I am thankful to be back in the U.S. of A. after a phenomenal two-week yoga teacher training: Tony Sanchez’s 84 Asanas Master Core System in Los Cabos, Mexico. Doing a hot yoga “tt” is something that’s been on my bucket list since 2010, at least. Although I wasn’t even familiar with Tony four years ago, I feel very fortunate that fate has once again intervened and manifested this dream in a way that’s even more fulfilling and aligned with my life values than the plans I’d been aspiring toward back then. Read more about Tony and his amazing training workshops on his website: http://tonysanchezyoga.com/
Bikram Choudhury’s “Hot Yoga” practice (aka Bikram’s Torture Chamber) became popularized in the U.S. during the 1970’s in California largely in part because of a loyal following by celebrities such as Shirley Maclaine. The Bikram hot yoga series is rigorous and specific in the way it is to be practiced. The room must be 105 degree Farenheit, approximately 60% humidity (a heat index of 149 degrees) and 90 minutes long. Students practice 26 postures, most repeated twice. Water should not be consumed until after the Eagle Pose. The teachers learn Bikram’s posture descriptions verbatim, repeating steps and encouraging the ideal “asana” or posture form word for word, regardless of the person’s body type or practice experience. Bikram has built an empire of loyal followers over the years, but unfortunately much of his success has begun to “outdo” itself. The legal battles over whether a yoga series can be trademarked or not in addition to Bikram’s sense of amorous entitlement with his female students are an unfortunate focus of his legacy in recent years. For an interesting perspective on the ethics of ownership when it comes to yoga postures, check out this New Yorker interview with Yoga to the People founder Greg Gumucio: http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2012/02/06/120206ta_talk_mcgrath
If you’re curious, a couple articles on Bikram’s unraveling:
Despite this drama, “hot yoga” (not exclusively Bikram) is a practice I’ve relished since 2003, beginning when my father passed away during sophomore year of college. Any previous “stress management” tactics I’d utilized to deal with uncomfortable and unpredictable moments in life suddenly felt irrelevant in the face of his unexpected death. Prayer left me despondent, begging God for answers and repressing the urge to be angry with Him for allowing this to happen. Long distance running, an activity I’d considered fun and satisfying since middle school, was also something I loved to do because of and with Dad. In the months after he passed, I still looked forward to going for long Saturday trail runs in beautiful Percy Warner Park outside Nashville. But mid-run I would see something that reminded me of him- a deer grazing or a hawk perched in a tree- and my mind would wander to the marathon we always wanted to run together, and I’d be overwhelmed with emotion, and possibly less relaxed than when I arrived. Luckily, I’ve been extremely blessed to have loving friends and family, without whom I might still feel lost- faith, yoga, and running aside. Time also has a beautiful way of healing…
When I entered the Nashville Hot Yoga studio for the first time a couple months months after Dad passed, it was the first time I felt my mind grow quiet and my body melt into a state of relaxation. First of all, the room was hot and humid, the lights dim, and the postures challenging. As I slowly learned to get into and hold the poses while remembering to breath and balance demanded all of my attention and focus. Secondly, instead of my inner competitive ego pushing my body and breath to their “PR” max like when I ran, I felt the beautiful connection of my breath with the movement of my limbs and the extension of my spine. The awareness of synchronizing breath and body, the emphasis on alignment rather than perfection, and the catharsis of sweating all felt so natural. Phenomenal actually.
For the first time in months, I was able to really let go. Not until the ending Savasana lying on my back, did the tears begin to stream down my face as they blended with a sweat surrendered Corpse Pose. This time the tears were punctuated with anger and sorrow, but also with joy and relief- for the bittersweet Alpha and Omega of life- and all there was (is) to learn in its interim. They were tears of understanding that I’d never discover anything worth knowing by my own sheer willpower alone. That I needed to be stripped of my own understanding and ego, broken and rebuilt, proud yet defeated, seeing but never touching perfection, all in 90 minutes. Over and over again…
Obviously I was immediately hooked. When I ran my first marathon two years later, it was cross training combined with lots of hot yoga- rather than copious pavement pounding- that filled my training regimen. By extending the capacity of lungs and limbs, strengthening my back and abdominal muscles, and internalizing a keen “mind over matter” mantra, that 26.2 miles was easier than any other race I’d finished. And perhaps my dad was also running alongside me in spirit. No doubt. :-)
When my desire to share this love of yoga via teaching first began during nursing school, I was sure I’d end up doing Choudhury Bikram’s training so that I could have an option to teach in one of his certified studios. His training is in the form of a nine-week boot camp offered twice a year with an exorbitant price tag, and about 400 students attend. This was the certification all the teachers I’d taken classes with at the Sweatbox and Bikram Yoga of Seattle had done. These studios and teachers have changed my life, and I’m so thankful for the movement Bikram started because of these amazing people. There were also several times I wondered whether or not I could’ve endured the PNW’s dark cold winter months while balancing the emotional intensity of an advanced practice nursing immersion program while living away from family without the sweet refuge of that hot yoga studio. Likely so, but it didn’t seem that way for a while!
Without getting too political or gossipy here, I will just leave it with the fact that a) I’m very thankful for the lineage Bikram began and the many phenomenal gurus he trained (ESPECIALLY Tony Sanchez!!) who I have learned SO MUCH from over the years and b) I’m even more grateful for the fact that I was encouraged by a trusted source to learn about Tony Sanchez and his trainings. Granted, I have much more practice to go until I feel as prepared or confident as I’d like to be in front of an experienced class of yogis and yoginis, but this is a solid start! Ole, Ole, Ole!!! :)
A little background- Tony Sanchez was a student of Bikram’s in the 1970’s and managed one of his studios in San Francisco. Tony told us he came to yoga after a teenage heartbreak. He found himself looking for ways to find fulfillment after this experience. He did some research and found Chourdoroy Bikram and the demanding practice of hot yoga. Then he immersed himself…
After leaving San Francisco (about 15 years ago?), Tony said he needed time to “face the wall.” To read and research and meditate on his purpose in sharing this practice with the world. He and his lovely wife Sandy, a former student of his from San Francisco, moved to Los Cabos Mexico where Tony studied philosophy, physics, literature religion, and every other topic it seems…and where Tony developed an even more intimate personal yoga practice. Tony and Sandy, along with a number of other elite yoga studio owners and instructors, are now carrying the baton of extending Bikram’s legacy by offering a yoga practice that is designed as it was originally intended- for its sustainable and therapeutic health benefits.
It is pretty phenomenal when you consider what Tony and Sandy have achieved in a brief amount of time. They are the silver lining many have been searching for in the face of a practice that has in many circles now grown into a financially incentivized and competitive focus. I really love the premise of Tony’s (word of mouth only) marketing as defined on his website: “Tony Sanchez here. A few years ago I left the mainstream yoga world to pursue personal mastery in Mexico. Despite being featured in some of the biggest news outlets & yoga magazines, I’m now what many consider, “the world’s leading underground yoga master”. Yea he is…
The series Tony teaches incorporates some of Bikram’s 26 posture series but also many more, and they are based on the Ghosh lineage. Tony chose the Ghosh lineage for a number of reasons. Bishnu Charan Ghosh was the first yoga to incorporate cross training into his practice, not claiming that yoga alone was adequate fitness for a healthy body. He particularly advocated for weight training to help strengthen the postures.
Bishnu Ghosh mentioned three main physical practices in Hatha yoga:
At the beginning asana was done mainly for meditation. After the 10th century asana was practiced for therapeutic objectives as well as for meditative practices. Prana-yama means breath and extension. This practice can be performed as independent exercises or in combination with asana. Asana becomes more effective when pranayama is introduced. And bandha, Ghosh described bandha as “controlling power”. According to Ghosh the successful yoga practitioner can control the internal organs, respiration, digestion and circulation with the practice of bandha (Excerpt from http://www.ghoshyoga.com/)
Did I mention that not only has Tony won two international gold medals in yoga competitions, but also he is now 58 years old and can still do every posture almost perfectly? Watching Tony practice is like witnessing a prayer- body and mind in perfect communion with spirit. Tony doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk. Or masters the asana, rather.
In many ways you could also say Tony is the alter ego of Bikram’s legacy. In recent years Bikram has become known for collecting Rolls Royce’s and Rolex watches. Tony only owns the same Volkswagen Golf he bought in 1995 and doesn’t wear a watch. Bikram trains teaches using a dialogue manual which is to be repeated verbatim, encouraging students to push harder until the “ideal” posture is reached. Tony teaches the postures with us, emphasizing alignment and focused patience and tuning into information from the five senses rather than pushing toward the ideal manifestation of the poses. During class we discussed posture modifications based on injury and capacity as well as specific anatomical and physiological health benefits. Instead of being given a dialogue to memorize, Tony haf us write our dialogue based on our notes, by watching his videos, and most importantly, by regularly practicing ourselves so we can intuitively describe the poses. He calls this “experiential versus intellectual teaching.” This way we can also easily modify the postures for injury, age, pregnancy, body type, etc. Potentially the greatest insight Tony emphasized during our training is that as instructors, we must consistently cultivate our own personal yoga practice, not just practicing in other’s classes. We must experience and know how the practice impacts us on a deeper, internal level if we are to truly share yoga with others. This makes complete sense. I’m slowing building in more time for it in my daily routine.
The first few days practicing with Tony were a HUGE transition and learning curve from any yoga I’d previously practiced. “We’ve become very rigid in our quest for flexibility,” remarked Tony’s assistant instructor (another phenomenal yogi) Kevin Lincicome. It is so true!
The first big epiphany I had to encounter was how to gauge and absorb my practice without mirrors! A great lesson as it turns out. Instead of using the reflection for reference, I had to really tune into my body and feel the alignment of hips, shoulders, and back. I didn’t push any further until my balance was solid and alignment in the proper planes. The emphasis began with feeling instead of seeing my body, finding its center, and aligning the anatomical planes: saggital, coronal, and transverse. In Tony’s training he teaches that alignment and maintaining integrity of the spine are everything, no matter how deeply you can go into the posture. Even though I’m a sucker for the deepest Camel possible, Amen!!
I mentioned that Tony emphasizes yoga as a lifestyle and therapeutic exercise rather than a pursuit of posture perfection. Other comparable practices such as ballet, gymnastics, and ice-skating often resemble art rather than therapy, sacrificing the limits of the body and potential for injury in exchange for beauty and form. He continues to extrapolate on this theme daily with insight into the nature of yoga as a “therapy”:
- Yoga benefits come from holding postures in proper alignment, with constant awareness of the breath, and at least five seconds of peaceful stillness.
- We have the five senses to be able to absorb information. Without utilizing attention to the senses we move away from being able to maintain internal reflection and sensing when the body is pushing too hard.
- Strength + Flexibility = Balance. Yoga alone is not sufficient to cultivate both strength and flexibility to the best of our ability. We need cross training…
- We can learn more from the postures that challenge us the most and take the longest to do
- There is a difference between Good (extending, building) and Bad (burning) pain. Tensile vs. bone pain. Visible vs. internal injury. Let’s teach students (and ourselves) how to know the difference and avoid injury.
- Practice going into the postures from the core outward. Always prioritize the spine before thinking about fully extending the arms and legs.
- “Locking the knee”- over contraction (knee hyperextension) can lead to injury and is wasted energy that could be used to align the posture. Instead relax, align your body, and stay conscious of the spine. Make sure you regulate the breathing and go into the posture slowly to your max. you build quad muscle and avoid injury but not hyperextending a locked out knee.
- Reciprocal Inhibition- When you contract the front of the thighs and the quads, your hamstrings are going to relax in the back. You have to support the knee joint enough to prevent hyperextension of either the hamstrings or the quadriceps. Ultimately if you are hyper extending the knees on a regular basis, you can actually weaken the quads- and increase your risk of injury. Slightly bending the knees while going into the poses and during the asana if needed will help build muscle and prevent injury.
- Everybody’s different. Every Body is different. The first day Tony asked for the tallest, shortest, oldest, youngest, skinniest, and heaviest students to all stand together in the front. We are each unique with individual needs and physical capacity. We must honor our own needs and limits when practicing. “The perfect pose” does not exist for every single person. Chose positions according to the unique needs of each student.
We had many interesting conversations about the heat component of Bikram yoga- its health benefits and risks as well as the role it plays in those who are addicted to the extreme. Yoga was originally intended to be practiced in a way that heat would be generated from the internal body. Bikram yoga is practiced in a room that is 105 degrees. I for one, love the heat. I grew up in Louisiana, and Seattle is below 60 (cold for a Southern girl!) at least half the year. Even summer temps may be in the 50’s or 60’s, and the hot room is so inviting and relaxing. I mean “Ommmm”…
I’m also half Lebanese. I think this part of my physiological make-up (not to mention a Vata/Kapha dosha) makes me even more predisposed to the heat. Sometimes I think I seriously just need it. BUT (and this is huge!), practicing the Masters Core System in Los Cabos these past two weeks have been hugely liberating in many ways. First of all, it wasn’t exactly cool there, and I do sweat easily, so there was plenty of detox happening (and my body was adequately bendy). But the main epiphany I’ve taken away is that my compulsion to have to make it to a beloved Bikram studio x number of days per week or find studios when traveling is partially a mental crutch for me. Beginning in 2010, I’ve experienced several moments of conscious neuroses over making it to a Bikram class to relish the heat. This has included skipping much-needed sleep, being late for dinner with friends, and even getting in a bike accident, riding too quickly so I could make it to class in time. I mean seriously?! Although I’ve made a successful conscious effort over the past year to acknowledge, laugh at, and liberate this impulse, it feels very healthy to really know that if I can’t make it to a 90-minute class one day, cultivating my own practice in the privacy of my house or trying a new studio will always be immensely beneficial. Not to mention it might even make me a better teacher, whether it’s Bikram or another type of yoga. This is a no brainer! But my habit loop only recently acknowledged it. ;)
There are, as many of you suspect or intellectually know, plenty of health risks associated with practicing in extreme heat. These include but are not limited to over stretching and injuring muscles, ligaments, and/or tendons. Hypotonic dehydration (when proportionally more water than sodium is lost from the body), kidney stones, potential fertility concerns for men (hot tubs can impact sperm count, what what?), not to mention just fear of the heat and increased risk of fainting/cardiac episodes are all very real. Especially for those who grew up in Seattle and have a more sensitive capacity for enduring that ball of fire we see so rarely. I know a couple people whose adrenal glands start pumping cortisol just at the thought of being trapped in a 105 degree room for 90 minutes. It makes sense…
If you are going to practice for the first time or are a loyal heat lover, make sure to hydrate with electrolytes in addition to water. You can lose anywhere from 3-5 pounds of water weight per class. Given that the human body is over 2/3 water mass, this deficit impacts every organ system (particularly kidneys) as you flush toxins out of the body. This amount of heat can even result in brain swelling…make sure you hydrate before and after and tune into your body’s needs. There are lots of natural electrolyte recipes out there if you don’t want to spend a fortune or pour food dyes down your throat. I really like this one from “Wellness Mama”: http://wellnessmama.com/2575/natural-sports-drink-alternatives-recipe/
If you’d like a great read on the health benefits and risks of practicing yoga, I’d recommend The Science of Yoga by William Broad: http://www.amazon.com/The-Science-Yoga-Risks-Rewards/dp/1451641435
If you can’t commit to an entire book but are still curious, check out this literature review on PubMed: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20105062
More than anything, we should use the practice of yoga to engage our five senses and truly acknowledge what our bodies need and why. Because as Tony said, “If you never smile at your internal organs, it’s like having strangers working for you.” (Cracks me up!)
Check out this interesting article on organ-emotion links and Chinese medicine from The Way of Qigong : The Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing by Ken Cohen: http://www.sahej.com/organ-emotion_printready.html
In conclusion, Bikram’s training has been a phenomenal foundation for many people to learn, practice, and teach yoga, and I’m thankful the practice led me to Tony Sanchez. A dear mentor once asked me “How do you know when you’re ready to teach?” She didn’t have an answer for me but wanted me to consider it in preparation. I’ve had dozens of thoughts about this since our chat three years ago. But it comes down to this: it’s not about me. It is about the fact that I am a vessel, and this is a primary therapeutic tool my body needs to keep this ship running. Whether or not I convince others of the same reverence is irrelevant. But I do have a profound respect for the practice such that I’m willing to be used to help liberate others as well (not used in the way Bikram might have hoped). My capacity to see the practice as a reverence to the fact that all our bodies and minds are vessels of potential and energy to be cultivated- seems worthy enough to teach. After all, this is only a tipping point….
This trip was the first time I’ve been back to Mexico since visiting Los Cabos with our dad twenty years ago. I think we even stayed in the same Holiday Inn Resort! Although I wasn’t painting wooden parrots by the pool the entire time like our last trip. :)
“Face the wall.” Tony says that if we don’t fully understand something, we have an obligation to research and experiment first so we can teach from a mechanical understanding and science-based perspective that is health promoting. We have to “face the wall” rather than infuse guesswork into teaching. And he says we must always “train the next generation to be better than us…Everybody is different. Every body is different. Anything worthwhile has to be cultivated on a personal basis. Don’t push yourself into the perfect pose for anyone but yourself.” This is valuable advice well beyond the yoga studio and in many facets of our conscious lives.
Focus on what you want to cultivate- in your practice and your life. Is it flexibility? Is it peace and connection to your body, mind, and spirit? Is it muscular strength, lung capacity, or increased energy? Perhaps it’s balance and being non-judgmental with yourself or others. Whatever it is you intentionally and diligently focus on cultivating in your yoga practice will also begin to show up in your life. And keep in mind a quote that was shared from our co-instructor Kevin: “It doesn’t matter how deeply you go into the pose- as long as you like the person you are while you’re in it.”
And some final advice I will take to heart for myself from Tony, today and everyday: “I am an explorer in life. But I’m not so curious to learn everything about the world. I want to enjoy this life and the time I have left in it…The Universe is potential. Anything is possible- if you have belief in yourself, intention, and concentration.” Our lives are what we make of them- moment-to-moment, posture-to-posture, thought-to-thought- each and everyday.
Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest and the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. His books and teachings have changed my perspective on religion and spirituality and how we define conscious living. I thought a lot about his writings while in Mexico. In his book The Naked Now, Rohr deconstructs the holy nature of our breath:
“The Jewish name for God – Yahweh – was not spoken, but breathed. Its correct pronunciation is an attempt to imitate the sound of inhalation and exhalation. We do that every moment: our first and last word as we enter and leave the world…. The one thing we do every moment of our lives is therefore to speak the name of God. This makes it our first and our last word as we enter and leave the world.”
Our breath is everything. We are all energy- vibrations passing, flowing through, in and around other vibrations. Our awareness of our own energy and that which we give to and take from others undeniably changes our physical and emotional vibrations and the energy we put in the world (need evidence? Be amazed: http://www.heartmath.com/). Yoga creates a distance between an external stimulus and our internal response. When we learn to cultivate stillness and awareness of our own energy during yoga and take that with us into our lives, the world becomes a better place, one breath at a time.
“Yoga is like a living entity that keeps evolving according to the needs of society.” –Tony Sanchez