As a newcomer to the practice, it can be a little hard to understand the appeal of a Bikram yoga class. Admittedly, it sounds unpleasant: an intense workout for 90 minutes in 105 degree heat at 40% humidity could (and often does) bring even the strongest of us to our knees. But learning how to survive, and even to thrive, in the most taxing of conditions is well worth the effort.
I came to Bikram yoga in 2010 while attending university in Reno, Nevada. Balancing work and studies was difficult, and losing two of my closest family members within one particularly bad year compounded the stress. We all have those moments, unfortunately, when we question our ability to cope with loss, pain, and hardship. It just so happened that in that particular moment for me, an instructor at the university who also taught Bikram yoga encouraged me to attend a class, just to see what it was all about.
Some truths became immediately clear: this yoga was not the calm, peaceful retreat I had always associated with the word—it was work. When I first came to class, the rigid structure and heat were intimidating. I was so worried about where to place my mat, how I looked in the shorts I wore, how much I would sweat. (Spoiler: A lot.) But as soon as my knuckles hit my chin for the first pranayama breathing exercise, those worries were no longer important. All of my physical and mental resources were entirely engaged in making it through each pose. Even resting between poses took focus to truly relax before the next challenge would begin.
That is when it became clear that this hour and a half would not be time to think about my life or my school work or what I was going to do for dinner. During those first few classes it took all of my strength, concentration, and willpower just to stay in the room, let alone to try every pose to the best of my ability. But every day that I returned I found that my supply of strength and the power of my will had grown a little more.
It was challenging, but I felt compelled to lean into the discomfort, to push myself past what I saw as my limits and prove to myself that I could handle it. If I could handle being that hot, that tired, that out of breath, that sore, to struggle that hard, I could make it through anything.
And so far it’s been true. The peace that you find in the hot room is unlike any other. It can be difficult to find stillness, to relax and empty your mind in a world that moves so fast. We all have our share of concerns and responsibilities, but practicing this yoga creates at least 90 minutes where your only responsibility is to be present. The structure makes that easy. The conditions are extreme enough and the poses challenging enough to allow you to let go of everything outside the room. It even encourages you to step out of your mind and really focus on your body. Not on how it looks, but on what it can do.
Over the years and several international moves, I maintained my practice however I could manage, often establishing a routine at home to complete my asanas under relatively frigid—room temperature—conditions. While the poses still offer plenty of benefits on their own, it is also unspeakably rewarding to become a part of a community dedicated to bringing a better version of themselves into the world. Whether it’s a class of six or sixty, practicing together allows yogis to lift each other up, raise our spirits enough to where we might actually smile into our shins in standing hands to feet pose, or at the very least leave the studio a little lighter than when we arrived.
These days I practice to see what my body can do, rather than to focus on how it looks. I practice for the inside out, bones to skin healing that takes place in every class and the euphoria that comes stepping out after the final savasana knowing I’ve made it through. Most importantly, I come to class as often as possible because with regular practice, I hope to build a peace that no one and no circumstances can steal.