In My Humble Opinion

hgrass by hgrass @

I’ve been “threatening” to write a blog post about Bikram Yoga for a while – it really has become a big part of my life.  I read a lot about Bikram, and most of the blogs are written by teachers and geared towards people who have been practicing for a while.  Kristen, the owner of Bikram Yoga Exton (and my Yogi) recently mentioned to me in passing that I had practiced at her studio over 500 times, and last month she approached me to do an “interview” for her monthly newsletter.

In sitting down to answer her questions, it occurred to me that the only people who would be reading the BYX Newsletter were people who were very familiar with this specific genre of yoga, so I tried to respond with an eye to my "audience".  But for the purposes of my blog, almost everyone who reads this probably has no idea what hot yoga is all about.  I am including the text from the BYX newsletter below, along with the link to the actual posting here.  By reading both parts of this "2 part interview", my hope is that you get some sense of what Bikram Yoga is all about.  (For consistency, I will refer to teachers as "she".  Truth is there are probably almost as many male teachers as female).

Part 1

First of all it IS hot!  105 degrees and 40% humidity, and that's on a "good" day when it's not too crowded.  If there are 30 or 40 people in the room it can feel even hotter, and you'll definitely sweat more when the room is crowded.  But I am used to the heat, and it never bothers me.  Most studios have ceiling fans that are used to control the humidity, and are only running part of the time.  There are mirrors on most walls, and are one of the important tools to maintain proper form.  I prefer the front row with an unimpeded view in the mirror, but it really doesn't matter where you end up. And to all of you men out there... "Don't get too excited about seeing tons of scantily clothed women!  You better be concentrating on yourself in the mirror if you want to stay in the room for the whole 90 minutes."  With the exception of the teacher, I usually wouldn't be able to tell you who else was even in the class!

All you really need is a mat and a towel, and some water.  There is one official water break after about 15 minutes but you can take a sip between postures as often as you like.  Personally I never touch my water until the very end (the final savasanah)...but that's just me.  There are no “props” – just lifting my 200 lbs. against gravity in various ways.  The key to the whole yoga is your breath, which is used to control your heart rate.  It's always “in through the nose and out through the nose", and if you aren't careful it can get away from you.  You are better off sitting (or lying) out a posture to get your heart rate under control than to start a posture out of breath, and you should never be gasping for air.  There are only about 20 seconds between each posture, and the stiller you remain the easier it is to bring your heart rate back down before the next posture.  Fidgeting (or even sipping water) eats into my 20 seconds - which is one of the reasons I don't touch my water.  That being said, you need to be plenty hydrated before you walk into the room, and I try to have an "empty" stomach as well.

The basic "beginners series" consists of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises, and you do them all twice (with a few exceptions) so it’s over 50 "steps"... and each posture can have 4 or 5 steps. It’s ALWAYS 26/2 - and always in the same order.  There is a specific dialog that corresponds to the 90 minutes; unlike other forms of yoga the teacher doesn’t "do" any of the postures... she just says the words and occasionally offers some specific corrections when appropriate.  The words "beginner series" is a little misleading, as the beauty of this style of yoga is that a class can include first time students as well as people who have been practicing for 10 years.  Everyone just goes as far as they can in each posture. In theory, the first time students tend to only do the first few steps of each posture, while the experienced people tend to go "deeper”.  Correct form is the key, no matter how far you go.  One of the coolest parts of the dialogue is something like "you get more benefit from doing 10% of the posture correctly, than doing a full expression of the posture the wrong way"!

While there are yoga studios everywhere, if you want to do Bikram Yoga you have to find a Bikram Studio.  There are 3 within 20 miles of West Chester, but I am partial to Bikram Yoga Exton.  There are Bikram studios all over the country, and I've been to many besides BYX.  Because the dialog is the same everywhere, you know just what go expect no matter which studio you walk into.  Most studios have classes ranging from 5AM to 7PM 7 days a week, so you should have no trouble finding a time that fits your schedule.  I rarely go to a class before noon, but it's a 2½ hour commitment... between the 90-minute class, travel both ways and a good shower afterwards.  But golf is a “5 hour excursion”, and this is WAY better for me!

I detail in the newsletter below why I even tried this yoga, and why I still practice 3-4 times a week.  Suffice to say the 2 things that I never saw happening growing up were "having 4 sons" and "doing ANY type of yoga".  They call it a "moving mediation", but it's nothing like what I envision TM to be.  But it’s the only place where I can truly “shut my brain off”, and that helps me keep a sense of balance in my life.  It’s not for everyone, especially if you have a heart condition or just can't handle the heat.  But I've read articles on people missing limbs doing Bikram, seen children in the hot room... and practiced with a woman in Boston who was over 75 years old and was on a streak of practicing once a day for over 750 days in a row!

 There are tons of different styles of yoga, and I try hard not to be a yoga snob.  All types of yoga are great for you, but I'm a creature of habit and so for me... it's Bikram.  Whatever we do as we get older, it's important to do "something" to not become sedentary.  Sitting on the sofa watching TV will turn your brain to mush, and it’s terrible for your body as well.  So keep moving... and Namaste,


Part 2 (The Rest of The Story)

It’s well over 5 years since I first walked into BYX and met Kristin.   Several months ago she told me that I had practiced over 500 times in her studio!  I’ve had several memberships to gyms over the years but none that I ever stuck with for more than 6 months.  I hate lifting weights; nor am I into the “standard” machines that these places offer - and I lose interest quickly in things that bore me.   Something just clicked with me as my practice evolved.

I had a very rare medical condition that was not responding well to the “traditional” remedies of drugs and physical therapy.  I was in a lot of pain and very out of shape from being bed ridden for several months.  I was afraid of becoming an invalid.  My physical therapist Theresa suggested I try Bikram, as she had practiced it a few times at BYX.  I was so desperate that I told her “I would walk on hot coals if it would make me better”, and I decided to give it a try.  At first I could hardly do any of the postures, and the hardest part was lying on my stomach for the floor strengthening series.  But through Kristin and Theresa’s encouragement I stuck with it, and I now try to get here 3-4 times a week… work permitting.

Besides the fact that I’ve never felt better in my 63 years… once I added Bikram Yoga to my medical treatment my condition slowly improved.  I have not seen my doctor/specialist in over 3 years now, and it’s been longer than that since I stopped my physical therapy… and I am off just about all of the medication.  If you look up “Male Pelvic Pain Syndrome” in a medical dictionary, you will NOT see “Bikram Yoga” listed as one of the treatments.  But I am 100% convinced that it was the missing piece to my recovery, and both my urologist and physical therapist now “prescribe” Bikram Yoga to their patients with this disorder.  I now consider Bikram to be my maintenance, and I’m leery of going too long between practicing for fear that my condition may return.
I’m in the best physical shape of my life, and Bikram is really the total of my exercise regimen.  I’ve seen improvement in all 3 of the basics – strength, flexibility, and balance, but I’m still a “work in progress” (and my flexibility has the farthest to go).  My biggest improvement has been in my breathing, and I now rarely find myself needing to take a break throughout the series.  But I do see myself going further in the postures than I ever thought possible.  It’s pretty humbling when progress is measured in such micro steps… it took me 4 years to even try to go back in fixed firm and I still can’t get my shoulders down to my mat, but I’ve learned to be patient and hope it won’t be 4 more years before I can get my shoulders to touch the mat!


How the yoga changed me outside of the room is what was really unexpected.  I’ve always been a worrier.  In addition to my illness, I was diagnosed with Kidney Cancer about 4 years ago.  I’m happy to say that I am in complete remission, and am about as “cured” as one can be.  They say health challenges can really change your life, and that’s certainly true for me.  I’m a different person than I was before the surgery, but I firmly believe it when teachers say “the goal of yoga is to improve the quality of life outside the yoga room”.   The yoga has helped me eliminate almost all stress from my life, and I often use the breathing to keep me calm, especially when I feel any anxiety creeping in.

My favorite postures are Triangle and Locust.  Maybe because they were the hardest to “master” (and I’ve hardly mastered them), but I got a few tips on these that really helped and I’m now “hearing” much more of the dialogue than when I first started.  I’ll add that my favorite part of the whole practice is the walk to my car, especially around this time of year when it’s getting cooler.  Not only do I feel so damn good physically with the cool air in my face, but I a get such a sense of satisfaction for what I have just “accomplished”.  At 63 years old this practice though “simple” is very hard for me, and I am proud of myself for what I put myself through each practice - with the ultimate goal of keeping my entire body healthy.

This is a tough question because my life is in a very good place right now, and my main goal is to be the “old guy” in the front of the room when I’m 80 – still enjoying my yoga.

In closing I would like to add that BYX is a special place, and has become a very important part of my life over the past 6 years.  I am usually one of the last in the room before practice begins, and my long final savasana usually insures I’m one of the last to leave the studio.   Except for the teachers, I really don’t speak to many students… I’m just a private kind of guy.  That being said it is obvious that it is a wonderful community of people who attend BYX, and I sense that every time I show up.  As in business, it all starts from the top, and Kristin is really what makes this place special.  Yes she was my first teacher, and she IS my Yogi.  But without her early encouragement, I am certain I would have given up and tried “the next thing”.  For that I am truly grateful.  Namaste,
Howard Grass
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