Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Four Minute Mile and The Power of Group Practice


Every Tuesday I practice the Advanced Series at the Bikram yoga studio. Most weeks there are 8-12  of us in the room, many of whom are competitors and champions in the state and national yoga championships. Afton leads the practice and Kathy is always there and so is Mardy and Gianna and many other very accomplished asana practitioners. 

I was introduced to Bikram yoga in 1995 when my mother used to practice Bikram yoga in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I did not know, however, there was an advanced series until last year when Pure Bikram Yoga opened their studio in south Austin and offered an open advanced practice as part of the celebratory festivities. Ida Ripley, the Canadian National champion was in town and she was leading the practice. I talked Anne into going with me and was blown away by the depth and breadth of the postures on the syllabus, the design of the sequence itself and the proficiency of the teachers and students who practiced at Pure. The advanced series involves 84 postures the and takes a little over 2-hours to complete whereas the beginnning series has 26 postures, each of which are repeated twice, and takes about 90-minutes to perform.  Seeing the advanced series put a lot of the beginning series into perespective for me because it was obvious how the two formats relate to and inform one another.   Anyway, I have been practicing with these folks for over a year now and they have helped me tremendously. 

All that  backstory is there to say that on Tuesday, while I was balancing in one-arm peacock I realized once again that practicing with people who can do things that I can’t do is both a physically and  mind-expanding opportunity. (Well, truth be told, I realized this  after I came out of that pose because there is not really any room for other thoughts during that particular posture.) I came down from my pose and looked up and saw Kathy, Mardy, and Afton all balancing on one hand in the same posture and I realized that I had been practicing yoga since 1991 and never even thought to try one-armed peacock  until last year when I was introduced to it in as part of the Bikram yoga advanced series.  At the time and for most of the last year, I didn’t really think I would ever do the pose but I would try it every week and watch other folks in the room do it. Then lo and behold, last week, in our group practice at BFree, I did the pose for the first time and held it. I had been getting closer and closer throughout the year but I actually did it! Big moment. 

So my main realization yesterday was that the only reason I even tried and kept making attempts to do the pose was that I saw other people doing it. The very fact that they could do the pose confronted my  “that is impossible” mindset. I realized advanced group practice is a lot like the  4-minute mile. Prior to 1954, no one had ever run a 4-minute mile. Once Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile, an invisible barrier came down. What had been impossible was accomplished and now it has become the standard for male middle distance runners.

Advanced postures like one-arm peacock involve strength, balance and tremendous focus. And like every other challenging posture,  what is required in the posture is also what is cultivated through the practice of the pose. Before we go any further,  let’s also remember that what is advanced for one person may be different than what is advanced for another. Depending on our physical capacity, these same principles apply to postures like trikonasana, uttanasana, etc. so don’t get distracted by what syllabus the  advanced posture may be on. What is challenging in asana is always relative to the one practicing. The real boon of any posture  lives, not in the physcial expression itself, but in how the performance of the challenging form  shifts our perceptions of possibility and challenges our preconceived notions of limitation.  (And of course, we have to be intelligent practitioners and work within certain boundaries and allow the process to unfold in its own time relative to our capacity and all that. I am very clear that yoga asana is as much about honoroing one’s limits as it is about transcending them and  those two aspects of practice are always in a conversation with one another. But I digress.)

Yesterday I told Mardy, “You know, the only reason I can do that is because I watched you guys do it every week and I knew it had to be possible since people right in front of me were actually doing it.” She told me that over the years, in the Bikram yoga community, the competitions have served that same function. Not only do individuals have an opportunity to focus and refine their personal practices much in the way a runner might train for a race, the competitions are also a demonstration of practice and become a testimony to what is possible. Mardy told me that people are practicing postures  now that even 4 years ago were considered unachievable. I call it the Four-Minute-Mile Phenomenon, (FMMP) where what was once considered impossible becomes the standard. 

What excites me the most about  the FMMP  is that the testimony of practice and the living example of possiblity is not limited to asana. After all, asana  always embodies and teaches us larger lessons than asana itself.  For most of us, postural profiency will fade before we do in this lifetime, which make it all the more important that we harvest the deeper teachings implicit in the pursuit of these challenging  forms. In the same way that a seemingly  impossible yoga posture enters the field of possible because other people in the room are doing it, so too do we become living testimonies of possibility in our lives off the mat. Think about it--our practice rooms are filled with people who have overcome  the ravages of abuse, addiction, and the personal darkness of depression, anxiety and self-doubt. In our very midst are people who are practicing compassion, love, forgiveness in the face of betrayal and injury.  In our communities of practice are people who assert faith and hope in the midst of unthinkable loss and impossible odds.  

There is no one in the room without a story to tell. There is no one I know who has not been given an “Advanced Life Posture" to practice. Each one of us has fallen. Each one of us will fall again in some way. Each one of us has struggled to overcome something. In my opinion, these are the terms of  living, not a design flaw that can be shortcut by positive thinking, vision questing or any such new-age technology.  We learn through the power of direct experience and this is the power of group practice: we can benefit directly from one another’s experiences.  

Our various personal challenges, triumphs and struggles are the living guru, the true teacher living amongst us. If I learn how to make it through death, divorce, depression, and/or any form of disheartenment then  I become a teacher for someone else who will encounter those Advanced Life Postures in the future. And if today, I am the one falling on my face in the advanced pose life has asked me to practice, group practice  shows me I am not falling alone. When I practice within community even falling is testimony. Perhaps I can fall more consicously, more honestly and model how to reach out, how to tell the truth,and  how to be humble in my shortcomings. Or maybe I simply become an example to someone else of what not to do and just what to avoid.

More could be said, but these musings were  my takeaway from 2+ hours in a hot room on Tuesday. Hopefully there is something in there you can use. 

After practice I met with Jason and Michael at Black Swan Yoga. I am going to teach a few classes there starting November 20th. More on that soon. (Tuesdays, 4:00 and 5:30. Black Swan Yoga-South. Not for folks who like alignment-based hath a with Christina Sell but perfect for those who want some hot  vinyasa with good tips for how to practice and improve.) 

Also, for Austinites- come practice with me on Thanksgiving in San Marcos from 10-12:30 and at Bfree on Sunday, November 25 from 4-5:30 for Level 3 Vinyasa. 

And on the last weekend of the month, I am having a weekend workshop down in San Marcos also. 

Yesterday, Kelly and I flew to Portland for a few days of R&R before I teach over the weekend at The Bhaktishop. On todays agenda is a hike along some amazing waterfalls. 

More soon.

3 comments:

Rebecca Stahl said...

My teacher read this to us in our class today, and it literally brought tears to my eyes. These past few months my asana practice (and my yoga practice generally) has taken a backward slide, but I keep showing up for classes, amidst all the physical pain. I truly believe it is because of the power of being in that room, even when I cannot do everything, even when I'm frustrated beyond belief. There is something magical being in that space.

I have thought about this a lot over the years but have never really had the words to express it, though I have tried many times. Thank you so much. Beautifully said.

Christina Sell said...

Thanks, Rebecca. So glad you keep showing up. My teacher said that is 99% of success on the path.

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