Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Summer Heat Retreat

I spent the weekend at the 6th Annual Bikram Yoga Women's Retreat which was held here in Texas at the awesome Barton Creek Resort and Spa.  The bulk of the retreat was taught by Rajashree Choudhury and Emmy Cleaves and concluded with the Texas State Yoga Asana Competition. On Friday afternoon we had a women's panel and I was invited to speak on the panel. So, mostly I got to be a participant in the intensive and soak up the experience, which was great fun for me.

The weekend started on Thursday at lunch at the Four Seasons. (I thought this was great fun, having only been to the Four Seasons in Austin 15 years ago for a company function. Kelly and I were working as wilderness instructors at the time and we drove up to valet parking in our 93 Toyota Pickup truck that we have basically been living out of and all these water bottles feel out onto the sidewalk. Let's just say it was a very classy moment. But I digress.)  All of the women on the panel and several other current and past champions were there with Rajashree and Emmy. I was immediately struck by the dedication and passion everyone had for their practice, for Bikram Yoga specifically and also for the process of learning and teaching in general.  Bikram Yoga is an intense practice so it definitely attracts people who are intense, focused and committed. I also believe that the intensity of the practice would cultivate those very things in someone if they didn't have them developed to begin with. You either learn how to focus or you, as the saying goes, "can't take the heat".

And I really do not mean the heat of the hot room only. One topic that became clear to me on the women's panel is that every system of yoga practice  has some kind of heat involved. After all, at the heart of every practice lives  the work to generate enough intensity that outdated patterns (samskaras) are burned away. We call that work and the energy that fuels it  tapas. The idea is that we have patterns or seeds or samskaras at the different levels of our being that are unconsciously deciding for us how we will live our lives. Some of these patterns we call genetics, some we call body-type, some we call cultural-conditioning, some we call family-of-origin-dynamics, some we call personality, some we call our beliefs and so on. So, to use a very simple metaphor here, the idea for us who practice yoga is that,  a seed, when watered will sprout and grow,  whereas  seed that is burnt will no longer be able to germinate or  produce offspring. The  practices, in a very general way,  are about watering and nurturing those positive, spiritually-affirming seeds and burning- with tapas- those dysfunctional seeds that generate the false ideas of self. (This is a VERY GENERAL explanation, so philosophers out there cut me a little slack, please.)

Bikram Yoga has a lot of heat besides the hot room as I see it, all of which can help generate tapas and help burn away what stands in the way of being a focused and committed person. The classroom has a strict protocol, all tools to help cultivate discipline in the practitioner: Be silent when you enter. Stay in the room the entire 90 minutes. Focus on yourself in the mirror. Do the same postures every day. Match the teacher's words to your body and move as part of the group. Don't wiggle, don't fidget, don't wipe. Stand still between postures. Drink water between postures. Breath normally through  your nose. Sit down if you need to but don't just collapse in child's pose, leave the room, etc.--simply sit and look in the mirror until you can join the group again. Only go as deep into a posture as you can maintain the optimal form outlined by the instructor. Don't add your own embellishments to the routine. Ask questions after class. And so on.

And sure, every good thing about any yoga practice also has its negative side, but that is the case in every system of practice. For instance, practice the same thing every day and you can become mechanical. However, practice something different every day and you might never actually go deep enough into the postures to actually understand where your blocks and misunderstandings reside. Being aware of the downsides to an approach is half the battle because knowing there is a tendency  toward something gives you a head start on not succumbing to the tendency. As far as I can tell, every system has upsides and downsides, just like every person has great strengths as well as an achilles heel, that, if not addressed will thwart their best efforts every time. But that is another entry for another day, I suppose.

So you can look at that list of do's and don't as rigid rules that spell out some kind of perfectionistic, Type-A yoga experience or you can look at them simply as the "rules or guidelines of engagement" for that particular activity. In this way, the do's and don'ts become boundaries and structures in which to generate the tapas that can become fuel  for our own transformation. For instance, if we start to get conscious of how much we habitually wiggle,  squirm and "blow of steam" between postures and we learn to stand still without fidgeting, at first we will feel very uncomfortable because it will require effort (tapas) to restrain the habitual tendency of wiggling. Over time, however, if we can stay with the "heat" of the initial discomfort,  we can build our energetic capacity and the steam we used to blow off unconsciously now becomes ours to use consciously and we leave practice with more energy for our lives.  And in standing still in the body in the midst of outer heat, sweat dripping and in the presence of the inner urge to do otherwise, over time we are delivered to a place of inner stillness and equipoise. You wouldn't think it, but that is the power of a structured, discipline and uncomfortable environment. (And it comes in glimpses, little by little, and is built over a long period of time.)

So, even in a non-heated asana class, you can find ways that heat is created and utilized. For instance, in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga  they use movement and ujayi pranayama to create the heat in the body but also, think of all the restraints given in that method that help focus the practitoner away from habit and into disciplined focus:  the gaze is directed through drishti, the sound of ujayi is to be followed, the postures are the same every day, the progress is measured through achieving the preceding posture in a sequence before being assigned the next one, the practice hall is quiet, etc. Or Iyengar Yoga. Obviously there is no outer heat and in their system there us very little jumping around. Yet Iyengar Yoga  is an intense, focused and "hot" environment,  even though many times they are trying not to heat the body and are in fact trying to keep the physical body cool. But the intensity of introspection required to stay with their practice is certainly going to require, and therefore cultivate, tapas. And lest we get narrow-minded about what I mean by intensity, put an athletic yogi into some restorative postures and ask someone who is used to moving around a lot to stay still and that is going to "cook" them in a certain way.

On some level, what we are talking about is maturing and deepening our relationship to both physical and psychological discomfort so that we can engage it more consciously and transform our habitual responses toward what we most truly want rather than what our patterns are deciding for us. (And I am not suggesting tolerating abuse, injurious action or anything that goes against common sense.) And hey, it's not about hot-room-yoga or not-hot-room or any of that surface-level discussion, in my mind. All those things are simply different means to cultivate discipline. I believe we can live great lives in alignment with our deeper purposes and never do hot yoga or without ever doing a vinyasa or a restorative posture or whatever.  But I do not believe we can have what we most desire and live the truth of what we are actually here for without focus, discipline, commitment and perseverance. So, to me this whole entry is about how the practices we do and the way we do them helps us cultivate those larger qualities. It is not an on-the-surface thing and I think it is so important for us as modern yogis to look much deeper than the surface of what we are doing and to become very reflective about our practices. (Small sermon, there. Thanks for listening.)

At any rate, after lunch we had class with Afton, the current National Campion and one of my favorite teachers at PURE Bikram Yoga in Austin. She did a great job opening the event with the perfect amount of intensity and humor to set everyone at their ease and get them ready for the rest of the weekend. We ate dinner and then had an opening reception together. And so that was day 1.  Big day.

So, the next day opened bright and early with a meditation session and asana class with Rajashree, the women's panel and then advanced class with Emmy. More definitely needs to be said about each of them but this entry has gone on long enough so I will follow up with that tomorrow or the next day.

Enjoy the heat, whatever you are doing.

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