This has been a pretty epic weekend for Bikram yogis around Melbourne. Saturday saw Rajashree, Bikram's wife, in an all-day workshop, and today the Yoga Championships. All this has made me reflect on my practice, right back to my very first class.
What do the words "Bikram yoga" conjure up? Sweaty lunatics in skimpy clothing balanced perfectly on one fingernail? That's seriously what I thought when I first stepped into a Bikram studio. I thought I was the most inflexible person on Earth. I loathed meditation and silence. Actually, I disliked being still, period.
The first class was ok. I survived and I didn't throw up or pass out. I came back the next day. And the next day. And pretty soon I was buying a six-month membership. And then a one-year membership. Here I am, three years later... (and I don't plan on stopping anytime soon).
I'm not a big part of the yoga "community" but one thing I do know is this: when I tell other yogis that I do Bikram, the usual response is a roll of the eyes or a smirk or the comment "oh, that's not real yoga". I'm no expert on yoga, but I've learned a few valuable lessons over the last three years. And I'm pretty sure I would have learned these lessons no matter what style of yoga I practiced.
1. You don't have to be flexible to do yoga.
Yoga isn't about getting your head to touch your feet. It sure looks cool and it's a great party trick, but it's not the point. All of the stretching and bending is simply a means to keeping your mind still - whether you can bend forward one millimetre or one metre. As long as your mind is still, your breathing is calm, and your body is relaxed.... you are doing yoga. (Actually, being inflexible as a beginner isn't such a bad thing, because you will notice rapid improvements in your flexibility in a short amount of time). When I first started, I couldn't touch my toes. And it took six months for me to be able to even grab onto my toes with straight legs.
2. It's about your mind, not the heat
Oh, the heat. It's a sauna in there. It's up around 40 degrees celcius, but the humidity makes it seem hotter. Some days, the heat is our worst nightmare. But ultimately, it is there for a reason. At a basic level, it makes your body more pliable. Stretching is easier and safer when you're warm. But more than that, the heat seems to help with mental strength. Because when you're balancing on one leg, limbs aching, sweat dripping, and all you want to do is collapse on the floor and drink a river of ice water, it takes mental strength to tough it out. To stay in the posture, even to stay in the room. Once you've survived a ninety-minute Bikram class, the day to day stuff won't faze you.
And, on a cold winter day, the heat lures you in like a siren song. It's like the hug of an old friend. And, after doing a Bikram class, you won't feel the cold for the rest of the day. Seriously.
3. Keep an open mind
You might not be a deadlocked barefoot hippie when you step into a Bikram class for the first time, but you just might be one when you walk out.
Perhaps not. But in all honesty, Bikram yoga can open the door to other types of spiritual practices like meditation, to people who would otherwise never delve into them. I'm thinking specifically of Type A personalities (myself included) who might scoff at the idea of meditation. The "athleticism" of Bikram yoga attracts many Type As into the hot room, and from there the mind opens - and the magic happens. Personally, I spent the first year of my practice fiercely focused on flexibility and getting "better" at the postures. I wanted to do the standing splits, dammit! Over time, I seem to care less and less about getting the postures "right" and more about being in the postures in that moment. Other things become the focus, like whether I can keep my mind still during savasana, or whether I can concentrate well enough to balance on one leg for a full minute. With that, comes mindfulness, gratitude, appreciation, acceptance. Yes I do want to do the standing splits one day but I'm ok with (and grateful for) where I am now.
4. Don't compare yourself to others
As tempting as it is to envy the gorgeous model-type yogi who has just set up next to us, remember why you are here. You are here for your own peace. If you spend your ninety minutes focused on someone else, then you can't be focused on yourself. There are many roads that lead to the yoga room, and every person there faces different battles. The person next to you might be there to heal their arthritic knees. Or to open up a frozen shoulder. Or to quiet the demons telling them that sobriety is no fun and to just have one more drink. The posture that's easy for you might be extraordinarily difficult for someone else. My point is: don't waste time wondering about others.
Never been to a Bikram class? I highly recommend you try it at least once. Many studios offer first-time students seven- or ten-day trials for the cost of a single class. You don't need any prior knowledge of yoga, and Bikram is suitable for all ages and all fitness levels. Some tips for your first time:
* Don't practice with a full stomach. There's nothing quite like the first forward bend and feeling your lunch sliding up the back of your throat. Don't eat anything at least a couple of hours before class - and even then, something easily digested like fruit. Save the bean burrito for afterwards.
* Hydrate well beforehand. You're going to sweat. A LOT. If you're doing an evening class, make sure you have consumed at least two litres of water during the day. If you do morning classes, make sure you are well hydrated the day before. On the morning of your class, you may like to eat something light such as a small piece of fruit or some juice. I would recommend drinking as much water as you can tolerate - but not so much that you're having to run to the bathroom every five minutes. Personally, I don't like eating anything beforehand, but experiment and see what works for you.
* Turn up early to the studio. This will allow you enough time to get settled and relax before class.
* Don't talk or walk around during class. It's about stillness - and anything else is just distracting.
* Listen to what the teacher is saying. Yes, the teacher will talk a lot and it's hard to concentrate on that for 90 minutes. It's kind of the point, though. Every bit of the dialogue has a purpose. And ultimately the teacher is there to take care of you.
As much as the general yoga community may dislike Bikram yoga or even Bikram himself, I will continue to tout the benefits of this yoga simply for what it has done for me over the last three years. As for the future, who knows? I may start disliking the heat, or I may find other types of yoga appealing. But for three years my eyes have gradually opened to what's real and what's important in this world, and learning my place in it - and this yoga has a big part in why I'm here now. If you haven't tried Bikram yoga before, I do recommend that you give it a go (provided you have your doctor's ok). I never would have guessed that the humid and slightly smelly room would unlock so many doors for me, and who knows, it just might for you too!