Bikram's class, consisting of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises in 90 minutes and 105 degrees is for beginners. Bikram himself even calls it "Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class." The same elements of this class that make it great for beginners make it bad for more advanced practitioners. Here are 4 specific examples: the mirrors, the heat, the dialogue and the constant effort.
1) The mirrors. Each Bikram studio is outfitted with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, so we get to watch ourselves do every posture and sweat every drop. For beginners this is great because it encourages a connection between what we look like and how our body feels. We can start to associate what a straight leg looks like with how it feels. The same is true for straight arms, even hips, straight spine, engaged muscles, right angles, etc. With the mirrors, we can see the alignment and then our body can remember how it feels.
As our practice becomes more advanced, we can get rid of the mirrors and even our eyesight altogether, using only the feeling of our body to do the postures. If we continue to use the mirrors, our eyesight draws our attention out of our body, away from inner presence and feeling.
2) The heat. Bikram's yoga is hot. We sweat like crazy, our blood pressure drops and our heart rate increases as our body tries to cool itself. The heat is great for beginners because it warms and loosens the muscles. This means that we can stretch further and faster than we ever could at room temperature. With the heat our progress into flexibility is very fast. We gain confidence quickly.
As our practice becomes more advanced, the heat becomes our enemy for two reasons. First, it short circuits the nerves in our muscles, so we can't feel pain or sensation in them. While this was helpful to get beginners to stretch farther, once we are moving deeply into the postures, our muscle-nerve feedback is of the utmost importance. It is how we relate to the posture and know when we are going too far. Second, the heat drains our energy. When our body is in such a hot environment, it sheds energy (as heat) as quickly as possible. So after a class, our body is depleted of its life force and, as any yogi will tell you, a significant element of yoga practice is retaining and working with our body's natural energy supply.
3) The incessant dialogue. In Bikram's class, the teacher talks non-stop. Every second is filled with instruction and guidance. For beginners, this is wonderful because it prevents us from thinking about anything else. It is impossible for our minds to wander when the teacher is talking at us constantly. Our minds become present, and that is important.
As our practice becomes more advanced, our minds can be present and free from wandering without the constant talk from a teacher. When this peace and stillness can be achieved in the mind, the Bikram's dialogue actually becomes the distraction, pulling the attention into the ears and the brain as we listen. We want our attention to be internal, not drawn outward by the senses.
4) The push push push. One of the hallmarks of Bikram's class is the constant demand for more effort. We are never working hard enough, never pushing far enough. For beginners this is great because we generally have far greater physical capacity than we think we do. We are fearful so we don't stretch very far. We are insecure so we don't push very hard. By demanding more effort, Bikram's class pushes us past what we think we are capable of doing. This is another reason why progress is so fast for beginners - the mental barriers and limitations get broken down quickly.
As our practice becomes more advanced, we become more familiar with the limitation of our bodies as we approach their true capability. At this deeper level, pushing can lead to injury almost as easily as it can lead to progress. As we move deeper we must listen to our bodies more than we tell them what to do.
Aside from those four elements, Bikram's class is brilliant and powerful yoga for all levels, even the most advanced practitioners. The postures, the sequencing, the second sets - it is hard to find fault with those elements.
This journal honors my ongoing experience with the practice, study and teaching of yoga.
1) Sridaiva Yoga: Good Intention But Imbalanced
2) Understanding Chair Posture
2) Why I Don't Use Sanskrit or Say Namaste
3) The Meaningless Drudgery of Physical Yoga
5) Beyond Bikram: Why This Is a Great Time For Ghosh Yoga