Last night, at the invitation of my “friend”, I went to a Bikram class in the West Village. I haven’t been to Bikram in five or six years, but I practiced it for about six months when I first started yoga. At that time I was fresh off of rowing crew, and looking for something similar (that didn’t require 7 other women and a 200-pound boat). Rowing is just two poses, the catch and the finish, and you jump between them 1000 times each morning until it’s muscle memory, leaving just you and your willpower. Bikram’s 26 poses was the simplest sequence I could find.
Bikram is great for beginners: practicing the same poses each class gets you past their novelty, into details and then concentration. I like repeating each pose twice; seeing improvement from the first attempt to the second is an obvious reminder of the benefits of regular practice. It’s also one of the few schools where they use mirrors, so you get visual feedback on your posture as well as sensory. And the script (although I’ve never heard it delivered the same way twice) is chock full of alignment reminders.
But the genius of Bikram, the horrible unescapable challenge, is the heat. The poses are almost irrelevant compared to the stress of the sweat lodge. It’s just you versus the heat; your whole body yelling GET OUT OF HERE while your mind thinks maybe it can manage one more pose… Meanwhile the sweat is pouring out of you, the air seems to lack oxygen, and your muscles are going limp. Which is a good thing, you’re sweating out drugs you did in high school, and you’re only safe to stretch when you’re warmed up… but the only thing that gets me back into a Bikram class is my bad memory; I forget what a steamroller it is.
Last night’s class was at Bikram Yoga Manhattan, the Greenwich branch. They have a ridiculous 30 days for $30 special — that’s cheaper than going to the Russian baths for one night. The center was small, and of course smelled like a gym sock (they all do). But things were clean, and the owner was super friendly.
Stepping into class, the room felt invitingly warm. (It was a rainy December night in New York). Twenty minutes in, I was red-faced and sitting on my butt. Just the first few standing poses wiped me out — Side Bends, Back and Forward Bends, Eagle, Awkward Chair, Head-to-Knee, Dancer, etc. They were fairly familiar poses, but the continuous squeezing, pulling, and flexing was a muscular triathlon. In Kenya. And next time, I will start hydrating two days in advance. Apparently coffee does not count as one’s daily water intake. I got seriously light-headed, and since I occasionally faint, I was happy to listen to the instructor telling me “You know you can sit down, right?”
I thought it would be better once we got to the floor poses. I remembered that much. Instead, I felt my broiling skin smothered against a sweaty towel and rubber mat. How I wished I’d gotten a spot by the window! (Benevolent teachers will sometimes open a window a crack, to improve the ratio of students actually practicing to those collapsed on the floor.) But this was just the joy of the first-timer; it’s always horrendous the first time you run, swim, etc. after a long break. (The second time is SO much better.) And it was a reminder to BE a first-timer, and not see myself as “an experienced Bikram practitioner.” The only goal of Bikram Class #1 is just to stay in the room for the whole 90 minutes. ‘Cause if you go, we all go.
Finally, we made it to Corpse pose. Lying there, slowing my breathing, feeling the room cool bit by bit as each student departed, I reconsidered my mid-class swearing to never come back. Bikram is great to warm your bones in the winter, and I’ve been missing the sauna… why did I leave it?
I remember hearing Ashtanga was a “better” sequence — more complete, more challenging, less artificial. At the time I was Type A if I was anything, so I had to try it. (I’ll save my comments on Ashtanga Vinyasa for another day.) And there are no inversions in Bikram — no Headstand, Shoulder Stand, etc — since you’d pass out in the heat. I wondered if Bikram was indeed the best yoga… marketing.
Returning to the sequence, I realized it was not actually missing as much as I’d thought. Forward Bend and Wide-Legged Forward Bend are actually inversions, since your hips are over your head. Rabbit puts pressure on the crown of your head like Headstand, and creates a throat lock like Shoulder Stand. And there’s much more glandular work than I realized… the Standing Head-to-Knee and the Forward Angle (Parsvottanasana) are held with a rounded back (Pilates style) and the forehead to the knee, prioritizing pressure on the abdomen and forehead instead of the usual stretching of the hips/hamstrings. Other poses similarly claim to clear the glands and blood vessels by creating pressure or blockage in an area, to create a cleansing rush when the pose is released.
And if we look at the Sivananda sequence, which narrowed the “essential asanas” to only 12, we see that the Bikram sequence has covered the same bases (if we accept Rabbit and Forward Bends as a substitute for Headstand and Shoulder Stand, and Camel and Bow as a substitute for Bridge and Fish). Yes, there could be more twists. Yes, it’s too focused on achievement. But it is a good sequence.
I don’t think I could give up the creative dance of Vinyasa and go back solely to Bikram… my art teacher always said it’s much easier to loosen up than tighten up. But it will (well, it might) be making a nice adjunct to my winter practice for the next 30 days.
I was only half joking in the title of this post; Mr. Bikram tried to kill me. But that’s the path — the death of the ego, right? He created a crazy environment, trying to flatten my ideas about what I could and couldn’t do. He forced me into survival mode, a struggle through the heat of each moment. He tried to drown my internal narrative with his verbose, scripted instructions. But of course, he did not succeed; my ego remains in all its annoying glory. I’ll have to walk the boring path a bit longer than one class.