Posted by: kerryalina | 16 October 2013

Bikram for the Socially Anxious

I don’t do well around crowds of people.  Not even a little bit.  I went to a packed film festival last night, hosted by some very dear friends of mine… and spent the whole evening hovering by the door, trying to convince myself not to escape and run out into the cool, quiet night.

I also struggle with unknowns.  I’m definitely most comfortable when I can visualise exactly what a situation will entail, and I lose the plot a little when I don’t know what to expect.  I mean, I once bailed on a girl’s night out because I didn’t know whether the club would have a coat check, and I got stuck in this spiral of despair because I couldn’t figure out what to do with my coat if there wasn’t a check.  It doesn’t get much non-functional than that.

I’d read a whole bunch about how Bikram can help with anxiety in general (along with a whole slew of other issues I was experiencing), and I really wanted to give it a shot.  But, of course, I was just so damn anxious that the very thought of trying something so very unknown was terrifying.  I’d scoured the studio’s website and FAQs for hours; studying them until I knew each word by heart, but I still felt wildly unprepared.  And whilst I know this will be COMPLETE overkill for the vast majority of people, just in case anyone else out there is just as screwed up as I am, I’d like to present:

kerryalina’s Social Anxiety-Friendly, Step-by-Step Guide to your Very First Bikram Yoga Class.

First Things First

  • Remember: every Bikram Yoga class everywhere is the same.  Every time.  All around the world.  Really.  It’s a 90 minute class, with the same 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises.  I’ve practiced at studios in Melbourne, San Francisco, New York, Bali and Tel Aviv.  Same class.  Every time.
    • Note: “Hot Yoga” isn’t always the same as “Bikram Yoga.”  Any style you want to practice is fine, but a lot of the information below is Bikram-specific.
  • Check out your chosen studio’s website.  They’ll usually have an FAQ or “Beginners” section.  If not, my home studio has a basic one here.
  • Double-check the address.  Find it on google maps.  Make sure you know exactly where it is – my first Bikram class was derailed because I was looking on the wrong side of the street for 20 minutes, and it was weeks before I was brave enough to try again.  I suck.

Preparing for Class

  • Pack your bag the night before.  At the very minimum, you’ll need:
    • Yoga clothes (shorts and a croptop if you’re brave; leggings and a singlet if you’re not.  Try to avoid cotton – it gets soaked in sweat and weighs you down/chafes the skin.  Overly baggy apparel may result in unintentional “overexposure.”  Lycra and “breathable” fabrics are your friends)
    • A yoga mat
    • A bath towel (Not a beach towel (too big) or a hand towel (too small).  Just a regular sized bath towel)
    • A water bottle (don’t freeze it – it’ll never thaw enough during class and you’ll be staring at the useless ice with all the hatred your soul is capable of.  If you really want icy-cold water, fill the bottle with ice cubes and then top it up with cold water)
    • Hair elastics/bobby pins/headband (anything to keep your hair out of your face.  If you have long hair, try a few different positions for ponytails/buns beforehand – you want something that’ll still be comfortable when you’re lying on your back AND when you’re lying on your stomach with your head sideways/cheek on the floor.  I found two braids works well; others prefer a very low or very high bun)
    • A plastic bag (for stinky sweaty stuff.  There will be stinky sweaty stuff)
    • A change of clothes for after class (everything.  Including underwear.  Trust me on this)
  • Optional extras include:
    • A second towel (for a shower after class)
    • Toiletries (most studios provide a shampoo/conditioner/body wash hybrid liquid.  You may prefer to bring your own stuff)
    • A cloth to clean your mat (most studios provide a cleaning spray, but a hot damp cloth works in a pinch)
    • A hairdryer/comb/brush/whatever (my studio doesn’t provide hairdryers.  Some do.  Check the website to make sure, or bring yours just in case)
    • Deodorant (for after your post-class shower.  Don’t use it before class.  It will do nothing)
  • You can rent yoga mats and towels (and buy water) at the studio.  They’re generally around AU/US$2 each.
  • Pay attention to food and drink before class.  Here are the generally accepted guidelines:
    • Drink LOTS of water throughout the day
    • No food for three hours before class (bending and twisting with a pound of lasagna in your tummy kind of sucks ass)
    • No drinks for two hours before class (otherwise you’ll have to pee halfway through)
    • Try not to eat a big greasy meal that day (it won’t kill you, but it won’t make class super fun, either)

Rocking Up

  • The studio opens half an hour before class starts (eg. doors open at 5:30 for a 6:00 class).  Try to get there as close to doors opening as possible, or 15 minutes before start time at the latest.  If you arrive and the doors are open/unlocked, you’re fine to go straight in.
  • When you first walk in, there’ll be an area for shoes – generally clearly marked and/or already full of shoes.  Take your shoes off and leave them under the benches/in the cubbyholes/wherever the studio says.
  • There’ll be an area with paperwork somewhere near reception.  If you can’t see it, walk up to the reception desk (you might have to wait in line).  They’ll probably ask for your name – just tell them that you’re new and they’ll point you towards the forms.
    • The forms are generally just basic name/contact details and a medical waiver saying you won’t sue them if you faint.
  • Take the forms back to reception (wait in line again if necessary).  Most studios have an intro deal – in Australia, it’s generally $19 for 10 days – and they should sign you up for that.
    • Also ask and pay now for any mats/towels/water you need
  • The receptionist may give you a spiel about when to drink water and what the class will be like (hot.  duh).  If you’re not sure where the change rooms or hot room doors are, ask.
    • It can also be helpful to ask the receptionist if there are “cooler” areas of the room – these are generally close by the windows or doors and may be more beginner-friendly.  Realistically though, everywhere will feel like the surface of the sun to begin with.
  • Go get changed into your yoga gear/do your hair/whatever.
    • Some studios have free lockers for your valuables.  Others you have to rent.  One I’ve been to had free lockers, but you have to bring your own padlock.  I’ve never really bothered with lockers (everyone is in the hot room and the front doors are locked during class, so who’s gonna rob me?), but check out your studio’s website for their locker details.  Otherwise, just leave your bag in the changeroom
  • Enter the hot room!  You only want to bring in your yoga mat, one towel, and your water bottle(s).

Let the Fun and Games Begin!

  • The studio’s usually a long, narrow room with mirrors lining one of the long walls.  The lights will probably be off.  There’s carpet on the floor.  It’s HOT and also humid.  It might smell a little funky.  You’ll get used to it, I swear.
  • Beginners set up in the back row – this will be along the long wall with no mirrors.  Put your mat down so that the short edge is facing the mirrors and lay the towel on top, covering your mat.  If there is someone in front of you, try to stagger the mats so that you can see yourself in the mirror.  If there’s still some time before class starts, lie down with your head towards the mirror.
  • There’s generally a small podium in the middle of the front row/mirrors – that’s where the teacher stands during class.  Don’t worry about being close to the teacher’s podium; they don’t practice during class.  They explain what you should be doing, but they don’t do the poses along with you.  You watch the people in front of you to get an idea of how to move.
  • Please don’t talk when you’re in the hot room (even quietly!).  People will make angry faces and maybe even loud shushing noises at you.  The shushing is much more distracting than your original talking, but for some reason they do it anyway.
  • When the teacher walks in, they’ll turn on the lights and say hi.  This is your cue to stand up and face the mirrors.
    • They might ask if there are any beginners in the class, or call out your name.  It’s just so they can keep a closer eye on you so you don’t get hurt.  Just stick your hand up when they ask.

During Class

  • Class is always the same postures in the same order.  You do each posture twice and then move on to the next one.
  • There are a couple of different sections to the class, roughly separated as follows:
    • Breathing exercise (5 mins)
    • Warm-up (20 mins)
    • Standing series (30 mins)
    • Floor series (30 mins)
    • Breathing exercise (5 mins)
  • The teacher will be explaining, step-by-step, how to do each posture.  It’s very important that you follow these directions.  If you’re not sure how to do something, look at the people in front of you and copy them.
  • Don’t drink any water until after the warm-up (your teacher will say “Party Time!” to let you know when this is).
    • After this, you can drink water whenever you want, but try to do it only in between postures – not when anyone else is balancing.
  • You’ll sweat.  A LOT.  Just go with it.  Everyone around you is sweating rivers as well.  Nobody cares.  It’s cooling you down, so try not to wipe it off.
  • You’re probably going to feel dizzy/nauseous/overheated/really freaking weird during class.  You might feel like you’re dying.  THAT’S OKAY.  Everyone else does too, I swear.  They’re just better at ignoring it.  I can promise that you’re not actually going to die/throw up/faint/whatever else your brain is telling you.
    • If you can’t keep going, kneel down on your mat.  Join in again when you feel better.
    • Don’t leave the room.  Really.  It’s going to be the only thing you want to do, but the best thing to do is just stay on your mat.
    • Drink some water if you want, but try to take little sips.  Too much water sloshing around in your tummy will just make you feel ill.
  • The first 60 mins are all standing-up postures.  The last 30 mins are postures where you’re lying/sitting on your mat.  So when your teacher tells everyone to lay down for the first time, you know you’re already two-thirds finished!

After Class

  • After the final breathing exercise, the teacher will say something about “final Savasana,” then turn off the lights and leave the room.  Stay and just lay on your mat for a few minutes.  Let your body and mind process what you just put yourself through.
  • Take your mat/towel/water bottle and quietly leave the room.
    • If you hired a mat from the studio, you might have to hang it up at the back of the hot room before leaving.
    • Laundry hampers for rented towels will be in the changerooms or near reception.
  • Shower/change/whatever.  There are usually only a few showers and lots of people wanting them, so try to be fast!
  • Grab your shoes, say bye to the teacher and you can finally escape out the front door :)

Concerns and Minutiae

  • Glasses?
    I wear glasses during class – they’ve never fogged up and the only time I have to take them off is the very first forward bend (Hands to Feet pose).  Others prefer to leave their specs in the change room.  Try both ways, see what feels most comfortable for you.
  • I’m not flexible/I’m too fat/I’m so old!
    The standard response is “Saying you’re too stiff for yoga is like saying you’re too dirty for a bath.”  And there’s Bikram’s Choudhury’s famous “You’re never too old, never too bad, never too late and never too sick to start from the scratch once again.”  And it’s true, of course.  But here’s the thing: what most people mean is that they’re scared they’ll suck.  And honestly?  You will.  You’re going to suck.  You’ll be looking at all these crazy flexible gumby people in the front row effortlessly gliding into postures, as you struggle to just get a hold of your foot.You know what?  It doesn’t matter.  Not one person in the class cares what you can and can’t do.  Nobody will laugh.  Not one person finds Bikram yoga “easy.”  Everybody struggles with something – those flexi freaks might be working on their strength.  Or they might struggle with the heat.  Personally, I can stretch like the devil but my balance sucks.  Everyone has been where you are.  Most of us are STILL THERE in some ways.  Try to stop comparing yourself to others (it’s harder than it sounds!) and focus on acknowledging how much your own practice improves over time.  Go in there and OWN that suck.
  • I can’t do what the teacher’s saying/There’s no way I could do those poses!
    Bikram Yoga is described as a beginner’s series.  It’s true, in a way… but also a little misleading.  A beginner’s series doesn’t mean that you can do everything perfectly on your first class.  It means that you can do at least the first step of everything.  Here’s an example – Standing Head to Knee pose has the following steps:
    1. Shift your weight to your left leg and lock the knee
    2. Interlace your fingers and pick up your right foot
    3. Bring your right foot out in front of your right knee
    4. Kick your right leg out so that it’s parallel to the floor
    5. Flex your right toes back
    6. Bring your elbows down below the calf muscle
    7. Tuck your chin in and touch your forehead to the knee

I’ve been practicing for two and a half years and I still can’t get past step 4.  But everyone can do step 1; even if it’s just for a few minutes.  That’s what’s meant when Bikram is described as a beginner’s series – you can do at least part of each posture.

So, follow along with the teacher’s instructions as long as you can.  When you reach a part of the pose that’s utterly impossible, stick with whatever you’ve managed so far and just hold it.  If all you can do is step 1/lock the knee, just stay there and lock the knee as hard as you possibly can.  Eventually you’ll have the strength/stability to pick up your right foot :)

Have I forgotten anything?  Are things different in your studio?  Are you new and have questions I haven’t answered?  Hit me up!



  1. I have a couple of teachers that always remind everyone that all they are expected to do is just stay in the room and breathe. That’s it.

    • Absolutely! That thought is the only thing that kept me coming back every day during my challenge when I was just SO TIRED OMG and all I wanted to do was crash on the couch. “If I can just get on my mat, all I have to do is lay there. I can do that!”

  2. We’ve been practicing for 20 months and still cannot get past step 4 of the standing head to knee pose either!! Many days I can’t get past step 3. Tones gets to step 4 stays there for a while and then gets through steps 5-7 + falling out all within 2 seconds!! hehehe

    Last night’s teacher reminded us all that the flexibility and strength comes with time and regular practice. Of course we all want to be contortionists straight away but it’s always nice to remember that most of the contortionists you’re comparing yourself to have been doing yoga for 15 years!!

    Nice blog :) Definitely very helpful for beginners.

    One thing we did with our newest studio was visit it just to walk around and see where everything was. We talked to the studio owner ’cause he was there when we visited and he told us all about the studio and the teachers and let us walk around and check out the facilities. We even looked into the studio and got to see it while people were practicing (they have a little window at reception you can look through).

    So when we got to our first class, all we had to do was fill in a form and we knew exactly what to do and where to go. We also got really welcoming smiles and the reception knew who we were. It was lovely!

    If anyone does want to familiarise themselves with their studio first I’d definitely recommend doing that!

  3. This is great! Any advice on clothing? I just posted a blog here and would love some advice

    • In general:
      * You’ll probably start out in tights and singlets. The faster you get into hotpants and crop tops, the happier you’ll be :)
      * Wear lycra or sports-specific “breathable” fabrics.
      * Never ever wear cotton – it gets hella heavy when it’s wet, and it chafes like hell.
      * Tight clothes work better than baggy – less fabric to collect sweat, and less chance of flashing someone behind you in Standing Bow.
      * This is the fun part: try a bunch of different styles until you find something that works for you. Personally I love side-tie Shakti shorts. Others swear by Lululemon, but I find they invariably roll up at the bottom. There are some great one-pieces/leotards designed for Bikram from places like Onezie. Experiment. Have fun :)

  4. Very informative blog. I have been doing Bikram for a few months and feel that I have hit a wall and I am not improving any suggestions?

    • Oh man, that’s a really good question that’s incredibly difficult to answer if I haven’t seen your practice. General suggestions:

      * You’re probably improving more than you think you are. A lot of the time, we don’t realise just how much better we’ve gotten until we hit a breakthrough moment (seeing your foot over your head for the first time in Bow, for example). But there has been incremental improvement every day beforehand in order to reach that point. Try doing the series at home, video/photograph your poses and then compare in six month’s time. You’ll probably be surprised at the results.

      * Don’t be lazy. Once you’ve been practicing for a few months, you get into the routine of the class – you “know” how far you can go in each posture, so you stop pushing yourself once you’ve reached that point. You know how exhausted you felt after your first few classes? That’s how you should feel after EVERY class. Never stop pushing yourself – the only way to make progress is to go past where you’re comfortable. If you take it easy, you’re only short-changing yourself.

      * At least three classes a week. One or two classes are enough to maintain your practice… but you’re only going to see minimal improvement until you up it to three or more classes. It’s counter-intuitive but true – the more often you attend class, the better your body recovers.

      * Take care of your body. Make sure you’re hydrating correctly (at LEAST 2-3L of water a day, even when you’re not practicing). Try not to eat heavy meals before class, and limit alcohol the night before. Check out electrolytes (Gatorade, coconut water, Nuun) and take some a couple hours before and/or immediately after class – I found they made a world of difference to my practice. Some people swear by green juices/smoothies. Try stuff out. Experiment. See what’s right for you.

      * Check out local resources. If there are specific postures that you’re just not making any headway on, ask for your teachers’ suggestions after class. Check out the Bikram Beginning Yoga book. Attend Master Classes. Read different yoga studio blogs – often they highlight specific asanas, and you might read something that “clicks” for you. Hell, you can contact me if you want – I’m not a teacher by any means, but I’ve been practicing for a few years and I’m a total yoga nerd.

      Hope some of that helps :)

  5. Brilliant post! Thank you. You are not alone with the anxiety. I tried to go to a regular yoga class about two years ago and couldn’t find the studio so went home. I never tried again until this week! I signed up to a bikram yoga class. The day before I drove down with my husband and we found the studio, I saved it on my sat nav. On the day, it was early morning and still dark. I drove down and the sat nav was confusing me, I got lost and finally found the studio one minute after the class started haha! I had to drive home defeated. I tried again the day after and made it! I was so proud to actually make it into the studio and complete the class. I’m going back for my third class today! At times like this I try and say to myself that it will only be scary for this first day if I go ahead and do it. Otherwise it will worry me for ages because I’ll be wondering what to expect. I’ve not explained it very well but hope it makes sense. :) (I also spent hours on the studio website!)

  6. WOW, talk about a thorough build and up walk-through for a Bikram hot yoga class. As a hot yoga instructor its great to have articles like this to help new students understand what to expect, set expectations and build excitement for this “new” yoga experience. Thanks for helping to promote our favorite kind of yoga!

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