July 28, 2012

The Yin & Yang of Yoga: My Thirty-Day Bikram Challenge. ~ Ian Welch

Photo: Flickr/Nicholas A. Tonelli

Summer has already shown to be a hot one throughout the country.

A few weeks ago, it felt like one hundred and five degrees in Manhattan. As I cruised down the I-95, last weekend in South Florida, it was “ninety-five on ninety-five.”

I find it’s tough to get a good workout outdoors in the summer, so my wife suggested I try Bikram yoga as a way to escape the heat…funny Alicia, you got me.

I had never been to a yoga class before for the sole reason that flexibility is not something I was blessed with; in fact, cursed would more adequately describe my ability to touch my toes.

Fact is, I had never been to an organized class of any kind before and have always been very comfortable pushing myself to my limits.

So, on a beautiful sunny morning, one month ago, I attended my first practice and committed to a thirty-day challenge.

I often challenge people to make a change, to replace a bad habit with a good habit and so in an effort to combat hypocrisy, I put my name on the board.

The first practice was intimidating; the heat upon entering the studio was initially overwhelming and it was hard to visualize the next ninety minutes being pleasant.

I picked a spot in the corner and laid quietly on my mat, contemplating my predicament. Fortunately, it was a new studio and I could sense that I wan’t the only one that had an interest in locating the exits…and so, as students began to trickle in, I lay there, strategizing.

For those that aren’t familiar with Bikram yoga, the class is comprised of a sequence of twenty-six asanas (poses) and 2 breathing exercises selected and developed from Hatha yoga. They never change and a practitioner can spend a lifetime attempting to master them.

We start with some breathing exercises…easy enough right? Amazingly, most of us never give much thought to the eight-six thousand breaths we take a day; our breath tends to be shallow and stays caught in the chest.

Breath control is important in yoga and is rooted in a deeper sense of overall health. A number of diseases cannot exist in a well-oxidized body, including cancer. As an athlete, the ability to slow down your heart rate is very advantageous.

As the class begins, we stay with breath. We inhale and exhale through the nose, at first fighting the natural tendency, as our pulse increases, to gasp through an open mouth. By breathing deeply and by drawing out the inhalations, a sense of calmness enters the body.

The first fifty minutes were spent standing and consisted of a number of very deep stretches focusing on the core. Spine curves forward, back and side-to-side; I had always ignored my torso and the benefits of a strong foundation were instantly apparent.

(Within thirty days of this challenge, I no longer find bending down a task. Gone are the groans that typically accompany grabbing the dog dish or getting out of bed. Also gone are the creaks and pops usually reverberating throughout my body—I am literally opening up the joints and allowing synovial fluid to penetrate…kind of like oiling a rusty bike chain one link at a time.)

Throughout the standing postures, fainting and nausea are a reminder that it is really, really hot.

Our studio promises one hundred and five degree heat at forty percent humidity and the owners of the studio, Meredith and Frankie, promise they add oxygen to the mix…I can only imagine a room full of yogis passing out without it.

The majority of the poses were a lot of fun; balancing on one foot and moving your pounds around is a true test of bull-dog determination.

It also gives you the opportunity to gaze at your physical appearance in the mirror, in these stances. Self-evaluation is a big part of being healthy and a little vanity can go a long way towards motivation. I dig my shoulders in the mirror—but could do without the stomach pooch (a reminder of the work that needs to be done).

Finally, the class moves to down to the mat for another forty minutes on the ground. As relaxing as lying down might seem, it is not. The floor series again works on core strength and flexibility.

It is on our back where we are finally introduced to our new friend, savasana...meaning corpse pose…aptly named in my opinion.

The balance between exertion and relaxation is apparent in savasana and reinforces the entire practice of yoga; it is an all-encompassing discipline, providing the yogi with a ying & yang sensation.

This final pose is when the exhilaration and natural high occur and like a long flight, the transition is forgotten and the destination is revealed. As the body begins to cool and the heart rate slows the endorphins start to do their thing, releasing the high that generally is reserved for after long endurance events, like marathon running.

At my studio, a cold towel is placed on your wrist with a hint of lavender…and now I am really relaxed…although I never thought a two-hundred pound man could be seduced by the smell of a towel.

Another lasting impression is the very real social aspect that an organized class provides. With the advent of social media it is becoming a rare event when actual human-to-human contact occurs. There is a connection, an energy, that is shared when humans join in a common endeavour—especially if some suffering is involved—and the smiles shared are sincere, coming from the camaraderie of like-minded individuals pursuing a singular goal.

My thirty day challenge is complete today and I feel wholeheartedly that Bikram yoga will continue to serve as a corner piece in my overall quest for health.

It is fundamentally sound, in all respects; it provides a very well thought-out succession of exercises that develop both states of being—physical and mental.

Simply put, it makes me feel good. It is a discipline and a little discipline is a good thing.

It is not easy and during the ninety minutes self-doubt is rampant…but it always leaves me wanting a little more.

*This piece was adapted from my blog, www.wholefed.org.

On March 22, 2011 I had quadruple bypass surgery at the age of 40. It has been the single most powerful event in my life. My wife and I have taken control of the disease and are in the process of reversing it through nutrition and exercise.





Editor: Bryonie Wise

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