As the rain is pelting down on the roof of the Bikram Yoga Studio I breath in and out and feel the sweat roll from my forehead into my ears. All I am doing is lying on my back. Concentrating on my thoughts…lots of them. It seems impossible to drown them out. ‘Breathing in and out, nothing to do, just breath’, the yoga teacher says. Most of the thoughts and tension is stress from work and life and in general, completely wedged in the deepest little nooks of my brain and body. To take the time and become of aware of them for a start is an amazing thing. To have the time and slowly straighten yourself out is a luxury.
As a dancer you are basically always busy with your body and mind, the psychological and physical state of it. You will be more sensitive to outside influences like temperature, sleep deprivation, lack of vitamins or simply more aware of what stress or injuries can do to your body. Not saying that dancers are more prone to feel like crap…most of the time they actually are more flexible and able, dealing with the physical side effects of these outside influences because they are more aware of them. We dancers like to think we know our bodies inside and out and for most part we do. It’s funny though how practising Bikram Yoga has taught me even more about myself and more so, how to take care of myself.
What is Bikram Yoga?
In a room heated to over 37.8°C with humidity around 50%, you stretch your body to its fullest capacity with 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. These 26 powerful poses along with pranayama breathing, a breathing technique whereby you empty your lungs completely before breathing in again, lasts for 90 minutes.
Created by Bikram Choudhury in the 1970’s this form of Yoga is one of the most popular ones being practised all over the world. It’s said the heat accomplishes more than just make anyone who enters the room sweat. According to Choudhury, many people only use up to 50% of their lung capacity and so the lungs must be stretched in order to withstand holding more oxygen. The heat and humidity create an environment where your lungs only work at 50%, pushing your lungs and heart to work harder, strengthening your organs. By doing this, the body uses the oxygen more efficiently and allows your internal organs to breath. It is claimed that the organs are in a way, purified. Toxins are pushed out of your internal organs exit the body through your sweat making your body healthier. The added sweat and heat makes your muscles more limber, allowing them to achieve deeper stretching and avoid injury.
‘Choudhury claims that blood circulation is affected immensely during Bikram Yoga because of two processes called extension and compression. These two dynamics are said to work together to deliver fresh blood to every joint, muscle, and organ within the human body. While performing a specific asana (pose), the practitioner stretches or compresses a certain part of the body, thus cutting off circulation temporarily. This restriction of circulation causes the heart to pump more blood in reaction to the shortage. The pumping of excess, fresh blood is called extension. Once the asana is complete and the individual comes out of the posture, the new oxygenated blood is able to rejuvenate the arteries that were being compressed. Because of the volume change and influx of fresh blood, it is said that infection, bacteria, and toxins can be through this process. Other styles of yoga also promote this theory (cf: B.K.S. Iyengar‘s “squeeze and soak” analogy regarding the effects of deep twists on the internal organs).’Is it really that healthy?
Bikram Yoga has been the subject of much debate as to whether or not performing strenuous exercise in a room over 37.8 °C (100 F) is safe. It is common for Bikram practitioners to experience dizziness and nausea, especially in the earlier stages of their practice. You always have to listen to your own body and when you have just started practising Bikram Yoga or are a veteran but not feeling at your best you will be advised by the teacher to sit or lay down rest and breath until you feel bored so you can join back in again. Some postures though will always give you a feeling of slight dizziness or nausea and there is nothing you can do but breath through them.
In this class there is no space for ego tripping ‘look what I can do’ because that is not what it is about. The teacher will always ask you to find your own focus and your personal space and concentrating and there is a reason for that. Do I think the hype around Bikram is sometimes dangerous? Yes, when celebrities start a trend like fitness dancing or practising yoga and people see them look stunning because of it, the end result becomes far more important then the actual philosophy and practise itself. Which for me just completely misses the point. A healthy state of mind and a balanced life is what Bikram (at least for me) stands for and unfortunately when it becomes such a hype that does get lost on some people. Does everyone get it? No I don’t think so. I don’t even get it half the time but I do believe that as a dancer I have an understanding about the human body, especially my body, in order to practise safe Bikram Yoga and without pushing and mis using the technique resulting in injury. Take the time to understand the state of mind of Bikram slowly and take the postures and their depth step by step, honesty and trust are vital components when practising yoga. There is not much space for error in this form of yoga and I do think when done wrong it can cause issues. But of course this is the case with any kind of exercise or lifestyle.
Bikram yoga is an amazing new find for me it’s opened my eyes to new ways of staying in shape and shaping my mind and state of being. I have had my fair share of injuries in my career, lower back and knee injuries which I both have recovered from. But, they leave scars and practising Bikram Yoga I have slowly learned about those. When you get injured as a dancer the first thing you do (I did) is go in protective ‘have to take care of my body’ mode. You get a scare and loose confidence. What can, can’t, should or shouldn’t you do? This is especially hard when you come back from an injury. I was lucky to come back from both injuries and not sustain a physical limitation as a result of them. But what I didn’t realise was that I did…not a physical one but a mental one. To put it blunt and simple; before my back injury I was extremely flexible and I would bend any direction anytime and all the time. After my back injury I wanted to take care of back and didn’t do that anymore, especially avoiding deep back bending. And by doing Bikram Yoga I slowly became aware I was actually afraid of going into a back bend, scared to go too far. And so I didn’t go fully into some of the back bending postures simply because by not doing them I believed I was going to protect my back from hurting again. BUT by slowly going a little further every time I came to a realisation, I CAN still do it and it does NOT hurt, it actually made my back feel better. It took me almost a year to gain trust in my lower back again. And I am going through the same thing with my knee, slowly gaining trust in my body again. Being patient and taking things one step at a time is a frustrating but ever so rewarding thing and then when you get to do the posture you thought you would never do again it is almost, in a way, emotional.
Consciously reshaping the flow of negative thoughts and renegotiating habitual negative behaviour. Balancing out the body and mind and rejuvenating inspiration and energy for life. There are so many things you find out about yourself and about your body that you will benefit from in daily life. It has made a massive change to my life. An irregular existence as a freelance dancer is not always as glamorous as it may seem and it can sometimes challenge your positive believes. You have to have an immense resource of will power and hard work to make this profession work and even then it can really test you pushing you to places you didn’t know existed. There is a lot of giving and sometimes not that much to gain in return. I am not just talking about the financial side but obviously also about the physical and mental state some jobs can put you in as a dancer. There is nothing more rewarding though than a healthy body and a healthy brain and whenever you feel as a person you have achieved both, completely balanced out there is really nothing more you can ask for.