Interview with Michele Pernetta is the chief instructor of Bikram Yoga in the UK. She is responsible for the introduction of Bikram yoga to the country, and started the first studio. She now owns and runs Bikram Yoga North, Bikram Yoga West and Bikram Yoga City and teaches the technique at the 3 studios.
Q. What does Bikram mean and where does this type of Yoga originate from?
A. “Bikram” is the name of the creator of the system Bikram Choudhury. He is an Indian Yoga Master and former 3 time yoga champion. The system was developed with the help of his guru Bishnu Ghosh.
Bikram Yoga is Hatha Yoga but it is the sequence of the 26 postures and two Pranayama breathing excercises that make it unique. These postures are taken from the series of 84 classic Asanas originating from a series codified between the 5th and 10th century AD by the Nath sect.
In Bikrams beginners class (that is taught at each of the studios) each posture prepares you for the next. Due to the medical testing on the poses, and the approx 90 years of it’s development through Bikram’s guru Bishnu Ghosh**, the final development of the postures forms a perfect sequence.
** brother of Parahamsa Yogananda who started the Self Realisation Fellowship.
Q. Do you believe Bikram Yoga is more advantageous than other types of Yoga or do all forms complement each other?
A. Most forms of Hatha yoga originate from the same “alphabet” of classical yoga poses. The different styles of yoga arose via the different teachers that gave their own combination of these poses a certain focus or slant. Therefore, in this sense, the different styles come from the same source and can compliment each other.
Having tried most of the other systems, I believe that each person needs to make up their mind by going and trying each one and giving each style a chance to prove its suitability. You can’t judge after a few classes though, you really need to do it for a while. I feel that the sequence of Bikram Yoga is uniquely beneficial, physically, medically and mentally, and ultimately spiritually. The uniqueness of the hot room that allows the deep stretching whilst avoiding injury and the detoxification that occurs through the sweating is extremely beneficial. Many people who would not fit a ‘traditional’ yoga participant profile come to Bikram Yoga because it is very user friendly, non threatening and safe. However it is also hailed as “the hardest class you will ever do!” This combination of it being challenging enough for an athlete, but simple and safe enough for a total beginner, make it very appealing.
Q. Can you explain the importance and relationship of breathing in relation to Bikram Yoga?
A. The Bikram series starts with Pranayama which oxygenates the blood, calms the mind and brings our attention to the breath so we can anchor the mind to it. Students are then reminded to breathe smoothly and slowly through the nose throughout the class. We do not practice Ujayii breathing (the audible throat breathing that is performed in Ashtanga Yoga). Ujayii is designed to maintain a heat in the body which as the room is heated, and the poses at the beginning of the class are more strenuous, is simply not necessary. Most people have enough to comprehend merely awakening the breath as a feeling and sensitive practise without any need of more technically elaborate breathing techniques. As a result we encourage practitioners to allow the breath to be their own personal journey and to allow it to awaken in its own natural way without too much thought. We do guide them to use their breath to bring energy before a pose, or an exhale to take them into a stretch and to never hold the breath. This awareness of the breath brings many wonderful awakenings releases and realisations in the practitioner. Bikram believes that the less said about it the better. It is a non-verbal experience and the less thought we give it the more likely it is that the more spiritual aspects of our breath, as the connection between body, mind and emotion/feeling, will awaken. People have found for example that learning to breathe slowly and smoothly in a challenging class means that they can stay calm and relaxed in the stressful situations of life.
Many people have expressed that their preference for Bikram Yoga is based on the fact that the spiritual development that often occurs over time is left for the person to discover. It is merely complemented by the teachers guidance of breath, drishti**, patience, commitment, bravery, deep feeling and surrender. It is not preached or imposed and is allowed to awaken in the practitioner at their own pace. Many people appreciate this and Bikram Yoga, although a classical hatha yoga in the Indian tradition, intrinsically forms the basis and preparation for a spiritual practise. This attracts people from all religions and all walks of life.
**Drishti, a Sanskrit term used in yoga to refer to the gaze.
Q. What are the ultimate aims of Bikram Yoga? Is the primary element the mental fitness or physical fitness?
A. That is totally up to the practitioner. You could attend with the goal of relieving knee or back problems, but perhaps it will lead you into the surrender of the ego with the 90 minute meditation that Bikram Yoga can encompass. I have been practising Bikram Yoga for 15 years and I began wanting to heal my knees and get fit. I then developed into wanting to be good at the poses but found found I struggled due to a great deal of inner criticism. Eventually I realised that all this was unnecessary and just stopped caring what I looked like in the pose and went deeper into the moment by moment meditation and the surrender of the mind. Through the breath and body the poses became just a tool to anchor the mind and surrender through. Now I may sometimes use the class as a way of purifying all the mental garbage one can accumulate during a day or just to forget my “self” for 90 minutes in the simplicity of the breath and the alignment of the body mind and feeling into that which is greater than us.
Q. How does Bikram Yoga cross over from the classroom or activity centre into your everyday life?
A. As I mentioned before, the ability to breathe, stay calm and centred during challenging situations is an invaluable tool in life. This is what we learn through yoga. By learning compassion for ourselves and gentle awareness of the moment we can become loving and compassionate to others. The yoga practise allows us to develop life skills, such as patience (learning to master a difficult pose), honesty (to do the pose honestly and not try to fake it, or change it so it is easier) dedication and commitment (coming to class even when we would prefer to sit on the couch), hard work (being prepared to go beyond our desire for the easy way, and submit to working hard in the poses, fearlessness (some parts of the class can bring up emotions and limitations that require bravery to move through), as well as just taking the time out of our lives to spend 90 minutes with ourselves, to get to know ourselves and all that we are. This awakens us to our higher self and makes the yoga practitioner a more fulfilled and integrated human being. It also teaches us that we are responsible for ourselves, our health, our thoughts, our feelings and provides us with a tool through which we can develop this responsibility. It gives us the chance to deal with our emotions, mind forms and even pain and discomfort in a safe and caring environment where we are not being asked to be anything other than what we are today. Yoga teaches us to love ourselves and this is the first step to becoming a human being that can magnify love in the world.
Q. Happiness of the soul is a key aspect to Bikram. Does this mean that the yoga practice can help with such things as depression?
A. A recent study at the California Medical University showed that backward bending was the most effective thing one could do for depression! Many people have used yoga as a way to bring about a change in state for the better. Detoxification is very powerful against depression. Neurotic thoughts can be simply a product of toxicity! The poses and the breath bring us into confrontation with things we have not dealt with emotionally and through them and the gentle movement we can often pass through these issues. Many poses affect the hormonal balance such as elevating seratonin levels, that are the natural ‘feel good” hormones, leaving us feeling happy and grounded.
More importantly though, is the fact that yoga brings us back to our native state by removing the limits, the false self image , the deceptions, the stress, toxicity and all the layers of defence and immunisation that this world can require us to develop. Yoga returns us to our true state of happiness.
About Michele Pernetta
Q. You used Bikram Yoga to overcome/heal a knee injury. What brought you to yoga as a path to overcome the problem instead of opting for surgery?
A. I believed that the body had the power to heal itself. I lived in Los Angeles and someone suggested I go to the “knee guru” as Bikram is known, and with surgery as the only option I had been offered, I thought “what do I have to lose?” I was an avid martial artist and had no immediate inclination to try yoga. I didn’t think it would offer the same intensity I was looking for at that time. How wrong I was!
Q. Apart from performing Bikram Yoga what other healthy living activities do you incorporate in your daily life?
A. I have a spiritual master, the guru Adi Da Samraj. As a devotee of his I adhere to the disciplines he advocates which include daily meditation, puja, service, tithing and study amongst other practises. I am also a big advocate of enjoying your food!! Happiness and life positive energy are huge health enhancers and I also believe that hard work is good for you!
Attending a Bikram Yoga class
Q. What is it important to think about when attending a class?
A. Arrive hydrated, so drink a litre of water 2 hours before arriving, and don’t eat a heavy meal within 2 hours of a class. The best thing to think about is that you are just there to go easy for the first few classes. Stay in your comfort zone, do what you can and don’t feel you have to look good. Its hard to look good when covered in sweat! Sit down if you feel like it and be reassured that the first few classes are by far the worst. It gets easier and easier. Most of the detox, stiffness and discomfort is diminished greatly after the first 3 or 4 classes. Bikram says the worse you feel the more you need it! He says a healthy body will not object to this class.
Q. Is Bikram Yoga for any gender and age? Is it suitable for pregnant women?
A. Yes, we have 40% men, the highest ratio of any yoga style. You can start at 8 or 80!! It’s never too late. It is safe and user friendly for all ages and fitness levels. We have a pregnancy series, developed by Bikram’s wife Rajashree, and a pregnancy video that has been approved by the American Medical Association.
We advise women who are pregnant and have already been practising the yoga to continue their yoga practise, going easy and doing the modified poses. However, women who want to start the yoga for the first time and are pregnant we advise to wait until the baby is born and then come to lose the weight after baby is here.
Q. What life changing experiences if any have you seen amongst your students practicing Bikram Yoga?
A. How long have you got!! Thousands and thousands. Testimonials are also on the bikramyoga.com website.
I have had students who have rehabilitated after chemotherapy. Another lady got through her divorce by coming to class and letting all the stress go. Two of my male students kicked their drug habits through their Bikram Yoga practise. Many people have been without pain for the first time in their life just by coming to yoga.