Herding Cats, Billy Ocean, and Rollercoasters: Why I keep coming back to Bikram Yoga

bikram yoga east lansing michigan

Meet Melissa, 40, of Williamston, Michigan!  Melissa started practicing with us at Bikram Yoga Capital Area in March of 2014 and to date has practiced over 725 classes!  Melissa wrote this super thoughtful blog as part of 2017’s Spring Yoga Buddy Challenge.  I am so grateful for Melissa’s insights, her quiet strength and presence at the yoga school, her patience with my backlog of stories needing to be shared (!), and her wonderful writing.  


Hi!  I’m Melissa and this is my first ever attempt at a blog, so in true yoga fashion, I ask for no judgment  🙂  !!!

I’m very much a visual person so I plan to use analogies to help bring you into the inner workings of my brain.  (Good luck while you’re in there!)  I’ve been practicing Bikram yoga for a little over three years and am completing my second Yoga Buddy Challenge.  In order to complete this buddy challenge, the last piece for me was to write a blog (what we won’t do for a free t-shirt!!).

Herding Cats

When trying to figure out what to write, one of my yoga buddies (who was also one of my instructors) suggested that I write about something I have thought about in class.  Sounds like a trick to me!  The ultimate goal is to think about nothing in class, just focus on the instructions and my breathing.

So what did I think about in class that night?  Yep, what I’m going to write about.  My ideas were all over the place, how would I choose just one thing?

Then I realized, my scattered thoughts are the perfect topic!  Envision trying to wrangle up a herd of cats.  That’s what it feels like when I’m supposed to keep my thoughts in check and only focus on the words and my breathing.  Cats are all over the place!

Here’s a little more about my experience with Bikram and herding cats.

When I started Bikram yoga my thoughts during class were very different than they are now.  While I do love yoga, I’m not a fan of heat or sweating non-stop for 90 minutes.  For me, the initial months of practice were all about survival mode.  I couldn’t believe that I allowed myself to be submitted to this torture and would bet my life that I could smell burning flesh.  How was this even legal? 

I still remember my first class.  I knew I wasn’t supposed to leave the room so I thought I could escape the heat by laying down.  Wrong!  It was like that movie, The Fog, and I could just feel the heat rolling over my body like fog.

There was no escape!  Somehow I managed to make it back for another class where I tried to trick myself into thinking I was on a tropical beach somewhere.  The problem with that is, I didn’t have my umbrella drink or a cool pool to jump in to cool me down.

bikram yoga balancing stick tuladandasanaLooking for Distractions

As I went to more and more classes, I continued to try different techniques to distract me and get me through the class.  I LOVED distractions.  They helped make the 90 minutes move a little faster.

I would find myself in awe of those that did not have the “typical yoga body”,  yet had the confidence to wear barely anything. (To give you a visual, a typical yoga body stereotype could be: someone who is long, lean, flexible, probably a vegan and/or health nut, etc.)  Here I was trying to hide my curves in a tank and leggings, as I surely didn’t have the kind of body one would flaunt!  I wonder what gave them the confidence?

I also really loved when I had people with tattoos near me.  It provided me actual art to look at and gave me the opportunity to wonder what the story behind the tattoo was.  The list of distractions goes on.

For various reasons, it took me almost a year before I started to make Bikram part of my almost daily routine.  (My goal is every day, but I average about four times per week.)

And the benefits start clicking…

I’ve made Bikram sound SO enticing so far, how on Earth did I start going on a regular basis?  Honestly, I don’t remember having a “light bulb moment” where everything just clicked.  It was more like the clicking of a roller coaster climbing towards the top of the hill.  Once I actually started to put more focus on the words and tried to quiet my mind, little by little “things” just started to make sense.

The environment and the community are so encouraging, welcoming, supportive and non-judgemental.  Click.

It didn’t take me too long to realize that I too could shed the tank and the leggings.  Nobody cared what I looked like, they were focused on themselves.  Click.

My migraines had dramatically decreased.  Click.

My allergies seemed to be better.  Click.

I felt better in general.  Click.

I was less stressed.  Click.

My posture was better.  Click.

My thoughts outside of yoga were changing.  I was becoming less critical and more patient and carefree.  Click.

I realized that Bikram could be an escape from the outside world.  No cell phones in the studio meant two hours where the outside world could not reach me.  Click. Click. Click!!

By this time, I’m heading down that first thrilling hill of the roller coaster!  I wasn’t exactly sure what I had gotten myself into, but knew that Bikram had made a lot of positive changes in my life.  I wasn’t ready to hop off the roller coaster just yet, so I decided to invest in a year unlimited package and see what happened.

yoga buddy challenge accessible

Still Happily Riding the Roller Coaster

After two years of regular practice, you’d think that I’d have this mental focus thing down. HA!  As you know, roller coasters have their ups, downs and plateaus.  I realize and accept my body has limitations and those limitations can and will vary.  Naturally this also means my practice will be different from day to day.   Some days I feel like I rocked it out, some days I feel like I got rocked and others I feel like I did just enough to “pass”.

What I started to realize is that the teachers are right. (I know, shocking, right!)  The practice is 99% mental and 1% physical.

On the days that I feel like I rocked it out, my focus was like a laser.  The other two types of classes….. cats!  Trying to either herd a little or a lot of cats!!

Changing Thought Itself…sometimes with the help of Billy Ocean

As you may recall, I mentioned earlier my thoughts during class have changed (i.e. they have not been eliminated).  Most of the time, it’s no longer survival mode thoughts.  I rarely think I smell burning flesh.  Admittedly, there are still some classes where I look around to see who I might need to douse with water and hope it’s not myself that is on fire!

The majority of the time I now recognize when the negative thoughts are trying to creep in, and my focus turns to what I’m going to do about it.

Do I really need a break?  Can I put more effort into a posture?

On occasion I will sing a Billy Ocean song to my negative thoughts.  Of course I have to adjust the lyrics a bit.

Let me sing it to you…  I said hey (hey) you (you), get outta of my mind (get out of my mind), get into my car…

Essentially, I was singing to my negative thoughts (yes, complete with back-up vocals) and telling them to drive away.  (I’m sure it’s not what the writer had in mind for the song!)  Then I almost immediately think, wait a minute, I’m supposed to be focused on the teacher’s words, not singing in my head (even if is with good intentions).  Focus Melissa, focus!

bikram yoga standing bow pulling east lansing michiganDefining Determination

So, the question is, how does one herd the cats and keep out all of the mind’s chatter?  That is the million dollar question!

Words like determination and perseverance come to mind.  Those are actions that everyone is capable of, if they put their mind to it.  HA!  Get it? What is it in people that makes them capable of having such focus on a consistent basis to make them determined or to persevere?  I think of my practices where I feel like I rocked it out and wonder, “What happened on those days?”

Some of my most intense classes are when I had hot yoga guy in my mirror (you can determine what you visualize: hot yoga-guy or hot-yoga guy).  I had no choice but to focus on myself in the mirror or risk the chances of making eye contact.  Awkward!

Other classes where I rocked it, I honestly don’t know why!  The stars had aligned, it was a perfect storm, everything just seemed to be firing on all cylinders… whatever analogy you would like to insert.

Really, I think this is part of the reason that I continue to come back to class.  Will I have another rockin’ class today??  There’s a mystery/puzzle about it that intrigues me.

I can see the overall positive impact Bikram has had for me (and for others), but I don’t particularly love spending 90 minutes sweating my butt off.  I would much rather sleep in, take my dogs for a walk, catch a movie… you name it and I’d probably be up for it if it keeps me out of the hot room.  Yet, I keep coming back and have worked it into my weekly routine.  I even try to get all of my family and friends to come to class.  I encourage them to try to get past the “survival” stage so they can experience all of the positive that Bikram has in store for them!

Amazing Yoga Questions

I could probably think of a million other random thoughts that I have or have had (i.e. Why is Bikram not covered by health insurance? If everyone practiced yoga, would we have world peace? How is it that the mind, which is not even a physical thing, can have so much control over a person?  If the goal is to focus on the teacher’s words, why is it so routine?  I know why the sequence itself is routine, but why always start with the right side?  We know what’s coming next, so it’s easier to go on auto-pilot.  Why not help us out and switch it up and start with the left side now and then?  Will we ever have animals in class?  Music?) …but I don’t want my first blog to turn into my first novel!

To start to wrap it up, what I have learned so far is it’s hard work to try to keep the mind in check, even for a brief moment in time.  I don’t have the key on how to master laser beam focus (or how to wrangle a lot of cats).

What I do know is in my three years of Bikram classes, a lot of positive changes have happened to me both mentally and physically, even with classes where I was on auto-pilot or they were just plain bad.  Why wouldn’t I keep coming back to try to figure out how to have more classes where I rocked it out?  I can’t imagine how I would feel if the majority of my classes were that intense (Holy smokes, my flesh might actually catch on fire)!Bikram Yoga full locust East Lansing Michigan

How I Got into This in the First Place

In closing, I never explained how I even went to my first Bikram class.  I was always curious what happened in hot yoga classes, but was nervous about the heat and assumed I didn’t have the right body for it (even though I had been doing some form of yoga for over 10 years and should have known better than to stereotype!).  It was one of those “non-typical” yoga bodied people that I noticed coming out of the studio one day.  I figured if he can do it, I can do it and went to my first class shortly thereafter.

My point in saying this and for writing this blog, is you never know what kind of an impact you may have on a person.  That person will never know that by him simply walking out of the studio gave me enough courage to give it a try.  If my experiences – as a person who doesn’t love 90 minutes of sweat, heat, and torture (j/k, not kidding) yet finds herself back there almost every day – can intrigue someone else to give it a try and potentially change his/her life in a positive way, why not?

People can use some positive in their lives!  I encourage everyone to give it a try!  The most you have to lose is 90 minutes in a day and some sweat, but what you stand to gain is all within your control!

Hope to see you in class!


You never know whose life will turn around when they start practicing Bikram Yoga!  Feel free to share the goodness and healing with anyone who might need a little boost.

There is No Such Thing as Monday

Toe Stand - Original Hot Yoga - Bikram Yoga

by Ann Chrapkiewicz


A few Sunday mornings ago, I was teaching* class.

It was one of those lovely classes where everyone spaced themselves so beautifully in the three rows of our practice room; people hardly took their eyes off of their focus points for the entire warm-up portion of class.

We were finishing up the standing series, on the second side of Toe Stand, when one of the great yoga lessons emerged.

One of my long-time students, Amy, – who has been with us for around 120 classes, since summer 2013 – was in one of her usual spots in the third row.  She smiles quite a bit in and outside of class and really enjoys the learning process.  She is a joy to have in class and at our school.

Communications in the Moment

Expressions of Toe Stand vary from person to person – many people are much closer to what looks like a bent-over tree pose – but Amy happens to be able to sit down quite easily – kind of like these humans (Eric, I love so much that you can hold a phone and use it while in this posture!!):

Toe Stand - Original Hot Yoga - Bikram Yoga

Some Deeper Expressions of Toe Stand, Spring 2015 – Lauren, Eric, Melissa, Jess

I saw that her left knee was high up above her right, as was common for her.  I thought I would see if – through our constant teacher-student communication in class – we could make the next posture adjustment happen for her.

My instructions directed her to push her left knee towards the ground and stretch her spine up towards the ceiling.  I encouragingly repeated the instruction a few times to see if a physical response was ready or possible in that moment.  It probably sounded something like this:

Stretch your spine up to the ceiling, hips up

A little more

Stretch your spine up

Suck your stomach in

Top of the head towards the ceiling

Left knee down, Amy

Both knees in one line, parallel to the floor

Left knee down a little more, please

I noticed that instead of trying these things, Amy was very focused on something else; putting her hands together in front of the chest.  Nothing wrong or ultimately bad about it, but – as long as she is not having knee pain – it is not where the posture would be most beneficial for her at this point in her practice.  The hands element is relatively unimportant relative to the leg, spine, and abdominal control in this posture.

Dialogue bikram yoga teacher teaching
New Teachers’ Foundation for leading Therapeutic Hatha Yoga in the Ghosh Lineage – Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class

Dialogue: Checking In

The direct instructions of the Dialogue that we initially learn as Bikram Yoga teachers really is and – in my opinion – can/should be used constantly as a dialogue.  When used well, the teacher is gaining at least as much information about the student as the student is receiving from the teacher.

So, in those moments, I did not perceive that my instructions had gotten through successfully.  After everyone had rested in savasana, I checked in with her.

“Did you have any pain in the posture?  Was your left knee bothering you?”

“No.”

“Ok, well that’s good.  Did what I was saying make sense?”

…Amy thought about it for a second, and then said…

“It’s been a long week.”

I repeated back to myself quietly, “It’s been a long week.”

“Ok,” I thought….

And then I laughed out loud and said,

“No!  No, no, NO!!”

“Does what happened yesterday, or what happened for the past several days, have control over your ability to focus in the moment?”

Amy smiled and said, “No.”

“Is last week in control of what you do in toe stand?”

She smiled again and shook her head.

And then the words just flew out of me:

“No!” 

“YOU are in charge here!!  In the moment when you are in toe stand, or any other posture – you are breathing, you are calm, you are trying, you are following the words…

…and last week does not exist.  Does that make sense?”

By this point, Amy (and half the class) was smiling and nodding quietly.

“Monday does not exist.  Friday does not exist.  These labels are made-up entities when it comes to your ability to breathe well or absorb an instruction. 

Please do not let them control you.  They only exist for the purposes of getting to the right place at the right time with the right people.

Days of the week are for scheduling function only.  

When you are in toe-stand, just be in toe-stand.”

bikram yoga toe stand

One of the infinite correct expressions of Toe Stand

Then I settled down and we all had a lovely, light, quiet minute in savasana.

The Personal is Political, or Cultural Baggage = Personal Baggage

Yoga leads to nothing less than self-transformation.  Yet so much of what I call “myself” or you call “yourself” is essentially the cultural baggage that we have picked up along the way.

I think I am original in my suffering.  You think your stress is special.  And we actually try to preserve our suffering and stress in order to be unique, post-modern, identity-based individuals.

All of this is an aspect of human nature, of course. But it is not permanent, static, nor completely inevitable.

And that is what the yogis have always understood.

The deeper I go down the yoga path, the more I see how subtle this process is.

The stories we have culturally, collectively created and absorbed have so much power over us that they affect our individual, moment-to-moment ability to breathe.  To focus.  To listen.  To do a task at hand.  And to live in our physical bodies in a fully alive way.

We not only are emotionally, neurologically, and respiratorially** controlled by things like “TGIF” or the dread of Monday, but by a stressful week that is 100% in the past.

Yoga leads to nothing less than transformation of the cultural stories that control our bodies.

bikram yoga teaching coaching locust pose

What is Yoga?

Just your friendly reminder that this is not a stretching class.  Not a fitness class.  Not a sweat box.  (Although all of those things do occur.)

It is you, your cultural baggage, and ultimately, how you live your life.


Ann is an amateur ethnographer who happens to have experienced, witnessed, and facilitated ridiculous amounts of healing and transformation through Bikram Yoga, Isha Yoga, and medical anthropology.

*Lately I have decided to stop calling myself a “yoga teacher”; it has become meaningless in this country.

**I admit that I made this word up, but I am sticking to it.

Big Girls Bend: My (Ongoing) Journey as a Fat Yogi

by Marini Lee, Ph.D.


I’ve been practicing bikram yoga for almost 12 years now. According to the Western world (and my recovering internal body critic), I should look differently. I should be thin by now!!!! Shouldn’t I?

Well, I’m not.

First of all, being and/or getting “thin” is not (nor should be) the goal of yoga. Yoga means “union.” It is my understanding that this union is about optimal health – mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically.

So let me tell you what I have experienced as a result of practicing this healing yoga.

MENTAL CLARITY

That monkey mind is a TRIP!

Yoga has helped me to quiet the chatter in my mind, even if for only 90 minutes at a time. Those 90 minutes are usually the most mentally calm 90 minutes of my day!

Sometimes my mind is racing so much with what I “should” or “need” or “didn’t” or “must” do next, right now, always, that I even have to catch myself in class and say, “Where are you now?” That happens less – much less than it used to -, but one of the aspects of this practice where I have experienced the most growth, is in my mental clarity, inside and outside of the studio. Inside of the studio, I pretty much know that I’m not going to die from the heat or from any of the postures.

I can focus and concentrate because I know I am strong. I know I am a work in progress. I know all I have to do is try. I am enough.

I’m still working on transferring that mental strength outside of the class, but I’m getting there.

ardha chandrasana half moon bikram yoga bigger bodies

EMOTIONAL STABILITY

The emotional self is the roller coaster the monkey (mind) LOVES to ride! Besides the increased mental focus I have experienced over the years, I am also extremely proud and really in awe of the emotional stability I have cultivated and am continually learning to cultivate. Again, while I am a work in progress, I am much less apt to “go off the deep end” emotionally when things go awry – and also when things are great.

There are times, in poses, particularly back bends when a rush of emotion will come over me, but as I breathe into it and “simply” allow the emotion to run its course, it becomes less powerful in its ability to overwhelm me. I’m not even sure how the practice does this, but I think it must have something to do with the heat.

It’s really hard to be sad or even elated when you are trying to balance on one foot with the other stretched high in the air.

There’s really no space for emotional instability in the hot room, and I’m actually grateful for that.  Because then I can focus my energy on healing.

bikram yoga original hot yoga fat big plus size locust pose

SPIRITUAL RENEWAL

Many people erroneously equate yoga with a religion. To me, religion is the box you put God in to make sense of your/our purpose and existence. Again, from my understanding that yoga is about union, you can’t put the practice into such a box. I do believe the practice can make you better at your particular box, but it is not a box itself. Some may use it as a way to and through their respective boxes, but if anyone is worshipping sweating in a room for 90 minutes, you’ve got a bigger problem than we have room to discuss in this blog.

So, while I don’t feel that yoga is a religion, I do feel like this practice has made me a better Christian. I am MUCH more patient with myself and others.

I no longer cringe on the inside (or smirk on the outside) when a newbie talks during class or sets up in “my spot” or mouth breathes or moves during a balancing posture. I am more compassionate with myself and others. Especially now that I am experiencing difficulties in postures because of my size, I am much more empathetic to beginners who are challenged (and intimidated) physically by some of the postures.

I have learned to forgive myself for not being perfect. I have learned to seek peace instead of being right (i.e. focusing on the breath, effort and balance as opposed to striving to make the postures look pretty).

 

AND FINALLY….PHYSICAL WELL-BEING

Now, don’t get me wrong. Despite not having the perfect bikram body and in fact being the biggest I have been since I started, there have been many positive physical manifestations of my years of practice (and buckets of sweat). My half moon is SWEET! My backbends are EXCELLENT! I can do Standing Head to Knee pose AND KICK OUT!

When I visited a studio in Texas, a teacher asked me to model Standing Bow Pulling Pose because he said, “Your spine is ready for this. You just need the confidence to match.” I may be the heaviest I have ever been as a yogi, but I am also the strongest and most flexible I have ever been.

Now, there are plenty of poses in which I am not as proficient as I would like to be (and/or have been in the past with a smaller body), but I am proud that I approach each class, each posture as if I CAN and/or WILL, someday. That’s that mental game again.

And so, as you can see, this blog (and journey) really isn’t about being fat at all.

No one IS fat. I have fat on my body. Period. More than you probably, but I am the happiest I have ever been and that is because I realized (a long time ago), that this practice, this life, is SO much more than the physical.

I pray that any yogi, with fat or not, has the opportunity to experience the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical freedom I have since I became a yogi many many moons ago.

NAMASTE


Marini Lee, Ph.D., age 39, is a native of Richmond, CA.  She is a Teacher Educator at Michigan State University’s College of Education.  Over the past 12 years she has practiced Bikram Yoga in Ann Arbor (both studios); El Cerrito, CA; New Orleans; Denver; Atlanta; Allen, TX; Charleston, SC; Toledo, OH; Detroit; and now East Lansing, Michigan.  Her passions are learning, teaching, and community healing.

Marini recently became an adoptive mom, and on this she says: “I’m still in awe and shock that I am responsible for the well-being of another human being.  This is the most spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally, economically challenging – and yet the most important – experience of my life thus far.”

10 Signs I Need a Beginners’ Yoga Class

by Ann Renee Chrapkiewicz

…..

Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class is truly that.  A place for beginners to start the yoga process.

However, there seems to be a part of the human mind – and if I may propose, especially a noticeable portion of the American mind – that would like to believe that it is not a beginner.

It is sure that it is already an expert.  It does not want to follow discipline from within or without.   It does not want to be challenged or changed.  It has learned everything it needs to know.  And it especially does not want to take total responsibility for its reactions to every single thing in the outside world…or to every passing thought in the inside world.

It is definitely someone or something else who is creating my suffering or lack of happiness.  Not me.

It is mad because so-and-so cut me off in traffic.

It is in a rage because I had to spend 2 hours on the phone setting up my health insurance payment.

It is stressed because my co-worker – or my ex – or my family member – is being a narcissist and creating drama and blaming me for all of his/her issues….again…..and again….

Its reactions are natural and automatic consequences of other people and other situations.  Not my choice.   And it will get lots of validation by sharing all of this on social media.  Lots of likes and loves and angry faces that will both soothe and energize the reaction.

The Mind Encounters Yoga

When this part of the mind comes into contact with a transformative therapeutic yoga practice, it often has intense, negative reactions.

As humans, reactions usually control us for some portion of life.  They control our decisions, our actions, and our paths forward in life.

But the yoga process is a process of freedom, because it opens up alternate possibilities.  It creates a bit of space or time – or maybe even a pause in the entire space-time continuum – from which you can actually make a conscious choice, rather than being imprisoned and controlled by the reactivity.

So, whether you are someone who is ready for a true and lasting internal change, or someone who has tried a yoga class and had any of the below reactions, this list is for you!

…the List…

So….I compiled a list of just 10 common things I have heard over the last decade and a half – whether from someone else or from within – that show me (or you) that I am (or you are) a beginner at the mental aspects of the yoga process.

And that I (or you) need to go to yoga today!

But just as I was about to publish these, I thought it would be more fun to hear from YOU.

And then I will publish a combination of my list and the collective one.

So, the questions:

1. What have been some of your strongest, most recurring, or “favorite” negative mental or emotional reactions to this yoga practice?

 

After all, once you get some distance from them, these things can be pretty funny!

2. What reactions have you heard from others who have never tried Bikram Yoga?

3. What reactions have you heard from others who have tried Bikram Yoga but who do not currently practice regularly?

 

To encourage your ability to share honestly, I have created this totally anonymous survey on Survey Monkey to put in your answers.

CLICK HERE to go to the survey.

One guideline to keep in mind: by sharing and acknowledging these reactions, we do not have to judge them.   Observing the mind’s operation without looking down on it – or the people themselves – is really key.

If you would like to have your input considered for my initial Top Ten List, please submit by May 25, 2017.  I am looking forward to collaborating and sharing!!