Of the ten days I was in Kauai, seven of them were spent in a bikram yoga studio. Prior to this I have taken one short yoga class with my coworkers as a stress-relieving-bonding-experience after second-term finals at school, and I have also read and heard enough to be familiar with some general yoga ideologies; but this experience in Kauai was my first real experience in yoga, and I was extremely impressed.
My first class was especially interesting because I had absolutley no idea what was going on. The class seemed to be about 80% full, so everyone was practically mat-to-mat on the floor. I went in with board shorts and a t-shirt, and was a little skeptical to go topless as the pale-white hairy newbie gaijin, but I made a very wise decision to ditch the t-shirt before I got started. After three minutes in a warm-up excercise, I was already dripping sweat. After ten minutes, the t-shirt would have been absolutley soaked, and I distinctly remember after twenty minutes when we did a posture that had us spread our legs and reach our heads to the floor, it felt like someone poured a glass of water down each leg of my shorts as sweat fell to the floor. Aside from summer aikido training in muggy gyms, this is by far the most I’ve ever sweat in my entire life.
My first class was on the first morning in Kauai, and I was just content to be next to my girlfriend trying this new thing called yoga. After many years of learning kata and other martial arts movements , I felt little difficulty following those around me and the instructions of the teacher. The teacher said concentrate on the breathing, so that’s what I did. This, along with my ignorance of yoga, made for a really intense and pleasurable experience that seemed to float along until the teacher caught me by surprise and said we were done. Instant zen if you will.
One really interesting aspect of this which I noticed was that at one point the teacher asked if we wanted to do three sets of a particularly tough posture. I could tell that everyone was a little less than excited to do so, but we went on with it anyway. But for me, I didn’t even realize we were doing two sets of each posture. I could care less if we did ten! Perhaps here we find the trappings of habit. In aikido class, we generally go through three rounds of practicing a particular technique with our partners, and then move on to a new technique. But if Sensei is taking longer, then everyone else has to go along with it, and sometimes it’s hard not to groan when we realize we need to spend some extra time on this. Ah, the flaws of our arbitrary mental habits.
Of course, on the first day I didn’t get all the postures right, but I had a great time which made me want to come back. After the next few classes, I became familiar with the routine, and finally began to start doing the postures correctly, which showed me how difficult yoga is. A lot of postures require you to put your arms straight and locked above your head with your shoulders beside your ears and palms flat against each other, which really tested the strength and flexibility of my shoulders. If I practiced this one small stretch in yoga until I could do this effortlessly, I would be making phenomenal progress in the flexibility of my body.
One problem I had with some of the postures though was when we were asked to balance on one leg, keeping it absolutley straight and locked-out. Now, if theres any common theme I’ve found in practicing martial arts, it’s to never lock-out your elbows and knees. So, naturally, I fought against this and kept a slight bend in my legs. But, like good yoga teachers should, they would point this out and I was repeatedly told to lock-out the knee. After a few days, I finally gave it an honest try, and I felt a huge benefit once I did. First of all, I found it to be the most challenging part of the yoga class, and in order to successfully maintain this posture required the utmost of my relaxed breathing and concentration. Secondly, I felt it open up my hamstring and lower back in a way I couldn’t feel with a bend in the knee. Here is proof that we should inhibit our bias a bit when genuinely trying something new, but also maintain our questioning mind and valuable experience. I’d love to know more about the effects of locking-out the joints in physical movement.
Along with this revelation, by the last day I realized what an amazing strength workout yoga can be. In high school I spent a lot of time in the weight room for football, but once I got to college the weight room was a million miles away. During a short stint playing club rugby, I made attempts at a return to the agro-cave of pushing heavy things around, but it just seemed to not be worth my time. Since then, strenth workouts have been drawn from movements in martial arts such as low stances and striking drills. Although I have periodically found myself in routines of self-powered strength building excercises (there has got to be an official term for this kind of excercise that escapes me now) that don’t use weights, like push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, dips, calf-raises, etc. But in yoga, I felt a strength workout superior in many ways to these other forms of muscle building. Stances requiring you to balance on one leg greatly isolated the muscles in the legs, and many of the postures had you use your upper body to pull on the lower body greatly working arm and back muscles. Here, you could challenge yourself as much as you like, maximizing the use of your muscles. The intense stretching and wrapping of the muscles must also do wonders for increasing strength.
As for meditational qualities, I found a greater immediate benefit from bikram yoga than I’ve found in martial arts. Despite “no-mind” ideologies (which I believe in whole-heartedly) when learning martial arts, there can be an awful lot to think about: your body position, your movement in and out of postures and stances, multiple martial applications, the opponent’s body, the opponent’s movement, risks and threats, your surroundings, your goal in an altercation, etc. Meditation in martial movement seems to be a sign of advanced ability. Even in static meditative postures I’ve drawn from martial arts like sitting seiza (Japanese) or practicing standing meditation (tai chi chuan), it can be difficult to find relaxed meditation because you’re doing so little and the mind can be hard to tame in such isolation. Futhermore, in both of these extremes, I’ve found it easy to forget breathing altogether, which is the key to relaxed meditation and fluid movement. In bikram yoga where there is an emphasis on breathing through postures which last between 10 and 60 seconds long, I found myself slipping easily into relaxed meditative states. The only way to make it through these postures it seems is to not worry and just breath through whatever awkward pose you’re in.
Furthermore, I may have found the greatest benefit from the simple consistency of the class. In karate, at most I had two days a week, in tai chi chuan, three, and now in aikido I have four. But these yoga classes run every single day. Ever single day for 90 minutes you can go and sweat more than you ever have in your entire life, get a great strength workout, stretch out your joints and muscles, realign inbalances within your body, find meditation, receive teaching from qualified instructors, and also very importantly, do so with a lot of other people. I think Jolene said if she paid $100 a month she could attend as many classes as she wanted, which I would consider a fair price. Now, there are some differences which makes this harder for martial arts. For instance, a consistent schedule of four days a week in high speed instense training with others is where I max out before physical and mental burnout in aikido now. For many martial arts, to practice everyday would be to put oneself in danger of chronic injury. But on my days off of formal aikido practice, I still try to spend some conscious time on aikido be it practicing techniques, going through movements, or practicing with a jo and ken. The important moral here though, is that to maximize the effects of good training, is to practice everyday.
Consistency and moderation.
This reminds me of my first tai chi chuan instructor in college. He actually had class four days a week at my university which were free for students like me! Unbelieveable considering his talent. But as it was, friday nights and saturday mornings were just impossibilities for me at the time as an 18 to 21 year old in San Francisco, so I rarely made it to more than two practices a week. Anyway, he said come to class every chance you could. You should at least practice the form everyday. If not, then at least do the twenty minute stretching routine everyday. But do something everyday: sick, tired, happy, sad, rainy, snowy, drunk, whatever. Do something everyday. It’s hilarious now looking back at myself during that period because I would disregard this advice, and think practicing seven hours one day a week would equal on hour everyday. Its sad I was so foolish, but I’m happy I can realize this most important of notions considering personal practice now.
Anyway, consistent bikram yoga = unparalleled progress.
As a final note, I loved my yoga experience precisely because there was no one particular reason for doing it! In martial arts, I find it easy to get distracted and illusioned when I convince myself of some ultimatum principle like, “I practice martial arts to be the best fighter ever,” or “I practice martial arts because it’s the single greatest thing in the world.” Well, I do practice martial arts to be able to physically protect myself or dominate another if need be, and I do so maybe because it could be my single favorite thing to do in the world, but to focus on only one of these concepts makes me become unhealthily obsessive and lose sight of all the other things I like about martial arts like relaxing, meditation, improved moods, practicing with kindred spirits, being playful.
Or how about recognizing the factor of the unknown: maybe I do martial arts for a reason I can’t explain or understand! Nothing has quite shown me this like my experience in aikido, and I find myself in a wonderful psychological state to practice yoga.
In Japan, my time is filled enough, but after I leave, I will surely be seeking out yoga classes, specifically bikram. It adds levels and variations of relaxation, meditation, self exploration, and enhanced physical ability that I haven’t found in other martial arts practice, and now I have just added another physical interest to my already full plate … shikata ga nai … it cannot be helped. I accept it as a challenge in the future to fill my life with the things I love, and peacefully reject those painful and unnecessary things that clutter my life.
I recommend everyone to try bikram yoga and see for yourself.
(final posture of class)
Hey, check this out. While I was riding a bus from Narita Airport to Tokyo, I caught a view of Mt. Fuji. From what I understand, this is quite rare, and very cool.