So what is it about yoga that encourages you to make it part of your life? Come to that, what is it about anything that it becomes, dare I say it, an addiction? I started Hatha Yoga, the basis for all forms of modern Yoga, in 2002 …… and enjoyed it enough to do it once or twice a week. Then I saw a photograph in some magazine of a chap doing yoga, but streaming with sweat! I asked a neighbour about it and she said it was ‘Bikram’ Yoga and she said she’d take me. Well, I’m now in my nth year of ‘Bikram’ yoga and I sense that some of you might shout ‘boring’ if you reflect on this single fascination I have with a physical series that challenges the mind, body and spirit. Would you have the same reaction if I played golf every day? Maybe!! So what follows is simply an amalgam of thoughts that have run around the inside of my skull during seven years of classes and, please, don’t read on if you don’t want to!!
I always find it interesting to go somewhere for the first time, not knowing what to expect, just curious …… and if I am honest a little anxious! Not a great one for research about anything really, I just have a gut feel about something and if it works for me that’s fine. So without knowing much about ‘Bikram Yoga’ I got my lift on Wednesday 11th March 2009 and arrived at the Balham studio for the 90 minute 5.30pm class. Wow! Busy place! Eventually the room was full, yoga mats touching each other, each mat with someone on it – 72 someones! A chum observed that the mats were so close that other people’s sweat dripped on yours in certain postures, indicating a measure of shared intimacy not usual unless you’re married!!
And it’s hot – 40°C and 50% humidity. Before we start, the teacher aka facilitator tells us there are 26 different postures, each repeated once, and that you start and end with a breathing exercise. They don’t demonstrate and at worst simply recite instructions known as ‘the dialogue’. The sequence and dialogue don’t change wherever you are in the world; you might think this makes the whole thing very boring and some people do find this …. I don’t …. I like the certainty….. although sometimes you can simply go through the motions without thinking about it as it’s too familiar.
I’ve heard the names for these 26 postures now over 2000 times and I couldn’t for the life of me recite them with any accuracy!! And if you heard Dandayamana-Dhanurasana or Ardha-Kurmasana or …….. I don’t think you would either …… and it doesn’t matter!
So we start with a breathing exercise. “Clench your hands under your chin, elbows down. Inhale ….. and lift your elbows as high as possible. Exhale and force your elbows out in front, with your head back.” One of my problems is my neck movement. Oh I’ve had physiotherapists tell me to do the ‘yes – no’ exercise as if I’m some crazy from the Indian subcontinent …….. but once you’ve got metromateriolsis ie the vertebrae start crumbling, you begin to lose neck flexibility …. and there ain’t much you can do, which is why I was so taken by the neck mobility of those dancers from Grupo Corpo. (PC 79)
‘Pull your tummy in!’ Ah! Yes! Well! That’s another problem!! You may recall my PC about expanding waistlines (N° 55); no matter what I do, it doesn’t go down. Maybe it’s my love of sugar or puddings or that irresistible afternoon piece of toast with jam? (And we’re still in the ‘warm up’….. and I come every day!)
The first ‘posture’ … “Reach up …. arms up… bend sideways!” (to the right then to the left) ….. my spare tyre bulges out and not much more …. “backwards” …. . “Go back, more back, drop back.” ‘More back’? When I first heard this I thought it funny, now it just grates that Mr Bikram Choudhury’s grasp of English was so poor – hadn’t he heard of the word ‘further’ – although ‘more back’ fits the pose!! Then “bend forwards ……hook your hands under your heels”. Pulling my chest against my thighs makes breathing difficult as I attempt to bring my head to my shins ‘Like a Japanese ham sandwich ….no space for light or air’ – the dialogue says. Being British I am really not sure what this expression means. Obviously Los Angeles where Bikram started is nearer to Japan than the UK, and I know that a lot of Japanese live in The States but what? Are the Japanese mean with the thickness of the ham? Is the bread wafer thin? Why not ‘jam’ sandwich? Most sandwiches don’t let in ‘light or air’ do they? What does he have against the Japanese as I suspect this is a slightly derogatory remark?
Awkward pose was obviously named by someone who thought it so. Actually once you can stand on top of your tootsies and bend your knees …. nothing awkward about it (Ed. Note: For me my feet take about 0.75kg per sq cm pressure. In this pose, on your tiptoes it increases to about 15kg per sq cm!)
By now for most people the sweat is beginning to moisten their skin …… or on my case it starts running in rivulets down my back. This series is not for those who don’t like sweating. One or two people, when they are new, wipe the sweat away – but it keeps coming back, as it’s the body’s way of cooling. I sweat about 1 ½ litres in 90 minutes but you probably didn’t need or even want to know this?
We all know how difficult it is to rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time, well swinging one arm under the other and the same side leg over the other then wrap it around the back of the other leg …. oh! Don’t bother. Meant to be good for all the joints, ankle/knee/hip/shoulder/elbow/wrist – sweat drips from your fingers onto your knees. This is Eagle pose, although at this precise moment I could no more soar like an eagle than twist …. ‘like a rope’. You will probably know that lots of yoga postures are named after animals, such is its cultural heritage. The most famous is probably ‘downward dog’. Funnily enough it’s not a posture for this series …..
Break to drink …… or not. ……..
And so it goes on …….
Standing Head to Knee. …. ‘Lock your knee….’ Lifting your knee towards your head. Balance on one leg …. easy huh …. Lift your other leg with the aid of a cupped hand forward until it’s horizontal …… or …… Standing Bow; Like Eros, you might imagine. Balance! Balance! …. or ….. T for Tommy or Tango. My Labrador was called Tommy and I can’t see him doing this posture any more than I can! Standing on one leg, lift the other behind you and both arms in front, until arms and legs are horizontal. Difficult for a four-legged creature huh!
Standing Separate Leg Stretching pose …. Depending on how you go into this pose, the distance of the floor from your head varies a lot!! But if you listen to the dialogue and apply the instructions ……. eventually you will see it is possible …..
Triangle – by this time I’m out of air and exhausted, sweat’s dripping off my head, and my breathing is labourious. OK! I know that yoga is all about the breath ……. and controlling the breath ….. and this is where the fights starts …. your body asking for one thing, your mind suggesting an alternative … and sometimes in the middle of triangle, a posture requiring balance, we hear the teacher ….. “and now sing ‘Happy Birthday’ as it’s Stephanie’s birthday today woo woo woo’.”
The next posture you essentially have to bend double and lick your knee …. or something like that. Then two more little postures and it’s the end of the end of standing series. Phew!
Onto the floor ………. (to be continued!)
Richard 30th November 2016
PS A little small, but here’s an idea of what the 26 postures should look like