As I walked out of the Bikram Yoga studio toward my car after my first class, I found myself declaring, “If I can actually do this yoga, it will totally change my whole life.” I had only been able to attempt half the postures, with the rest of the time lying down, just dealing with the heated, humid room. But it was a revelation as to the sorry state of my body’s condition, and the pathetic condition of my mind-body connection.
I had already made the firm decision to do yoga class every day for two months, after reading Bikram Choudhury’s introductory yoga book. He says, “Give us two months. We will change you.” After living with years of back pain due to compressed lumbar discs and a sedentary lifestyle, I was ready for that change–so ready, in fact, I was willing to subject my de-conditioned body to 90 minutes of vigorous cardiovascular activity in 105° heat and 60% humidity (making the “apparent temperature” somewhere around 145°). But the prospective discipline of it appealed to me, and soon I was actually enjoying the gentle torture of it, as I began to move muscles, bones and cartilage that hadn’t been moved in years.
Beyond the rewards of seeing my body stretch and reach new ranges of motion in class, it was after and between classes where the payoffs truly lay. Bending over to pick up something no longer hurt, standing up after sitting for a while no longer involved pain and stiffness, and I began noticing how good I felt instead of how bad.
Of course, getting to these improvements took a while; and although I had committed to two months of daily practice, it has now been nearly eight months, and I can now say yoga is an indispensible part of my life. This path has blatantly announced to me how I had incrementally reduced my own range of motion with each tiny discomfort, each injury, each bout of stiffness, in an attempt to protect myself from future pain. It is a common life strategy, but a very wrongheaded one. The body needs to increase its range of motion over time, and each discomfort or injury points the way. As the World’s Stiffest Person at 50, I was on the fast track to being a crippled old man by 60.
I drew a valuable conclusion from this, that all the little aches and pains and microconditions we had as twentysomethings, if not dealt with in a broad and holistic way, are the exact pains and conditions that amplify over time leading us to our ultimate demise. From this perspective, what is commonly referred to as “aging,” is actually more like an excuse for not answering the body’s calls for help early on. I’m just not buying the “I’m just getting too old for this” refrain I hear from my friends. Time, friction, and gravity will take their respective tolls, but only with permission from you. If I end up dying at 94, I would rather have gotten there vital, active and pain-free, instead of feeble, crippled, and tormented.
The main thing I’ve learned from my beginning yoga experience is that it takes MUCH MORE WORK than I thought to reverse my past slothfulness, and much more diligence on the day-to-day to maintain what gains I have acheived. Bikram refers to the “body’s bank account.” You invest into the account with yoga, and then spend the account when not doing yoga. Of course, I found I was sorely and deplorably in DEBT, and am only now seeing the light at the end of that tunnel, striving for the day I can touch my forehead to my toes, rest my leg on my shoulder, and nap on my back with my head on my feet.
SEVEN MORE THINGS I’VE LEARNED IN BIKRAM YOGA
1. If yoga turns it on, yoga will turn it off. I’ve had many classes where a muscle or joint will “release” (I used to wrongly identify it as “strain”), causing pain and stiffness or soreness after class. By the end of the next class, invariably, that soreness and pain disappears.
2. Your body is stronger than you think it is, and you have more energy than you think you do. One day in class I decided to completely ignore my thoughts as to what I could or couldn’t do in class, and was surprised to find a whole new range of motion, and a whole new area of energy and strength. The body obeys the limitations imposed upon it by the mind. Because Bikram Yoga is one of the most strenuous forms of hatha yoga, it is easy to claim to myself that I MUST be tired after all that exertion. Letting myself engage in this way, certainly obtained the result. The REALITY of yoga class is that it CREATES energy. Although it is natural to feel weakness or exhaustion, that feeling is actually RECOVERY, and in a few minutes, I claim to myself that I am refreshed and energetically ready for life. And, magically, I am.
3. Trust your body to know what it needs to do. Patience. As obedient as the body is to the limitations of the mind, it has also retained the awareness of the sequence of how those limitations were imposed, and knows how to undo them. The deeper problem with this is that many times there seem to be opposing limitations and confused commands operating within the body. These were put there by the mind, resulting in the wrong muscles being used to do certain motions. The trick, of course, is to get the mind out of the way, and it WILL resolve.
4. How you do yoga is how you do your life. The corollary to this is what happens during yoga practice is a microcosm of what happens to you in life. Paying attention to this is the road to revelation–as well as some inner grins.
5. Flexibility and core strength are the keys to health. Nutrition is important, drinking lots of water is important, getting proper amounts of sleep is important–all things I had been doing throughout my life. Unfortunately, I had overlooked the two most important things. Exercise is inadequate (and I dare say useless) without flexibility and core strength training. Again, it has taken much more than I thought to keep my body’s bank account from going into the red, and the quickest way into the black is with flexibility and core strength training. (By “core strength” I mean the deepest core muscles that create movement in the body, such as abdominal and back muscles.) With a high degree of flexibility, all the enzymes, minerals, blood flow, and myriad other rejuvenating substances the body creates to heal and build itself can get to those areas that need it. Without flexibility, there is withering and dying. I also noticed that I didn’t engage my abdominal muscles when I should, such as when bending over, lifting, carrying, walking, standing up. This set up bad habits of motion, and the obvious developing flacidity and inappropriate muscle recruitment.
6. Breathe. Combine this command with how you do yoga is how you do your life, and you’ll quickly see where you cut off your life force in daily living. I would stop breathing when I felt weak, for example. Ooops.
7. Use your mind to guide and expand. This is a corollary to Number 3 above. I noticed that by setting and visualizing goals on each posture, as well as for the entire class, and by refusing to entertain any other thoughts–such as how hot it is in the room, what hurts, what I’m afraid of, etcetera, etcetera–lo and behold progress gets made. The body wants to feel better. Help it out by concentrating on improving each posture, and when not doing that, concentrating on breathing. I’m saving myself a lot of unnecessay torture by applying this point in my practice, and in my life.
The most impressive effect underlying all the physical changes has been my greatly increased ability to confront life in the proper perspective–what I’ll call the “Small Potatoes Effect.” This is where one does something so monumentally difficult that the rest of life’s daily conflicts, conundrums, irritations and niggly stresses seem to all pale in importance. Or, more accurately, they begin to assume the quality of merely the backdrop texture accompanying my personal goals and purposes. They become the tiny, swirling dust devils stirred up by my atmospheric movements of intention. These are no longer “stresses”–they are revealing acknowledgements that life is changing according to my desires.
As the practice advances, I’m wondering if perhaps it is not so much that it is “monumentally difficult” to do this yoga, but that certain firmly embedded toxic conditions residing for decades deep within organs, muscle and bone are at last being purged–and that translates as a monumental achievement on some subliminal cellular or auric level.
Whatever it is, it has restored my sense of humor, allowed me to rediscover my enjoyment of living, and added an aura of leisure in everyday activities, even as I find myself accomplishing more.
And so I continue on with my daily practice of Bikram Yoga with an inner smile, remembering that Bikram says, “You gotta go through hell to get to heaven,” and remembering that the only reason the “hell” is there was my own doing. But with yoga, my days of redemption are at hand.