Life as a "virtual" geek with absolutely no mathematical aptitude has not been easy for me. My condition resembles most that of a functioning schizophrenic—on any given day I am just as liable to be fascinated by the aerodynamics of nanobots as I am by the elliptical construct of Finnegans Wake. I’m a sucker for the Big Idea, the thing outside (or inside) a haiku, for example, that makes it a haiku in the first place. I look for God in the details.
Somewhere fairly early on in life, I believe, the idea of system first took root in my childish brain. Whereas a pure poet or musician may revel in the concept of blossom, for example, I am much more attuned to the idea of rain forest. A star is a beautiful thing, to be sure, but a galaxy has billions of stars, and they all comprise a pattern both within and without.
Couple this tendency to think big with an addictive personality and you’ve built a man who is fascinated by the formulations of aviation, literature, philosophy, filmmaking, martial arts, women and—most recently—yoga.
It’s a good thing I’ve come upon yoga rather late in life and can only approximate the ideal of the discipline. Otherwise, you see, I should become one of those yoga geeks.
Because, with the possible exception of the human female, yoga is the system to end all systems. It’s a complex constellation within the collection of galaxies that comprise the universe of Indo-asian thought. Think about it: Indian culture is built upon Sanskrit, a language formulated to affect the minds and the bodies of both the speaker and the listener in a particular way as it is spoken and heard. Indian music, cuisine, literature, poetry, religion and art are each holographic pieces of a human puzzle old as making love—a process, or art, or religion, or hobby described best, after all, in the oldest document of its kind, the Kama Sutra.
In my simplistic Western way, and given my need for systemic contemplation upon even the simplest things in life, I’ve tried to wrap myself around the idea that all Mother India has spent the last few thousand years working hard on getting really good at simply living. Which is not to be confused with living simply.
Accept for a moment if you will the idea that there are in India ascetics, or devotees, or rishis, or magicians, or just really finely-tuned individuals who appear to be able to do things that, in other cultures, might be termed magical. Further, assume that it is possible to learn some tricks in life, a system, perhaps, that makes the world a little brighter, your life and the lives of those around you a little easier.
Assume that if you look really hard, you can find a teacher, a guru, a helper, a master, a person who’s been there and done that and knows, really, a better way.
Assume, for the purpose of elucidation, that I’ve found someone like that, a like-minded individual who realized young that his life’s work was built upon teaching a system of hatha yoga that could change peoples’ lives for the better.
Like a Ravi Shankar raga, like the Mahabharata, like the recipe for a perfect lamb curry, and certainly like the technique for loving your soul mate to death, yoga is a complex subject, and I am certainly NOT qualified to discuss it with any degree of expertise. I can, however set down a few interesting facts about the particular hatha yoga system of Bikram Choudhury, the man who has done the most to popularize a streamlined version of the ancient discipline first set down by Patangali multiple millenia ago. Bikram's system is taught in over 250 yoga schools around the world by more than 5000 certified teachers.
Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class is a formalized, standardized series of 26 asanas or yoga postures that are performed in an unvarying sequence, preferably daily for 90 minutes, in a room heated to 105 degrees. If the sign on the front of the studio reads "Bikram Yoga," here is what awaits you inside, should you choose to make the leap of faith that characterizes most great changes in life:
Your teacher will be personally trained by Bikram Choudhury himself. This is no small advantage. Systems tend to break down, as we all know, as the distance from their inception to their implementation increases. The geeks probably have a name for it, entropy springs to mind, but let’s face it—the multicolored belt system of Tae Kwon Do taught to six-year-olds in Duluth, Minnesota has little to do with the deadly martial art developed in South Korea in the last century, which itself resembles little the Shorin Ryu of Okinawa or the Tai Chi of ancient China. From common roots diverse blossoms bloom. Like the children’s game of Telephone, confusion and misinformation can result when second, third, fourth and fifth hands are involved in the practice of yoga.
Bikram’s teacher Bishnu Ghosh has long since passed. More than ever, Bikram has dedicated himself to the accurate dissemination of his system. He is a disciple of yoga in the same sense that his guru's brother, Paramahansa Yogananda wrote regarding his guru:
I am training disciples. They and their line of students will serve as living volumes, proof against the natural disintegrations of time and the unnatural interpretations of the critics.
The room will be hot. You should have brought at least a litre of water, a towel, and a mat to cushion your tender unaccustomed bones. The heat, like everything about the practice, has a purpose: injuries are lessened, stretching is facilitated, and toxins are flushed from the body through perspiration.
Bikram Yoga, it can be said, IS perspiration.
There is no music. There are no props. There is no rest period and leaving the room is discouraged. There are mirrors everywhere and each asana is performed twice. You will spend the next 90 minutes looking at yourself in the mirror. This is harder to do than you might at first believe. Thus, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga commences with:
Standing Deep Breathing
Rhythmic breathing, in through the nose, out through the mouth warms up the body from the inside, promotes Mental relaxation, detoxification, and exercises the nervous, respiratory and circulatory systems. The object is to use the ninety percent of lung capacity that goes untapped
- Ardha-Chandrasana with Pada-Hastasana
Half Moon Pose combined with Hands to Feet Pose
A full-body stretch, from side to side and front to back, which increases the flexibility of the spine and the sciatic nerves as well as most of the tendons and ligaments of the legs. It also helps lower-back pain, constipation, obesity, bronchial distress, scoliosis, and tension in the shoulders. The deltoid, trapezius, pectoral, and hamstring muscles are exercised, as are the colon, the pancreas, and the kidneys.
Composed of three specific sorts of bent-knee poses, both flat-footed and standing very high on the tiptoes, The Awkward Pose strengthens and firms the muscles of the thighs and hips and creates flexibility in the hip joints. Since the arms are held out firmly in front of the body throughout the series, those muscles are toned as well. Rheumatism, arthritis and gout are relieved and the lower spine is strengthened.
The first of the balancing poses: While standing on one foot, the legs and arms are wrapped around each other, twisted like ropes. The Eagle Pose supplies fresh blood to the sexual organs and the kidneys. It helps firm calves, thighs, hips, abdomen and upper arms. It improves flexibility of the hip, knee, and ankle joints and strengthens the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and deltoid muscles.
Standing Head to Knee Pose
The second balancing pose. While standing on one foot, the other leg is held out perpendicular to the body, hands cupped around the foot. Both knees are locked. This pose develops concentration, patience, and determination. Abdominal muscles and thigh muscles are tightened, flexibility of the sciatic nerve improves, and the tendons, biceps of the thighs, and hamstrings are strengthened, as are the latissimus dorsi, scapula, biceps and triceps.
This pose looks intimidating, but sooner or later practitioners discover it is actually one of the easiest.
Standing Bow Pulling Pose
While balanced on one leg, the other is pulled, from the ankle, towards the head while arching the back in the manner of a bow being pulled.
Among the most beautiful of the Hatha Yoga postures, the Standing Bow Pulling is a perfect example of the "tourniquet" or "damming" effect in Yoga. Fresh oxygenated blood is transferred from one side of the body to the other and then equalized, supplying each organ and gland with a healing dose of oxygen. Once again, concentration, patience, and determination come into play as the abdominal wall and upper thighs are firmed. The upper arms, hips and buttocks are tightened and the size and elasticity of the ribcage and lungs are increased. Flexibility and strength of the lower spine are improved as well.
Balancing Stick Pose
The last of the balancing poses. While standing on one foot, arms extended over the head, hands clasped, forefingers pointed, the body bends forward, free leg and torso forming the top of the letter T. Intended to perfect control and balance by improving physical, psychological and mental powers, Balancing Stick also firms the hips, buttocks, and upper thighs. The standing leg is strengthened. Circulation is increased and the heart muscle is toned, as are the lungs. The pose is typically held for ten seconds, but ten seconds can seem like a long time when the asana is properly performed.
Standing Separate Leg Stretching Pose
This asana is one you probably did naturally as a child. In fact, it can be argued that yoga is all about getting the body back into the same condition it was when it was shiny and new, devoid of the injuries, cares, worries, and accumulated fears of adulthood.
The feet are spread laterally four feet apart and the upper body is allowed to simply hang forward, deeply, until ultimately the forehead touches the floor or, in the most extreme example of the posture, is placed through the legs while the arms are clasped around the legs and spine.
The sciatic nerves are stretched and strengthened, muscle tone and flexibility of the thighs and calves is improved, and the internal organs—especially the large and small intentine—are flushed with blood and oxygen. The flexibility of the pelvis, ankles, hip joints, and the last five vertebrae of the spine is increased.
This is the apex of the standing exercises and may very well be the most difficult of all 26 asanas to perfect.
After a lateral step similar to the previous one, with arms stretched side to side, the right foot is pointed perpendicular to the body and the right knee is bent, thigh parallel to the floor, calf perpendicular over the angle. The left foot continues to point naturally forward at the end of the straight left leg. The resulting stretch through the hips, which remain level and facing forward, is enormous, but that is only the beginning.
With the arms remaining stretched and straight, the torso is bent directly to the right, with the right elbow placed in front of the right knee and the fingertips of the right hand against the big toe. The head faces up, towards the ceiling with the chin on the left shoulder, left arm and hand pointed towards the ceiling.
The arms are now perpendicular, in a straight line from the floor to the ceiling. The stomach and hips are pushed forward as much as possible while the upper portion of the body is bent backward. The difficulty quotient on this pose—at least for this "yoga geek"—is enormous. I probably should mention that, yes, you get to do this on the other side too. Each of us has one side that is easier in each pose. Presently I'm still trying to find that easier side. Through the haze of pain, I often hear my teacher comment "marriage of the heart and lungs" as though such a thing were remotely possible. The pose is definitely aerobic.
Bikram notes that the Triangle is "the only posture in the world that improves every muscle, joint, tendon, and internal organ in the body. At the same time, it revitalizes nerves, veins, and tissues."
It has been said that yoga is "good medicine, but slow." Trikanasana illustrates this perfectly.
Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee Pose
This one would be easy, but for the fact that most Americans, particularly those of us who spend many hours before computer monitors, have spines as inflexible as lamp posts.
From the same standing posture with which we started Half Moon Pose, arms above the head sideways to form a steeple, we turn sideways with a big three-foot step, hips, torso, face and arms all pointing to the right. With both legs straight, we bend to touch the forehead to the right knee, fingertips touching the floor. The hard part about this pose is the breathing. The chin is tucked, making for a pretty panicked feeling the first time this is attempted. Benefits are the same as those of the Hands to Feet pose, plus a general slimming of the waistline, abdomen, buttocks, and upper thighs. The effects on the thyroid and pituitary glands are likewise noted, and I must say, in a purely unscientific observation, once you get started on this stuff, EVERYTHING changes. Diet, mood, problem-solving capabilities, elimination, respiration—yoga hits them all.
Here, finally, the last of the standing postures really IS pretty easy. With the gaze fixed on one spot, we balance on one leg while the other is tucked as high up on the thigh of the standing leg as possible, sole of the foot facing the ceiling, palms in prayer position in front of the breastbone. The spine is straight, the buttocks are tight, the standing knee is locked. Of course, if flexibility in the hip and knee are lacking…well, it's back to the drawing board. Perhaps we should have begun this practice a bit earlier in life.
Benefits of Tree Pose are obvious—posture and balance are improved, as is flexibility of the hips, ankles and knees.
Tree Pose is the preparatory posture for:
Toe Stand Pose
Quite simply, a deceiving posture, one that looks more difficult than it actually is. Beginning with the tree pose, the yogi bends forward, touches the floor with both hands, and sinks the rest of the way down till the right buttock is resting on the left heel.
With the hands in prayer position, leg still crossed over the thigh, the avid practitioner then balances on the ball of the foot for an honest count of ten.
This pose looks like something only a genuine yogi could do and it is, in fact, very important in the panoply of Bikram's 26 asanas. Because of the nature of the care and strengthening of the knee, the most delicate construction in human anatomy, and often one of the first to break down. Bikram says:
Since knees are most difficult part of human to strengthen and control, person who has succeeded in doing that has developed five most important qualities of Hatha Yoga: Faith, self-discipline, determination, concentration, and patience. These qualities you must develop to do these poses correctly. Then you are beginning to find the god, because the god is hiding in any little place that is difficult and painful, or weak and in need of control. Doesn't have to be physical. Can be thing like eating too much chocolate.
In addition to helping the practitioner overcome psychological and mental barriers and aiding in the cultivation of patience, this posture has the happy effect of curing hemorrhoid problems. Which is always nice.
Dead Body Pose
One hour has passed in the world of Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class. You will feel like you might die at any moment; indeed, perhaps you will wish you could. And it is precisely at this point in the syllabus that Bikram introduces the simplest—if not the most important—posture. Savasana is nothing more than lying on one's back, feet together, hands by the sides, palms up, chin down, neck and calves flat on the floor. For two full minutes. So the richly oxygenated blood you have been moving through your body like an army on a battlefield can have a chance to nurture the muscles and organs and, as Bikram puts it "tighten loose screws in the brain." He explains:
This is no joke, this tightening loose screws. Mind and body are two sides of same coin. Benefits flow equally to both sides. But if you don't relax, flow is stopped and both sides of coin miss benefits.
Funny thing, in Western society it is more difficult for people to relax than to work hard. People in your country feel guilty about relaxing. If they are not doing something all the time, they think they are bad people. Eventually their minds don't know how to relax any better than their bodies.
Relaxation is single most beneficial thing you can learn to do in this world. So apply even more faith, self-discipline, determination, concentration, and patience to the Dead Body Pose.
You are fighting body tension plus guilt and impatience to get to next pose. You are fighting unruly mind that persists in flitting like butterfly. You must learn to make that butterfly sit perfectly quiet after taking nectar from its flower, doing nothing but being beautiful and digesting the nourishment that will make it even more beautiful and better butterfly. You must teach unruly butterfly mind that it is doing very difficult and good thing for itself. Tranquil inactivity of Savasana is full of more active and beneficial living than all the crazy rushing around you people do.
Now the good news is that this pose is also done AFTER each of the following asanas. The Floor Series:
Wind Removing Pose
Bikram insists that the real yoga starts now, after we're all warmed up from the standing series.
Pavanamuktasana is the deceptively simple action of pulling the knee firmly to the chest while lying on the back. The chin is lowered, focus is down the middle of the body and the calf of the straight leg should be on the floor.
You should feel quite a bit of tension in the hip joint and you must remember to keep breathing. The action is repeated with the other knee and, finally, with both knees together, arms wrapped around, held at the elbows.
The pose cures and prevents flatulence and improves the flexibility of the hip joints while firming the abdomen, thighs, and hips.
Why there is no Sanskrit word for this posture I don't know, but a perfectly-executed sit-up follows each of the rest postures between the remaining floor asanas
The arms are raised over the head while in Dead Man Pose, inhaling simultaneously. The legs are straight, knees are on the floor. Just before the upright position, you exhale and reach for your toes, which are flexed back toward you. Grasping the toes, lay the whole body and face flat out on your legs, touching the floor on either side of your legs with your elbows. Breathe.
The benefits are the same as "normal" situps—a strong, tight abdomen and increased flexibility of the spine.
It should be noted that the order of each of these exercises is important. You wouldn't try a straight-legged sit-up like this without the previous HOUR of stretching and strengthening. The order and preparation inherent in the Bikram system is paramount to its efficacy. DO NOT mix and match these exercises.
Upon completion of your first sit-up, the body is placed face down on your towel, feet and legs together, all the muscles of the legs and buttocks tight as rocks, toes pointed. The palms are flat on the floor, fingers together and pointed forward, no farther than the top of the shoulders. The elbows should be close to the body. As you inhale, look up at the ceiling and use the spine to lift your torso off the floor from the belly button.
The back should be arched as much as possible, elbows remaining tight against your sides at and angle of ninety degrees inside, pelvis and thighs pushing against the floor. This is a very traditional Yoga posture and it is not difficult, though it does demand WILLPOWER to continue to make progress in the pose.
The cobra pose, like all the others, is repeated a second time, holding once again for 20 seconds.
Bikram feels that Bhujangasana is one of the best ways to maintain the body in perfect condition. Spinal strength and flexibility is increased, backache is prevented, and lumbago, rheumatism and arthritis of the spine are cured. The Cobra Pose also helps relieve menstrual problems, cures loss of appetite, helps correct bad posture and improves the functioning of the liver and spleen. Women who have continued to perform Bikram yoga during pregnancy report nearly effortless deliveries, and it is easy to imagine that their babies are exceptionally healthy after the rush of nutrition and richly-oxygenated blood they've enjoyed for nine months.
I'll put this one near the top of my short list of least-favorite poses. Must have something to do with my ridiculous American Male Lack of Flexibility.
Lying with your chin on the towel, the arms are placed under the body with the elbows turned upward against the abdomen and the palms flat on the floor. (My initial reaction to this was something like "You've GOT to be kidding!") It is a bit difficult at first, but gradually, little by little, you'll get your little fingers to TOUCH, with the wrists flat on the floor. And the payoff in flexibility, particularly if you type all day, for example, will be worth the effort.
You should feel like a trussed goose, according to Bikram, which seems about right. The right leg is raised up to a forty-five degree angle, with no tension in the left leg and with the right hip remaining atop the right forearm. Hold for ten interminable seconds. DO NOT RAISE THE RIGHT HIP. The "attached" hip is the sure mark of the beginner says Bikram. The intention should be one of stretching, not raising the leg. The sole of the foot is parallel with the ceiling.
The pose is repeated on the other side after a short rest with the left ear on the floor, breathing normally. Then, following a rest with the RIGHT ear on the floor, BOTH legs are raised in what can only be termed a supreme effort of mind and back muscles over gravity. Bikram compares the proper execution of the Locust Pose to the efforts of a person recovering the use of limbs after paralysis. Your mind just CAN'T believe what you're asking your body to do. The muscles of the lower back and the abdomen PICK UP the legs; it's that simple. The forearms and palms pressing against the floor can help, of course.
An experienced yogini can lift her legs OVER her head and place them on the floor in front of her face. And I've seen Flexible American Men do it too.
The Locust Pose cures back problems such as gout, slipped disks, and sciatica like you wouldn't believe. It cures tennis elbow (don't forget those elbows!) and firms buttocks and hips, of course. You'll sit at your computer in a very different fashion after a few months of Salabhasana. Back straight. Hips square. Proud and accomplished.
Full Locust Pose
This is the next step in the continuing effort to create a healthy spine, to keep the body's circuits and switches functioning properly.
Still lying on the towel on your stomach, the arms are stretched out to the sides, palms down. The chin is on the towel, knees, legs, and feet together. The toes are pointed. After tightening the muscles of the calves, thighs, and buttocks, upon inhalation, the arms, head, chest, torso, and legs are raised off the floor, like a 747 taking off. You will balance on the center of your abdomen and you will be amazed you can do this. Improvement in this posture comes VERY slowly and only with GREAT effort. As Bikram says:
I want a 747, not a B-29. Get those arms up and back, hands always on a level with the shoulders. To show you how subtly difficult the Full Locust is, it is the one position where I seldom play games with the ten seconds. If you are doing it honestly, giving it all you've got, ten seconds is all you can take. But oh! The wonderful things it does for your body.
The Full Locust has the same therapeutic value as the Cobra Pose and the same upper-body benefits as the Standing Bow Pulling. It also firms abdominal muscles, upper arms, hips, and thighs.
This is the one where inflexibility shows the most. Lying on the stomach, the knees are bent and the feet are brought towards the buttocks. The hands take hold of each foot two inches below the pointed toes, hands and wrists on the outside of the foot, thumbs and fingers together. The feet and knees are six inches apart.
On a deep inhalation, look up at the ceiling and simultaneously lift the thighs and the upper body off the floor. The legs kick back against the hands and the body weight is rolled as far forward as possible, balancing on the center of the abdomen. Twenty seconds. Very hard. Very beautiful when done properly, like a perfect human bow pulled taut. Repeat, of course.
The bow improves the functioning of the intestine, the liver, the kidneys and spleen. The spinal nerves are revitalized and the flexibility of the scapula, latissimus, deltoid, and trapezious muscles is improved.
Fixed Firm Pose
Here's another asana that you probably did when you were a kid. After your sit-up (remember, you're doing the Dead Man Pose and then a sit-up after each of these floor exercises) kneel down Japanese-style on your towel, knees together and buttocks resting on your heels, soles of the feet facing up. Adjust the width of your feet to accommodate your hips. Holding on to your feet, support your torso on your elbows as you bend backward. Allow your head to drop back onto the floor, then your shoulders, and finally raise your arms over your head, opposite hands grasping opposite elbows. Tuck the chin toward your chest and BREATHE. Twenty seconds. Come back up slowly, assume Dead Man Pose for twenty, do a perfect sit-up and REPEAT. Every day. You'll be surprised at the result, even if you can't even bear to SIT on your feet that way.
The Fixed Firm Pose helps sciatica, gout, and rheumatism. The usual strengthening and flexibility benefits apply.
Half Tortoise Pose
You're coming into the home stretch now. Only six poses to go, and this one is one of the most relaxing and beneficial of them all.
After Savasana and another perfect sit-up, kneel Japanese-style with the heels, knees and feet together. Raise your arms over your head sideways and place the palms together, thumbs crossed, arms touching the ears, the spine straight. Your arms resemble a steeple above your head. The stretch should be upward, always upward, against gravity. Very slowly (tortoise pose, remember?) bend forward from the lower spine until your perfectly stretched hand touch the floor, elbows locked, just the little fingers on the floor, buttocks still resting on your heels. Breathe. Your eyes should be open. As a matter of fact the eyes REMAIN open throughout the entire Bikram Beginning Yoga Class. You are present HERE, not spiralling around some galaxy of your imagination. Many of these postures are impossible to do with the eyes closed anyway. The importance of alert concentration cannot be over-emphasized.
Stretch forward as far as you possibly can, with the buttocks in constant contact with the heels. The forehead should be on the floor, not tucked into your chest. The Spine is perfectly straight.
After the difficulty of the Fixed Firm Pose, the half Tortoise feels exquisite. You almost can't get enough of it. After twenty seconds or so, return slowly, using the stomach muscles to keep the spine straight, repeat Savasana, do a perfect sit-up, and try again.
This is a completely relaxing posture that cures indigestion and stretches the lower part of the lungs, sending nourishing blood to the brain. It's one of the few "inverted" postures in the Bikram series. (Headstands and neckstands, long a staple of American yoga, are not practised in Bikram classes. The potential for injury is high. They are properly considered advanced poses.) Half Tortoise firms the abdomen and thighs and increases the flexibility of the hip joints, scapula, deltoids, triceps and latissimus dorsi muscles.
This pose is psychologically difficult for many. It requires, we are told in class, a complete opening of the heart chakra.
Stand tall on your knees on your towel, knees and feet six inches apart (You of course have done another Dead Man Pose and perfect sit-up.) The hands are on the backs of your hips, fingers towards the floor, supporting your back. Drop the head back completely, then bend the torso backward slowly about six inches and stop. This is already difficult, I know. It gets moreso. Bring your right hand down and grab the right heel, thumb on the outside. Do the same with the left. The word pretzel comes to mind, doesn't it?
Breathing slowly and deeply, finally exhale and push the thighs, hips and stomach forward as much as you can. Arch the torso backwards. Try to relax and hold for twenty seconds. Come up slowly, do your savasana and sit-up, and repeat.
The Camel Pose stretches the abdominal organs and cures constipation. It also stretches the thyroid gland, the throat, and the parathyroids. Improved flexibility and trimming of the waistline practically go without saying. And at the point where you feel this pose might be getting easier, remember: the Full Camel places the head through the legs, facing forward, body forming a perfect circle. In case you wondered.
Here is the antidote to the extremes of the Camel. The Rabbit is its opposite. Kneeling on the towel Japanese-style, knees and feet together, buttocks on heels, grip the heels so the thumbs are on the outside. Lower the chin to your chest and, exhaling, curl the torso forward tightly until the forehead touches the knees. The top of the head should be on the floor. At the same time, lift the hips into the air and roll the body forward until the arms are straight and the thighs are perpendicular to the floor. The throat should definitely feel choked and there should be very little weight on the head. You should feel the pull especially in the lower back. Hold for twenty, come up slowly, breathing, rest, and repeat.
The benefits? Maximum extension of the spine, improving the nervous system. Strengthens the back muscles. Improves indigestion. Fixes sinus problems and aids chronic tonsilitis. Has a beneficial effect on the thyroid and parathyroid glands. Plus YOU FEEL GREAT! You've been working for an hour and twenty minutes towards this pose. It isn't something you should even think about doing unless your body's totally warm and stretched. As Bikram says, A Camel and a Rabbit a day generally keep the chiropractor away.
Head to Knee Pose with Stretching pose
Only two more poses and a breathing exercise to go. This pose resembles the "Hurdler's Stretch" that many athletes do. After Savasana and a perfect sit-up, sit on the floor with the right leg at a 45 degree angle to the body, left leg bent, heel touching the crotch, ball of the foot firm against the inside of the thigh. Raise the arms over the head and bend, stretching over the straight right leg. Take hold of the right foot with both hands, fingers interlocked under the toes and pull, touching the forehead to the knee. Can't reach your toes? No problem. BEND the knee, as much as you need to. Gradually, once you can straighten the knee and keep your forehead down, the goal will be to lift the right heel off the floor. Switch to the left side; repeat.
Remember, one side will be easier and that's good. It reminds us of the basic tenant of Hatha Yoga—the union of the weaker and stronger, literally of the Ha, Sun, the strong right side of the universe, and Tha, the moon, the weaker, the left side of the universe. We're in the business here of balancing things out—mind and body, strong and weak, left and right.
After stretching to the left, in one fluid movement lie back, raising both arms over the head. When you touch the floor, do an immediate sit-up on a big exhale. Wiggle the butt-flesh out of the way, sit erect on your sit-bones and with a straight back, grab the big toes with the first and second fingers and PULL. Touch the elbows to the floor and without bending the knees touch the stomach, chest and face to your legs. The goal? Pull the heels off the floor and touch your forehead to your toes. While you're waiting to achieve that goal, it's OK to bend the knees a little. You've got to work those sciatic nerves; mess around with the balance a bit. Learn what's going on with your body.
Obviously, another Dead Man, another sit-up, and a second set, just like in all the other asanas.
This one helps to balance the blood sugar. It is, after all, inverted, and blood is rushing to places it doesn't get to easily. Flexibility? Of course. But also digestion, the kidneys, the bowels, muscles, nerves, joints—all are exercised and nourished.
Spine Twisting Pose
Sit on the floor with both buttocks solid beneath you. Bend your left leg so the knee is on the floor and the left heel is touching the side of the right buttock.
Then bend the right knee and bring the right leg over the left leg, right foot down just to the left of the left knee. Breathe easily.
Bring the left arm to the right and over the right knee. Place the right arm behind your back. Reach all the way around your body of you can till you can touch the left thigh. Turn your head to the right and twist everything, your face, shoulders and torso as far to the right as you can. The spine should twist from top to bottom, like a swizzle stick between the fingers of a veteran barfly. Exhale the breath and hold for twenty seconds. The classic yoga pose. Perfectible with work and right-mindfulness.
This pose increases circulation and nutrition to the spinal nerves, and—of course—increases flexibility. Plus it looks really cool, especially if you're slim, trim, and in perfect health.
After repeating on the other side, do one more Dead Man Pose and one more perfect sit-up.
- Kapalbhati in Vajrasana
Blowing in Firm Pose
This is the point where you can finally say to yourself I've done it! Ninety minutes of strenuous exercise in 105 degree heat!
Just as the class began with Pranayama breathing, Breath of Life, it ends with Kapalbhati, Breath of Fire.
Kneeling Japanese-style, straight spine, hands on the knees, we exhale vigorously, deeply, from the diaphragm. The stomach contracts very firmly with each exhale. The inhale takes care of itself. Nothing moves but the stomach muscles. You should be able to blow out a candle placed four feet away from you. Repeat this sixty times, slowly. Rest, and repeat again, sixty times, but twice as fast.
Every last molecule of carbon dioxide is being forced out of your lungs, making room for clean fresh oxygen and improving the elasticity of your lungs. You smoke? You won't after sixty days of Bikram Yoga.
Turn around, lie down, and rest in Savasana, the Dead Man pose, for as long as you like. You've earned it. You can even close your eyes. At long last. Breathe. Relax. Let the benefits of Bikram Yoga spread to every cell of your body.
This four-thousand year-old system of Hatha Yoga is a very personal undertaking. Nobody can do this for you. The benefits are physical, of course, but make no mistake—there is a spiritual component in Bikram Yoga that cannot be well-described. Need not be well-described. It starts when you merely show up day after day after day, whether you feel like it or not. It grows as you do, little by little, millimeter by millimeter, as fingers finally touch the floor, as old aches disappear, as new ones come and go. It flowers fully in your relationships with others, and that, I suspect, may be the real point of it all.
It's as if the Great Designer, instead of building a 747, had something even grander in mind: a vessel capable of carrying truth and light across time and space forever and forever.
So Be It.
Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class, Bikram Choudhury
with Bonnie Jones Reynolds, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 2000.
Anatomy of Hatha Yoga
, H. David Coulter, Body and Breath, Honesdale, PA, 2001.
Autobiography of a Yogi,
Paramahansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, 1946.