Seven years ago, I stepped into my first hot room. Back then, if someone had told me my future, I might have responded with an eye roll. Dear inquirer, one day you will greatly enjoy walking half-naked into an obscenely hot room to spend 90 minutes twisting, bending and dripping with sweat among strangers. And one day, you will teach others to do the same. An eye roll and some choice words.
A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to explain the appeal of Bikram yoga. I gave her the usual reasons: a great work out, an increase in strength and flexibility, an awesome form of stress relief, and so on. And then, after a beat, I came clean. I told her that the real reason that I keep coming back is that the lessons that I learn in class have made life better outside the studio. In the hot room, lessons, like sweat, have a way of sneaking up on you and sticking. Here are my favorite three:
1) You can do anything in the world if you learn to master your breath…
My first few yoga classes were humbling in part because they showed me that I didn’t know the first thing about breathing. My lungs were the lazy guy at the office that does just enough work to not be fired. They got enough oxygen into my body to keep me among the living but they were hardly standout performers. Eventually though, I learned to use my breath during class for extra endurance in a posture, to steady my heart beat, or to access muscle flexibility. Then one day I found my breath coming to my aid when I needed it. I could use it to diffuse road rage on the BQE, rub out stage fright before a speaking engagement, steady my nerves during a difficult conversation, or focus my mind before the planning phase of a new project. All due respect to the folks at Red Bull, but it’s breath mastery that really gives you wings.
2) Being a warrior isn’t about force but about balance…
Once I laid my mat down behind a trio of yogis that taught me something in the most beautiful way. One of these yogis was a young guy with the build of a professional athlete. In a past career, he might have been a football player or body builder. We’ll call him “Ahnold”. Next to Ahnold was a petite woman who looked like she walked into the studio directly off the set of Cirque du Soleil. Before class I watched her warm up by twisting her body into shapes that made me nauseous to behold. We’ll call her “The Contortionist”. The last of the trio was a middle aged woman with a lean but unremarkable build.
As class went on, I watched Ahnold go in and out of the poses that require a lot of muscle strength, e.g. Awkward Pose, with ease but grow frustrated and angry during the asanas that develop flexibility like Standing Bow. The Contortionist’s standing back bend was the most beautiful that I had ever seen but her legs wobbled during the second part of Awkward like a baby giraffe first learning to walk. The last yogi, however, was inspiring to watch from start to finish. She came in and out of the most difficult of postures like a pro. When she landed a full split in Standing Bow, she looked at herself in the mirror and winked. She was kicking ass and having fun. And it was because unlike Ahnold or The Contortionist she had equal parts strength and flexibility. She was a warrior.
I left class that day thinking about all the places in my life where I might be favoring one thing at the expense of another—work vs play, wake vs sleep, etc.—and how the unbalance was preventing me from being a warrior.
3) The things that are the most uncomfortable are exactly what you need…
An early yoga instructor once noticed an unhealthy and uncourageous habit of mine during class. He called me out immediately and said something that I’ve never forgotten: You can chase the pain in your life or you can let it chase you. We all have an instinctive reaction to retreat from discomfort. That instinct keeps us protected in the short term but it also lets that discomfort live to fight us another day. Showing up to class every day and coming face to face with the points of resistance in my body has slowly built up a skill and a tolerance that I find myself able to tap into outside the studio. Crossing paths with challenges or difficult situations is now a much different experience for me. I’m better able to welcome the challenge in, offer it a cup of tea and listen to what it wants to say. Nine times out of ten once it is heard, it lets itself be dealt with and quietly exits stage left.
In a few weeks, I head out to Bikram’s “torture chamber” for the spring 2015 Bikram Yoga Teacher Training. I can’t wait for all the new lessons to stick.
By the way, that friend of mine—she now has a membership at her local studio.