It’s the journey not the destination. I hear it, I understand it, then I discretely think to myself “but I’m going to get there.” There’s a perfectionist’s whisper that seems to trail every footpath I set out on. I’m not sure how many times I have to get knocked in the head before I learn—when I hold on so tightly to the outcome, the ride and the subsequent result can be pretty jarring.
I’ve been practicing Bikram yoga for almost 7 years. I love it. It’s become a fixture and a priority in my life. Three days a week I make the commitment to get my butt up at the crack of dawn and spend 90 minutes in the hot room before I head off to work. People ask me about Bikram all the time and I’m quick to sing it’s praises. After years of assuring him it would CHANGE HIS LIFE, I’ve finally got my husband alternating classes between his runs every week.
My affection for the practice has been steadfast until suddenly last week, while nearing the 6th mile of a 10 mile run, my knees started aching. A fairly avid runner for the past 10-12 years, I’ve never had any major injuries. So, I shook the aching off as general soreness and pushed through to the 7th mile. With every step I took the pain got worse. We happened to be running in Central Park and it’s rolling hills that I’m always touting my love for suddenly became my worst enemy. After finally crossing the finish line and completing the 10th mile, I took my husband’s arm and limped off into the nearby subway station to make our way home.
All I could think was “this isn’t supposed to happen, Bikram has failed me!” Yeah, those were seriously my thoughts. You see in class it is constantly explained how each posture is either healing previous or preventing future injuries. While I’m aware of the potential havoc long distance running can wreak on the body, I was sure I was counteracting that risk with my consistent yoga attendance.
On the ride home and throughout the rest of the week, I got to thinking about the expectations I have for my yoga practice (yes, I call it a “practice”, are you so annoyed?!). Since I get so many questions about Bikram all the time, I thought it might be helpful to me and to others who wonder about starting a new exercise/yoga regimen to review and do a quick summary of the past few years —what have I learned and gained, and where do I hope to go from here? As friends know, yoga is one of those subjects I feel like I could speak on forever—I’ll spare you. Here are 3 things that have been key for me:
- There is no perfect practice. So I should have mentioned, after that 10 mile run that left my knees writhing in pain, my husband (newly converted yogi) and I decided that the Hot room was the best possible place we could go. We hopped (or limped, rather) off the train, ran into our apt and swapped our running clothes for *tiny spandex and set off on the short walk to make the 1030 Bikram class. It was a HOT one, and packed- I could not have asked for a more perfect atmosphere. It’s funny, your first class you cannot believe the heat and you wonder why these people do not seem to adhere to the U.S. standard for personal space. Then you get over it- the heat breaks, you learn to sweat and the energy of a packed class lift’s your standing bow pose to heights you didn’t think were possible.
Back to that perfect class. I had given myself license to take it easy and even sit down -I was just going to let the heat work it’s magic, use it as therapy, and give my body a nice stretch. When after class I told my teacher Christina of this plan, she laughed. “You know that’s not you,” she said, “you always push it to the max.” And boy did I ever. The long run and the hot room had me convinced I was Gumby. I maxed out and went as deep into every posture as I could. It felt amazing, until about an hour after class. My knees were again sore and now making popping noises and my sciatica which had been under control for the past year or so had me rolling around that night in bed, unable to find a comfortable position.
The next day at work I started typing “Bikram + bad for + fill in the blank” into the internet where I was of course able to find 1000 articles on the evils of Bikram and how it will ruin your body. I sent frantic texts to my husband, dramatically predicting my impending death if I was not able to run again. He proceeded to accomplish his almost daily task of walking me back from the ledge—reminding me that I needed to truly take care of myself, and take one day at a time.
Calmer, I ceased my quest to diminish the value of Bikram as a practice, and instead started to acknowledge my recklessness in the previous day’s class. Undoubtedly, I had overextended my hamstrings and other parts of my body. Looking back over the past several years, the times my body felt best was when I was concentrating on alignment and body mechanics-NOT depth.
I can find articles that say Bikram is the best or worst yoga—another that recommends Ashtanga or Iyengar. These practices were created by human beings which in my mind signifies that there is no perfection; they are all inevitably flawed somewhere. Where my body reaps the benefits is in the pursuit of balance. If I check my loud ego at the door, I’m able to listen to my breath, concentrate on alignment, and trust when my body opens or creates resistance to a posture.
- Go for function over form. Alright, this may sound confusing since we are talking yoga here. In other words, start to see your body for purpose, rather than for aesthetics. In all honesty—this has changed my entire life.
I’ve been through a lot with my body. I’ve battled eating disorders since I was 13 and pushed it through all sorts of other abuses that would be better revealed in another discussion. I’ve gone through long grueling periods in which it did not matter to me in the least whether I was hurting myself; I was determined to see a certain number on the scale or fit into a certain smaller pair of jeans (which let’s be real, have not fit since Freshman year of college.) When I first started Bikram, there were days when staring at myself in the mirror for 90 minutes straight was just too much to take. I was in the process of healing and rehabilitating myself; I did not think standing in front of a mirror where I could pick myself apart was necessarily wise. Then one day one of my teacher’s casually strayed from the dialogue as they often do. We were in standing-head-to-knee, and I had just lifted my leg up and gotten it parallel to the floor for the first time. She praised me out loud in front of the class, “look at you!” she exclaimed, “you couldn’t do that yesterday, AMAZING!”. We transitioned out of the posture and she spoke to the whole class, “stand up straight, look at your beautiful self in the mirror, now let’s do the other side.” I almost burst into tears. I didn’t, I instead was able to contain my emotion into gentle, quiet sobs—throughout the next few postures.
You see, that was the first time I had ever looked at my whole self in the mirror and thought wow, look what you can do. That sudden burst of emotion was a desperate apology to my body. I looked at it and thought- “oh you beautiful thing, all I have put you through and you stand here so strong; so ready to adapt or grow.” I was suddenly amazed by this structure that had literally carried me through the last 25 years. I had a sudden respect for my body and a real desire to protect it. It was no longer this weight (pun intended) I was carrying around for people to look at or judge, it was this vessel containing this beautiful soul who was earnestly trying to be a better person.
- Embrace who you are. If you decide to try a Bikram class, you’ll soon discover that you are surrounded by varying levels of Type A’s. I’ll admit here I’ve secretly taken pleasure watching some rigid yogi walk into class and be completely thrown when someone has dared lay their mat in their spot. Ahh, if only they could relax and be as laid back as I am (cue laughter from close friends and family.) It’s true, a lot of “free-spirits” are turned off by the never changing 26 posture regimen that makes up the Bikram class. They get bored or feel tied down to the instruction. I on the other hand feel a great deal of autonomy. For me, if you give me a constant- such as the same 26 postures every class, I am now easily able to identify change, progress and areas of difficulty that I can work to improve.
I’ve been to other yoga classes that were much more free form. It drove me crazy. At one point I wanted to yell, “who is in charge here!?”. Ten years ago I would have put myself in more of those classes in hopes that I would chill out and become more laid back. Now I accept and am grateful for the knowledge that I am someone who thrives on structure, and is even able to find great freedom within it.
Moral here: find out who you are and what you like and go do that.
So, the hubs and I have the Brooklyn Half in a couple weeks. The real conditioning is done, just trying to rest now so I’m not in pain as we try and make our way from Brooklyn Museum, through Prospect Park, and on to the finish line on the boardwalk in Coney Island. This is an emotional one. The last time we ran it, I was left to finish without my husband who suffered a terrible stress fracture in his foot. Getting those sore knees a couple weeks ago brought up so much fear. But, it also gave me this great opportunity to reexamine what I am doing to increase that connection between my mind and my body and my spirit. I no longer care about beating my previous time (2:01, yeah over my goal by 1 freakin minute!), I just want to cross that finish line with my guy- both of us happy and healthy. I think I’ll get there. Actually, I think I’m on my way even now. After all, it’s the journey.
*Matter of importance: I wear tiny spandex to yoga, my husband wears loose running shorts :).