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Armed with an Open Heart

By Michael Fine

The Bikram Method is a style of Hatha yoga. Each class lasts 90 minutes and is comprised of two sets of 26 postures and two breathing exercises. It is conducted in a room heated to 105°F and 40% humidity. The series systematically works every muscle, bone, joint, tissue, tendon, organ, and system of the body down to a cellular level and with a regular practice returns the body to its natural homeostasis. This occurs via the tourniquet-like compression created in each of the postures that curtail blood flow for short periods of time. When that compression and posture is released, fresh, highly oxygenated blood rushes through those areas and clears out plaque, scar tissue and the like to enable the body to return to its natural high-functioning state.

This beautiful series figuratively and literally saved my life almost eight years ago! I was rescued by this healing, therapeutic yoga after living my life in chronic, debilitating residual limb pain, the result of a head-on collision at approximately 40 mph with a large, red concrete truck in April of 2010. I was on my way to work that fateful day when that truck crossed the center line, traveled up the hood of my car, continued through my windshield and traumatically amputated my left arm cleanly at the shoulder. After surviving such a horrific accident and living in chronic pain, along with the loss of both of my beloved parents within that same timeframe, falling into a severe depression, and drowning in a daily 35-prescription pain pill diet which led to multiple suicide attempts, I was left completely empty and in search of a new way to live and move forward. For me, that path forward was, is and will likely always be, my yoga practice, this healing yoga series.

Since the day I lost my left arm, I have completely felt it as if it was still attached to my body. However, my phantom arm feels like it is encased in a block of ice and being continuously squeezed in a vise. This is my reality, this is my life. I generally live at a pain level between five and seven on the proverbial ‘one to ten pain scale.’ My existence really centers around doing all I can to live at as low a number on that scale as possible. The ‘external triggers,’ or factors that exacerbate the pain, are outside of my ability to control or regulate (e.g. weather changes, barometric pressure and temperature fluctuations.) Fortunately, the ‘internal triggers,’ (e.g. coping with the feeling of stress, tension and anxiety) are completely within my ability to control and regulate. In an effort to learn to do so, I tried many different Eastern medicine healing modalities such as Reiki, Cranial Sacral Therapy, the LifeLine Technique, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR,) other energy and mindfulness work, acupuncture, sensory reduction flotation, massage therapy, cupping, Cryotherapy, etc. All of those techniques are important and effective weapons in my arsenal to battle life in chronic pain. However, the single most effective weapon that I possess is my daily yoga practice. In my almost eight years of practice, in my more than 2,000 classes, there has never been even one class where I haven’t felt less pain after those 90 glorious minutes than before I walked into that Hot Room. To date, I haven’t found anything else that helps me in this way. I call this yoga practice and series a universal truth. In other words, this yoga is a constant, like gravity, because it works each and every time that I practice it! The mental and spiritual clarity that this magical 90-minute long, open-eyed, moving meditation provides is
further icing on the yogic cake!

The most beautiful thing about this series is that almost anyone can do it! In the words of a living legend and one of my many teachers and mentors, the incomparable Mary Jarvis, “All you need to do this yoga is a spine!” Two arms are completely optional!

As we move into February, the heart month of Valentine’s Day, several of the backbend and spine twist postures from the Bikram series are my favorites for opening the heart chakra, chest, spine and heart. We often experience tremendous release and varied emotions during these postures. I have personally felt and observed practitioners laugh, cry, experience bursts of light and color, third-eye blindness and blissful feelings. Each offers tremendous benefits for opening the heart, a body part we so often guard and keep closed as we spend our lives hunched over a steering wheel, a desk or a cellphone.

The Postures

Standing Backward Bending (Anuvittasana) We begin with feet together, arms up over the head, wrists and palms together, elbows locked, biceps with the ears, hips and thighs pushed forward. The backbend begins with the eyes, the head drops back, chin up, chest/breastbone lifts. The key is to breathe through the nose, maintain bodyweight in the heels and to bring the arms back as close to the ears as possible to bend and open the less flexible part of the spine, the upper and middle spine. The chest/heart opening in this posture is profound and visceral.

 

Standing Bow Pulling Pose (Dandayamana Dhanurasana)

Standing Bow Pulling Pose (Dandayamana Dhanurasana) This posture combines a backbend, spine twist and heart opener. We start with feet together, then move by grabbing the foot from the inside at the ankle. We then kick, back and up, allowing the kick to drive the body forward and down, all while maintaining a straight standing leg. This posture is exhilarating and my absolute favorite.

 

Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

Camel Pose (Ustrasana) This posture is the climax of the entire series and is the deepest backbend and chest/heart opener of the 26 postures. This posture is often referred to as the master healer of the spine, as all backbends serve to heal the spine. We start in a kneeling position, feet and knees separated six inches apart. We then place our hands on the lower back, thumbs out, fingers down. We start to push our hips and thighs forward, lift the chest/breastbone up and drop the head back, chin up. This depth in the posture is fine for many beginners and quite a chest/heart opener. Those that can move further do so by grabbing their heels. Upon doing so, the pose intensifies as we push the hips forward, lift the chest/heart up to get the weight out of the hands and move bodyweight forward. This often results in serious emotional response as the adrenal glands are compressed and ‘fight or flight’ adrenaline is released through the body. Many people see stars, colors, shapes, light, and at times laugh or cry.

Bikram yoga has profoundly changed, enriched and saved my life, figuratively and literally. It is a beginner series and available to anyone who has the courage to simply try. One hundred percent effort yields 100 percent of the benefits of the practice! All levels of students practice together, in community, sharing space and energy. There is no destination or competition in the Hot Room. The Hot Room and this series is a place and mechanism for people to practice and achieve what the human body was designed to do, if provided with the proper tools, like mindful lifestyle, nutrition, and hydration; the result of which is to ultimately heal from the inside out, bones to skin!

My primary goal moving forward in this yoga is to inspire and change the minds of all of those who believe that they can’t practice, with common excuses like: “I am too old, too fat, too inflexible, too sick, don’t like to sweat, allergic to heat, etc.” My yoga journey and path to healing is truly just beginning, as I teach and share my love of this yoga with others from the podium, with the sole objective and ultimate goal of inspiring and empowering people to know and do what the human body, mind and spirit were truly designed to do; that is to heal!

Michael Fine is an attorney, left-arm amputee, husband, father, Hatha Yoga 26 & 2 Bikram Method student & instruc- tor, and lover of living life to its fullest, awake and aware. Michael teaches the Bikram Method regularly at Sweat Junkie, Evanston, IL. www.sweatjunkiefitlife.com, as well as at Be Yoga, Andersonville, Chicago, www.hotyogachicago.com.

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