This past week, I decided to do something a bit different with my training. I'd been feeling a bit of cycling fatigue: all of those long, long hours on the bike that I'd mentioned in my last column were starting to wear on me, and frankly, I needed a break from the saddle. So rather than continue with another long week of riding, or give up altogether and take a rest week, I decided to spend some time working on core and flexibility. Sure, I could have hit the gym, or popped in an exercise video. But the chance to test something out and write an article while doing it was too good to pass up, and so I ended up taking advantage of a beginner special at Bikram Yoga in Northampton, Massachusetts. Unlimited 90-minute classes for a week, in a room heated to 105 degrees with a humidifier running the whole time. And since I was still riding, it's not exactly as if it was a rest week. More of an adventure week with deep breathing and a whole lot of sweating.
I'm not the kind of person who's into yoga for the spiritual benefits, if I'm being honest. I'm more about the flexibility and core aspects, so the whole proper breathing/clearing your mind thing really isn't my style. Bikram, however, is a weird combination of the two styles: it's hard -- there's a lot of balance and stretching involved, and the heat ensures that your body is always working -- but it's also very gently flowing, and even I was starting to get on board with the whole "focusing inward" jazz. Still, for me, there were several main benefits, none of which were spiritual.
1. Heat training! Learning to breathe deeply in a room that's 40% humidity and 105 degrees hot is going to be sort of awesome in helping me survive mid-summer races that normally beat me up. It's been making breathing on rides a lot easier too, which I credit to the deep breathing during class, and the fact that no matter how hard a pose is, you're supposed to breathe only through your nose.
2. Flexibility increase: my knees feel a million times better, and my posture got better after just a couple of days. When I'm riding, my back isn't as stiff as it was before, which is a nice bonus.
3. Core/balance: I recently started mountain biking, which is in itself an article for another day. When I started doing yoga and working on the balance poses, I found myself getting through turns faster and correcting to avoid crashes with much more ease than before. I think at least part of this is because I'm learning better balance and control.
4. Sweating all the bad stuff out! There's nothing like working up a good sweat, and this class is awesome. Every time I finish class and rinse off, I feel about a thousand times cleaner and more energized. Sure, I'm also wicked dehydrated, but that just means I drink a whole lot more water. So my system feels a lot cleaner, toxins feel removed, blah blah blah, yoga-speak.
Anyway, don't take my word for it! My yoga instructor for the past week, Audrey Liley, was awesome enough to sit down and answer a few questions for me, since my yoga knowledge isn't exactly all that stellar. I just know that flexible, I ain't.
My first question was, what the heck is Bikram yoga? I didn't realize that it was named after a guy, and I certainly didn't realize that it was a relatively recent development. Audrey told me, "Bikram yoga is a series of 26 postures and two breathing exercise that was developed by Bikram Choudhury. He created this series by putting together the 26 and two that work the entire body in each 90 minute class. The series is the safest way for everyone, no matter the age, fitness level, ability level, size, et cetera, to heal the body inside and out."
Of course, more importantly, I wanted to know if she thought a cyclist would get any benefits from the class. I knew it felt good for me, but I wasn't sure if that was just an individual thing. "There are endless ways that a cyclist could benefit from this yoga. First, the cardiovascular benefits from they yoga. In this class you work your heart and lungs so that they function together as efficiently as possible. Second, yoga opens the joints to allow for smoother movement. Third, this yoga helps to improve focus and concentration.. on and on!"
As a triathlete, I admit that one of Audrey's tips for a first timer really stuck out to me. After all, I spent my first two years of racing wearing a sport bikini rather than a skinsuit or bibs and a jersey, so for me, the class didn't feel too strange. For cyclists used to piling on the layers, especially since winter is just now winding down, it might be a bit daunting, walking into hot yoga for the first time and seeing the state of dress (or undress) that most people are in. But if you do decide to give it a shot, Audrey has a couple of suggestions: "Hydrate well before class. Wear the least amount of clothing you are comfortable wearing. Take as many classes as you can in the first week of practice."
Good thing they offer the beginner special. Audrey is completely right: taking classes every day for that week was extremely helpful, and incredibly gratifying. I found myself making small improvements daily, which was really exciting for me.
Of course, almost more important than her tips for taking class were her recovery tips: "The best recovery post-yoga is water and maybe a nap after the first few classes, although many people feel really re-energized after class. Electrolyte replacement is also recommended."
During every class, I felt like I needed a nap about halfway through. But by the time the class was over, I was usually the first one bouncing off my mat and out of the hot room, excited to get moving on the rest of my day. It definitely woke me up in a way that a hard bike ride never does. That said, usually it woke me up so I wanted to go for a ride and wear myself out, so I was exhausted by the end of the day anyway. The only down side to Bikram is that, while it's great for balance and flexibility, it's not really a huge workout in the way a more fitness-oriented yoga class tends to be. But that's actually perfect with my riding schedule. It's an addition, not a substitution, so it doesn't wear you out for riding later.
My last question for Audrey was about how a super competitive type-A personality cyclist should approach yoga. I know I had a problem with it because, no matter how easy they told me to take it, I still wanted to "beat" the person next to me and "win" each posture. I'm embarrassed to admit how excited I was when the instructors would point out how well I did a move, and how bummed I'd be when they suggested corrections.
Audrey actually laughed about that, and said, "Most people who are drawn to Bikram yoga are super type-a and pretty competitive."
She then explained how they manage to calm it down for those people: "Luckily the words we use and the intensity of the practice generally takes some of that edge off the competitive nature, but that feeling is very normal. I suggest that everyone practice the class like it is their first time, no matter if they have practiced this yoga for years. Bikram himself is a very intense person who started yoga at the age of 5, but also did competitive weight lifting until he suffered a severe knee injury. He left weight lifting and focused on yoga to heal this knee."
Whoa. A weight-lifting yogi? This guy might be my hero.
So moral of the story: if you're looking for a new supplement to spice up your routine, check out a hot yoga, or specifically, a Bikram yoga, class. It might be kind of cool. (Pun intended.)