Today I am happy to feature a guest post written by Ash Kramer from Doctor Feelgood. Today’s post is part three in Ash’s journey to developing a Bikram Yoga practice. Enjoy!
I started Bikram Yoga hoping to experience some of the physical benefits that I’d heard so much about. I had heard a lot about them from my friend Shailan, who was the one who introduced me to this yoga in the first place. According to him, it would make me an ”athlete and a hero.”
As I outlined in my most recent post, while I didn’t quite go that far, I got way more than I bargained for. I didn’t just become a little bit more flexible; I actually ended up with a younger body after only a few months of practice. To say that I felt amazing would be a horrible understatement! I was more than happy with the results and if that had been the only thing that I got back from my time in the hot room, it would have obviously been more than enough.
However, believe it or not, the mental, emotional and spiritual benefits have been far greater than the entire physical side of the equation. I’ve heard it said that yoga is both a physical and a mental detox, and I can testify without a shadow of doubt that this is in fact the case.
It makes a lot of sense that practitioners of Bikram Yoga in particular might undergo non-physical changes given enough time. The heat, intensity and the repetitive nature of the classes make it easy for the 90 minutes to become a true moving meditation. For once in the course of a hectic day, you can just let everything go, leave the world and all its distractions on the other side of the door, and just concentrate on doing what you’re told while someone else does the thinking for you. This tends to work wonders in getting the monkey mind to shut up, while the rest of the brain focuses on things that it doesn’t generally get to look at. And at that point, stuff tends to happen…all kinds of stuff.
I noticed the most profound shifts while lying in Savasana during the floor series. Savasana is known as the most difficult of the Bikram Yoga postures, and for good reason. After all, the other postures are merely physically difficult, and even the newest, weakest and least flexible of practitioners can at least make some kind of effort, either half-hearted, genuine or somewhere in between. But the English translation of Savasana is Corpse Posture or Dead Body Posture (depending on who you ask). All you have to do is to be still, to be dead – both physically and mentally, and this is in fact, one of the most difficult things to pull off.
When you’re trying not to move, not to think, not to scratch that itch or to wipe away the annoying little trickle of sweat in your ear, or even to simply not blink is exactly when the brain, or more specifically, the monkey mind are going to want to go into Millennium Falcon style hyper drive monkey.
Savasana bugged the heck out of me in the beginning, more so than any of the more demanding postures, despite its lack of physical strain. I’ve never been good at getting my brain to slow down, let alone to be genuinely quiet. My mind rocks along at a furious rate most all of the time, and I can multitask like a machine, focusing on as many tasks as necessary (I know, I know, hard to believe given that I’m a guy) but the reverse of that is that my mind just doesn’t like going slow. Decades of attempts at meditation generally turned into exercises in deep frustration, although Mindfulness Meditation helped a bit. On the floor of the yoga studio, my mind would be all racecar in the red, which meant that I could hardly lie still, let alone not think.
I started to slowly get the hang of Savasana after a few classes, although I wasn’t really quiet. Nor was I actually meditating as such, but I was managing to suspend some of the extraneous mental and physical motion and could relax just a fraction instead of fidgeting.
While my first real emotional ‘event’ was brought on by Camel (Ustrasana) posture, I felt the effects in Savasana. In my fourth class, I stopped struggling to get beyond the first part of Camel and just tried to get into something approximating a back bend, which wasn’t much of a bend at all given my lack of spinal flexibility. After the first attempt at Camel, I dropped into Savasana and immediately I felt a wave of emotion shoot right through me like a wave. I had no idea what was happening – it was raw, intense and very disconcerting – more like a general emotional release, something letting go than anything specific. But whatever it was, I liked it; fortunately I don’t mind new experiences.
So on the second set of Camel, I went deeper than the previous one, trying to provoke another surge of whatever that was. On reflection, this wasn’t really yogic thinking but at that stage, I was pretty gung-ho. As soon as I dropped back into Savasana, the sensation hit me again and this time, it was far stronger than before. The sense of ‘letting go’ (for want of a better description) was more pronounced, like something was leaving me forever, I didn’t know what it was, nor frankly did I care because whatever it was, I didn’t think I needed it. I felt so good that I was laughing hard under my breath, trying to subdue a case of almost maniacal laughter. Both times, the sensation only lasted for a few seconds but I loved every nanosecond.
So of course, after that class, I looked forward to Camel, hoping to have the same release, and I did actually find the same sense of letting go, followed by the joy and laughter almost every time I did the posture. I took a look online and found that it was relatively common to experience some kind of emotional effect after Camel posture. In fact it seemed to happen to people after many of the poses that open the hips but it was most prevalent in Camel.
In time, I found that the more I relaxed into Camel, the more intense the sensation immediately afterward during Savasana was. Interestingly enough, I noticed that I was getting the same effects after Rabbit posture. There were noticeable consequences to this ongoing release. Whatever I was letting go of was leaving me in a much better place, helping me to relax, and the more it happened, the more chilled out I seemed to become in my day-to-day life.
Over the weeks that followed, much to my surprise and that of everyone who knew me, my mellow side started putting in an appearance. Workplace stresses that had been getting progressively more intense to the point where I was really concerned about my stress levels seemed to just ease off. When I thought about it however, I realised that the various stressors were exactly as annoying as they’d always been, but they simply weren’t bothering me anywhere near as much.
The craziness of Auckland’s incessant traffic started to become a non-event, as did all the silly stuff that used to bug me; stuff like long lines at the supermarket, obnoxious types monopolising the machines at gym for ages, or booming subwoofers raging into the neighbourhood late at night. I was a long way from being Zen-like but I was certainly chilling out and I loved it. After all the decades of being a stress-monkey, I couldn’t believe how good it felt to just be able to ignore stuff like that.
I definitely give the floor series postures, specifically Camel and Rabbit the majority of the credit for that initial mellowing out, even though I’m totally aware that any practice of yoga has to be looked at in a holistic light. As I said, the entirety of each class should be seen as a 90-minute moving meditation, but I know how much I let go of in only a few very special minutes of each class.
The standing series is generally tough for me because I’m fighting decades of damage and my semi-legendary inflexibility – I really struggled in the beginning and still do to a large degree. This means that my concentration during standing is epic as I try to get each pose right, so there isn’t really much time for meditation. But then again I’m so utterly focused on just getting the pose right and on not falling over that my mind doesn’t exactly have time to wander.
In the floor series, my mind has slowly found ways to be comparatively quiet during Savasana, and as the postures have progressed, long stored up emotions have repeatedly found their way out. Sometimes there’s nothing, not an iota of release, and at other times, especially when there’s something difficult going on in my life, it absolutely pours out but in the first three months of my practice, I let go of a great deal. I can’t for the life of me say for certain what that all was, or what’s still coming out but I didn’t and don’t need it, and I sure don’t miss it.
Combine that ongoing release with the general feelings of de-stressing and total well being, plus energy levels that I sometimes don’t quite believe and you get an overall effect that’s led to me becoming much more relaxed, happier even. I don’t sweat the small stuff as much, and the big stuff seems to take care of itself, and that is one totally amazing feeling.
Less stress is a very, very good thing in anyone’s life (especially mine) and again, if that plus the physical stuff had been all that had happened, well I’d have been the happiest camper on the planet, but that was only the start. What followed literally did change my life.
To be continued…
Ash Kramer is a vegan health and fitness nut but he’s only slightly annoying despite all that. Bikram Yoga pretty much changed his life and now he can’t shut up about it. He’s a full-time writer and lives in the beautiful Bay of Plenty in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, which makes him one of the luckiest guys on the planet.