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. Check out our post on the subject for more!
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.
We hosted a truly excellent seminar last weekend with visiting senior Bikram yoga teacher Michael Harris. I've been working with Michael for about a year and a half now, and he is big on the idea that our job as yoga teachers is not just teaching asana (the physical postures) but that it's bigger than that- actually the most important thing we help our students learn is what a yoga practice is. How to have a yoga practice.
Because if we can help you figure out what that means for you, it is something you can take anywhere and keep forever. It's not limited to your postures, but it definitely affects how you approach them and how you feel about them.
After introductions, Michael began the conversation at the workshop with some tips on how to practice your yoga outside of and in-between your asanas: How and when do you drink water? How do you enter and exit the yoga room? Where do you set up your mat?
Let's back up for a moment:
Introducing ourselves to each other at the beginning of Michael's workshop, we shared what brought us to Bikram yoga. I shared that when I first started in 2005 (I was an overexercised, underfed, painfully perfectionist college dancer) I found I could not look at myself in the mirror in a loving way. Today I can and do. Over the years I have looked at myself through pain, injury, illness, depression, grief, birth and rebirth. It's one of the greatest gifts my practice has given me, and one of the things I enjoy most about taking class!
Today I appreciate my body so much and love every little activity it does for me. As a mother and entrepreneur, yoga class is a luxurious opportunity to spend a quality 90 minutes moving and watching that body. It's hanging out with myself as my own friend, doing something we love together. Because of this I admit I am somewhat attached to my reflection in class. (Isn't it funny how much we change?) More often than not, I set up in the front row.
Nearsightedness (and my refusal to wear glasses until absolutely unavoidable!) doesn't help. When I set up in the back I find myself squinting- though I know (teacher training in a room of 300+ people sure taught me) that I don't need to see the mirror in order to balance or to meditate.
Years ago, a great teacher called me out for always practicing in the same spot. He told me I should practice in a different spot every day. I vaguely remember him actually making me move my mat if I was set up in my usual place, before he would start class... but that may have just been a bad dream! At that time I was attached to the mirror for very different reasons: it was more about forcing myself to stare down what I didn't like about myself. Many days this exhausted me so much by the end of Half Moon that I had to sit down.
As Bikram says, I had nothing to lose, "because I never had anything to begin with." So I gave the moving-around thing a shot for the first time. I'm not sure what happened exactly, but little by little when I found myself in front of the mirror, I was no longer glaring at myself in contempt or frustration. I was beaming at myself with compassion.
What are the habits, beliefs and feelings around where you put your mat? Do you have "your spot" and get to the studio early to claim it?
Michael Harris invited us all last weekend to be curious about how and where we practice in the room. And that gave me an idea...
This month I am participating with you in our first studio-wide 30 Day Challenge (some of you are already halfway through!!) Today, I invite you to join me in yet another challenge: the "Change Your Spot" challenge! Every day, I commit to practicing in a different spot. I admit I am not totally excited about the class when I have to be in the back corner by the door...
The reason Bikram yoga works at improving strength or range of motion in the body is that we mindfully push the edges of our current capacity. That isn't only physical, and it isn't only for the asanas. Join me in the "Change Your Spot" challenge- or make up your own: maybe you will try not drinking water during class, not sitting down during class, always doing at least 1 set of every posture, taking a longer final savasana... pick whatever seems most uncomfortable to you!
Now is the time to find out what mindfully pushing your edges can do for your yoga practice, and for the rest of your life...
Worried about the impact of her mom’s long work hours and stressful job, Kathleen’s daughter, Megan- an avid Bikram yoga student for 10 years- was determined to get her into yoga. Kathleen thought it would be a fun thing to do together and wanted to address a 45-lb. weight gain as she approached her 57th birthday. She’d always loved to exercise and was happier when she did. Why not?
Kathleen says, “I bought a yearly membership in December, but I was so afraid of the heat, humidity, and all the crazy poses that I didn’t attend my first session until January 15th! I didn’t even tell my daughter I was going because I didn’t know how I would do. Having been an athlete most of my life (the hard hitting kind, NOT the flexible type) makes me very competitive and I feared that I would fail miserably and not ‘score well.’ Talk about a lot of “head factors!”
“All my concerns surprisingly melted away in short order. All the teachers were/are so supportive and welcoming. It was very hard going at first and I was provided a lesson in humility. But I kept trying to do my best while focusing on making the smallest of improvements.”
Kathleen read Bikram’s advice in his book to come each day for 30 days, or even better, for 60 days. He spoke about it so compellingly that she just had to give it a try. She couldn’t do weekends, but she committed to doing five days each week for two months. She’s now proud to say she did nine weeks straight of 5 classes a week!
As Kathleen puts it, “Bikram is spot on! Those two months changed me and how I live. Work is no longer my primary focus and stress is a non-player for the first time in decades. I’ve slowly lost weight and improved my flexibility. (The first time I was able to grab my toes in Head to Knee pose I almost shouted out!) The heated room is now my sanctuary where I concentrate (meditation is still a bit of a mystery, but I’m open to it) on being the best me in the moment while surrounded by those of like mind and effort.”
Kathleen’s advice to new students? “Take it a ‘show up’ at a time and begin the journey. Do not beat yourself up in the trying! Find that support person who can share the joys and challenges that each session brings. Embrace the heat and breathe through it. And don’t worry about those sleek types next to you who can become a pretzel without the mustard. Remember, everyone is in there trying to get to a new place too!”
A recent conversation with my husband, uploading stories onto our Testimonials page, teaching several classes this weekend full of super-motivated students, and watching my 1-month-old daughter's efforts on her movement mat have all got me thinking about: perseverance, drive, dedication. What great feats we are capable of when we pour in everything we have! Here's one of my favorite poems on the subject.
If you want a thing bad enough
To go out and fight for it,
Work day and night for it,
Give up your time and your peace and your sleep for it,
If only desire of it
Makes you quite mad enough
Never to tire of it,
Makes you hold other things tawdry and cheap for it;
If life seems all empty and useless without it
And all that you scheme and you dream is about it,
If gladly you'll sweat for it,
Fret for it,
Plan for it,
Lose all your terror of God or of man for it,
If you'll simply go after that thing that you want,
With all your capacity,
Strength and sagacity,
Faith, hope and confidence, stern pertinacity,
If neither cold poverty, famished and gaunt,
Nor sickness and pain
Of body or brain
Can turn you away from the thing that you want,
If dogged and grim you besiege and beset it,
You'll get it!
- Berton Braley
Even if you've never taken a Bikram yoga class, you can probably imagine a few ways sweating your guts out for 90 minutes a day might change your body. (Weight loss, lower blood pressure, increased stamina, improved digestion, anyone?) After all, Bikram yoga is a hatha yoga practice, meaning a practice of physical postures, called asanas, and breathing techniques, called pranayama. And hatha yoga offers tremendous health benefits for all the systems of your body. But that's not all, folks! By attending to your physical practice, you also cultivate certain qualities of mind which have the power to absolutely transform the way you see the world and the way you live your life:
How has Bikram yoga changed your mind? Leave a comment. We love to hear from you!
Bikram Yoga St. Johns' studio owner, yoga-doer and life-lover, Kay D.