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.

Reflection: Yoga Beyond Asana

It’s coming up on the end of my fourth year of practice in the Bikram Yoga school in Agoura Hills. Obviously the primary impact has been physiological. When I was out at the Skeptics Conference in Pasadena in May, a number of people commented that I had excellent posture. As I am painfully aware right now, that process is ongoing – I realized just recently that when standing, my right hip is shifted about an inch to the left. The pain derives from a shortened band of muscles in the right side of my lower back. Every class, I stretch them out, and every evening they crawl back to the length they have had for the last thirty years.

I didn’t realize how great the changes in the rest of my body had been until I met again with Balwan Singh yesterday. Balwan works at Bikram headquarters organizing teacher trainings. He is very Indian, struggling still at times with his English, but humble and joyful to the core. He had taught in Agoura Hills on Saturdays while the studio was establishing itself, often coming by with his lady-love Sharon (who is now expecting). The first words out of his mouth were “You look really good.” Sitting on the floor in the second session, I looked in the mirror and finally saw what people have been talking about. My body has filled in, and it responds gracefully to direction.

Most teachers in the Bikram method hew tightly to the established environmental constraints – primarily to keep the room near 105 degrees and the students in posture. The conditions were established while Bikram was developing his practice in Japan, and as a 6’6″ physically active American, they are really brutal on me. Most of the advanced practitioners in the studio are actually proportioned like the Japanese.

Balwan always catered to my challenges, and yesterday was no exception. I set my mat up in the back in the path of the air through the door. It came open early, and the oxygen that came with the air made it a very different practice. When the owner Rachel, who was set up just to my right, indicated that she wished it closed, Balwan remarked that advanced practitioners created heat internally, and the environmental controls weren’t as important as for beginners.

Rachel is a really beautiful lady, both inside and out, and I’ve been trying to facilitate her union with some angels that have been floating around in my orbit. Balwan got us to focus on breathing from the get-go, and I surrendered the tension in my chest to let the air really fill my lungs. I got into this rhythm with Rachel, each of us just looking into the other to see where the energy was getting stuck. For me, the most surprising impact of that collaboration came during head-to-knee posture. For the first time I really got up into the second stage, balanced on one leg with the other held out parallel to the floor in front of my hip.

When the practice was over, we were offered a lecture by Arvind Chittamulla, organizer of MokshaFest here in LA. As anyone who has studied the Vedic practices knows, there is far more to Yoga than the physical training, or Asanas. The ultimate goal of Yoga is to allow the purifying energy from the divine source to flow into the world through us.

As Arvind explained, here in the West yoga has spread as a physical practice. As I see it, that reflects the forces that Western society organizes to channel our behaviors to the purpose of creating wealth for those that employ us. They are reinforced by media images that impose air-brushed standards of beauty. We lack both consciousness of the psychic costs of internalizing these forces, and methods for purging them. Yoga asanas allows us, to a certain degree, to at least regain control of our physical manifestation.

But there is much more to yoga than that. Meditation is essential to management of our minds, and breath-work grounds us in the world. Asana, meditation and breath-work are connected: if we don’t have control of our mind, the corrupt thoughts that we entertain during asana practice will infect our bodies. For this reason, Arvind sees that the narrow focus of yoga in the West actually hurts many practitioners.

Arvind walked us through the other seven limbs of the tradition. In Indian studios, orientation to the first two, involving morality and life action, are often prerequisites to practice of the asanas. The remaining five manage the inward journey that opens into relationship with the divine.

The lecture was directed towards the teachers in the room, and Arvind’s ultimate goal is to broaden instructor certification to include, at a minimum, meditation and breath work. As a business proposition, he believes that the idle hours at many studios could be filled with sessions that offered students those tools.

I know that I have benefited from the coupling of my physical practice to my spiritual development. As I explained to Arvind, the difficulty of the conditions during a Bikram class forced me to completely surrender my ego – I had to accept that I had a lot of work to do before I could achieve the postures even in their initial expression. Given that surrender, the consistency of the sequence ensures that I am able to enter a meditative frame, letting my muscles do the work until something doesn’t work, and then focusing only on that. I have learned to ignore the other students in the room while still sharing the energy that arises between people committed to a common goal.

So I must wish Arvind success in his efforts, although I think that he might find more acceptance if he packaged them as advanced certifications.

The interaction with Arvind came with some tensions. I was glad to be with Balwan at the end of the evening. He was talking with one of the other attendees, and I circled around behind to put my hand on top of his head and share a hug, wishing him all the deepest joys of fatherhood. He sent me off with a heart-felt “Thank-you, Brian. Thank-you so much.”