28 October 2012

Opposite Ends of the Yoga Spectrum: Bikram vs. Kripalu

The other week I got a wild hair and decided to try out Bikram Yoga at Yoga Crossing. After having a brief conversation about my yoga experience with the instructor at the front desk, I entered the heated, silent studio about 10 minutes early. The room was notably hotter than what I'm used to at Inner Strength Yoga, but as always, very welcoming to me as the constantly freezing chick. The floor was made out of a material I'd never seen before, and it already felt slick as I walked to an empty place to set up my mat. Within that small time frame, I was able to enter into a yoga nidra-like state, which felt wonderful.

When the instructor entered, she flipped all the bright lights on, which was kind of jarring for me. I noticed there were mirrors in two directions, which was kind of nice. (At home, I have a mirror and use it to check my alignment.) We started with Seagull Breath, which is where you interlace your fingers with the palms together, placing them under the chin. On the inhale, you lift the elbows up and as you exhale with the sound "Ha", you slowly lower the elbows while tilting the head back, pressing the chin up with the hands. (This is how Kripalu teaches Seagull Breath anyway, as a Pratapana, or warm up.) What struck me about how the instructor at Yoga Crossing guided it was that she strongly encouraged us to really "push" our heads back, and to bend our backs so we could look at the back wall. This warmup is challenging for me because my shoulders are tight, and what she lead seemed kind of intense right off the bat. Although my perfectionistic part wanted to keep pushing, I was feeling pain in my back and in the compassionate style of my Kripalu training, gave myself permission to make it gentler that I interpreted the instructions to be.

We then proceeded through each of the 26 Bikram postures. The sequence started with several standing and balancing postures, which the instructor didn't ever model. (I model most of the time in classes I teach because many of my students don't have enough experience with the postures to know what they should look like, plus my cuing can still sometimes use some work!) One interesting posture for me was what she called Triangle, which had a very bent knee and felt more like a Side Angle Lunge. But what really struck me throughout the class was how quickly the instructor was speaking. At times, I couldn't even understand her, she was talking so fast! I got exhausted just having a moment's thought about teaching this way. She also stated--and several times, in a drill sargent-like tone--that we should "feel pain" in various areas of the body, that we should "lock our knees", that we should "push". This felt like the complete opposite end of the spectrum to me from what I teach as a Kripalu instructor--which is to honor your body's limitations and never feel pain. She also had us keep our eyes open at all times, which prevented me from cultivating some of the blissful introversion I often reach while practicing yoga. Because of the speed of the class, there was little time or space to sink into the postures. At one point I did feel my heart beating fast--there's no doubt in my mind to the cardio effect of this practice, which is often a debate about yoga.

After an intense first half, we received a two minute break in corpse pose, with our head facing the instructor. We were again told to keep our eyes open. This was so foreign to me, but I tried to experience it as a new, more active way of doing the posture. We were then told to roll up to sitting, to grab our big toes with our peace fingers, and (what I think was) to bounce, but honestly it took me several round of this (with some looking around the room) to decipher what to do, since I couldn't make out her rapid words. We then rotated back around to face our instructor on our bellies, and did a back bend two times. Then back to shavasana for a mere 30 seconds! I soon learned this was part of the sequence for part of the second half: a posture two times facing the instructor with a 30 second corpse pose in between. Transition-wise this seemed inefficient to me. However, the limited time in shavasana did encourage me to relax everything as quickly and efficiently as I possibly could. It kind of reminded me of an extremely abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation exercise. I enjoyed the instructor's imagery in full locust pose, which was to create one leg by pressing our two legs tightly together. And before I knew it, I was put in shavasana and allowed to close my eyes. As soon as that cue was given, the instructor told us we could stay as long as we like, said "namaste", and left the room. This also surprised me, that there was no guided relaxation.

I could immediately hear other students putting away their mats and leaving. Given how intense the practice was, however, I was determined to stay and relax my body. Even though I didn't feel as though I stayed long, I was one of the last ones to leave.

On my way out, the instructor told me I'd "done well" for my first time. She said I clearly knew my body very well and adjusted appropriately whenever I was told. I mentioned to her that I usually use a strap for some of the postures where you need to grab the foot, not always because I can't reach, but sometimes because all the sweat makes it difficult to hold onto the foot with the hand. She told me that it's part of building up my grip--I imagined it meant my fingers, hands, and wrists could use some strengthening, which is likely true. (There were no props of any kind available that I could see.)

Since a single drop in was $19 and a week's worth of classes for newbies was $20, I had opted for the extra dollar and went back the next day, figuring I would see if I had any different thoughts after having gone through it once already.

The second time through I had a different instructor, who I liked better than the first one. She still spoke quickly but she was clearer in her instructions and actually seemed to take a breath between words. Also, knowing the sequence and what to expect made it a little easier. I did get "called out" (by name) for changing my grip on my foot when I couldn't keep my fingers from slipping, which I wasn't thrilled about. There was still a lot of talk about how this "hurts", to "hold it", "feel the pain", "this will be uncomfortable", and to "push it", without a lot of mention of using the breath. It still felt like a lot of forcing rather than allowing the openings to occur naturally, though I will say that sometimes I was surprised at what I could do when mindfully moving into postures that did bring me some pain, such as steeple position with my hands (especially in Balancing Stick position). In some postures, such as the Wind Removing and Rabbit poses, I thought I started to feel the benefits of the opposition in the stretch that I created with my own body, but it was over so quickly I couldn't be sure.

I caught myself several times closing my eyes (especially in forward folds), and had some difficulty keeping the fingers tight together instead of spreading them wide apart for a better base. One thing that worried me a bit in the cuing was about Cobra and the lower back. I don't remember exactly what was said, but if there were other the perfectionists / people-pleasers in the room who were still in their ego during the class, I would be afraid of them injuring themselves. As I looked around, I noticed several students dropped down into Child's pose though, so maybe they were self-aware enough to stop when it got to be too much. Personally I stopped once as well, since I felt my heart pounding again with a slight bit of nausea (I hadn't eaten anything for breakfast, so I'm not sure whether that's why or not--though I couldn't imagine having eaten prior to class!) Again I noticed the lack of space between poses to transition, integrate, or even grab a sip of water. It occurred to me that the rollups from corpse pose could really help strengthen my core, and that the quick moving aspect of Bikram did keep my mind focused. I really didn't have any space to think about anything else!

Would I go back? Not sure. I've tried doing more traditional Ashtanga primary series sequence from time to time, because there is something about a regimented sequence and pace that does attract my busy mind and my competitive nature. But lately I've started to appreciate the gentler forms of yoga like Kripalu, Restorative, and Yin; although not what I gravitate to naturally, they really are more balancing for me.

Isn't it great that there's a yoga for everyone out there? Write in with your experiences and/or your favorite style of yoga. And if you are curious about yoga but don't practice because you're worried you can't do it, or haven't found a style that's right for you, don't fret. Keep trying. You'll find the yoga you're meant to find!

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