Monday, May 30, 2011

Bikram yoga: a love/hate story

When my brother was in grade school, he attempted nearly every sport out there to help control the constant bursts of energy that coursed through him. As a couch potato and anti-athlete, I watched with disdain, often escaping to the car to read my latest book while he exerted himself needlessly.

His basketball phase was particularly disturbing. When he had the ball, he’d run across the court with the most evil, horrifying look on his face. It was the stuff nightmares were made of. The look said “don’t mess with me or I will literally snap your head off.” The Basketball Face would haunt me for years to come. I’ve never seen him make it again, but very recently it reared its ugly head… in me.

Shortly after The Big Move, the battery on my scale died. I’m not overly fond of the thing and don’t use it often, but I do like to use it to keep myself in check now and then. As soon as I knew it was out of commission and it would be at least three trips to the store before I remembered to buy a battery because I know myself, I just started eating whatever I felt like and “trying” to get “a walk or jog” in every day.

When I finally replaced the battery, I smugly stood on it and thought to myself that everything was fine. Except apparently I’m not good at moderation without the scale because I gained eight pounds in a couple of weeks. As I leave my twenties behind (sob!) I know that these little binges will only get harder to bounce back from. No, this would take more than a walk on the beach. This would take serious measures.

And that’s how I finally talked myself into trying Bikram yoga. I’d been morbidly curious for years. For anyone confused, Bikram yoga is a system developed by an Indian guy named Bikram Choudhury that involves 90 minutes of practice in a room heated to 105-110 degrees. It always sounded like torture to me but my single experience with hot yoga last summer made me realize how amazing it feels to sweat out all the junk in your system and leave feeling refreshed and purified. The day I learned of my impressive weight gain, I looked online and found a studio near my home that offered an introductory price of 10 classes for $20… but it was only good for 14 days. If that didn’t force me to get into shape, nothing would.

In Idaho, I’d do yoga every Saturday for 60 minutes, the last 10 of which were spent in Savasana, which is resting lying down on your back. The whole time, my sweet instructor Liz would coax us through gentle poses and encourage us to only do what we could. Bikram yoga is far from Liz yoga. The moment the instructor walked through the door and called us up to our feet, we were posing and we were posing hard. Aside from one glorious 60 second break in Corpse pose halfway through, there’s no resting in Bikram. Each pose is done twice and every muscle in your body is stretched and begging for mercy.

Bikram yoga starts and ends with some really crazy breathing designed to get your system ready to have the crap shocked out of it. There are some poses I’d done before, like Chair and Triangle, and some I hadn’t, like attempting to place my head on my knee. You hold each pose for a painful 60 seconds the first set and 30 seconds the second set, the instructor talking the whole time and correcting you if so much as a pinky finger is out of place. It forces you to clear your mind because you literally can’t think of anything else or you will fall over.

After surviving my first class, I felt both terrible and amazing. I was sore and dehydrated and I wasn’t sure I’d ever go back. People told me I was crazy and I did question my own sanity. I mean, seriously, there had to be an easier way to lose a few pounds than balancing on a toe in a room that literally could be hot as hell. But I went back two days later and I did it again. And again. It never got easier, but I started to really look forward to it. A few times, I even made myself walk the 2.5 miles home after the class was over to get some extra cardio.

I started my new job and Mr. W needs the car for his work, so it got trickier to get to Bikram yoga. On the last day of my two week pass, I knew I had to go and use it one last time to get my money’s worth since I hadn’t quite taken the ten classes (really, ten Bikram classes in 14 days IS crazy). So after working for nine hours, I took the water taxi and the bus to the studio for the 6:30 class. I was tired, hungry and really didn’t think I’d survive.

To my complete surprise, I rocked it. I was able to tune out the rest of the world and focus on the poses, the stretching, the breathing and everything yoga is supposed to be about. I did crazy bends my tight hamstrings can normally only dream of, bent all the way back for Fixed Firm Pose and came into full Camel Pose which never happens. Finally seeing the results of my classes motivated me and I pushed myself even harder.

During Eagle Pose, as I crossed my left leg over my wobbly right and clasped my hands together, balancing, I checked the mirror as instructed to check my form. The look on my face caught me off guard and sent me toppling out of the pose. It was the Basketball Face plastered across my normally happy mug. I didn’t understand it when I’d seen it on my brother 18 years ago, but I sure as hell understood it that day. It wasn’t a look of “don’t mess with me or I will snap your head off.” It was a look that meant, “I am focusing and powering through this physically challenging time. My muscles are killing me, but I will continue and I will power through it. This is me realizing I can do anything. Also, don’t mess with me.”

I finished strong that day and to my great surprise, I left feeling fantastic and actually thinking maybe I will attempt Bikram yoga again one day. I expected to simply be relieved that it was over—and I was!—but also accomplished and proud of myself. If only I’d realized when I was younger that I am actually fully capable of whatever I set my mind to, maybe I would’ve moved my ass then and I wouldn’t have chronically tight hamstrings that are such a hindrance to my yoga now. Live and learn.

Moral of the story? Bikram yoga isn’t so bad, but it does take mental commitment and more water than you think you possibly need. Also, we’re so much stronger than we know. All of us. Whether it’s Bikram yoga or anything else we want to do, we really can and I wish we’d realize it more often.

Three pounds down, five to go…

Sunday, May 22, 2011

How do you measure a year?

I woke up this morning feeling like I was forgetting something… aside from the fact that I was forgotten in the Rapture which appears to have only claimed Randy “Macho Man" Savage. No, today was significant. And I quickly realized that one year ago today was the day we left our home for The Great Road Trip.

525,600 minutes. Like the song from Rent says, that’s how you measure a year. And what a difference a year makes. One year ago this morning I got out of bed knowing I was going to take one of the biggest risks of my life. With my best friend in the world beside me, I hugged my dog goodbye and climbed into Butters the van and headed east to explore the country. I had a feeling nothing would ever be the same, but I never could have imagined the changes that would follow.

People travel for many reasons, one of them being new perspective. We certainly got more perspective than we bargained for on that trip. I often wonder, at what exact point was it that I knew we were going to leave Idaho and change everything for sure? Was it that long stretch of Kentucky freeway when the Rascal Flatts song made me break down and cry? Was it when we were having our drunken knock down drag out fight on the streets of Nashville and we realized that no amount of time together is enough to truly figure each other out? Was it one of the 500 times I had to drag my six bags of stuff up cheap motel stairs and I realized I was entirely too attached to a bunch of meaningless crap I'd filled my house with?

The signs were there long before we left. Mr. W was miserable at his job, miserable at school and I was beginning to think he was miserable with me. I went from having the occasional wine with dinner (and even more occasional drunken binge) to going out whenever I could and getting tanked, in part to cover up the fact that I felt dead inside and I didn’t even know why. I had a great life, after all. It just wasn’t my life anymore. We weren’t doing well there but we had blinders on. It took the culture shock of a cross country trip to remove them.

There are days when I long to be back on the road. Those are the days when it gets hard, when I realize how much mess we still have to clean up and how far we have to go before we can really relax. During the trip, we were too busy taking it all in, planning the next leg of our journey and experiencing as much as we could to even think about the future. Sometimes I miss the simplicity and the excitement of whatever discoveries we were about to make. And I miss the places we got to see all too briefly. I miss Portland, Maine, Plymouth, Massachusetts and Nashville, Tennessee. I crave strawberry wine from Memphis and I still wish I’d gotten to experience the Maid of the Mist boat ride at Niagara Falls.

When we returned, shit got pretty real and we were launched into seven months of crazy agony, the details of which only Mr. W and I will ever fully know. Luckily, I had some amazing friends (both old and new) who knew just when to swoop in and distract us when we were about to break down. I am blessed. I had an amazing life partner and some angels to help me through the scary times. Some people aren’t so lucky. I sincerely hope I never have to endure what we did again but if I do, now I know I’ll be strong enough to face it.

And while you couldn’t pay me enough to go back and re-live the months after the road trip, the trip itself made it worth it. When the pictures flash by on our digital frame, Mr. W look at each other and smile. The fact that we ended up here in Seattle makes it even more worth it. The last year has taught me the true meaning of “it will all be worth it in the end.”

The future is no longer scary. It’s more undefined for me than it ever has been and I look forward to living it and figuring out each step. Things that used to give me great anxiety no longer bother me. Now I understand that things I want at 25 probably won’t be what I want at 35 or 45. And that’s OK. The point of life isn’t to figure it all out, it’s to be happy and maybe make others happy too. And I have the last year to thank for that invaluable realization.

How do you measure a year?

In daylights?

In sunsets?

In midnights?

In cups of coffee?

In inches? In miles?

In laughter?

In strife?

How about love?

Measure in love.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Why bother?

It always happens at the same place.

I’ll be chugging along on my near-daily 3.2 mile run (and by “run” I mean slow spastic jog for one minute and walk for three, then repeat) along Alki Avenue when I’ll hit the spot between Marine drive and 56th where I smell the intoxicating scent of Spud’s Fish and Chips frying cod and potatoes. And I’ll slow down and I’ll look ahead of me at the ground I still have to cover. And I’ll think about the rest of my day and how I’ll invariably end up treating myself to a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or delicious cheap eats at a happy hour now located a mere block from my home.

And I’ll think, why bother?

I know the odds. They are not in my favor. I’m going to battle my weight and my fitness level my entire life. Genetics are against me, the environment is against me with its numerous chemicals that make me fat and diseased, and quite frankly, my taste buds and enormous appetite are against me. I love to eat and I hate to exercise. So I slow down, I think, why bother? and I contemplate heading for home and stopping to get a Starbucks frappuccino on my way. Because, screw it. Right?

But then I remember how much better I’ve felt since I started working out and eating better. I remember how it saved my life. I remember how good it feels to go shopping and buy a size 6 (or 4 or 8, depending on the brand) instead of just buying what fit. I think of how I can run up the stairs to our apartment without losing my breath (I avoid the elevator like SELF magazine instructs) and how I’ve actually developed a taste for things like quinoa, hummus and kale.

And I turn up my music and keep running (ok, jogging and walking). Because I might battle these last ten pounds my entire life, but it’s better than battling 100 and never having any energy. And though I’d never (ever) wear leggings as pants, it’s nice to have the option.

There’s always a battle for everything we want. And the truth is, some battles we may never win. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give them one hell of a fight.

The other night I was texting a good friend who is hoping to break into the film industry. He’s talented, great behind a camera, and driven. Like me, he’s chosen to pursue a path where very few succeed… and where success doesn’t even guarantee wealth, fame, or any huge payoff you’d think you’d get after busting your ass for years for no pay. We were talking about how stupid we are.

“Some days I think to myself, ‘Why couldn’t I have always wanted to be a nurse? A respected job with steady, good pay. WTF?’” I said.

“Right? Or a dentist?” he replied. “My dumb ass won’t even play the lottery because the odds are too low… yeah, good call on the career choice.”

The easiest thing for either of us would be to give up. Technically, I can call it a game and say I’ve succeeded if I want. I’m a copywriter, which means I get paid to write. I’ve been published. I’ve been paid. I’ve been to writers’ conferences; I’ve learned a thing or two. Technically, I wrote a novel and half of a memoir. That’s more than most aspiring writers ever get.

But I won’t give up. Maybe it’s sheer stupidity or my stubborn nature, but I want to see my books make it to print. The journey is ridiculously harrowing and terrible and even if they do make it to the bookshelves, I won’t retire from them or probably even get a new car. Why bother? Because seeing my work completed, whether it means I become a household name or even just gather a tiny group of fans of my writing, will mean everything. So I keep going in anticipation of the satisfaction high. I am quite certain my friend does the same.

Take parking. I’m a decent driver meaning I probably won’t cut you off, go 20 over the speed limit or hit any pedestrians (though I’ve come close). But parking is a bitch. If there are no lines, I will blow it. I will hit the curb and then park so far away from it I’m likely to be sideswiped. I hate backing into spaces and you can just forget about me parallel parking.

Alas, our reserved parking spot at our apartment complex lies at a difficult angle. It’s far easier to get out of the garage if you back the car in. This gave me severe anxiety at first. I cussed, sweated, prayed, and freaked out until I backed it in successfully only to realize I was about 5 inches from the van next to me. I still get nervous and drive around the block if anyone else is around because I hate being watched.

 But over the last week, I’ve noticed backing into the space is almost second nature to me now. I approach the garage, crank the wheel, back it up like a champion and then get out, surprised that no one is around to high five me for this truly trivial accomplishment. Congrats, me. I may pass the drivers’ test they give to 16-year-olds.

I get a similar level of arrogance in yoga class, when I’ve hopped around holding my foot for 45 of the 60 seconds of the pose before I finally steady myself and get into proper tree pose only to look around and see the people next to me who are twice my age twisted like pretzels.

But, though proper parking and yoga poses aren’t quite as difficult as writing books and avoiding obesity, they do give me hope. They show me that all things truly do improve with practice and that I can now handle them because I didn’t give up. It makes me think that, just maybe, I will realize my writing dreams and just stay at my happy weight already if I don’t give up.

Why bother? Because every single good thing in your life is worth fighting for. Everything.
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