Bikram Yoga for Cancer Recovery: Carolyn T.

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When Carolyn was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, Bikram Yoga became her rock, helping her to get through her treatment with more ease and less fatigue. Though she hasn’t taken to the podium to teach in a while, the hot room continues to strengthen her body and mind. Find out how …

Tell us about your very first Bikram Yoga class …

I was living in Victoria at the time. I’d walked by the studio on Fort Street and was intrigued. Something about it just drew me … I can’t explain it. The windows were all steamed up and there was this gross smell (similar to my boyfriend’s hockey equipment) wafting out the door. It took me a few months of Googling (Why would you do yoga in a heated room?! What do you wear to something like that?!) before I finally decided to check it out. I wanted a change from my usual gym-rat routine, and I’d heard Bikram Yoga was physically challenging.

I remember my first class clearly. The teacher took me and two other new students into the room to set up our mats. As I walked in I was hit with a wall of intense heat. I had a feeling the pants I had on were going to be a big mistake. During the first breathing exercise me and the other new students were giggling to each other – the sounds people were making were hilarious! I wondered what the heck I’d signed myself up for.

As the class went on I became more and more sweaty and uncomfortable. I watched a woman in her 70s bend herself into positions I could never dream of doing myself (I could barely touch my hands to the floor). After the standing series I remember the teacher saying, “The warm-up is over; now the real yoga begins.” My heart felt ready to quit – I couldn’t believe they considered that a WARM UP! I thought I was physically fit, but that first class taught me otherwise. I almost got up and left the room, but when I saw the other new students sticking it out, I figured I should, too. The rest of the class took about three hours to go by – at least, it felt that long.

By the end of the class I wasn’t so sure what all the hype was about. I hadn’t enjoyed myself; I felt gross and tired and I went home and slept for the rest of the afternoon, physically defeated … but I knew I had just worked my body in a way the gym never did.

I went back four days later and signed up for an unlimited monthly pass. I had a feeling it was going to be good for me. I’d never included stretching in my fitness routine in the past, and I figured it was about time I started. The fatigue I felt after that first class started to evolve into increased energy throughout the day, and I was sleeping much better at night. It didn’t take me long to stop going to the gym, replacing it with Bikram Yoga. I’ve never felt as healthy as I do with this yoga.

How did the decision to become a teacher come about?

About a year before I went to Teacher Training in spring 2009 (with Dylan and Gabe), the owner of the Victoria studio asked me if I would consider going. That planted the seed in my brain. It took some time to get my finances and work in order, though, so I could take 10 weeks off from my “other” life. My main reason for going was for the experience. I really love the yoga, and I wanted to immerse myself fully in it. I wanted to learn as much as I could and to study from the creator of the series himself. I also wanted to help spread the yoga and all its benefits.

The best part of Teacher Training was meeting people I would have otherwise never met (my roommate and I are still in contact, though she lives in Belgium). I loved practising Bikram Yoga twice a day – honestly, the yoga was the easiest part. I have so many fond memories of that time. It was exciting. It was the start of a new life.

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The worst part was being away from my other life; it was strange how far away my old life seemed. It was like living on another planet. I missed my family and friends, and even work. I missed seeing my new puppy grow up. The lack of sleep and long days were exhausting. The worst part, physically, for me was sitting in these hard chairs during lectures all day (and night). My back and butt were always aching. I’m not used to sitting for such long periods, so I had a difficult time with that.

What do you love most about practicing Bikram Yoga?

I was fortunate to not have to start practising in order to cure myself of some injury or pain; I never had a true understanding of what others go through in those situations. However, in the spring/summer of 2011 I was diagnosed and treated for cancer. I missed nine classes to recover from surgery; on my first day back I didn’t recognize the person in the mirror. I couldn’t even lift my right arm over my head. My body and mind felt changed forever. I experienced many classes where my tears mingled with my sweat. That said, the yoga increased my range of motion dramatically and made the pain – mentally and emotionally – much more tolerable. I was able to get through my treatments with more ease and less fatigue. Without Bikram Yoga, who knows what I would have done. It was my rock at a time when things felt like they were falling apart. Today my practice is more important to me then ever. It keeps my emotions, pain and thoughts in check. I have so much more respect for my body and life in general.

What do you love most about teaching Bikram Yoga?

Though I haven’t taught yoga since I moved from Victoria to Vancouver in October 2009. I love teaching. The best part is watching students change through their practice. When you teach, you see your students in a different light. They become very vulnerable. It’s a blessing to be part of that aspect of someone’s life.

I definitely hope to teach again one day. The hardest part is my gigantic fear of public speaking. I have to get over myself and over this fear. I was able to do that through Teacher Training, but it’s been so long now that the fear has quadrupled.

What are your top three tips for students?

1. Breathe. You always have control of your breath. If you ever feel yourself freaking out, slow down and take a breath. (And don’t take yourself too seriously; it’s just yoga.)

2. Hydrate well – before you get to class. If you walk in dehydrated, you’re guaranteed to have a bad class. I personally mix juice with my water during class, and make sure I eat enough foods rich in electrolytes and minerals to replace what is lost during class from all the sweating. (Don’t replace massive sweat loss with plain water; it can be dangerous for your heart and brain function.) At Teacher Training I drank half a litre of Pedialyte during each class. It was my saviour.

3. Stay in the room (unless it’s an emergency). Not only is leaving a bad habit, it’s also very hard on your body. When you walk into a cold environment (the hallway) from the hot room, then back into the heat, it can wreak havoc on your blood pressure, heard rate and body temperature. If you feel like you want to leave, take a break and relax on your mat instead.

Do you love or loathe the heat?

Love, love, love! The hotter and more humid, the better! I feel more flexible and get a better detox. I feel like a million bucks after a hot class!

What do you wear in the hot room?

Short shorts and a bra top. It took me about a year to get comfortable with wearing tighter clothing. But you can see your alignment that much more. I’m really loving my new Chikum “zaardula” shorts. They’re comfy and very cute. Most of my tops come from Lululemon – they’ve lasted me five years and are still going strong!

Ever had an “AHA” moment in class?

About a year-and-a-half ago I finally heard a teacher tell me not to grab my heels from behind during – rather, I should grab from beside my heels. It’s so funny how you can listen to the same dialogue day in and day out (and even know it by heart as a teacher), but one day you actually HEAR it. That’s why it’s beneficial to take classes from different teachers. The change makes you listen a little bit differently. You take a break from autopilot and learn something new.

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