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.
I have been practicing Bikram Yoga since 2006. A back injury I sustained in 1999 limited the activities I could do without pain and a co-worker's encouragement got me into my first class. As a stubborn perfectionist in my 20's, my initial yoga practice was intense, disciplined, and with the singular focus to deepen my postures.
After becoming a teacher, practicing consistently over time, dealing with life, and growing as a person, my practice today looks, and feels, WAY different than it did back then! I have always been a rebellious and creative person so it is surprising that I picked Bikram Yoga as my yoga of choice. Here are some tips I use to keep my yoga consistent, nourishing, and healing no matter what is going on.
1) "Just breathe, everything else is optional." - Diane Ducharme-Gardner
The most important thing your teachers constantly remind you to do in class is "breathing always normal." If you never did a single yoga posture, but kept your breathing normal, you would still be practicing yoga! If your yoga postures are very pretty on the outside, but you breathe by your mouth, you hold on tightly to your breath, or your breath creates a panicked response in your central nervous system, you are not doing yoga, you are just making body shapes. By breathing normally in and out by your nose you stay present, keep your system calm, and get the intended healing benefits of the postures. Next time you practice, put a little more attention on how you are breathing, especially during the postures you dislike - you may find you dislike them because you are not breathing.
2) Pay attention
The dialogue helps to create a moving meditation. When you have been practicing for some time it's easy to tune the teacher out and go at the pace you want to go at. Don't fall into that habit! If you stay with the postures word-by-word, you will deepen the connection between your mind and your body. You will hear different things in the dialogue and you will begin to understand them differently. "Nice and tight contraction" and "completely relax" will each take on new meaning from practice to practice. You will understand your muscles and injuries and sensations in your body. You will start to be able to make better decisions in your practice. Pay attention with your ears, the feelings in your body, and the energy you have on any given day.
3) Adjust your intensity
This may be one of the most important lessons I've learned over time. The postures should always be done with the correct alignment and precision of technique. However, the intensity you apply to them should change on a regular basis. If you are feeling great, have gotten lots of sleep, are well hydrated and fed, and have laser beam focus you can practice much differently than if you have been working overnight shifts, have been drinking nothing but coffee, and haven't slept in 3 days. You need to consider yourself in the present moment when you practice because if you don't, you will start to hate your yoga. You should always leave the studio feeling better than you did when you entered it. If you are constantly tired, are in pain, or dread coming back, something needs to change. Give yourself permission to push less, rest more, and perhaps be kinder with yourself during your 90 minutes. Life is crazy and yoga should always make you feel like you can handle it better. If yoga is not helping you, talk to your teachers, they have been there, too, and can help!
4) We're all in this together
I recently had a student tell me she was feeling frustrated and discouraged because she felt like everyone else in the room was "getting it" and had great postures and she was the only one that was struggling. Here's a tip from someone that stands on the podium and also stands on a mat - none of us get it and we're all struggling! What I mean by that is you can't tell what is going on with someone internally by looking at them from the outside. I've known people with beautiful looking yoga postures that struggled with chronic pain. I've known people with some wonky looking postures that were so joyous and felt so good in their bodies that you always wanted to be around them. I discover new things about the dialogue and about myself every time I step onto the mat. People share with me every day both their struggles and their successes and how their yoga is so important. Remember that most of us are doing yoga for a reason - because we need it.
5) Simply show up
I can't tell you how many times people come up to the front desk terrified of stepping into the room after a long hiatus. They build up the class so intensely in their heads and put huge expectations on themselves for what they need to accomplish. Please go back to the first tip above - just breathe. Most importantly - just show up. The hardest yoga posture you will ever do is Showing-Up-To-Classasana. Bikram Yoga is a beginner's series designed to heal, strengthen, and create resilience in the mind, body, and spirit. Keep this in mind when you step into the room. Take the pressure of performance off yourself an embrace the heat and the healing and the community support of your fellow practitioners.
What do you think about these yoga tips? Which one are you most interested in practicing? I can't wait to meet you all and talk everything yoga with you next week!
Audrey Holst is a Certified Bikram Yoga Instructor, Studio Owner of Bikram Yoga Natick in Massachussetts and professional Stress Reduction Consultant. She will be in residence at BYSJ this May for a whole week- teaching, mentoring our instructors and giving private lessons to you! View Audrey's teaching schedule here.
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...
“I have been sober a little over two years and Bikram Yoga has become a big part of my recovery program. My practice has been such an important healthy outlet for emotional healing and managing the day-to-day life stressors that come up. I don't second guess myself as much as I did before I started practicing. I don't know exactly how it works, but I know it’s the yoga, and I think it has something to do with looking myself in the eye in those mirrors. I have built a mind-body connection and trust myself more.
“I always sleep better after I've come to yoga. I've been able to maintain a healthy weight throughout the year by coming regularly. I have gained confidence in myself and am able to make decisions more quickly. It always surprises me what comes up in the hot room. As one of my teachers says "Let it out. Better out than in!"
“I took my first Bikram yoga class in Seattle in 2012 and practiced on and off for about 9 months. But it wasn't until after I got sober that I was able to realize how much the yoga could do for me. Class is so much harder with a hangover! After I got sober in 2014 it took me a long time to starting exercising again in any fashion. When I came back in January I knew it was what I had been missing and has since become a huge part of my life. I keep coming back because my yoga class is my 90 minutes to be with myself, pushing my edge in the most loving way possible. I am increasingly confident and enjoy working on myself from the inside out. I was so happy when I got to the point where I could get through a whole class without taking a break! That took a while, and I still take breaks when I need to. It’s fun to see how much I progress when I come regularly.
“I completed a 60 day challenge in the spring and it was the best gift I gave myself this year. It kick-started me into a healthier way of thinking and living. I was really paying attention to what my body needed and treated myself well. I was thinking about hydration and nutrition in a way that I hadn’t been before. It was fun to participate in the studio wide challenge because it felt like we were one big team, cheering each other on throughout the month. The experience made me realize that I am so much stronger than I ever gave myself credit for. I definitely plan to participate in the challenge in January and get the new year started off right! The benefits of a 30 day challenge last far longer than the 30 days and I highly recommend everyone to try it. You will probably realize more benefit than you can even imagine - I know I did!”
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
Bikram Yoga St. Johns' studio owner, yoga-doer and life-lover, Kay D.