Shhh. I’d like to practice, please. (Or, why Bikram yoga isn’t for me.)

It’s a holy time — Easter and Passover. Because I don’t celebrate either (I was raised as a Buddhist), it’s been a very quiet day for me. No family get-togethers, no religious or social gatherings. The loudest thing I heard outdoors today has been the high winds that sent my apartment complex’s display flags toppling over. It’s been relatively quiet indoors too. I had the chance to do my practice in an empty studio just before a private yoga lesson with a student. And it was so lovely to practice while hearing just the sound of my breath and the click-click-click of the wall clock.

So, I suppose this is as good a day as any to talk about the sounds of practice, which I’ve found myself thinking about quite a bit since I started teaching yoga. What are useful sounds that support the practice? What are distracting sounds that take away from the practice?

I’ve written before about why I don’t use music in the classes I teach. The more time I get in Mysore rooms — especially energetically intense ones like the Mysore classes at the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence — the less I enjoy it when there’s a lot of noise in yoga classes that I take. That includes music and talking — especially instructors who seem to be uncomfortable with silence, and work tirelessly to fill in emptiness with chatter.

I took my first Bikram yoga class last month, when I was in St. Louis for a Radiohead show. I thought I would leave that class thinking a lot about the heat (Bikram classes are heated to 105 degrees and the humidity is kept at 40 percent). The contrast of externally blasting the heat compared with the Ashtanga method, which believes in practitioners creating their own heat through breath and energy locks, could not have starker.

The more jarring thing about the class, for me, was the sound. It was incessant. I don’t think I had 10 seconds of uninterrupted focus, because the instructor, who wore a headset, talked the whole time. I remember lots of miked encouragement to “push, and push, and push” and “lock the knee.” (Never been to Bikram class? You can get the picture by reading through the official Bikram “yoga dialogue.”)

This is not a criticism of the instructor. And I know some ashtangis who also love Bikram yoga, and swear by the Bikram method’s benefits. I’m not trying to take anything away from it — this post reflects my opinion of Bikram, and more power to you if the method has given you what you sought or outright changed your life — but wow, this was not the yoga for me, if for the level of chatter alone.

The journalist in me is compelled to bring some balance into this post and note that it may not be that simple. This blog post of a first-time Bikram student settles on the idea that you’re not supposed to listen to what’s being said:

After the class, I found myself chatting with the receptionist about my first class.

“I like that my skin feels so clean.” It really did—I felt like I had perspired until there was nothing but pure water left in my pores. “But are there any instructors here who don’t….talk so much?”

“The continuous dialogue?” he said. “That’s one of the pillars of Bikram yoga.”

“Like heat.”

“Heat and continuous dialogue and the patented series of 26 postures.”

“It kind of gets to me.”

“That’s the challenge, to see if you can tune it out. That’s why it’s a signature of the style.”

Surprisingly, you never hear about this.  (“Oh, you do Bikram?  The yoga with continuous verbal dialogue, right?”) But to me it was Bikram’s salient feature: that everything they said was allegedly for you not to hear. And more importantly: that I couldn’t stop listening.

It was humbling.  I went in feeling like a yoga champ and left realizing what a novice I was in that most basic respect: mental control. Trying a new yoga style was like traveling to a foreign country—coming face to face with a new way of thinking and living. In the end it wasn’t about sweat, heat, or Bikram and waiting for his continuous dialogue to end—it was simply (and not simply) a matter of finding ways to quiet my own.

The blogger in me gets to say yeah, whatever. It sounds awfully convenient to me to copyright a dialog — the whole McYoga argument so often leveled against the Bikram style — and have it both ways by saying you’re supposed to tune it out. When you have pages and pages of scripted text that instructors are required to use, how can there be room for observation and insight?

This is from a blog post called “The Poverty of Verbal Instruction” by Angela Jamison of Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor, my Ashtanga teacher:

I wonder how we’re really using words in yoga class. Do we know how to use language to set ourselves free in our bodies… or do we more often use it to solidify difficulties and obstacles? Do words come up due to anxiety about impermanence or attempts to pin things down, a need to prove something, or maybe unwillingness to just be quiet and do the technique? I wonder, too, if talking in practice—including my own verbal instruction—increases an egoic sense that we know what it’s is all about.

. . .

My teachers have taught me to give little or no response to students’ self-limiting stories, to teach with one’s own personality glazed over to support students’ depth of internal focus, and to do everything possible to prevent chit-chat in the room. My teaching mentors see discursive talk in a practice room as mostly useless. So gradually, and without using words, they showed me how to teach from a very quiet place.

I do offer new students verbal instruction. If someone is reaching out for an anchor or feedback, I’ll even give a little eye contact. And there might be some talk to smooth the transition into the odd culture of a Mysore room. Proprioception and concentration are still developing, after all. But pretty soon in this scenario, we come into contact with the ways that chit-chat and personality-to-personality interactions weaken and clutter the practice. I become more still in order to get out of your way, to let you refine your own beautiful habits of mind-body. It is so nice to be in the room as you realize that you’re ok with whatever arises, as you open to new sensations, as you settle in to just being there, creating and experiencing experience.

As a journalist by training, I fundamentally believe in the power of words. Absolutely. But sometimes we work against ourselves. My journalism professors at Columbia University taught me the power behind the idea that in journalistic writing, less is more.

I’d say the same is true for a yoga room.

>>Related topic, sort of: For what it’s worth, I enjoyed “Solitude in practice; or why Ashtanga is the best style of yoga,” a blog post that briefly touches on the idea of solitude and quiet.

(Photo credit: Stille-Silence_2 via respontour’s Flickr photostream)

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10 thoughts on “Shhh. I’d like to practice, please. (Or, why Bikram yoga isn’t for me.)

  1. “Lock your knees” and “Compress your low back” were two phrases that had me wanting to leave a Bikram class. Also, the heat of the room is in no way like the heat you can build inside the body. Having grown up in a noisy and loud house, I think I withstand the chatter–I’ve had to live with that my whole life. Thanks, Rose, for another insightful blog.

    • Somehow I don’t remember the low back part, but there was an elbow part that was strange for me to hear. I would love for someone with a deep understanding of the Bikram system explain the locked knees as well.

      In any case, thanks, as always, for reading, Maha Mama! :-)

  2. Thanks so much for this beautiful post about the sounds of silence. I’ve been meaning to try out Bikram at some point, so I really appreciate the warning about the noise!

    Interestingly, when I first began replacing self-practice mornings for Mysore mornings, hearing the focused breathing of others was the hardest thing to get used to. This was especially disorienting to me, as prior to going to Phoenix Center, I’d practice at the YMCA, where there is a LOT of ambient noise! (especially gym grunting and music) I was not expecting to find sounds of breath a difficult thing to get used to.

    Now I miss the sounds when I do self-practice — there’s something lovely about practicing in the confluence of community rhythms.

    • That’s interesting that at first, it was hard to get used to the sound of the breathing. I am not surprised that now, you miss those sounds and the confluence of community rhythms.

      I would love to hear how your experience of Bikram goes, when you finally get around to trying it. I think it’s definitely worth experiencing if for no other reason than to observe how you react to it all, and to see if that sheds any light on your relationship with the Ashtanga method.

  3. I completely agree about the power of words. The individual words like push and pull vs. lengthen and flow vs. float and hover. This is another reason why I greatly value using the Sanskrit terms for the postures. Words matter. Language matters. It is an interesting concept you raise about mental control and being able to move within the Bikram space. I ignored the push, push, push but the tone greatly affected me into pushing anyhow. I like it as an alternative practice every now and then. Definitely not the yoga that calls to my heart.

  4. I had gone to a few Bikram classes with my (now ex) boyfriend. Having practiced Ashtanga for so long the Bikram poses came somewhat easily to me and this, for some reason, irked my teacher. I think she saw me as a “new to Bikram” student and how dare I complete more difficult poses with seemingly ease. After class (I didn’t know about the short shorts of Bikram), she stood next to me and said to someone else “ugh, wearing full length yoga pants in a Bikram class is totally cheating.” I was wearing my full length Hardtails and the comment was undeniably intended for my ears. I laughed it off, holding back what I so wanted to say, “In Ashtanga, heating a room to 105º to generate sweat is most certainly cheating.” 😉

  5. By the way, I didn’t love Bikram as much as I love Ashtanga, but I didn’t mind attending the few times I did try it. Despite her petty comment, I went out of my way to be nice to the teacher. She was actually very energetic and I made a point to thank her for an excellent class :)

    • I would also be willing to return to a Bikram class, in the same spirit that I would be willing to return to a vinyasa class that got me moving even though I didn’t find it all that fulfilling on a deeper level.

      If I did return to a Bikram class, though, the test then would be to try to experience it as new again and to turn off my mental chafing at words used, at the mirror we’re supposed to look into, etc.

      And to that point, I will say that I went into the experience with as open a mind as I could. I tried to give credit where credit was due — for example, in giving props to the instructor for her orientation. (And she also made a point to comment directly to me now and then during class, since I was the only Bikram newbie there.)

      The best part of the steady blast of external heat was that I was uber hydrated. I started making sure I was drinking more water than normal the evening before, and continued all the way through until the start of class. I think it’s a good habit for me to get into — to be that hydrated on a constant basis.

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