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Monday, 4 March 2013

Feelin’ Hot Hot Hot: The Bikram Yoga Challenge

I’ve had a lot of interesting suggestions for this blog, some always more likely to be marshalled into action than others.  Having a go on the flying trapeze, for example, was a goer. Masturbating a shark probably wasn’t. Likewise sewing something and wearing it was a yes, but, for some reason, going blonde was a no. I mean, seriously, with my eyebrows?

Further down the list were ‘Try Bikram Yoga’  - suggested by my lovely friend Gemma - and ‘Become a Morning Person’ - suggested by myself. These two fell, respectively, into the categories of ‘probably gonna happen’ and ‘no way, José.’ Because if there is one thing I am not, it is a morning person. These blogs, have, almost without fail, been written in the depths of night, when my brain seems to function relatively effectively.  In the mornings, I put grapefruit juice in my coffee instead of milk. OK, that wasn’t actually me; it was my mum. Morning-brain must be genetic...

And yet, this is the story of how I ended up going to Bikram yoga thirteen days in a row, and how nine of those sessions occurred at the ungodly hour of 7am.

The Bikram Yoga postures. One of them is called ‘Awkward Pose’. It is aptly named.
My first class at Bikram North in Kentish Town – accompanied by the wonderful Julia (of running, trapeze and triathlon fame) - I didn’t know what had hit me. I have never, in all my life, sweated like that. Not to gross you out or anything, but by the end the towel I had been standing on looked like it had been dropped into a swimming pool, and I had to peel off my clothes. Here’s how many things I had to drink afterwards, to feel like I was anywhere near recovering the lost liquid:

Bikram Yoga is a pretty extreme activity, in my book. Each practice lasts 90 minutes, takes place in a studio heated to 40.6°C/105°F, and comprises 26 postures, two breathing exercises and a whole lot of Savasana. Savasana is ‘dead body pose’, and is basically where you lie on your back and think that maybe death isn’t such an unappealing option.

Savasana. I'm really good at this one. © Carl Gray

 Here is a small selection of the phrases you are almost guaranteed to hear in any Bikram session:

“Don’t worry, your back is supposed to hurt.”
“Don’t worry, your elbows are supposed to hurt.”
“Don’t be scared.”
“Feel a tremendous stretching almost pain sensation from bones to skin, coccyx to toes.”
“Have a mini heart attack now, to prevent one later.”
“From the side you should look like a Japanese ham sandwich.” (???)
“Experience that choking sensation.”
“Push, push, PUSH.”
“Use the sweat.”

During that first class, I was woefully incapable of lifting, holding, flexing, pushing or bending to any respectable level. I was completely inflexible, and felt decidedly flabby. I definitely didn’t look like a Japanese ham sandwich, whatever one of those is. One of the problems with Bikram, especially for a beginner, is that it tends to create devotees. Devotees, by virtue of doing a lot of Bikram, are extraordinarily bendy, strong and toned. I’ve attended 24 sessions in total now, and none included any less than 70% gods and goddesses. Being a mere mortal, this is a little intimidating.

However, for the rest of that first afternoon I felt pretty great. A bit tired, perhaps, but sort of like I’d had a deep clean with an electric carpet shampooer. In a good way.

In shock, right after my first class.
The next day being a Sunday, I thought I might have another go. I dug out my only other pair of shorts and, gasp, a CROP TOP. I hadn’t worn a crop top since I was about fourteen, when it was the height of fashion. OK, it wasn’t the height of fashion. In fact, given that I wore quite a lot of crop tops, it probably wasn’t fashionable at all. But one bought them in multiple colours from Top Shop and I thought I looked snazzy. Anyway

Crop-topped and shortsed, I returned to the studio, without my wing woman, and took up a nice safe spot at the back. I wasn’t any bendier, I couldn’t lift any higher, but at least this time I wasn’t so utterly shocked by the heat. I slipped and sweated and shook and wobbled my way through another 90 minutes and, once again, felt thirsty but happy. I bought myself an introductory offer and, for the next four weeks, went every Saturday and Sunday. Apart from that Sunday when I was busy getting naked.

One day, I arrived a little late for class and the only free spot was at the front of the room, right next to the mirror. I wasn’t pleased. Flabby mortals don’t belong up the front with the deities. But, actually, it was a revelation. Looking into my own eyes during difficult poses helped me correct errors, test my resolve, cheer myself silently on, and ignore what everyone else was doing.  From then on, I always tried to be as near to the mirror as possible. I started to let go of my concern for how I measured up to the people either side of me. Such comparisons only made me dissatisfied, and didn’t help me do any better. I started competing with myself.

My ability to do even this much of this pose tells me that I'm getting better. Standing head to knee. Without the head to knee bit. Yet.
© Carl Gray

I liked the Bikram studio in Kentish Town, but when the intro offer ran out I had to think very carefully about whether I wanted to continue. Bikram yoga is not cheap. This is understandable given the rent that one must pay on a space of that size, and the huge amounts of energy required to heat the studio, but understanding why it’s expensive isn’t the same as actually shelling out the cash. I was enjoying myself, and starting to feel some benefits, but was I feeling enough to warrant the cost?

© Carl Gray
Then my friend Robin told me that he was about to start work in a brand new Bikram studio, Bikram Highbury & Islington. They also had an intro offer that was extremely reasonable, and I decided to sign up and give myself more time to decide if I was going to become a devotee or not.

Triangle pose. © Carl Gray
I didn’t love my first class at the new place. It was packed, I couldn’t see the mirror, and I accidentally positioned myself directly under one of the air vents, which was like standing in a desert wind. If I hadn’t already bought my package, I might never have gone back. But I’d paid my money, and I am nothing if not bloody-minded. On Sunday, I arrived early enough to choose my space more carefully. Better, though still busy.

Sunday night came around, and I assessed my options. Weekday Bikram practice, which was bound to be quieter,  was available at 7am (yuk, no thanks) or at 12. The problem with 12 - even though I recently quit my job and have weekdays free for a bit - is that it cuts a swathe through the day. I didn’t like the idea of not being able to fully use the morning or the afternoon. So I asked myself, seriously, if I might not just try the 7am. Just try it. I packed my bag (two towels, clean underwear, various toiletries), put a bottle of water in the fridge, put my crop top and shorts (by now I had even purchased a special crop top and shorts) by the bed, and set my alarm for 6.30am, Monday morning, with the full expectation that I would hit snooze until it was too late, and then fall back to sleep.

The last six months or so of my job were hell. Day after day I would respond to the alarm with profound despair, until it became normal to be unable to drag myself up before 8.30am. I was sluggish and slow and completely lacking in energy. I’d convinced myself, with the help of a pretty unpleasant boss, that I was lazy and useless. So when the alarm went off at 6.30 and I ACTUALLY GOT UP, I was pretty impressed. Screw you, Mr Burns.

Mr Burns should try 'Wind Removing Pose'.
About fifteen minutes into my 7am Bikram practice I was asking myself what the hell I thought I was doing. It was still dark outside, for pete’s sake! It was dark outside, and I was hot and sweaty and thirsty and a bit faint and in a lot of pain. Was I insane? Who did I think I was, trying to be all virtuous and exercise-y? Why the hell did I want to look like a Japanese ham sandwich anyway??

Feel that choking sensation... © Carl Gray
But come 8pm Monday evening, I had forgotten the pain and my cursor was hovering over ‘Reserve: Tuesday, 7am’, on the online timetable. Come Tuesday 6.45am, I was cycling through the mist towards the studio. Same Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Same Monday – Thursday the following week. During that whole stretch, I didn’t miss a single day. Thirteen classes in a row, most of them in the morning. I never, not once, lingered in bed. I won’t say I ‘sprang’ out, because that would be a lie. But I did get up, time-after-time, never doubting my desire to be there as the class started, and to make it right to the end. The first day I didn’t go to Bikram, thanks to a prior commitment that involved catching an early train, I felt pretty grumpy. Bikram had worked its way into my system, and I was high on the high, the sweat, and the stretch.

For some reason this picture really makes me giggle. I look like a tortoise who can't flip over. © Carl Gray
It was Julia who pointed out that I had completed two challenges in one, effectively becoming a morning person thanks to the yoga. I never thought I’d find the motivation to rise early, and I certainly never thought I’d enjoy it.

© Carl Gray
As I write this, I’m asking myself how this happened. It’s not all down to the Bikram; much of this newfound energy comes from having left a job that I hated. But without the Bikram I would never have tested myself, physically and mentally, in the way I have. I have learnt so much from the classes. To be decisive. To be still. To be patient. I find the ‘moving meditation’ element as profound and powerful as the exercise. The proximity of the studio to my house certainly helps, as does its quality. Its wall of windows provides bountiful natural light, the staff are friendly and helpful (except Robin, he’s rubbish), and the energy of the whole place feels encouraging and inclusive. 

Not everyone loves Bikram. I’ve read a good few blogs where people comment that it’s boring (same poses, in the same order, every time), that it’s too competitive, or that the teachers are mean. I’ve had about twelve different teachers now, and I can honestly say that not one single one has been mean. Some are stricter and scarier than others, but my experience has been that all of them are passionate about helping students get the most out of practice. As for the boring and competitive elements, well, that’s all in your own head, I think. To me, the repetition aids the meditation. And I’ve already covered the competition; I decided to compete with myself. What anyone else does is up to them.

One day I will lift my hands. One day. © Carl Gray
I’m away now, in Spain visiting mum for a bit, and I confess that I’m missing the sweat. I know for certain that when I go back to the UK I’ll be buying myself proper membership of Bikram Highbury & Islington. I might not go every morning, but I’ll go regularly; for the discipline, for the meditation, for the stretch and bend and lift. And I hope that whilst I may never be a goddess, I may one day be a sandwich. Namaste.

 Twenty-one down, nine to go…

P.S. The fabulous Bikram photographs are by Carl Gray, of Cool Gray Design, and were taken at Bikram Highbury & Islington. Thanks Carl!!

P.P.S. I have resisted the temptation to Google 'Japanese ham sandwich'. The not knowing allows for all sorts of wild imaginings.



  1. Love it! As a sad yoga addict, I do know what a Japanese Ham Sandwich is - but don't ask. You know how easily I drift into wild imaginings.

  2. Another great post, I really enjoyed it! Namaste :)