in there.  It is just that we usually do not feel it.

It is time for bed now.  To be continued…

Blessings in the Form of a Broken Back

by Ann Chrapkiewicz

. . . . . . . . . . . .

If I had not broken my back 13 years ago today, we would not be here.  At least not in the way we are today.

It might sound extreme, but it is true.

If you were in class last year on this date, you may have heard me tell the story.  March 17, 2016, was actually the first time I had been inspired to share the details and the importance of that injury in a group setting.  It took 12 years for me to fully realize how crucial the injury and the healing process were.  Crucial not only in my passion for the yoga, but in my faith in it, in my ability to encourage those who cannot touch their toes, in my desire to learn and study and practice more deeply, and in my faith in the person who is sure this yoga is impossible for them.

And so the story goes….

In 2004, I lived in Ann Arbor in a most wonderful co0perative housing community called Black Elk.  I was working on an M.A. at UM-Ann Arbor and had been practicing Bikram Yoga for almost a year.  I had by that point nearly eliminated my destructive bulimic thought patterns with a near-daily practice of Bikram Yoga, and I was already signed up to go to Bikram Yoga Teacher Training in Los Angeles that summer.  My stress-induced poor breathing was 90% healed.  And my ability to focus on reading, writing, and graduate seminar discussions had improved about 5-fold.

More deeply, I was also able to much better manage my sensitivity to civilization’s heinous destruction of habitats and abuse of animals, the earth, and any less-than-privileged segment of society.  I was disgusted with American imperialism and oil-greed and quite emotionally reactive to it.  Plus, I was a near-evangelical vegan at the time.  (Luckily many of my housemates were, too; we learned how to cook delicious, multi-course meals for all 20+ of us most nights of the week.)

Back injury or not, I do not know how I would have survived the intensity of my mind at the time without Bikram Yoga.

Then, one fateful morning…

In a house full of artists, activists, and students, I was one of very few early risers.  6:00 am Bikram Yoga?  You bet!  I would be so focused and relaxed and energized for my classes later that day.

March 15 and 16 had been pretty pleasant – probably in the 40s or 50s.  Spring seemed to be coming, as it so often does in these parts, even sometimes in January.

So at 5:30 am on March 17, I walked out of the side door and onto the long wooden porch with a bit of a bounce in my step.  I was ready to start the day in the best way I could imagine.

I started down the first of the five wooden steps.

The next thing I knew, I was lying flat on my back, at the bottom of the stairs.  I had no idea what had happened.  Looking back, I am sure I passed out.  I still do not remember the fall or the impact.

Can anyone hear me?

I tried to get up, but the searing pain in my back was so intense.

I called out for my housemates several times.  “Can someone help me?”  “Is anyone awake?”  “Hello?”

I thought I might be lying there until someone else woke up.  But that might be a few hours.

So, somehow (extremely slowly is how), I peeled myself off of the hard, cold ground.  I noticed that the wooden steps were covered with the thin, nearly-invisible sheet of ice.

It did not even cross my mind to go back in the house to lie down.  I moved like a snail to the car and put my body in it, one inch at a time.  My lower back hardy let me move.  Luckily, in the wee hours of the morning, there wasn’t much traffic to look out for; turning my head to one side or the other was nearly impossible.

“Just do what you can.”

All of this had happened in less than 10 minutes.  I still arrived to Bikram Yoga Ann Arbor with many minutes to spare.  Lora, the owner, was teaching that class, and I told her that I had falled on my way out of the house.  She smiled, calmly, and simply said, “Just do what you can.”  No added worry, just warmth and reassurance.

The next 90 minutes were an experiment with a new body.

My back was screaming at me when I was holding still.  I could get my arms over my head – that still worked.  Half moon to the right: I could move my index fingers maybe 2 inches right of center.  And half moon to the left?  Well, about a half of an inch before the pain got worse.

Then I tried the backward bend of half moon.  I started going back slowly, not sure when it would start to hurt more intensely than my resting pain was.  To my surprise, when I got back about half way into my “usual” backbend, the pain stopped.  Completely.  There I was, breathing….listening to Lora’s voice (“go back, way back, more back…”) and all of a sudden, I had a break from the pain.

Interesting, I thought.  But then it was time to move on.  The rest of the standing series is a bit of a blur, these 13 years later, but I know I was moving into about 1% – 10% of my usual depth.  I have to say I didn’t think much about it.  All I could do was respond to the sensations and try to breathe.

One thing I do recall is something that we usually call Standing Separate Leg Forehead to Knee Posture.  What I was doing looked vastly different than the “ideal” posture.

Maybe We Should Call It Standing Separate Leg Chin to Chest Posture

The instructions for the posture – immediately following Triangle Posture – take about 30 seconds.  In those 30 seconds, most people manage to get their forehead to the front knee, or at least pretty close to it.  In those 30 seconds, all I could manage was to get my chin about 3/4 of the way to my chest.  And that was difficult.  I stopped and backed off when the pain worsened.  And I had to suck in my stomach the entire time, or the pain doubled.

It is time to teach the evening class now.  To be continued in Part 2

When is this going to be easy?

by Ann Chrapkiewicz

In my 14th year of practice in this amazing yoga lineage, I continue to love and appreciate the steadiness and auditory meditation that comes from the near-constant instruction from the teacher.  I enjoy the rhythm of the “dialogue” – which truly is a two-way exchange of information between student and teacher! – and its phrases, or the flow of an expert teacher using his or her own tremendous experience and unique instructions to guide us.  I love silent classes, too.

But lately I have really been enjoying a verbal dialogue in the form of questions from regular students – during class, between postures.  Sometimes they are highly technical and have to do with joint alignment and body part placement.

Others, like today’s question, are more philosophical or rhetorical:

“When is this going to get easy?”

I especially love questions that bring up more questions.

What do you mean by easy?

This question instantly made me ponder the nature of what it means for something to get easy.

Does “easy” mean that I struggle less?  Does “easy” mean that I can do something on auto-pilot, somewhat mindlessly?  Does “easy” mean that the story in my head is telling me that I am “good” at what I am doing?

It all depends on what I was conditioned for it to mean, and what I will choose consciously for it to mean, going forward.

“Easy” vs. “ease”

“Easy” is not a word I ever really associate with Bikram Yoga.  In fact, in the first few months I practiced, I was always thinking, “Why is this not getting any easier?  Why am I not getting “good” at this?  This is unlike anything I have ever done before – things usually get easier for me.”

But it didn’t stop me.  I felt so good after class that I would come back the next day for more.  My bulimic and OCD behaviors stayed away, as long as I practiced regularly.  My stress-induced terrible breathing was miraculously disappearing.  And my focus and calm for my schoolwork were like nothing I had ever experienced before.

These things were important.  Whether the yoga was getting easier – whatever that meant – wasn’t really on my list of priorities, nor did it have anything to do with whether I was going to keep going to class.

The lyrics to one of my favorite songs, by Michigan musicians The Crane Wives:

“Nothing worth doing comes easy.”

Toe Stand - Bikram Yoga - Ghosh Yoga March 2016 Challenge
Having fun with the challenge of Toe Stand! Photo credit: LF/JB

I have come to see that something in many of our white North American subcultures has taught us that we should not have to struggle.  This shows up in people’s responses to this yoga on many occasions:

“That’s hard.”  “Yoga is supposed to be soothing and easy.”  “I just worked all day; I do not want to go to yoga to work any more.”

I suppose it is important to figure out what things in life we are willing to work for, and what things we think should just be given to us without effort.

The greatest challenge offers the potential for the greatest reward.

Do I really want everything handed to me while someone feeds me grapes and fans me, and offers me ice water, and offers a cloth to wipe my face, and offers me everything I have ever wanted, without me having to lift a finger?  That would be an “easy” life.

Do I want to be able to mindlessly and easily move through the postures within a year (or many) of regular practice?  Then what?

Do I expect to be able to change the structure of my bones and joints, the chemistry of my blood, and the patterns of my thoughts… without an awe-inspiring challenge?

I believe that that thinking needs to change if we are going to move into a healthier place as a neighborhood, city, state, and country.

In my experience, working hard for health, healing, and self-realization are the most rewarding places for a challenge.

26 Impossible Things Before Lunch

Alice and the White Queen Impossible Things
by Ann Chrapkiewicz

The weekday morning classes here are indescribably special.  I love every single class I teach and practice – evenings and weekends included – but the 9:30 am classes have this special energy that dedicated, regular, curious students create.  The average age is probably 55, with many of my 70+ students attending regularly at that time.

9:30 am Class Bow Pose

This past Tuesday’s “warm” 9:30 class – practiced about 10 degrees cooler than the usual 105F – was an all-front-row class with the kind of calm, deep focus that leaves you floating the rest of the day.

And then on Wednesday, a question from a regular student about awkward pose reminded me of a point I have been expressing lately in class.

Curious Questions

The question was about the first part of awkward pose; about how difficult it is to try to get your upper body upright while stretching forward and keeping the feet flat, weight in the heels.  How could she improve upon her technique and approach?

Awkward Pose Part One

Her question represented a very thorough understanding of the intentions of the posture.  After we considered the posture briefly and I gave her my input on how to approach it, she said,

“Well that seems virtually impossible!”

I replied with a smile, in acknowledgement, and in instantaneous recognition of the truth and awesomeness of what we both realized at that exact moment:

“YES!  It is!”

The class burst out in laughter.

[What a beautiful thing to share a common practice, common challenges, and similar realizations.]

I continued: “Exactly!  It IS virtually impossible.  This is part of the point!”

“When you try something that seems nearly impossible, and you do it on a regular basis, and you learn to stop listening to the voice in your head that says ‘this is impossible, why are you even trying it?’, and you still persist with the pure focus on the task, and you forget completely about the result….THIS IS THE YOGA PROCESS!  Perfect!!”

This act of pure, focused, mind-quieted action creates a tremendous amount of personal, positive, creative, energizing power.

And we do it everyday of the week.  In 26 postures.  All before lunch.

Imagining “the impossible”

Last year, during Bernie Sanders’ beautiful and inspiring primary campaign, he often talked about making the impossible into the possible.  For six solid months, I was more inspired than I have ever been about our country.  On a daily basis, he was inspiring us to value our dreams, and to strengthen the will and resolve we need to do truly challenging things, all in the direction of improving the planet and healing humanity.  Such a rare thing in politics.  It felt like yoga and politics were actually intertwined, for once.

And then about a month ago a flash of literary recognition came to me about this yoga.

It came to me in the form of Lewis Carroll’s White Queen:

“I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Alice and the White QueenThe power of imagination and visualization is amazing.

Yet the power of unattached action towards an “impossible” thing – a yoga posture, for example – is perhaps even more profound.

This Is “Not Yoga”

People love to define yoga in order to control it or to get you to do their version of it.  Some say that yoga should not be “difficult”, that you should do “whatever feels right”, that no one should be telling you how to do it correctly.  (Those who make these claims will definitely tell you not to do Bikram Yoga.)

However, what initially feels right and easy is a reinforcement of the weaknesses and tightnesses we have had for decades.  What the body and mind need to actually transform are exactly the things we do not want to encounter: the challenging creation of a new pattern of movement, the awareness and removal of old habits, the elimination of self-talk, and the initial mental struggle of frustration and impatience that we usually bring to the class.

In my experience, encountering “the impossible” on a daily basis is an extraordinary yoga practice, and the Original Hot Yoga/Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class is one of those magical places where we can do this in every class.  When I and most students started practicing, taking a 6-count inhale was impossible.  Holding our arms over our heads for one and a half minutes was impossible.  Breathing normally during triangle posture was impossible.

But then we showed up and tried again.  And one day we noticed we were doing things we never initially dreamed possible.

Actually attempting “The Impossible”

When the teacher says at the beginning of Half-Moon Posture, “Try to touch the ceiling,” you have a couple of options:

  1. Have an internal dialogue about how ridiculous that is, that you are never going to touch the ceiling, that the teacher is really annoying for giving impossible instructions, that your shoulders are too tight, that you are not flexible enough, that you were not born to straighten your arms like that, and that this is totally unnatural, or
  2. Just try to touch the ceiling, not giving a thought to if or when you will actually touch it.

You can probably guess which one will serve you more.

The second one represents pure action in yoga, and we do it for 90 minutes every day in Bikram Yoga.  It is so beautiful to be surrounded by this energy.

It is no one’s business if or when the leg actually locks.  If or when you see your toes in camel posture.  If or when your head actually touches your knee.

It is the fact that you are trying – without mental interference from your own chatter – to do each element of each posture.

There is great avoidance of the things that actually serve us, and great comfort in repeating old, familiar patterns – some of which actually hurt us or block our healing.

When you encounter “the impossible” on a daily or regular basis, and when you put your mind on the effort anyways, change will occur.  The main thing is to get out of your own way and to not listen to the “this is impossible” mantra that your mind would like you to accept.

The best thing, obviously, is to see for yourself.

Show up every day for a few weeks.  And see what kind of empowerment and strength you get, from trying to do 26 impossible things before lunch.