With September being National Yoga month, I was joined by Bikram Hot Yoga Midwest founder Jessica Rask who decided 10 years ago after reading a cover article on Bikram yoga in the Chicago Tribune that she was once and for all going to take a class; went the following day and has never looked back. She opened her first studio just north of Chicago nearly four years ago, and is opening her second this fall in St. Louis soon. If you’ve ever ever toyed with the idea of taking a Bikram yoga class but were intimidated by what you’ve heard from others about the heat or other factors, you’ve come to the right place; she stopped by to discuss the discipline of Bikram yoga, common myths and misconceptions, what you need in preparation for your first class, and everything in between.
Candace Rose: Can you tell us about the discipline Bikram yoga?
Jessica Rask: “Bikram Yoga comes from a lineage that was originally Paramahansa Yogananda, who came from India to California in the early 1900s. His brother Bishnu Ghosh remained and taught my guru, Bikram the 84 postures in the classic series that we perform. Bikram came from Calcutta to the United States in the late ’60s, and he developed a series that was tailored specifically for beginners. He picked out 26 postures from the original 84 that that were specific to a lot of the ailments that people in the Western world suffered from like diabetes, obesity, heart failure, arthritis and things like that. He studied with his guru and put them in a sequence that is performed exactly the same every time we do class, so it never changes. And that’s why the medical benefits from Bikram yoga in particular are so well noted. It covers the entire body and it addresses all the systems of the body that are affected by western lifestyle like being sedentary, being behind a desk, driving cars a lot, eating bad foods and that kind of thing.”
Candace Rose: What would you say are some of the biggest myths and misconceptions about Bikram Yoga?
Jessica Rask: “The biggest misconception is not even specific to Bikram yoga, but yoga in general. People hear the word yoga and they think they’re just going to be sitting on a mat with their legs crossed meditating, that it’s not very physical. Any time you hear ‘Hatha yoga (there are eight limbs of yoga and Hatha’ is one of those limbs) that just means a yoga posture, so you’re just performing a physical posture. So what’s happened in the west is people talk about yoga, and when they talk about yoga they’re normally just speaking about Hatha yoga, but Hatha yoga has become so diluted because there are so many different styles. The main confusion with Bikram is that it’s something different than Hatha yoga. We’ll have a lot of people coming for their first class and say ‘I practice regular yoga’.
In India you do have the eight limbs of yoga, and we’ve heard about some of them, but not specific to yoga. For instance “Tantra” is one of the eight limbs of yoga, so when people hear other people say ‘you’re practicing Tantra yoga’, they can associate that with sex, but what people don’t realize is it’s one of the eight limbs of yoga just like Hatha yoga is. The common misconception about Bikram, that it’s not ‘normal yoga’. We do it in the heat and people associate that with something different than regular yoga, but the artificial heat was created by Bikram, because in India where he’s from and where he learned was not sitting in a nice facility with lights and candles and music. He was on a cement floor in a hut where it was hot and humid outside because it was in India. It was intended to simulate the same conditions that people have in India when they practice yoga. A lot of the Western world associates the heat with something different from regular yoga. The biggest misconception is that people think it’s not Hatha yoga, but it is. People think that it’s not for beginners, but it is. It’s specifically designed for beginners.”
Candace Rose: So it’s totally fine for beginners?
Jessica Rask: “It’s totally fine for beginners to take it. A good way to think about it is every posture has a beginning, there’s always something you can do. One of the beautiful things about this series is it’s not divided into levels. In a lot of different yoga styles you’ll have a level one, level two, level three; and you don’t really know when you pass into those other levels, and they don’t have the same descriptions for the postures that we have. Ours is very vocal and audible. We speak the postures to the students rather than demonstrate to them, so they really listen to what you’re saying and do it to however their body can do it. Over time the body starts to recondition and change, and because we do the same postures over time, you really get to see that progression in each posture, so maybe in a year you’re doing something on the first day you could never do.
One of the biggest fears that people have is heat in particular. And it is hot, there’s no getting away from that, but it doesn’t feel like it feels outside when it’s 105 degrees. That’s hard to explain, but it just doesn’t feel the same as it feels in the sun at 105 degrees. When you think about it, the temperature is not much higher than your body’s natural core temperature. Even though we’re not used to sitting around in 105 degrees, it’s not like a sauna or something that’s way over what the body’s temperature is. One of the reasons that you sweat is to keep the body cool. What I tell people when they are really nervous about the heat is you’ll get used to it quickly, but the biggest thing you can do for yourself is just start, and when you start to feel like you’re panicky because it’s hot in the room or you feel overheated, just sit down and take a few breaths because there’s no pressure to do the whole thing right away. You can always take it easy and sit down on your mat and breathe and focus on yourself, and that’s practicing yoga too. You don’t actually have to be doing the postures, you can just be going through the experience and be with yourself for a little while and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Candace Rose: What should we expect at our first Bikram yoga class?
Jessica Rask: “You should expect to be very physically challenged. You sweat a lot, you will have your heart rate go up pretty early in class without even taking a step off of your mat (because of the postures your heart rate will start to rise). The only consistent thing I can say for everyone in their first class is they will sweat a lot; they will feel like they worked hard and overwhelmingly, I would say 90% of people leave feeling great after class. Now, you will always have some people don’t come in as prepared – they haven’t been hydrating well or they’ve had a lot of coffee or alcohol or tea, and a lot of processed foods in the days before, and they might struggle a bit more than somebody who has had a lot of water and has been trying to eat fruits and vegetables. It doesn’t mean that if you have a poor diet or that you don’t feel as prepared that you don’t go in. When I started, I drank alcohol, I was overweight, I ate terrible food and smoked cigarettes, and I still started my first class. Over time those cravings and the lifestyle just changed automatically because I knew how good this made me feel, and I didn’t feel good when I did those things and went to take class. It’s going to be different for everyone, but overwhelmingly you’ll have a great physical workout. You will be challenged in some ways that you probably haven’t been before and most likely you’re going to feel great after class. If you have a poor diet, you might have a headache, but you if you just drink a lot of water that will go away too. And if you go back the next day, that goes away even more quickly because the body conditions itself to the room and to the postures really, really quickly if you do it with a lot of frequency in the beginning.”
Candace Rose: What’s the proper attire, and what should we bring to our first class?
Jessica Rask: “A yoga mat and bath sized towel. I like to say that you should wear ‘the least amount of clothing that you are comfortable wearing in public’ because you do sweat a lot. In the beginning people that are more uncomfortable with their body (as I was in the beginning) will be wearing baggy shorts, a t-shirt and really quickly you’ll realize that’s not comfortable, and also nobody’s really paying attention to you other than the teacher, so it doesn’t matter. A bathing suit is good if you don’t have normal ‘whatever has become yoga clothes’. Bathing suits are fine, and maybe a pair of shorts over the bottom of the one piece. A good rule of thumb is the least amount of clothing you’re comfortable wearing in public, as long as it’s not lude.”
Candace Rose: Do you have any additional tips or information you’d like to share?
Jessica Rask: “Make sure you’re drinking tons of water before class and after class. A lot of people come in and their first go to when they feel uncomfortable is a water bottle because it’s a natural thing. You think in your head ‘I’m sweating, I don’t feel comfortable so I have to drink a lot of water’, but that affects your digestion. In an hour and a half and you’re already dehydrated, you’re not going to hydrate immediately. It takes some time. Make sure you’re drinking lots of water throughout the day - before class and after class. You want to up your water intake so that during class you don’t want to feel like you have to keep guzzling it down. It’s kind of like when you see the marathoners run, they’re drinking water but they’re not stopping to drink a whole entire two gallon bottle of water- just taking sips and start running again. It doesn’t feel great to have it splashing around in your belly.”
Candace Rose: Can you tell us about your studio?
Jessica Rask: “My first school opened in October of 2008 in the northern area of Chicago. It opened in the area that had developed in the 2000s, and there wasn’t one up there yet. We’re going on our fourth year in October, it’s a great solid base of students and a lot of them practice daily. We’ve had 12 women practice throughout their pregnancy, and have healthy babies, which is really exciting to see in four years. I’ve had people practice with cancer or have taken breaks while they’re taking chemo and come back right after the chemo is over with. It’s a really nice community at our school where the yogis get together outside of the class and people have made friends there. It’s very encouraging. I will never tell someone that they can’t practice yoga because I truly believe that yoga is for healing purposes. We’ve had people practice with a cast (after surgery or with broken arms) and we just sit them in a chair and let them do their thing. I’ve tried to develop it as a place that’s open for everyone and where everyone feels comfortable no matter what their shape or size to come into the room and really work on themselves. For me personally, it was really hard for me when I was overweight to go into the gym. I just hated going there, so I wanted to make sure I built a place and environment in that first school where everyone regardless of what they look like could come in, feel comfortable and really work to make their life better. My next school will be opening in St. Louis this coming fall.”
For more information on Bikram Yoga Midwest please visit: HotYogaMidwest.com; follow Jessica and Bikram Yoga Midwest Andersonville, Chicago or her newest location in St. Louis on Facebook; and on Twitter: @ByAndersonville.