Friday, October 2, 2009

Finding Balance

Our local Bikram studio is hosting the Texas Yoga Asana Championship in a few weeks and they requested submissions for the magazine they are putting out for the event. They wanted personal stories about how Bikram fits into our lives. I have submitted the following story. (WARNING: it is long. They promised they have an editor, but you are seeing the unedited version.)

Growing up, I was never an athlete - zero coordination, less than zero skills on the field, the court, etc. I was always one of the last ones chosen in gym class. When I tried to play softball in high school, I was cut from the JV squad because they didn’t have enough uniforms. But, really, who could blame them? I would close my eyes when a ball came towards me.

Things changed somewhat when I matriculated at Middlebury College, a small liberal arts college in Vermont. There, amidst the glory of the Green Mountains and surrounded by shiny, happy people, it was impossible to be sedentary. I first shucked my non-athleticism there on the slopes of the Middlebury College Snow Bowl. It was on that little hill that I learned to snowboard. Having been stuck as an intermediate skier for years, snowboarding was a revelation to me. I was skilled and graceful for the first time in my life. It remains, to this day, my absolute favorite thing to do.

Bolstered by my confidence on the slopes, I took up running that first spring at Middlebury. I certainly was not fast but was mentally strong and so could run far. On those hilly back roads of Central Vermont, I could run for miles in perfect contentment. I still recall some of those runs, which I used to escape and find my own head space.

After college, knowing that distance was my strength, I decided to train for a marathon. I ran my first marathon a year and a half after graduation. Training for it and completing it was one of my proudest accomplishments. I could never again say, “I am not an athlete.” In subsequent years, I completed four more marathons, slowly and steadily. I developed great and lasting friendships through my training and truly gained a respect for myself and my own body. Where I had always hated my heavy thighs, I learned to love them for being able to carry me 26.2 miles.

I completed my last marathon about a year and a half before my son was born. Going through pregnancy, childbirth and breast feeding, I gained new respect my body for all that it could do. But, as a new parent, it was difficult to find the time to focus on myself and I did so sporadically.

Then, when my son was almost two years old, I discovered Bikram yoga here in The Woodlands. After my first class, I felt an euphoric feeling of both peace and accomplishment. It was almost better than completing a marathon because I experienced those feelings but felt physically wonderful rather than the post marathon pain. I loved everything about Bikram and was doing it as often as I could. Right away, it was a good fit for me, a definite “Type A” personality, because it is so organized and requires intensity of focus and discipline.

I told everyone who listened that “Bikram is great for the body, mind and spirit. It is an amazing workout that targets every muscle in your body, gets your heart pounding, but encourages you to keep your breath measured and controlled. It is meditative because you block out your own thoughts so that the only thing in your head is the instructor’s voice. Then, after class, you are so much more centered than before.”

A few weeks after my daughter was born, my doctor gave me the OK to return to exercise. The first thing I tried to do was run because I could just step out the door and go. It was awful! I was barely able to complete two miles and every yard was excruciating. However, my first Bikram class back was wonderful. I surprised myself by being able to not just stay in the room but practice every posture in the series. It felt great to be back. Unfortunately, my daughter was extremely colicky and I was nursing her all the time for many months, so I was not able to make the time commitment and attend class much at all.

It was about this time that I attempted my first Pilates Reformer class. I had done some mat Pilates here and there, but had never tried the Reformer and wanted to try something that offered the intensity of Bikram. For years I had heard that nothing transforms your body as quickly as Pilates. Knowing that I was definitely NOT having any more babies (colic ensured that it was out of the question), I was ready to not just lose the baby weight, but to transform my body completely.

I lucked out and found a trainer with whom I work incredibly well. She is a kind and skilled instructor who right from the beginning has encouraged me to go farther each and every time. I work one on one with her twice weekly, and each and every time I feel like I get better, stronger, leaner and longer. Pilates, like Bikram, utilizes the breath to encourage the muscles to go deeper into every movement. Many of the movements are similar to ones that are done in the Bikram series, though there are so many more postures and variations that even a year into twice weekly sessions, I have yet to not try something new each session.

My trainer specializes in rehabilitation after illness, and she knows how crucial it is to be physically active for one’s mental and emotional health and well being. In the beginning of our practice together, she encouraged me to find the time to do my cardio as well as our practice. I made a commitment to myself to work my heart and clear my head daily. When I was in the studio, I pushed myself to the limit each time. Thus, I began to see a difference very quickly. I was stronger and leaner each and every week. It was truly amazing! Because of this, I took up running again.

Getting back to running was so difficult at first. I didn’t want to do it, and did it because I “should”. Then, I began to recall why I loved running for so many years. No other workout allows you to just lace up your shoes and go, getting your heart racing, allowing you to push yourself harder, faster, longer without having to use any special equipment. I once again was able to find some head space, much needed for a mother of two very demanding little children. Even better, I found that I was a much better runner than I had ever been before. I can now run so much faster than I ever thought possible, thanks to being stronger and leaner than I ever thought I would be.

It was only this past Spring that I really returned to Bikram. I had really missed it, the 90 minute active meditation that had always left me feeling euphoric. Though I had been away from it for so long, my first class back went incredibly well. It was amazing to see the evidence of how much more flexible I had become. I could see small differences, such as how much better my toes were able to spread and support me after being used to grip the bar on the Reformer. I could see large differences too in how much deeper I was able to go into each pose. My practice took on a whole new dimension.

Now, I am at a point where I am more fit than I ever thought possible for me. Like they say at Lululemon, I sweat at least once a day. I do a little bit of everything - gym classes, spinning, weights, cross training - in addition to my three favorites. The amazing thing to me is how each of the activities that I do informs the others. I now regularly run at a sub 8 minute pace, something I never thought could do. I am much more flexible and graceful when I practice Pilates. And, in Bikram, I am so much more advanced. I am now able to put my forehead on my locked knee in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee Pose or, more recently, being able to get my hips all the way off the floor in Locust.

Better than all of this is the way that I feel. I have never felt so great about myself as I do now. I have so much pride in all that I have accomplished, and I am able to push myself to accomplish more every day. One of the things that they teach in Bikram is that the goal of your first class is to just stay in the room. Then, when you do more, you have really done something. Well, applying that to my every day, my goal is to just get there and move, but then I end up doing so much more than that once I get started.

I am planning to run a half marathon in a few weeks and actually have a time goal for the first time. I feel confident that I will beat it. I am considering becoming certified as a Pilates instructor. And, with one child in preschool three days a week, I can actually find the time to be able to practice Bikram much more regularly and try to advance my practice. The athlete in me is here to stay; I just can’t wait to go snowboarding!

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