I first went to Bikram Yoga by accident. A friend of mine suggested that we go for a class and go for a coffee after. Seeing as I had recently had a breakup she thought that it was a good idea. I didn’t. I didn’t really care for Bikram. Apart from watching the Netflix documentary about its shamed founder, I didn’t really know anything about Bikram yoga. However, lying in bed the night before the class I decided I would go and I text her asking did she think that I would be able. To which of course she assured me that I would be.
I looked online at what the studio said about this hot yoga class and its benefits. I skimmed them, not really thinking about how challenging doing yoga in a 40 to 42 degrees Celsius room for 90 minutes with 40% humidity. I had just returned from India where the average temperature was 36 degrees and I did yoga for hours, I told myself. This can’t really be that bad.
The mind has a really interesting way of dealing with new things. Either it equates this new experience to some previous awful experience or it tells us that it is going to be fine. My mind did the latter. During many of the journeys that I took part in in India, I tested myself. Kriya yoga can be extremely challenging, especially when there are 10-minute arm plank holds thrown into an already demanding sequence. My particular guru would structure things to create a sense of empowerment or emotional release or both. I often felt that I could do anything after these journeys and partake in a Bikram class with no experience was no exception.
I gingerly packed my towels, mat and wash bag and headed to the studio the next day. Of course, as I was checking in I received a message from my friend to say that she was running late, but would be there soon. The teacher asked if I was sure she was coming. I wasn’t, but I knew that at this very moment, this was exactly where I needed to be. No safety blanket. No distractions. Just me.
As I was ushered into class I naively put my mat, water bottle and towel down and began to get ready for class to begin. I had no idea about the sequence in Bikram, I didn’t even know that the postures would be taught differently, but that was all secondary to the heat. I found it overwhelming from the get-go. Sweat poured from my ill-prepared body and I began to panic.
I was told that if I felt faint to sit in Vadrasana. Don’t put my head down and don’t lie down. Don’t leave the class and the first water break would be after the first asana set. The class was taught in three sets. Two standing and one-floor sequence. We began with breathwork or pranayama. For this particular breathing, we had to inhale into our ribcage and exhale as we tilted our heads back, our hands tightly gripped to our chin. This threw me. Not so much the sucking my stomach in with the inhale, but more the pain. I noticed quickly how limited my mobility in my neck was. Possibly from past neck injuries. After the breathwork, we were told to breathe in and out through the nose only. I have to admit I struggled. As I moved through the postures, exerting myself more and more, I felt the need to gasp for air through my mouth. Each time I did it didn’t make much difference, the humidity was cutting. At the first lean back, fall back, way back, which I could not do by the way, my body shuddered. This was a sign that my muscles were seriously working. At that moment I knew this was going to be a lot harder than I thought.
At our first water break the teacher cautioned, don’t overindulge. I did. I did think that maybe I would be better off taking small sips, but I was desperate and felt that consuming my now-hot water, would somehow cool me down. It had the opposite effect, it made me feel full and sluggish.
As the postures wore on I also had the overwhelming urge to vomit, even though I thought somehow that my body wouldn’t be able to take it if I did. I became frenzied with my towel. Viciously swatting sweat off myself and towelling my body constantly, I sipped water, felt worse and busied myself in all of the moments of stillness. I gasped through my mouth and felt more out of breath, more thirsty and more desperate. I anxiously watched other people thinking in my mind if I have ever heard of any Bikram-related deaths. Given the fact that others in the class were continuing to live, I tried to reassure my mind that I would survive. Potentially die later, but I would survive the class.
Two people cracked and left. The teacher-paced the room, making sure that other manic people were not leaving. I stayed. As she encouraged us to look at our behaviour. My body was fighting this in every way possible. Moving incessantly wiping sweat, raising my arms, rolling my neck - creating heat. I couldn’t be still, even though this was the very thing that I needed to do. My body couldn’t be with itself. She urged us to explore if this is a pattern and if this is how we show up in the world. At that moment Micheal Singer's words echoed through my ears and I realised that I was trying to control my outside environment to make me feel ok. But nothing in my outside environment should be able to control how I feel, only I should be able to control how I feel.
From that moment I REALLY got Bikram yoga.
When I shattered my femur I learned patience and I learned my inner strength. Apart from calling and offering directions to my ambulance, I also had to wait 24 hours for surgery with my soggy leg in a strainer to mimic the tension my bone once had. As the hours ticked by and I felt my muscles, tendons and ligaments all desperately resisting the urge to snap altogether into a small ball. This really allowed me to use the power of mindfulness. Years before this again I used mindfulness, not intentionally, to heal myself physically and mentally from a devastating car accident. All of these little moments in my life taught me how powerful I am when I can use my mind in the right way, because like so many of us, I don’t.
I continued in my Bikram class counting my breaths from one to ten in and out through the nose, just like mindfulness taught me. As my heart rate soared I could feel my mind calming. I was soothing myself. I was present with myself. I was practising mental strength.
When the class ended the door opened and cooler air wafted in. As the teacher left she gently reminded us that if this was the worst thing that happens to us all day it is a pretty nice life. What a way to end a yoga class. As I lay in savasana I stayed present with myself. Not allowing myself to get up until I was ok to lie for another 30 minutes.
I think often as yoga teachers we can mistakenly think that our job as students is over. However, in reality, the best teachers are the best students. They are the teachers that look for learning experiences in every moment. They practice Syadhyaya, the fourth of Patanjali’s Niyamas, diligently. This refers to self-study. A good teacher explores themselves.
My next class didn’t go well. I sat for most tried to leave twice and cried. I spent the whole time counting breaths and fighting back tears. My third class, however, was amazing. It was amazing. It clicked. I clicked. In these classes, I have practised more mindfulness, self-compassion and self-control in this baptism of fire, literally.
I also, and rather importantly, got to test out my mats as hot yoga mats which I believe when making them they are excellent for. I can now confirm that this is correct.