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:
- 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”.)
- 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.
- 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.