Postcards From The Heat

Bikram 30-day Challenge: My Progress Report

10 Comments 22 February 2010

Doing a 30-day challenge is like taking a language-immersion course, learning a year’s worth of, say, Latin, in a six-week, six-hours-a-day blitz. I did that once. It was so hard I would relax by harvesting raspberries in their prickly July thickets. Actually, the 30-day challenge is as tough as both Latin and raspberry picking.

At first, I suffered commitmentitis. The very thought of so protracted an effort make me feel dizzy and weak. On the first days, I napped–not my usual habit. On day eight, I napped five hours in two separate chunks.

I quickly learned that food is fuel, something known, I guess, by most any marathon runner adept at carbohydrate loading. Graduates of the Bikram teacher-training course, where they practice twice a day five days a week, advocate eating what you crave, be it hamburgers or fruit. For me, it was intense proteins–tuna melts or tofu–alongside heavy-duty starches–Idaho potatoes whipped with garlic and boiled milk, twelve-bean soup, kasha with buttered noodles. My staple was a chili of pintos, bacon, ground sirloin, and a heaping heap of minced jalepenos.

Investing thus in food and sleep, I made progress on my toe-stand, which was the goal I gave myself to persevere on this crazy journey. Every day, I tried to push my spine straighter, grip it tighter, try to balance longer. When I finally got my hands into prayer for an instant before keeling over, I was elated. That one second made me absurdly happy.

Of course, the commitment helped, but more pragmatically, it was also simply muscle memory–as any athlete worth her salt would know. I have never been athletic. So learning to ask the most of my body was learning to ask the most of me, and getting the most out of my body by treating it well was about getting the most out of me by treating myself well. This was the challenge within the challenge. It was as foreign to me as Latin.

Yoga Lily

Postcards From The Heat

Bikram Practice: Advanced Breathing

No Comments 15 February 2010

“Make your breathing muscular,” a teacher remarked, revealing a paradox about breathing in yoga: that we subject the automatic to our control, take charge of a reflex, breathe by will. Breathing has always been difficult for me.

I have already confessed in this scroll about struggling with it for more than two years, and the first breathing exercise has long been my nemesis. Bikram dogma has it that your least favorite exercise is the one you need most, so I recently started experimenting with making my breathing muscular in this exercise.

To begin, I pull back on the muscles just behind my mouth, the place that teachers call the back of the throat. If I sip in the air this way just fast enough and no faster, it slides down my windpipe, neat as a cue ball, and lands in a sweet spot in my lungs. If I am very focused and the air is particularly warm or very cool, I feel it swirling as it settles to rest on the firm base of pulled-in lower abs.

On the exhale, I push air out from the bottom first, by contracting my upper abs in an upwards flow. At the end, when my elbows squeeze together, I force the two halves of my rib cage toward one another. This pressure further empties the lungs, creating a vacuum. And if nature abhors a vacuum, so do I. I used to choke there all the time, but I have learned to hold still, knowing that air will arrive in one second, with the teacher’s cue to inhale, when I pull back again on the back of my throat to start the slow inward whoosh again, powered by the reversing vacuum. And so the circle goes.

Every second has its task, and each builds on the one before. The minutiae distract me, and I get through the exercise, paradoxically without thinking about breathing at all. Instead, I meditate on moving air efficiently, respectfully, evenly. It is really not about me and my breathing any more–the breath is simply a circle. It is about air and will.

Yoga Lily

Postcards From The Heat

Yoga, Football, and The Fan

No Comments 08 February 2010

Fitness makes strange bedfellows. Take football and yoga. Training to throw pigskin today includes rolling tires, schlepping logs, wrestling with punching bags, amping up on ultra-modern machines, and doing six-thousand year-old stretches. Yoga is now mainstream in football training.

Players admit its benefits, sometimes defensively. One swears it rehabilitated his knee. Another is sure it keeps him flexible. Another claims that the endurance he developed in his last five minutes of yoga class is the endurance he calls upon in his last five minutes in the arena. One confesses to exercise-induced asthma, crediting to the controlling breathing of yoga his safe passing through many a danger zone. Overall, much data now shows that teams that train with yoga suffer less injuries.

Football has never made sense to me: Why do anything that requires you to put your head in a cage? Yet it is nothing more nor less than a classic high-risk, high-reward profession, like being a Green Beret, a drug-dealer, or a politician. If athletically-gifted men decide to court brain-damaging concussions in exchange for astronomical salaries, well, they are grown-ups, after all. And they offset their risk with yoga.

The fact is, football players are not all beefcake and macho. For every player convicted of running a dogfighting ring is another who hies himself to work via a Smart car, that uber politically-correct vehicle. For every player sidelined by a failed drug test is another who anonymously buys dinner for families in restaurants, another who revels in practical jokes.

Really, those most in need of yoga are football fans: the February 2 issue of The New York Times reports that the Super Bowl is a “hazard for diehard football fans.” Why? Partying too hard and caring fanatically about who wins induces heart attacks. The Super Bowl is, after all, only a game, only a commercial facet of our culture, only a sink for the atavistic urge for competition and triumph. Those fans need the blessings of yoga just as much as the players they worship.

Yoga Lily

Postcards From The Heat

Bikram Practice: All Together Now

No Comments 01 February 2010

We New Yorkers are individualists, eccentrics, iconoclasts, and know-it-alls. The snappy comeback, after all, was invented on a corner in Brooklyn. The New York minute originated here, well duh. So what happens in the Bikram studio to the New Yorker steeped in speed and variety and doing it all her own way? She vanishes. The trick? She must move in unison with a roomful of people.

I experienced this in a mid-day class. These are never crowded, with room to stretch your arms and turn the mats to face the mirror. Populating these classes are dancers, singers, personal trainers, triathletes–people there to keep their money-making bodies in perfect working order, people who can write off their classes as a business expense. Read: Yoga rock stars.

So as I sat out a set of triangle, I saw a roomful of nearly perfect triangles. Whatever the physiological reasons for calling it a master posture, the many bodies striking the one pose was a powerful, almost chilling sight–all those arms firmly vertical, those front calves like tree trunks, the spines tilting straight at a rising sun.

Suddenly, I experienced an optical illusion: There were no people in the room, no bodies, only the posture, reiterated. Every person was erased, merged, and transformed into this image of strength. What’s more, this most arduous posture became pure ardor. I frissoned on its description as a marriage of heart and lungs. But whatever the cause, a strange whole took shape there in the room, a whole far greater than its parts. A one, enormous and mysterious.

Sometimes, the teachers talk about the energy of the room, that we ought to move together so as to support and energize each other. I have never understood that, but after this sight, I got an inkling: the phrase esprit de corps came to mind, as in the military, a dance troupe, a research laboratory, or an ultimate frisbee team. A collective will pervades every person. I do not know what that will is willing in yoga. Maybe the yoga knows. But something way big this way comes, chasing down at least one wayward New Yorker.

Yoga Lily

Bikram Yoga NYC opened its doors in August 1999 and became Manhattan's first Bikram Yoga Studio! Owners Donna Rubin and Jennifer Lobo had both been avid practitioners of Bikram Yoga in other cities and knew that no city needed Bikram Yoga more than New York!

Our blogger, Yoga Lily has been practicing intensively in our studios for more than two years. She was inspired to begin this blog by the myriad benefits the yoga brings her. Yoga Lily lives in Manhattan with her two daughters, an oversized German Shepherd, and a Russian Blue cat.

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