13 May 2011

How Bikram Yoga Capitol Hill Became Part of My Life

I hate exercise.  Up until March, it had been 3 years since I last did anything that could remotely be construed as such.  I could make excuses about work, illness, or starting my own business, but the truth is, I stopped exercising because I don’t like it.  No matter how consistently I’ve worked out –on and off over the years– I’ve never gained one bit of satisfaction or enjoyment from it, other than being able to fit into my “skinny” jeans.  I once hired a pricey personal trainer and his first question was, “What do you like to do?” and my response was, “Go to the bar.”

But I’m 36, and realize that one doesn’t stay healthy by drinking bourbon and watching the Gilmore Girls boxed set on the couch. It was time to improve on my exercise regime, and, oh hey – it was Lent! I don’t hang on to much of my Catholic upbringing, but I like the ritual and I tend to go in for extremes.  Usually I give up all critters for Lent, but this year I decided rather than to deprive myself, to go another route. I’d taken a Bikram class several years ago from a friend of mine who’s an instructor. I don’t remember much about it other than it smelled funny and I’d never sweated so much in my life. It’s always been easy for me to cut things out of my life, but finding time for something new – and difficult – has never been something I’ve excelled at.  So starting a 30-Day Bikram Yoga Challenge (30 classes in 30 days) seemed like the perfect way to get back into shape and make a sacrifice that involved giving over at least 2 hrs/day, every day, for 30 days to stretch and sweat and struggle.

Before I began, I talked to Elizabeth Glover, owner of Bikram Yoga Capitol Hill, and asked her if this was stupid or dangerous or insane.  Liz has a very kind, gentle way about her, and she assured me that I would be just great. Of course I worried about not being flexible enough or thin enough and she promised that those didn’t matter. “It’s just yoga,” she’d say.

So I just started going. I made time for it (admittedly made easier by the very flexible work schedule that comes with working for oneself) and I went to class, where I spent the whole time thinking, “It’s hot;” “My arm doesn’t do THAT;” “I suck at this;” “I look like a penguin;” “I think I might die today;” “Why can everyone else do this with their leg and I can’t;” and when Liz would ask, “How’s your challenge going?” I’d respond that it wasn’t that bad but that I suck at yoga.  “You can’t suck at yoga,” she’d say.

And then things started to click. And slowly I stopped screaming at myself in my head during class.  And then my arm DID do THAT! And I stopped paying attention to everyone else, and concentrated on me. And then I started to feel stronger and more confident; and when Liz or the other instructors or students asked how it was going I could say, “Better!” with a genuine smile.  As the first 30 days approached their end, it wasn’t enough – I wanted to keep going.  And so as of yesterday, I now have completed 60 classes in 60 days. I have more energy than I can ever remember, I feel stronger and more fit, my sleep is more restorative and yes – some of those old clothes are fitting again!

I couldn’t have done this at another studio. Geographic convenience aside, it is the instructors and the other students who keep me coming back.  Liz and her team are incredibly supportive and willing to help and answer any questions, no matter how silly or frequent. The other BYCH students really are like a family (as cheesy as that sounds) and even though your practice is your own, it’s still like a team.

I asked Elizabeth why she chose Capitol Hill and specifically H Street to open her studio and her answer was both practical and spiritual.  There were already two other Bikram studios in the city, in Tenleytown and Dupont, and so Capitol Hill was the only option according to the Bikram powers that be. (Bikram is kind of like a franchise situation, and there is some controversy about this.) When she talks about why she landed on H Street specifically she says, “It’s a neighborhood. I love that it’s the type of place where you walk down the street and you look people in the eye and they look back and they say ‘hello’.” She also mentions a more spiritual reason “Martin Luther King of course was a follower of Gandhi and Gandhi of course practiced yoga and I thought maybe the yoga could help heal the street in a way – in that indirect relationship w/King and Gandhi.”

I also asked her how she got into Bikram and she said that after her first class at Dupont in February of 2002, she was, “…pretty convinced I was going to die.” But she managed to stay in the room the whole time and afterwards she felt really good. She was working at the Corporate Executive Board/Advisory Board at the time, but after her first class she started thinking about opening her own studio. She started yoga and specifically Bikram because was working with a trainer at the time who said that she was the least flexible person he’d ever seen. “I couldn’t touch my knees, let alone my toes.” (This is amazing to me. I’ve seen Liz’s practice and it’s strong and beautiful.  Maybe in 9 years mine will be too?)

Lastly I asked her for words of advice for people interested in trying it out, because it’s intimidating. Bikram is a 90 minute class in a 105 degree room with 55% humidity to do 2 sets of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. “All they have to do is stay in the room,” she said. And really – that’s 90% of the challenge.

For me, the challenge is going to be coming back tomorrow for that 61st class. But after two short months, Bikram Yoga and Bikram Yoga Capitol Hill are part of my life now. If you ever want to try a class, let me know and I’ll happily be your yoga buddy! My practice is still very new (and I still look like a penguin) but it’s mine and I love it!

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  • b

    So, what do people do after the 30 day challenge that seems to be a big part of Bikram? Is it then “acceptable” for lack of a better word – because in some ways the description of 30 days and how great it feels brings to mind adjectives like “cultish” even though I can believe that you do feel physically and mentally better after 30 days of disciplined exercise – so is it acceptable/normal/whatever to start going once a week. What is the “next step” after the 30 day challenge for people who aren’t going to be daily devotees?

  • @b I think you can decide to come as much or as little as you want. I’ve heard of people who do 30 or 60 day challenges and never come back – and honestly, I’m still afraid that might end up being me b/c I’m simply not very disciplined. Going to class today is probably going to be the toughest day for me because I no longer “have” to – but the commitment is only to me, as it was during my challenge.

    There’s no requirement to practice daily or even weekly, but I found that even when I did skip a class (which you can make up during a challenge by doing a double – 2 classes in 1 day) that I didn’t feel as good and was happy to get back to class.

    If I keep going now (as I’m planning to) it will be because I want to and because I’m committed to the benefits of it. I just knew that if I didn’t do something like a challenge to start, I’d still be on my couch.

  • Mae

    I love Bikram. I love Capitol Hill. I love this article.

    I am also a law student, with exams and stress and things that get in the way of life about 50x more than they ever did when I had a “real” job (and real life).

    I have tried to start a 30 day challenge more times than I can tell you – and the fact is, its just not for me right now. But yoga is for me, and Bikram is for me, and H Street is for me. And luckily I can tell you that BYCH has never judged me based on how (un)frequently I make it to class – either because of schedule or monetary conflicts. Its always there when I need it, and thats good because it is a happy place that also has potential to give you some killah gams. 😉

  • realross

    Great article. Important for folks to understand that you don’t have to start out with a 30-day challenge! I was in the studio periodically for a number of years before I wanted to commit myself to this. Now, while I go almost every day, I don’t attach numbers to my practice. No pressure, “It’s just yoga!” While the postures are always the same, each day brings its own set of challenges and rewards.

    You won’t find a nicer group of instructors – or students – than at Capitol Hill. I take classes around the country, but this will always be my home studio.

  • Totally true @realross – you absolutely don’t need to start with a challenge! Most sane people probably don’t 🙂

  • Stacey

    I also love Bikram and BYCH. I find that my regular practice totally varies. There are times when I’m going every day and other times when I go once a week.

    I have been practicing for about 4 years and have never done a 30-day challenge. I am sure I will when the time is right, but for now, I go once a week as a supplement to a bootcamp/running routine and I find that it is a great way to reset my body every week and to heal any strain — on top of that it has helped tremendously to improve my endurance and my strength.

    I’m sure I’ll try a 30-day challenge at some point, when the time is right.

  • I used to practice at BYCH, but I had several bad experiences with a particular instructor (would single students out for ridicule, berating them and calling them “cheaters” if they didn’t go into the full pose, injuries or pain notwithstanding) and ultimately stopped going. I spoke to the instructor several times about her counter-productive teaching style, but she clearly thought it was appropriate and refused to change her approach. I later found out that this instructor was teaching several poses wrong (and dangerously so, because they involved the neck).

    I appreciate that Elizabeth seems to have a realistic and holistic approach to the practice (and hopefully she’s since dealt with this particular instructor), but the people who are concerned about the “cultish” nature of Bikram are not entirely off-base. There are many instructors who flat-out do not respect students who listen to their own bodies. I miss practicing, as Bikram yoga can be a fantastic workout, but no one should feel intimidated or criticized into doing a pose that they can’t/don’t want to do. Doing a yoga pose wrong can be worse for your body than not doing it at all!

  • Katie

    I feel exactly the same way about another Capitol Hill Studio, Red Bow. Next to Schneider’s on Mass Ave., this place has changed my life. I too was incredibly fitness averse, having really NEVER done anything regularly. And I hate sweating. Now I am borderline obsessed but certainly devoted to the barre pilates classes taught by Jane, the owner of the studio, and many other amazing teachers. I am also an incredibly self conscious exerciser, so I appreciate feeling like I am walking into a group of friends in every class and not being judged for what I can or can’t do – AND Jane’s decision not to install mirrors everywhere. Finally, this work out has totally changed my body! I can’t recommend Red Bow enough. And no, I don’t work there. 🙂

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