TBEX 2012 in Keystone, Colorado

I attended my very first TBEX, Travel Blogger Exchange, last year in Vancouver.  During the conference, I attended a writing workshop where we were assigned homework for the next day.  We were instructed to write a short piece, no more than 500 words, on our journey to TBEX2011.   Here’s what I wrote:

The rising sun awakens me each day.  Even if my eyelids are heavy, they are forced open by the harsh morning light.  I blink several times and my eyes wander to that one paint scab on the ceiling, a patch of yellow exposed in a sea of white.  “I really need to repaint this room.  Maybe that shade of blue that reminds me of the waters of Bermuda,” I think to myself.  I push aside the thought and swing my legs off the bed.  Other things take precedent.  Phone calls, emails, reports, projects.  My mind churns out the ticker tape of today’s to-do list at work and I know I will execute these tasks with perfunctory efficiency.  I can do this in my sleep.

Today, I am not at home and the light here in Vancouver is different.  Perhaps it is a function of the time of day.  The afternoon sun casts a warm yellow glow on me as I sit by these windows that are triple my height.  It easy to feel connected to the world outside the Convention Centre.  There is a Holland America cruise ship docked next door.  From here, I see housekeeping staff cleaning the exterior balconies in preparation for the next cycle of passengers.   I am reminded me that boats are not meant to be tethered.  They are meant to sail.

Rick Calver, CEO of BlogWorld

On year later, in June, I landed in Denver, Colorado to attend TBEX2012.  Traveling from sea level to approximately 11,400 feet above sea level in less than 24 hours proved incredibly difficult.  I suffered from severe altitude sickness (symptoms included: pounding headaches, loss of appetite, nausea, throwing up, lack of sleep) during the entire conference.  It was difficult to focus, learn, and network when I was not on top of my game. Despite this disappointing setback, TBEX 2012 served as a useful benchmark to look back on what I accomplished within the past year.  It was also great to catch up with old travel friends and make new ones.

Me with Scott Jordan, CEO & Founder of Scottevest. Thank you so much for my complimentary red Scottevest! I love it!

With fellow petite friend, Jodi Ettenberg (Legal Nomads)

With Matt Kepnes (Nomadic Matt). I love that he’s happy to see me!

My roommates at TBEX: Irene Lau (@i_on_food_drink) & James Clark (NomadicNotes).

TBEX2011 confirmed what my heart had been telling me for some time: take the leap of faith, leave my office job, and start the path to self-employment. Three months after Vancouver, I followed through with my decision and went to LA to become certified as a Bikram yoga teacher. In the 9 months since I left the comfort of a steady paycheck and amazing benefits, I sometimes get discouraged and berate myself for not being 10 steps ahead of where I currently am. Am I not organized, disciplined, creative, or good enough? James Clark of Nomadic Notes reminded me that this feeling is normal among self-employed people no matter how long they have worked for themselves. “Do you know how many people do what you did?” he asked. “Many people spend their entire lives dreaming and talking about pursuing their passions but almost all of them never do it. The step you took was the biggest and hardest one.” When I catch myself being too hard on me, I remember his sage advice.  Thank you James.

It’s been more than a year that I’ve actively blogged under ActionJoJo, focusing on my three main interests:  1) the NYC borough of Queens, the most diverse county in the United States and my home; 2) my travels; and 3) Bikram yoga.  Despite these broad topics, I still need to work on branding ActionJoJo.  Chris Gray Faust (@CAroundTheWorld) and Janice Waugh (@solotraveler) offered excellent advice in their session “The Branding of You”.  They suggested to examine the interests and talents that make you unique.  Check.  Then, identify your primary niche and focus on it to eventually be considered an expert in your field.  Hmmm, must make a decision on what my primary niche is.  Develop trust between you, your readers, and sponsors.  Working on it by sticking to a regular blog post schedule.  Market your brand and benefit from it.  Needs work.  Set goals and create a strategy to achieve said goals.  Needs work. 

The picture below inspires me to work through these issues.  It was a joy to see fellow travel friends wear t-shirts with my logo on it at TBEX this year!

Gary Arndt of Everything Everywhere (r) fulfilled his promise last year to wear my t-shirt to this year’s TBEX! James Clark (l) got a t-shirt too for being a great friend.

The path ahead has yet to be defined yet I am excited to come up with creative answers to who ActionJoJo is and what my website strives to be for the world at large.  At the very least, I hope people come to know ActionJoJo as someone willing to try new experiences.  Despite the altitude sickness, I couldn’t give up the opportunity to ride a mechanical bull for the first time at the Expedia-sponsored, cowboy-themed BBQ dinner.  As I climbed onto the machine, a young boy helped me by giving me an important tip: engage the inner thighs and never stop squeezing them together.  I was encouraged!  As a yoga student, I know how to engage these muscles!  I am proud that I managed to stay on that bull for 31 seconds as it spun and bucked.

Photo courtesy of Irene Lau

I suppose riding a mechanical bull is a metaphor for my life right now:  get on a ride you want to try, utilize rarely used muscles to make them strong, and get back on or try something else if I get thrown off.  For now, I’m going to stay on this ride despite the bucking and spinning.  I’m going to learn to flex new muscles, grip tight when I’m about to fall off yet know when to let go when the time is right.  My goal?  Smile during this whole process and enjoy the ride.

Photo Courtesy of James Clark

Reflections on Bikram Yoga Teacher Training: Top 5 Things I Learned About Indian Culture from Watching Bollywood Movies

3 a.m.
LaLa and I squeezed ourselves into the cramped elevator.  I no longer had the patience to wait another 5 minutes.  We stood like statues shoulder to shoulder in the tiny confined space, silent because of exhaustion but grateful for sleep to come soon.  We exited and slowly dragged our bodies back to our room as if moving through molasses.  It took every ounce of strength to stay up the additional few minutes to brush my teeth when all I wanted to do was collapse on top of the bed.

Bikram’s evening lecture ended at midnight and when staff readjusted his chair to face a screen lowering from the ceiling we knew it was going to be a Bollywood night.  I shoved earplugs into my ears as fellow trainees settled into their uncomfortable chairs.

Prior to teacher training, I never watched a Bollywood movie even though I grew up with many South Asian friends.  The first thing I learned about these films?  They are never short.  Averaging 3 hours in length, the plot usually revolves around three interrelated themes:  falling in love, class and caste struggles, and family drama.  Actors also break out into elaborate duets and choreographed dancing, stretching out the movie even longer.  Sometimes, the dance sequence is so over the top that it involves several costume and location changes.  Think of Bollywood movies as two-thirds Spanish telenovela and one-third Broadway musical. Here is a great example from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham where Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol go from India to the Egyptian pyramids to a lake area to a private residence.

The curriculum includes memorizing dialogue, studying anatomy, and learning the philosophy of yoga.  Fundamental to understanding the history of yoga is understanding the culture that created it.  The culture of India may be very foreign for the majority of trainees who were raised in the West and movies may serve as the fastest and easiest introduction to a culture.  I think of my father who grew up in the Philippines and watched American movies such as:  Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, The Seven Year Itch, Rebel without a Cause, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Godfather I and II.   Movies visually dramatize important cultural values and traditions.  They give us an impression about a place, or a group of people.  In Bollywood, Hindu concepts of karma and reincarnation, for example, play out in the plot.

Bikram introduced our first film Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai by saying, “In the West, people think they can get away with things especially when they think no one is watching.  In India, people know that God is always watching.  If they cheat others and cheat themselves, they will eventually have to settle the debt one day.  When that day comes, they will pay that debt back with interest.”

In Jodhaa Akbhar, when the Muslim emperor offers the Hindu princess he just married the Islamic custom of khulla, the dissolution of the marriage bond, in response to her coldness on their wedding night, she denies his offer by saying, “For us, marriage binds us for seven lifetimes.”  Whaaaaat?!  SEVEN?!

We also watched episodes of the Indian television series, Mahabharat, based on the Mahabharata, an epic Sanskrit tale of ancient India.  Filmed in the late 1980s, the series of 94 episodes educates viewers on Hindu philosophy.  If you can get past the awful special effects, the message is useful.

After watching 20 hours of Bollywood,
here are my top 5 impressions of Indian culture:

  1. Modesty is held in high esteem.  You will never rarely see a man and woman kiss on the lips.  They’ll lean very closely into each other with lips inches apart, chests heaving, and eyes furtively seeking. But never will they kiss.  Instead, they passionately hug or the man will kiss the woman on the neck.  Sometimes, you’ll hear a frustrated Western trainee hiss loudly, “Kiss already! Kiss. KISS!”  And forget about watchig a sex scene.  There are no boobs and no butts; it is a G-rated film.
  2. Receiving favor is important.  Children wish to receive their parents’ blessing on all matters ranging from educational decisions, business deals, and most importantly, future spouses.  The major conflict of Bollywood usually involves falling in love with the “wrong” person.
  3. Deference is valued.  As a sign of respect, a person would reach down and touch another person’s foot considered to be the dirtiest part of the body since it is closest to the ground.  Young people observe this tradition with their elders and even wives with their husbands.
  4. The Divine exists not just in deities but also in humans.  A person holds a circular tray containing flowers, ghee or clarified butter, food, and a small lit lamp and waves it in a circuluar motion in front of another human being or a statue of a god.  This physical act recognizes and pays respect to the divine.
  5. Hrithik Roshan is simply the hottest person on earth.  No disrespect to my husband who I love dearly but seriously, what did Roshan do in his past lifetimes to be blessed with beautiful genes?  Tall and lean with an athletic body, his caramel skin and green eyes made many female andmale trainees…swoon at the sight of him on screen.  He could read the phonebook in Hindi for all I care.  He’s just that gorgeous.

    Photo Courtesy of BollyCurry.com

Photo courtesy of Katty Chaichian Bateman who owns a Jodhaa Akbar pillow!

My favorite Bollywood film that we watched at training is Jodha Akbhar starring Roshan and Aishwarya Rai.  The film has a compelling storyline without the gratuitous musical sequences as well as beautiful cinematography.  It dramatizes the story of the Mughal emperor seeking to unite the various kingdoms of Rajasthan in the 16th century.   The entire film is available on YouTube in 10 minute intervals; below is the first installment.  If you have three hours, sit back and enjoy the movie.  I promise you won’t be sorry.Even though I enjoyed watching Bollywood movies during teacher training, these three-hour films contributed to our sleep deprivation.  There were definitely times when I wished for sleep instead of a film.  Only once did I get my wish.

Photo Courtesy of Axry Bernal

I recognize that Bollywood movies reflect a certain section of culture in India.  In fact, the country has regional differences evident in the local dialect, food, and religious faiths.  However, I am thrilled that I’ve been exposed to the country’s largest producer of films.  As I walk around the “Little India” section of Jackson Heights, Queens, I can at least now recognize Bollywood actors such as Shah Rukh Khan who is considered to be the “King of Bollywood”.

Sunday Signs and Symbols: Sun

In honor of the recent Summer Solstice and my practicing Bikram Yoga in Times Square that day, I think it appropriate to dedicate a Sunday Signs & Symbols post to the sun. The image above depicting a circle with a heavy dot in the middle is an ancient symbol of the sun that is often used in astronomy and astrology.

The sun is such an integral factor to life on earth and it only makes sense that various cultures, disciplines, and religions have various representations for it. Throughout history, you will find groups of people worshiping the sun to varying degrees, in either the literal, metaphorical, or metaphysical sense.

The ancient Egyptians worshiped Ra, the sun god, while the Incans believed that their sun god Inti, was birthed out of a rock on Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) in Lake Titicaca, a mountain lake that inhabits both Bolivia and Peru.

"isla del sol", "lake titicaca". bolivia, peruHiking along the top of Isla del Sol with Lake Titicaca in the background.
"isla del sol", "lake titicaca", bolivia, peruThe sacred rock believed to be where Inti, the sun god, was born.

In hatha yoga, students practice sun salutations, a series of postures done in a flow sequence. In fact, the Sanskrit word “ha” means sun and “tha” means moon and put together, “hatha” represents the cosmological balance found in the universe. In Sanskrit, “ha” represents energy, masculinity, and the right side of the body while “tha” represents serenity, femininity, and the left side of the body.

Today’s modern day sun worshipers can be found mainly in Westerners who love to soak in the sun and get a tan. In NYC, locals and tourists alike, flock annually to the streets for several days in the year to watch Manhattanhenge. I actually discovered a lesser known but equally interesting solar event in NYC that I coined Queenshenge.

Sunday, derived from “the sun’s day”, can stir up debate as to whether it is the last or the first day of the week. Nevertheless, it is a testament to our deference to the sun and the word itself embodies how we understand and measure time.

Sunday Signs & Symbols is a weekly blog event, showcasing a picture and an explanation on this broad topic. Every culture uses signs and symbols to interpret their environment, inject meaning to life, and attach value to an object or practice so that its people share a common understanding of the world and the social rules that dictate the behavior within it.

Reflections on Bikram Yoga Teacher Training: Dialogue

The “Dialogue” is the scripted verbal instruction for the 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises taught by every Bikram teacher around the world. In Bikram yoga, the teacher does not practice yoga with the class nor does the teacher demonstrate postures. Instead, it is 90 minutes of precise, step-by-step directions on how to enter the pose, how to do the pose, why you do it, and how to exit the pose. As a teacher in training, you must learn it. Verbatim. Period.

A copy of the dialogue becomes a trainee’s Bible for the next 9 weeks and the two rarely separate. Trainees walk with it in their hands, study it and mutter under their breaths in an effort to be discreet as they memorize the words. At least, that’s how the learning starts. As the days and weeks progress at training, all shame evaporates and trainees speak the dialogue out load without a care. You hear it in the elevator, the bathroom stalls, the hallways, and in the supermarket aisles. A cacophony of voices reciting dialogue is like hundreds of broken records on repeat.

People learn dialogue differently. Some are visual learners and draw the body parts in the text. Others listen to a recorded version of themselves reciting a pose. Some write out the words of dialogue from memory. Using flash cards and a mnemonic device, I took the first letter of every sentence of each paragraph and created an acronym. No matter how the information gets into your brain, it must also come out of your mouth.

Late Night Studying of Locust Pose Led to Silliness

It helps to find study partners so that your study buddies do the yoga posture as you direct them. At this point, there is no correcting. You are just trying to get the words out. When people gather by the pool, in the lobby, or in the parking lot to do this, it looks like the different groups are playing bizarre games of “Simon Says”. Staff reminds us not to practice our yoga poses in front of other hotel guests. Normal human beings freak out when they suddenly see trainees break out into a yoga pose in public. Below, fellow trainee and New Yorker, Dionne Presinal is taking her chances. She is practicing standing head to knee pose in what appears to be the Target parking lot (photo taken by Melodie Yoshida).

Trainees who still insist on studying alone do so with inanimate object(s). They simply look at it and talk to it: a plant, a line of shampoo bottles, or a wall. One Saturday afternoon, I studied at the beach and I yelled out instructions for a backward bend at the ocean. A school of dolphins swam by. One of my trainee friends said, “You were so commanding, I swear I saw a dolphin backbend for you.”

Renata Schánělcová (l) & my roommate LaLa (r) talking to a wall. Photo by Alzbeta Peskova.

Dialogue memorization and recitation are monotonous but these ways are the most efficient way to learn all the postures in such a short period of time. Trainees are tested in posture clinic where the group of 400 gets divided into 10 groups 40. Each trainee must stand up in front of this smaller group and recite one posture as 3 other trainees follow while 2-3 teachers listen. When all 40 trainees finish reciting one posture, they move on to the next posture in the series until 24 postures are covered (2 postures are skipped since those two are repeated often with short instructions). Posture clinics serve as class simulations so that trainees have the opportunity to recite each posture and receive feedback from teachers.

The most important teacher you do this for is Bikram himself. Every single trainee must deliver the dialogue of the first posture, half moon pose, to Bikram in front of all the trainees. He gives feedback to each individual. It generally takes two weeks to get through everybody. Some trainees deliver flawless dialogue, others forget words, phrases, even sections, others speak monotonously, while other talk like an auctioneer spitting out words in rapid fire without breathing so that the experience could be over as quickly as possible. We are all nervous as hell regardless of how prepared you are. I have great admiration for the non-native English speakers who must learn dialogue in English and after training, go back to their countries and re-learn it in their native tongues. Often, these folks fare better than the native English speakers since they have to work twice as hard.

Chilean Guillermo Allende delivers Half Moon Pose to Bikram as (L to R): Ivan Silva (Spain), Tereza Kopkova (Czech Republic), Jonathan Martin (Spain) demonstrate. Photo by Yael Graff.

After the first two weeks, the pace quickens. Trainees must prepare to recite one posture per day in posture clinic. If a posture is short, it is conceivable to go through all 40 people and deliver dialogue for the next posture…thereby getting to two postures in one day.

I hated posture clinic…every single minute of it. I never loved it or even grew to like it. I felt sick every time; my stomach churned. I felt I needed to be perfect. I felt like I was being judged. I felt I had to be first all the time. All my issues came tumbling out and there were some really emotional days. It is easy to have breakdowns when one is tired, stressed, and sleep deprived. Looking back, I wish I wasn’t so hard on myself.

Posture clinics are just simulations. The real teaching happens when you are in that hot room, giving verbal instructions to your students. As a trainee, you learn the dialogue verbatim since it is your main teaching arsenal. As a new teacher, you learn to communicate with your students. You speak and they listen. They move their bodies and you watch and respond appropriately, sometimes giving an individual correction. It this kind of dialogue you want to have with your students.

Nevertheless, when you live in a yoga bubble for 9 weeks, it easy to forget the big picture and focus on the task at hand. Fellow trainee Melodie Yoshida from Hawaii captures it perfectly in this photo as she studied dialogue for a posture.

Reflections on Bikram Yoga Teacher Training: Top 5 Obsessions of a Trainee

#5:  LAUNDRY

Eleven classes a week means you go through a lot of wet yoga clothes.  Keeping track of dirty clothes, wet clothes, half-dry clothes, and clean dry clothes is a juggling act.  You learn to soak, rinse, squeeze, hand wash, and hang clothes quickly.  If your turnaround time is slow then you’ll have a pile of wet/dirty/soaking clothes and nothing to wear.  This may be hot yoga not naked yoga.

#4:  NUTRITION

A balanced and healthy diet is important yet every BODY is different.  In the first week, trainees experience sudden loss or increase of appetite.  Palates change because bodies change in this process.  Some long-time vegetarians and vegans start craving the flesh of a carcass while others are repulsed by their favorite foods.  Some eat comfort food while others maintain the status quo.  Practicing 180 minutes of hot yoga almost daily burns a tremendous amount of calories.  The body craves what it needs. It is not uncommon to find ramen noodles, soda, potato chips, candy, and chocolate co-existing with coconut water, leafy green vegetables, fruits, and roasted seaweed snacks in the shopping carts of trainees.  Personally, I was addicted to Doritos, Cheetos, BBQ potato chips, and little sausage wieners.  By the end, I succumbed to drinking a can of Coca-Cola almost daily.

Nutrition is not only a matter of what to eat but also when to ­shove eat your meals.  Free time is extremely limited so finding the balance between eating what your body needs versus preparing a convenient meal is a challenge…especially when 400 trainees share only 2 microwaves at virtually the same time.  Now you see why I had to do this to prevent me from pulling my hair and scratching my eyeballs out?

#3:  ELECTROLYTES

After class, you ride the hotel elevator back to your room.  If a hotel guest not attending training (tell-tale signs include:  wears everyday, non-yoga clothes that contain little to no lycra or spandex; wears perfume; has well-coifed hair and makeup) has the misfortune of riding with your stinky, dripping, red-faced self, 8 times out of 10 they will look at you and ask, “Oh, how was the pool?”  What else would they think?  Your drenched mat and clothes are dripping sweat on the elevator floor and you look like a wet dog.

Important body minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sodium are lost in sweat.  Bodies need the right amount of these minerals for numerous reasons that include proper nerve and muscle functions.  Trainees turn to Gatorade, coconut water, or manufactured electrolyte powders or tablets to replenish these minerals.  An inexpensive method is to simply squeeze lemon and add a pinch of sea salt into your water.  Sea salt contains many of the minerals that your body needs yet loses in sweat.

In severe cases of mineral loss, there is Pedialyte.  Yep, it’s the same stuff given to dehydrated babies and young children because its main ingredients are sodium, potassium, chloride, and zinc.  If you are administered Pedialyte by staff, you have been relegated to that of a baby.  At this point, your body has started to shut down and most likely cannot move.  If this is the case, then it is served by being held up to your mouth by another person.  This experience can be frightening and equally humbling.

#2:  HYDRATION

Electrolyte imbalance has a direct correlation to dehydration.  Symptoms include:  headaches, prolonged tingling sensations that lead to cramping, claw hands (fingers and hands turn inward to resemble a claw), and perhaps even delirium, unconsciousness, or collapse.  In the first two weeks, it was not uncommon to see dehydrated trainees lifted up and carried out of the room by staff.

Incredible amounts of water get lost through sweat so drinking five to six liters of water daily is recommended.  Many trainees succumb to buying a “Tower of Shame” aptly named because we would never ever use a monstrous 2-liter cooler filled with ice water at home.  But the rules of the game change and what may be normal at home no longer holds any water (heh, pun intended) here at teacher training.  During very hot and humid killer classes, trainees skip the miniscule drinking spout of the Tower of Shame and instead, rip the lid off to gulp down ice water until the throat and esophagus are numb from the cold while the rest of the body feels like its on fire.

Here, Aussie trainee Kathryn Gregory of A Sweaty Adventure, proudly displays her Tower of Shame.  Note its size is bigger than her head!

Other trainees opt for the “cocktail bar” method, where they bring in a combination of the following:  water, Gatorade, coconut water, Vitamin water, electrolyte packets, a container of ice.  It is easy to identify these trainees because the bottles/containers are lined up near their mats.

And the #1 obsession of a bikram teacher trainee?????

((drum roll please))

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#1:  HOMEWORK

WHAT?!?!  Did you think it’s just yoga all day?

NO!

We have homework.

We study.

We get tested.

It’s overwhelming…and stressful.

It’s the number one cause of sleep deprivation, anxiety, breakdowns, and breakthroughs.  Read next week’s blog post to find out more.

A special thank you and credit to:  Kathryn Gregory for all hydration, electrolyte, and homework pictures and LaLa P for all laundry and nutrition pictures. 

Reflections on Bikram Yoga Teacher Training: First Class with Bikram Choudhury

“Check, check.  Check, check.  Let’s rock and roll!” said the slender Indian man into his microphone headset.  There he stood with a broad smile, atop a 7-foot mirrored podium in front of the room, rubbing his hands eager to start.  “Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber where you kill yourself for the next 90 minutes,” he continued.

My teachers at home rarely started class this way.  If they did, they would surely strike fear in the hearts of their students especially the first timers.  But in a room of 400 yoga students training to be teachers, it was appropriate and even welcomed.  The energy in the room was electric.  Most of us never took a class taught by the guru who created the yoga series we sought to teach.

Bikram Choudhury wore his signature teaching outfit:  a black Speedo-like bikini bottom, a black headband across his forehead, and his long thinning hair tied up in a small knot on top of his head.  On the podium was an over-sized chair, covered in orange towels.  An adjacent small table hid a plastic bin of ice to keep bottled water and Coca-Cola cold.

Just a few hours earlier, Bikram stood before us in the lecture room in a fitted shirt, slacks, an expensive wristwatch, and Italian leather shoes.  “This first week, take it easy honey!  Don’t kill yourself now.  Don’t worry, I will kill you later in week 4!” he joked.  We all laughed…nervously.  Later, I would learn that this man loved to tell jokes and stories…and that he always kept his promise.

A day after our arrival, we now faced him like an army, arranging our mats and distributing ourselves along ten white lines that horizontally cut across the floor of the Radisson’s main ballroom.  The high ceilings, glass chandeliers, and wood paneling were further accented with fluorescent lights and floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the entire front and left side of the room.  Several large air ducts at the back of the room transported heat.  Fellow trainee, Steve Landry, shot this one-minute video revealing the transformed ballroom where we would practice eleven times per week for the next nine weeks.

I looked over at Lala for reassurance. She stood on her mat next to me and smiled. We had enough balls to choose to stand in the front row, right next to Bikram and the podium! I was nervous and excited. It all felt so surreal. I dreamt about this moment for so long and it was hard to believe my dream became a reality.

I looked around the room.  My fellow trainees hailed from 40 countries (see list below)*.  About 85% were women and ages ranged from 19 to middle age and beyond.  Some trainees had a head full of silver hair.  We were single, engaged, married, straight, gay, Christian, Hindu, agnostic, atheist.  We were parents, social workers, carpenters, doctors, psychiatrists, dancers, actors, and graphic designers.  Find a label, we represented it.

Bikram was ready to begin.

Start please.  Toes on the line.  Pranayama breathing.

The opening breathing exercise requires students to inhale by the nose creating a snoring sound and exhale by the mouth creating a “HA” sound.  Its purpose is to open up the lungs to its maximum capacity thereby preparing students for the next 90 minutes of class.  Bikram was in a great mood.  On the podium, he danced, smiled, laughed, and joked.  After 20 minutes, Bikram sat down in his chair, crossed his legs, and taught the remainder of class with the same energy he had when he started.  Once in a while, he called out a student usually by pointing and identifying the color of his or her outfit in a sea of yogis.

Miss Pink!  Sit down more.

Boss!  Chest up, arms back!

He addressed the male students as “Boss” and the female students as “Miss” or “Sweetheart”.  If he got to know someone, he would assign him or her a nickname.

Miss Bushy Bushy (her hair).

Miss Chinese Chop Suey (her ethnic background).

Miss London (she lived there).

Lampost (he was 6’7”)

Class went by quickly.  When it was over, I lay still on my mat with my eyes closed.  I was so happy.  My heart screamed with joyous certainty:  I belonged here and this path I chose to become a teacher was the right one.  I smiled, looking forward to the next nine weeks.  I was finally going to get to call Bikram the way most of his teachers address him:  BOSS.

*Trainees hailed from:  the USA, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Estonia, Croatia, Latvia, France, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland, Lithuania, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Poland, Holland, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, India, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand.

Reflections on Bikram Yoga Teacher Training: Arrival

I craned my neck looking anxiously for the right shuttle at Los Angeles International Airport.  Forty-five minutes of waiting caused my neck and back to hurt.  Never mind that a 50-pound backpack strapped to my 5’2” frame and an equally heavy suitcase stood next to me.  Where was the damn hotel shuttle?!  I had only one hour left to register, settle into my hotel room, meet my roommate, and buy groceries for the week!

When the shuttle arrived, the driver helped with my bags and half jokingly said his back broke due to the heavy weight.  With embarrassment, I found a seat and started picking up the conversations around me.

I‘ve been practicing for 2 years.

I live in Vancouver.  How about you; where are you from?

My husband has been very supportive of my decision.

It was the chatter of Bikram yogis arriving to attend 9 weeks of full-time teacher certification.  Many were smiling.  Some already seemed to be best friends as they talked about the family and pets they left behind, the homes they wouldn’t see, and how they got to this point.  Some kept to themselves.  I decided to do the same.

The main lobby of the Radisson LAX Hotel resembled an ant colony.  Four hundred yogis descended upon the hotel simultaneously, all seemingly moving with purpose.  Some pulled large suitcases, others hauled bags of groceries and boxes of coconut water and bottled water.  We looked like refugees, carrying the few possessions we had and stocking up on food to last for weeks.

This frenzy brought me back to moving day on my first day at college.  What the hell did I get myself into?  I am too old for this.  But then I saw the welcome sign with Bikram Choudhury in the spine twist posture.  The words “teacher training” beneath his contorted image reassured me that I was in the right place.  I chose to be here…and paid an exorbitant amount of money to do so.

In the sea of yogis, I looked around for Lala, my roommate.  We had never met in person, only on Twitter.  Online, we would passionately exchange tweets about food, Filipino culture, and Bikram yoga.  She seemed like my perfect match but would our online harmony translate into good roommate material?  Maybe she had a weird crazy habit.  Maybe she would drive me up the wall.  I thought I had written off temporary roommates after deciding to have a permanent one by getting married.  It’s funny how life turns out sometimes.  My phone vibrated.  It was Lala.  She texted saying she was returning from the Filipino grocery store and would see me soon.

Knowing nobody, I gathered my courage to explore the second floor of the hotel, which was solely dedicated to our group.  The registration line snaked around the 250-square foot room.  The chatter of yogis created a loud, indistinguishable noise.  Zico representatives were giving away free coconut water.  A Trader Joes’ rep gave away free reusable shopping bags.  Interested in weekly bottled water delivery?  Laundry service?  Sign ups were available!  This feels like a convention.

When Lala arrived with the groceries, we also snuck in our most precious contraband:  a microwave.  The hotel did not allow us to cook in the room but we did not care.  We borrowed the microwave to save our sanities.  Otherwise, we would be forced to share TWO microwaves with 400+ other yogis all eating at the same time in a designated common room.  Oh, hell no.

Lala and I arranged our hotel room to accommodate our needs for the next 9 weeks.  The writing table became the prep area for food.  The desk lamp and telephone shared space with the rice cooker, mini grill, and electric water kettle.  Two dresser drawers held our clothes but a third dresser held dried and canned food, ramen noodles, seaweed packs, condiments, and teas.  We hid the microwave under a wooden luggage rack whose surface held the dish rack and coffee maker.  The surface of our mini-fridge served as our hydration center where our Brita pitcher sat along with our towers of shame (more on that later).  We pinned two ends of a clothesline to the window curtains to hang the two sets of yoga clothes we would both use daily.

Knowing that we had a lot of unpacking still left to do, we begrudgingly headed back to the second floor for orientation.  Seats in the conference room were arranged theater style and faced a stage in the center.  Three 2×3 framed portraits flanked the stage, each depicting an Indian man.  Two of them had a fake lei of flowers draped over the top.

Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi and founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship is on the left and on the right is Bishnu Gosh, younger brother of Paramhansa Yogananada and Bikram’s guru.

The third portrait portrayed Bikram sitting shirtless in lotus position atop a tiger rug, both of them staring at you with a steady gaze.  I met Bikram once in May 2010 and during that first meeting, I thanked him for creating this yoga series that healed my knee.  I told him it was my goal to one day become a teacher.  Two years later, that dream became a reality.  I looked around for the man who would be my guru but Bikram and his wife, Rajashree, were out of town.  Instead, we were greeted by their daughter and other senior teachers.

After the usual logistical housekeeping items, they prepared us for the intense physical, emotional, and mental journey ahead.  Regardless of what lay ahead, we were advised to “trust the process.”

Little did I know that this phrase would be my daily mantra for the next 9 weeks.

Photo of Paramahansa Yogananda is courtesy of Eladio Garrido.  All photos of the hotel room are courtesy of Lala P.

Flower Petal Blooming

Happy New Year friends!

And so it begins again.  A new year.  A new promise.  A new resolution.

Last year, I resolved to write a blog post once a week.  I was doing well for  a few months but eventually that goal became surprisingly unmanageable.  So much of my life changed last year as result of both choice and serendipity.  My husband lost his job about a year ago at this time.  I voluntarily left my comfortable job in September to pursue my dream of becoming self‑employed.  If you described to me my current life at this time last year, I would have labeled you certifiably mad.  Yet life has a beautiful way of unfolding itself at precisely the right time.  What was once a seemingly unimaginable road became the only viable option in the end.

As I started blogging more seriously in early 2011 about my travels, about culture, and about my home – New York City, and more specifically, the borough of Queens – I discovered joy in the act of writing and in the act of sharing what I knew with others.  After a few weeks, I was getting recognition for my work.  In July, I attended my very first conference for travelers and bloggers in Vancouver.  People at the conference encouraged me to do more.  The seed that I once planted years ago about self-employment began to flourish and grow.

When I hopped on that plane to Los Angeles in September, I had no idea what 9 weeks of full-time Bikram yoga teacher certification would be like.  All I knew was the conviction I felt in my heart that I was doing the right thing even if it was unconventional.  Those 9 weeks challenged me physically, mentally, and emotionally.  All of my strengths and weaknesses were made bare for me to face with no place to hide.  As trainees, we were encouraged to “trust the process” even though our hearts screamed out, “F*$K the process!!!”  Breakdowns happened gradually as did the breakthroughs.  By November, I came out a changed person, shedding layers of myself that no longer served me.

In Bikram yoga, the first of the 26 postures is half moon pose where students bend to the right or left creating a crescent shape with their bodies. As a teacher, my job is to remind my students of proper alignment as they hold the posture. In half moon pose, I instruct them to adjust their shoulders so they can “open up their chest like a flower petal blooming.” This tiny adjustment leads to a gradual opening of the upper body where the chest lifts up exposing the heart, the piece of ourselves we shield and protect the most.

Half Moon Pose at LAX: My Love for Yoga & Travel Intersect

Life is like that flower petal blooming. Change happens so incrementally that often we don’t notice it has happened.  Only when we look back and see the distance traversed do we marvel at its occurrence.  So here’s to the accomplishments, the failures, the struggles, and the discoveries of 2011. Together, they form the stepping stones to the unwritten events of 2012. Wherever life leads me this year, I am going to trust the process.

Without judgment and without attachment, I accept that I did not achieve my blogging goal for 2011. Yet once again, I have set a goal that I will write more and blog regularly.

“Never too late, never too old, never too bad, and never too sick, to start from the scratch once again.” ~ Bikram Choudhury

Forgiveness, Courage, and Leaps of Faith: Why I Left My Job

Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes.  As leader of the newly formed, democratic South Africa, he rejected anger, revenge, and violence despite decades of suffering incredible injustice. Instead, he turned to reconciliation and encouraged both the former oppressors and oppressed of his country to work together to do the same. In the movie Invictus, he offered this advice to his black bodyguard who had trouble working with newly assigned white colleagues:

Forgiveness liberates the soul.
It removes fear.
That is why it is such a powerful weapon.

I was drenched in sweat. My face turned to the right, my entire left ear pressed against the soaked towel. I lay on my belly, body and mind still. My Bikram yoga teacher broke the silence in the room and said, “Time waits for no one. What are YOU waiting for?” Her words slapped my face and seeped through my every pore. The clarity I sought for years suddenly came rushing forward out of the fog of uncertainty and fear. That moment propelled me to listen to what my heart had been saying for so long.

Eight years earlier, I felt directionless and burned out. I left my job and took a leap of faith by backpacking for four months through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Portugal, and England with someone I loved. As I lived through this life-altering experience, I had no idea that the travel bug would bite me so hard. When I came home to NYC rejuvenated, I promised myself that I would see at least one new country every year.

I worked at a private, philanthropic foundation helping give away millions of dollars annually to colleges and universities. I was ambitious, driven, and pushed myself to the limit. I asked for (and got) more responsibilities, pursued a Masters degree part-time, got married, bought a house, and still managed to travel for three weeks to my new country of choice. But soon I would learn that my go-getter attitude was not sustainable. My body eventually rebelled and broke down gradually, cracking under my self-imposed physical, mental, and emotional prisons. Medical doctors only offered me prescription drugs and surgery to help me deal with the severe, chronic pain I felt throughout my body.

Desperate for an alternative, I turned to an Eastern healer and Bikram Yoga. I channeled the same hard work, focus, and determination that put me in this mess to get myself healed. Working to heal myself was hellish and grueling because it was an irritatingly slow process and went against everything that our pill-popping, quick-fix culture teaches us.

In every Bikram studio, students are instructed to look at themselves in the mirror for the entire 90 minute class. As a beginner, I could not look at myself without unceasing criticism. You’re too fat. You’re too injured. You’re not flexible enough. You’re not good enough. Each time I looked in that mirror, I confronted my own worst enemy: me.

The intensity of the heat magnified the challenge of the yoga poses. Many times, all I wanted to do was collapse, give up, or run out of the room screaming. Magically, my teachers knew when to offer me the compassion I needed to back off. Johanna, stay still. All you have to do is breathe. They also knew when I gave up too easily. You fall out, you jump back in! Johanna, what are you waiting for?”

To survive in that hot room required only a calm breath. Surprisingly, even that seemingly simple act was the most challenging. The classes where I struggled to “just” breathe were the ones that dealt heavy blows to my ego. Patience, compassion, and forgiveness were forced to set in because there was little room for self-criticism, judgment, and attachment. The salty tears and gallons of sweat chipped away at the protective walls I built so long ago against hurt and pain. It no longer mattered if I wasn’t good enough, quick enough, pretty enough, or smart enough. All that mattered was that I do my best. And when I fell down or fell out, all I needed to do was jump right back in.

As counter intuitive as it may seem, acknowledging my humanity afforded me the freedom to access my inner strength. Only when I forgave myself could I allow myself the chance to start again.

In the 2½ years of practicing Bikram yoga, I no longer feel the weight of the world.The chronic debilitating pain I once felt, is completely gone. Today, I am the healthiest I have ever been in body, mind, and spirit. I have learned to live my life the same way I practice yoga. I tackle each challenge and uncomfortable situation with a calm breath, a focused mind, and a compassionate heart. I have learned to be okay with uncertainty, fear, and discomfort knowing that these feelings ­shall pass. I am still learning.

Last Thursday, I said goodbye to my colleagues of eight years at my secure job. I venture now into uncharted territory. Yesterday, I arrived in Los Angeles for 9 weeks of full-time certification to become a Bikram yoga teacher. I have always dreamed of becoming self employed, doing things that I love most. Leaving my job and becoming a yoga teacher will make room for my greatest passion: writing travel stories and making travel videos with my husband. I feel that my mission in this post 9/11 world is to promote cultural understanding and healing. As a yoga teacher, I can help others who seek redemption. As a traveler, I can tell you stories about the places I visit and the people who live there. As an anthropologist, I can provide a unique insight to these cultures.

Every morning we awake, we are given another day for the chance to start anew. That journey always starts with the decision to forgive. I’ve learned that forgiveness first begins with ourselves before we can bestow it to others. Only then can we become courageous. Only then can we aspire for greatness. Only then can we inspire others to do the same.

Evacuate, Escape!

As the protests in Egypt continue, my heart goes out to the people.  What must be going through the hearts of Egyptians as their country remains embroiled and embattled?  What will be the outcome?  Will a new Egypt emerge out of these demonstrations?

But there are other people to think about too.  Foreign journalists in the last several days have told audiences around the world that they have been harassed, attacked, and detained.  And of course, there are other foreigners:  the tourists, the expats, the students, the volunteer workers.  What has happened to them?  What happens when events within a place occur without a moment’s notice and the decision between staying or leaving becomes extremely urgent?

The New York Times recently wrote an article about stranded Americans in Egypt.  The United States State Department created a public service announcement (PSA) and tweeted evacuation instructions for American citizens wishing to leave the country.  I travel overseas at least once a year and as I prepare for my trip, I always pause to consider registering my name with the US Embassy in the country I am visiting.  Then I usually shake my head and shove the idea aside because really, what could possibly go wrong that the embassy would need to know my presence in country X?

Well, Egypt has reminded me of the reason why I should do so.  It is an extreme case of what is possible.  Highly unlikely, yes.  But possible nonetheless.  Besides political unrest, I can think of other instances when the need to escape while traveling becomes compelling.

Natural Disaster: In 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caught people completely by surprise along the coasts of several Asian and even African countries.  Devastating tsunamis struck and killed hundreds of thousands of people, most of them in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

Mechanical Difficulties: US Airways Flight #1549 departed from NYC’s La Guardia Airport and shortly after take-off collided with a flock of Canadian geese that resulted in a loss of thrust in both engines.  Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed the plane in the Hudson River.  All 155 passengers and crew survived.

Disease Outbreak: In 2003, an outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) began in mainland China and spread to other areas such as Hong Kong and Vietnam.

Acts of Terrorism: Sadly, this is the reality of the world we live in — the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the 2008 coordinated attacks in different parts of Mumbai,  and just last month a suicide attack in the Moscow airport.

I am so blessed and very grateful that I’ve not yet found myself in a situation where I’ve had to evacuate.  The closest I’ve come to civil unrest was in La Paz, Bolivia in 2003 when my bus was re-routed because a group of strikers blocked the roads.  Despite these possibilities, it has not deterred me from traveling.  In fact, it can be argued that these devastated places are precisely the ones we should travel to because they could benefit greatly from our tourism money.  I recall the Kenyan safari companies encouraging all Westerners to visit after ethnic violence erupted in 2008 due to the controversial outcome of the presidential election in December 2007.

In your travels, were you confronted with a circumstance that required you to decide whether to stay or leave?  What happened and where?  What factors led to making your decision?  Please share your story in the comment section below.  I look forward to hearing them.