Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A messy world

I have been back in the USA now for five months and I have been struggling with my writing for all that time. Several drafts for my blog sit on my laptop – and most likely they will stay there. Friends ask about my writing and I make some lame excuses about work in progress and then change the subject. But now I have just finished a book, for the second time, and I feel compelled to write about it.

Allow me to clarify a possible grammatical confusion: I have actually finished more than two books in my life. But every now and then I like to read a book twice to make sure I have got the point. I am both fortunate to have the time to do that and unfortunate in having the need to do that. That's both sides of the same coin: aging. However, back to the book...

The book is called “Hell Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga” by Benjamin Lorr. In my view, this is a well written, thoughtful and relatively balanced look into the World of Bikram. Lorr relates his experiences taking Bikram yoga classes, attending Bikram teacher training, participating in intensive yoga programs involving extensive back-bending postures (now called “Jedi Fight Club”) and competing in yoga competitions at regional and national levels. It is not my intent to provide a review or recommendation of the book, but the reading and indeed the re-reading has prompted my own thoughts and provided focus for some of my well established concerns.

Those of you who have come to my class over the years have heard me talk about the evil twins of “ego” and “obsession ”. Maybe I am fortunate in having come into this yoga at an older age than many people, since my previous life in Corporate America gave me all the opportunities I needed to massage my ego and explore my compulsive need for work, both of which provided me with my identity at the time. I hope I worked all those out of my system before I stumbled into the hot room many years ago.

Having made all those mistakes myself in the past, I am sensitive to those times when one twin or the other forces their way onto the mat, whether that mat belongs to me or someone else. But should that happen, I am reminded of the humanity of the yoga. We are engaged in a very human activity, a reflection of our life outside the hot room, and that by its very definition will involve both the good and the not-so-good. Life is full of mistakes, and so is yoga.

When one twin or the other creeps in, I try to recognize it and then encourage it to swiftly move on; neither belongs in my practice today. And while I hope I can say that “ego” never has a place on my mat, I must acknowledge that “obsession” might have taken up residence had I been twenty years younger. I like to think that age has given me the wisdom to keep things in balance, something I struggled with during all those thirty years in corporate life.

Balance involves keeping things in proportion. And for me these days, it means recognizing the vital place that yoga has in my life – but it is not everything. Over these recent years, when the Universe has thrown a few challenges my way, I have recognized the critical role that yoga has taken on in my life. That job has been repair and maintenance – first physical, then mental and finally spiritual. So much happens to my body and mind in just every-day life: things break, muscles pull, ligaments tear, stress builds, worries appear, thoughts become confused. All that needs fixing and my yoga practice is the auto-repair shop where that takes place.

I have accepted that my practice will probably not get much better, and I am okay with that. Yoga provides me with a toolkit to keep my aging body running and in balance. I can pick up that toolkit and put it down when I choose. Taking a day or two off and resting does not cause me to feel anxious or guilty. I feel stronger on the mat when I come back. After all, yoga, like life, is full of restarts. Each time I come into the room, I am starting over – no expectations, accepting where I am on that day. I think that is consistent with the humanity of the practice.

And have no mistake, this yoga is essentially human, as are the people in it. As teachers and students, we make our fair share of mistakes. But never confuse the yoga with the people in it. We are all human and we will mess up on a regular basis. In the meantime, we have been given this gift of yoga and the special sequence that makes up the Bikram class.

This brings me back to “Hell Bent”. The book gives an insider's view to the World of Bikram. It is a messy world, the characters are imperfect, the community has its fair share of the weird and the wonderful. I recognize so much of what Lorr describes and it is not pretty. I hope every aspiring Bikram teacher reads this book before they decide to go to teacher training. And I say that in the belief that we make better decisions when we are better informed. The book will inform some; it may deter others; it is unlikely to provide much encouragement. But as an aspiring Bikram teacher, you will be less surprised at what the teacher training experience has become. And then you may be more realistic about your expectations after teacher training. For many, teacher training equips us to recite, while actual teaching takes a little longer and may require a lot more work. That teaching certificate should be just the beginning of a very humble journey.

Or maybe you will be attracted by a week or two of intensive back-bending practice, or by the chance of competing in the yoga championships. While neither retains much appeal to me, I would urge you to keep that all in balance. Recognize obsession if it creeps in to your practice and then decide whether or not you are comfortable with it; if yes, then learn to live with it and test its effect on your life at regular intervals; if not, then do not hesitate to throw it out.

Do not allow your ego to drive your practice: listen to your body and let your body drive your practice. That may be different from day to day. You can still try your best and practice at your edge if you recognize that edge is a moving line, and sometimes it moves backwards as well as forwards. Progress does not often come in the form of a straight line. How many times have you heard me say “two steps forward and one step back”?

So I would encourage you to read the book, and then when you come back into the hot room for your next class, be grateful for that practice, however imperfect it may be, and then be forgiving of those of us who are in the business of messing up your class. After all, we live in a messy world.