My First Bikram Yoga Experience
I took my first Bikram Yoga class during my Northeastern Tour this summer.
I have always been aware of the benefits of yoga. My grandmother did yoga back in the 1970s. Until recently, my personal yoga experiences were limited to a few private classes with a good friend, and some free classes in church basements and community centers.
I have been to many yoga studios to teach tarot, meditation and other complementary modalities, but, until a few weeks ago, I had never taken a class in a real studio.
True Bikram Yoga in New Haven and Madison, Connecticut, is about as real as it gets.
I attended a Saturday morning class in the New Haven studio. I also visited the Madison studio. The New Haven studio is downtown, in the basement of a grand old office building near New Haven Green. The Madison studio is a brand-new facility on a second floor with huge windows.
There are many yoga studios that offer a “hot yoga” class, or a class based on the Bikram series of twenty-six postures and two breathing exercises. Robin Brace, the owner of True Bikram Yoga, closely adheres to the teachings of Bikram Choudhury.
Robin explained to me some of the differences between Bikram and other forms of yoga.
Bikram Yoga is practiced in a hot room, specifically 105 degrees with 40 per cent humidity. There are a list of benefits of the heat posted on a bulletin board in the New Haven studio. I kept that list firmly in mind as I suffered through the ninety-minute class. I found it oddly comforting to learn that Bikram developed the hot room to mimic the environment of Calcutta, where he first learned yoga.
A Bikram hot room floor is carpeted. This keeps people from slipping on pools of sweat. The carpets at True Bikram Yoga are frequently cleaned. However, if your idea of a yoga class involves the sweet scent of exotic incense wafting on a gentle breeze, your senses will be shocked. A Bikram studio smells like a gym.
Bikram Yoga doesn’t focus on the search for enlightenment. They don’t say “Namaste” to begin and end the class. But don’t for a minute think that the Bikram Yoga experience isn’t spiritual. Bikram Yoga is difficult and uncomfortable. Enlightenment comes simply from the process of getting through it.
Bikram Yoga is practiced in front of a mirror. “Eyes on you!” The teacher commands throughout the class. Looking at myself in skimpy yoga clothes, covered in sweat, trying to gracefully balance on one leg, I appreciated the lesson of self-acceptance.
A Bikram class is 90 minutes. There are no short classes, or beginner classes. Beginning students practice alongside experts. For me, this thought was immediately intimidating. I imagined my overweight, middle-aged self sandwiched between young, lithe, slender beauties turning themselves into pretzels without breaking a sweat. The reality was much different than that.
While each of us did the same postures, we were each individually challenged to do our own personal best. For me, staying in the hot room for ninety minutes, breathing through my nose and actually getting my forehead to touch my left knee were my challenges and achievements.
Robin Brace, the owner, taught the class I attended. While Bikram Yoga teachers are trained to use a specific dialogue to guide students in and out of postures, Robin seemed to know how to help each person with their specific challenges.
After the class, we had fresh juice and slices of cold grapefruit. The other students were warm (no pun intended) and congratulatory. “How did you like it?” “Are you coming back tomorrow?” “You made it through your first class! Way to go!”
I was shocked. Didn’t they see me fall out of Standing Bow posture in a rather dramatic way? Didn’t they notice me lying on my mat, panting, while they were bending themselves into Camel and Rabbit postures?
Suddenly I had a clear flash of yoga-induced enlightenment. I have avoided yoga studios of all types for most of my life. Somehow, I thought a yoga class would be a lot like middle school physical education class, where I could never make the basket, or hit the softball. I have been avoiding the benefits of yoga, and exercise in general, because of how much gym sucked in seventh grade.
Robin gave me a button that said “I survived my first Bikram Yoga class.”
Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga, is controversial for a number of reasons. Some people in the yoga community express concerns about the man, and the practice. I’ve yet to hear a Bikram student say anything negative about any other style of yoga. The closest was a fellow student, after class, who told me this.
“I’ve studied many other yoga styles. Bikram is my favorite.”
I remembered her in class. She struggled with a few postures, and had to leave her mat to get tissues from the back of the room. She seemed to be suffering as much as I was.
So often we seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Sometimes there is pleasure that comes from doing the hard thing, rather than avoiding it.
I like a gentle, relaxing yoga class, too. Now that I’ve survived my first Bikram class, I’ll feel comfortable visiting different studios and learning different yoga styles. But, like my friend in class, Bikram may become my favorite.