“Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber to kill yourself for 90 minutes”. This is what you will often hear upon walking into a Bikram yoga class. It makes many of us nervous. Torture? Kill? It isn’t what we would normally associate with yoga, but in this case it is both accurate and appropriate.
Bikram yoga is a series of 26 challenging Hatha yoga postures that work your body inside out and backwards. Bikram yoga is hard. It’s hot and humid in the torture chamber. When you are finished you have worked every muscle, joint, tendon, ligament and cell in your body and you feel high. The last thing you are thinking about is death, so why so much drama about killing yourself?
Well how you feel upon finishing class is not how you feel during it. Not at first anyway. Every posture works a different part of your body using a tourniquet effect to temporarily stop blood flow to a specific body part. When you release from the pose, fresh, oxygenated blood rushes into the targeted area and flushes out any scar tissue, toxins or disease.
The challenge is getting into and holding those poses. It’s hot, you’re dripping wet with sweat, sometimes so much so that it runs off your forehead like a tap and you can’t rely on friction even between your fingers to hold a grip on your feet – you have to use the strength in your core, in your glutes and in your hands, even the tiniest of finger muscles, to hold on. You also have to use your mental strength because it is easy to give up.
Throughout different postures we are told to touch our forehead to our toes, to the floor and to our knees – not one of these is easy. In other postures we have to twist our spine, backbend, sit in the most challenging squat whilst back bending – your thighs burn, your arms shake and you feel like you are going to fall down backwards. “It isn’t called Awkward pose for no reason,” is the only comfort the instructor will give you.
During any and all of these challenges it is easy to tell yourself that you can’t do it. After all, who would reasonably expect you to be able to swan dive backwards and touch the floor in a backbend? We are told that if you feel sick, dizzy or noxious…that is a good thing. Sheer madness… However, we are also told that as long as you’re doing 1% of the posture 100% correctly, even just looking up at the ceiling with your arms above your head thinking about back bending, you are receiving all the benefits that your neighbour in the shape of beautiful crescent moon is getting. Yoga means to try…so how can you say no?
It’s hot. It hurts. But it is good for you. It makes you stronger. It builds your faith. It slowly, class by class, posture by posture starts to kill the voice inside your head that says, “I can’t”. The little you, the frightened you…the ego is what we kill in yoga. We use the body as our tool to connect to our minds in a 90 minute moving meditation where the point is to kill your-little-self…
When we unite body and mind we are more balanced people, we have achieved a union that makes seeing ourselves a whole lot easier; makes knowing ourselves that much more possible and brings us closer to our higher selves – the one that the ego tries so desperately to keep us separated from.
Sweating out the toxins from your body is hard, sweating out the toxins from your mind is even harder. Just like a tight, stiff spine, the ego is completely inflexible, but every time you try another back bend, your spine opens up a little…and slowly you begin to find some progress. Little by little you say to yourself, “maybe I can”. Bit by bit you kill the part of yourself that is afraid. And you realize, fear is the only reason to say you can’t – on or off the mat.
I used to think Bikram said kill yourself because the yoga is so physically demanding that you have to take on this killer mentality – the extreme sport type of mentality, which you can see throughout a Bikram class on many faces, but this isn’t the point at all.
The day I realized what part of me I was killing, I started to cry. The tears mixed in with sweat and I felt a whole new kind of strength emerge within me. It had been growing, evolving all this time right alongside my physical practise…simply waiting for the right moment to let me in.
Every class is different. Some days there is progress. Some days there isn’t. But, every day I grow stronger because I know that if I can do this, I can do anything. As Bikram says, “the ultimate destination of human life is self-realization” and so we kill ourselves to know ourselves…this is the only way we can truly live.
My practice has continued to deepen on every level since that day, there have been many more tears and I know there are many more layers to unravel and secrets to learn. I am made stronger and humbled by this practice. I wouldn’t give up killing myself every day for the world. The world could never give me what I give myself in every yoga class. So every day when I bring my feet together, interlace my fingers, place my knuckles under my chin, glue my thumbs to my throat and start the Pranayama breathing that begins every Bikram yoga class, I remind myself that the only thing worse than killing myself is never having lived at all.
Christina Erl is a writer, author of two books and syndicated columnist. Her writing is inspired by the subtext in life’s everyday conversations. You can reach Christina via email: [email protected].
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