Grow us slowly, persistently, and deeply, Lord, to be people who watch without distraction, listen without interruption, and stay put without inclination to flee. Amen.
-Book of Common Prayer
Last spring I attended a Bryan Kest workshop at City Yoga in Indianapolis. In the morning he led me and about 150 other people in a power yoga class. By the end of the two and a half hour class, the windows were fogged, the thermometer read ninety degrees, my mat was a slip and slide, and my clothes were soaked. The afternoon’s class was another two and a half hour class called LSD—Long, Slow, and Deep. He compared it to now-popular yin yoga classes. “Don’t worry,” Bryan said. “We won’t get off our butts the whole class.”
I love fast, intense, sweaty yoga classes. With my doshas of vata (movement) and pitta (transformation and fire) I’m happiest when feeling The Burn, because I have Achieved. This self-satisfaction is only one part though. Managing the anxiety is another. For a long time, this burning—running miles, cycling, plyometrics, kickboxing—was how I incinerated the emotions that made me weep and throw things. For a period of time, it was one part of an intricate formula that kept me from hitting myself.
The hard workouts in my life have value, but I’m learning I can’t do them all the time. Ayurveda supports this, saying vata and pitta types need more sitting to calm down, swimming to cool off, meditation to center everything. But that’s not my natural tendency, and often I let the fire burn me up and the wind blow the ashes away. Occasionally an old hip injury from track flares up, and it’s only been in the last year that I won a five-year battle with plantar fasciitis (probably by not overtraining so much). Initially yoga was how I balanced my hard workouts—until I figured out how to make yoga a hard workout too. “Can a pitta go to hot Bikram classes?” Tiffany, an ayurvedic teacher asked her class at a workshop. “Yes. But keep in mind it will probably only be pittas in there, and they’re the last ones who need it.” Dosha, incidentally, can be translated as “to spoil,” and like an overly salty dish or too-sweet dessert, it is the too-muchness, the excess of our doshas that Ayurveda says causes problems. I have needs and I also have wants. My wants are closely linked to my ego, which is not very wise but is very convincing.
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Despite Bryan’s intense morning class, I was irritable by the time I returned to the studio. Too many emails. No good coffee shops. Too much unfinished grading, and the kicker: my mat was still damp. As I squelched back into place in the studio, Bryan handed us straps, mentioning that one time when he taught an LSD class, a guy walked out yelling, “F*ck you, Bryan.” I didn’t really believe him though because this was a stretching class, and I have this bad habit of believing if my body can handle it, my mind can too.
Once we were on our backs, stretching one leg at a time overhead, I understood that student. In an ashtanga or vinyasa class, we hold stretches for five to ten breaths; in a hatha class, maybe a minute or two. This stretches the surface layer of the muscle, and afterwards everything pulls back to normal. In yin yoga, the instructor has students hold the stretches for three to five minutes, sometimes even as long as ten. The time spent in the pose takes the stretch beyond muscle, making an imprint into tendons and ligaments. In the moment that imprint doesn’t feel good. After a minute I was fidgeting. By two minutes I felt the pose branding my muscles. By three minutes, when Bryan called time, I whispered thank God—until he had us extend the leg wide and hold it another three minutes.
My brain flailed in hamstring-stretch shock. To feel muscular intensity while moving helps keep the brain engaged on not falling over. To feel muscular intensity when you can’t move is to look at a highway in a desert, or outer space. There is nothing to pull the attention away from the internal experience, and the brain seizes up, says nope. Nope nope nope. Instructors like Bryan know this, and coach their students to focus, as always, on the breath. The practice of sitting and watching (the yogic philosophy of Svadhyaya, or self-study) has a captive audience in yin yoga. And it is a hard practice to learn.
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Yin yoga is a way to detox the muscles, meaning it’s also an emotional detox. Many yoga instructors believe that our muscles, especially our hips, store strong emotions and certain stretches release them. This flood of released toxins sends my brain into panic during the process. Last week after a hitchy day of work and a mounting to-do list, I did an online yin class while on the verge of a panic attack. I started crying during the first hamstring stretch, then later in pigeon and still later in a wide-legged forward fold. When I began practicing ten years ago, this happened a few times, but since I no longer punch the floor in pigeon or hyperventilate in wheel, I thought I’d released these emotions for good. Apparently the emotions just got better at hiding. Ayurveda also says it’s a crime against wisdom to deny the body certain things, like hunger, sleep, or in this case, tears. I used to turn sadness into anger and slap myself; later, after I left a bruise, I just went numb. That doesn’t make the toxins behind the sadness go away though. Alone in my red-tinted bedroom, I surrendered to the pose and let the tears out.
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After Bryan had us finish nine minutes of various hamstring stretches on the right leg, he asked us to pause on our backs and notice the difference in the two legs. “One’s fully cooked, right?” he said. We replied with sighs of pleasure. Maybe that was the point where I noticed my irritation was gone, where the agony of the muscles and brain and tendons and mind chatter and lack of calorie burning became valuable. We pulled our left leg into our chests, ready to begin. “Do you hear that sound?” he said. The room was silent, but something was different. “That’s the sound of your ego running out the door.” We laughed and extended our left leg, no longer feeling apprehension or panic, but instead feeling something much closer to wisdom, something much closer to peace.