400 sessions of the 26+2 yoga series known as Bikram Yoga. Each class is 90 minutes in a hot room, a yoga style that builds mental and physical willpower. For ten years now, I’ve observed and experienced how this yoga changes people.
The Tapas (fire) of Yoga
First it will get harder
Then it will get easier
Then it will get different
Then it will get way different . . . but so will you.
I started yoga in Hawaii when I happened to walk into a Bikram Yoga Studio in order to fix my bad back. After starting, I kept track of each session because I knew it could become important. I completed 325 classes during the four years I practiced in Hawaii. Most of my Arizona practices – by contrast – have been 75 minutes with music and limited dialogue.
It’s been known for Centuries that applying heat in ritual transformations tends to create and accelerate change. Mircea Eliade, former chair of the Department of History of Religions at the University of Chicago, wrote in YOGA: Immortality and Freedom, that the Rg-Veda identified heat and ardor with ascetic effort as a tapas. It serves to “heighten the physico-chemical processes (of making gold) and is the ‘vehicle’ for psychic and spiritual operations.”
North American Medicine Men shared this practice too in the sweat. Eliade wrote of this, and other transformational rituals in his 1951 book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.
Yoga people find out that the practice of yoga in a hot room is hard. Writer Alyssa Dunn put it like this, “My yoga practice isn’t always stable. I don’t always feel refreshed coming off of my mat. I don’t always accomplish the goals that I set for each practice. There are days where my mind tells me that I simply can’t do it. There are even days where my body tells me that I can’t do it. But it’s called a practice for a reason.”
When practicing yoga, I don’t put goals in front of me, yet I often dedicate my practice to something or someone without any expectations for an outcome. During yoga, I trust that practicing these “archaic techniques” will do for me what must be done. And what has it done? Sharpened my focus, strengthened my spine, refined my habits, softened my step, and clarified my boundaries.
But there is more: yoga’s tapas has melted me into surrender, taught me to absorb my pain, and come to balance. It’s moved me to control my breath and pay attention to everything. Its a tapas that’s made everything way different.
In a 26+2 practice, yogis are counseled to concentrate on their experience and not concern themselves with what others are doing. But it’s nearly impossible to not notice others. I do, and it leads me to respect each of them.
I’ve witnessed them and honored their struggle while observing their resolve. In deeper awareness, in growing surrender, in firmer ardor, I stand in a group where all of us are walking on air, touching the sun and moon simultaneously, and turning stone to gold.