Bikram Yoga: Hot, sweaty, vigorous yoga without the Bullshit... it works!
The Journal of a Bikram Yoga Teacher Trainee
Chapter 12: It Works!
Mondays and Saturdays are the hardest days. Mondays because I've gotten stiff over the weekend by not practicing and Saturdays because I've gotten sore from practicing all week long. I have to take Sunday off and rest so that I can make it through another week to another Saturday but I really ought to practice on Sunday so that I'm not so stiff on Monday. Can you say "sheesh."
More physical effects: At first, I thought my skin was peeling but it turns out to only be my callouses. I feel chagrin for losing them and wonder how long it will take for them to come back. Is this one of the profound, life-changing experiences it was suggested I might go through?
Week 2 was all about insomnia, week 3 is all about sleeping. I have never really needed an alarm clock in my normal life -- I've always had a finely tuned and reliable internal bio-clock that wakes me at whatever I time I need to rise -- but I've been setting one here anyway, just in case. Good thing, it turns out, because all this week I've needed it to get up. I'm not having trouble falling asleep any more, I'm having trouble staying awake.
I fall asleep in Anatomy class, posture clinic and for a few precious minutes of every meal break. It's amazing. It takes me about 30 seconds to fall asleep on a cushion-less hard floor in a hot room with 270+ sweaty, smelly people milling about and talking. Usually, if someone falls asleep in posture clinic it is silently understood (envied?) and tolerated by the other students but twice I've had to be woken because my snoring was disturbing the class.
Oh, and did I mention that I'm stiff? And sore? Regardless, I'll shut up now before it leads me to start in on the pimples.
At this late date, it has just occurred to me to write a few words describing exactly what this venture of mine is all about. I have been taking it for granted that most of you would understand and appreciate the rationale that allowed me to suddenly interrupt my life, raid our savings account, drive across the country, set up camp on a floor next to a hairless dog and spend most of my waking hours either grunting and groaning in a sauna, studying pidgin-English yoga dialogues or listening to a self-proclaimed "guru to the stars" pontificate on the meaning of life and the pleasures of Rolls Royce's and Big Macs and I'm just now wondering if it might behoove me to provide a little context lest you all conspire to arrange an intervention to save me from Bikram and myself.
John Martini first told Pam and I about Bikram's Yoga during one of our (almost) annual visits to Key West. Pam, being more athletic and possessing more energy (and optimism, perhaps) than I, immediately went to a class and loved it. I, on the other hand, thought she and John had lost their minds. I'm not, by nature, a lover of heat. My baths and showers are preferably only a little more than luke-warm and while I can appreciate a sauna or steam room I have never been able to endure one for more than ten minutes. The thought of doing anything, let alone exercise, in a room whose temperature was deliberately set above one hundred degrees seemed insane to me. I liked the idea of trying a yoga class but I couldn't get past my resistance to the heat concept so I passed on the Bikram method.
Back in Atlanta Pam and I decided to look for another kind of yoga class -- one that she and I might be able to attend together. Our friend Polly was also interested so the three of us decided to attend an eight-week Monday evening session at a local yoga studio. It was an hour class after which the three of us would go out to dinner. By the end of the eight weeks we all realized that we were enjoying the dinner part of the evening more than the yoga.
If Bikram's Yoga was insane, this class was its polar opposite and we soon fell out of favor with it. Not that there's anything wrong with sanity -- it's just that it's got a tendency to become a little boring week after week. The postures were all slow and gentle, the breathing exercises laborious and the teacher spent considerably more time talking about herself than I cared to listen to. My favorite part of the class was the dead man's pose at the end during which I could catch a few zzz's. I don't mean to denigrate the class or the teacher -- I have some close friends who get a lot more out of it than I did and I'm sure it's because they put a lot more into it than I did. I brought a lot of resistance to the classes with me and I just never felt motivated to get past them on my own and I never felt any kind of affinity with the teacher or that style of yoga.
As much as we enjoyed the Monday dinners, sans yoga, we eventually fell out of that habit, too. Not intentionally, though, and we always professed a desire to fall back into it. The three of us had bonded during our Monday evenings and so we always kept an eye out for some other class or weekly event around which we could resume our dinners.
Then, one day, a Bikram Yoga studio opened just down the road from one of our favorite restaurants, The Sundown Cafe, on Cheshire Bridge Road. I haven't elaborated on the nature of the attraction Pam, Polly and I held for each other but it was strong and we always had intensely stimulating and interesting dinner conversations. I enjoyed them so much and was missing them so much that I actually was willing to give Bikram's Yoga a try just so that we could continue.
I will never forget my first class nor can I imagine what power I was able to draw on that would get me to return for a second class. Put simply, I found it to be the most physically challenging activity I had ever undergone. The heat was unbearable, the postures impossible and I felt so claustrophobic and heat-oppressed that I was sure I'd never do it again.
To this day I have no clue why I went back. I hated it. Whereas before, I suspected it was insane, I now knew it to be thus. The teacher, Cristina, was a demure looking and slight woman with a strong Argentinean accent whose words and manner betrayed her appearance. She was, in fact, a tough-talking drill-sergeant barking out commands and showing little mercy for those of us who surely were dying before her (that's not entirely accurate -- she did offer some compassionate words for the new students but telling you that diminishes the drama of the story, don't you think?). Her dialogue was laced with profanity as she ordered us to "lock the knee" and "push, push, push!" This was not yoga as I knew it. It reminded me of another heat-based discipline which I had had only a small amount of experience with but felt oddly stimulated and rejuvenated by; a native American sweat lodge. That experience, like this yoga, was only pleasurable for me in the same way that banging my head against a wall might have been. It was exhilarating when it was over.
While I struggled to accept the yoga I immediately liked Cristina and saw in her a kindred spirit. On the surface she appeared gruff and hard to get close to but I recognized a twinkle in her eye that suggested a depth of being and a compassion that few possess. That and the occasional raunchy joke and incidental profanity interspersed with her yoga dialogue provided a personal connection to the practice that was part of the draw that kept me going back. Still, there was something about the yoga itself that I found compelling. I couldn't explain it but, as much as I hated it, I kept going back.
It only took a couple months for me to begin to notice some changes in my body and my mental outlook. I soon lost 10 pounds of middle aged flab around my waist, I slept more soundly, and I began to see my mood improved. I have long struggled with mood swings and depression and nothing had ever put a dent in my cynicism like this yoga had. The physical intensity and the oppressive heat also added a kind of forced meditation on me. I have never been able meditate. I've wanted to and I've tried to but I never found the ability to completely quiet my mind. The challenge of this yoga is so much that it requires a mental discipline in order to sustain the practice for 90 minutes. For the first time in my life I am actually meditating. Of course, it's still a major struggle.
I have a chatty mind. In a good class, I probably only shut it up for a total of between 5 and 10 minutes but that's more than I've ever achieved and I expect it to increase with time. One last noteworthy aspect: no dogma. Oh sure, there's some ideology attached to the yoga but it's primarily restricted to locking the knee and practicing sincerely and regularly. It works for me.
Have I mentioned the traffic here? It sucks, but you knew that. The only reason I mention it is that it provides a greater challenge than the training. The training provides ample opportunity for mental and emotional challenges with so many people crammed into such a funky space and enduring such a challenging schedule. Thus far I am finding it relatively easy to maintain a calm state of mind and nothing has gotten me more flustered than the nervousness of reciting barely memorized dialogue in front of everybody. That's a little like appearing on stage in a play that I haven't had enough rehearsal time for -- something I've been through a dozen times and have gotten pretty good at masking. No great threat to my serenity.
The traffic, on the other hand, almost never fails to get me riled. How can I ever expect to be a yogi if I can't maintain composure in a setting as mundane and as predictable as traffic? Did you see Bill Murray in one of his rare successful dramatic roles in The Razor's Edge? I have often quoted his character who claims near the end of the movie that "it's easy to be a holy man on the side of a mountain" as justification for having rejected a monastic life in the Himalayas. (I ought to be referencing the novel but I'm not literate enough to have actually read Somerset Maugham.) The implication seems pertinent in this overpopulated world especially since there aren't enough desert islands to go around and who in their right mind wants to live on a snowy mountain?
As I write this the television is showing a 1979 movie called Meteor with Sean Connery and Karl Malden. It may be the first of the disaster movies that bombarded our theatres during the eighties and you can figure out the plot by the title: a giant meteor is heading to earth and Sean has to save the planet. Very eerily, we just watched a scene where a splinter from the meteor took out the World Trade Center towers and parts of Manhattan.
I've got so much more to say but I must wrap it up. I hope to have some time this week for a mid-week entry. Pam is going to be visiting next weekend which will impinge on my writing time and I'm already behind myself. I've still got several scribbled notes to expand into journal entries. Among them, a moment of perfect harmony with the universe, an appearance by my ego which interferes with my dialogue presentation, a cynical inquiry into the blurring of news and advertising, a mention of increased appreciation of music as pure sensory stimulation and exposure of the big Anatomy class scandal. As I like to say, stay tune..
Copyright 2005 E. Jennings
Posted with the permission of the author. Formerly the technical director of a national touruing theatrical company and a successful web designer, the author now teaches at his own successful Bikram Yoga Studio. If you would like to read additional excerpts of this journal, please email Webmaster@BikramYoga.com