The Meltdown. Why I practice Bikram yoga.
Surprisingly, it’s almost three years since I wrote this blog post, which means I have been a member of the melting set who thrive in the hot room for just as long. Time flies when you’re burning up. This morning I returned to the practice. Unlike many devotees, I cannot practice this form of yoga in the intense humidity we endured here in Byron Bay for at least five months over summer. So when it cools down and my gammy leg aches, my waist expands and my hormones rage – this is where I go. It works for me. It is not for everyone – and as you will read, it took some getting used to.
Let the flames begin.
First published June 10 2014
When I was a teacher and purveyor of all things posture and Pilates, I viewed Bikram yoga as a Sanskrit Starbucks sweating amongst a sea of ancient art form. In fact, my first two experiences concluded in the same result: passing out for hours after practice.
My first attempt was a class in the inner city suburb of Richmond in Melbourne, long before I began a journey into teach asana. The second, years later in my neighbourhood of Fitzroy. I survived ridicule from the teacher and a painful posture adjustment. A lack of awareness on my behalf resulted in not bringing enough water and being tormented trying to escape the heat to refill my water bottle. No, you cannot even to use the bathroom.
Since then I have shunned, scalded and snickered at anyone who practiced Bikram yoga. A modern-day systemized franchise that stretched founder Bikram Choudrey into the Californian guru who ‘branded the unbrandable’. I was cynical, and based on my own brief experiences, ultra sceptical that this formula could do anyone any good.
So what changed? Well, my dear friend Alex started practising at the local studio. She takes advantage of a 30 day challenge where she will go almost every day. Imagine 90 minutes a day sweltering in 40 C. degree heat for 30 days. I thought she was mad! She tried to entice me but I refused point-blank, opting to pursue and maintain a more traditional, stronger practice nearby, even though I still struggle with inversions – and persistent surfing and yoga related injuries get in the way of my flow.
After surfing one morning, I saw Alex on the beach. She was radiant, svelte and healing well from a recent break up. We are great buddies, share a love of surfing and a powerful bond of attending the same school – albeit years apart – and the common denominator of being raised on the same boarding school diet that has plagued our metabolism into adulthood. So from bikinis to Bikram, I knew that she was onto something, and as I trust her whole heartedly, I vowed to give it a crack to shift some excess baggage from travel and post Febfast abstinence.
My first class was last Saturday. I knew to take plenty of water, a few towels and an open mind. It was 8am and fortunately for me the heaters had not been on early so the room was actually not that hot. Much to my surprise I was able to perform all 26 postures and two breathing exercises without taking rest. My balance needed work, my core stability was on sabbatical, but all in all I was thrilled I had survived my first class. With six days left of a $20 locals’ introductory offer, I set myself a seven day challenge.
Here’s what I learnt.
Day one: Saturday 8am – “Push push push, change!”
I survived and felt great. Triumphant that I had achieved my goal of getting out of bed and into Bikram. My skin was buzzing, my gut clearing and my weaker muscles shaking, especially VMO and sartorius amongst my inner thigh that is richly textured with stubborn scar tissue from a fractured femur. It occurred to me – and was visibly obvious – what I was enjoying about this form of yoga. Bikram teachers do not demonstrate physically. They instruct verbally. In fact I could only liken their rapid-paced, repetitive script with the speed and quiver of a race caller. Faster the Bill Collins – The Accurate One, they have you twisting and turning at a rate of knots in to knots you never knew you could do. Being an old punter from way back – I LOVE this! I particularly loved the 90 minute practice that finished precisely on time and did not stretch to two hours with prolonged postures and late shivasana.
More importantly, without the distraction of a perfectly poised Adonis bending before you and preaching from the good book of asana, I actually listened and moved, rather than watching and mimicing. Perhaps I am more auditory and visual after all. A GM I once worked with told me that yoga teachers held the greatest ego of any athlete. Why? I exclaimed, jaw on the kitchen floor. Well, he reasoned, that no other sportsman would dare boast that is or her modality can elevate you closer to your God. So true.
Day two: Sunday 10am – “Pain pain pain, your shoulder should hurt”
I was back on the mat and still hiding in the corner. I felt good. A bit sore but proud to be back and happy to see my friend Alex had arrived in class, perched in front of the teacher. Oh my! I relaxed into the practice, trying to dodge my own reflection in the vast wall of mirrors and focus on my breathing, absorbing cues like bend forward, touch your head to your knees so there’s no gap, like a ‘Japanese ham sandwich’. Go figure that one out for me will you? Sweat poured out of me like a broken faucet. Yet unlike my Melbourne experiences, I did not feel depleted and I left the class feeling great and slightly more flexible and in much less pain. I did not lie down and pass out for hours and my circulation was improving, my digestion improving, however I had cold feet at night. Best of all, as there is no Chataranga Dandasana my shoulders were not screaming at me.
Day three: Monday 10am – “Your back should hurt”
I awoke feeling like I was hungover. Everything ached, in particular my lower back. I had a thick white coating on my tongue with scalloping on the edges and using tongue diagnosis based on Chinese medicine, I could tell that my spleen was being undernourished. The usual remedy for this is rest, hydration and warm, cooked orange coloured foods. Think autumn foods like pumpkin. To re-iterate I chose Bikram because I knew it would help me heal my digestion and sluggish metabolism as the heat helps to boost the digestive fire, called Agni in Ayurvedic medicine. Moving energy through the gut by way of breath helps as does igniting the para-sympathetic response, which relax every cell in the body. I also became more familiar with the practice and sequence of postures, cherishing every shivasana and wondering why other styles of yoga do not offer a rest position mid way. I realised that for every punishing pose or cluster of asanas such as the gruelling standing sequence is followed by a rest – sometimes for two minutes. Heaven!
“I work 24 hours a day, no food, no sleep. You’ll never meet another human being on this earth more pure than me” – Bikram Choudrey
Day four: Tuesday 6pm – Breakdown
WARNING: BAD LANGUAGE
I’m in deep doodoo. I dragged myself in to the torture chamber as Bikram himself calls it feeling determined not to miss a beat. Reassuring myself the room would not be much hotter at night like I was warned. I walked in to the hot room and foolishly set myself up under a heater. Am I insane? Probably. From the get go I was fucked. Hot, tired, cranky and now nauseous. Everything I had read and knew was happening all at once.
The protein based meal I had eaten hours earlier was rising up and I could not acclimatize to the heat. I took a sip of water and was immediately chastised by the instructor. WTF? Nobody told me about The Water Rule. FFS! On day one I was advised to drink when I needed to”. And now I really, really need to and I’m being told I can’t? Who’s fucking idea was this anyway? The Water Rule. 3 water breaks. That’s it. I’m clearly not well, shaking, quivering and barely holding it together, let alone holding garuda-asana for more than a millisecond.
Just as I am ready to cave in the standing sequence is over. And not a moment too soon. I gobble that water like champagne to a fascinator adorned filly on Cup Day. Glug, glug, glug. And one for the mat for good measure. I manage to make it through the class, collapse into the final shivasana. Staggering our the door I clamber in the car and breathe. Then a massive wave of joy and relief washed over me and I felt elated that I had pushed through something I would have previously bailed on and survived.
Day five: Wednesday 4pm – Breakthrough
I’m back and I feel great. Pushed to the max and broke on through to the other side. The 4pm time slot working a treat with time to eat afterwards and not before. Lots of hydration. Standing poses are becoming easier, my ol’ gammy leg is gaining strength by the day and I can now touch my nose to my knee on both sides. No pain and even the back pain has subsided. I figure part of it was from my kidneys desperately trying to clear themselves of toxins. Me likey!
” I soon discovered I could meditate at the drop of a mat” – Me
Day six: Thursday 4pm “Bikram only eats meat and loves Coca-Cola”
Another great class. I’m eating less and having much more energy. I have stopped limping. People notice. This is good. Bloating is dissipating and my clothes fit better. My posture, particularly at my desk is greatly improved. I cannot fault the process. Spiritually I am more awake, meditate at the drop of a mat, and have embraced the concept with a greater sense of enthusiasm that we have only two choices in how we feel. Fear or love.
And then I hear something that shatters my illusion. Our teacher discloses Bikram’s diet. Meat and Coca-Cola. That’s it. Usually one meal per day at 1am. That’s it. Oh, and he likes to torment his thirsty disciples – who pay up to $15,000 for the nine month intensive teacher training – with the twist and fizz of a fresh bottle of Coke being opened mid way through each class. I go home and investigate the man behind the brand.
Day seven: Friday 10am “He eats junk food and considers a healthy diet as goat food”
I’ve done it! Seven days in the hot room, 630 minutes of Bikram yoga and I live to tell the tale. I am exhilarated. The postures flow throughout the class and, as my friend Alex advised, I would start to enjoy the poses that were the most challenging. Still working on that hot chestnut.
However on my final day the toughest challenge I face is focusing on the yoga and not the man as my overnight curiosity turns to shock. I discover a compelling feature story in Vanity Fair entitled Bikram Yoga’s Embattled Founder: The Alleged Rapes and Sexual Harassment Claims posted in December 2013. You can quench your own thirst as I refuse to tarnish my experience by investigating any further. For now I will embrace the heat and, revel in a body with no pain and sweat my way through the next 30 days.
To be continued…