Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions.
It's no secret to many of you that, up until a year or so ago, I was entwined in a sweaty six-year love affair with a man we'll call Mr. B.
Mr. B was challenging; he was athletic; he was intense and confident and charismatic and demanding, and he cracked my heart (and my hamstrings) open over the course of our love-hate relationship. He was addictive in that way the best love affairs are: I'd drag myself out of bed in the early morning darkness just to squeeze in a few hours with him before heading out to our respective days; I'd save my evenings for him, twilight-times smelling of sweat and breath and lycra, sometimes even rushing out early from happy hour with friends to make our regularly scheduled date. He was a drug, a fix, a hit. He was my sun, my moon, my Ardha Chandrasana like no other; he bent me and moved me, stretched me and shot me down, and yet every day, I came crawling back to him for more, because the high was so good, the rush so great, the shattering so profound, the post-sweat glow so delicious.
But then things, well, they kind of changed. I soured a bit on B. I realized that ultimately he and I, the darling "we," our paths diverged; our priorities differed. He was all flash, all flair, no substance, no spirit; I wanted simplicity and sincerity, he wanted money and majesty. So in spite of my still-powerful attraction, I started looking elsewhere.
And in the empty space that emerged after Mr. B's luster began to fade, another man stepped in. Let's call him Vinny. And, ohhh, Vinny! He was substance and authenticity where B was flimsy and artificial; he was mindfulness and contentment where B was oblivious and money-hungry. And he sang. And he danced. And he sweat. And he cracked things open, in different ways, in different places. And he had a bangin' sense of rhythm. And he did things for my strength that I didn't know were possible. And he made space for philosophy, and intellect, and spirit, and service.
And I was hooked. Big-time. Gone.
But B remained. And sometimes, when Vinny wasn't looking, I'd sneak in a quickie with Mr. B, for old times' sake, because, well, honestly, I hadn't forgotten him. Craved him. In spite of the fading glow, he was never far from my mind. The people who change you fundamentally, the ones who drive you in ways you've never been driven, those few-and-far-between types who meet you where you've never been met before, well, they tend to stick around in your consciousness, and it's rare that we're ever wholly able to sit quietly with the thought of them again. Even when another beloved steps in and fills the space they once claimed in our hearts.
We've all been there. Loved, lost, lusted after two (wo)men at once. Two very different people, two fabulously complementary people, two people who cracked us open, stretched us, challenged us, in different ways, new ways, exciting ways. And there's nothing wrong with this, no? Because if there's one thing we've learned in this whole being alive thing, painfully but oh-so-crucially, for most of us, at one time or another, it's that it's not fair (nor realistic) to expect one person to fulfill our every need. Whether that's true for a relationship or for a favorite food or for a type of music doesn't so much matter; what does matter is that we remember that the best way to kill a great connection, or to lose our taste for a certain food, or to burn out on a certain style of music, is to project upon it all of our deepest hungers, needs, desires, cravings, until we're so satiated with that One that we forget so many other lights flicker around us.
And it's really no different when we talk about yoga.
That great sage Blanche Devereaux, of Golden Girls fame, said it best:
ROSE: Is it possible to love two men at one time?
BLANCHE: Set the scene. Have we been drinking?
"Mr. B," of course, is Bikram yoga; and "Vinny" is his more fluid and flexible friend Vinyasa. And I've danced the tango with these two dudes quite intensely over the last year, flirting with both, trying to keep one foot in each camp, stashing a toothbrush in each's bathroom cabinet just in case I happen to spend the night. It's nearly a year now since my own daily practice shifted from a primarily Bikram-based series to a generally heated vinyasa flow, and I've seen a difference, to be sure, in my body and my mind, my spirit and my community. The changes don't need to be labeled "good" or "bad," per se; rather, just different: stronger arms, better inversions, a blessed return to my dance and music roots; painful wrists, shorter hamstrings, a practice less solitary and more communal.
And as with muscle pain in a long-held asana, we just notice these differences, without judging; we notice them, and say, "Isn't that interesting?", and carry on with what we're doing, making changes as necessary. A yoga practice is a constantly-evolving organism; it shifts, it meanders, it backtracks, it leaps forward; it's a dance of its own kind, a push-pull, a stretch, a contraction, not unlike the expansion-contraction we see in a core/backbend series, or in an intimate moment with someone new when we bloom from clenched and fearful to open and tender.
After all, just like people and personalities, there are so very many types of yoga. Just when we think we're beginning to master one type or another (as in the Bikram series, which, after six years of daily repetition, let's be honest, had begun to feel robotic), we fall blessedly into another, are challenged, hurled, sometimes kicking and screaming, into new avenues of discovery. And I so believe that we come upon these new alleyways and attitudes only and ever when we're oh-so-ready for the opening. And then the new soreness comes, and the new muscles creak and crack and christen themselves, and we are reminded, once more, that the beginner's mind serves us best whether we're experts or absolute newbies.
Lately, so very invested am I in teaching and practicing vinyasa, I've been rethinking all the negative Mr. B talk and realizing how much can actually be salvaged from series, how the practice in fact doesn't need to be relegated to the trash bin of over-commodified, mindless, gymnastics-style yoga. Maybe it's because my wrists have been complaining of overuse, and I've been forced to return to more of Bikram's heavily-standing-series oriented practice in the interests of resting them. Maybe it's because I'm noticing my hamstrings shortening and my spine tightening without the daily 105-degree practice to keep them as supple as they've been. Maybe it's just because I miss the sweat-like-no-other that you get in a Bikram class.
But I've realized, there are things to celebrate about Mr. B's convoluted and problematic and probably physiologically messed-up 26-posture series. And that maybe the best love affairs - like the crazy-in-love state I've been living in of late in regard to the beloved, beautiful, breath-taking, blissed out, badass vinyasa practice that gets me up early in the morning and keeps me up late at night and occupies my thoughts and my breath and my body and my mind, so not unlike a human lover that it kind of blows my mind - well, maybe these best love affairs are in fact kept holy, living, thriving, growing by sprinkling in a bit of this, a splash of that, to keep things fresh, to keep them spicy, to keep us hungry.
And yet, restless nomad that I am, this long-term love affair with Mr. B's not going anywhere, and as long as he now-and-then guest stars in my newer liaison with Vinny himself, ours just might be a perfect open marriage. Because aren't the best relationships the ones where we're free to move and roam and grow and bloom, explore, expand, take a little of this, a little of that, without fear or clinging or attachment? And when you go back to that lover after being away, isn't the reconnection that much sweeter? I know that, in purely sensory terms, I hear the music and feel the breath and enjoy the dance of a vinyasa class a million times more when I've been away traipsing around with Bikram for a few days. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, eh, fearless travelers?
So here, without apology, but rather, in celebration, are a few reasons NOT to throw the Bikram baby out with the sweaty bathwater:
- Bikram yoga gives you a sweat like no other. Seriously. The best detox you can want. If you're a sucker for the sweat, if you want that big intense cleanse, if you drank too much last night, if you're just wanting a symbolic letting-go of all the heavy mental or emotional shit you're carrying around like a yoke, well, it's the best way to get that, in 90 minutes or less.
- It's reliable. You know you're going to get a certain set of postures in a certain amount of time in a certain amount of effort. And when you've only got 90-min a day and really want to make sure you get in a thorough spine-strengthening series along with some deep hamstring work and some serious heart-opening backbends, it can't be beat. Vinyasa classes are great, so great, so dynamic and fluid and musical and lovely, but depending on the particular class on a particular day taught by a particular teacher, you might get a lot of arm balances, you might get a lot of lunges, you might get a lot of Warriors, you might get a lot of one-leg balancing poses, or you might have a core field day. It's hard to predict. And when you're craving just that basic series, it can be exactly the fix you need.
- Bikram's an excellent antidote for over-worked wrists. Maybe it's just because mine are particularly shattered right now, after too many eager hours every day spent in Down Dog and Parsva Bakasana, but sometimes a girl needs a rest, and the Bikram series offers intense standing work that won't put any additional pressure on your wrists. Even better, many of the grips are perfect counterstretches for worn-out wrists. Go for it next time you're feeling queasy about putting 90-minutes' worth of weight on your already-fragile wrists.
- It offers deep, long holds that counterbalance the fluid shorter vinyasa holds. My hamstrings always sigh in relief when I slip into a Bikram class and give them the long forward folds and Natarajasanas that they crave. There's really something to be said for approaching an asana and staying there. Isn't that what yoga's all about? The just staying, when we want to leave, to flee, to run, to fold, to escape? Returning to a Bikram class after several straight days' vinyasa practice always reminds me in a new, fresh way how much of the practice is just the staying with heat and struggle and pain and learning to breathe through it. Whether that's in a 60-second Camel Pose or in a 2-minute Paschimottanasana doesn't matter so much; it's the staying, the breathing, the being there, that really stretches both the body AND the mind.
- There's no one right way. Mr. B teaches one thing (lock your knee!), Vinny teaches another (don't open your hip!), Annie Anusara teaches another, Ivan Iyengar teaches another. That's cool. That's the whole point. Listen, take it in, let the practice be your teacher, let your body notice what's different. Glean from it what you may. Make it your own. That's your practice.
Love is a many-splendored thing. (Or so the song says.) Yoga, too, for those of us who love it, can be splendid in so many more ways than we ever think possible. Practices change. Passions shift. This is why we watch it, and roll with it, and come back to the mat every day. Because who knows what revelations might offer themselves up to us, there, groggy-eyed, hung-over, aching, creaky, aging, opening, softening, strengthening?
We arrive here, now, in this ragged moment; the living body breathes, and in the process, we exhale what we no longer need, inhaling the new, the fresh, the bright, the unknown. Even when that unknown looks like Bound Ardha Chandrasana or tastes like the sweat dripping into your eyeballs as you fold over into Prasarita Parsvakonasana.
We practice loving the unknown, the sweat in the face, the ache in the belly. And that little love becomes a bigger love, and we rest in it, fall into it, eventually living in, breathing out, this big bad beautiful universal love.
And who the hell doesn't want a little piece of that?