Entries in Bikram (5)


Give Them Yoga

Yesterday one of my Facebook friends posted a question on her timeline: What is the big difference between yoga and Pilates? A very legit question if you’re new to both and want to figure out what to take up. The answers were interesting.

“Pilates is about strength and stability and yoga is more relaxing”

“It depends on which form of yoga you are talking about. Power yoga and flow yoga require a lot of strength. Hatha yoga is more about stretching. The mental dimension is primarily present in the relaxation at the end of the class”

I trust that these people talk from experience. They have probably taken some relaxing Hatha classes or fitness inspired power yoga classes with a guided Shavasana at the end, because that’s what yoga teachers teach; strength, stretching and guided relaxation.

I don’t know much about Pilates. On Wikipedia I can read that it is intended to strengthen the human mind and body and that is was developed by some dude in the first half of the 20th century. That does sound a lot like yoga. Lots of yogis developed their own systems and sequences from Hatha yoga last century: Pattabhi Jois, John Friend, Sharon Gannon and David Life and Bikram Choudhury (not to compare them, their ideas or systems in any way). I still think there’s a difference, though, and while I don’t know much about Pilates (which I’m sure is great), my point hasn’t really got anything to do with it.

My point is that there’s so much more to yoga than strength, stretching and relaxing – and that we as yoga teachers might forget to pass all this on to our students.

In an hour’s yoga class in a gym there isn’t time for studying the Yamas and Niyamas for meditation, chakra balancing, pranayama, bandhas, koshas, dristhi, kriyas, mantra and self-study. We know that if we say that Patanjali’s definition of yoga is to stop the fluctuations of the mind or that yoga in fact means unity – maybe even with our higher Self, God or the Universe, we’re considered ready for the loony bin. We should at least be wearing orange robes and have bald heads if we start talking about chakras and prana.

I do believe that you can have a great yoga practice without all these elements. Yoga can be a great physical or mental practice without mentions of the energetic body or Anandamaya Kosha. This way it’s accessible for everybody to experience the benefits of a yoga practice.  I, on the other hand, also believe that we as yoga teachers have an obligation to recognise when a student is ready to open up to these other aspects of yoga and give them a space for these aspects to grow, such as a sangha, a class or a referral to another teacher or workshop.

But you will be surprised about how many students come up to me after a chakra based restorative class to tell me about clearing blockages, experiencing strong emotions or asking where they can learn more.

All I’m trying to say is this: When a student asks for yoga, isn’t it our responsibility as teachers to give it to them? I know we can’t get though The Yoga Sutras in an hour in a gym, but we can always suggest that there is more than stretching and relaxing.

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Blogpaper Feature: How to Survive your First Yoga Class

Thanks to the talented people behind Blogpaper.dk Omshanti.dk looks like a fashion magazine today. The paper featured my post on how to survive your first yoga class. It's Danish, but I might translate it and stick it up later. Have a look at the pretty pictures and the whole thing (where you can view it full screen and actually read the text) at the end of the post. What do you think?
Thanks Tribe People for being in the pictures. I hope you like.

Lock Your Knee

Since I’ve come back from India I’ve had some very nice morning practices in my yoga room. I find that teacher training has made me become much softer and more intuitive in my practice and I am enjoying the strength that the thousands of chadurangas have brought to my arms (my bum is finally comfortably lifting off the floor). But today was different. This morning I went (back) to Bikram. This happened for a number of reasons:

I believe it’s good to challenge my practice with a different type of yoga.
It’s so bloody cold in Copenhagen now so 40 degrees is heaven.
The main reasons though were that I had a groupon offer for a month of Bikram laying around and that Lara (the better half) woke up at 5.30 this morning to go to class at 6.30 - so I though I’d live up to being the yogi in the family and join her.

I was expecting queasiness like the first time as I haven’t been in the hot room for about 6 months, but I felt fine. It was hard - I’ll give you that - but I think 3-5 hours of Asthanga a day has prepared my body for most things.

Those of you who are familiar with Bikram Yoga know that rather than just straightening (or micro bending) your standing leg and actively engaging your quadriceps muscles in the standing asana, you are encouraged (demanded) to lock your knee, and fully extend the knee joint. When the knee moves into full extension, the thigh bone (femur) slightly rotates inwards on the shin (tibia) and ‘locks' the knee joint into this extension phase (somebody’s been to anatomy class and learned all the fancy words). This has never worked for me, not comfortably anyway, and now I’m not really sure I want it to. I do appreciate that you need to lift up the knee cap and engage the muscles around the knee to protect the knee it self, but I have a tendency to hyper extend and feel that my leg is going to bend the other way whenever I try to straighten it enough to lock it out. Does that make me a bad yogi? Maybe to Bikram. But If I have learnt anything from the previous weeks of intensive practice it is to honour my body and listen to the signals it’s giving me. And this is something I hope to be able to bring into my classes if/when I start teaching. Listen to what the body is saying.

As well as listening to my body I also googled (sometimes the answers are not only found within) and found lots of opinions of the knee lock. I came across this quote on myyogaonline.com (and I know that Bikram is totally different and completely out of reach from the yoga world, but the following kind of makes sense to me):

"The purpose of Yoga poses is to generate physical vitality so one can proceed through life with positive energy flow and with a holistic connection to what brings balance and harmony. Standing Yoga poses offer these benefits when mindfulness and proper intention is applied. Without mindfulness, some standing Yoga poses present a tendency towards knee locks and hyperextension, which can produce chronic problems in the function and health of the knee joint. The ability to lock the knee joint can promote a passive approach for some people in their yoga practice and can encourage some people to shift away from progressively engaging muscles to produce therapeutic benefits. Rather than exploring and using the muscles in the lower body to create lift and space, one can fall into this low energy knee lock and into possible hyperextension, thus reducing the benefits of the standing Yoga poses."

What do you think? Does locking the knees come easy to you? Or do you think it can actually damage the knee in the long run?


Coming to Terms with Bikram

A few months into my 'every-other-day Bikram practice' (only interrupted by a 10 day trip to India, which I will write about later) I am still puzzled about a few things but most of all I’m enjoying starting pretty much from scratch with a new practice.

I’ve come to terms with the teacher’s endless stream of words. The dialogue (which it is called in Bikram even though it’s really a monologue as the students aren’t allowed to participate) from the teacher now supports and guides me in my practice and means that I don’t have to waste any energy thinking about the next asana as I would do in Mysore.
I’ve learned to appreciate the heat. It opens up my body in ways that I haven’t experienced in other types of yoga. It teaches me to stay calm and to control my breath even when my body wants to panic and hyperventilate. The heat has an interesting way of exposing all emotions so that the practice is also an exercise in being with the emotions and accepting what is. I’ve only been down on the floor once since my first time and that was actually yesterday because the room got too hot as it wasn't managed well enough. 

I still haven’t come to terms with the pushing and the encouragement to compete with yourself and go beyond your flexibility. Maybe it’s my knowledge of Hatha (Bikram yoga is more or less Hatha yoga in a hot room) and Iyengar yoga which say to ease into the asana and accept whatever limitations one might have. When reading Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, one of the points that really stuck with me is him saying that if something hurts, it’s the body’s way of telling you that you’ve gone too far. If something hurts in Bikram yoga it’s your body’s way of telling you that you’re doing it right.

The fact that there are world championships in Bikram makes me think that it’s no wonder that this type of yoga has such a bad rep in the yoga world. I don’t understand how yoga can be a competitive sport (or a sport full-stop) when it’s such an individual and spiritual practice. I read somewhere that Bikram once said that competitiveness is a necessity in a democratic society, but it’s yoga! In my opinion, competitiveness is the complete opposite of what we strive towards in yoga. Actually, most yoga traditions will say that we’re not supposed to strive at all, but I will admit that I do. I strive towards seeing my entire leg behind my head in Dandayamana - Dhanurasana (standing bow pose) and at some point being able to stretch my leg completely. I also strive towards a better health both physically, mentally and spiritually. Perhaps this is the western influence on yoga. We’re never satisfied where we are and always have to evolve... Well, world championships in yoga is too much evolving in my opinion.


Dandayamana - Dhanurasana


From Asthanga to Bikram

I went from Hatha to Asthanga in 2009 and quickly fell in love with the vinyasa (alignment of movement and breath and jumping back and through your arms between the asana). I loved that the yoga was so dynamic but still meditative and that it focuses so much on badhas and breath. My Mysore practice slowly progressed but I somewhere along the way I started feeling frustrated that my practice would take two hours - and that it would be two hours of not feeling very elegant and of struggling with certain asana that I had to complete in order to progress. When it occurred to me that I always dragged myself down to the yoga shala and was focusing on what I couldn’t do, I realised that it was time to try something else and cheat on my practice; I chose Bikram yoga as my mistress.

I felt very cocky when I showed up at the Bikram Studio the first time. I had my yoga shit together, I was flexible and strong. And the heat? I’d done yoga in India and Morocco where it’s pretty hot - so not a problem. I’d even tried hot yoga before. Even when signing a contract saying that I wouldn’t hold the studio responsible if I injured myself and putting my partner’s name and number down as In Case of Emergency I felt confident that this was just another yoga class. When the teacher said that my (and the other new girl’s) job during this first class was just to stay in the room for the 90 minutes I thought he was joking. Turns out I was wrong.

Halfway through the class I was down on the floor not able to move or lie still or breathe through my nose. The teacher, Tu, who is by far the toughest teacher in the studio (Sorry Tu, if you read this but you are!) kept telling us not to let our bodies panic and just to breathe and stay on the mat. I didn’t want to stay on the mat. I wanted to get out. I wanted to be able to take a good, long breath of cold air. But every time I looked at Tu he signaled to just stay and breathe. It was worse to lie still than to stand up. The air did not move at all down on the floor so I had to get up and just do the asana as well as I could.

Back in the day, Patanjali wrote in the Yoga Sutra ‘Sthiram Sukham Asanam’ that asana are steady and give a feeling of joy. In that case this was not asana. This was something else. And what was with the talking? Tu was not quiet for more than a breath throughout the 90 minutes. Not even during Savasana would he shut up. The words just kept coming and coming as if he didn’t even have to think about them. And the pushing? The teacher would call out people’s names and ask - no, demand - they go deeper, pull harder and stretch higher. What happened to just being with what is? To accepting your limitations? There’s none of that in Bikram.

During the years I’ve done yoga I’ve only once before seen myself in a mirror during practice. In Bikram you are to focus on yourself in the mirror throughout the asana. I looked like I’d been in a pool. Completely soaked in sweat and red as a lobster. I did not look like someone who had their yoga shit together.

In the final Savasana Tu would tell us to force ourselves to stay longer than what was comfortable. I got up as soon as he said Namaste and left the room. As soon as I was out in the cold and had a liter of cold water I felt good. I felt great actually. I felt like I had cleaned out my entire body. That all the old ‘stuff’ had come out, that I was clean and that my whole body was light. I’d actually say that I had a feeling of joy.

I came back the next day.