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!
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.
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 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:
Camel is great for so many things! Among its benefits are:
This is a posture where it's very normal, especially as a beginner, to feel dizzy, nauseous or emotional. The best thing to do is? Breathe. Immediately after you exit the posture, lie down in savasana (try to skip the water, handtowel, or whatever else you automatically reach for in that moment.) No worries, those feelings will pass- or you may even learn to like them! Backward bending this way is most likely a new sensation, and opening your chest, hips and throat can feel vulnerable.
Here's a video Peter and I shot earlier this summer with our special guest teacher Audrey Holst from Bikram Yoga Natick. I asked Audrey if she had noticed any trends among our students in the way we are practicing, and together we agreed that Camel pose could use some attention to make sure you all are getting the goody mentioned above, without causing strain or pain. Enjoy, and please let us know if these tips are helpful for you!
It's gearing up to be ridiculous here in Portland. The city is setting up "cooling stations," and we are pretty tickled that the temperature outside will actually be hotter than inside our hot room!
Practicing Bikram yoga under especially steamy conditions takes a bit of extra attention and planning, so check out these tips for summer self-care- then come on in and cool down a bit (for a change!)
5 Tips for Bikram Yoga in the Summer
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.
Bikram Yoga St. Johns' studio owner, yoga-doer and life-lover, Kay D.