Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bikram Yoga Essay- Part 2

My essay continues...
I suppose the other big misconception is the “lock the knee” instruction, which I think is easily debunked. So many of us who teach yoga say “don’t lock the knee” when we mean “do not hyperextend the knee joint”. Someone who has been trained to understand lock the knee=hyperextension hears the Bikram yoga teacher repeatedly commanding “lock the knee” and they feel deep inner conflict. So much inner conflict in fact, that they make all kinds of assumptions when in fact, “lock the knee” is a kind of shorthand for how to make the leg stable, strong and firm without jamming the knee join or hyperextending it.
From what I have gleaned from my short time back in Birkam classes is that  there are three basic components involved in this “lock the knee” instruction:
  1. Placement and activity in the foot--if someone keeps the weight of their standing leg even throughout their foot but active energetically through  the ball of their foot-- which is a refinement that is given a lot in the one-leg balancings-- "don't drop back in your heel, don't let the weight shift backwards, keep coming forward into the ball of your foot more," etc.-- then the gastrocnemius muscle is going to tone. The tone in the gastrocnemius  is going to stabilize the lower leg and ward against hyperextension. (Anusara yogis this is akin to activating the “Shin Loop”.) 
  2. Activate the quads-- If we pull up on the quads and lift the knee caps, the front of the thigh will stabilized. One must also pay particular attention to the upper outside aspect of the quads which can still be sleepy even if the knees are lifted.
  3. Tone the butt- If the standing leg gluteal muscles are toned the back of the leg gets stability 
So these three things in combination are going to create a strong standing leg that is "locked" --meaning straight, stable and steady but not hyperextended or dangerous to the joint.  It seems "lock the knee" is shorthand for “get your leg straight in these particular and synergistic ways.” 
Mardy told me that Emmy Cleaves, Bikram's principle teacher, reminds students to "think of the hip, knee and ankle as three bricks stacked on top of each other." Of course, that is a much simpler image than what I just described  but my point is they are not some weird yoga cult who thinks that hyperextending the knee joint or slamming the knee back and straining the ligaments is a good idea! 
Those of us who know Ansuara yoga lingo might relate to it in another way. When an Ansuara yoga teacher says “stick your butt out” what they are actually trying to communicate quickly is “having placed your foundation, keep it set. Maintaining your firm foundation, tone your legs on all four sides, with particular attention to your outer shins and your upper inner thighs. Keeping your knee caps straight ahead, reach from your inner big toe to the inner edge of your heel, turn your hip bones, thighs and legs in toward the midline, reach the whole inner edge of your leg back to root the inner aspect of the head of the femur and without disturbing your feet, shins or knees, widen your thighs and pelvic bones apart.” But what gets said is “stick your butt out”  which actually makes no real sense and if done without all that precision is basically the equivalent of “lock your knee.”
To sum up, “lock your knee” is simply Bikram lingo for a set of precise instructions. Every method has an equivalent, a shorthand that needs to be learned, understood and implementes. Is it potentially misunderstood? Sure. Plenty. But also, a student worried about it should ask the instructor who could explain it in greater detail.
I also love the focus and intensity that is required and therefore cultivated through the practice of Bikram Yoga. In Bikram Yoga there is no whining, no talking to other students, no need to interact much other than to follow the instructions, focus on one point and breathe. The postures are precise as is the order of operations and the landmarks about how far to proceed. “Form over depth” is the mantra and a way of life in the Bikram yoga classroom and the exacting precision, for me, is a relief and a refuge. 
Being someone who interacts with others all day long, talks a lot for a living and is highly creative in many domains, I am benefitting from the group focus and support for  being with myself, my practice and the forms themselves. Like I said, I could write a piece about what I like about other methods that are more interactive and expressive but that would be another piece. What I like about Bikram is that it isn’t. It is 90 minutes for me. Just me. The teachers at PURE are so skilled at seeing how to help that I have made great progress under their guidance and so this time for me is not in me in isolation but me  in the company of people dedicated to me improving my practice and supporting each other in doing the same. I love and appreciate that more than I can put into words, honestly.
The other thing that I love about it is that the teachers are all in the classes when they are not teaching and the teachers are not afraid to give each other corrections, adjustments and refinements because they all seem to want to get better and to improve their own postures. I like that also. Theirs is a  culture of improving but also built into that culture is  the recognition that improvement happens slowly, with persistence, intensity, dedication, clarity of form and with respect for one’s limits and abilities. I also love that the culture of the studio is one of practice. The teachers are in classes as students and are walking their talk for sure.
Okay, so that is my love letter to Bikram yoga for today. More could be said but I will stop for now. Have a great day and thanks for reading. Enjoy whatever yoga you do.


Henry Pursner said...

"Theirs is a culture of improving but also built into that culture is the recognition that improvement happens slowly, with persistence, intensity, dedication, clarity of form and with respect for one’s limits and abilities." Love it

Angela said...

I still think a lot of beginners hear "lock the knee" and end up hyper-extending. I did. My friends did. And not a one teacher stopped us. The short hand would be better refined, in my humble opinion. With love and respect from, Chronic Knee Locker

Christina Sell said...

I agree. They explain it a lot at this studio but I know it's not always the case. And I think because the words are so associated with hypertextension another choice might have been better but given all that, tis is what they actually mean.

gretel said...

I took some Bikram classes last month on your suggestion to be a beginner at other methods. I like it a lot. I was surprised that the Bikram practice improved my hatha practice. It really helped my focus, long holds were easier, and my practice went further inward. One thing that I would be interested in hearing your perspective on is the "shoulders forward" Bikram instruction in cobra. I asked my Bikram teacher about it and she said yes shoulders (as in top of the arm bone) forward. I found this alignment really worked the lower back much more, which eventually made sense to me since that part of the series is called back strengthening. It's all about aim, right?

Angela said...

Oh, not disputing the value of the Bikram lampost leg, Christina, that is when done in the way you've described.

And Gretel, I once spoke to a Bikram teacher about the cobra instruction and from the breakdown she gave me I understood the movement of armbones forward a way of lengthening the side body and toning the serratus anterior. Two weak spots in a lot of folk when typically collapsing the side body and mis-/over-utilising the rotator cuff. My interpetation, anyway.

ericaeve said...

Love the idea of using short hand terms for the usual lengthy instructions as long as everyone knows those lengthy instructions! It is such a challenge as a teacher to make sure everyone in the class has heard the correct thing! It's an impossible task - I know we keep trying.

I wish the Bikram class wasn't so hot! I kept having dizzy low blood sugar moments, even with good hydration before and after class, and complete exhaustion after class.

My sister swears by these classes for just the resounds you stated - the peacefulness of not having to talk, the complete focus without having to wonder what pose is coming next, etc.

I am enjoying hearing about your explorations!


Unknown said...

Christina, so excited to hear you are enjoying Bikram. I started with it in Prescott back in the 90's, the room wasn't extremely hot though. We now have a hot yoga studio in town and I tried it today. The room was 90 degrees. The class I took was more of a vinyasa,but lots of the Bikram poses. I really enjoyed it, but I was very glad to have had all my excellent instruction in the past since the class was very large and there was no way the teacher could have given a beginner the advice needed to make each asana safe. I love the locked knee instruction. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Funny, during my stay in Costa Rica this last week I had a dream that you had come to my Bikram class... I was nervous but mostly so excited to have you there, but somehow in the dream we could never get class started! hahaha! I love that this dream was probably happening right after you wrote this! I love being able to teach at the studio I do, I use the dialogue when it serves but I'm free to explain the alignment in my own words and this is exactly what I talk about when instructing to "lock the knee". I must say that in training though I asked about this very thing because I have the ability to hyper extend and Bikram told me there was "no such thing" and to push my knee back as far as it would go. I always had sacrum pain and frequently felt my hamstring attachments until I started studying the UPAs and the loops. I also know there are many wonderful Bikram teachers that understand this, it sounds like Pure Bikram yoga is the place to be! Much love to you beautiful Christina, I look forward to the next time I get to see you!