Before I moved to Portland in June 2016, a friend in Albuquerque introduced me to hot yoga. It wasn’t Bikram yoga and I didn’t understand the postures, but I was determined to keep trying. When I got to Portland, I was pleased to find Bikram Yoga St. Johns in my neighborhood and, although I knew nothing about Bikram yoga, I bought a year membership.
I didn’t get my money’s worth that year. I didn’t attend class regularly, rarely drank enough water, and every pose was "awkward pose." Classes were hard because I would lose my balance and even fall sometimes. I would leave bewildered, embarrassed and dehydrated. But something kept me coming back, and I always felt welcomed with open arms no matter how long I had been away.
This New Year's Eve, I came to the studio for a late night yoga class. I rang in the New Year with Kay, Orlo and the rest of the Bikram St. Johns family, under the blacklight with kombucha. I decided to do the 30-day challenge shortly after that. I came up with a yoga schedule that fit around my work schedule, and I set a goal to do 20 classes in 30 days. I loved seeing the stars by my name accumulate.
I did 18 classes in 30 days and I began to see first-hand the benefits of regular Bikram practice: my balance and eye- hand coordination improved, my chronic back pain and stiffness lessened, and my mood improved. I've been practicing about 10-12 times a month ever since.
I am a Registered Nurse and my job is demanding physically, mentally and emotionally. I also have scoliosis and a leg length difference. I could barely move my shoulder at one point. With regular practice I can now move my shoulder without pain. I didn’t think that was going to be possible.
I didn’t think a lot of things were possible when first started my Bikram practice. I didn’t think I would ever get into Fixed Firm pose (check out my photo above!) or stand on one leg. Now Fixed Firm pose is a favorite of mine and I’m getting closer to Standing Head to Knee every day. I have conquered many challenges in my life and Bikram yoga is a very worthwhile challenge. And I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process.
In the Bikram yoga system, we do the Awkward Pose in three parts. Here's a quick rundown of what to do in each one, how to do it, and why you should even care...
Even on its own, the first part of Awkward pose is an excellent all-around exercise, reminiscent of a squat you might have done at the gym (though Utkatasana has been keeping leg and butt muscles buff muuuuuch longer than the gym!)
How to do Part 1:
Step your right foot to the right about 6 inches, keeping your feet exactly parallel to one another so your heels stay invisible behind your toes. Keep in mind that in Bikram yoga "6 inches" varies from person to person! Basically, your heels should be directly underneath your hip joints. This alignment is important to make sure that when you sit down into the pose, pressure is distributed evenly in the hip, knee and ankle joints.
Bring your arms up parallel to the floor with palms facing down and all 5 fingers together. Stretch your arms forward toward the mirror, exhale and suck your stomach in, then hold it in while you sit your hips back like you're sitting into a chair that's a bit too far behind you. Keep your spine straight to begin with and maximum body weight on your heels.
It's normal if your upper body has to come forward a bit so you can sit your hips back. Once you're in the chair, lift your chest up and bend your total spine backward to bring your upper body back. (Tip: if you *can't* lift your chest up, you're probably sitting down too low- come up a little bit and try again.) Suck your stomach in and lean back into the heels even more, keep your chest up, lean back even more until you almost fall down backwards!
Get psyched for Part 2:
The second part of Awkward Pose is super challenging for a lot of people- so if your ankles are wobbling or your thighs are shaking, you are definitely not alone. The best tip for you is: don't skip it, and don't hold back from fear of falling or not being able to hold it the whole time. You have to start somewhere, and no one will laugh if you fall (most of us have been there!) Part 2 is great for increasing leg and foot strength as well as stretching out the feet, so give it all you've got and it will give you some nice-looking gams and great-feeling dogs in return!
How to do Part 2:
First stand up on your tippy toes and stretch your whole upper body up to the ceiling. Suck your stomach in and sit down as though you are sitting into a chair that's right underneath you. Be sure to sit down until your hips are in the chair, keeping your spine in a straight position. If you can only hold it that low for 2 seconds at first- be proud of your achievement! Little by little, you will build endurance- but only if you try the right way and you don't give up.
How to do Part 3:
By the 3rd part of Awkward pose, your legs are already well warmed up. Come up a little bit on your toes and bring your knees together, being sure to keep your heels behind your toes. Exhale breathing and sit down as slow as possible, keeping your knees together and your spine in a straight position. Sit down all the way onto your heels, then stretch your spine up towards the ceiling to make a half-inch gap between your hips and heels. Keep your knees together and forward, thighs parallel to the floor, arms parallel to the legs, spine straight so from the side you look like a 3-sided box.
Here's the hard part: inhale breathing and slowly come up while keeping your spine straight. This requires you to really concentrate and connect with your lower abdominal muscles (to keep your hips from going back and upper body tipping forward) as well as tremendous thigh strength (and determination!) to keep your knees together.
"But my knees!!"
If you are suffering from knee pain, have a recent knee injury or have limited range of motion in your knees, here are a couple special tips for you in Awkward:
Why to get Awkward:
All three parts of Utkatasana are excellent for improving blood circulation in the ankles, knees and hips. This pose strengthens the thighs, calves and hips muscles while improving flexibility of the hip, knee and ankle joints. Awkward helps relieve symptoms of rheumatism, arthritis and gout. It's also great for toning lower abdominal muscles, pelvic floor and the triceps muscles of the arms. Not to mention, it sure gets your heart rate up and is often the point in class where you'll really start sweating, making sure your limbs are nice and slippery for the next posture...
I will be 70 in January 2019, and I have had back issues most of my life. Last year I was in a lot of pain, almost to the point of not being able to walk. I would need to rest after walking only short distances with my little granddaughter. I was also feeling depressed a lot of the time.
My son and daughter-in-law encouraged me to try hot yoga, which I was sure was not for me. I tried it anyway, mostly so they would leave me alone!
I have now been practicing Bikram yoga 2-3 times per week for about a year. My back pain is nearly gone and my range of motion is incredible. I had a serious balance issue and now, nearly a year later I'm getting my balance back. I know my good balance is going to be even more important as I get older for avoiding slips and falls. As I gain strength and balance, my mood and confidence have also improved.
These days my energy level is very good, even though I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia years ago. I tell all my friends about yoga, and I’m trying to get the ones who could really use it to come to class with me! This little yoga community at Bikram Yoga St. Johns has brought me a new social life full of friendly and amazing people.
I also have osteoarthritis, plantar fasciitis (which is no longer bothering me) and scoliosis. I have spinal stenosis, which used to cause leg and foot pain as well as lower back pain and balance problems. I thought the only alternative was to have surgery, but I certainly don't need that now. Bikram Yoga was the answer.
I can feel my spine is so much better and stronger than before I started at BYSJ. I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone to try Bikram yoga, and I look forward to many years of practice ahead!
Bikram Yoga St. Johns' studio owner, yoga-doer and life-lover, Kay D.