I recall my first class with Bikram. It was iconic – many of us that went to Bikram’s teacher training know that famous first Monday night. We’re suited up for the class in a vast ballroom, hot as hell, awaiting his arrival onto a 10-foot tall podium. Here comes my first experience of “check, check.” Bikram calibrates his headset as he parades up the center aisle: black speedo on, hair balled up on the tip of his head, jumping up the steps to his huge cushioned seat. He takes a sip of what looks like tea and says to the hundreds of us below, “are you ready?”

I’m a front-row junkie. But not as devoted as others, as I got there too late to set up in my usual front-row spot. I settled for the second row, which turned out to be better. I had a good view of Bikram, a pretty good view of myself, and an even better view of what would ensue in the minutes to come. Bikram’s unparalleled way of getting through to YOU, the real you, took you on a mental and physical ride with each instruction he commanded. Taking his class is as hard as anything you’ve ever done, but you also don’t want it to stop. You are pushing yourself to be yourself for the first time – it’s intoxicating!

I was in a trance. Posture after posture, I gave my everything, and then some – gave what I didn’t know I had. It wasn’t until Triangle Pose that I noticed people dropping like dead flies behind me. I was in my zone, but as we moved to Tree pose, staring at myself in the mirror, I noticed that I could count how many people were left standing. His infamous quote was fulfilled: “Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber to kill yourself for the next 90 minutes.” He speaks figuratively, but it has more meaning than you’d think. This death isn’t the kind where you no longer exist on this planet. This death is far more difficult to reckon with: you are still here, recognizing the junk body, screw-loose mind, and lost soul you have got to heal to be who you are meant to be.

Bikram's Yoga College of India

Bikram’s Yoga College of India on La Cienega in Los Angeles, December, 2001.

The greatest investment

As I headed into my first personal interaction with Bikram, I was still unclear what I had gotten myself into. Every teacher will remember it: every trainee goes on stage to ‘teach’ the first part of the Half Moon pose in front of Bikram and all your peers. It’s there that Bikram sees YOU. That’s all he needs, and from that point on, he tailors your journey for the next nine weeks despite never moving off of what everyone else is doing. I got up to say my dialog and felt good about it – no mistakes. And, he looks at me and shakes his head with a look like he smells something foul and says, “No energy! I want Ferrari, and you give me Toyota!”

Bikram has his own language when he wants to accentuate a point. I call them “Bikram-isms.” You’ve heard some in the dialog, like “from the side you should look like a Japanese ham sandwich, no gap anywhere” And this one, which put me into the cylinders I needed to drive my life like a Ferrari:

“You will spend 95% of your time and energy making the same small mistakes because you won’t invest in the last 5%.”

This is the essence of Bikram Yoga right here. That 5% IS the 90 minutes to get you out of your comfort zone and into unknown territory requiring concentration, determination, self-control, patience, and faith to be all you were meant to be. In other words, if you want to grow, you need to stick your neck out.

We all have patterns we live by, and some are worn out. These patterns served you once yet hold you back now. Show up on your mat, do the postures the right way, and you’ll single out ways that you are dishonest, clever, and full of your compensations. Bikram will tell you that you are ‘-10,000’ if you come in complaining, kicking, and screaming your way falsely through his class. As you stare into your reflection in those cosmic mirrors during each class, excuse after excuse and bad habit after bad habit will slowly erode. It happened to me, and I knew that I was at teacher training to shed the things holding me back from living a life in high gear.

Michele teaching Bikram Yoga
Michele teaching Bikram Yoga with arms outstretched
Michele teaching Bikram Yoga and demonstrating form

We’re all broken

My Teacher Training Fall 2001 was full of Bikram’s presence, and rarely did anyone besides Bikram teach the 5:00 pm, weeknight classes. They were tough classes, and there were times you thought you weren’t going to make it through that class, let alone through the remaining WEEKS left.

One day, with two sets of Cobra finished, I was resting my right cheek in my squishy sweat-soaked towel covering my mat. My heart was pounding, yet with close to 300 people in the class, you could hear a pin drop. Out of the sky, Bikram says so sweetly, “you never looked more beautiful than you do right now.” Instantly, a tear fell, mixing with my sweat. I realized that my custom-made experience landed right there. How much had I judged myself to be “something,” never addressing the idea that I could be just who I was? No makeup, raw with emotion, making every genuine effort ON MY BEHALF!

“You think that you will teach celebrities, athletes, movie stars – you won’t. You’ll be teaching broken people.” It sounds harsh, but that’s Bikram’s direct way of saying we are all broken. Not one of us is free from some bond that holds us back. Looking at his naïve pupils and their eyes filled with stars about whom they might teach, he knew those labels meant nothing. There is always a body, mind, and soul longing to heal underneath all that fancy veneer. “Come to my torture chamber, and I will give you the keys to the kingdom of your health.”

Michele practicing Bow pose

Michele practicing Bow pose at teacher training in 2001.

A single point of focus

I’ll leave you with this. As a teacher, over the last 20 years, NOT ONCE did I ever hear anyone say that they’ve regretted taking this yoga – au contraire. They wished they had taken more, or they are so grateful to have found it and only want more.

Additionally, probably the most popular comment that I’ve gotten in these last 20 years is how the series is always the same. “I get bored.” “I need something more for my meditation.” “I also do weight training to get more strength.” Reflecting further, I recall a conversation Bikram had with a new student. It was the end of class, and this new student came up to Bikram with a question. While I couldn’t hear the question, I did hear Bikram say, “don’t worry about that now. As a new student, you need to get over the anxiety of being new, and then you will hear and know more.” In other words, we all have seasons with this dialog. It is a “rinse and repeat.” The repetition will train your mind to concentrate.

Paying attention to one thing at a DEEP level gives you awareness and insight you will never get if you continue to skip from topic to topic. That single point of focus IS the practice, and over time YOU WILL notice (no one else does). YOU will become aware of your productive and destructive patterns and make decisions to change them as you gain a healthy, well-functioning body, confidence, and conviction, and start using yourself for good purpose. “Yoga makes you YOU” is another Bikram-ism.

And finally, I am still in awe of how we each may come here under one roof, do the same yoga, with many teachers but the same dialogue, and yet in so doing, draw out our unique self. This yoga may look one-size-fits-all, but it unites us in our diversity, and we get along despite how different we are.

As the world of Bikram Yoga continues to evolve, so much has been dismantled and has fallen away. My faith tells me that’s what is left, will RISE, and I’m in for trusting that process as it unfolds. This yoga will go on. I believe (and you continue to convince me) that the world can be a better place with Bikram Yoga. We are a glaring example of how differences enhance, not divide. I’m proud to be a part of something that can change the evolution of humankind, and I’ll keep doing my part for years to come with hopes that it will benefit well beyond my lifetime in the generations to come.

Michele performing Bow pose

Michele performing Bow pose at World Yoga Championships in China, 2019.

Michele’s Bikram Yoga class – 20th anniversary edition

BYSJ owner and founder Michele Vennard leads you through a 90-minute Bikram Yoga class she gave on her 20th anniversary as a teacher on December 1, 2021. It includes a ten-minute opening where she reflects on her journey as a student, teacher, and studio owner.