Bikram Yoga is often referred to as a “90-minute moving meditation”.
Lately I have started to prefer the term “physical meditation” over “moving meditation”. It is true that we move our bodies, but the emphasis of class is always on stillness.
Physical Meditation as the Beginning Point
Physical Meditation is a term that makes sense for me because it describes the heart of how anyone can practice, just by stepping in the room, and regardless of any flexibility or ability. For a beginners’ class, it is an incredibly effective way to start.
Plus, concentration on and precision in the physical realm includes so many things!
What the breathing is doing, what the eyes are doing, what the muscles are doing, how the skin feels, where the weight is distributed, which muscles are relaxed, which muscles are contracted, the pace of the heartbeat….you get the point.
These things can best be noticed when the body is being held completely still. Completely still in any given posture, and completely still immediately following each posture.
Stillness to the extent of, “Don’t wipe the sweat. Focus on one spot in the mirror.”
Why so “rigid”? That’s not yoga!
Many outsiders or beginners to the practice see the discipline of Bikram Yoga as stifling, or authority-driven, or even “military”-like. It has been looked down upon by some for decades, and the internet makes these complaints even easier to find.
(While at first I was frustrated with the lack of understanding and the spreading of ignorance, I have come to accept it as something which will probably never go away. I now just try to educate and model instead of reacting with frustration.)
Empowerment through physical stillness
We practice not wiping the sweat off, not messing with our clothing, not looking around. Why?
We are doing this in order to practice the discipline of not reacting dramatically to our surroundings. And this is only the “grossest” level of non-reactivity.
As we adjust to allowing a drop of sweat to roll down a cheek, or into an eye, we learn to tolerate 3 seconds of discomfort. Not harm, not abuse, not pain. Just discomfort. Something that initially we do not “like”.
Do I have the patience to sit still and let the sweat drip? To watch water drip? To watch a lake melt? I highly recommend trying.
What can I possibly learn?
What is a common, unconscious reaction to sweat dripping into your eye?
“Get rid of it! I don’t like that! It is annoying. And sometimes it even stings a lot.”
What is a common, unconscious reaction to someone asking us to leave the sweat there?
“Oh my gosh, don’t tell me what to do! This is my body and my eye, and I am going to do what I want with it.”
But is this the only way? Can there be an opportunity here instead of a reaction?
When you notice a reaction or a habit, one of the best questions you can ask yourself is, “What if?
“What will happen if I do?”
“What will happen if I don’t?”
“What will happen if I change my pattern of reacting?”
“What will happen if I don’t compulsively enact the habit that I am convinced is necessary for my comfort and survival?”
Discomfort as information
Over the years I have learned to use the sweat in my eyes as a way to understand my biochemistry. Granted, I am not analyzing the sweat in a laboratory, but I can feel the difference in it when I have accumulated stress, or caffeine, or a food chemical that I am not used to.
Last week the sweat in my eye created a stinging sensation that I had never experienced before. I have experienced the sting of caffeine, the sting of extra salts in my body, the sting of stress in my body. But this was different.
I later thought about what I had consumed the previous day. The only two not-usual things I had eaten were some Grapefruit Seed Extract (in an experimental recipe made by Lisa Marie) and a frozen pizza that had some very questionable ingredients.
If I really wanted to test this, I could isolate the variables and see what happened in subsequent classes.
Experiment or fitness routine?
Many of us start yoga to get fit or improve our physical health. And there is nothing wrong with this in the slightest.
But if yoga remains a fitness routine, stagnation, boredom, or frustration eventually set in. Physical habits and compulsions are usually not addressed, let alone the mental and emotional ones.
On the other hand, if yoga practice is approached as an experiment and a path to realization, it will always lead to deeper understandings and experiences.
The discipline of physical stillness is one of the first stages in a beginning hatha yoga practice, and it is a great place to start.