“Didn’t you just eat too many cucumbers? You might get sick.” That’s what the voice in my head said as I was preparing to attend a recent class. The voice in my head is constantly trying to come up with reasons I should not attend Bikram Yoga class. It tells me I’m too busy, too tired, too stiff, or just plain not good enough to do yoga. Ironically, some of the reasons it gives me for not setting foot in the hot room are exactly the reasons I need to be in there as often as possible. Most days, pushing that voice away is the most important exercise I do, and it’s the one that requires the most strength. Yoga is slowly teaching me to ignore the voice in my head, and it is also teaching me how to listen.
Ideally, from the start of Pranayama Deep Breathing all the way through Kapalbhati in Vajrasana your body should be moving in perfect concert with the instructor’s voice. The instructions describe exactly how to perform each posture, down to the way you should breathe. I find that when I am able to connect perfectly with the teacher’s words my practice is very meditative. It doesn’t happen in every class, but those times are like magic. When I start confusing my right from my left hand in Eagle pose, or wishing I could stand on one leg as easily as some other student, I know that I am not aligned with the instructor. I know that I am not listening. In order to listen I have to tune out the voice in my head.
I have to tune out the voice in my head because it interprets events through a lens of emotion. In his book, How Yoga Works, Geshe Michael Roach describes the mind this way: “We lose control of ourselves, even if we have some understanding, and the last thing we can do at that moment of emotion is to recall that it is actually our own minds making us see things the way we do.” (p. 124) And so, the real yoga is not found in Standing Head to Knee Pose or Fixed Firm Pose, or any of the poses. The real yoga is turning off your mind and listening within. Now, I wonder if there are any cucumbers left...?
Ellen Cole is a Registered Nurse and has been practicing Bikram yoga at BYSJ since August of 2016. One of her favorite poses is Fixed Firm Pose and she loves doing "doubles" when she gets the chance. Read more of Ellen's yoga story here. Thanks for your contribution, Ellen!
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.
Once all major joints of the body have been warmed up by practicing Pranayama breathing and the first few postures, you are ready for Eagle pose, garudasana! This pose opens up the joints of the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows and wrists.
By twisting your limbs "like ropes" Eagle pose creates compression of blood and lymph flow headed to spots like your legs, kidneys and the lymph nodes in your armpits. Hold the posture very still while breathing calmly, so that when you release it your elevated heart rate will send a boost of high-speed circulation to those areas. Notice a white mark on your thigh after you come out of Eagle? That's a good indicator that you’ve been maintaining a strong compression.
What's that you say? Your arms won't twist like ropes? Here's a quick video on what to do for this (very common) "issue"...
Now that we've cleared up what to do with those pesky arms, here are a couple key aspects of Eagle pose and more tips to help you get the most out of your efforts:
Using leverage to promote good alignment and open joints.
When you move your knees to the right and upper body to the left to get your feet, knees, elbows and hands in one line, you are using the leverage of one limb against to create the compression effect I mentioned above and open up your major joints. The key to not falling over while you make these adjustment is keeping your (especially lower) abdominal muscles tight and your upper body lifted away from your thighs.
It's a backbending pose!
Many beginners tend to lean or even hunch their bodies forward while they're setting up their Eagle, in an effort to pull their elbows down. Don't let this happen to you! Keep your upper body (when you hear the cue "upper body" in class, think mainly lower ribs upward) leaning back throughout the posture, which means (although you'll end up looking straight ahead) your spine is actually in a backward bending position. This position strengthens back and core muscles, releases tension in your lumbar spine, and compresses the kidneys.
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!
As the first posture in the Bikram yoga class, the job of Half Moon pose (ardha chandrasana) is to get your spine feeling out its range of motion in a bunch of directions, right off the bat.
By stretching up out of your waist, then slowly bending your upper body to the right while pushing your hips to the left beyond your perceived flexibility, you will create an incredible stretch down the side of your body. This side-bending action either stretches or tones every muscle in the torso, increases the lateral flexibility of the spine, opens up the hips and trims the waistline. Oh, what a feeling- and then you get to do it to the left!
TIP: Half moon is the very first posture in the class, so there's no need to push it super hard, especially in the first set! Your body is not quite warmed up yet, so "take it easy, honey." Remember that the first set of every pose is diagnostic- it helps you figure out where your body is in the present moment. Second set is therapeutic- based on what you discovered in the first set, you decide whether to push a bit further, or back off a little more. Your breathing is an excellent indicator of which way to adjust- if you really can't keep your breathing normal (like you're watching TV) then you've done too much! Back off.)
Once we have stretched to both sides, the third part of Half Moon is backward-bending. Your instructor will warn you, "Your back is going to hurt, don't be scared!"
PSA: That doesn't mean that if a part of your body screams in sharp pain, that we think you should push through it! Not at all. This statement is simply a "heads up" that it's normal for the backbend to be uncomfortable- or even "hurt," in the sense of "ouch, I don't usually use those muscles!"
Backbending can be a pretty uncomfortable position at first. It requires you to simultaneously use a lot of strength in your legs, hips and back while also relaxing the neck and stretching the arms and shoulders back as far as you can. The challenge (and any "hurt") is worth it though, because this first backbend is unbeatable at warming up the back muscles and de-stiffening (that's a technical term!) your spine for class, while opening the heart and chest. Be sure to keep your eyes open, so you don't get dizzy.
At this point you have moved your spine straight up, side to side, and backward. Next comes Hands to Feet pose (padha hastasana.) This forward-folding posture continues to stretch the spine while beginning to work on stretching the sciatic nerve, muscles, tendons and ligaments of the legs.
TIP: If you can't grab your heels from behind, bend your knees and try wrapping your elbows behind your calves. Then hold the backs of your ankles and start to straighten out the legs, keeping your grip by keeping pressure with the palms against the ankles. Eventually, you may be able to grab underneath your heels- for now just get as close as you can!
Besides the tremendous stretching, Padha hastasana also helps improve overall circulation to the legs, sends a nice rush of blood to the head, and strengthens biceps, lattisumus dorsi, quadriceps, hands and fingers. Always remember to keep your breath moving calmly, in and out of your nose- a smiling happy face can help. :)
I remember, after mentioning to Kay that I’d lost 40 lbs in just over 100 days, her asking “But it’s more than that, it’s the inner transformation, right?” My response was quick, “Absolutely, I just have no other way to sum it all up!” Later, I've been able to clarify my thoughts:
The weight loss, I decided, was a 'superficial yardstick' for the multitude of positive life changes i was experiencing due to my new yoga practice. Essentially, the real transformation was me getting back to me.
Everything kept falling into place, like a domino effect. I was eating healthier & required less sleep. I soon found I had more energy then I knew what to do with. This means I now find time for personal creative endeavors as well as exploring the natural beauty that is just outside our doors.
These past 6 months of yoga have shown me, and I want to tell you: You Already Are That Better Version Yourself! If your intention is set, nothing can stop you from reaching your goals. Pardon the hippie-dippy sentiment, but I did kinda move here from Santa Cruz, CA ;)
My first class was the sliding-scale donation class on a Thursday night last fall. After reading of the many benefits associated with Bikram, I thought it was something I had to try for myself! I approached with a healthy skepticism, and after giving it test-run realized it was everything I was hoping for and more.
Within a week, I was telling friends it was "the best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time.” Within a month, the lower back pain I was suffering from had disappeared.
Savasana (aka Dead Body Pose) is still extremely challenging for me. Patience is a life-long lesson. I believe that learning to be still and relax is one of the best things we can do to maintain balance in this fast-paced world in which we live. Look around- we’re all here for the same reason. As we become better versions of ourselves, we’re better able to serve the community around us- what an amazing gift! P.S. Don’t forget to breathe.
Here's a recipe for one of my healthy meals that keeps me hydrated and energized for practicing 4-5 times per week:
Original Hot Yoga Salad
• your favorite greens mix
• low-fat cottage cheese
• roasted sunflower seeds
• kosher dill pickles
• chili flakes (100% *not* optional!)
"I started practicing Bikram Yoga in July 2017 when I met Kay, Orlo and Alva at the St. Johns Bizarre. They handed me a schedule and a free class card, and that was the beginning of a new me. I previously had taken other yoga classes on and off, for 4 years. So when asked to try Bikram yoga, something I had never heard of at the time, I said "WHY NOT." (I am not a person who does a lot of research prior to jumping into something new, and I soon learned what the images of flames on the schedule card meant!)
"I have a condition called Chilblains, which causes inflammation of small blood vessels in your skin that occur in response to repeated exposure to cold. For the past 6 years, my fingers turn purple and swell during winter. I was taking the highest dose recommended for anti-inflammatory medicine, but even that was not enough. The only cure for my condition is heat, and Bikram offers that and so much more. Every pose that requires grabbing your fingers or stepping on them, is helping heal the internal pain. I have been able to cut my anti-inflammatory dosing in half, my purple, swollen fingers are looking normal for the first time in six years during the winter, and I feel amazing.
"I would like to thank all the instructors and members for being so supportive and encouraging!"
I often think of this dude I knew who always waited until Pranayama was over before he would go in to class: he said it hurt his neck and shoulders. He'd find all kinds of ways to stall: go to the restroom, check his phone, fill his water (again) or change clothes verrrrry sloooooowly...
By skipping this breathing exercise, however, he was missing a bigtime opportunity to warm and prepare for the rest of class precisely (yup!) his neck and shoulders. His hurting was likely due to improper technique, but by avoiding Pranayama he was robbing himself of the chance to ever learn the right way.
Avoiding what challenges you is never the answer.
If Pranayama feels uncomfortable, achy or awkward, chances are you stand to benefit from it greatly! If you do it correctly.
Since none of us came out of the womb with our knuckles glued to our chins performing perfectly synchronized movements coordinated with 6-second inhales and 6-second exhales (ok, maybe Orlo did??) it takes practice and time to learn this technique. Offer yourself patience (which Pranayama will help with, too!) and never give up.
Benefits of Pranayama breathing include:
"I have always been active and used to run quite a bit, but that took a toll on my knees. When I originally started at Bikram Yoga St. Johns in 2016, I was looking for something to help my joints and lower back issues.
"For me the obvious benefits of regular practice have been decreased knee pain and conditioning for my low back. But more importantly I find that it really helps control my anxiety through the focused breathing. I am very conscious of my breathing in class and I find it transitions to other stressful situations in my life. When I found out I was pregnant I was so thankful that my doctor was so encouraging about continuing to practice throughout pregnancy. There is so much misguided information out there, and Kay has been an amazing resource through this journey.
"When I really started to show, my pesky low back issues started to creep up again and were exacerbated by a trip I had to take for work. I returned home with sciatica and could barely walk without limping. After just a couple of classes, my back improved again and I have had hardly any issues since. It sometimes feels daunting when I am getting ready to go to class at almost 8 months pregnant, but I always feel so good after and know the breathing and focus will help me when its time to welcome my baby to world!"
Update: Bridget gave birth to a healthy baby girl on February 28, 2018! Congratulations to the whole family!!
Bikram Yoga St. Johns' studio owner, yoga-doer and life-lover, Kay D.