July 06, 2013

Doing the 30 Day Bikram Challenge

Doing the 30-Day Bikram Challenge

So today is day 30 !  I have completed my Bikram ‘challenge’-  90 minutes of yoga performed in 105 degrees (40 C) heat daily for 30 consecutive days. That’s almost 50 hours of yoga in one month. It does not sound much, but takes a lot of persistence and stamina to keep going when the body is in meltdown.  I had thought it would be easier, since I did it unofficially last year without much of hitch. This time I was plagued by back pain, but now the light at the end of the tunnel has dawned, I can take it easy.


I did well for the first 15 days, not suffering any problem, feeling energised, doing all the poses, improving even on my Standing Head to Knee pose; but then I ran into a snarl, with lower back pain for the past ten days or so. I ignored it at first, thinking it would go away. But it turned nasty. I had to decide: should I stop and lose the momentum of the 30-day challenge, or carry on regardless till the end? In my case it is an old recurring sciatic pain, that is indescribably sharp, gnawing at the point where the sciatic nerve meets the pelvic bone, but also broadly across my entire nervous system. So it might have been sensible to just give up. Most would go running to their doctors and be talking about surgery before you know it. But I waited to see.

One of the rules is if you leave the room before the class ends, it does not count. I can see the sense in that, because it signals to the brain 'I want an easy time'. I can totally understand why people want to escape the room. It is hotter than hot. At times, you feel  you might just go whooooompf and spontaneously combust. If you eat too much you can also feel queasy.  The combination is not good.  But, if you head for the door early once, you are just more likely to give up too soon the next time. So escape was not an option. I chose to battle on through. But the damned heat - the heat!! Only for mad dogs and Bikramites.  It ramped the humidity levels right up this June. Heat tends to reach a peak about two thirds the way through the class, so once you get over that point, it's downhill.  A mere wisp of cooler air under the door from outside feels like bliss.  

You get these articles such as   Bikram is Too Hot To Handle  that love to rouse fears and worries around the safety of Bikram yoga, how it might encourage high blood pressure and dehydration. That may be true, but the body regulates its own temperature through sweating, so in fact it remains stable, and after the class, you feel you can trip the light fantastic, with the post-class high, so it all balances out. It is good to be forewarned about the dangers- and Bikram is certainly not for everyone - there are many  other worthwhile, nourishing forms of yoga, but this type of article typically dramatises in order to be ‘sensational’ without examining it from all angles, thus appealing primarily to fears and worries for anyone considering doing Bikram. If such articles proclaimed it was good for you, it wouldn’t make the front page. It would be seen as exaggerating or promoting. 

The heat is definitely a serious barrier to some. The phrase that came to mind in the meltdown was ‘this is doing my head in’ but  it leads to a reformation, creation feeds on destruction, so it feels like moulding and sculpting. It you can’t take it, you just have to get out. But if you do stay put, you realise heat is relative to cold. There is a vast range of sensations between the extremes. Tiny variations from hot to boiling, come sharply into focus against minute differences from cool to cooler once you exit the room. A cold shower after hot yoga is the perfect balm to feeling like a saucepan of overboiled milk.

Soldiering on through pain is a personal decision since one class, especially your first, is ‘like being hit by a truck carry rose petals’ according to  Benjamin Orr. Whatever you choose to do is right for you. For me, though, having that stickability has helped to increase mental rather than physical strength - bit of will power sharpening is going on- helping to show that you can endure in your life that you otherwise wouldn’t have thought. I love the phrase some teachers use: 'To fall out of a pose is human, but to get back in is yogi'.

Standing Head to Knee Pose

But I discovered that, even if I wanted to, I could not do forward bends, Padahstasana-and the Standing Separate Leg to Knee Pose as the pain shot through my lower back and hip making me feel about 70. That also made Standing Separate Leg pose, Toe stand, even Rabbit Pose, and the sit-ups after Savasana, near impossible.  I had either to pass, or pass out. It is unfortunately true that the ego wants to do every pose in order to prove itself fit enough - there's that competitive edge- but I learned to relax about that, watch the others in the room make all the effort, while I sat back, paced myself, breathed more slowly and deeply into the lumbar area.  It took control and truckloads of patience. I was still in the room. That is yoga enough in the intense heat.  

 Words completely fail to render the intensity of this kind of pain, made worse by the thought that I was completely over it. For it to pop up again now is depressing.  I turned to pain-killers and the odd glass of French brandy.  But this is a stopgap. It helps to respect the limitations and frailties of the body and to relish the amazing power of deep sleep and self-hypnosis to help heal. Mental resistance just increases the experience of pain. One teacher said ‘just being in the room is healing.’ That’s kind of right as, even if you don’t do a pose, you are doing it mentally, preparing for the time when you will do it -hopefully more elegantly with greater internal and external alignment. 

It is easy to think the pain was caused by doing so much Bikram yoga. But there are many factors to consider before  saying yoga caused the injury. I’ve also been cycling a lot further, and longer than usual. My bike park in the basement requires me to lift the bike wheels every day to lock on to the wall vertically, so I have to strain the lower back region. It could be my venerable age also, or lack of core muscle strength as one Pilates teacher in class observed.


It’s a determination booster.

·      It increases your stickability factor, especially dealing with the heat. The brain thinks ‘If I can get through this, I can get through anything’.

·      Increases your endurance of the heat but also how long you can stay in a pose.

·      You start to eat better, naturally choosing lighter foods. 

·      You lose weight. My weight is mostly stable, but it has given me a trimmer waist  and I am 3 belt sizes smaller. People have noticed. 

·    It helps to control your body clock and sleeping patterns.

·      You certainly learn to appreciate any draft of cool air.

·      Helps break through the pain/pleasure barrier, sharpening your sense of how contrasts are there to offer a range of sensations, all are good.

·      Increases you awareness of pacing and ability to accept if your pose is not perfect.

·      It makes you feel energised, limber and flexible.


·      It’s costly- you still have to pay your fees for this daily grind.

·      It is time consuming to do daily – you have to find the time or do a double, which acts for me as a deterrent. I don't want double trouble.

·      You can overdo it and stretch or compress beyond your limit, exacerbating any previous injury or pain.

·      You may not really see massive improvements in technique- in fact with me it felt like I was taking steps backwards.

·      Doing it in summer increases the humidity. You can be sweating after two minutes in the room instead of after ten. So dealing with the heat can be the main stumbling block.

* If you are in pain, only some teachers suggest modified poses, most just say skip them.

Doing the 30 day challenge, you are forced to pace yourself and that is a good thing- and probably the main thing I’ve learned. You can’t just hammer away at the body day in day out. `it goes in cycles of yin and yang, of peaks and troughs and the circadian rhythm. So being aware of when to push forward (yang) and when to just sit back and restore energy (yin) is vital to understanding how to get the optimum performance. By sitting out the forward bends, I felt much more prepared to do the backward bends. If you do all the poses, it gives your body no time to recover except if you doing the floor series. world if you. The Bikram sequence is full on, with only seconds between poses, so that pacing is essential if you are doing it daily. It's not the end of the world if you don't do some poses, though I agree this should not develop into a habit. As you as you can, get back into them.  
The Glad Its All Over Yogaholic Look at Sohot Yoga Studios
Will I continue Bikram? Yes, of course, as it has really given me a level of fitness I never hoped to have at my age, even though I am exhausted. But do I need a break? For yogaholics, a Bikram holiday is just missing one day of class, but I need a few days off. You need not be hell bent on transformation, in order to reach transcendence, it happens of its own accord, when you are naturally in alignment with a daily practice that requires discipline, commitment and focuses the bodymind to its sequence of tasks.  Bikram is perfect for that- for mindfulness, for meditation in motion.

It's all there already in those moments,  if you can notice.



© Kieron Devlin, 2013
all rights reserved. 

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