Friday, May 19, 2006

A love-hate thing

Yeah, I went to Bikram today. And it was not yoga. Not even close. That said, I think it was incredibly therapeutic for my body. That, and a trip to my chirorpractor, Jaimie Blau, who totally gets me, and totally fixed my "sore misalignment" today before class. I walked into her office, hunched over, stiff, kind of limping on both legs. I walked out at least an inch taller, all of my limbs freed from their stuck-ness. It was great.

So, the love hate's not about the chiropractic; it's about the Bikram. I hardly ever go to Bikram classes anymore (mainly because I am busy with my Ashtanga practice, and there simply isn't time for both), but when I do, it is more often than not that I find myself annoyed by the endless stream of dubious promises, threats and canned rhetoric. And that is what makes it "not yoga" for me, automatically. I mean, how can it be yoga when I am not in any way working with a quiet mind? How can it be yoga when I am staring into the mirror and cringing at the voice droning on endlessly from the front of the room?

So, then the obvious question: why do I go? Simple answer: because the heat feels so good, and when the heat is too much, it feels so good when it stops (paraphrasing the old "why are you banging your head into the wall...because it feels so good when I stop" truism). If you are a "heatie", then you will understand. If not, then you never will, and there's not going to be much of anything I or anyone else can say to change your mind. Although Bikram's "whatever" is not yoga, and although it annoys the crap out of me, it is still worth it for me to go sometimes, if only for that wonderful melting feeling, for the feeling of accomplishment at withstanding the heat. Besides, it's nice to occasionally take a break from the integrity of the Ashtanga practice. My teacher is not there at Bikram. I can chart my own course, within the bounds of the Bikram practice, at least. And I get to enjoy some poses that are nowhere to be found in the Primary Series (Garudasana, Natarajasana, the delightful "toe stand"), Ustrasana, Dhanurasana, Salabasana, Ardha Matsyandrasana), knowing that they were intentionally sequenced by someone who supposedly employs a method to his madness.

Today, the love-hate scale was tipping way more toward the hate side, however. The teacher was a long-time Bikram teacher. Now, in Bikram's, unlike in Ashtanga, long-time teachers may or may not have anything good to offer their students for the simple reason that the Bikram sequence is so undynamic and so non-changing that it is very easy for a teacher to burn out. In addition, when one goes to Beverly Hills for training, as opposed to when one goes to Mysore, there is no sense of history, no teachings of philosophy, no use of Sanskrit, nothing about eight limbs. Many Bikram teachers couldn't name even one of the eight limbs, and that includes "Asana". But a long-time Bikram teacher can be a breath of fresh air for the simple reason that with time comes distance from Bikram, himself. And with distance, comes perspective. As a result, the rhetoric may be less didactic, the specious promises less enthusiastic, the dubious threats less extreme. Long-time Bikram teachers have had the opportunity to think about things over time, and maybe, as a result, don't take it all that seriously, and offer to the students what it really is: a nice, sweaty, bendy workout.

Unfortunately, sometimes long-time Bikram teachers try to alleviate their burnout by attempting to "spice it up" in some way. Thus, they begin adding (I swear, I kid you not) anusara alignment principles to their spiel, or they begin giving hands-on adjustments, despite that they have no training (and no authority from Bikram, in fact, quite the opposite) to do so. They may add chanting to their classes or ring bells or gongs. Sometimes they go the opposite route and become unduly hard-nosed about students' adherence to the idiosynchrasies of the Bikram practice, namely, standing absolutely still between postures, waiting for the teacher's class-wide instructions before moving deeper into a pose (as opposed to trusting the teacher within onesself)...etc. I could go on, but I am boring myself. So, suffice it to say that the teacher was a long-time teacher.

I knew we were off to a bad start when before class even started, I was playing around on my mat with some vinyasa sequencing, and Bikram Teacher came into the room, made a beeline to me and stepped on my "vinyasa buzz". "Excuse me," she said, "I couldn't help but notice that you were doing side-plank on the edge of your foot. I take yoga with Dharma Mittra, and you're supposed to place the entire sole of your foot on the floor."

I wanted to be receptive to this. But I just couldn't muster it up.

"You know," I replied, "there are many different variations of each posture, depending on the yoga you practice. Dharma's way is one way. My way is another."

Maybe she wanted to be receptive to this. But clearly, she couldn't muster it up either.

Class began. But there was no heat at all. Finally someone spoke up, and Bikram Teacher turned on one of the heaters. It never really got hot enough for me. And since heat was pretty much the sole reason I was there, I felt a bit distressed. No yoga happening for me.

Things went from bad to worse. She objected to be squatting in between postures in order to catch my breath, saying, "Sit or stand, commit to something!" She objected to me going right into postures as soon as she called them out, rather than waiting for her step-by-step instructions, which are intended for beginners; I wanted to feel the postures and hold them for the entire time allotted, rather than experience the posture for maybe five seconds at the end of a long litany of "steps" to get into the posture. She tried to give me a hands-on adjustment at some point, and I recoiled. No way was I going to be touched by a teacher who has never had any training in hands-on adjustments...I had come directly from my chiropractor's office! Not a chance my sweaty body was going to be pushed into or out of a pose by untrained hands.

Throughout the first 50 minutes of class, I felt as if this teacher was browbeating me continually. She kept saying things "to the class" that seemed to be addressed to me. There was some kind of surreal power struggle going on between her and me, and it was ruining my experience. Finally, after she called out my name and told me to bend my knee in Parsvotanasana, I quietly told her that I was a yoga teacher, myself, that I have a daily yoga practice outside of Bikram, and that I would really appreciate it if she would please just treat me as if I wasn't there...please, just let me do my practice.


Not a very yogic experience.

Anyway, the good news is she kind of left me alone after that, and after class, I did all of my Ashtanga Primary Series postures from Marichyasana A through Supta K, and I felt GREAT. And it was nice to be able to see what I looked like in the mirror in Mari C and D. It actually made me feel better about myself, not worse, which surprised me.

And that brings me to tomorrow, Saturday, a day off after two weeks of six days on and one day off. Ahhhhh.....



Tiffersll said...

AH yes, the bikram method...I actually haven't practiced any Bikram since I want to say mid-February? Yes, it's been that long. I sometimes miss it, most of the time I don't though...

Matrika said...

I know it wouldnt be the same but since you dont want their uneducated adjustments it would almost be worth taking a heater into the smallest room in your house, shutting the door and doing a video of some bikram-like class (I dont remember there being any official Bikram classes on video). Another thing you might enjoy is going and doing a sauna right after practice followed by ice cold water repeated a couple times. When I have had this I get a wonderful totally relaxed and cleaned feeling....

Anonymous said...

hi l. it seems to me that you are actually punishing yourself by taking a b.class. hope you are feeling better, having a rest day in your hectic life-schedule,

idoru said...

I don't agree with the way you approached your practice at the Bikram studio. A wise teacher once said to approach each practice and each asana that you perform as if it were the first time practicing it. I think it was BKS Iyengar who said something like that...

If you bring with you to each practice the experience and "baggage" of what you did yesterday or the day before, then how can you be in the moment and learn something new about yourself?

As teachers we need to constantly be learning in order to pass on what we learn. This doesn't always mean we need to learn harder and harder asanas. Sometimes it means learning to be a beginner again. We need to learn to be beginners again because beginners are the ones attending our classes (at least my classes). When you go to a Bikrams class and are treated like a beginner, then it might be wiser to approach the class like a beginner, and respect the Bikram "tradition" with the same reverence you respect the Krishnamacharya tradition. You might just come out of class learning more than if you just approached it with all your preconceived notions.

Please take my comments with a grain of salt as I have never taken a Bikram's class.


yoga chickie said...

Hi Darren...I am glad that someone wrote the kind of comment you wrote - I was expecting it, and I welcomed it. There are certainly two (or more) ways of looking at what happened. Definitely, your way is one way - that I didn't approach it as yoga, or yogically, that the teacher gave me a challenge, and I chose to create suffering out of it instead of yoga. My way of looking at it is that I felt the teacher was aggressive with me from the moment she walked into the class and tried to verbally adjust me in a non-Bikram pose, and although I could have responded differently, I opted not to because I wasn't there to "practice yoga" or to study Bikram, and that was my prerogative. When I first began teaching, I would sometimes bump up against students who acted like the way I acted in the Bikram class - and I would try to "teach a lesson" to them. But 99.9% of the time, it was a lesson they weren't receptive to learning. Needless to say, they did not remain students of mine. As I developed my skills as a teacher, I learned to back off from people who because of their own issues and backstory were doing their own thing. I should add that all students come in with issues and backstory. Most of them check them at the door, and we have a great time together in class. But the few who bring them into class, well, I let them be. They are on their own path for that day, or maybe for a long time to come. If they keep coming back, eventually, they will get something out of it. Most of those students end up coming back. Whether they eventually get out of it what I hope they get out of it is really something only they could tell you!

If my Ashtanga teacher, Sir, had browbeaten me from day one, I would have been out the door like a bat out of hell. Instead, he patiently waited for me to be receptive to his teachings. And he had an uncanny ability to know when that was, I should add. When I was ready, he began taking away poses until I was finally at the place in Primary where I should have been. And I respect him for that. It makes me want to do it the way he thinks I should do it. I see Sir do this fairly regularly now with new students. Sometimes I cringe watching the new students making their way, doing poses they shouldn't be doing with serious modifications. But I know eventually Sir will see the point at which he can actually make some headway into teaching these students yoga. It is quite brilliant.

Bikram teacher on the one hand, Sir on the other: this is why I am Sir's student...


raven said...

hi... found your site searching yoga... so glad to hear your thoughts on bikram's ... I feel like i could have written them myself. I was originally exposed to bikram's at kripalu, where we followed a tape and it wasn't But the next time I came into contact with it a couple of years later, I found myself up in arms about what was happening. It really did seem like an emotionally stressed, almost laughably dogmatic and manipulative workout routine. so once i had "my own practice going," I would come in and work with it on my own terms, basically tuning out the instructor... i too appreciate the heat. My friend Ted has done something interesting here in toronto and elsewhere... (after almost being sued by bikram) started up his own studios... kept the heat, eased off some of the postures and rigidity of the flow, and let go of the militant, drill seargent routine.... the result is called moksha yoga, ( and for a sometimes "heatie" like myself, it has been a great thing...



raven said...

oops... sorry!

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Northern Westchester, New York, United States
I live by a duck pond. I used to live by the East River. I don't work. I used to work a lot. Now, not so much. I used to teach a lot of yoga. Now not so much. I still practice a lot of yoga though. A LOT. I love my kids, being outdoors, taking photos, reading magazines, writing and stirring the pot. Enjoy responsibly.


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