Balancing Act: An Interview With Bikram Yogi and CrossFit Champion Kristi Lunny

Kristi Lunny used to drive through the parking lot of the Bikram yoga studio across the street from where she worked and watch people – towels and mats in hand – get out of their cars and disappear into the building. Kristi – long-distance runner, USPS mail carrier, veteran, mother – was intimidated by the yoga and it was years before she finally parked her car, got out, and followed them in.

She remembers everything about her first class: what she wore, wear she stood in the room, that it was five days before her 39th birthday, and that once class started she knew – without a doubt – that she’d come back again the next day. And the next, and the next.

Once you made it through the door and into your first class, you knew right away that Bikram yoga was something you needed to do.

Yes. When I was in that first class, I thought, “This sucks, this is hard.” But once it was over, I thought, “Wow. This is amazing.”

It’s funny because, when I first came to the yoga, it was for healing my running injury. Now it’s for so many other things, too – physical, mental, emotional.

You’re a person drawn to challenges. For instance, you enlisted.

Yes, that was a challenge. Really, I enlisted because I felt like there was no other options for me to go to college. So, I joined the Air Force when I seventeen. My parents had to sign off saying it was okay.

When did you start working for the U.S. Postal Service?

I took the test in 1989. When I first started, we worked over 40 hours a week, and we worked whatever hours they wanted us to. It was a lot of hours and it was every day, even Sundays.

In your spare time, you were an avid long distance runner. How many marathons have you run?

Many. I’ve run Burlington (Vermont) seven times. Marine Corps in D.C. I’ve run Boston twice – once as a bandit and, actually, it rained so hard I thought for sure the ink on my bib would run and I’d get caught.

So, you were working across the street from the yoga studio for many years and, finally, you decide to go in. Challenge accepted.

Yes. Challenge accepted. I took that year off from running and just did Bikram. It healed my hamstring.

Taking a year off from running must have been hard.

It was hard. Because the things that I do, they become like brushing my teeth. I have to brush my teeth, I have to eat, I have to run. Things become rote.

You don’t wake up in the morning and think, “Hmm, do I or don’t I?” You just do.

Yes, exactly. That’s how I’m wired. Like the Postal Service – I took the test, got the job, and then I was there for 27 years.

Recently, you left.

Yes, I did. Twenty-seven years is a long time. And it got to the point where it wasn’t healthy for me. It got to the point that my job was changing who I was. I didn’t like that.

What was happening?

It was a lot pressure. The thing is, I don’t need a pat on the back, but I won’t be put down for the job that I’m doing. I give one hundred percent to whatever I do.

Okay, let’s be honest, you probably give more like 157 percent.

[Laughs]

But wow, that pressure. It was every day. It was always do more, do more. And it was never enough.

So, a year ago, I quit.

You left before you were eligible for full benefits?

I did. After 27 years, I lost over 1000 hours of sick leave – that’s six months – and I lost my medical insurance. I would’ve had my medical into my retirement, and I gave it up.

How many more years did you have left?

Six and a half.

You had a choice to make.

I did. I quit. And, you know what? I put years back on my life.

It sounds like staying would have been a “Woman Retires, Falls Over Dead” story.

Yes. Absolutely. And life is too short, you know?

Last year was huge for me. I quit my job. I went to Raja Yoga Academy teacher training. Now, I’m both teaching at Queen City Bikram Yoga and coaching at Champlain Valley CrossFit.

After doing yoga several days a week for a year, and healing your hamstring injury, did you start running again?

No. Well, sort of. I joined Planet Fitness.

They have pizza there!

[Laughs] They do!

I also did P90X and Insanity.

I’d go to Planet Fitness in the morning and do 30 minutes of stair climbing, then I’d go home and do Insanity. Then, I’d go to work and walk all day. After work, I’d go to yoga.

And you were also raising two sons.

Yes. My husband would get them breakfast. But for many years, when I was running, I would get up and run first thing in the morning – at 4 A.M.

You were up at four to run? That’s so early! What time do you get up now?

Four. [Laughs]

Just so you know, when I wake up at four o’clock in the morning, I’m really happy that I still have a couple more hours to sleep.

[Laughs] I get a lot done.

It’s not easy for women to carve out the time to take care of ourselves. We often feel guilty for being temporarily inaccessible to others while we put ourselves first.

It’s not easy. But, really, everyone will be okay. The kids will be okay. And actually, they’ll be better for it because you’ll be better for it.

So, how did you get started with CrossFit?

I read an article in a fitness magazine and it really interested me. Not long after, a friend posted something on Facebook about going out to the CrossFit Games in California. She explained that it’s an annual event and the best in each category – individual, masters, and team – come from all over the world and compete.

But Vermont was the only state without a CrossFit affiliate.

It was. But my friend knew of a guy who planned to start CrossFit park workouts. I got all the information, went to the first one, and just loved it. Like Bikram, I knew I needed to CrossFit.

Now it’s a big, busy gym. It really took off.

It did! Jade brought a lot of friends, we all brought friends. I don’t think he’s ever really done any advertising. Now it’s a big community. It’s been very organic.

We love organic in Vermont.

[Laughs] We do.

What was the response when your CrossFit friends heard that you also have a dedicated Bikram yoga practice?

Everyone – both at the gym and at the studio – is so supportive and encouraging of all of it.

That’s what these communities are about – feeling as good as you can feel, doing what you didn’t think you could do.

And, the two things – CrossFit and Bikram yoga – really complement each other in so many ways.

What I’ve learned in the six years I’ve been practicing Bikram yoga is that you can’t talk people into doing it. For the first few months, I tried. But it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work. People have to come to it themselves. You have to lead by example. And people will see what you’re doing, see that you feel good, and follow you. You don’t have to preach it.

How did you get involved in the CrossFit Games? Did you jump in and start competing?

Of course. It was a challenge and I love a challenge!

Kristi at the 2014 CrossFit Games

And now, you’re ranked 14th in the world in the Masters division! Let’s say that again: You’re ranked 14th IN THE WHOLE WORLD.

[Laughs] I am!

The Open is an online competition for anyone. Anybody, anywhere can do it.

A workout is announced once a week and you have until the following Monday to be judged by a certified trainer and submit a score. You’re ranked weekly, worldwide.

Some people move on, some don’t and, eventually, the top 200 go into an online qualifying round. From that top 200, the top 20 in the world go to the games.

How are you feeling about this year’s games?

I’m excited. I’m in a totally different space than I’ve been in previous years.

What’s different?

Well, in previous years, I felt like I had to do more, give more. I was working for the Postal Service, and there’s only so much time in the day, so I gave up a lot of yoga.

What happened when you missed yoga to train for the Games?

What happened is that I got injured.

What I’ve learned is that the harder you workout, the more you have to work at recovery. Not my mindset is that I’m not going to sacrifice yoga to workout more. I’m actually going to do a lot more yoga so that I can train harder.

You’re doing yoga alongside the CrossFit training.

Absolutely, so the recovery is always happening.

Has that changed how you feel and how you perform?

I feel amazing. I seriously feel amazing. I had a shoulder injury – a full tear that I never had repaired – but I’m not in pain. I feel really healthy.

How many yoga classes do you do a week?

I practice every day.

When people find a regular practice like yoga or CrossFit, it’s revelatory. It’s life-changing.

It is. Because it’s more than muscles. It’s so much bigger than that. You do more than you knew you could do. And you learn that through practice.

There are so many parallels between the two practices. It’s all about the alignment, for instance, that’s non-negotiable whether you’re in the gym or in the studio.

And there’s group energy. When you’re down, the group brings you up. When you’re up, you pull other people up.

Kristi teaching Bikram yoga

What would you say to CrossFitters who haven’t made their way to a Bikram yoga class yet? Why should they try it?

Go to class and get in touch with yourself. Who are you? Know yourself. Learn about who you are, accept who you are, accept where you are, and go forward from there.

You have to practice doing what you can do. Maybe you’re not in the full expression of the posture, and it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter. Not even a little bit.

Your body is telling a story. You’ve lived however many years of this life doing all of the things you’ve done, experiencing all of the things that you’ve experienced, and you carry it with you in your body.

Your story affects your postures. And you’re here to heal yourself.

You can feel better.

Yes, you can feel better and you can be a better person. But in order to really be a better person to the people that you love, you have to be a better person to yourself first.

It’s hard sometimes to go into that hot room and practice looking in the mirror directly at yourself and be okay with you see.

I think a lot of us go into that room for the first time as our own mean friend. The mean friend says, “Ugh, look at your big belly. It’s ugly. Look at your legs. You don’t deserve to be here.”

Exactly.

It’s a practice. It’s not something that changes overnight. It’s not easy. You get in there every day that you can and practice loving yourself a little bit more.

Day by day, you become a better friend to yourself, a better mother, father, daughter. You become a better person.

What would you say to Bikram yogis who haven’t made their way to CrossFit yet?

Get in there! Try it. Do what you can do. You’ll surprise yourself. Be with the group, leave your ego at the door. You’ll learn that you’re stronger than you know.

Ok, so how do we get you on that 2017 CrossFit Games podium?!

This is how I’m looking at it: All of the hard work is done. I made it. I’m in the top twenty. I’m going there to do the best I can and have fun.

Wherever I land is okay. It’s really okay.

And hey, you’re already a world champ!

[Laughs] I’m just really hoping they have a Bikram yoga studio there.