For students of Bikram yoga, practicing asanas in a 40° heated room can be very addictive. On many mornings since 2005, I’ve crawled out of bed to make it to a 7am class. In the six years I’ve been practicing it, I’ve not only become more physically fit — I have learned essential life lessons as well.
Bikram yoga is very much like an active meditation, one done with your eyes open while looking at your reflection in the mirror. The yoga teacher guides you, almost always speaking to your body and your spirit. These nuggets of wisdom have served me well in dealing with life’s challenging situations, and so I share them with you.
Life skill #1: You learn how to set an intention, a purpose for your practice
At the start of the class, your teacher invites you to set an intention. Do you want to dedicate it to a sick friend, someone struggling in his marriage, a tough work situation? The intention can be as simple as, “To be more open with my spouse” or “To focus on finishing the article by Friday.” Knowing who or what you are doing this for inspires you to do your very best on the mat, so that when you get off it, you take this inner resolve with you.
Life skill #2: You learn to love yourself, love your body
In a world where cover girls on Cosmopolitan and Vogue can make a woman feel insecure about wearing a bikini, doing Bikram yoga teaches you, at the very least, to accept your body right now. Since you do yoga facing a mirror, you are forced to look into your eyes and at how your body moves. This can be daunting for some: One woman couldn’t look herself in the eye, claiming it was “too painful.” In such instances, the practice can help initiate healing. After all, with self-acceptance comes a sense of peace. When this happens, life changes: Once you start loving yourself, you attract more positive relationships.
Life skill #3: You learn to aspire for your best, not for perfection
In the Oscar-nominated film Black Swan, Natalie Portman’s character sought perfection in ballet, causing her grief each time she fell short of that goal. This isn’t the case with Bikram yoga. Every pose or asana has variations to it, and if you are unable to achieve the deepest version of it today, it’s alright. While struggling with the Standing Bow Pose (Dandayamana Dhanurasana), I realized I was pressuring myself to get it perfect because the lady next to me had her leg stretched up high. “Listen to your body,” my teacher said. “Do what you can today, don’t force it. Be gentle.” So I focused on myself, not on my flexible classmate, took a deep breath and moved into my bow. I later learned that the pose is meant to build patience and determination. “If this is as far as you can go, that’s okay,” my teacher reassured the class. “That’s why it’s called a practice. You can try again tomorrow.”
Life lesson #4: You learn to go to your edge
“Go to your edge” is a phrase you will hear a lot during a Bikram yoga class. Inasmuch as yoga teaches you to be gentle with yourself, the practice challenges you to strive for excellence at your own pace. Going to your edge requires trusting and believing in oneself.
In the final part of the standing sequence, students of Bikram yoga do the Tree Pose with Toe Stand. The Toe Stand (Pangadustasana) was a pose that intimidated me. Why? I feared falling out of it. Then one day, we were all invited to try the Toe Stand: this meant bending over from Tree Pose to touch the floor with our hands, and then balancing the upper body in half lotus pose on one toe. I hesitated. “It’s okay if you fall out, just try again,” were my teacher’s words. So I tried, slowly, and fell hard on my bottom. But I picked myself up and tried again. And again. Now, I do the Toe Stand confidently and joyfully even if I fall out of it occasionally. I have since applied the skill of going to my edge in other aspects of my life: whether it’s falling in love or learning a new sport or skill, I trust myself and try anyway.
Life lesson #5: You learn how to breathe
In yoga, breathing is what takes you into and out of a pose — and what sustains you when holding an asana for one minute. If a pose makes you struggle, breathe. The action of inhaling and exhaling relaxes the body and enables you to move into each pose with less effort. In the yoga room as in life, we all need to relax so that we’re able to respond with wisdom and love, not react with fear. Just received disappointing news about your health or dealing with a difficult boss? Learn how to breathe and tell yourself, “This too shall pass.”
Life skill #6: You learn how to rest
The Corpse Pose or Savasana is a pose of total relaxation. You lie on your back, allowing your feet to fall to the side, and let your palms face the ceiling. This is when the body receives the healthful benefits of each pose and is done between asanas and at the end of the class. Savasana is harder than it looks; just yesterday, my teacher came to me, lifted my feet and legs, swayed them from side to side and laid them down. Then she gently took each arm and repositioned it on the floor so that I wasn’t scrunching my shoulders. With our very busy lives, we forget how to relax, and the result is that we are tired and grouchy. Yoga reminds us that, after toiling all day, we deserve to rest and replenish ourselves.
Life skill #7: You learn how to be grateful
At the close of every class, the teacher thanks you for sharing your energy with everyone, with a bow of the head. This reminds you that there’s so much to be grateful for: surviving the class, the towel that catches your sweat, the mat that keeps you steady and the water available for you to sip. Because of a regular yoga practice, I have come to appreciate my body as strong, flexible, determined and — despite its jiggly bits — beautiful. For this, I am very grateful, and I hope that one day you will come to experience this too.