The Story of My first 31 Day Challenge

When I did my first Bikram Challenge in 2006 I had been doing Bikram yoga for 5 years, coming a couple of times a week. I didn’t see myself as a sporty person, I certainly wasn’t a bendy person, I was just an ordinary, not very brave, mother of a 6 month old girl who wanted to get fit, toned and strong again and handle my new job (motherhood!).  I had no plans to do Bikram yoga every day for 31 days. But I am very very glad I did!  I wrote this at the time and unearthed it on my PC last week. So here’s how it happened and the story of my challenge…

Why I did a Challenge

The day before I started this challenge, I wouldn’t have believed I could have

Just before the Challenge

Just before the Challenge

done it.  Not only because of the logistics of physically getting to class every day (in fact that would be an excuse not a reason), but because I couldn’t imagine how I would cope with being in that hot room every day, every single day, not one break, for an entire month.

But when Jodie asked if I’d do the official challenge the school was running later in the year, I had to say yes, because she was giving me NO EXCUSES.  Jodie accepts nothing less than your best!  And so the seed was sown. Then that same day I mentioned it to a friend and she suggested I start the challenge that very day rather than waiting, I thought well, I’ve already done the 6am, I’m one class down.  The hardest thing in life is making a decision.

Once I’d committed to doing it, that was it, I was DOING IT.  There was no going back, there were no excuses, I was going to go every day for 31 days.  The first few days were pretty tough, not in the classroom but in my head.  I found it difficult to sleep, I think I was anxious about what I’d taken on. I was doing yoga postures in my sleep, and unfortunately it wasn’t savasana! 

I had no expectations about what to expect from the challenge.  I suppose secretly I hoped that I would lose weight and that my standing bow would be almost the standing splits.  Well anyway, I lost weight…..

I just went every day, there was no time to not look forward to going, like I did when I was going 2-3 times a week.  There was no option.  I couldn’t say, oh, I’m too tired, too busy, too lazy.  So that was good because it took the daily decision out of going.  In some ways it made the act of going to practice easier because I didn’t have to think about it.  And when I was in the class, the classes were definitely better, more consistently focused and stronger.

I saw some changes immediately.  My balancing poses for instance.   My balance just got better.  Interestingly in the last 3 -4 days of the challenge it all went pear-shaped.  Have no expectations.

Pranayama was better, I didn’t hate it anymore, it really felt like set up for class.

The Shock of Trying to do Things the Right Way!

Other things took a while.  I’ve never kept my heels together properly in the spine-strengthening series. And fortunately (in hindsight), Jodie pointed out this to me in no uncertain terms on day 2 –

“Why are your heels not together?” I think she said.  I think I apologized!

So now I had a focus and oh, man was that tough.  To keep my heels together for me, with my hips and legs the way they were, felt like trying to rotate them so that my knee-caps faced the ceiling, but without the pain.  It just felt weird.  But I persevered, despite the humiliation of no longer being able to soar like an aeroplane or curve my spine like a cobra. Like anyone’s looking at me!

Cobra was the biggest shock.  If I genuinely kept my heels together, I could barely get anything off the ground anymore, let alone my floating rib.  So for a few days, there I was on the floor barely moving, and then one day, I think Kaz was teaching and she got me to move my hands down a little, it suddenly clicked into place.  It was like my legs and hips went “Oh, you want me to do THIS!!” and I came up to where I used to be able to go, and my legs felt strong and powerful and my heels were still together!  YEAH!!

It began to occur to me that perhaps a lot of my physical “problems” were linked to this little quirky thing, that maybe wasn’t so little after all. That just keeping my heels together would start to fix my continually pulled hamstring, my squint hips, my sore shoulder and neck.

How Things started to Change

Over the 31 days, I gradually began to feel muscles in the legs working to help me, and supporting my back as it used its huge muscles to raise my torso up.

Despite practicing for 5 years, I’d always hated, feared the belly-down series.  I felt like a lead weight.  Now in my challenge, I really did feel like I had Denise’s helium balloons lifting me up.  I could breathe in the postures, I wasn’t just holding on, waiting for that beautiful word “change”.

The dialogue became more important to me, because I really was there with a purpose.  I had 31 days to change my world!  And when I listened, I learnt so much.  Often in the past I realized I’d switched off, because I knew what I was doing (allegedly!) and just put myself through the paces, but I’m learning loads by learning to listen.  Here’s a few things I need to remember:

  • In back bending poses, lift your heart up to the ceiling and imagine your shoulder blades are being wrapped around your spine.  Think of stretching the front of your body, don’t just focus on the bend in your back.
  • In Locust pose, Alex reminded us that single leg lifts are warm-ups for the double leg lift pose.  If you can get one leg that high, there’s no reason you can’t get both up. That’s the theory anyway!
  • I’ve really started to watch my hips in poses like Eagle, Tree and standing separate Leg stretching (coming down), to make sure my hips are aligned. In fact also Standing head to knee.
  • Standing and floor Bow I realized that I didn’t really really kick back.  I heard “equal and opposite” but I was thinking more about the arm than the leg because I used to not think about the arm at all.  So I started kicking back and felt much more balanced and grounded in the earth, rather than flailing slightly above it!

Some Notes from my Challenge Diary

Day 2 “Class was strange – I was obsessed with my horrible doughy stomach – has it always looked that bad?….Felt intensely aware that I have 29 more classes to get through. Not a great thought!”

Day 5 “still feeling really tired, despite 12 hours in bed! Going to increase magnesium. I nevertheless had a lovely class with very good focus…”

Day 6 “Today for the first time I feel quite confident about the challenge. I think I’ve settled into it a bit and believe it is possible.”

Day 7 “Today I actually feel normal – better than, I feel great!”

Day 8 “I’m sleeping fine now.”

Day 11 “I noticed today that when I stand my head tips slightly to the left.”

Day 13  ”Tonight’s class was HOT. I mean I got through it and possibly my aches make my stamina less, but mentally, I found it really hard. Definitely hardest since start. My neck and shoulder was really aching this morning. I resorted to denkorub and was overjoyed with the improvement but in class I felt it aching, especially after half tortoise.”

Day 14  “Stiffest class yet…I was so stiff though, which was weird considering I was in a class only 12 hours before….I’ve felt very energized all day too.  Probably best yet. ”

Day 16  “I don’t feel like I’m much better in the poses, but I feel more able to focus on the poses and me, my body, in them – rather than just getting through the class.”

Day 17 “I have had a great day energy wise.  I feel bouncy and light and have been busy and inspired.”

Day 18 ”My body feels like it’s turned a corner.”

Day 19 “I feel completely comfortable with yoga everyday now. In fact I enjoy it and look forward to challenging my body and mind.  I think I’ll miss it when it’s over!”

Day 22 “My upper back, around my scapula, was aching a week ago, in fact on and off during the entire challenge.  Now it’s OK.  The shoulder/neck pain I always got after half tortoise, camel and rabbit – NO MORE!”

Day 25  ”I occasionally get this peace come over me in class…it’s the 90 minute meditation Bikram talks about.  It’s not easy.  I can’t try and do it; in fact, it’s the opposite.  I have to try and let go.  Don’t think just do. Don’t analyse, listen to the dialogue.”

Day 27 “Two in one day!  The thought of it was much worse than the reality. 6.00 was fine, so NOT hot.  Tonight however was sweltering and although therefore much harder, so much more satisfying.  My energy wasn’t great…but I didn’t pull my shoulder and I feel great now.”

Day 28 “Ugh. Had been expecting a good class but was worst in challenge.  Lay out of 3 sets.  Was just so not coping, it was weird. I expected after 28 days – Well the lesson is to have NO expectations.  It is all a journey!  I felt fantastic for the rest of the day of course.”

Day 29 “My balance wasn’t great tonight. Perhaps standing in the middle of the room – too much pressure to perform! Also, now I’m near the end of the challenge.  I feel more like I did when I went 2 days/week.  I know my postures have changed, but mentally I’m a bit back to normal.”

Day 30 “I’ve really learnt that, just because I’d done yoga every day for 31 days, it won’t make my practice any better than the person next to me, than the day before, it makes me understand ME more.  That’s all.  It’s the same leg you’re balancing on as the night before, so why is it stronger/weaker than then?  It’s the MIND.”

11 July 06

After the Challenge

Day 31 LAST DAY “So I walked out at the end of the class and just wanted to cry.  I never expected this emotion. It was like complete relief, combined with disbelief that I’d done it.  And pride.  But I felt like a shell.  Like I’d been holding it all together for 31 days, and now I could just LET GO. Which is I suppose, the thing I always want to be able to do.  So Bikram fixed that?! I sat in the corner outside and sobbed quietly.  I really wanted to sob loudly, but I waited till I was in the car to do that!

Gosh I felt different.  I think it was elation.  I felt this absolute sense of achievement, there was no question I’d done something I never thought I could do.  I felt calm, satisfied – peaceful.  I’d reached my goal!

In my diary there is a lot of talk about the pains I was suffering.  There was always something bothering me, but they all worked their way out, as long as I was aware in my practice.  Sometimes it was a pain from using a part of my body I hadn’t used much, so more of an ache.  Sometimes it was a genuine pain, but I really had to address what I was doing with my body in my practice to cause it, because I know it’s not the postures themselves causing the pain, it’s the way I use my body.  So for instance, in pranayama, I would raise my shoulders, not just my torso, and ended up with aching shoulders.  So for a while, I just didn’t bring my elbows up as high, while I retrained my body how to relax my shoulders and lift my whole body up more.

Today

Looking back I realise that doing this challenge changed everything about the yoga for me. I honestly never thought I could do Bikram Yoga every day, and I certainly never thought I could become a Bikram Yoga Teacher, although in my deepest heart, I realise that I really really wanted to. The challenge changed me to the point where, 3 years later I felt brave enough to see my heart and follow my heart. In November 2010 I qualified as a Bikram Yoga Teacher.  This yoga has really and truly changed things about me I didn’t know you could change.

Ten years on, I’m now 47 and my yoga practice has continued to grow and change me – physically, emotionally. I don’t practice every day, but I do make sure I practice 3 – 4 times every week. As I’ve got older it feels even more important for my overall health (back, hips, especially I feel if I don’t practice) and I can honestly say that I feel better now than I did when I was 28. No doubt! However cliched it sounds, we say it because it’s true – I am SO grateful that I have found this yoga. I don’t believe there is anything quite like it.

Kim MacKechnie

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Why Locking the Knee is so important in Bikram Yoga

How many times in class do you hear the teacher shouting  “Lock the Knee, lock the knee, lock the kStanding-Head-to-Knee-2.jpgnee!!”?

Locking the Knee is possibly one of the most misunderstood principles in Bikram Yoga.  In this blog, we’ll unlock (no pun intended) some of the myths by explaining why locking the knee is so important.

First let’s clear one thing up.  What it is NOT. Locking the knee is NOT jamming your knee back as far as you can and trying to balance on it.

Physically, when you “lock your knee” in a balancing posture in Bikram Yoga, you are contracting your quadriceps muscles in the front of your leg, and therefore releasing the hamstring sending the message via the nervous system for it to stretch.

In the beginning this may feel uncomfortable, even painful because the nerves are not used to the stretch and will send pain messages to the brain.  Our first impulse is to pull back, to avoid pain at all costs. However, if you want to improve stretch tolerance i.e. get more flexible, you may need to take the stretch to a point of pain. “Pain kills the pain”.  This is not to say that you should be in tears, gritting your teeth and holding your breath but if you don’t take a stretch to a point of pain, you are not likely overloading your nervous system well enough to improve stretch tolerance, to get more flexible!

A key principle in Bikram Yoga is that you are trying to overload the nervous system to increase your stretch tolerance. That is how you become more flexible, decrease the risk of injury and relax your nervous system so that it is less sensitive and therefore your body will stretch.

Put simply, the only way to improve your flexibility is to improve the function of your nervous system.  You’ll notice that when you are concentrating on locking the knee, you are less likely to fall out of the pose.  Why, because you ARE concentrating!

What does Locking the knee look like?

You know you are locking your knee when you see your kneecap raise and muscles bunched above the knee, this indicates that the qkneeuadriceps muscles are being contracted.

There are 4 muscles in the quadricep femoris muscle group in the front of your leg. The one that is hardest to “turn on” is the vastus medialis obliquus (VMO) on the inside of the leg just above the knee.  Its job is to extend the length of the thigh and to stabilize the patella (knee cap) so your knee tracks correctly.

The VMO muscle is a common centre of weakness in many people because it will not become fully strengthened unless the leg is regularly extended fully.  It becomes more fully activated when the knee is at a greater angle, especially when the leg is completely extended.

As we age, the VMO muscle is the first muscle that we will start to lose.  As it weakens this can bring problems with the knee, surrounding structure and cause chronic aching pain.

The good news…

Locking the knee is a highly effective way of building your VMO strength while also building density as you are standing and weight loading at the same time. And, you are completely normal if you find locking the knee very hard.  It is hard.  That is why you must CONCENTRATE to try to do it.  This is how concentration improves your physical health!

The struggle in your mind as you try to keep the knee locked instills discipline. Learning discipline in the room helps us apply discipline in our lives.  Ultimately, how we apply ourselves to the job of locking the knee is a metaphor to how we apply ourselves to the job of living.

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