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Yoga Limits

The constraints of my professional life have driven me to yoga twice. Both times, I was suffering from back pain that constrained my ability to sustain my focus while sitting at my desk. I recognized that the problem was tight hamstrings and a weak core, but I channeled my need for exercise into jogging, which didn’t address either condition.

The first practice was held in the meeting room of a spirituality bookstore. The instructor was an Indian lady, and I was the only man that showed up consistently. As I got stronger in the practice, I eventually found myself with thirteen women hitched to my wagon. At the time, I didn’t have the energy to manage the load, so I quit.

I was able to stay away for a few years, and then I discovered the Bikram yoga studio in Agoura Hills. I have to admit that it’s been a struggle for the owners as much as it has been for me. I am a tall string bean with a large chest.

The relative narrowness of my frame results in transmission of stress into the stabilizing muscles in the hips and lower back that are supported by bones that provide limited leverage. This means that muscle balance is absolutely essential not only to achieve postures, but to avoid overuse injuries. As I strive for that balance, I’ve been developing muscle groups that had always taken a free ride in the past, which means that I become exhausted doing postures that are often placed in the “warm up” or “recovery” category.

After four years I’m finally able reliably to stay in the 105 degree room for the full ninety minutes. While the owners were often frustrated by my bailing out in the middle of class, some of the instructors are impressed by my persistence. Several have observed that the practice is not designed for my body type.

The attraction to me is a feature that many find intolerable – the dreary repetition of the practice. The Bikram formula is a series of twenty-six postures that the instructors describe with a rote dialog. Fortunately, the more difficult postures are progressive. This means that we aren’t expected to achieve full expression, and so I have the latitude to focus on trying to figure out how to get my muscles to work together. It’s a process that has caused my to look in the mirror on occasion and burst out in laughter in the middle of class.

This opportunity to focus on my physical self has been critical to my peace of mind over the last four years. While not typical, I have dreams in which people show up seeking help to keep societies and ecosystems glued together. There’s not much I can do except to offer them the sanctuary of my heart as a place of restoration. It’s frustrating and grievous to me.

So I should have intervened early today when the instructor continued reading his story during the srivasanas that punctuate the exercises of the floor series. Although I realized that it was interfering with my ability to focus on aerobic recovery, I was fascinated by the enthusiasm that filled the room, . The diversion provided some relief from the normal thoughts – people struggling with the urge to escape the room.

The story contrasted the experience of two caterpillars. The humble yellow caterpillar (which I’ll call ‘she’) encounters a grey caterpillar spinning a cocoon. While uncertain about the possibility of becoming a butterfly, the yellow caterpillar finally chooses to try, and discovers comfort in the realization that spinning a cocoon is a natural skill.

The second, striped caterpillar (which I’ll call ‘he’) has chosen to climb a pillar of caterpillars, symbolizing the struggle for social success. As he nears the top, stepping on those below, he is finally unable to penetrate the clinging mass, and becomes trapped. He looks out and sees a field littered with caterpillar pillars, and realizes that his struggle is meaningless – with so many pillars, attaining the pinnacle of one signifies nothing.

As he weighs his options, the yellow butterfly arrives to rescue him. She attempts to pull him out of the pillar, but he draws back, and sees this terrible sorrow in her eyes.

It was at that point that I walked out, the class laughing at my explanation. I laid down on the couch in the lobby, crying “Oh, God!”

I live this every day, and it’s not that simple. They don’t just refuse assistance.

They pull off your wings and drive nails through your hands and feet.

One of the students told me, as I was passing him after class on the way out the door, that “I had missed a good story.” Really? I don’t come to yoga for a spiritual fill-up, or for entertainment. That’s supposed to happen at church or the movies. I come to focus on keeping my body strong enough to bear the burdens that I carry. If I can’t focus on that, then I’m going to have to quit again.

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