Wednesday, September 23, 2020 - My two flights to Huntsville were smooth and uneventful. Charlotte's airport is crazy big. Huntsville's airport is pretty small, but not as small as Santa Barbara's. Norris, one of the Rocket City Yoga Ranch owners, picked me up from the airport and within minutes upon arrival at the ranch, I met a new friend, Jane from Binghamton. She said there would be an impromptu Bikram Yoga class at 3pm led by Esak. There I was, not even half an hour at the ranch, and I was standing next to Esak and bending with the master! I didn't want to show off too many advanced grips or techniques, so I limited my advanced stuff to two, Pyramid and Esak Toe Stand. A group of us drove to Whole Foods to get dinner. A Serbian named Dragan drove me. He has a tall, powerful physique and revealed he was once part of the Serbian men's national basketball team. It was to our advantage to sign up for the JFC's meal and protein shake plan because there was nothing to eat within walking distance of the ranch. I met the ranch owners' two children, Liam and Adele, who took an immediate liking to me. Adele described her toy plane filled with Paw Patrol characters. Liam was fascinated with my background in martial arts. I taught him some basic aikido techniques, including stance and movement, strikes, and Ushiro Tekubitori Kotegaeshi. Liam was the USA Yoga Nationals youth champion for the past two years.
Thursday, September 24, 2020 - Day 1 - Our first official JFC yoga class was a two-hour Ashtanga class from 8am to 10am led by Giselle. This was certainly as challenging as any Intermediate or Advanced Series yoga class I've taken. At 10:30am, "lunch" was two bottles of Suja Uber Greens juice and a goji berry smoothie. We had a two-hour orientation where we introduced ourselves, talked about the no-schedule schedule each day - be prepared for anything - and discussed the merits of juice cleansing and smoothies made with superfood protein powders. "At first, JFC was all about training people to become champions in the asana championships, but I've discovered that there are many people who want this kind of training, but don't necessarily want to compete," Esak said. We were each assigned karma yoga duties to keep the ranch home and yoga space tidy. Even the teachers were included in the chores. My chore was cleaning the yoga studio windows after the evening classes. At 1:30pm, we had a three-hour Jedi homework session where we practiced a series of drills with wall-walking, handstands, and more. If you've ever done wall-walking, you'll know it's eling exercise. If you're not careful and don't practice good technique, you can really mess up your back. "Repetition is the key to success," Esak advised. After the homework session, Esak led a 90-minute Bikram Yoga class. I'm glad I brought my foam roller and TheraCane with me because they really helped my neck and back pain. At 7pm, our chef, a fellow JFC trainee, prepared a dinner that included a Mandarin kale salad, veggie chili, and mini cornbread muffins. The salad contained kale, carrot slivers, fruits, and nuts. Many of my fellow students were fascinated by me being a DJ. Esak referred to me as "Bklyn Slice" just as much as he referred to me as "Clare," which I found amusing. I taught more aikido to Liam, including Shomenuchi Ikkyo. It was an exhausting first day.
Friday, September 25, 2020 - Day 2 - Our day started with Jedi homework - drills with wall-walking, handstands, and spine twists - from 9am to 10am and then a Bikram Yoga class from 10:15am to 11:45am taught by Jeannie, one of our fellow Jedis. I walked the wall as far down as when I was doing serious preparatory work for JFC. I'm going to try to get to the floor soon. I was a bit overzealous in my handstand practice. I had Giselle spot me, but she couldn't hear me say that my arm was buckling. I fell over in an awkward way and bent my pinky back. It wasn't as bad as my aikido injury, but it hurt. "Lunch" was a green smoothie followed by Esak's Intermediate class from 1pm to 3pm. I cramped up at one point because I ate too much for lunch. After class, we had our first group photo opportunity. At 4:30pm, we continued our Jedi homework with more wall-walking, handstands, spine twists, leg extensions, lunges, and more until 7pm. We focused on the details of Standing Head to Knee and Standing Bow, two of my worst postures. "Body down, QL, chin to the shoulder, butt quad, shoulders stretching apart," Esak repeated like a mantra. At 7pm, dinner was three kinds of vegetarian lasagna, tabbouleh salad, and raw superfood candy that tasted like Almond Joys. A group of us drove to Sprouts to get some supplemental food items. Before I entered JFC training, my teachers would always tell me how strong I was compared to other yogis and I believed them. What I've learned so far in training is "you're not as strong as you think you are, but you're also not as weak as you think you are."
Saturday, September 26, 2020 - Day 3 - Our day started with a two-hour Ashtanga class from 8am to 10am led by Giselle. At 10:45am, we did Jedi homework - drills with wall-walking, handstands, spine twists, supine splits, wheels with push-ups - until 12:15pm. Esak liked my progress in my wall-walks. "Lunch" was a banana-mango-green powder smoothie and two Suja Uber Greens juices. From 1pm to 4:30pm, we did an unannounced activity, horseback riding at Starr HB Farms. I had never ridden a horse before, so this was a unique experience for me. We were encouraged to wear our JFC tanktops in the yoga studio for a photo opportunity. A group of us went to Whole Foods for a quick in-between meal. David, a businessman with a bodybuilder's physique, drove us that day and I learned that he had attended several JFC trainings in the past and was mentioned in one of my favorite yoga autobiographies, Bejamin Lorr's Hell-Bent. I showed Barbara, a former master seargent in the Marine Corps, my Northeast Regional Championship video and she was impressed. "This is for all the fifty year olds out there. I may not be as flexible as the twenty-somethings in this training, but this is what they have to look forward to," I said, pointing at my video. At 5pm, Esak led a three-hour e84 class and inspired us with his ability to demonstrate the more difficult postures. Our horseback riding excursion really opened up our hips and, while it may seem fun, following it with a three-hour yoga class is especially challenging. With our knees trembling and, in some cases, buckling, everyone managed to bend and twist to the best of their abilities. I could tell people were getting tired. Some paused or sat out a posture. I usually practiced at the front of the room, but this time I moved to the middle row. During the handstand portion of the floor series, Barbara and I were exhausted, so we just lay flat on our backs. "Don't worry, we'll get through this together," I said, holding her hand. At 8pm, we had dinner with an artichoke and corn salad and curried chickpea stew with bulgar wheat. At 9pm, we had a 90-minute discussion on yoga philosophy that was broadcasted to the Jedi Lounge, an online discussion group for JFC members. At one point, Esak's attention turned to me, perhaps because he caught me visibly falling asleep. He asked me for my opinion on the meaning of yoga. I described my philosophy on not just yoga, but on how I believe God is actually in all of us and that every posture we do, we strive for perfection and that perfection gives us another energetic strand that connects our inner self with the greater Self. Once we connect enough strands, we are one with the universe.
Sunday, September 27, 2020 - Day 4 - We were told to be in the hot room at 8:30am. We placed our mats down, Esak walked into the room to look at us, and then asked us to roll our mats back up to do some wall-walking practice. It seems that whatever direction the class wants to go, Esak changes it and goes the opposite direction just to keep us on our toes. Wall-walking at the start of the day is brutal. You have to shake off the cobwebs before you can reach your deepest backbend. I managed to touch the floor with one hand, but couldn't get the other hand to match. I tried again, but slipped and fell out. From 9:30am to 10:30am, we chanted a Sanskrit mantra 108 times and did a silent meditation where most of us were able to sit through the entire exprience without leaving. The experience felt like an endurance challenge. From 10:30am to 1:00pm, Jasmine led drills with wall-walking, handstands, spine twists, supine splits, wheels with push-ups, and flows with Standing Head to Knee, Standing Bow, and Full Bow. We did the exercises to one of my DJ sets playing in the background. Many people came up to me afterwards and said they liked my set. For "lunch," we had a goji berry smoothie. I somehow missed my opportunity to get a watermelon juice, so I grabbed a coconut juice instead. From 3pm to 5:30pm, Esak led an e84 class. Somehow, I stood next to Esak again during his live simulcast. At 7pm, we had a one-hour Jedi homework session. Esak encouraged us to work through the soreness, to leave the soreness at the door, and learn how to "Change Your Mind" when something seems impossible. Many of these classes and homework sessions are broadcasted to other JFC members for Virtual JFC training. For dinner, we had lentil noodles with mixed vegetables and peanut satay sauce, cabbage salad, and a chocolate brownie in chia pudding. Our chef gave me a special ginger pudding that's supposed to help me sleep better and flush toxins out of my body. My belly was gurgling all night long.
Monday, September 28, 2020 - Day 5 - Unfortunately, one of my fellow JFC trainees left the training due to complaints of back issues. She was able to do some incredible backbends during our training. Her absence is a great loss to me as I had hoped to pay her for a deep tissue massage, since she was a masseuse. From 8:30am to 11am, we worked on Jedi homework and practice for our competition routines. A number of JFC trainees were preparing for the IYSF competition. Esak showed me an alternate way of getting into Eight Angle to get my shoulders more level. "I always called that one Side Crow," he said. I, too, called it Side Crow for a number of years due to Tony Sanchez' influence, but then changed it to Eight Angle because the Vinyasa folks and USA Yoga called it Eight Angle. "Lunch" was a green smoothie and two Suja Uber Greens juices. I hated the green juices. They taste like a mixed green salad blended with water. Speaking of water, you're not allowed to drink water during training. This is fine by me as I've been practiced many Bikram Yoga classes without sipping water in class. After each class or homework session, if I felt depleted, I sipped water mixed with electrolyte powder. I collected over two year's worth of electrolyte powder packets from various sources. I finished almost all of them in this training. From 12pm to 2:30pm, Jasmine led an e84 class. I was so exhausted at that point! My knees felt weak and I couldn't do many of the postures I could normally do. I dipped into the outdoor, heated jacuzzi for the first time this entire trip. The water was treated with salt to help with our aching muscles. At 5:30pm, we practiced a short round of wall-walks and handstands. I reached for the bottom row of exposed bricks but not the floor. We continued our competition practice, which was ten sets of a sample competition routine that included Standing Head to Knee, Standing Bow, Full Bow, Rabbit, Stretching, and a posture of our choice. I stood at the back of the room today - not my usual spot - because I was physically and mentally exhausted. I didn't feel like having myself seen in the live broadcast today. I marvelled over Alison's ability to perform difficult postures. "How many more years do you have in your division?" I looked at her and asked, "because I do not look forward to competing against you." I looked over at Jane's practice. Jane is one of the hardest-working Jedis. She has an unstoppable motor. If she ever competed, I'd probably have to bow out to her as well. At 6:45pm, Brooke, another fellow Jedi, led a 75-minute yin yoga class that felt more like Bikram postures done slowly. For dinner, we had a Buddha Bowl with root vegetables, mushrooms, and quinoa on top of a mixed greens salad. It was my favorite meal so far. David reminisced of the old days of JFC where trainees only practiced Bikram, Advanced, competition routines, and homework sessions. JFC has now added Ashtanga and Intermediate Series classes to its curriculum.
Tuesday, September 29, 2020 - Day 6 - We started our day with a two-hour Ashtanga class from 8am to 10am led by Giselle. I floated for a few seconds in an unassisted headstand during our headstand practice. Instead of fearing the headstand, I just said to myself, "What the hell, let's just do it." Ashtanga is hard as hell because of all the crazy twists and lifts. Some of my fellow JFC trainees were floating for 30 seconds! "Lunch" was a green smoothie. At 11:30pm to 3pm, we practiced two homework sessions with a mini-photo opportunity in between. I touched the fingertips of both of my hands on the ground during wall-walking! Several people were tracking my progress silently over the last week and congratulated me for reaching the bottom. Esak asked us if we had any questions so far during training. "Have you always been this hardcore?" I asked. "I feel I was more hardcore when I was younger and got softer with age," he replied. We had an early dinner, two bean tacos and a salad. Three of the seven days had stormy weather, so this was a nice, sunny day to sit poolside while eating lunch. We took a trip to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center for another photo opportunity and posed in our JFC tanktops in front of the SR-71 Blackbird. My posture was Phoenix. We had to pose again and again for the pictures until the entire group looked perfect. I don't know why we didn't just do the pictures in sections and have the photographer stitch the pieces together. I suppose this could be seen as another endurance challenge. A number of us went to Whole Foods for more supplemental food. At 7:30pm to 9:30pm, Breanna led an Intermediate Series class. I wanted to skip it, but my inner voice kept telling me, "You paid to be here, so you're going to do it." My knees were feeling weak during class, so I did Fixed Firm with straight legs and replaced Wheel with Bridge. Bree is a fine example of a competition-level yogi who isn't super-skinny and emaciated. She's really quite beautiful. I was hella tired by the time we got to Full Locust. We did two sets of that where the second set was one in which a partner held onto our ankles. Seeing that I did not have a partner, Ayo darted from the back of the room to the front to hold my ankles down. I surprised myself, and perhaps others, when I lifted myself high up in the air like a phoenix. The juice of the day was watermelon. I met with Jasmine, the Canadian yoga champion, later that night so she could review my routine for the upcoming IYSF virtual competition. Like me, she is self-trained and self-coached. Jasmine liked the beauty and stillness I exhibited in my routine. She offered to help me record another take of my video if I wanted. Jasmine is one of JFC's senior teachers and leads many of the global JFC trainings. When you watch her do a balancing posture, you cannot help but be amazed that you are looking at one of the most beautiful people in the world. I walked by the yoga studio and saw Tara, a fellow JFC trainee and one of my Facebook Live yoga students, preparing her routine for the IYSF virtual competition. She's been hard at work at it for the past few days. Our Ashtanga teacher, Giselle, was coaching her. Giselle's coach is the world-renowned Kim Tang.
Wednesday, September 30, 2020 - Day 7 - Esak led a Bikram Yoga class from 9am to 11am. I was in the front row again. This morning was the first time I seriously looked at myself in the mirror. Holy shit, there was some serious definition all around my ribcage! I lost inches off my hips, but my body looked much better than it did when I was competing in the Northeast Regional when I was seriously in shape. We returned to the yoga studio at 12pm for two hours of competition practice with one of my DJ sets playing in the background. Michel was instrumental in getting my music played, reminding the JFC teachers that we should have a "Clare Day." At 2pm, Esak led a discussion where we all openly shared our feelings about everything that happened during the week. I talked about how I overcame an incredible amount of neck and back pain I experienced in the past months so that I could prepare myself for the rigors of JFC training and how everyone was so encouraging and inspiring in my journey to walk the wall. I especially enjoyed my moments with Dragan, an experienced JFC member, and Barbara, a new JFC member like me. Roland was awesome, always dancing and putting everyone at ease during our sometimes painful wall-walking exercises. If he ever entered competition, he'd be a force to be reckoned with. "I'm very impressed with the people in this room. It's uncommon for everyone to finish JFC training," Esak admitted to us. "It's been a while since I've had a competition focus in these trainings. Thank you to all the people competing in USA Yoga and IYSF." From 3pm to 7pm, we returned to the yoga studio again for freeform practice and pictures with a professional photographer. We also had the option of having individual pictures taken, which I gladly did. Melissa, our photographer, and I had an instant connection, since we were both MINI owners. "You're my new favorite person," she said. For dinner, our chef prepared a vegan bbq feast with fried oyster mushrooms, fried cauliflower, roasted cauliflower, collard greens, vegan mac 'n' cheese, potato and tofu “egg” salad, cucumber salad, pumpkin pie cheesecake, and pineapple coconut pie.
Thursday, October 1, 2020 - I had an early flight out, so I couldn't join my friends for one last yoga class. I didn't get much sleep, since I was excited to return home. I discovered that one of the ranch workers, Michael, was a huge Eagles fan. That was our main topic of conversation when he drove us to the airport. I spent a little more ($438 instead of $303) for a first-class ticket for this trip because of my neck and back issues. My back cracks a lot more now when I twist it, but it also feels better than before training. The extreme soreness has been reduced to mild soreness. JFC is the type of training you need to do to build up strength and endurance, which is sorely lacking in a lot of yogis and competitors. I believe that's why you see a lot of competitors trembling in their Standing Bows and other single-leg balancing postures. During training, it's easy to think about sitting out of a training session and I thought about it a couple of times, but I kept saying to myself, "Hold on, you paid for this experience. You're going to do it!" and I just did it. Because I could. Because I wanted to. Even if I was tired and my neck and back were killing me, I pushed forward. Just like Nike says... Just Do It. Walk the wall. When you reach the floor, you will understand for yourself why this is such a powerful exercise. It was clear to me from seeing the packed classes every day that all of my fellow JFC trainees were just as serious and committed as I was to this training. In order to conquer your body's limitations, you must conquer your mind. This is the essence of JFC's slogan "Change Your Mind." The experience that you're having is the result of the thoughts you're thinking. Your thoughts dictate your experience. When I returned home, I offered to give one of my JFC shirts to my partner. "No, no, they're yours. You've earned them!" she said. The JFC shirts are like a badge of honor for completing the training. It was important for me to see that no matter how strong I believe I am, there is always someone stronger, but the power to become the strongest is within my reach if I am committed to improving myself.
I spoke to several Bikram Yoga athletes and they all agreed that JFC is the most hardcore thing they've ever done. Every JFC training is designed to test your physical and mental abiltiies to the extreme, but I patiently waited for an opportunity to take one led by its founder, Esak Garcia. I liked the training facility we were in because it gave us a total immersion experience. I knew going into this training that only the best of the best, competition-level people attend it. Along with Thayne and Robyn from Hot Yoga Philadelphia as JFC members, you now have me to add to this esteemed group.