April 9th 2013
The Exfoliator: 30 days of Bikram yoga, part three
April 16th 2013
In the final part of his diary, Ahmed Zambarakji is feeling better than ever after 30 consecutive days of Bikram yoga
Day 20: IMPULSE PURCHASES
Officially fed up of doing laundry, I decided to rectify the situation a couple of days ago by going on an internet shopping spree for new trunks. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Delivery arrived this morning and I now have to attend class dressed like one of Madonna’s backing dancers. Oddly, nobody bats an eyelid.
Day 22: MICRO-ADJUSTMENTS
Small adjustments make a big difference. My poses are far from ‘picture perfect’ and, were you to compare my shapes with the ones demonstrated in Bikram’s how-to guide (the inventively-titled Beginning Yoga Class) you’d probably want to make some fairly extensive modifications.
Today’s teacher, however, is a stickler for micro-adjustments. Rather than move my foot out another two metres, her advice is minimal but dramatic. She advises me to take pressure out of my toes and into my heels, to close my jaw… at one point she simply extends my fingers skywards in Triangle Pose, and I find a whole new depth to the posture. This is in stark contrast to the faster, harder, heavier gym-goer’s ethos that I have held for so long.
Day 23: THE SCRIPT
Choudhry wrote a script which teachers are supposed to relay verbatim to the class. There is a little room for personal flourishes here and there but, for the most part, students hear the same sequence of words day in and day out. The reason for this is that most of the instructions will go over the newcomer’s head for the first couple of months (or years, in my case). By day 23, I’m finding the repartee intensely irritating.
The script has a deliberate disregard for grammar in the form of catchphrases such as “put your exact forehead to your knees” or, worryingly, “pull more harder”. I used to think these basic errors were down to the fact that English was the instructor’s second language but, as it turns out, this condensed monologue is a deliberate tactic employed by Bikram. Rumour has it that his affinity for all things Japanese has resulted in a new language composed almost entirely of pseudo-Haikus, leaving little room for silly peripheral stuff like comparatives, prepositions or pronouns. (Perhaps even more bizarrely, the Pidgin English is scattered with very specific, very technical words, like ‘tourniquet’, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard used outside the context of a Berlin leather club.)
Today, however, I am bored stupid of hearing the script for the umpteenth time and so find myself zoning out. Before long, today’s instructor was sounding like the teacher from the Charlie Brown cartoons: “Mnah, mnah, mnah… lock your knees…ma, mwa, mnah, mnah… aaaaand exhale, head up!”. As a result I’m completely out of sync with the rest of the class and faking my way into postures that I think I know inside out, but I don’t. This is how people end up in A&E. Oops.
Day 25 : PERFECTIONISM
There are two asanas out of the 26 that still feel out of my reach. I can barely fumble my way into the proper alignment, let alone reach the full expression of these postures. These are Dandayamana-Janushirasana, otherwise known as ‘standing head to knee’ and the ever-so-catchy Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Paschimotthanasana, often referred to as Standing Separate Leg Stretching Pose.
The reason that these postures seem impossible, I tell myself, is because I have long, gangly limbs. I am at an anatomical disadvantage for yoga. Holding one outstretched leg parallel to the floor while balancing on the other seems inconceivable with a body like mine.
Frustrated with being stuck in the preparatory stages of this posture while the rest of the class manages to slide into it with ease, my ego gets the better of me and I push myself into a vague semblance of the desired shape. In return, I got a gentle telling off from the teacher. Quite public, quite loud.
Clearly, this is how people get all those injuries that the anti-Bikram brigade seems so intent on highlighting. I have heeded many such warnings from non-yogis over the past 30 days. But here’s the thing: it’s easy to injure yourself with any form of exercise. You’re just as likely to pull a muscle in your back doing deadlifts as you are in hot yoga… and yet nobody gets particularly vocal about how ‘dangerous’ it is to go to the gym.
Nine times out of ten, it is not the practice itself that is at fault, it’s the technique of the person doing the exercise. Moreover, if you get a negligent teacher, it’s very, very easy to pull a muscle or do your back in (on a side note, I don’t think I’ve encountered a single inattentive teacher during my time at Hot Bikram Yoga – and I can’t say that for the other studios I’ve attended. Even the instructors that have pushed me well beyond my limits have made sure that I did so safely). I can only conclude that, as with anything, it’s poor technique and / or poor instruction that’s going to land you an injury, not the discipline itself.
Days 27-30: CONCLUSION
The last week of the challenge has been comparatively easy. Enjoyable even. Once I scaled ‘the wall’, the challenge became less of a mad dare and simply slotted in to my daily routine.
Completing the challenge has been a bit of an anti-climax. You don’t get the kind of euphoria that marathoners experience as they cross the finish line. On the contrary, I feel more energised and more alive than I did when I began. While the practice is insanely intense, it doesn’t actually wipe you out like running 26.2 miles. In fact, I’ve adapted so well that I’ll probably end up going to class again tomorrow.
It’s only with hindsight that I realise the cumulative effect of 30 consecutive days of practice. I have practised Bikram for two years but the challenge has actually made me understand the practice as if for the first time. It’s not that I’ve been faking it up until this point, it’s just that I never practised with enough regularity to really reap the benefits of the series.
Outwardly, the changes in physique are subtle. I didn’t have much weight to lose when I started out, but my abs have been nicely sculpted. As a rule, I don’t ever weigh myself and, even though curiosity is killing me, I don’t plan on starting now. I actually think I may have gained muscle while shredding fat – at least that’s what it looks like.
The real shift, however, has been internal. As a former runner, the first thing I would do when I woke up in the morning was crack every bone in my body. Everything is so well lubricated now, that I can barely pop a knuckle. Equally, all the strain in my lower body from years of pounding pavements has finally begun to subside. All the stiffness and inflexibility in my glutes, hamstrings and quads is starting to soften, slowly but surely. My knees, in particular, are very grateful for the last 30 days.
If anything, Bikram has been a rehabilitative practice for me, though it clearly serves different purposes for different people. (The irony, of course, is that many people berate Bikram for causing injuries rather than curing them – see Day 25 for what I mean).
The thirty days have also been an enormously humbling period. As a self-confessed overachiever, I’ve had a hard time accepting that, in thirty days, some poses still defy me. It may be years before I can actually compress my body into the infamous ‘Japanese Ham Sandwich’, a catchphrase teachers employ to illustrate quite how flat your body should be against your thighs in one of the warm up poses. The mere prospect of the hush-hush ‘advanced’ series seems several lifetimes away.
If there’s one gripe – and it’s a minor one, at that – it has to do with Bikram himself. I don’t have a problem with his capitalist outlook, sizeable fortune, the Rolls Royces and watches and so forth. It is the fact that he is inescapable. Unlike other yogic disciplines, it seems impossible to separate the message from the messenger with Bikram. Choudhry clearly has a big personality and it is stamped all over every aspect of the practice.
From the script to the enormous pictures of him plastered on the wall, there is an almost cultish reverence for a man who, if press reports and lawsuits are anything to go by, is something of an acquired taste. He is an unlikely guru, for sure, but there’s something quite appealing about a spiritual sage who has opted for a pair of Speedos and a Rolex instead of a white turban.
If you can get over the ubiquitous presence of the man himself and actually see the genius of his series, Bikram could quite possibly change your body and your life.
Go to hotbikramyoga.co.uk to find your nearest class.