Monday, January 20, 2014

Bikram Yoga: An Auctioneer, a Sauna, and Scantily Clad People

"I have been a seeker and I still am, but I stopped asking the books and the stars.  I started listening to the teaching of my Soul." -- Rumi

I've known for years that I needed to do some form of yoga.  My tight, inflexible body was craving it, and my racing, overly-stimulated mind was begging for it.  Yet, I never catered to either one of them; instead, I tried to address my body and mind weaknesses through other methods.  

Finally, thanks to the wonders of Groupon, I've answered the calls of my body and mind by signing up for a Bikram Yoga class.  (By a show of comments, how many of you have thrown caution to the wind and tried something new thanks to Groupon?)

Bikram Yoga is a series of 26 poses designed to warm and stretch muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the specific order they were designed to be stretched.  The real kick in the yoga pants is the temperature.  Bikram Yoga studios are kept at around 105 degrees Fahrenheit, with about 40% humidity.  The purpose of the heat is to protect the muscles to allow for better stretching, detox the body, thin the blood, and increase heart rate for a more aerobic workout…

You can learn more about Bikram Yoga here, but here's my simple description:

Bikram Yoga is less like this...

And more like this…

Pretty much how I look during Bikram...

Bikram yoga is unexpectedly, yet intoxicatingly different from what I thought it'd be.  It's unexpected because I knew it'd be hot; but, "make me want to peel my skin off" kind of hot - no.  I knew it'd be difficult (given my lack of flexibility), but heart-pumping, knee shaking, muscle aching kind of difficult - no.  I knew it would force me to focus on my breathing; but, "you will pass out and fall over if you don't breathe right" kind of focus - no.

The intoxicating part comes from how amazingly awesome, detoxed, and strong I feel afterwards.  It's a true rush.  All that sweat, all those challenging poses, all that focus on my breath, makes me fully aware of what's going on with my body, what's weak, what's strong, and what my body craves.

Coincidentally, what my body craves after Bikram Yoga is the most nutrient-dense, healing, whole foods I can get my hands on.  So naturally that calls for a smoothie or juice.  I immediately run home and make one of my green smoothies, the ingredients of which can vary depending on what's in the fridge.  Here's one recipe (made with all organic ingredients, of course):

  • 2 kale leaves
  • 1 apple (I prefer Fuji or Gala)
  • 2 large carrots (peeled)
  • 1/2 cucumber 
  • banana (optional)
  • fresh grated ginger (however much you like - I used probably 1 TBSP.  If you're using dried grated ginger from the bottle, you can use less because it's stronger)
  • 2 cups filtered water
  • 3-4 ice cubes
  • tear/chop all ingredients and place into a blender (preferably a VitaMix) and blend until smooth
Green smoothie heaven to continue to nourish & detox after Bikram...
But now back to the hotness….

What do I love so much about the Bikram class and what is it teaching me?  Plenty….

The Heat:  Drink, Breathe, & Calm the Body

At my first class the instructor said the goal is just to stay in the room.  If you feel faint, sit down, drink some water, but just stay in the room.  Easy enough I thought.  But about 20 minutes in I wanted to jump out of my skin, leave my sweaty carcass in that sauna, and go running outside in the 30-degree coolness.  I stayed though and, to my surprise, slowly started to acclimate.  Now mind you, at no point did I feel "cool."  I did get to the point, however, where by focusing on my breathing and my poses, I not only took my focus off the heat, but I started to control my body's response to it.  The focus on deep breathing slows your heart rate, which slows down your system and, consequently, slows down the heat your body is generating.

For me, this heat acclimation is critically important given my history of heat exhaustion at races.  I'm hoping that Bikram will help my body learn to acclimate better to the heat, and teach my mind how to calm and cool my body by focusing on my breathing and my movements.  In addition, Bikram is showing me that I need to drink even more water than I usually do during the day.  I'm pretty good about drinking at least eight glasses of water per day, which may be fine for an inactive lifestyle; but, for the days when I'm working out, particularly in the heat, I need to up this consumption a little bit.  The Bikram instructor said that we should be able to get through the first 20 minutes of class without needing a drink.  If not, then we probably didn't drink enough throughout the day.  Now, that's not necessarily a rule for other sports, and that certainly does not mean that if you're properly hydrating during the day, you won't need much hydration during an endurance event.  But it's a good indicator to me that my body needs to start off an event - be it yoga or a triathlon - with my muscles plenty hydrated to keep me going with the ability to top off (rather than totally replaces) my water reserves during the event.

The Poses:  Stretch & Strength

Bikram Yoga poses.  Source:  Independent Spirituality
There are 26 Bikram Yoga poses designed to stretch the muscles in the order they were meant to be stretched.  These poses are not meant to be done in the absence of the increased heat, so doing them at home in this manner is not advisable.  (The high heat allows the muscles to temporarily soften and increase their flexibility.)

According to, these poses:
"systematically move fresh, oxygenated blood to one hundred percent of your body, to each organ and fiber, restoring all systems to healthy working order, just as Nature intended. Proper weight, muscle tone, vibrant good health, and a sense of well being will automatically follow."
Well hell, that sounds awesome, right?  Seriously though, these poses are kicking my butt and reaffirming my long suspected weaknesses.  I've known for years, that many of my running-related injuries and my overall muscular "weenie-ness" comes from lack of flexibility, muscular imbalances, and muscular weaknesses.  I'm addressing those imbalances and weaknesses through PT and a chiropractor, and the Bikram Yoga is adding a much-needed compliment to that.   The strength and flexibility needed for the poses, as well as the mental focus, is a triple whammy for triathlon and running.

Keep in mind, however, that the competitive nature possessed by most triathletes and runners has no place in yoga.  Don't try to keep up with the rest of the class.  If a pose causes pain, stop.  If you can't do the pose fully, don't push it.  Yoga is all about accepting where you are at that moment.

The Breath:  Focus & Presence

Breathing is definitely one of my weaknesses.  Sounds odd I know; but STOP, right now, and notice how you're breathing.  Chances are you're breathing very shallow, into your chest.  This is how most of us breathe throughout our normal day.  In fact, the only time I'm consciously focusing on my breath is during my workouts.  Maybe that's part of why I love my workouts:  it's the only time I'm truly present, focusing on every deep breath, and every movement.

There's a wonderful quote about yoga and breath:
"When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady.  But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life.  Therefore, one should learn to control the breath."  Hatha Yoga Pradikipa
In Bikram Yoga, I think the importance of the breath is even more symbolic of its importance in life.  If you don't focus on the power of your breath - on the rejuvenation of the inhale and the release of the exhale - you will pass out and fall flat on your ass.  The Bikram instructor kept saying that if you start to feel faint, keep your eyes open and focus on your breath.  The same can be said of life:  when you start to feel like life is going too fast and your head is spinning, instead of closing your eyes and hoping it will pass, open your eyes, focus on your breath, and steady your mind and body.

As cliche as it sounds, focusing on your breath brings you into the present.  If you take your focus off your breath, it pulls your focus off the movement, making you unsteady, wobbly, and again, likely to fall on your ass.  By focusing on your deep inhale and exhale, your mind is pulled to the connection between your breath and your body.  Thus, your mind can focus on the pose, making you stronger and fully present on what you're doing at that particular moment.  How strong would we be in life if we did the same thing….

My Attention:  Mindfulness

The auctioneer-style of the Bikram classes I've attended is no exaggeration.  Imagine being explained how to do this pose by someone who spits out all these instructions in quick, successive order in about five seconds:

My over-stimulated little brain can't always keep up!  I find that by the time my brain has transmitted to my body what movement I'm supposed to be doing, I've missed the next five steps and am stuck in some yoga-pose-limbo where I don't know how to finish the rest of the pose or get out of the position I'm in.  Combine that with the fact that my brain is simultaneously saying "how the hell am I supposed to do that?" or "holy crap that hurts" or "wait, which way are my hands supposed to go?"  It's all a lesson in mindfulness.  Yes, the Bikram instructors talk fast and, for a newby, it can take some getting used to.  But instead of letting my brain give its running commentary on what I'm doing, if I just focus on every word the instructor is saying, my body will intuitively follow.  Another strong symbolic gesture of how your body will follow if your mind leads the way….

The Scantily Clad Yogis:  Letting Go of Self-Consciousness

I'm self-conscious.  I hate women's locker rooms because I feel like women are going to stare at me thinking "wow, she looks thin in her jeans, but she really has cellulite on those thighs and a muffin-top to go along with it."  I try not to wear anything too revealing, even in races, because I'm afraid of the teeniest bit of cellulite or untoned muscle flapping around.  Silly and narcissistic, I know.

So when I showed up to my first Bikram class and saw people - of all shapes and sizes - dressed basically in the 60's style bikinis, I was taken back:
Compare this...
to this...

And the attire for some of the men was even more shocking:

NOT my instructor, but looks like some of the guys in my class...
So I felt a bit out of place in my full-length yoga pants and tank top.  And about thirty minutes into the class, I was wishing I could strip off my clothes!  Yet, despite my thin yoga clothes feeling like a fur parka, I still can't bring myself to buy some of the teeny little yoga shorts and a mid-riff tank top.  The most I've done is wear my knee-length yoga pants instead of the full-length ones...  

The people in my yoga class are real people.  Even the instructors.  They are not professional models or people who work out 24/7.  They have jobs, kids, friends, and a million demands.  They have bodies of all shapes and sizes.  I'm no different.  Yet, I can't bring myself to let it my muffin top hang out like some of the women in the class.  So I can't help but say to myself:  I need to be more like these women!  I need to not give a crap if my muffin top hangs out.  I need to recognize that all women have cellulite.  I need to embrace what society has labeled as "imperfections" and realize they are not imperfections at all; rather, they are only one part of a whole that in its entirety is me in my perfect form.  I'm not there yet…but hopefully I will get there.  

Yoga therefore has given me insight into self-love, beauty in all its forms, and the potential I have if I just let go of the self-consciousness.  Ironically, despite the strenuous poses, the sauna-like heat, my inflexibility, and my shallow breathing, I think my biggest obstacle will be in letting yoga teach me this concept of self-love.  Accepting where I am at this present moment - be it in a particular pose or a particular body shape - will be the key to unlocking my greatest potential.  Only then can I do as Rumi suggests:  listen to the teachings of my soul - instead of letting the incessant questions and doubts of my rambling mind be my focus…  

Do you practice yoga? Why or why not?  

And have you drank the Groupon Kool-Aid and tried something you haven't done before just because it was discounted on Groupon?