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.

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

 

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.

New: Intermediate and Therapeutic Yoga Classes

Join us this winter for Intermediate and Therapeutic Yoga Classes in the Ghosh Lineage!

Every other Sunday, from January 15-April 23, join BYCA owner and mentoring teacher Ann Chrapkiewicz for classes focused on specific areas of the body.  In these classes, we will combine therapeutic exercises for specified sections of the body with preparations for intermediate yoga postures in the Ghosh lineage.  Each session is limited in size to 10 students, ensuring individual attention to each level and need.

 

Classes will be held from 11:15 am – 1:00 pm on the following Sundays:

Calendar

1/15: Hands, Wrists, and Arms
1/29: Shoulders and Neck
2/12: Hips
2/26: Knees
3/12: Full Backbending and Deep Core Strength
4/9: Pranayama
4/23: Integration of Winter Workshops

Continue reading “New: Intermediate and Therapeutic Yoga Classes”