Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Things I like about America

Shamelessly stealing the title of one of my favourite books, Things I Like About America, I thought I'd reminisce about some of the things I, er, liked about America while I was off on training.

OK, so let's get this straight from the get-go: training was not a holiday and we didn't really have that much time to sashay around LA and be all touristy and shit. But I did get to see pretty much everything I wanted to see before I went out there, with the exception of The Griffith Park Observatory which apparently you really need a car to get to and I didn't have a car to get me to it. Of course, most people who have been to LA say you need a car to get pretty much anywhere which is maybe true, but I coped pretty well with the admittedly quite awful public transport network, in particular the Number 3 Big Blue Bus which I made use of quite a few times to take me to…

• Venice Beach. God, I love this place. A beautiful wide beach and some great little bo-ho-ey shops, one of which, Titanic, I bought an awesome hat in. Admittedly I think the more bo-ho-ey aspects of Venice might've got a little bit too much if I'd stayed there for longer than a few hours, but that's fine because to be honest it was the Santa Monica end of the beach that I really fell in love with.

Venice Beach. LOVE.
AMAAAAAAZING hat shop. With added Transformers!
• Santa Monica. Oh, Santa Monica. I want to live here. Such a nice vibe. And a massive shopping district (the 3rd Street Prom) just spitting distance away from the beach and the world-famous pier. Santa Monica is pretty much my idea of heaven. It had the most incredible Barnes and Noble bookstore too.

Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade, home to an amazing Barnes and Noble.
• I loved how everyone in LA was so polite too. I genuinely felt that everyone who served me in restaurants really deserved a tip, unlike some people over here who you begrudgingly give one to for fear they'll poo on your dinner next time you swing by. On one of my last days in the States I popped into the local Starbucks to buy a coffee and the barista had to ask me to repeat what I wanted because she was "mesmerised" by my accent. Bless. I'd been told Americans like a British accent, and between this and the dude in posture clinic who told me my voice was "sexy" I really think I could make it big in the U.S.

• Talking of restaurants: In 'N Out Burger and iHop. In 'N Out burgers are dirt cheap and without doubt the BEST burgers I've ever had. I pretty much ate two each week during training, and made sure I had my last meal in the States before heading home in this wonderful, wonderful burger joint. As for iHop: 24 hour pancake restaurant. Just think about that for a second.

iHop cinnamon stack. It was like having a massive cake for breakfast.
In 'N Out Burger: BEST. BURGERS. EVAH. And note the cool Dodge Challenger in the car park. I mean parking lot.
• Cars. I love cars, and so do Americans. I was overjoyed to see loads of Minis out there (including an old-skool 60s Cooper), and I loved all the big muscle cars: Mustangs, Cameros, Dodge Challengers - all tastefully pimped up for added awesomeness. I also fulfilled a life-long ambition to ride in a Ford Crown Victoria yellow cab (on several occasions, actually). For such a big car they were tiny inside, wallowed round like jelly on wheels (they rocked back and forth for several seconds after coming to a stop) and were generally outclassed by everything else on the road, but I loved them all the same.

• Bearing in mind we'd been warned at the beginning of training to be careful in LA and never go off anywhere on our own, I actually felt really safe in the city - even on those times I defied orders and went off on my own. I know: such a rebel.

• Hershey's Cookies 'n Creme. Thanks to fellow trainee Dayna for introducing me to this which is IMPOSSIBLE TO GET HOLD OF HERE AND I'M STILL IN THE MIDST OF WITHDRAWAL SYMPTOMS.
• Manhattan Beach. If Santa Monica living gets a bit too much for me I'd like to retire to this brilliant little town just down the coast. Packed full of amazing restaurants (hello The Kettle), little touristy shops, and beautiful houses, I'm pretty sure I could slum it here. They even filmed The OC there so is it any wonder I felt at home?

• I got to do this:

And things I didn't like about America?

• LA, seriously, sort your public transport infrastructure out please.

• Beverly Hills and all the real touristy places. They felt a bit too … pristine?

Bit too perfect, if you knows what I means.
• LA is so damn far away.

Could do with being closer.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The yoga bubble: Part 4

So when all's said and done, despite all the late nights and early mornings, the punishing schedule and the moments when I just wanted it to be over and done with, Bikram Yoga Teacher Training was without doubt the most incredible experience of my life, and as we neared the end of our nine week journey I wanted nothing more than for it to carry on indefinitely.

Me and Boss, around the midway point, I think.
In those nine weeks I made friends whose company I have missed greatly in the time since we went our separate ways, was empowered with skills that have opened up an incredible new career for me (one which I love dearly), and discovered things about myself that I never could have imagined.

Our final class with Bikram was 90 minutes (or possibly two hours - he did like to stretch his classes out a bit) of hard work and joy. At its conclusion he sat on his orange chair (or throne, as I liked to call it) atop the podium and surveyed us as the song Love is Life - Pyar Karo from his album Bikram Lounge played loudly over the PA system and we went from 400 focused yogis to a bunch of sweaty, half-naked loons jumping and dancing around, crying, laughing, and hugging each other, relieved it was over yet saddened it was finished.

The UK crew moments after our triumphant final class.
All that remained for us as Spring 2012's teacher trainees was graduation.

The graduation ceremony took place the next day in the very same ballroom that had been outfitted to serve as our yoga room, the heavy weave carpet on the floor still stained with the sweat and tears of nine weeks worth of hard work. The ceremony was to last several hours, split between speeches from Bikram and some of the other teachers who had shared their time and knowledge with us over the last couple of months, and the actual moment when all 411 graduating trainees got their moment on stage to collect their certificate (our license to kill, as Bikram would say!) and have our photo taken with the man himself.

Pretty much everyone made an effort to dress for the occasion and I was no different. I'd packed a whole outfit specially for this last day, which to be honest could've been seen as a bit stupid seeing as I only got to wear it once and I could've done with more room for shorts in my suitcase BUT on the plus side, it was nice to actually tart myself up for the first time in what felt like forever. In fact one of the staff teachers, a lovely chap named Balwan, said to me with a look of approval on his face "I think you are the sharpest dressed man here!" Such a nice compliment - and yet it nearly all went horribly wrong.

Let's not beat around the bush: basically, around the halfway point of graduation I noticed I'd split my trousers. Yes: split my trousers. Let's put it down to the fact that nine weeks of yoga had a remarkable effect on my thighs because they fitted fine before I left for LA. Whatever the reason, there I was, minutes away from receiving my certificate in front of 410 other trainees and loads of other assembled guests with a massive hole in my trousers. My dilemma was thus: leave it, get up on stage and hope no one noticed, or scurry back to my room and change my nice suit trousers for my black jeans, in the process ruining my carefully planned ensemble.

Just as I resolved to head back upstairs and change, however, a third option presented itself. Passing fellow trainee Jo as we all headed outside for a five minute break I hysterically babbled something along the lines of "LOOK! MY TROUSERS! MY TROUSERS!!" at which point she replied "I've got a sewing kit in my room - I can sort it out for you."

And that's how I ended up on the eighth floor of the Radisson with my trousers round my ankles, clasping my hands over my gentlemanly parts (I was wearing pants, don't be pervy, but even so…) while Jo stitched my trousers and two other trainees looked on with 'what-the-hell-is-going-on-here?!' expressions on their faces.

Panic over, we returned to the ballroom in time to receive our certificates and graduate as fully certified Bikram Yoga teachers.

One of the proudest moments of my life.
As the ceremony ended I hung around by the stage taking in everything that had happened, not only in that moment but in the weeks preceding it. And it was then that I noticed Bikram himself standing just a few feet away, seemingly lost in the moment very much like I was. I'd spoken to him a few times during the nine weeks and on occasion flashed him a thumbs up if he walked past me; I don't know why, but it always raised a smile from him and a thumbs up in return, so given the opportunity I'd always do it; as an aside without doubt my most surprising memory of contact with him came in one of our final classes when he ran between us to get to the podium and loudly slapped me on the arse en route.

Anyway, here I was standing not so far away from the man who in such a relatively short period of time had had such a profound effect on my life, and then for some reason he turned to look at me and I decided one last time to give him a thumbs up (I'd come to the conclusion by this point that if he didn't know my actual name he probably referred to me as 'Mr. Thumbs Up). He smiled, a really big Bikram grin, and then did the last thing I expected him to do: he walked straight over to me, clapped me on the shoulder then shook my hand. We exchanged a few words, ending with me thanking him. I hope he realised that I didn't just mean for the certificate he'd given me minutes earlier, or even for the nine weeks of training. What I really meant was to thank him for helping me fulfil the potential that has always existed within me but which had, perhaps, gone unused for too long. He nodded, smiled again, and then was gone. It was the last time I was to speak to him.

Disco tits at the graduation party. Might've had a wee drink or, um … yeah.
Throughout training Bikram had always spoken about the 'power of self-realisation,' and for so long it made such little sense to me. But there, with my certificate in my hand and Bikram disappearing into the crowd, I finally got it. Because of him I had conquered my fear of flying just to get to LA to do the training, then put myself through nine weeks of killing myself in "Bikram's torture chamber" only to come out the other side a better and stronger person.

"You people," Bikram had said to us at the very beginning, "are the most intelligent people in the world. Ask me why!"

We had mumbled a collective "why?" in return, at which point he had smiled, opened his eyes wide and pointed a finger at us.

"Because you made the decision to come here to learn from me, THAT'S why."

He wasn't wrong. Going to LA, committing myself to this path, was the best decision I have ever made - the best thing I have ever done with my life.