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!!
With 26 postures and one breathing exercise accomplished, the final breathing exercise begins to cool your body down so (after a 2-minute final savasana, of course!) you leave the hot room feeling like a brand new, yoga-lized you.
"January 2, 2016 was my first real class. (Technically I took a class in 2010, but because it wasn’t at BYSJ, there was obviously no reason to continue. ;)
"I am my mother’s son, which is to say that because she was fanatical about Bikram yoga, she knew I’d be interested before I knew myself. On a visit from Texas over the holidays, she roped me into joining her at a BYSJ class shortly after the studio first opened. I’d grown up a ballet dancer and runner and have always enjoyed meditative movement. Bikram yoga has proven to be a natural complement to my other current extracurriculars: running, dance, and Pilates.
"Beyond the obvious benefit of having much better sex (TMI?), I’ve learned through Bikram yoga that life can simply be breath and point of focus. Received one too many passive aggressive emails at work? Breathe, do the yoga, focus on breathing. Sore knee, tight hamstrings, and a twitchy eye? Breathe, do the yoga, focus on breathing. Car battery’s dead, it’s been 12 days since you last saw the sun, and your cat just peed on your new comforter? Breathe, do the yoga, focus on breathing.
"I love coming up with different soothing visualizations to get me through class and life. Whether it’s a firehose wiping around spraying water in savasana, transforming into a hot air balloon in camel pose, or being drawn and quartered in full locust pose, there’s a lot of fun to be had coming up with visualizations that reframe The Struggle.
"Here are some tips I've derived from my personal scientific studies:
"But hey. I’m just the Mayor of BYSJ, what do I know?!" *
*Ben holds the title "Mayor" of BYSJ because he has the most check-ins on the app Swarm, where he has checked in every single time he's visited the studio- 225 and counting! Thanks, Ben!
“I took my first Bikram class in January of 2011. I did 20 classes in 2 months and was hooked. I worked as a Karma yogi for a few years at another local studio, which allowed me to maintain a steady practice regardless of finances. In 2014 my practice began to take a back seat after a significant life change and although I would hear the call to the hot room from time to time and find myself sweating it out periodically over the years, It wasn’t until this last summer ‘17 that I decided it was time to make yoga a priority again.
“I had been experiencing worsening shoulder pain as a result of a car accident and years of repetitive stress due to an active job and lifestyle in general. When I came back to the St Johns studio in August, I was in excruciating pain, sleeping less than two hours of broken sleep a night and let’s just say, my mood was suffering as a result. After 5 months of regular practice, I feel energized, my skin is softer and clearer, I am sleeping almost through the night which I classify as a miracle, and my overall mood has improved significantly.
“Because, this time around, I am focused on nursing my bum shoulder, I spend my time in class focusing on the details of each step of every posture and what that means for my body that day. With a few minor adjustments and a lot of hard work I feel myself becoming more balanced and stronger every day. Even if my shoulder or whathaveyou don’t do what I wish they could, I feel the healing happening and I am excited about that!!
“The mental benefits that yoga provides for me are invaluable. I cope with anxiety and depression that can become severe if I don’t care for myself well. Bikram yoga and the active meditation of participating in class is my number one exercise for good mental health. Let me never forget that again!!”
Q: What if my forehead will never touch my toes?
A: Short answer: it doesn't matter. If you've been to my class (or if you've been reading this blog) you've probably heard me say/write something like "the goal is not the real goal." So while the "goal" of this posture as we say it in class is to touch your head to the feet- really the real goal is what happens along the way, the effect you create in your body simply by trying the right way. In this posture, the real goal is 360-degree-angle stretching, coccyx to toes, coccyx to head.
Q: Why do we grab the big toes only? I'd rather grab my feet!
A: Grabbing just the big toes ensures you create the 360-degree-angle stretching. Here's how it works: Because your only grip is on the toe, you are forced to use the fronts of your legs muscles (quadriceps and shins) to flex the feet and get the heels off the floor. Contracting the fronts of your legs means the backs of your legs can truly stretch from coccyx to the toes. When you pull the toes with your heels off the floor and stretch your body forward from the lower spine, you also stretch your spine from coccyx to the neck, creating 360-angle stretching. If you grabbed your feet from outside or the top (though it might seem more comfortable!) you wouldn't get that stretch to the lower back. As is so often the case (sigh) the uncomfortable way is the right way! So grab your big toes. ;)
The best way to learn any posture and experience for yourself the benefits it has to offer is to come to class on the regular (3-5 times a week is best) and make your body smile. Got other questions? Ask one of our certified instructors next time you are in for class- or drop us a line in the comments below!
"I signed up for Bikram yoga after seeing BYSJ's booth at the Farmer's Market in spring of 2016, and the timing could not have been more serendipitous. Deep down I knew I needed to do something to get back into a consistent exercise routine. The very first big difference thing that I noticed after a few weeks of practicing regular Bikram Yoga was the skin on the back of my upper arms/tricep was no longer bumpy (a very common skin thing)- - it was smooth!
Being in the military (at the Oregon Air National Guard in Portland - our F-15 airplanes share the runway with PDX) we have a PT (physical training) test each year. I had found recent years that I 'crammed' for it-- going into 'beast mode' about 6 weeks or so before the test (which comprises of timed situps & pushups-- 1 minute allotted for each-- not to mention waist measurement and a mile & a half run.
In June 2016 (about a month or so of getting into Bikram yoga) I scored the highest PT (physical training) score ever (in my 20+ yrs in the military) with a 96.9 (out of 100). To score Excellent, one must get 90 or above. Fortunately because of my regular yoga practice, i don't have to worry about not passing.
"Cramming at anything in life does not help anybody! I wanted a regular exercise practice that I liked and that give me great benefit and to also be a role model to my kids for a picture of health. Many career military folks lose their dedication to their health and I think it's so important to set the example but, more importantly, to live my best life (like Oprah says.) I was looking primarily for physical benefits; toning & flexibility appealed to me. My high school and college days of track and volleyball are far behind me, and now I have fallen in love w/ Bikram Yoga particularly. It's easy on the joints, non-competitive, and the benefits, as I've learned, are far more than physical: my practice has increased my patience and motivation in other areas of my life.
"The greatest benefits in the last year in particular are: 1) healing a fresh back injury! With physical therapy, I took a short break right after the injury and then got back into it right on time for January 2017's 30-day challenge! I took it very easy and did very little in some postures and it healed me 98%! The other 2% was just time. Today I am 100%. 2) I credit Bikram Yoga for the remarkable healing following an ovarian cyst removal surgery in early October 2017; after 3 days I felt restless and was ready to drive to my doctor's appointment. In each class when it's mentioned that we receive 100% of the benefit for every attempt we do, that really speaks to me. I have learned to really listen to my body since regularly practicing (I aim for 3x/week.)
"I love putting my energy into Bikram yoga. The 5:30am class is great for my work-life balance. When I get home after the early morning class, my husband and 2 kids are just getting up (so I don't miss family time) and I'm still able to get to work on time. I LOVE that our cozy St. Johns neighborhood has its own Bikram Yoga studio and I am proud to be part of it! "
Bikram Yoga St. Johns' studio owner, yoga-doer and life-lover, Kay D.