At this year’s USA National Yoga Championships, held in LA this March 5 and 6, I was given the honor to judge the Men’s and the Youth competitions. Already in its eighth year, these championships are now brought to us under the newly formulated USA Yoga Federation. Rajashree, Bikram’s wife, along with her team, have made great strides towards one day making this an Olympic event. There is still quite a climb ahead, but becoming a Federation is a key component to being recognized under the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).
In case you are not familiar with yoga competition, it happens every year from regional, national then finally to the International level, with this year’s International competition taking place June 18th and 19th. Students and teachers from around the globe participate by performing seven postures in three minutes. Five of the poses are from the beginning series: Standing Head to Knee, Standing Bow, Floor Bow, Rabbit and Stretching. The final two are optional and more advanced, intended for the competitor to select that which best represents their “spine” in showing both strength and flexibility. If you’ve not seen a competition, tune in to the Internationals by visiting usayoga.org the day of the competition. There will be a live stream and you won’t believe what you will see. For me, even as a judge, I was in awe at the caliber of competitors this year. Each year, the level of expression advances and you begin to notice the beauty behind the form, the grace in the strength, and the strength in the flexibility. It looks effortless and freeing. Congratulations, to all the competitors and to our top scorers, Joseph and Afton. An entire book can be written about the insights and gifts from competing. Joseph and Afton are amazing ambassadors of our practice. Get to know them a bit more by reading a short interview as to what yoga and competing has given them, by visiting the events section of our website.
Emmy Cleaves, Bikram’s teacher some would say, is one of the most respected masters of this practice having been with Bikram well over 30 years. Her medicinal and practical knowledge far exceed any PHD, and her own practice at an age close to 80 gives her well-earned credibility. Emmy is said to be quite tough. Having taken her classes myself, I can testify that Emmy is constant and brutally honest. Yet it’s her compassion that keeps you listening and inspires and takes you to deeper spaces in your body. At this year’s competition, Emmy was introduced in the very beginning of the two days. The men and women competing (over 100 people from 31 states) were on stage with her, costumed and ready to begin their individual performances. She acknowledged all of them for their courage for competing on stage, and used Bikram’s analogy to cars to express a very important point: “We need to take care of our physical bodies much like we take care of our cars”, stated Emmy, “in order to be here competing there had to also be a mindfulness component, the driver of the car. But, what’s not so evident is the passenger in the car, the “emotional self.” She went on to say “that those of you who are here for the 7th or 8th time, this is where your struggle lies, in the emotional part of the self.”
If yoga means “union” between the mind and the body, then it’s safe to say that balance is necessary between the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual areas of our being if there is going to be any union at all. Imbalances are natural as well, and our job on stage or in the hot yoga room is to become aware of our own individual imbalances and bring them back into the fold, harmonizing with the rest of who we are. Physical limitations can present themselves rather easily; however, the mental and emotional ones are not so easy to spot. Most of us have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are, as inviting the concept of imbalance in any of those areas means hard work, change, vulnerability and resistance. Many years ago, I read a great book called “Love’s Executioner,” written by a therapist who lives in Marin County. He tells nine tales of what he has learned as a therapist and some of the mistakes he made in counseling his patients. One of the stories involves a woman who day after day could not stop thinking about a former therapist and the love she had for him. She and the former therapist had developed a more than platonic relationship, and despite the years that had gone by, she still found herself waking up with the warm thoughts of her past with this man. The author of this book was now her therapist and quite angry with his peer for having crossed an unethical boundary. This was strict code rarely broken in his field of work. As the tale unfolds, the author gets the two together again and the former therapist apologizes. Having felt that he did his work well, the woman’s current therapist was shocked to find his client in an even deeper state of depression. While she was “cured” of her illusion of being with the former therapist, she was also robbed of any feelings of joy or happiness. What the therapist neglected to do was focus on bringing something in to replace what the former therapist represented. Right or wrong, what was now gone was the one thing that had brought her feelings of joy. I had a strong “aha” moment after reading this tale. I could really “see” how dysfunctional we can get for the sake of feeling safe, loved, and really alive.
I’m a yoga instructor. I tell the tale of Bikram dialog, and in that room, through time and sweat, you begin to hear your own inner therapist interacting with those parts that are dysfunctional. We all have them. We are human. Let’s call them imbalances and agree that some are harder to reach than others. Perhaps because we’ve spent our whole lives “being” a certain way. Bikram is a genius really. As you are struggling to push your hips more in Half Moon, the mind too works to push beyond its own habitual boundary. What’s beyond that habitual thinking is where self-realization begins. That’s the real gift in Bikram yoga. “It’s the only subject in the world where the object is you,” Bikram shouts.
We had a fairly new student in class the other day who wanted to leave in Rabbit pose. A pose that is third to the last posture in the series which meant maybe only 10 minutes left in class. The teacher convinced him to stay. Later I spoke with the student; he wasn’t dizzy, ill, or nauseous, but his mind was screaming at him to get out. He was struggling to get past that loud inner voice that said “let’s go now.” How cool that he was able to stay. We’ve all been there. Over time, that voice diffuses as you begin to trust exactly what you are developing with the yoga – you, the truth of you, with honesty and clarity. You are not your mind, you are not your body, you are not your feelings, and you are not your business. Standing head to knee is one of the greatest exercises in mastering the mind. “You” tell your mind what to do which in this case is to lock the knee. So, who is “you?”
Through this practice, you calm the fluctuations of the mind, as we teachers often say. But, you also come to know a bigger you, a “you” not controlled by your physical, mental or emotional body. As a judge observing and scoring the yoga competition, it wasn’t just the body type, age, or degree of difficulty of a pose that singled out the champions for me, it was this balance in which these individuals carried out their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual selves. Stay in the room. Compete. Allow for the imbalances to show up. Let the anger flare up in Triangle. As BYSJ Instructor Marialena says, “smooth it out with the breath.” Invite the change. Invite the vulnerability and resistance. Yoga will help you through and give you tools to better manage yourself, improving the choices you make, giving you the more ultimate goal of peace. As a global community, we can’t afford the imbalance. Like any energy building up, it will release somewhere. Our inner work reflects our outer experience. Let your yoga practice materialize a more evolved you, and watch how your surroundings, how nature, how life, follows.