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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

One Year of Bikram and I am Still Standing (but is my knee locked)

The Anniversary!
I thought I would mark my one year of practice by revealing my thoughts about Bikram Yoga. This post is written with the relatively new or not yet started Bikram Yoga attendee in mind. If you have not attended a Bikram Yoga session I hope to inspire you to take the plunge and for those that have like me been practicing for a while, I hope that some of my observations touch a chord and that my observations and any associated links are beneficial. I am a mere novice, but keen and eager to learn more in relation to Bikram Yoga, Yoga, Health and Well Being so I welcome any comments, counter comments and challenges to my observations and perceptions.

Steve Half Moon Pose - Backward BendIt's So Much More than just Stretching
One year of Bikram and I am still standing, still going strong (started 26th March 2009). Like a lot of devotees i realised early that regular attendance will give a core foundation to maintaining good health and well being and this is the primary reason I consistently attend Bikram Yoga classes. From my very first class I have been consistently attending Bikram Yoga classes three times a week. You can feel this notion of well being after each and every class and it is this feeling combined with the knowledge that Bikram Yoga is a well thought out carefully planned system of self development that makes me love Bikram Yoga! Not that Bikram Yoga is easy, it is a tough 90 minute session that for me acts a catalyst to self development both physically and mentally.

I believe that you owe it to yourself to be the best that you can be and an important part of that is physical development. This is where Bikram Yoga comes in as a core element for your own personal development. Once you commit to Bikram Yoga, you learn not only how to improve your posture, flexibility, agility, strength and balance (through the physical postures), but you take a deeper interest in other aspects of your life that may well influence your health and well being. For example drinking water regularly, re-evaluating your eating habits, the importance of sleeping, the importance of resting and the importance of nasal breathing. Regular attendance at a Bikram Yoga class reinforces good habits that promote health and well being. It keeps you on track.

Where I Practice
I practice at Bikram Yoga Leicester, UK. The teachers are fantastic. Each one delivers consistently the Bikram Yoga Program and all give good advice during the class. Bikram Yoga tends to attract clientele with a good outlook on life. The combination of great teachers, attendees of a good nature and a well thought out program of postures that the teachers and the attendees believe in creates a positive vibe during class and a lovely satisfied afterglow when the class has finished. I think a good description is that it is serious fun. There's me below checking in for a session, that's the fun bit, the serious business is about to begin (check out my serious face in later photographs). Fortunately there is fun to be had in serious hard work and the teachers whilst keeping us focused never lose the opportunity to sprinkle humour throughout the class.

Steve Checking in and Looking forward to a Bikram Yoga SessionSo How has it been for Me?
Initially I attended Bikram Yoga to improve my flexibility. It quickly became apparent that there is more to Yoga and Bikram Yoga in particular than stretching and flexibility. I have found attending Bikram Yoga classes a great stimulus to learn, it has been very educational and made me think more about many other aspects of personal development. My previous blog posts Bikram Yoga and the 'Locked Knee' and Shut your mouth: Nasal Breathing is a snorting good choice give an insight to how Bikram Yoga has made me look deeper into issues that may help my own personal development. The bottom line is that I feel good after a Bikram Yoga session, I am pleased with my progress and am confident I will keep improving on all of the postures, even the three 'impossible' postures that I will mention below.

Firstly I think for all of us that attend Bikram Yoga classes we need to recognize that we all have different body shapes and sizes and that there will be some postures that you are more naturally suited to than others. My motto is to enjoy the postures you are good at and work as hard as you can on those postures that seem difficult. There are many postures that I have thought are near impossible (but i always believe with regular practice I'll get there, even if it takes 5 years or more - the funny thing is i do not expect miracles, but I believe in miracles through hard work and determination). There are some 'impossible' postures where i have in fact made some progress, but i still have a long way to go and generally progress has been slow. I'll expand a bit more and share my experience of my struggle with the three main 'impossible' postures:

Eagle Pose (Twist like Ropes): Initially i just hugged myself. I can now clasp knuckles on the right hand under side and clasp my thumb on the left hand under side. I am trying hard to twist my legs (like ropes :-)), but i cannot get my legs anywhere near the back of my other leg. Still lots of work to do here. In the photo below fellow Bikram Yoga attendee Liza gives a great demonstration on how the legs and arms should twist like ropes in this posture. My effort i think is a true awkward pose :-).

Steve and Liza Eagle PoseWhat I know is that to improve on this amongst other things I need to become more flexible in the upper back and the hips and lower back. Tip to myself is be patient.

Standing Head to Knee Pose: For a long time I did not attempt to extend my leg. I can now on occasions extend my leg straight out, keeping a reasonable L shape for the legs. However keeping a straight concrete solid leg which is the essential part of the exercise is something I still have to work hard on. Also i find bending down to clasp the feet in a basket grip and keeping the standing leg straight very difficult. I wish iIhad slightly longer arms :-). Away from Bikram Yoga classes I practice this posture in the swimming pool and lying down on my back (it's a lot easier :-)).

Liza again gives a great demonstration (photo below) on this stage of the posture. As i recall she does a great job on the next stage, actually bending the head down to touch the knee. Can you believe that, actually head touching the knee, for some of us that does sound and look impossible, but as Bikram himself says in his book Bikram's beginning Yoga Class (Copies available at Bikram Yoga Leicester as well) "That's what Yoga is about... Yoga makes things that seem impossible, possible. You can do magic without being a magician.". Bikram also says "I know you won't believe me when I say that in a relatively short time, you will actually consider this one of the easiest poses".

Steve and Liza Standing Had to Knee poseI am pleased with my progress but I need to straighten my back more, get my leg lifted to ninety degrees (and constantly think about locking the knee) before I embark on bending towards my knee. I think the flexibility in my upper and lower back is improving, allowing me to sooner or later get a good clasped hand underneath the foot, which is another key element in this posture. A physically very tough posture, but with improvement in my general posture I can see a chink of light on this posture - it is about 2 or 3 years away though.

Toe Stand Pose: I find this very difficult. I find it very difficult to open my hips to rest the leg on the center of my thigh, consequently when I bend down my leg often slips off my thigh. I pick it back up and put it on once i am down at floor level, but with my arms being slightly shorter than i would like it is very difficult to balance with a straight back and decent posture. Still working on it, but still a million miles away (my ankle and thighs are getting stronger slowly, so eventually my arms can be bypassed and they won't be an issue). No photo's of me in action on this pose - there really would not be much to see, so i have included a picture of the pose from the hotyogadoctor website where many interesting discussions seem to take place. This discussion titled Still can’t do toe stand after 3 years, may be interesting for those like me that struggle with this pose.
Tree Stand Pose - http://www.hotyogadoctor.comFor me, I tend to notice a significant improvement in my flexibility, strength and balance around every three months. This will be on a selected few postures and these will vary every quarter. I still have to think hard about 'Locking the Knee'. It seems whilst developing a strong locked knee balance can be affected in standing poses, which leads to a slight give in the knee to stay standing (I was going to say stay in posture, but until the knee is locked the posture has not even begun :-)). I think I have improved, but it is a gradual process to get that leg like concrete and I am not there yet. In my last session I found that concentrating on locking my knees in half moon pose backward bend supported my back much better, but I felt more wobbly on my legs (if you are not a hard core knee locker yet, try this on your next session - see what you think).

Managing Expectations
Fortunately I do not expect miracles and I came to Bikram Yoga with the mindset that I did not expect to see any improvement for a year (this way I would not be disappointed). Nevertheless i have made undoubted improvements over the year and I am satisfied with my progress. I know from others' experiences that some attendees have gained quick, in some cases near instantaneous results in relation to losing weight or managing pain from persistent chronic injuries, but for me having a low expectation in terms of quick results is a valuable psychological tool in ensuring that I do one of the most important things i can do for my own personal development and that is just to turn up at a Bikram Yoga class and practice regularly, giving the best that i can give on any given day.

Practicing with Injuries
I would not want to NOT practice Bikram Yoga for any longer than a week or so. The thought of going backwards and the hard work it takes to get back in the Bikram groove after just a week away compels me to practice regularly. I have had a few injuries over the year, including a sprained ankle, hamstring strains and lower back pain - so what to do when injuries occur. Well although i have found it annoying and frustrating i believe you still need to practice. If you stop practicing you will start to lose benefits and go backwards. You will need to take advice and best decide how to manage your own injuries, but for me I have come to the conclusion that the best thing is to turn up and do the postures that you can and modify or leave out those that aggravate the injury. Generally i have nursed my way through with reduced effort on some postures (I have found concentrating on stretching tall on half moon pose is good if your back is sore and it made me appreciate the importance of stretching tall in this posture) .Occasionally i will miss a practice or two, but i would never leave it longer than a week otherwise I'll be going backwards. Also let your instructor know as they can give advice as to ways of modifying your postures to allow for injuries.

Beyond Bikram Yoga Classes
Outside of class one of the most significant things I have been inspired to do because of my interest in Bikram Yoga is my own home yoga routine which includes some of the Bikram postures (like standing bow pose below), but also other yoga postures such as handstands and headstands. I decided early on that three Bikram classes a week was right for me, both from a logistical point of view, but also to ensure my motivation remains high and that I do not get stale. I do the 45 minute Home Yoga routines on the alternate days between Bikram classes. As I am not in a sauna environment i usually take it a bit easier, but it gives me a chance to reflect a bit more on the postures and what I am trying to achieve.

Although I like my three day a week strategy, i am conscious that ideally Bikram Yoga practice is a daily ritual and that by taking a 30 or 100 day challenge there may well be physical, psychological and emotional gains to be made. This is something i will explore when i can logistically meet the demands of daily practice. Thinking about strategies it would also be interesting to experiment with a fortnight of double sessions (two in one day). This article 'herniated discs' highlights how one Bikram Yoga teacher/attendee found great value in taking double sessions to overcome her injury problem (lot's of good information about Bikram Yoga as well).

The other significant thing to come out of my Bikram Yoga practice is my realisation of the importance of nasal breathing, culminating in my recent purchase of a nose breath mouthpiece from The blog Set Higher Standards has a great blog post about the benefits of nasal breathing (with informative comments) about nose breathing.

Posture and nasal breathing are key elements to health and well being. Bikram Yoga's carefully thought out sequence combined with great instruction and advice from the rigorously trained Bikram Yoga teachers is a great system to improve these vital elements. Not only that, but apart from developing your musculoskeletal system, the Bikram Yoga postures also address health benefits related to the respiratory,nervous, digestive, immune and endocrine gland systems. Other forms of Yoga, practicing pilates and other conventional fitness training such as running or weightlifting have their place, but I believe Bikram Yoga should be the core anchor of any fitness, health and well being program. It is a solid foundation for personal development. For a great read on the philosophy behind the system read Bikram Yoga by Bikram Choudhury founder of Bikram Yoga and for further information see the Bikram Yoga Website.

Special thanks to Libby, Rachel and Sharan who have been my core teachers during the year. But also to say thanks to Hannah, Harbinder, Nicky and Chris, other teachers at Leicester who have contributed to my development thus far. Thanks to Rachel again for taking the snaps of me whilst practicing at the Bikram Yoga Studio in Leicester. I look forward to what this year brings.

And Finally
Just thought I'd mention this blog ilovesweat - the blogger combines a passion for bikram yoga, healthy living and photography. You might find it of interest as he blogs regularly on his Bikram experience. His photo's have become a bit large of late though :-).

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