Last December, I bumped into Natalie (who I later found out is a longtime Karma Yogi at BYSJ) at a Garcia Birthday Band show. She stuck a buddy pass in my hand and told me I should go to yoga. It was a wild night and Natalie seemed like a cool lady, so I decided to check it out. I had no idea what I was getting into! At 65 I had never been to a yoga class. Now I do Bikram yoga every day...
In 7 months of daily practice, here is what Bikram yoga has done for me:
I wanted to share my story especially for other people with fibromyalgia who think there is no answer besides expensive medications with tons of terrible side effects. For me, Bikram yoga gives me relief of my symptoms without all of that other stuff, and it makes my life better in so many other ways too. You've got to give it a try!
With temperatures in the 90s this week, summer is definitely here! Are you wondering whether it makes sense to turn the heat up even more by coming to hot yoga class? You may be asking yourself if you even have the energy for it. Your friends and fam may be looking at you funny if you mention where you're headed when the thermometer outside is reaching the triple digits... So is it worth it? Short answer= YES. Here are just a few reasons it is:
Exercise scientists have been researching the benefits you may already be experiencing! Here's a study that explores how “Exercising in the Heat May Improve Athletic Performance in Cool and Hot Conditions.”
As Bikram yoga teachers, so many students tell us this one is their "nemesis!" And we get it. SHTK not only requires you to use a ton of physical strength and stamina to develop your own flexibility, it also calls upon 110% of your will power, integrity and mental fortitude to stick with it, try the right way and not give up. The good news is, by using those aspects of your body and of your character you are building them up, and they (like this posture) will only get better with practice.
Health benefits include:
How to do:
Standing Head to Knee can be best understood by dividing it into a progression of stages or steps. Keep in mind that while we identify 4 main "steps" in the posture, there are a bazillion mini-steps along the way, and any one of the steps may take you weeks, months or years to master. For example, between grabbing your foot and locking both knees, you may find your maximum expression of the posture somewhere in-between for quite some time. No worries: as long as you try the right way and you don't give up, that's the ultimate destination!
*You want me to lock my knee??
Yes. But let's make sure you understand what we mean by that. In Bikram yoga, to "lock the knee" means 3 things: Straight leg (full extension of the knee joint) + thigh muscles (including quads) contracted + body weight even on the foot. This position provides a solid support for the knee joint, giving it lateral stability as well as allowing the hamstring on the back of the leg to be long and stretchable. Since your quadriceps were not "designed" to hold a contraction for a long period of time, during the posture, it's important to train them by sending the message over and over to them to contract, thereby improving their strength and stamina. All this leg work is a big part of what gets your heart rate up in this pose! Check out this video for more about locking the knee:
Eyes and abs!
Balancing on one foot is a big challenge for many beginners. Remember that your 2 best friends on your "balance team" are your abs and your eyes. So always keep your abdominal muscles pulled in firmly, and maintain your one point of focus on your standing knee throughout the posture.
Breathing properly is key. If you’re working on Step 1, simply breath normally with an engaged core. If you are kicking out into Step 2, inhale slowly by the nose while you kick your leg forward. Take another deep inhale when your both knees are locked and exhale as you bend your elbows down for Step 3. Take another deep breath and slowly exhale again as you tuck your chin to your chest for Step 4. This focused breathing keeps you calm and maintains oxygen moving through your body to feed your muscles. It also assists with the stretching and rounding of your spine and ribs.
Finally, the real secret to mastery of Standing Head to Knee is: attitude. Relish every step of the magical journey, because every step has something to offer your body, mind and soul. And more than anything, this posture demands that you activate and cultivate the connection between those! That's part of what makes it so tough, and that's also what makes it so... yoga.
“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!)
Bikram Yoga St. Johns' studio owner, yoga-doer and life-lover, Kay D.