January 11, 2012

Beautiful Bikram: A Spiritual Experience with McYoga Ham Sandwiches. ~ Anna Denise van der Reijden

When I walked into the Bikram ‘hot’ yoga studio on June 2nd of last year, I had not taken a yoga class of any kind in over three years. My move to another city in another country, building up new friendships, trying to maintain the old, figuring out what was happening in my new job, and generally just adjusting to my new world had swallowed up too much of my energy to even come near the quiet attention I had once given my (vinyasa) yoga practice when I still lived back home.

I’m not sure what was different about all that on that summer day early June, but something needed to be different and I longed to reconnect with a part of myself I had seemingly forgotten.

Boy, was I in for a treat. I was in the back row, but still the heat struck me in waves. Sweat dripping off of my once flexible body (and somehow I was surprised that it wasn’t any longer), and I think I ran out of water somewhere after the standing series. I didn’t get half of the instructions, and couldn’t even let my feet fall open during savasana (dead body pose).

It was brutal, as a first Bikram class is supposed to be. Although Bikram yoga, which was introduced to the West by its founder Bikram Choudhury, is notoriously demanding (there are 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises performed in a heated room up to 46ºc or 105ºF, with a humidity level of at least 40%), I came back for more for every day of that first introductory week, and have immersed myself in it by practicing at least four times a week ever since. I have convinced many a friend (and foe) to try a class, and hope to inspire others by living out the good things Bikram yoga has brought me.

However, the more I’ve immersed myself in my practice and told others about it, the more I came a across a whole group of yogis who seem to get their tights into a bunch as soon as they hear Bikram Choudury’s name as much as hinted at in casual conversation. It saddens me that there’s always that one person (usually an experienced and ‘enlightened’ yogi) who comments on how Bikram yoga is not really a ‘worthy’ practice (ah! It seems one is never too old, too enlightened, or too perfect to cast that first stone of judgment, is one?). I’ve heard many of my fellow Bikram students got the same reaction. Besides the fact that many people seem to dislike him personally because of his collection of Rolls Royes, Rolexes, weird outfits, and above all the way he directs his aggressive team of lawyers to sue anyone who uses ‘his’ idea of hot yoga, the criticism that most upset me was the idea that Bikram yoga is not spiritual but just a Westernized, dumbed-down, fitness fad.

In short the criticism goes like this: Bikram yoga is not spiritual and it focuses too much on the physical. The man himself is an ass and thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips, going around suing people. That anyone who ‘follows’ this man is a loony. And to be honest, the ‘boss’ himself doesn’t do much to me. He is silly, and I think he means to be (but that’s beside the point). I don’t really care about the lawsuits he started, won, or lost. I don’t care because I don’t need a guru (and also, I’m having trouble making up my mind about how I feel about the lawsuits). All I need is my practice, and anyone who says this kind of yoga isn’t spiritual (enough), just hasn’t stood in that bright room for very long, looked themselves in the eye, confronted with their own physical and mental boundaries.

Yes, the bright lights and the mirrors might seem like they’re there to help you focus even more on the physical part of yoga. But in fact, they’ve been the biggest help for me to come to a point of self-acceptance. I’m not sure when you have last gazed into your own eyes for 90 minutes straight, but let me tell you: it confronting. Not just the body part. The part where looking into your own eyes is uncomfortable and makes your mind race with thoughts and judgments about yourself. Only to melt into the part where the heat becomes overwhelming and the physical challenge so great that you have to stare into your own eyes, blank, and just accept and smile at your own red, sweaty, contorted face. 

Mindful attention will need to be paid to your body, however, and it comes in the form of discovering the way it changes every day. Every day the practice feels completely new and different, even though the 26 postures remain the same. You wonder what’s different today and why? The pure terror in camel on some days, and the joyful opening of the ribcage on other days makes you feel the way your body absorbs negative and positive emotions you thought you had safely stashed away somewhere. It teaches even the most vain and competitive student (and I’ll admit I am one of those) some humility. Some days (in fact: most days) I will stand first row and fall flat on my face in ‘standing bow pulling pose’. It reminds you that you are not here to control your body, but to work with what you’ve got. Being someone who has had body image issues all her life, this daily confrontation led me to write my body a letter early on in my practice in which I apologized for what I had done to it throughout our lives together, for the abuse, hate, and anger I had directed at it. That I hoped we could learn to work as a team, again. Any description of what this has done for me would sound overly dramatic, but I think ‘a miracle’ would cover it.

The harshness of the class and the way the classes only seem to get harder the deeper you get into your practice, have reminded me of my own strength. To trust my body, to regain my mental strength and ‘Bengal tiger determination’. It’s made me, more me, and I feel I’ve come home.  I don’t feel like a different person. I feel like myself. Finally. I’m kinder towards myself and others. I’ve learned to breathe before reacting to things that upset me. And I’ve leaned to listen. To every word the instructor yells into her headset, but also to others around me. I’ve been given the clarity to see people anew and not to lead everything back to myself and my own insecurity. I’ve learned to sit quiet and let the mind be still amidst the riot called life.

Now, I bet you never thought all of that would come from a practice that has been “invented” by a man in a white speedo with atom bomb balls (or whatever it is he says). I just wanted to remind you that the practice is determined by the practitioner. Bikram yoga offers portals to spirituality like any other practice (and I’m not just speaking of yoga practices exclusively), but it’s less obvious about it, perhaps. It lures people like me in by promising results and challenge, and gives a journey and stillness in return. I wish you this same pleasant surprise in everything you’ll try for the first time this year. Namaste.

All drawings © Anna Denise van der Reijden

Anna Denise van der Reijden is an illustrator, visual arts professional, bikram yogini, Internet nerd and blogger from The Netherlands, currently living in Brussels, Belgium.

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