What’s in a water bottle?

A few weeks ago I lost my water bottle. This item–chipped and dented, no longer able to sit flat on a table–doesn’t seem like a big loss in the context of all the items I’ve lost and will lose in my lifetime. But thinking of my ugly yet beloved water bottle in a landfill makes me sadder than the earring I lost somewhere in my couch last week. That bottle served me well, saved money and kept me hydrated, over the nearly 4 years I owned it. And it reminded me of the accomplishment for which I received the neon yellow bottle with its black smiley face and type that read: “I survived the 30 Day Bikram Yoga Challenge at Center Siddhi Yoga, Philadelphia, PA.”

If you know anything about the Bikram style of hot yoga, you will probably agree that taking one class a day for 30 days in a row qualifies as a challenge. I did too. Before I started my own challenge in October 2009, I watched other yogis start and complete challenges over a very a humid and hot summer. No way, I thought. They’re crazy. But when they were done they looked so happy, so glowing. And I wanted the prize at the end of the game: a steel water bottle. I wouldn’t have to buy plastic bottles anymore, and I’d receive for free something that usually retailed for around $20. So I signed up, got my own column on the challenge chart and began to accumulate a trail of stickers beneath my name.

It turned out that the physical demands of practicing 30 days in a row were less challenging than the logistical demands of such a regimen. Completing the challenge meant 30 days without scheduling conflicts, without getting sick, without anything just suddenly coming up. In fact something did come up for me–I went away for a night to visit a friend–but luckily there was a loophole. I could take 2 classes in one day to make up for missing a day. This is called a double, and it also comes with double the endorphins. Best high I ever had!

My old water bottle was easy enough to replace. I bought an even spiffier model with insulation and I enjoy having a bottle that doesn’t wobble when you set it down. But when I look at this new bottle, it doesn’t remind me of anything. It’s clean, beautiful, and soulless. What I want to hold onto–since my chances of completing another 30 day challenge anytime soon are slim–is what I learned, what I got from practicing every day for a month: all the things the sight of that bright yellow, paint-peeling, uneven steel bottle evoked. These things cannot be bought or transferred; they cannot be replaced.

When I took on the challenge four years ago, I was in my first semester of graduate school. I didn’t have a fellowship, so I only took 2 classes, paying out-of-pocket. I had no job to speak of other than occasional weekend babysitting gigs. And I lived with my husband in a slummy apartment, the kind it rarely occurs to you to clean because cleaning makes no difference in the place’s overall shabbiness. My biggest chore was to do our laundry once a week at the laundromat down the street. This is all to say that, even with the reading and writing loads my 2 classes demanded of me, I enjoyed plenty of free time. Thus a 30 day challenge was daunting, but not at all impossible.

In my yoga practice, which was about two years old (with a hiatus in the middle) at the time, I was in a place of continual improvement. As I got stronger my arms straightened and my legs grew more flexible. I was learning; I was excited to see my progress in the mirror and to have my teachers comment on it. I believed then that this momentum would continue indefinitely until I perfected the poses that were hardest for my long legs: kick out my leg in Standing Head to Knee, grip my heels with straight legs in Standing Separate-Leg Stretching, and achieve a horizontal line in Balancing Stick.

Practicing for 30 days in a row did result in the most improvement I’ve seen in my practice. Muscles have memory, so using the same ones every day to do the same things makes those tasks progressively easier. If I’d continued to devote this much time and focus to my yoga practice, perhaps I would’ve competed in the annual competition or gone to teacher training. These were once dreams of mine. But eventually life forks and you have to choose. I continued to practice regularly and with great enthusiasm, but I didn’t make yoga the center of my life.

About a year ago my practice dipped from an average of 5 classes a week to 3, mainly because of my full-time teaching schedule. I just couldn’t get to the studio as much as I used to. Then it dipped again, to twice a week, because I was trying to get pregnant and a trusted (Bikram) teacher advised me to spend less time in the heat. Then I did get pregnant, and I stopped practicing altogether for the first 4 months of my pregnancy. Although there were always pregnant women practicing at the studio, my doctors and the books I read made me afraid. But I missed the yoga and the studio, which over the years had come to feel like a second home. So I went back, just for one class a week. At first I was so afraid that the slightest misstep could kill my baby. But with each class I took, I felt stronger, calmer, and less afraid. I learned to trust my body again.

The 30 day challenge also taught me strength, serenity, and trust. I learned that I could do something I had previously thought impossible. And what was the key to doing it after all? Discipline, focus, determination. The mind will always fight against you, tell you you’re too tired, too sick, that you just can’t do it. But if you employ these 3 skills, you can do anything. It sounds easy, which it’s not, but it is true.

And I’m glad I didn’t keep up an intensive practice, didn’t try to become a “champion.” Because getting out of practice for a while also taught me some things. Most importantly, I learned humility. As a pregnant woman, there was no chance I could do any of the postures “better” than the rest of the room, or even better than my own personal best. I had to slow down, take it easy, listen to my body. My “personal best” became something very different from what it had been before. It meant staying in the room, doing what I could, but having the humility to take a knee when I couldn’t. Having the humility to enter a room of lithe and graceful bodies in a big, awkward body. I came to class because I loved the yoga and it made me feel good, not to prove anything to myself or anyone else.

I also learned that I could take my yoga practice with me anywhere, even during periods when I rarely or never got on the mat. I could do this by straightening my posture and remembering to breathe, especially when I felt upset or anxious or angry. And by remembering that humility, especially when life reveals itself to be little more than a car doing donuts in a high school parking lot: around and around we go, re-tracing and struggling to break free of the same circles.

I’ll try not to lose this water bottle too, but I probably will some day. I’ll try to reach enlightenment, but I won’t get angry at myself when it doesn’t happen. I’ll try to be a perfect mother, writer, teacher, wife, friend, daughter, but then I’ll take a deep breath and delete the adjective “perfect” from my expectations. Yoga teachers always talk about how important the breath is, but until recently I didn’t believe them. I was there to sweat, to get a nice butt and toned arms. I could breathe all the time; what was so special about breathing? But they’re right. It is all about the breath, and we should be glad. We need to breathe to live, and while there’s plenty to learn about breathing, there’s no way you can do it wrong.

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