Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Bikram Yoga Journey (Including through Pregnancy)

"You never forget your first Bikram Yoga class," is what they say. I wholeheartedly agree. My first class was the beginning of a life without back, knee, elbow, or foot pain, and with increased overall health and vitality. That class took me out of the gym and the chiropractor's office, and into a hot and humid room four nights per week.

How fitting that my first class was on Valentine's Day two years ago, and I remember so many details of the first class and first week: how I wore a tank top over my sports bra and took it off because the heat trumped modesty, and my nonperfect figure was in good company. I remember being motivated to stay and practice not by the skinny lady in front who could stand on one leg while touching her head to the other knee mid-air but by the grey-haired couple next to me in the back row. I thought the breathing exercise at the beginning looked silly, but the entire room was participating, and with gumption. I jumped right in. The teacher kept calling me by name and correcting me, and I bumbled along.

After class, other students congratulated me. I felt amazing. I am sure I was glowing.  

Then I woke up the next day and couldn't walk.

Nor could I walk the day after.

The teacher had said to come back the next day, but I couldn't fathom it. But I had paid for my unlimited trial period, and wanted to at least try one more class.  Four days had passed, and I went back.

"Teacher," I said. "My sciatic nerve pain was immense after my first class. This is my second and final try. Please help me do this properly, and be able to walk, or I can't come back."

He was amazing. This time, he encouraged me to take it easy for that class, and the next few classes. He pointed out where my alignment could be improved. I made it through, and could walk the next day. I was hooked.

I learned that Bikram Choudhury was a yogi in India. He learned from a renowned guru and together they saw patients and cured them of illnesses with different yoga poses. Their practice got so popular that they couldn't keep up. Bikram started seeing multiple patients at once,  realizing that many illnesses could be cured by the same postures.

He went about creating a series of postures, when done properly and sequentially, work to strengthen and heal every bone, muscle, tendon, ligament, and system of the body. When performed daily (except Sundays), this 90-minute open-eyed moving meditation is good for everyone and for every ailment - past, present, and future.

He copyrighted his brainstorm and started classes. They were so popular that he taught his series to other teachers, and they say his exact words ("the dialogue") in a room heated to his prescribed temperate and humidity (105 degrees and 40% humidity) and designed as he specified (carpeted with lines across it and mirrors in front). Supposedly you hear what you are ready to hear when you need it. The heat helps open your body. The carpet keeps you stable. The mirrors and carpet lines allow you to be your own best teacher and correct yourself. Repeating the same postures allows you to try your best, in the correct way, to get all the benefits of each pose.

I also learned that if you can't commit to daily practice, it is recommended to go daily for 60 days, then back off to as often as possible, but at least three days per week. For me, four days per week keeps my back pain away (I have a herniated disk at L5/ S1 which happened after the birth of my first), and I haven't thought of my knee issues (multiple ACL and MCL tears) or foot or elbow pain in ages (I used to ache on the outside of one foot after running, and my elbow clicked).

I continued my practice while pregnant with my second, who was born naturally at the hospital after a three hour labor (for reference, I kick boxed then did the elliptical, weights, and prenatal yoga with my first, who was born naturally with a shot of morpheine and an eight hour labor). I was at Birkam Yoga the day before delivery, and back in class ten days later.

For prenatal Bikram Yoga, Bikram's wife Rajashree developed a series of postures which modify the regular series and is to be done for the 2nd and 3rd trimesters. She developed these in conjunction with an MD. All the teachers are versed in the modifications and there is a DVD to watch to learn them.

When I got pregnant, I had been practicing at Bikram Yoga Walnut Creek. I had been practicing for almost a year, and enjoying the studio and my practice immensely. The studio is clean and convenient, and the teachers are knowledgeable and helpful. They start and finish on time, and are always available before and after class.  They follow Bikram's protocols and I felt myself improving under their guidance. The other students are serious about their Yoga practice, but friendly and nice to be around.

I told the studio owner I was pregnant and she was enthusiastic and helpful. She established that I had been practicing long enough, and allowed me to continue coming. Between her and the other instructors, I learned the modifications and was able to continue four days per week. They had me sit by the door (it's cooler there), and I feel like they kept an eye on me.

The hardest part about practicing while pregnant was modifying the floor series. This is the part where the modifications look completely different than what the rest of the class is doing, as they are on their bellies for this part. Part of the healing and motivation of Bikram is in moving in sync with the class. In doing something different, the dialogue didn't apply to me, and I had to think about my actions rather than following the directions.  As such, the difficulty of this section came from moving out of sync rather than the motions themselves.  My heartburn was also a bother, but about mid-pregnancy I changed my diet to remove acidic and spicy foods, and this made it easier.  

I didn't have an issue with the heat or sweat while pregnant, and kept reminding anyone who questioned me that people have babies in hot climates.  From my research about pregnancy and exercise I had done with my first pregnancy, namely reading the work of James Clapp, I knew that exercise was essential, and that I had to do what my body would consider "hard" at least 3 days per week for at least 30 minutes per session to reap the benefits.  Clapp also says that it is not exercise that can be bad for you, it is dehydration.  The Bikram teachers also told me to drink lots and lots of water.

When my baby was born, I was so grateful for my practice.  I am actually grateful for it every day, since going to Bikram Yoga allows me to have full reign of my body so I can keep up with my babies!  
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