Finding Solace, Strength, and Inspiration Through Bikram Yoga
How practicing this challenging yet healing style of yoga helped me push through life’s trials, one ounce of sweat at a time.
The words cling to the back wall of my mind’s eye, dripping in graffiti spray paint, spoken from a former therapist and yogi to me in one of my sessions many years ago.
“You have to take care of yourself because no one else is going to do it for you. Even when you’re too busy — especially when you’re too busy — because that’s when you need time for yourself the most. And if you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t possibly take care of others around you.”
In our visits, her goal was to slow me down just like the cliché example of the oxygen mask: in the case of an emergency you have to place your mask on first — then put a mask on others around you. And up until then, I wasn’t doing a very good job of putting the mask on my own face. And in fact, I was getting worse.
I was a single parent to two boys ten years apart in age. I had a corporate job and was busy. I tried to exercise, but it was sporadic at best. Years prior I was a distance runner for several years. I ran races from 5K runs to half marathons and eventually a full marathon. But doing the parenting thing by myself and working a full-time job limited my “me” time.
In addition to not taking care of myself, it was hard for me to sit still. I multi-tasked as much as I could, and my mind raced, “Do I have any more edits to the presentation I’m giving to the sales team today? I’ll have to wish John happy birthday on Facebook today. Crap, there’s no more creamer for my coffee tomorrow morning! I wonder if I have time to swing by that gas station convenience store after work tonight. Didn’t my oldest tell me he needed a poster board for his project and when is that due anyway?”
Who Has Time to Slow Down?
My therapist suggested I try yoga, but I saw it as a waste of time. Given that my time was so limited, I wanted to maximize what little I had. And standing in one spot for an hour was not appealing to me. It seemed boring.
“So let me get this straight. I’m going to get a ‘workout’ by standing in one place for an hour, and you want me to repeat phrases in a different language that I have no idea what they mean? And you want me to ‘feel the energy flow’ and ‘open my heart’ and what the hell does that even mean?”
Reluctantly, I tried a few classes of flow yoga. I refused to chant. I had no idea what the people were saying or chanting. At the end of class, I gathered that we were supposed to make eye contact with everybody else in the room. Perfect strangers. Sweaty strangers. Strangers smiling and saying things in a different language. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. This was nightmarish for an introvert who couldn’t sit still and perceived this as a waste of time. “Not for me,” I told myself.
Through the course of time I would go on to try numerous forms of yoga. I half think I did this to spite everyone telling me how great it was when I swore it did nothing for me. I tried several different flow style yoga classes. Some with singing bowls, and one with gongs. I tried an aerial yoga class and while it was interesting, the intro class gave me a headache from all the inversions. I tried of all things, yoga nidra. If I thought that standing still in one spot was a waste of time, imagine my delight to prove people wrong when I had lain on the floor for an hour.
Or so I thought. These trials were in fact, what some might call a “softening” of the heart. An “openness” that was not present before. Still, I wanted something more challenging physically, and none of these really seemed to fit.
So the years went on. As did the negligence to myself. I was too busy. Working. Parenting. Catching up on sleep on the weekends. Parent/teacher conference this, business trips that. Dinners on the fly. House chores piling up. My stress rose to levels that led me to take prescription medications to get it under control and within six months, I was mortified to experience a weight gain of more than twenty pounds. I knew that if I didn’t take action with a healthy coping outlet, my quality of life would continue to deteriorate.
And then I learned about a “rigorous” form of yoga called Bikram Yoga. Not only was it supposed to be one of the most physically challenging of the yoga practices, but I learned that studios are heated to 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity. Being from Florida, my interest was piqued; being a former Marine, challenge accepted.
In late 2014, I began an ongoing practice at Bikram Yoga Nashua. Some weeks and months, my presence is more “on” than others and at most, I have practiced five times a week.
Bikram Yoga is a series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity. I can tell you that there are mirrors and carpet and the sweat pours off you like something you have never experienced before in your life; something to the tune of several pounds of sweat loss per class.
I can also tell you about the strength and flexibility I have personally gained and seen in my yoga classmates over the years. But that is not what is most important. What is most important is all of the serendipitous “other” things I have gained from yoga. The human side of my Bikram Yoga experiences.
I last saw my son on his 17th birthday in February of 2015. He wanted chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast, so I took him to a restaurant before sending him to his father’s for the weekend. I didn’t know it then, but that was the last time that I would see my son in a long while. I’ll spare the details but know it was an incredibly trying time for me. A surreal, stomach-turning, heart-wrenching miserable experience that I do not wish on any mother and child. Against what my heart wanted, I signed custody over to my son’s father. Though I didn’t realize it at that moment, my son and I would be estranged from that point forward.
Perseverance and Solace in the Face of Anguish
Weeks and months passed and the words my therapist had spoken to me years prior never hit me harder than at that time in my life. My son didn’t die per se, but for all intents and purposes, he was gone to me, and I grieved for a long time. I knew I had a choice. I chose Bikram Yoga as my coping outlet and yet what I have gained from the practice is so much more than what you might expect.
Around the same time, Victoria Lee, one of the instructors of the Early Bird class I attended, mentioned that she had to take one of her “little” dogs, Elliot to the vet because he wasn’t himself. This had happened a few times before, and it seemed like it was perhaps nothing too out of the ordinary for him.
A few days later, while signing the log book for that morning’s class, I saw Victoria and asked how her dog was. “He died,” she said flatly. Tears filled her eyes. And a pain shot through my heart for her. “I’m so sorry to hear that,” I said. And I immediately felt immense guilt because I had previously been all-consumed about my own personal situation and the estrangement of my son. But at least my son was alive. Victoria’s little Elliot was gone forever.
Mere minutes later, Victoria assumed the instructor role and taught class undoubtedly with a heavy heart and yet with a tenacious spirit. And I felt humbled. And grateful and sad. Her courage and persistence inspired me to dig deeper and not give up. To not give in. And to keep pushing through my own misery for the sake of my health and for those around me. In addition to learning yoga from her, I am inspired by her commitment to teaching and her perseverance in the face of such emotional pain.
I also injured my back earlier this year and recently lost my job and through it all, Bikram Yoga has been there for me, healing me and giving me a positive outlet.
Strength, Dedication, & Humbleness
The people who go to the studio where I practice are all shapes and sizes and abilities. And that’s totally okay. But there is one student who stands out. At first glance, I thought she was a fitness competitor. (She may be one for all I know.) She is incredibly toned, strong and looks young for her age.
After a few interactions with her after class, I learned that she was taking part in a personal “seven-year challenge.” I asked her what she meant by that, and she said that her goal was to practice Bikram Yoga every. Single. Day. For seven years straight. At the time that I spoke with her, she was five years into her challenge. This struck me as odd for two reasons: for one, she doesn’t come across as boastful or “holier-than-thou.” And secondly, seven years. I don’t know about you but I haven’t done anything for seven weeks straight, never mind seven months or — I can’t even wrap my head around it — seven years!
Even when I trained for marathons, I never ran seven days in a row. I would take a rest day and cross train. When P90X was all the rage, I did that, taking a day of rest. It blew my mind to think that someone could possibly do anything for seven years in a row. And here I was talking to someone who was doing it. Five years into it, in fact. Ripped. Cool as a cucumber. A mom. And humble as can be. I’m in awe of her dedication and humbleness.
A Sense of Belonging
I used to spend holidays and my birthdays chillaxing. You know, on the couch or just hanging out with friends and family. But this past birthday and Christmas, I went out of my way to schedule those days around my Bikram Yoga practice. I didn’t even miss laying around on the couch. If anything, it helped to justify the extra food I consumed. And even more surprisingly, Christmas was one of the most packed classes I had attended.
The warmth and sense of belonging are shared among the students and teachers alike. I see it when teachers take classes alongside students. And I hear it in the, “Oh my goodness, how have you been?!” hallway conversations. At the heart of it is Laura, the studio owner, and instructor. She is (extra) patient with new students and is always encouraging. And while she pushes the vets (folks who have been at it for awhile) and corrects the newbies and the vets, all the same, it’s often her words of kindness and wisdom that linger most in my mind, fueling me throughout the day. “Be kind to yourself.” Or, “Believe that you can do it, and you can do it” and “Thank yourself for coming in today when you could have just slept in.” I am grateful for the studio, the friendly environment and the sense of belonging that she extends to my fellow practitioners and me.
No matter what life has thrown at me so far, I have endured. And will continue to endure.
For people who think they’re too busy to exercise or to take time for themselves, take caution. Especially the single parents. The people juggling two jobs. Those juggling school and a career. Especially you. I implore you to dig deeper and realize that you have to take care of yourself because no one can do it for you. If you have tried yoga before and can relate to my reasons for not wanting to continue, consider Bikram. (Full disclosure: these days I’m more accepting of other types of yoga and on occasion, you can find me practicing at studios like At Om Yoga.) If that doesn’t work. Keep looking until you find what is right for you.
I can’t promise that if you go to Bikram Yoga, it will be life-altering. I do think that it will make you stronger, more flexible, patient and open minded. And I can say, based on personal experience that choosing to push through when life gets hard by choosing positive outlets like Bikram Yoga can be life-changing. And when you push through, sometimes great things are waiting for you on the other side.