Part of a thing written last semester . . .
Most all of my friends that I haul to their first Bikram class have been yoga neophytes. That being the case I try to prepare them, wanting their inaugural mat experience to be the best it possibly can—I want them to want to return. I feel sort of responsible for their kick-off class. Taking one newcomer after another has led me to refine the prep words-to-the-wise into these ten tips for the yoga tenderfoot:
One • Put the right stuff in your mouth. On the day of, in preparing for your class, make sure that some of that stuff is a hell of a lot of water. The Bikram room’s temperature will usually range from 103 to 108ish degrees. (Read: hot.) And that means sweat. If you want to avoid the effects of dehydration make sure that you’ve spent the day pounding water.
Additionally, stop putting food in your mouth two to three hours before class. When you make it through the 90 minute practice without puking, you’ll thank me for this one.
Two • Get the gear. You’ll need a standard yoga mat, a towel, a water bottle, and a tiny outfit. You may assume that the towel is an optional comfort, you know, to dab up the inevitable sweat. Well, it’s not. The mandatory towel is for laying on top of your mat to catch all your perspiration and keep you from slipping during practice. The water bottle is a for a sip here and there to help regulate your [psychological] body temperature and remind you what comfort feels like. If you don’t have a mat of your own or a towel or even a water bottle, don’t feel like you need to go out and make an investment before your first class. You can rent a mat and a towel and buy water at most studios.
Regarding the tiny outfit, like I said before, it’s hot in there, so you’re going to be in a room with a bunch of people who prepared for the class by showing up in shorts so tiny they require a good bikini wax. Do the same and get over yourself. These people don’t give a damn about your body; they’re too busy trying not to pass out.
Three • Don’t talk in the yoga room. It's rude. Some people treat the yoga space like a sanctuary. Honor that and let those people pray or meditate in silence. Only the teacher does the talking.
Four • Ignore the smell. When you walk through the door into the lobby you will be accosted with a brand new stench, a unique smell of sweat, eucalyptus, and rubber. Over time you don't only get used to it, you start to really like it.
After the first breathing exercise in class, which includes open-mouthed exhaling, you’re going to continue on breathing only through your nose. Take deep inhales and ignore any offending smells, which may include someone’s B.O. or booze sweat. Focus on the teacher’s voice and the postures and the smell will become nothing more than white noise.
Five • Wait for the water break. Twenty-five minutes or so into class the instructor will announce the “first [and only] official water break.” Before that break, leave the water bottle on the floor, even if all you want is a sip. If you want to get the most out of this quite difficult experience you need to let your body get hot. Let it do that by waiting to give it water. And once you’ve had the water break, only take water between poses so that you don’t distract your fellow students. Do you really want to be the one responsible for someone falling out of a pose?
Six • Expect a little dizziness, nausea, and fatigue. If you start to feel really crappy in class know this: it's normal and you should kneel or lay down. It's not shameful. Every other practitioner in the room has done it. Sometimes that’s what your body needs. And if you do lay down, do so with your feet facing the back of the room. It has to do with showing respect to your teacher.
Seven • Remember that the teacher isn’t your enemy. There's a good chance that about halfway through the class you're going to think that the teacher is an ass or a bitch. They're not. They may seem militant, but it's because they're there to help you. This yoga isn't supposed to be comfortable; they call the Bikram yoga room "the original torture chamber.” Try not to glare at the instructor; the rest of the people in the room have become fond of the person walking around in minimal clothing barking at you, and they're going to think you’re the ass if they catch you glaring at their teacher and mumbling spells under your breath.
Note: most every Bikram teacher’s main instruction to a new student is to “stay in the room.” Might sound weird, but once you’re 40 minutes into the adventure you’re going to feel so uncomfortable that you’ll to want to leave. Instead of doing that, just lay down. The teacher isn’t commanding you to remain in the room to be bossy. Someone new to this kind of heat can feel ill and you need to stay in the room so that the teacher can keep an eye on you. They don’t want you to walk into the lobby, be out of their sight, and faint. Staying in the room is for your own safety.
Eight • Don't be embarrassed by being called out. Some teachers will repeatedly use your name in your first class; they're doing it because they see that you can make progress and they want to encourage you. Don't be offended.
And don’t get bent out of shape if they forget your name and refer to you as, “sweetheart,” “boss,” “girl in the green top,” “guy on the flowered towel,” etc.; these people can’t be expected to recall the names of all forty people in the class, even if they just met you. Want the teacher to remember your name? Come to class a lot.
Nine • Watch and listen. Watch the people in front of you for some guidance (especially on the hand placement in Standing Bow-pulling pose; you’ll see what I mean). So that you can keep an eye on the more experienced students, leave the front of the room—the space closest to the mirror—to those who know what they’re doing. The teacher isn’t going to spend the class demonstrating poses; they’ll walk the room, giving only verbal instruction. To see what poses look like you’ll need to watch the people in front of you.
Also watch yourself. Get a place in the room where you can have at least a sliver of mirror. Part of the Bikram practice is getting to know your reflection and being okay with what you see, noticing its improvement and its areas of opportunity. For some people that is the hardest part, but for those who have committed themselves to a Bikram practice, they’ll tell you that it’s also one of the most rewarding parts.
Ten • Don’t get excited. You’ll to spend the first 55 minutes of class on your feet. Then the teacher will tell you to lay down for a couple minutes, still as a dead body. Don’t get excited, thinking that the class is over. It’s a 90 minute experience; you’re not quite done. Following the standing series comes the floor series. So once you lay down know that you’ve got about a half hour left before you’re free to go. It helps to manage that particular expectation.
Based on experience, there’s more that I want every new student to know, but I know that even these ten tidbits are a lot to take in. I mean, what brand new student can be expected to remember to lay down with feet facing the back of the room and to maintain closed-mouth breathing? That’s why the teacher is there, repeating the same words that give the same directions class after class after class. Some teachers like to say that it is “‘a practice’ not ‘a perfect.’”
But there is more. On the way into the studio for their first class, I deliver some variation of this monologue to my yoga fledglings:
So this could really suck. It’s going to be hot. You’re going to sweat so much that you’ll be able to wring out your shorts after class. You’re going to be sore. At the end of the class the teacher is going to tell you to come back tomorrow, and you’re very likely going to think, “Go to hell. I’m never coming back.” But many newcomers do return.
I buy that this isn’t for everyone. But for some it’s a rich addition to their lives and can change things from body shape, to attitude, to fortitude. Give the practice a few tries before giving up on it. No, it doesn't get easier; you just get better at managing the discomfort. Some yoga days are good. Some really, really aren’t. For many of us who will be in the room with you, this hot yoga is like crack cocaine and we can't help but come back and try again tomorrow. All this said, don’t believe us. The most important observations for you are the ones you make yourself. So develop awareness. Listen to your body.
You’re here with me because I love this. The life I’ve crafted requires yoga for balance and happiness and Bikram yoga is part of the present equation. Best of luck in there.