A Beginner’s Guide To Bikram Yoga

By Eliza Murray

Way back before I even started doing Bikram Yoga I spent many, many nights looking for articles about it. I wanted to know if it was really as intense as I had heard, how people deal with it, whether it was one of those scary pretentious kinds of yoga. Apart from doing some team sports in high school I have never been a very active person. Occasionally I will go for a walk, but my perfect day is spent vegging out somewhere, eating way more than necessary and basically indulging. So, after I put on about 15kg, I thought “ooh I really should do something about this!”

The problem was that I really don’t enjoy gyms, even the ones that are meant to be nice, local, no-pressure kind of places. I have never been able to get the right rhythm to go for long runs. I enjoy swimming but I don’t like chlorinated pools or sharing lanes. I am kind of picky that way.  I can’t remember exactly where I heard about Bikram, but I really liked the idea of yoga that had some balls to it. After my first class I was totally overwhelmed, but I eventually did a 30 day challenge and now I really look forward to my Bikram classes. I get a big, sweaty workout that also improves flexibility, helps clear my skin out, and helped me lose 5kg on my way back to my pre-uni weight.  Over that time, I have come up with a few things that I do to make my Bikram classes a little more manageable, and I’d like to share them with you!

Bring with you:

  • Clothes for class
  • Water bottle
  • Moisturiser
  • Lip balm
  • Deodorant
  • A beach towel
  • A bath towel
  • A light change of clothes, including fresh underwear

Clothes:

Avoid cotton! You will be sweating, a lot. And the sheer volume of sweat not only makes cotton heavy, but clingy and very, very distracting.  I used to wear light cotton shorts and a t-shirt, but now I wear my one-piece swimsuit that I normally do lap-swimming in, and wear a pair of knee-length lycra running pants. When the lycra gets wet it still clings, but it doesn’t ride up, get heavy, or drag like cotton. If you are happy to bare your tummy (I’m not quite ready yet!) a bikini and lycra shorts seems to be the outfit of choice for the hardcore yogis in the front row. Wearing lycra also means you can pour the last of your water over you at the end – which feels absolutely divine!

Water bottle:

Obviously in a 37 degree room your water will heat up quickly. What I do these days is fill up the bottle with as many ice-cubes as will fit, and then top it up with some cold water. While in class the ice melts and keeps the water nice and cool right until the end. I tried to fill the whole bottle and then freeze it, but the water doesn’t melt *quite* fast enough and I found myself running short of water. I’m not ready to forego water altogether – though some advanced students do choose to do that.

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Before class:

Be sure to bring along a nice, light moisturiser. My personal favourite is Nivea Soft. I moisturise all over before class, especially my face. This makes the first part of class much easier, because the heat can be a bit of a shock and the air can be quite dry right at the start of the class. It gets more and more humid throughout, but it is really common to feel all dried out in the first few minutes while your body wakes up your sweat glands. This will also really help if you have dry skin, like me.

For exactly the same reason as above, apply your lip balm before going in to the room. I use Lucas Paw Paw Ointment. In the very first exercise of the class you will be breathing out your mouth which can dry your lips out immediately.  Licking them doesn’t help, and sweating won’t make it better either. It’s not so bad once you’re into the asanas and breathing through your nose, but just like the tip above this makes the first part of the class much more pleasant.

During class:

Fight the urge to wipe the sweat off. If you’re not used to feeling sweat run or drip, then this is a great opportunity to get used to it. You may think wiping the sweat off will be relieving, but it really does makes you feel worse. We sweat to provide relief when our bodies are hot, so wiping it off works directly against this and you’ll just feel hotter. I think the only exception is when the sweat is about the run into your eye, because that stings like nothing else. But really try not to wipe your face or arms off with your towel. It will not make you feel better, it will make the room feel hotter, make your skin dry and itchy, and it will distract you from your practice.

The same goes for fiddling with your clothes, your hair, scratching at things and fidgeting. If you feel these kinds of little discomforts then just recognise them, make peace with them, and they will take care of themselves. This may end up being the hardest part of your Bikram practice.  Giving in to these little urges will make it harder to focus. You’ll be more likely to start thinking about things outside the room like your job, what you need to do when you leave, how hot it is and how much you’d like to be somewhere else. It is also really distracting for the people around you, because they are fighting the urge themselves. If you feel a niggle, just focus on a point in the mirror or on the ceiling and wait it out. The urge will subside, and you’ll have better self-control when you leave the class. This is the biggest lesson that I have learned after doing a few classes of Bikram. It makes the practice so much easier when you realise that itches don’t have to be scratched, that sweat is your friend, and that no one gives a rats arse about the way your hair looks or the way your clothes are sitting.

When you get the chance to drink your water, take little sips rather than drinking big mouthfuls. This is true for any kind of exercise that you do. Chugging half your bottle may be the instinct, but that water won’t do you any good sloshing around in your tummy for the rest of the practice.  You’ll get great relief if you just take a small sip, maybe even just enough to wet your mouth or cool your throat.

Remember that savasana is a posture that should be approached with the same intent as any other. The first savasana comes after tree pose, and then there is a shorter savasana after each posture in the last half of the class. While it looks like you can just lay on your back or your tummy and check out,  the whole point is to lay in a specific position as still as you can. Laying in this way – on your back, with your palms turned up, your ankles as close together as possible and your feet flopping outwards -your blood will flow uninhibited all around your body.  The longer you stay still in this posture the more energised you will feel after, because your heart will have spent two whole minutes easily pumping fresh, oxygenated blood all the way to your peripherals. I adore savasana.

If it’s all too much, do not leave the room. It’s very easy to get intimidated in the room by the heat, mainly, but also the length of the class and the difficulty of some of the postures. As nasty as it feels in the room, you’ll be worse off if you run out. The change in temperature will freak you out too much and you may feel more nauseous or dizzy, you might even pass out. The best thing is to sit down with your legs crossed, just looking gently into the mirror, and breathing through your nose. Take short, frequent sips of your water.  If it’s still too hard, lay down in savasana. You can even have a little sleep if you want. It is absolutely fine if you spend the whole class laying down – and I have done this myself actually. The teachers totally understand feeling overwhelmed in class – to get qualified they did 11 classes a week for 9 weeks! Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t feel up to the postures. Just be honest with yourself about what you’ve got in you today, forgive yourself if you’re just not feeling it, lay down and take it easy.

And the final piece of advice that I have is for when you are pushing really hard in that particular posture – we all have at least one posture that owns us every single time. When you’re in that posture, and you’re hating it, and you just want it to end… smile. It doesn’t have to be a big goofy grin, but just a little, gentle upturn of the mouth and I promise that the posture will suddenly become easier. Seriously, try it.

After class:

There are a few sites that say “shower with cold water”, “shower with hot”, “don’t shower at all”. Really, if you’re just starting out it doesn’t matter at all, just do what you like. Personally, I like to get back to the change room, grab my clean bath towel, have a luke-warm shower, moisturise all over and get dressed into a light outfit. A hydrating drink afterwards is always a great idea. Gatorade or Powerade will do the trick, but a lot of Bikram studios stock coconut water which has fewer calories and also has electrolytes. They sometimes infuse it with mango or berries which is so tasty! Try not to drink booze too soon after class because it will hit you like a train. If I remember to,  I take a multi-vitamin, magnesium, fish oil and zinc just to help hasten my muscle recovery, ready for the next round!

So…

I hope this post was enlightening to anyone else who is thinking of getting into Bikram.  If you’re even slightly curious, just go for it. Don’t give up on the practice after one class, but if you do two or three classes in a week or so and you still don’t like it, then fair enough. But really give it a good shot. I am the least athletic person in the world, still 10kg heavier than I need to be, I hate summer and I don’t like to exercise, I am the least likely person to encourage a physical activity: but I like Bikram.

Eliza Murray

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