by Susan Cole
“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”
For three years I was a dedicated Bikram practitioner. Four or five days a week I would religiously go to class, which taught a series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises in humid, 105-degree heat. Over the years I had tried other yoga classes, but it seemed like a lot of awkward bending and twisting while my mind judged and questioned. The sheer difficulty of Bikram forced my mind to quiet itself in a way I had not experienced before. It was from that place of quiet I was able to slowly develop a deep and intimate relationship with myself and my body. Last year I wrote a blog about my experience called “Finding God, My Way.”
Over time though, the huge gains in flexibility, strength, and awareness started to slow. I found some areas— like my hips and upper back—continued to remain tight. I wanted to linger longer in certain poses, and started to wonder if there may be benefits to other asanas and hand placements. However, the Bikram series is based on a set sequence and timing driven by the teacher’s memorized dialogue—which Bikram trains instructors to deliver the same way, every time. Moving at your own pace is not an option.
I was also struggling to get to class. It was difficult to carve out enough time in my work and home schedule to get to the studio as much as I wanted. Between the 90 minute class and the 20-plus-minute drive each way, it was a three-hour commitment. Going often meant falling behind in other areas of my life, leaving me with stress and anxiety. I realized I was starting to feel like a hamster running on someone else’s wheel.
So one day, instead of getting into my car to make the drive to class I rolled out my yoga mat in our guest room. I felt a little lonely and awkward. I think my ego was also fearful that all the hard work I’d put in may evaporate if I wasn’t in the 105-degree room going through the instructor-led poses. I plugged in my little space heater. I began with pranayama and tried to focus on that deeper space that said “trust the process.” My mind slowly settled as I began the familiar sequence. I lingered in some poses when my body felt the need, then eventually deviated—skipping some postures and adding some new ones. I lost track of time and when I was ready to be done, almost 2 hours had gone by! I felt the words of poet William Earnest Henley in my bones: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” I am both the teacher and the student.
The months passed. Over the summer, I moved my practice from the guest room to our back lawn, frequently practicing at sunrise. I loved the quiet anticipation of the day, feeling the breeze on my skin, the warmth of the sun on my face, and listening to the birds singing their morning songs. The feeling of connection to all that is fills me with great joy and gratitude.
Instead of powering through my sequence, I relish it. Sometimes I kiss my knees when I’m in Uttanasana. I am realizing how much I love inversions and the creativity that comes from spontaneously discovering my own series. My back has loosened and my hips are feeling much more open. Whether I have 20 minutes or 120, it’s all OK.
I also began exploring new teachers and locations that fit with my schedule. I’ve been learning and drawing inspiration from all these experiences to weave into my own. Bringing more self-intuited awareness to my practice has helped cultivate my ability to similarly notice and adjust in my daily life when things get rough. No matter where I am, there is great reassurance to feel my practice is available to me at any time. I can feel myself growing deeper roots.
People have asked if my departure from Bikram yoga had anything to do with the allegations against the founder. The timing is coincidence. The sequence he developed kick-started my yoga journey, and for that I am grateful. The piece Bikram overlooked, quite intentionally I suspect, was that he didn’t create a way THROUGH for students or teachers. He considers his system the ultimate object. There is no encouragement to take what you have learned and become your own guru; in fact the language used in class is laced with references that claim superiority of the Bikram practice over other forms of hatha yoga. In retrospect, I find the parallels between my departure from the Christian religion I grew up with and my departure from Bikram Yoga eerily similar.
I still miss my regular connection with Bikram community tremendously. I met many amazing people who, like me, received great benefits from the discipline of the series. Some are still receiving them. But for those practitioners (and teachers) like me who may have the same longings—I encourage you to consider your own value and say. Start a personal practice, consider new teaching opportunities or just explore beyond the standard 26 dialogue—whatever feels right for you is worth trying.
My new practice has cultivated a very deep connection to myself and everything around me. I don’t need to rely on a person reciting dialog at the front of a hot room, just like I don’t need a preacher on the pulpit. We each have our own infinite wisdom that is available to us at any time.
Susan Cole lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband, two sons and two dogs. You can find her on Facebook.