A few years ago I discovered Bikram hot yoga. It is a teacher-led 90 minute series of postures and breathing exercises that take place in a room set at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s intense, to say the least. After my first class, I recall texting my friend who had suggested it to me: “I felt like I was slowly dying.” The combination of the heat, discomfort of contorting and holding my body in ways that felt impossible, and my inside voice trying to talk me into leaving or giving up – wow.
I practiced Bikram yoga for a few years but it fell of my schedule when graduate school began two years ago. Eventually, I made excuses for why I couldn’t go – it’s too much money, I don’t have time. Really, I was scared. After falling out of the rhythm of the practice, I feared facing the discomfort, the discipline, and the internal and external work that the practice demands. Yet, these are exactly the reasons why I was drawn to it, which is why I have integrated it into my life again. I did so while taking this course, so I was especially keyed into the meditative aspect of the practice.
The experience of hot yoga is like the ‘extreme sports’ version of meditation. All realms of human experience – physical, emotional, mental – are pushed to the forefront of our attention and awareness. We willingly engage in the discomfort. We mindfully step into the pain and uncertainty of it. We accept that pain and discomfort are part of the process. Using language from Buddhism, we could say that we invite suffering, but we do so in a way that we become intimate with it. We get to know it and understand it in a way that our pain and our fear of the pain no longer hold us captive. Now, when I notice my mind starting to drum up excuses for why “I can’t make it to yoga today”, I remind myself of the benefits. After each class I feel tremendous relief and accomplishment. I feel in tune with myself on an intimate (and very sweaty) level. The feeling is not unlike when I leave sessions with my therapist. I experience a sense of freedom and grounded-ness.
From a therapeutic perspective, this is what we do with clients. We walk alongside them as they delve into their pain. We remind them of their innate strength and ability to free themselves from the suffering of holding on to their pain. Sometimes we help clients to recognize that there is any pain at all. People often don’t realize that they have been throwing salt on old emotional wounds for years, and in not tending to those wounds, they have been perpetuating their own suffering. Their minds act as a shield to ‘protect’ (more like, avoid) their emotional selves when, in fact, their emotional selves need to be unshielded so that they can get the much needed attention and care. As with meditation, therapy “provides a method of getting the mind out of the way so that [clients] can be at one with [their] experience” (Epstein, 1998, p. 53).
As a therapist-in-training, the meditation and yoga practices are irrefutable in terms of my developing sharper attention and a deeper sense of empathy. The calm and grounding that I receive from these practices, in conjunction with going to therapy regularly, will allow me to be more present with my clients as well as in my day-to-day life. “Like meditation, psychotherapy has the potential to reveal how much of our thinking is an artificial construction designed to help us cope with an unpredictable world” (Epstein, 1998, p. 170). Through meditation or therapy, we can begin to swing the wrecking ball at this artificial construction, and learn to step into the uncertainty of the world armed with the awareness that we can deal with whatever comes our way.