So- I am in Idaho now after a week in California and there is just too much to download and not enough time to write a blog entry about it all. I have been busy with curriculum development for School of Yoga, business meetings with lawyers and partners, some really cool phone interviews, my webinar, emails and also - yes, teaching yoga. All that is simply to say that writing an intelligent blog entry about what I have been up to has been pretty hard.
However, a few weeks ago I wrote an essay about Bikram yoga based on some questions people have been asking and on some of my observations from being in their classes lately so I thought now might be a good time to post that. (If nothing else it is not an essay on "The Anusara Situation" or anything like that so at the very least it will be a change of pace.) I broke the essay into two parts and this is the first part which deals mostly with the script they use in their classes or "The Dialogue."
As some of you know, I have been having a bit of a love affair with Bikram Yoga lately. And as I have made my love public, I have gotten all kinds of questions from people about what I like and don’t like and how much of it I agree with and so forth. Also, since some of these questions have reflected some misunderstandings, I thought maybe a blog entry might be both timely and interesting.
I started taking classes in Bikram Yoga in 1996 in South Florida with my mother who went religiously three times a week. Coming from an Iyengar background and also being somewhat athletic, I found the emphasis on alignment and physicality to be both challenging, interesting and enlivening. I have always loved the sequence and found having the set sequence to practice a boon all those years ago when I was learning to practice on my own. I also appreciated the first things first approach of “get the body functioning well and the mind, heart and spirit is likely to follow.”
Last July a yoga teacher friend of mine wanted to lose some weight and decided to go to Bikram yoga instead of adding in cardio or weight lifting or something like that. As a way to support her and also out of curiosity, I went to class with her. Returning to the heat, the sequence itself and to that incomparable feeling of clarity, lightness and accomplishment that accompanies Bikram Yoga was amazing for me for many reasons. (Bear in mind those feelings always come at the end of class and one must often pay the price of a very different inner experience throughout the 90 minutes!)
Before I go much further, I have to say that in this post I am articulating what I like about Bikram Yoga, which in no way should imply I don’t like things about other methods. I could actually write a article about “What I love about Iyengar Yoga” or “What I love about Anusara Yoga” and “What I love about Baptiste Yoga” and “What I love about Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga” and so forth becuase let’s face it- I am a bit of a yoga fanatic and I like different things about different methods.
Also, you should know that I am speaking primarily from my direct experience at PURE Bikram Yoga in Austin, TX. My personal opinion is that the professionalism, care and commitment that this team of teachers has is exemplary, excellent and instructive for studios of any lineage, tradition or method. Obviously, method is one thing, the teachers who teach it is another thing and all that. Suffice it to say they do a great job at PURE Birkam Yoga and so when a good method meets with masterful implementation it is really pleasure to be part of.
So one thing that is super effective about classes is that the teachers follow a script or as they call it a “dialogue”. It’s is not some rigid thing, even though it sounds like it would be. And we have to understand what it is designed to do in order to evaluate its efficacy. Mardy Chen, who owns PURE Birkam with her husband Jeff, told me that “first and foremost, Bikram's Beginning Hatha Yoga Class is a class geared toward beginners. Bikram developed the dialogue as a way to give beginning students instructions for the postures. The dialogue is very simple - what to do, how to do it, and the effect of doing it.”
So if we think that the dialogue, instead of being everything you need to know, is instead aimed at 75% of the students in the room and giving instructions that address the common misalignments, pitfalls and challenges that arise in any given posture for the average person, we start to see it in a different light. Like Mardy said, some instructions describe the basic shape, some are instructions about how to get into the pose and out of the pose, some instructions are about key actions and others are cautions about to stay safe. The dialogue is not intended to be all the information someone will ever need nor does it take the place of common sense and good judgement on the part of the student. It’s a guideline and what I have seen is that while all the teachers say the same thing in every class, they are also addressing individual students relative to their capacity and needs. The advanced student is getting refinements about how to deepen the pose and the new student may get even more remedial help than what the dialogue offers.
I personally find this an intriguing and effective teaching strategy. By giving the teacher a set script they do not have to spend ANY energy on creative languaging, etc. and are therefore free to really look at what is going on with the students in the room. Also, they are not bogged down with remembering an ever-changing sequence and therefore get very good at the understanding, serving and helping people with the 26 postures of the sequence. The power of repetition is immense and very valuable and the Bikram method and approach embodies it very well.
Mardy said that “a couple of years ago, we decided at PURE to teach verbatim dialogue in the first set (get everyone - beginners, intermediate and advanced students - into the posture) and to teach action (including corrections) in the second set. Our goal is to teach effectively, consistently, and to all levels in the room. We hope that the afore mentioned technique allows us to achieve this objective. As students approach the advanced level, the dialogue extends beyond instruction and becomes a mantra, or meditation. Teachers at PURE are also encouraged to let students know that they are available for questions after class. It is a great time for students to connect with teachers and receive clarification. Advanced class is another forum where we discuss more advanced techniques and corrections.”
Which brings me to my next point. Like Mardy said, at the end of every class the teacher says their name and tells the class that they will be out front if they have any questions and to please come ask. So, an interested student can ask for clarifications and help about anything, especially about their individual needs that fall outside of the 75% the script is covering. I personally have gotten great help, feedback, information about the postures and my practice every single time that I have asked an instructor after class. They have been quite generous with their time and attention, in every case.
So while the teacher is not always going to make sure you know what they mean in the scope of a class with lots of explanatory demos, this invitation is in every class (at least at PURE) and nicely places some responsibility for learning on the shoulders of the student, which I think is highly positive. I mean, part and parcel to yoga is the responsibility of the student to ask good questions. This tradition goes way back. Students were never intended to be passive recipients of the tradition.
Tomorrow- "Part 2: What it means to "lock your knee" in a Bikram Yoga class."