Embracing the difficulty: a new way to think about Bikram, or anything

When you talk to people about Bikram Yoga — especially if it involves trying to convince them to consider trying it — the sticking point usually ends up being that it is hard. And it is. It’s a 90-minute class in a hot room with a teacher reciting dialog that includes the phrase “supposed to hurt” an astonishing number of times. Bikram Yoga is not for the faint of heart or will. Before she left for Bikram teacher training a few weeks ago, Jeanne Heaton eloquently described her “Aha!” moment in a wonderful video interview. It came when she realized the yoga was supposed to be hard. Her body was a mess and getting it out of that mess was not going to be easy in any way.

If you think about it, Bikram Yoga being hard is actually the point. Can you accomplish anything doing something that’s easy? Are we really convinced there are shortcuts out there? Isn’t it called “stretching” for a reason?

 

Bikram is hard, even if the man himself is not standing on you

 

Jeanne’s story is about what happens when you don’t shy away from what’s hard. She describes diving in and turning her life around. And now she’s taking on nine intense weeks of teacher training. Her interview highlights how much our society tells us to avoid challenging things. All these pills and potions are the short cuts, the ads tell us. Just send $29.95 plus shipping and handling. Convenience is the higher goal here. Technology makes life easier, less laborious, helps you expend less energy. Sit down, curl up with the remote control, order out, fade into your background.

Lots of people reject this. Just witness the thousands training for the New York City Marathon, others working toward triathlons, climbing Mt. Everest, attending Bikram teacher training.

But doing those things requires us to emerge from the fog that is our society’s warped perspective on effort. Trying is not something to avoid. Life’s most wonderful things are some of the hardest: building beautiful relationships, raising children, thriving in your dream career. None of that is easy. Rewarding physical achievements require more energy than anybody thinks they have, until they try. And they find the energy.

But your current limitations rarely go down without a fight. The key is understanding the difference between the pain of pushing through those limitations and real “you are injuring yourself” pain. Most of our pain falls in the first category, the one for which Bikram has a saying: “Pain kills the pain.” That means pushing through, no matter how argumentatively your body pushes back. And you will thrive on the other side.

I talked to a woman after a class this week who was working through a pulled hamstring. She was frustrated because the pain was not going away after several weeks and her progress was uneven. Having practiced through two pulled hamstrings, I could relate in painful detail. Her face crinkled when I told her what I learned: it hurts like crazy for weeks or maybe months, some poses (hello, Pada-Hastasana) feel like someone is torturing you and progress is never a straight line. But I also learned that Bikram is right. Pain does kill the pain. Practice through it and it will heal so much looser than when it was injured. It will be all worthwhile. Her face finally uncrinkled. “I will focus on that, then,” she said.

Fortunately, few people pull a hamstring (mine were life-long bundles of trouble; the woman I talked to pulled it outside of class) and most pain is subtler. It’s just your body putting up a fight.

I once read a story by a dancer who said the trick was to look forward to those moments of pain, to seek them out and savor them. I have not gotten to that point, but just not being afraid of something hard is a huge first step. What’s on the other side is worth it.

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