A few years ago spurred by a friend I signed up for the 30 day Bikram yoga challenge. Having only ever tried yoga classes (Ashtanga) a couple of times before and intensely disliking the experience I was somewhat sceptical.
I will never forget my first class. It was like being in a packed tube carriage at rush hour, stuck in a tunnel, in the middle of summer with my head stuck in a smelly sweaty person's armpit. Basically hell on earth. I thought I was going to vomit and/or pass out for most of the class and kept having to lie down. There was no way I was doing thirty days straight of this utter insanity. I remember thinking it would be a miracle if I ever went back. Whilst I did return a few days later I didn't manage anyway near the 30 day challenge but did break through what I called my pukey/passing out point and was actually able to attempt all the poses. Over the next few years I would dabble on and off with popping into Bikram classes but never practiced regularly or got into a routine.
All this changed on a trip back home to London last Christmas. I was determined to get fit and decided to do a few drop in classes at my old Bikram yoga haunt. Over the course of my three week trip I did ten classes and got hooked. Something about the heat, the sweating, the weird emotions it brought out (sometimes I would feel amazingly serene after class, sometimes I would cry) was odd, but it felt right and very much part of my recovery to full health after a period of prolonged sickness. Upon returning to LA for the New Year I signed up for membership at my local Bikram yoga centre. However this was no Primrose Hill spotless, wooden floored, expensive studio. The low key studio in Silverlake had 'special flooring' (that to me looked like a breeding ground for germs) no showers, changing rooms the size of a jail cell and shall we say an interesting assortment of yogis - many of whom to me clearly needed lessons in hygiene and yoga etiquette. It was a bit of a baptism of fire. I confess to a few disgusted ranting Facebook updates about being sneezed on/sprayed with sweats/my latest OCD freak out (I blame my Virgo rising for my OCD and judgment about other people's hygiene and etiquette). However, I persevered and after nearly four months of regular practice I am amazed at the difference in my skin, my physique, my physical health and my state of mind. I believe that there are lessons to be learned from every experience. Below are a few lessons that the last few months of Bikram has taught me.
1) Bikram is not competitive or at least it shouldn't be. It is the antithesis of being a yogi to pay attention or to compare yourself with anyone else in class and whether they are doing 'better' than you. Equally life is not a competition. This may sound obvious but can be difficult in practice. It is hard not to compare oneself to one's peers. But the fact is that different things happen to different people at different times for different reasons. Comparing yourself and your life to others will only lead to unnecessary ill feeling, jealousy and resentment. And all these negative feelings will only block the good stuff coming your way and can stop you from being grateful for all the wonders in your life.
2) There are times in Bikram where it gets overwhelming and you want to quit and walk out of class. There aren't many 'rules' in Bikram but one of the few is to do everything possible to stay in the room. Lie down as much as you need to but to stay in the room as by just staying in the room for the full duration of class we are already achieving so much for our bodies and our minds. As we all know life can be overwhelming. There are moments when we feel like quitting - on the more extreme level this can be thoughts of suicide, on a lesser level this can be quitting in other ways - giving into addictions, having other 'crutches', opting out emotionally, allowing the bad stuff to weigh you down and stop you from being in the present and having the future you deserve. It is easy to quit. I know as I have quitted in so many different ways at different times but something has always brought me back from the brink. Perhaps the promise of dawn after the darkness. We all need to stay in the game of life to ride out the rockier times and the lows in order to break through and come out the other end, which we will. Have a lie down, stand still for a while, sure - but never, ever, quit.
3) Other yogis in Bikram can be really annoying. From having poor hygiene, terrible yoga etiquette, strange habits to overly dramatic breathing and unnecessary, sometimes startling grunts. When I allow these things to annoy me it messes with my practice and ultimately means I get less out of the session. In life other people can be the source of great irritation. From those connected to us personally (family, loved ones, friends, employers/employees/clients etc) to those with no personal connection to us but with whom we have interactions that can upset the delicate apple cart of our day (other road users, the annoying person in the queue in front of you, poor customer service etc). The thing is that we have no control over other people's feelings, behaviour or actions. The only thing we do have control over is our reaction and how we let their behaviour impact upon us. And that is our choice and ours alone.
4) "Smile, don't take it so seriously" says the bikram teacher gently when she sees furrowed brows and frustrated faces of yogis unable to quite get into the position they want. When I first heard this I was mid attempting standing bow position (one of the positions I find the hardest but actually one of my favourites) and fell out of the position with irritation at her comment. How the f*** am I supposed to smile in these positions I thought? And in life how are we meant to have a serene smile when we feel like we are going to collapse from the pressures we are under or are feeling frustrated and anxious? But the weird thing is now, somewhere along the way - usually about twenty minutes into my class - I get so in the zone, connected to my own unique practice, that somehow despite the sweat and heat, this graceful serene smile slips onto my face. And this has translated into my everyday life. I cannot tell you how far this is from what I would describe as my true essence - feisty, fiery and easily frustrated. In the last few months a series of annoying, expensive and unfortunate things have happened that a year ago would have had me turning the air blue with swearing and cursing all those I felt were responsible and wishing bad karma upon them. Instead I have shrugged my shoulders, said, "that's annoying" and reminded myself of how things could be worse and weirdly for me, that same serene graceful 'Bikram' smile slips over my face. It doesn't the change the reality of what has happened but it does make me feel better. A smile (admittedly sometimes accompanied by a raised eyebrow and a 'REALLY?!') has become my new suit of armour.
5) "Observe but don't judge" is something the teacher says all the time. Observe your thoughts, your practice, your feelings, but don't judge them, simply observe them. Easier said than done but this has become such a valuable life lesson in that when I judge everything, I learn nothing and often create mountains out of molehills. In my interactions with others, whether it is loved ones or random strangers, this new attitude has prevented several potentially unpleasant confrontations and actually by observing, not making a snap judgment (and accompanying reaction) the bigger picture is allowed to unfold and more often than not, to my pleasant surprise.
I laugh at how for someone who is the antithesis of a yogi and an OCD hygiene freak I now find myself so excited about spending 90 minutes in a sweat box, contorting my body, with very little personal space. But I am so grateful to my Bikram practice - for the healing of my body, the quietening of my mind and for the lessons learnt for the game of life