Ten “Secret” Tips for Bikram Yogis

When you practice Bikram/hot yoga, you may notice that some teachers deliver a “dialogue” which is intended to give you the verbal cues needed to do the posture. And if you’re lucky some teachers provide nuggets of wisdom about the health benefits of postures or tricks to move deeper.

Here are ten secret tips that teachers don’t talk about very often in class, but have really helped my practice. Some of these come from the many great teachers I’ve had over they years, and some are my own!

Ten Tips for Bikram Yoga

1 – Only smile if you feel like it.

Some teachers are obsessed with asking students to smile during class. This is a somewhat controversial topic, but I feel strongly that you should only smile if you feel like it. For me, smiling in class takes me away from my meditation and concentration. Also, yoga is hard and we work through a lot of physical and emotional pain in class. Yoga is serious business and sometimes it’s ok for our faces to reflect that serious work. Like with anything, it’s ok to smile from time to time to see if it feels right, but don’t feel like you need to put on a happy face just because the teacher asked you to.

2 – Tight hamstrings? Work your sit ups.

One of the best tips I learned was to focus on executing really good sit ups in order to increase my hamstring flexibility. In standing head to knee and standing bow I was struggling with getting past my tight legs. By focusing on the pull and stretch at the end of each sit up, I gradually opened up my hamstrings and the standing postures became easier. Take an extra moment to get a really good stretch at the end of each sit up. Bonus tip: work really hard in pada hasthasana (the first stretching pose in half-moon.)

3 – Relax the inside of your mouth.

Teeth_OrinZebest_CCIt’s common when we first start practicing to clench our jaws or tighten our faces. In time we learn to relax and release our faces and jaws, but many of us – including myself – still tighten the inside of our mouths.

Think about if you were holding water inside your mouth, that whole area can easily become tense when we’re working hard. Try relaxing this space and notice what happens with your breath and heart rate, they should both even out.

4 – Pull your “wings” in during savasana. 

I have shoulders that naturally roll forward from years of swimming. As a result, when I lay in savasana, my shoulders roll forward. Think of tucking your “wings” (aka scapula) in when you lay on your back. You will notice your shoulders naturally roll back creating a more relaxed savasana.

5 – Add strength training to your routine. 

For years I drank the Bikram kool-aid and thought you didn’t need to do any other complimentary exercise to maintain a healthy body. I still believe that solely doing Bikram yoga is great for your body and mind, but as I have aged, I’ve noticed a decrease in my muscle tone and mass, despite having a consistent practice.

Adding strength training a few times a week has not only helped my overall health (you can read about the many health benefits of strength training here) but has also improved my practice. It has helped me tone and strengthen the muscle groups not adequately strengthened in the beginning 26 posture series.

6 – Work your biceps, glutes and center back.

These are the three areas I’ve noticed receive less attention during the beginning class. If you take up strength training be sure to work these three areas to compliment your practice. Also keep in mind the postures that you can work these muscles, but we often choose not to.

  • Biceps: hands to feet pose (last part of half-moon pose), standing separate leg stretching, wind removing pose, sit ups, and final stretching.
  • Glutes: All spine strengthening poses, squeeze those buns!
  • Center back: squeeze the central part of your back in between your scapula during triangle, separate leg stretching, half moon, standing bow, balancing stick, standing separate leg head to knee, tree/toe stand and full locust pose.

7 – Be mindful of righteous thoughts that will hold you back.

I have learned this lesson the hard way. For years I struggled in spine strengthening series (I still do) and wouldn’t work as hard as I could or needed to. I would tell myself that the reason I couldn’t work hard in those postures is because I worked so hard in the standing series that I was physically shot. If other people worked as hard I do in standing series, they would struggle with spine strengthening too.

All of those thoughts are a bunch of hooey and have only held me back. The result is I’ve cheated myself for years in spine strengthening and my practice has suffered as a result. Get over your righteous thoughts, and into your postures. It’s hard, I know, but many yogis get stuck in this mindset and never leave.

As Bikram says, “Your mind is like a bad neighborhood, stay out of it.”

8 – If you struggle with the heat, take a longer savasana at the end of class.

If you struggle with the heat during class, a long savasana will help you cope with heat the next time you practice. As a nordic Minnesotan I used to think anything over 60 degrees was balmy. You can imagine my rebellion when I started practicing in a room that was 105 degrees with 40% humidity — in short, I hated the heat.

The final savasana is a great time for your body to acclimate to the heat without physically exerting yourself. If you want to run out of the room and jump in a cold lake the second the teacher leaves class, you’re not alone. Once you feel like you’re fully relaxed in savasana, take ten more deep breaths.

9 – It’s all about your quads in Standing Separate Leg Stretching pose. 

This posture is easy to relax and let gravity do the work. This posture is ALL about squeezing your quadricep muscles with all your might. This is another posture where your biceps play an important role, but you can only use your biceps if you’re properly activating your quads (otherwise you can risk pulling your hamstrings and lower back.)

Think about sucking in your stomach while squeezing your quads the whole time in this posture. You’ll find it is more strenuous and requires an incredible amount of mental discipline. Many of us are fatigued at this point since it comes after the balancing series, but, for advanced yogis – try working this posture and see what comes.

An important note: if this posture is not done properly you can, and will, overstretch the back of your legs and inflame your sciatic nerve, please follow the instructions properly and squeeze those quads and stomach muscles!

10 – Avoid looking at your cell phone right after class. 

It’s so tempting, I know! You’ve just spent 90 minutes cleansing your body and mind, enjoy it. All day we’re attached to our electronics, computers, phones, Twitter, texts and email. Enjoy the peace of mind you’ve cultivated. Try not to look at your phone until you’re back home.

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Photo credit: OrinZebest, Tiffany Assman, Lynn Redmile – Creative Commons

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41 Responses to Ten “Secret” Tips for Bikram Yogis

  1. mishel November 12, 2013 at 5:44 pm #

    totally agree. specially the “smiling” part. It totally bugs me when a teacher tells me to smile. If I smile, it’s because it happened naturally.

    • Lindsay Dahl November 13, 2013 at 4:00 am #

      Ditto to that! Glad you liked the post :)

    • Soo November 20, 2013 at 10:15 am #

      People used to say to me that I look upset or so serious while practicing, but I feel totally happy in my practice. I focus on the practice 100 percent and maybe that makes me look upset.
      So my friends, if I look sad in the class, it means I’m fully enjoying my yoga! :)

      • Lindsay Dahl November 20, 2013 at 2:16 pm #

        I couldn’t agree more- people say that to me all the time! As long as you’re happy that’s what matters.

  2. norma November 13, 2013 at 5:10 am #

    i totally agreed.

  3. Rainbow Patchouli Bracelet November 14, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

    I actually like the ‘fake smile’ moment in class. It’s not really that important to be serious, more like it’s important to be in the moment. So I just take it as a moment to do a fake smile. The real smiles can happen on their own.

    My hamstrings are soooo tight. I wouldn’t believe it if you told me that a person was out there that’s done about 500 classes and is just barely getting to ’90 degrees, let alone touching the head, in forward fold. So, thank you for that tip to work the situps right.

    And #9, of course. This finally is kicking in. There’s a lot of talk from teachers about pulling up the quads, but it wasn’t until I actually squeezed them in, pulled them and the hamstrings into the bone, that I felt the connection to the stomach and could begin to have a core to work this with too.

    Great tips overall.

    • Lindsay Dahl November 14, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

      I’m glad you like the fake smile moment! I must have some resistor gene in me or something – ha! My hamstrings aren’t flexible either, so I hear ya on that one. Let me know if working on your sit ups/stretching helps!

  4. Yvonne November 15, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    I am not sure if I like the fake smile but it reminds me to relax/

    I have practiced for around a year but still cannot do some postures due to the top of my thighs end of glutes (at the back of my thighs) being very tight. I have had physio and was told that Bickram yoga may not be for me. I contnued physio and bikram yoga but my symptoms got worse. I stopped yoga and continued wiht the physio and have seen a dramatic improvement.
    Physio advises not to give up yoga, and I would hate to as I love it and need it. Have you ever come accross someone where Bickram yoga does not suit?

    • Lindsay Dahl November 15, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

      Hi Yvonne – I’m not a physician, but sounds like you’ve got an inflamed sciatic nerve (which is what I had — is that what your doctor told you?) If it is, I suggest taking it easy in standing separate leg stretching (#9 in the post) and be really careful when doing standing head to knee not to put the weight back in your heel. See if that helps!

    • Glenn February 22, 2014 at 11:26 am #

      I have had Physio tell me to lay off the Yoga. That was not an option for me. So I did what was the hardest thing for me to do and that was to be very aware of what I could do and what I couldn’t do during the class. Any forward bending was not good for me so I had to modify or sit out. I noticed that it was my Ego that had the hardest part in this. I worked hard in the postures I could, stayed in the first part when needed and sat out when really needed ….. what I found was that my back started to feel better after class not like before when I pushed to hard. The teachers dialogue really tries ti push you so ignoring that and my ego was what I found the hardest. I am still working through this in class but I am noticing that I am starting to be okay with who I am and where I am at and not where I think I should be …..

      • Lindsay Dahl February 22, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

        Glenn, you’re right on. The hardest part is listening to your body sometimes. We either want to push too hard and hurt ourselves, or we cut ourselves short by slacking. I’ve had to work through injuries where I’ve had similar moments as the ones you describe.

  5. Petra November 19, 2013 at 4:05 am #

    The first tip is very important and one that I often forget! I would, however, caution anyone about pulling too hard with their biceps in any posture. Pulling too hard can pull/ strain muscles. Though I love Bikram yoga and have been a regular practitioner for 6 years, there have been many times I have pulled too hard only to suffer pulled muscles for several days — or longer.

    • Lindsay Dahl November 19, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

      Good point Petra, everything within ones ability. Pulling with the biceps is good, pulling too hard is not.

  6. Shawna Cunningham November 19, 2013 at 5:15 am #

    Great tips. As Emmy says,”You have to put your mind inside your legs and lock your knees.” (#9)

    • Lindsay Dahl November 19, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

      I love this. Exactly!

  7. Misty November 20, 2013 at 5:39 am #

    Lindsay you rock ma
    I am one of those teachers that requires u bring your a game,leave ya rep at the door if not calling you out
    for there’s only 90 minutes to stick and move and some body needs some relief so I give it all

    Before Bikram I taught massage therapy and somatic body mvmt so breath and fascia super important in changing the “matrix” but if you thin it out too quick there will be injuries meaning every pose had a strength and flexibility

    I’m so happy you wrote this article cause strength training can happen in Bikram but you gotta listen and get there immediately So 108 squat, planks (10min hold ,side and elbow ) and 5-8 minutes of complete stillness q d
    Cheers Lindsay it’s your so cool

    • Lindsay Dahl April 7, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

      Thank you!

  8. Mary November 25, 2013 at 10:00 pm #

    Thank you. I would add for those new to the practice, listen to the instructor and do what they say, no more, no less.

    • Lindsay Dahl April 7, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

      Yes good point Mary about listening to the instructor!

  9. veggiebytes September 8, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

    I have been practicing Bikram yoga for about 3 years and finally started strength training this Spring. It has made a difference and I can open jars. I started below normal muscle tone everywhere but my upper body did not improve at all with Bikram yoga.
    I’m also including some ashtanga classes for the same reason.

  10. Stephen October 7, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

    …”Smile” … “Happy smiling face” … Really?, its an issue?…. just no constipated face …. thats Bikram’s intent … Let’s not get hung up on letters collected together to form words that take us away from understanding meaning…. Just keep your face in a gentle expression so as not to reinforce the negative, to not remind of some sensation which is good but perhaps not desirable, or distract from the work at hand… “You don’t need to tell everyone how much fun you are having” … Same as “relax the inside of your mouth” ;) ….S

    • Lindsay Dahl October 7, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

      Stephen, I agree with you. But many teachers are insistent on smiling in class. I want to give folks the option not to smile as long as they aren’t scrunching up their faces :)

  11. Marissa March 30, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

    Hi! I am suffering from tight hamstrings. They used to be limber and lovely but I think over doing my standing bow shot them and now I can’t get into my stretches they way i used to. Other than working on my sit ups ( I can’t get into those as deep as I used to either) do you have any other suggestions how to let my hammies heal and get back to their limber selves?

    Thanks so much!
    Marissa

    • Lindsay Dahl March 30, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

      Hi Marissa, I have temporarily overstretched my hamstrings before and at least with me, after backing off on (Standing Bow etc) you will repair and likely regain your flexibility. Depending on how long it’s been that you feel you lost your flexibility, try giving yourself a few weeks where you take is slow and easy on the stretches. Then once you feel like the pain has gone away, work them again very slowly and consistently. How often are you practicing? If you’re only practicing 1 or 2 times a week be careful, getting deep stretches are best when you have a consistent practice (4-5 times a week). Standing separate leg stretching, the first stretching pose (hands to feet) and final stretching are all great places to open up. You can also read this other blog I wrote on the topic: http://www.lindsaydahl.com/increase-flexibility-with-bikram-yoga/

  12. Paul October 31, 2015 at 1:02 am #

    Great tips! Shared in my newsletter :)

  13. Cynthia September 3, 2016 at 3:55 pm #

    I usually practice Ashtanga Yoga, that really helps with the strength, and I like the quiet while practising in my own pace. every now and then when it is cold I go to a hot yoga studio to enjoy the different angle on the movement and sweat even without the effort ;) I find with age and knowledge I like to follow my inspiration rather than the instructions

  14. Shades of yoga April 12, 2017 at 5:57 am #

    I LOVE THIS! Thank you for articulating so wonderfully the realities of a yoga life and career.

  15. Shades of yoga April 12, 2017 at 8:41 pm #

    Fantabulous piece of work. Thank you for sharing this information.

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