The idea to attend 15 yoga classes in five days came to me when I had to miss one of my regular twice-weekly yoga sessions. As I looked at my instructor's schedule to find a make-up class, I noticed he taught 15 classes between Monday and Friday. I had the sudden urge to try them all back to back. This idea excited me. Jeffery Taylor is a superb yoga teacher. He changes the flow of poses each week, and his calming, settled presence always offered a welcome respite from the rushed hustle of life in New York City. I had never attempted anything like this concentration on yoga, and I wasn't sure how my body and mind would respond. Would I enjoy all that yoga or get sick of it? Would I experience a body breakthrough or suffer a body break down? In the end, I got a lot more than I bargained for.
I've always treated yoga as a means to an end, a way to remain flexible and to counter the stress on my body from marathon and Ironman training. I've loved endurance challenges ever since running a marathon with my father at age 13. I'm now 44 and over the years have competed in many marathons, Ironman triathlons, multi-week cycling trips and ultra marathons. I've run across the Grand Canyon and back in a day and cycled for 26 hours straight without sleep. Yoga has served as a counter to the grueling toll of training for these events and probably prevented me from suffering any repetitive stress injuries over the years.
Given my interest in endurance challenges, I suppose it was inevitable that I would look for a way to test my limits with yoga. My goal-oriented Western mind, always in search of quantifiable achievements and challenges to overcome, had found its next test. My instructor, Jeffery, infuses his classes with readings that emphasize letting go and how yoga is about the study of balance. When I told him my plans, he smiled and suggested, "How about simply setting a goal of practicing every day instead?" I told him that I thought my idea was more interesting, and he just shrugged and said, "Well, you are an Ironman."
I mentioned my plans, which I dubbed "Yoga Extravaganza," to a number of friends and family members. Most of them seemed genuinely perplexed by the goal. "Why exactly are you doing this again?" was a common response. A few others added, "Aren't you missing the whole point of yoga?" One of my friends, Alison Berna, an entrepreneur and adventurous mother of three who has rock climbed barefoot with Bedouins in a Jordanian desert and practiced yoga for many years, declared that she would join me. And so it was that I started class number one at the New York Sports Club on 86th Street and Lexington Avenue with about 20 other students and Alison by my side.
In an unspoken, but unmistakable, reference to my goal, Jeffery started the class with a short talk on the yogic concept of tapas, a Sanskrit term meaning "heat," but more generally defined as "self-discipline." In yoga, it is a student's tapas that gets him to class every week. "Or multiple times a day," Jeffery said with a meaningful look my way. Reading from Rolf Gates' Meditations From the Mat, he continued: "Years of constant practice are not built on rigid self-discipline. They are built on the desire to know more."
As we began class with a sun salutation to warm up our bodies, I was nervous. I still had three yoga classes in front of me that day and wondered if I should pace myself. Would I run out of energy and be unable to complete the later classes? Adding to the pressure, I glanced over at Alison and noticed that her poses were far superior to mine. When she jumped forward out of downward dog, she paused in the air in a handstand, her legs balanced and unmoving over her head, then slowly lowered them to the ground before folding in half with her forehead on her shins. I, on the other hand, wobbled a bit as I hopped forward and, bending over with legs straight, felt the scar tissue in my left hamstring from an old college injury. Only the tips of my fingers brushed the ground. My lower back was tight, as were my hips, no doubt from all the running and cycling. But I was exuberant at the end of class, bragging to Jeffery that I felt great.
Class number two, a one-hour vigorous power yoga session, went by quickly, and I felt strong and energized throughout. My shirt was dripping by the end, and I noticed that Alison didn't seem to have sweated. At the start of class number three, Jeffery gave the same talk about tapas, emphasizing the importance of inquiry and encouraging the students to keep a gratitude journal, writing down five different things each day to be grateful for. "The secret to a gratitude journal is that you cannot repeat the same thing. Each day must have five unique examples."
Jeffery talked again about tapas at the start of the fourth class, emphasizing that, rather than self-discipline, we should think of the concept as an expression of an "enthusiasm for health." By this point, I was beginning to feel something wholly unexpected -- a sense of euphoria. Unlike the final miles of a marathon, which is full of suffering, taking multiple yoga classes in one day was not wearing me down. I felt stronger with each class and wanted to do more. I sensed that Alison had known all along that this would be the case. Her final handstand of the day looked as stable and relaxed as her first.
When I woke up on Yoga Extravaganza's second day, I thought: "I'm grateful for my wife and kids. I'm grateful for Jeffery, for Alison. I'm grateful that my body is strong enough to do all this yoga. And I'm grateful that this week isn't over yet!"
In class number five, Jeffery repeated his description of tapas as an "enthusiasm for health" and read from the same passage that emphasized practice built on a desire to know more rather than rigid self-discipline. While holding a deep lunge, I could feel some fatigue in my legs from the previous day's workouts, but the discomfort was almost pleasurable. And by class number six, I noticed a measurable increase in flexibility. My hips and lower back were opening up. Instead of fingertips, my knuckles were now on the floor when I bent over with straight legs.
As the week progressed, Jeffery continued to talk about tapas, Alison continued to impress me with her strength and grace, and in each class I felt like there was no place I'd rather be. As I held pose after pose, breathing deeply, exploring the limits of my flexibility while attempting to accept the discomfort and empty my mind of distractions, I experienced a kind of letting go, as if I were disappearing into the mat. The feeling was remarkably calming. Jeffery talked about "doing yoga off the mat," explaining that the same sense of peace and connectedness you feel while doing poses in class often persists and, for some, begins to affect how they behave at work and at home. I knew what he meant. I had been in a good mood all week. While engaged in common daily tasks -- washing dishes, walking my daughter to school, reading in bed next to my wife -- I felt an overwhelming sense of appreciation for each of these moments as gifts to treasure.
In class number 12, Jeffery quoted Lao Tzu -- "true words seem paradoxical" -- and described tapas in a new way: the will to achieve spiritual health. Quoting Meditations From the Mat, he read, "Tapas begins with a desire to be whole, to come home. Tapas becomes yoga when it is enacted without attachment to results." I was, however, quite attached to my results, relishing a series of body breakthroughs. My palms now rested flat on the floor when I bent over with straight legs. I was able to balance on one leg, arms bound around the other leg as I straightened it out to the side of my head in "bird of paradise," reaching my foot higher than ever before.
I mulled over Jeffery's emphasis on letting go of an attachment to results. An image came to mind that made me feel silly: Turning yoga into an endurance challenge was like a child attempting to alter the ocean currents by punching waves. Something else was occurring beyond my gradual increase in flexibility. I was beginning to feel a sense of wonder and curiosity about what would happen as I continued to explore yoga.
When Alison and I stood on our mats at the start of the final class of our Yoga Extravaganza, I felt a wave of melancholy. Although the week was not yet over, I already missed it. As Jeffery encouraged the students to empty our minds and settle into the moment, I was distracted by a simple, powerful desire: I did not want this to end. My breathing became shallower, my heart rate sped up, and I felt anxiety spread where before there had been a calm sinking into the moment.
Then I began to think about what Jeffery had been telling me over and over. Rigid self-discipline and an attachment to results had been a critical part of my endurance training and had brought me to each of the classes that week, but something else seemed to be taking over: a spirit of inquiry. Completing 15 yoga classes in five days was not a race with a finish line and medal to mark the accomplishment. It was the beginning of an exploration. I felt like a child looking anew at the world and its fascinating possibilities. As if on cue, Jeffery read a passage to the class that ended: "We stand once more as a child in the world."
At the end of class number 15, I felt strong, flexible and invigorated. I smiled at the prospect of living with gratitude and the desire to know more. I felt a sense of accomplishment, the ego boost of completing a physical challenge -- and then I let it go.
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