I recently took the 30-day challenge at the local Bikram Hot Yoga studio, completing 16 classes in 30 days. The practice is challenging: 90 minutes, 105' heat, and 26 difficult poses (no props, no modifications). I started with the intention of detoxing – physically – but found that the real need for cleansing was in my head. No surprise there, huh?
I struggled with back pain in Hero pose, nausea in Camel pose, and found myself unable to place my arms under my body for Locust pose. Lifting my feet in that pose? Not even a consideration. All simple issues, right? Any yoga teacher would tell you to give it time, that all things come through practice.... but it got tougher with every class. I found myself wanting to avoid class altogether. I even began struggling to stay present in each given pose as I began the countdown to locust, followed shortly by hero, then camel. Just slogging through waiting for it to all be over... What was going on? I love yoga!
As so often happens, the answer appeared when I was ready to learn it. A friend sent me a CD set, The Science of Enlightenment. I was struck by information I heard in the section that describes the benefits of meditation (that mindfulness reduces suffering.) Here is the formula:
Suffering = pain x resistance.
Notice that the 'x' represents 'multiplied by', not 'plus', meaning that pain increases exponentially when it is accompanied by resistance. So, if you have 10 units of pain and 10 units of resistance, it becomes 100 units of suffering – instead of just 10 units of pain.
Interesting, no? So, I looked back at my response to exploring new depths in Hot Yoga. I had begun describing the practice as “my own personal hell.” Maybe a little dramatic, but not far off from what I felt I was experiencing – coming face to face, over and over, with the same issues. So, was it possible that the suffering was caused by resistance? The CD program defined resistance as negative thoughts and/or physical tension. I had plenty of both.
As most classically trained yoga teachers will tell you, the Bikram dialogue (what the teachers say throughout the class) is …. contrary.... to how we are trained. When I didn't like the language that fuels the practice, I just rephrased it in my own terms (not lock the knee, but lift the knee.) I spent lots of energy translating. I also questioned the wisdom of not allowing modifications (after all, if I could only curl my toes under in camel, that 2'' would allow me easy access a pose that felt just fine).
In reviewing my mental approach to the practice, I could see that I came into the practice with pre-conceived notions that created a mental resistance. No surprise, I suppose, that my body set up a firm response of physical resistance to the very poses that open the heart and put us in a position of feeling vulnerable.
OK. Got it. I entered the next practice (number 11) with a clear intention: stress relief – no judgment, no expectations, no resistance... and no translating. I announced my intention (stress relief) to a friend when I arrived (he jokingly replied that I might be in the wrong place) and I rolled out my mat and towel. Exploring each pose with the intention of replacing resistance with equanimity, I found space in every pose that had not been there before. Balancing was easier. I felt less reactive and less judgmental. Camel was emotional, but the reaction was less vomit-inducing.
Next step, I approached my teachers and began asking questions. Their advice was always on target: press your hips forward in camel before you bend back, keep your eyes open during transitions to avoid dizziness, align your body correctly and approach each pose to the best of your ability today – no judgments, no expectations.
So, I decided to explore this topic a little more – the power of resistance to exacerbate pain – the power of acceptance to lead to equanimity, to create internal change. I set my class themes for June and posted Resistance vs. Allowing, including topics like 'Lean into the pain' - sounds like a fun class, huh? In response to a comment to that post, I replied:
“Disassociating from fear and pain may be a 'natural' reaction to discomfort, but that resistance pulls us out of the present moment. So, maybe we really learn life's lessons only when fear has us cornered, everything falls apart, and we run out of options for escape. I'm glad that I have yoga to practice these skills; to change reaction to response, resistance to allowing, disassociation to mindful awareness. I think the practice makes us more present in the experiencing of our own lives.”
The response was taken from the idea of leaning into the pain suggested by Pema Chodron, who wrote When Things Fall Apart. I was in the middle of a personal crisis of pain at the time. My dog, Napoleon, disappeared on June 11th. He was my faithful companion of 5 years, and the emotions surrounding this incident were painful on so many levels.
I went through the experience with eyes wide open; journaling, meditating, seeking counsel from friends. I can now tell you that when fear has us cornered, we are forced to choose. We can live our yoga, choosing to stay present, to experience the pain and make conscious decisions about how we respond, or we can fall back into old patterns of avoidance and blaming. But whatever we choose, it is done in awareness.
We learn from our physical practice, not just the details of the poses, but how to face adversity with mindfulness and equanimity, how to respond to crisis with compassion and courage, how to let go. And it changes us.
The old patterns don't feel as comfortable as they used to. The new patterns are worn deeper than you may think through our hours on the mat.
I'm glad to close with a happy ending. Napoleon came home battered and bruised, 3 days (and 3 nights) later, but he is home safe and healing (a story for another time). I'm still practicing Bikram – cranking up the dimmer switch from resistance to allowing, and finding physical space in my body that perfectly contours to the new space in my mind.