Life Lessons from Bikram Yoga

One of my Bikram yoga teachers once said, “I love Bikram because it’s the hardest yoga I could find.” She said this as we were pausing for a 5-second Savasana between postures. In this corpse pose, you lie in complete relaxation, which makes it one of the hardest poses in Bikram. Our chests are usually heaving, our hearts pounding, so the most we can do is breathe and try to recover.

Her comment made me laugh. Bikram challenges me more than any other kind of yoga, too, more than almost any other physical activity. Bikram Yoga has a lot to teach you about life.

Imagine a 105-degree heated room filled with sweaty bodies. There are only a few inches between each mat, so you can feel the body heat from the person next to you. In fact, if the class is packed enough, you periodically bump into each other when moving into different postures, or the person next to you literally flings their sweat on to you.

You can sometimes be stuck next to someone who is a bit smelly. It’s almost unavoidable, and it can be even worse if they don’t have a shirt on. Or sometimes the person next to you seems to cough throughout the entire practice, and all you can think about is how long those germs are surviving in the humid air. My yoga on days like that is to not let those things bother me—to focus instead of my own practice of being in the moment, and practicing loving kindness to the person next to me.

The hot room can be a bit stressful, though, just like life. Sometimes we can get a bit rigid about the ideal conditions of our environment. A student once said to one of my teachers, “I can only do Camel Pose when the fans are on.” Camel pose is the deepest back bend of Bikram Yoga—once you get through that posture, you feel like you can sail through the rest of the 26-posture series. But having such a rule in and of itself defeats the whole purpose of doing Camel (even though we all love those ceiling fans). Camel is about opening your heart, your throat chakra, allowing what comes up to emerge. The instructors always say beforehand something like: “When doing Camel, you may feel anxious, nauseous, sad, giddy. Whatever you feel, just allow the feeling to rise.” How can you truly do that if you’re focused on a rule about the fan needing to be on?

And then there are those really packed classes, during the end of a 30-day challenge, or after the New Year. You get to class early, pick out your perfect spot centered on a mirror with no posts in front of you, with a perfect margin of a foot and a half on either side of your mat, and a latecomer comes in three minutes after the class was supposed to start. Of all the options in the room, they roll out their mat in the 18 inches right next to you, forcing you to shift to the left, so you now are square in the middle of the seam in the mirror and look a bit distorted as you have to stare at yourself for the next 90 minutes. All of that’s about allowing too.

Sharing your yoga space is just like those times when you have an A or B boarding ticket to get on a Southwest flight, and you find just the perfect window seat, and you know the flight won’t be totally booked so you put your briefcase in the middle and spread out your newspaper to make the seat next to you look the least desirable. You know this is going to be a long flight and you need the elbow room to work on your presentation for later in the day, which you really wanted to finish last night and yet were too exhausted and had to go to bed, and you just don’t want that mother with a baby that you saw in the gate to sit next to you because you really need to focus.

It’s about remembering in that moment that those other human beings who look so tired as they board the plane are individuals just like you, with hopes and dreams and needs and their family at home and their stressful job during the day and their parents who are ailing in a nursing home. So you really should just move your newspaper and briefcase and smile at them, and welcome them to the seat next to you. Even if they have a big, very sad-looking baby with them.

We all need that yoga love once in a while.