Last night I attended my first Bikram yoga class.
Bikram is a style of yoga developed by Bikram Choudhury, an Indian yogi. It is practiced in a heated room, and classes are usually 90 minutes in length. The style is intended to provide a kind of detox, sweat flushing toxins out of the body.
To people familiar with traditional yoga, the differences are quite noticeable. First, of course is the heat. The room is usually heated to about 40 degrees Celsius, which I assume fluctuates when a bunch of sweating bodies are packed in.
Second is the style itself. It is a regimented session of 26 postures, practiced in sets of two. There are other yoga styles, like Ashtanga, that focus on a specific body of poses, but Bikram doesn’t even feel like yoga sometimes. Sure, the poses are derived from traditional yoga positions, but it definitely feels more like an aerobics class, even with the occasional savasana thrown in.
Another variance is the instructor. Instead of a sinewy body doing flawless versions of struggling students’ awkward dancer pose and locust, the teacher stands on a raised platform in front of the class, speaking the instructions without doing them, except where a hand placement or breathing technique can be easily shown.
Instead, the more efficient of the group are encouraged the set their mats at the front, while beginners line up at the back. It is the movements of the front row that really show the newbies what to do. (Except in my case, where the girl at the front was less flexible than me and didn’t have terribly good form. Her only selling point was the fact that she didn’t have to sit down at all.)
The class was interesting, to be sure, and it was definitely a work out. I was told when I came in that my goal was just to remain in the room for the whole time, even if I just laid on my mat, but the heat did not actually bother me as much as I thought it would. I sat down for the second set of a few standing poses, because my vertigo was acting up, but I managed to stay mobile – and conscious – for the entire hour and a half. I even managed to get my head to my knee in one of the final seated stretches – an act that has been stubbornly defying me since my latest yogic lapse about a year ago.
The thing that worries me about Bikram yoga some of the phrases favoured by the teacher in between her shoutouts of “change!” and “ok, second set!” I lost count of how many times she told us that a pose was supposed to hurt, that we should feel a pinching sensation.
Everything I have read or heard about yoga says that no pose should ever hurt. If it hurts, come out of it a bit, check your alignment, and go just to the point where it stretches. You’ll get there, they always say. So to have an instructor looming over me announcing that that shooting pain in my hamstring is completely normal was concerning.
She also told the class a number of times that “anything” we were feeling was normal. That included dizziness, lightheadedness and, I guess, black spots in front of our eyes.
Now, I don’t subscribe to medical doctors’ critiques of Eastern practices entirely, but I do believe them when they say that feeling like you’re going to faint or throw up isn’t a good thing.
The Bikram instructor did encourage us to sit or lie on our mat anytime we needed to, but closing the door to questions like “should my head feel like it’s going to explode?” or “should I be seeing everything through a haze of red?” seems like dangerous territory.
All this boils down to the fact that I would caution someone who has never done yoga before to start with Bikram yoga. While the postures themselves are at a beginner level (practicing this session in a cool room would be a challenging but largely do-able feat for a newbie), the teachings seem to me to encourage very un-yoga practices.
For me, knowing enough about yoga to take what I like from the class and smile and nod at the rest, the practice basically became an intense cardio and stamina workout.
I plan to visit the sauna-esque room as much as possible for the duration of my 30-day pass as a kind of fitness challenge. Hopefully I’ll sweat out some toxins and maybe tone up a bit from the cardio and live instruction pushing me past my usual wimp-out plateau.
But Bikram teacher training is definitely not in the cards for me. I would say that calling this practice “yoga” is a bit of a stretch. Pun intended.
Some Bikram info: