Tuesday, 9 August 2011

There is Yoga and then there is Bikram Yoga

Starting in my 5th grade, we had a regular yoga period in our school which was devoted to learning both the theory and practice of yoga. Our teacher, who we affectionately called Yogi, was excellent. I am still reaping the benefits of the training I received back then in Ashtanga Yoga. Ashtanga Yoga really is a holistic discipline that has to do with more than just asanas. For a brief introdution to Ashtanga Yoga go here.

For someone trained in that discipline, it is a bit difficult to come to terms with most other forms of yoga prevalent today. In fact, the very term yoga today is used to denote only one branch of yoga -the branch that deals with better strength and flexibility. Basiaclly, just the asana bit of the 8-part discipline that is yoga. In Ashtanga Yoga every asana is held for at least a minute and you push yourself, just to the point where you are at the limit of your comfort. Slowly, you find yourself getting stronger and stronger and more flexible. Most importantly, you truly learn to listen to your body and in his words "still your mind". This, I found, was extremely useful to me when I took up strength training. It allows me to bring a focus that I find is extremely essential to make sure that you never lose form when you are lifting -- even if it means that you don't lift impressive amounts of weight.

Here is a video of some ashtanga yoga poses. This is how it was taught to us when we were kids. Slow and steady, working in installments until we finally got to the final stage of every asana. Every asana had a complementary asana that immediately followed it in order to make sure that you "worked out" the opposite set of muscles. For example, sarvangasan was followed by matsyasan. But most important of all, there was no pressure. No need to top the class. No competition. He managed to get permission for a bunch of us who were very interested in learning more, to skip morning assembly everyday to learn advanced asanas, pranayama, kriyas and meditation. At the ripe old age of 10, I found I needed the meditation to get rid of my stress! Don't ask! Such was life as a school kid for me. In my teens I had already developed lower back stiffness and pain. He made a specific list of asanas for me. He did this for everyone who needed something addressed. One kid had what we used to call "soda buddi kannadi" (really thick glasses for short sightedness). In an year or so of trataka and specifically designed kriyas and asanas, the kid went from wearing those glasses to almost plain glass thickness.

My gym holds some yoga classes, but they are not nearly as satisfying as having spent the morning assembly hour with our Yogi. Most of these classes can sort of be classified as vinyasa yoga, where you are constantly moving. This was such a constrast to the atmosphere of my childhood yoga classes where the Yogi first demonstrated the asana and then guided you step by step to the final stage without so much talking! One of the most important thing in ashtanga yoga is something that sounds so deceptively simple: to relax all muscles other than the ones you are working. Sounds easy, but it really is not. It requires complete concentration and some time to get there. In fact, by experience I found that unless I meditated in every asana, I was unable to stop thinking about the discomfort in my body and therefore unable to really relax my other muscles. Truly a mind-matter exercise. In contrast, vinyasa yoga never really gets that far mentally, for me.

Last weekend I tried Bikram Yoga for the first time ever. All I knew about this was that it was yoga done in a warm environment. Wrong! It is asanas done in a hot environment. 104F (40C) hot! Uncomfortably hot. An environment where your heart rate shoots up so high that you feel like your heart is about to rip out of your chest wall and shoot out to the front of the class. And the sweat! Oh the sweat! Now I have experience with cardio workouts where I have felt exactly like I described here and lived to realize that such a thing as your heart ripping out of your chest cavity is unlikely to happen. Even in these cases, I have never sweated as much as I did in this class. That presented a problem. Sweating at that rate rids your body of all kinds of electrolytes. The asanas themselves were not something I had not seen before, but the blast of heat that emanates from your torso when you bend your head down can immobilize you for an instant. The heat, the sweating and the movement, all of it together made me almost pass out. Thankfully for me, the instructor caught on to the situation and offered me some gatorade. Now I normally don't do sports drink. Not even after a long cardio workout, so I instinctively declined. But he offered me a second time and through all the heat induced fog in my brain, I realized that this time was different. This time I really needed that drink. So I took it and as per the instructions of the instructor, I lay down. It took a while for the heart to calm down, but I did recover to do a few more asanas before the class ended.

Bottom line, it was a very interesting experience. Not in the same class as my childhood yoga classes, but it certainly reduced the tension and ache in my shoulder. I got back and read about Bikram Yoga and this is what I found. It is the same set of 26 asanas every time. The teacher usually yells in the class -- drill sergeant style and you ofcourse, you sweat bucket loads. Bikram Choudhury the self-styled guru started his first school of Bikram Yoga in San Francisco, CA. The wiki article on him states that he "won the National India Yoga Championship four consecutive years in his teens". Now that brings me back to Ashtanga Yoga and our Yogi. Whatever happened to the spirit of yoga?

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varsha said...

Great write up Agnija !
I too learnt Yoga as a kid because it was taught to my brother who was asthmatic.
I guess the Bikram Yoga thing comes from seeing Yoga only as an exercise - and for that sweating is a must mentality.
I see Yoga as a relaxation tool for mind and body and to get in touch with all your aches niggles and blockades physical and mental.
Now I hear they also have DOGA-you must tell us about that :))

Agnija said...

@Varsha: Doga? Hmm interesting. My Doga usually involves my dog sliding himself right under my spine when I do sarvangasan and then licking my face to make sure I know that I have CPR ready and available for the asking. Or may be he just likes salt. I could do Coga. My cat is always doing what the white dog is, in the last two pics in the link you have here!

Agnija Bharathi said...

Sure, but do try to take some electrolytes with you. You really sweat a lot and it is 90 minutes duration in high heat.