“If you hear a voice inside you saying, “You are not a painter”, then by all means paint – and that voice will be silenced.”
Vincent Van Gogh
Ok, first things first: I have an amazing story to tell. But it needs some set up.
One of the great things about this training is that there are teachers from all over the world flying in during the 9 weeks to participate in the posture clinics, critiquing us and giving advice. Some of these teachers are also chosen to teach about 5 of the 10 actual Bikram classes we take during the week, if Bikram, his wife Rajeshree or Emmy (the 83 year old Latvian with whom I am in love) are not teaching a specific class. Many more teachers come in than there are spots to do the twice a day Bikram classes, so a lot of the teachers who come in only do the posture clinics. It’s a special thing to be asked to teach the class of 300, so almost all of the teachers who lead the class are incredible. Each has been very different, so you get to see each person bring his or her individual style to the class, which helps those of us learning to teach figure out just who we want to be or how we want to teach.
During Week Three, a couple from Houston, Texas, Mike and Joni, came in for the week. They are have been married for years, are probably in their late 50’s, and about the nicest and most genuine people you can imagine. They own two Bikram studios in Houston. Mike runs one, Joni the other. They are true Texans, drawl and all, and on the surface about as far from ‘yogis’ as one could imagine. Along with some wonderful teaching/critiquing in posture clinic, on Wednesday of Week Three, Mike taught in the morning and Joni in the afternoon. For most all of us, it was one of the best days we have had so far. They were such models of being tough yet very loving teachers; they made you want to not be lazy in class and instead really push yourself, and push yourself not out of fear of being called down in the class but instead out of inspiration. They are exemplary people and the week they were with us was terrific.
This week, Week Five, we had another round of people come in. One is a guy named Luke, who owns the most popular studio in New York City (New York has 5 thriving studios scattered around the island). Luke is about 6’ 2”, very lean, and while after you talk to him a bit you want to call him handsome because he is so engaging and charismatic, the most accurate/positive description would be that he is striking, as his neck, arms, upper body and legs are covered in tattoos, he has various piercings and he has the most intense yet beautiful eyes imaginable. (If you saw him coming at you in a dark alley in the middle of the night, in all probability you would be scared.) Luke was initially walking with a cane because a few weeks ago he was out drinking with some buds after seeing JACKASS 2 and was at a bar and leapt from the top of the bar to a tabletop and fell off and fractured his ankle. (Yes, many of these yogis enjoy a good time and, no, Luke doesn’t remember doing it.) He came to own the NYC studio when the previous owners went about 50 grand in the red and were going to go bankrupt. Luke stepped in and told them he’d pay off the debt if they would give it to him. So they handed the studio over to him and he turned it around and now it is doing very well. I think that was a year or two ago.
Anyway, Luke taught our class this morning, the Friday morning class. As has been happening each week during this training, I start the Friday morning class wondering just how the hell I am going to get through the class, being so sore and tired at the end of the week. Each week, however, that class in particular has turned out to be one of my best. This morning, in fact, was my best class ever. Luke was an amazing teacher: he is funny, warm, encouraging, extremely smart, and has a certain firmness that makes you want to excel. Every time someone tried to leave class, for instance (which still occurs each class) he would stop the person and talk to them and coax them into not leaving. One of the things that happens during a Bikram class is that it can get so hot and terrible your mind begins to mess with you and give you all kinds of excuses to leave class. ‘I can’t breathe.’ ‘I’m panicking.’ ‘I have to go to the bathroom.’ ‘I need some water.’ Etc. Luke would lovingly yet very forcefully tell each person that tried to leave, no, you cannot leave and let’s take a second to talk about why you want to leave the room. Later, he told the story of one woman in a class of his in NYC who started to leave, and he stopped her and asked her why she was leaving. She said in all sincerity, ‘I just realized I left my iron on at home and I am worried it might catch fire.’ Well, with that one, he couldn’t say much, so he let her go. She called him an hour later, after class, to apologize…she didn’t even own an iron! And she wasn’t really lying. Her mind just came up with this excuse for her to get out of the room. (I’ve done that myself, come up with excuses to leave a class, though in training I can say so far I have stayed in the room, it is a goal of mine. I have had more than a couple of major, MAJOR mental battles in certain killer classes, however, as my mind tried to convince me to leave, even for just a minute or two.)
So this morning in class, Luke told us a story. We have a ‘break’ about 50 minutes into the class called Savasana, or Dead Body Pose, where you lie on your back, perfectly still, and let your body absorb everything that has been going on so far (you do the same at the end of class, Savasana is where you get a lot of the benefits of the workout). It is usually either a time of silence, or a time when the teacher might read a quote or talk about how the class is going, it is up to the specific instructor. Luke’s was a killer. I am going to write it as he spoke it, in first person, as I think it will be the most effective that way, though nothing will measure up to hearing him tell us in person, particularly after a brutal first half of class. In a deep, soft voice he said:
‘So something none of you know about me is that I used to be a terrible drug addict. I was addicted to everything: heroin, cocaine, all kinds of pills, methadone, you name it. I was living on the street in Houston 6 years ago, homeless, jobless, completely broke and completely addicted to drugs. A friend somehow got me to Bikram. It was at one of the studios owned by Mike and Joni. I took the class and the first day it literally killed me. But for some reason I went back. The second day killed me. As did the third. But I kept going back. And Mike and Joni were very encouraging. They never asked anything about my life and what was going on, and it must have been clear just how messed up I was. Let me tell you, I looked scary – you guys think I look scary now, you have no idea how I looked back then. But they worked out a deal with me: if I would stay after my class and clean the mirrors of the studio, I could take the classes for free. I just had to come every day. So I accepted. Mike and Joni never asked me anything or pressed me, as scary and out of control as I must have appeared. I went every day and every day it absolutely killed me. But things started to change. Over the next six months, through going to Bikram, I slowly and painfully slid out of the addictions: to heroin, to cocaine, to the pills. My last addiction was to methadone. I was doing 70 mg a day, which for those of you who don’t know is a lot. And methadone is the worst withdrawal of all. Take the sickest you have ever been, the worst flu, whatever, and multiply it by 1000, and that's how methadone withdrawal feels. The first day I went without any methadone, I went to the class and after the initial breathing exercise, I collapsed on my mat and just lay there for the rest of the 90 minute class. I couldn’t move. When it was over, I was lying in a puddle of my own sweat on my towel and I still couldn’t move. Everyone in the class slowly left and I lay there for an hour, hurting. Eventually, I heard Mike come from the front desk into the studio. I knew I was going to get into trouble for not doing my part of the deal but I still couldn’t get up. I heard him moving around; after a while I was able to raise my head and when I looked up, I saw him cleaning the last mirror, he’d cleaned them all. When he finished, he walked to the door and as he left, he turned and said, ‘See you tomorrow, Son.’ And I knew I was home.”
Well, at this point, I was just about maudlin, lying on the floor on my back, in my own huge puddle of sweat, trying to figure out how to not sob out loud. And we had another 35 minutes left in class. I sucked it up and got through the class. Now, at the end of every class, after our final breathing exercise, before we turn around and lay down and do the final Savasana laying on our backs, we always clap for the teacher. Luke received a long and loud round of applause. Then we all turned around and started the Savasana, which is led the first two minutes by the teacher and then it is up to the individual student as to how long they want to stay in the room to cool down. When Luke finished his two minute wind down, with all of us back laying on our backs, he said ‘Namaste’, the traditional way a teacher ends the class, and everyone, on their backs, started clapping again, a second time, which had never happened before. Then we all started to clap in unison, rhythmically, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, like at a rock concert, 300 people, and it grew louder and louder until it was deafening. By the time we stopped, I’d lost it again and was laying there with my arm over my eyes weeping. While I usually take about a 5-8 minute Savasana, it took me about 25 minutes to try to get a grip and leave the room.
That is what Bikram Yoga does for people every day. Along, of course, with amazing, godly people like Mike and Joni. I think if I ever see either one of them again I will just break down crying again and knock whichever of them over running to hug them tight. Such good people. These are the kinds of people I am surrounded by in the training. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, it is humbling and an honor to be with these people. I feel like an idiot a lot of the time, like a fraud, ‘You are not a yogi’ going through my mind. But perhaps as Van Gogh said, by the end of the training I might have silenced that voice. If it isn’t silenced, fine, it will help keep me humble, another mental discipline at which I tend to fail daily.
As for the incidentals of the week, I have moved from Week Three I am so sore and from Week Four I am so tired to Week Five I AM SO #@^% SORE. I don’t think I ever dreamed I could feel this way. The weird thing is is that I am really excelling at some of the postures, postures I have never done particularly well with. Certain lock the knee postures and certain backbends I am going farther than I ever dreamed I could. But anything that has to do with my ham strings – OH MY GOD – or anything that involves bending forward is deadly. Before I started this I could flip forward and not just touch my toes but place my palms on the floor and then even start to bend my elbows. To maybe – MAYBE – get the barest fingertips on the floor, now, if I bend over, involved slow, tedious work to get there. All of which is normal, as we have been told over and over again. They have said that most of us will literally hobble home after the last day. But then, they say, wait a few weeks, after we start back to normal. Regular practice, and the leap forward will be astounding. We’ll see. I know at times this week I feel about as old as Emmy actually is – did I mention I am in love with her?
Much more to tell but this is getting long. I will add, though, that along with everything else, this training is giving me a deep appreciation for such simple things. For instance, after the morning class, 9:30 – 11:30, we get a break for lunch. (Incidentally, there are a number of us who set up chairs in a circle in the parking lot by our cars and have most of our meals out there. It is a great group and we have a wonderful time.) When you walk out of the studio each day at lunch, there is a Hispanic man with a fruit cart: you pay him 3-5 dollars and he cuts of chunks of Pineapple, Cantaloupe, Mango, Watermelon, and/or Cocoanut, puts them in a bag with a lot of fresh lime juice and gives it to you with a fork. I never thought simple pineapple and cantaloupe could taste so magnificent. After a tough, hot morning class, there is nothing in the world like this cold, tangy fruit. Damn. Just the thought of it can get me through a tough morning class. I hope I can maintain a love for such simple things when I finish the training, though I doubt pineapple and cantaloupe will ever taste quite so good again.
Let me end with a couple of Acronyms I heard this week, from another teacher, John Salvatore, another amazing guy from NYC:
EGO – Easing God Out
FAITH – Finally Allowing It To Happen
Best to all of you and please continue to keep me posted on your lives as well. It’s hard to believe we have passed the halfway point.