Friday, December 21, 2007

Power Yoga: Part 1

Everywhere I went the search continued. Four years in California. I looked in the sea. Seven in Colorado. I looked in the mountains. In 1974 I even traveled to India for six months and looked there in the cities and the mountains. The pretext for the trip was to cover -- as a photojournalist for East West Journal -- Kumbha Mela, a huge spiritual festival held only once every twelve years on the banks of the Ganges River. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus from all over India make a pilgrimage to Hardwar, a small town north of Delhi, and all try to bathe in the Ganges at the same auspicious moment. I was in India to search. Photographing and writing about monks, mystics, and myriads of spiritual sojourners was just a way to validate my own ethereal wandering.

One evening in the swarming marketplace of Bombay, weeks before I was due in Hardwar for Kumbha Mela, I was hard at work on my search. In Bombay at night, small fires of burning dried buffalo dung are omnipresent, and a hazy yellow-orange curtain hangs over the churning sea of night life. The smell is intoxicating. And the dark, turbulent mystery of a Far Eastern city at night was irresistible to a young photojournalist.

I was so curious to find what I was looking for. I was so innocent. When those two polite gentlemen in the open-collared white shirts and loose jackets, with armloads of books on their hips, wanted to talk politics, I thought it might lead me to the answer. I was compliant. They said all Americans only wanted to stay in the Taj Mahal Hilton and have toilet paper and sheets and didn't have a clue about Indian life.

That's not me! Let me show yousome of us care, some of us are down-to-earth, I thought. "Let's sit in this brightly lit tea stall," they said. I'm thinking, Gee, yes, let's sit in this quaint little shop with the pictures of Lord Ganesha, the elephant god, on the walls and discuss the socioeconomic implications of Third World countries visited by First World tourists! Yes! Almost as good as Paris caf├ęs in the thirties with Chopin and Liszt.

When the picture of Ganesha and the clock next to him started to melt visually down the wall, I realized instantly I was in trouble. As a voice audibly said, "Get out of here now!" I jumped up, knocked over my chair, and lurched out the door. I did get out, barely. Even as I escaped into the taxi, which miraculously appeared out of nowhere in front of the tea stall, a hand reached out unsuccessfully toward the cab door to follow me into the covering darkness of the backseat. The cab pitched forward and we bumped off toward my destination. Where was this search to end?

I sat all night on a veranda overlooking the Sea of Bombay, in shock. Searching the string of pearl lights along the harbor, encircling the city, I wondered what in the hell I was looking for. I watched the lights melt and drain into the sea and then rebirth themselves as fireworks. What was in that lime drink those men insisted I drink instead of chai, the ubiquitous tea served in India? And the voice I heard? What was that, and where did it come from? Perhaps it was Lord Ganesha the Elephant, patron of travelers, and favorably regarded in Hindu mythology as the remover of obstacles. Alone, out at night, in Bombay? Are you serious? What was I thinking? I wasn't thinking. I was looking for God.

God had very nearly let me get offed that night. It never fully dawned on me until I returned to New York City five months later that I had been drugged, almost kidnapped, and very nearly ended up a casualty of the white slave trade. I came within microseconds of disappearing off the face of the known earth. Things never seem real till you live them. You can cry and sympathize and shake your head, but whether it's a movie or TV news about a hijacking, a bombing, or an earthquake in San Francisco, it isn't real. It isn't real till you feel it, smell it, taste it, live it.

What was I looking for that night in Bombay? The same thing I had been looking for as long as I can remember. The same thing all of us seek in one way or another. The "answer" to life, whatever that might mean. The "truth." The reason for living, dying, or being "here" at all. What is the point to it all? I guess I expected to turn a dark corner and stumble upon a soul -- preferably a good-looking male, someone like Christ or Buddha -- who would materialize a couple of bananas and show me the secret to life.

Well, it didn't take long to realize that if what you are looking for is someone to pull out a couple of wrist watches from his sleeve, then that is what you will find, and that being impressed with magic tricks is a serious deterrent to the genuine search for truth. Finding the truth takes hard work. I finally found what I was looking for in February of 1981 in New York City.

From California to Colorado

As a philosophy and comparative religion major at Syracuse University in the early sixties, it seemed only fitting for me to move to the West Coast for the early seventies. It was the early days of the human potential and New Age movements, and California was the epicenter. I was taking pictures and working as a biofeedback researcher in Los Angeles, studying the brain-wave patterns of meditation. One day while walking across the UCLA campus, where I was taking an anatomy and physiology course, I literally stumbled up some steps. I sat down for a few moments to compose myself and noticed a flyer advertising a yoga course on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. I took the course.

It was okay -- it wasn't what I was looking for, but it was okay. Other people in the course got all fired up about the guru who taught the course and the wild breathing we did, and they joined on -- changing their names, their dress, their eating habits -- to become enlightened. I thought this guy was reasonable, but no enlightened master. I finished the course, said thank you, and went back to my search. It was 1971 in California. If you were an introspective type, except for the smog it was heaven on earth. Over the years, I continued to study yoga and everything else California had to offer, taking a variety of courses and workshops.

After I returned from India in 1974, I moved to Winter Park, Colorado, to continue my quest in a more environmentally friendly milieu, and began to teach yoga. Naturally, I taught skiers. I worked with the ski patrol, the ski school, and the handicapped-skiers program. By routine yoga standards, my class was pretty conventional. Oh, perhaps it was a bit more energetic than the average yoga class because we were all skiers. Most of us skied every day from nine to five, and we were used to being in motion, training. We didn't rest between postures, the way you do in many yoga classes. But basically, from a physical standpoint this was a (shudder!) "stretch" class.

I was able, however, to utilize many of the techniques I had learned while working in the field of biofeedback. So we did lots of visualization and progressive relaxation in class. We did autonomic training, which consisted of repeating phrases like "I am relaxed, I am calm, I am at my center." Most of the students in my class were also competitive skiers, so during racing season we would practice a technique called Visual Motor Behavior Rehearsal, or VMBR, as it was called. This was a visualization technique where you would simply rehearse an event, such as a ski race, in your mind step-by-step before you actually did it.

The classes were fun and popular, and pretty soon just about everyone in this mountain valley was onto my yoga program. When the U.S. Nordic Ski Team came to town for a few months to train at Devil's Thumb Ranch (an international cross-country facility in nearby Fraser), it was only a matter of hours before Marty Hall, the coach of the team, ran into a local skier who told him about the yoga classes. Marty called me up to see if I could do a session for the team.

Well, I guess I was a little overenthusiastic, or these kids were tighter than average, because the day after their first class, Marty called me again to say that everybody on the team was so sore they couldn't walk, much less ski. That night while reading a book of Zen stories, I came across a proverb that said "Only when you can be extremely soft and pliable can you be extremely hard and strong." It didn't sink in right away, as Zen koans, or teaching puzzles, tend not to. But a few weeks later, one morning on waking I saw the letters THE HARD & THE SOFT laid out on the side of a mountain in my mind, like the HOLLYWOOD sign in L.A.

The Hard & The Soft became the name of my yoga program and the underlying philosophy for everything I either entertained or actually experienced from that moment on. Every challenge in life seemed to me to be a question of finding the balance between hard and soft in any given situation. The men and women on the ski team came back to class. We did a little stretching, but mostly I did visualization and VMBR with them. They loved it. But thinking back to that first experience, wasn't it odd that here were world-class athletes, yet they couldn't move outside the range of their specificity of training without being incapacitated? What had caused them to get so sore?

Well, for one thing, although they were very fit, they were also very tight. Tight in the back, the shoulders, the thighs especially, and the ankles. They were all hard and no soft. No wonder they all got injured so easily and frequently, I thought. When they fall, there is no "give," no malleability. They tumble through an unaccustomed range of motion, and something tears as a result of being so tight. I tried to visualize what the stretching had done to them. The muscles didn't want to stretch, and had resisted. The muscles were used to contraction, not surrender.

For another thing, all they did was ski. They took the same biomechanical path through the woods, day after day. I had asked them to take a different route. They had used new muscles in new ways, and were feeling the effects. Third, I had given them too much too soon. And last, it seemed to me that if the muscles had been warmed up a bit, they might have been willing to stretch a little more easily.

These were some of my first musings about the role of heat in yoga, the importance of what twenty years later would be called "cross-training," and the significance of balance between hard and soft, or strength and flexibility. I realized that no matter how fit a person might be at his or her particular sport, he or she had to ease into activities that were not muscularly familiar to avoid strain, soreness, or even injury.

In my classes, I began to introduce beginners to the work a bit more gently. Instead of drop-in classes, I started to offer yoga "semesters," where the intensity of the class increased progressively as the course went along. I encouraged students to start at the beginning and slowly accustom themselves to the practice. I began to be more sensitive to the temperature of the room. I always tried to turn the heat on before class so that the room was at least 70°F for practice -- which in Winter Park, Colorado, in the winter, was always welcome. The Hard & The Soft yoga system was evolving, but still not where I felt it should or could be.

By 1980 I had pretty much taught yoga to everyone in Winter Park. After seven years in the mountains I was restless and hungry for cultural stimulation. I was hosting a talk show on public television in Denver on Friday nights and thinking about moving to Denver. I thought, "Well, if I'm going to move to Denver, I might as well move back to New York."

The Search Ends

Just about the time I started giving energy to thoughts of returning east, I received a call from the Jain Meditation International Center in New York City. They invited me to conduct a yoga teacher-training program at their center in Manhattan. I had returned frequently to New York over the years to study Jain meditation and was somewhat familiar with their organization. So in the autumn of 1980, I traveled back to the East Coast, planning to spend a few months and see what evolved.

It was here, in February of 1981, that I walked into a Saturday morning yoga workshop and experienced a totally unique form of yoga unlike anything I had ever seen in my ten years of prior training. The workshop was given by a dark-haired, bearded American just recently returned from India. His name was Norman Allen, and from the first moment I saw him, I had the feeling I had met him before.

The first half of the program was a demonstration. Allen and his student, a woman in her early fifties, began to practice. They started with warm-ups, or Sun Salutations, as they are called. I was familiar with Sun Salutations, but these were different from the ones I had been practicing and teaching. They then began to flow though a series of yoga postures -- or asanas, as they are called in the yoga language of Sanskrit -- going from one to the next without stopping.

I was completely riveted by this youthful man in his forties, doing yoga in front of me. I could hardly believe this was yoga. This was stronger than any other yoga practice I had ever seen, and it looked like what I always felt yoga was supposed to be: a balance between strength and flexibility. Hard and soft. I knew immediately it was something I had to learn. It motivated me in a way no other yoga training had.

I had never seen such strength, grace, and fluidity in a yoga practice before. Every posture was connected to every other posture with movement. The whole practice flowed along like a dance. The minute I saw this form, I knew that I had found what I had been searching for all these years. It looked familiar to me, like something I had lost and then found again after a long time. And in the second half of the program, when we began to do the practice itself, it felt as though I had come home.

Copyright © 1995 by Beryl Bender Birch


Excerpted from

Power Yoga: The Total Strength and Flexibility Workout
by Beryl Bender Birch
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