Learning about Attention in Bikram Yoga
“Look in the mirror. Concentrate. Meditate.”
— Bikram Yoga Teacher Dialogue
Exercising my attention to consciously learn more about its function and role in my life was and continues to be part of the process of knowing who I am. My Bikram Yoga practice taught me to become more consciously aware of my attention and its role (and value) in my overall healthy functioning. Through daily yoga practice, I intentionally strengthened my attention, concentration, and focus. This became a concrete, tangible part of my self-realization and self-actualization training process. Yoga is one practice or way to train attention.
My Bikram yoga practice is moving meditation, meaning when my attention wanders away from the present moment (as it has the tendency to do repeatedly) I train in awareness, which means noticing my attention and continually bringing wandering attention back to a single, more narrow point of focus. I can continue to observe what’s happening in my field of awareness when my eyes and attention are focused on something in the external environment, outside of myself. “What’s happening” is my subjective experience of reality (see Antonion Demasio’s Feeling is Knowing). Do you see how reality is both “out there” and “within” the subject? This means the landscapes for learning are external and internal, involving both interoception and exteroception, which I will explain further.
In an authentic Bikram Yoga class with trained instructors who are certified through Bikram Yoga’s College of India, the instructor follows a script called the “Dialogue” throughout the entire ninety minute class, communicating to students what to do in the postures, how to do them, and the result of doing them, each command precisely written and intended to be delivered in a highly specific order. The series of yoga postures never changes. This provides an atmosphere of reliability, predictability, and thus, a real sense of security for practitioners. This is the opposite of anxiety.
Bikram yoga is unlike other forms of hatha yoga classes, insofar as Bikram Yoga students are “freed up” to pay less attention to deciphering the variety of instructions of a variety of postures given by a variety of instructors who put their own “spin” on teaching their personally assembled sequence of poses that might vary from class to class. The consistency of the Bikram Yoga Dialogue allows students to pay more focused attention to themselves — their body and their mind—to learn about who they are. Bikram and Rajashree Choudhury describe the practice as self-study for self-realization.
Rather than attention to the teacher’s actions or behavior, per se, copying others, or making the fullest expression of the yoga postures the sole objects of one’s learning, which is more external or exteroception-oriented, more inward focused attention can be given to develop interoceptive awareness which fosters healthy connection to one’s inner landscape and is also foundational for self-regulation or regulating one’s nervous system. Interoception is an inner awareness of one’s functioning which is also one of the foundational steps in healing from trauma which is overwhelming stress to the nervous system that changes both brain and body. The issues really are in the tissues! And the body really does keep the score (see Bessel Van der Kolk).
Bikram taught us that “you are both the object and the subject” of yoga, and that practicing in an almost unbearably hot room serves as a laboratory for self-study for self-realization. Bikram Yoga teachers who teach the series as it was designed by Bikram himself will tell students that it is “your practice” and that yoga is not about “performing poses,” yoga is about you.
What’s happening within each person’s subjective experience is just as important (if not more so in order to balance the over-focus on the external) than what’s happening “out there” among others and the environment with all its distractions. Attending to yourself is the point of this practice. I often think of the AA saying “Sweep your own side of the street” when I encourage practitioners to focus attention on the dialogue which is “external to them” until the sounds of my words are absorbed by their ears, and its meaning translated within them, and applied to their bodies. Bikram would say “my mind, your body” when describing this transaction of energy intrinsic to learning. The first step is paying attention.
Through paying attention to the Dialogue, that is, listening to the teacher’s words, the student must continually try to apply the words to his or her body, under challenging conditions in an environment of distraction. This is the process of self-regulation or as we say in mental health— learning and applying coping skills to manage distress. A primary resource we humans have is our attention.
During this yoga process/practice, students get the opportunity to notice how difficult it is to become aware of and manage their attention, how often and the various ways their attention wanders, as it almost always will, or how often and in what manner they become distracted, as they almost always will. There’s no negative or critical judgment about this process of alternately paying attention, becoming distracted, and intentionally switching attention between outward focus and inward—the purpose for increasing nervous system health is to notice this process, use discernment, and continue to practice for self-realization.
We also call this process an open-eyed, moving meditation. Similar to other forms of meditation, one’s attention is “brought back” or refocused on the aim which is a single point of focus for the open eyes in order to experience “what’s happening” or “what is,” as it unfolds, in each moment. This attention-management process is an opportunity to learn more about the nature of one’s own attention as well as to recognize (and appreciate) its role in mindbody health which includes a combination of mindfulness and nervous system regulation.
And learning takes effort– a leaving of one’s comfort and familiar zone– it is nervous system agitation (See The Huberman Lab podcast on Stress). And, yes, paying attention, mindfulness and self-regulation takes effort, a voluntary stress that you choose and commit to, which is contrary to the stereotypes of yoga and meditation as “relaxing” practice of comfort, rainbows and butterflies.
Can you see how this Bikram yoga class environment is a microcosm of how to cope with the overwhelming stimuli, highly-distracting and information-overloading stress-filled society?
Repetition & Intensity
The intensity and repetition of the physical postures combined with the challenge of the environmental stressors, including high temperature and bright lighting, is all by design to purposefully challenge one’s attention in order to strengthen it and develop more conscious awareness of what’s happening in one’s body and mind in the present moment. Strengthening one’s attention cannot happen without challenge. Think about it: the more focused and harder you try to attend, it’s like a workout for your attention capacity. This is what I mean when I say, we must find and use our inner resources to strengthen them for lifting the heavy weight of being human. Use it or lose it applies here. My son, a Navy SEAL, likes to tell me that I will add strength to my body if I lift a heavy barbell over and over again. When I ask him how I can do my first strict pullup he answers, “do pull-ups.” Change and growth is known as adaptation. It can’t happen without stress and struggle! It is supposed to hurt a little bit.
Once we accept that about the practice (and life in general), our resistance relaxes and we become open to seeing challenges as opportunities. The landscape of experience is FOR learning and adapting to survive and thrive. Stop wishing any moment to be other than it is. Stop hoping the problems and challenges and obstacles away–stop living like a victim– discouraged and frustrated– the hard things are essential for vitality!! No mud No Lotus, as Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hahn famously said. The only easy day was yesterday.
Along with increased awareness of one’s attention and further exercising one’s attention through focusing one’s eyes in particular ways, yoga practitioners also get the opportunity to notice how they behave in response to challenge, whether the challenge come from the external environment in the form of distraction (other people’s behaviors around them or the heat or the mirrors) or from within one’s subjective experience, perhaps one’s own thinking or physical and emotional sensations that may be causing added stress.
What happens to my attention, when distressed? Do I react and maybe run from the room? Do I squeeze my eyes shut to avoid the challenge? What happens when I give up trying to focus and concentration wanes? What is my response when I become distracted? Notice that this process of learning is embodied. We can’t simply think about attention, we exercise it, play with it, we act and feel, as embodied beings. Paying attention on purpose and observing one’s attention is experiential learning– the best kind. Do it without criticism– do it to simply learn. Be curious and compassionate!
Learning about one’s own attention can lead people to notice their degree of participation in choosing to respond to stimuli or their unconscious “reacting” to what’s happening in any given moment. We have both of these capacities for good reason. If they were not useful, evolution would have discarded one or both. Reactivity serves a purpose, as in when our nervous system senses danger and the body must react and move quickly to avoid or freeze to survive! Our prefrontal cortex becomes more involved and “online” when we are able to “respond” to stress through a “pause” of our nervous system’s reflexive reactivity. This is something that people are not taught to understand about how they function both “subconsciously” or “automatically” and more “consciously” as with intentional response. We can learn this through studying our attention in Bikram yoga! And we must train our mind and body to work together for conscious responsiveness. It’s a lifelong process.
It is common for people to “discharge their discomfort” which is body-based sensations and emotions and “mental” energies called thoughts. Maybe feelings and emotions feel overwhelming; maybe the mind is racing non-stop or negative automatic thinking is happening (fun fact 80% of our thoughts are negative). Much of why we humans blame external causes, usually people, or situations, is a defensive reaction to experiencing inner discomfort. It’s all okay. You do this because you are human. The key is to become more aware of it for your health and others’ health.
Often, people suffering in a Bikram yoga class may point to the heat, the teacher’s behavior, other people’s behavior– targeting them as “reasons” or the cause for one’s interior suffering! “If she/he weren’t doing that, I would feel better/different/not suffer or feel uncomfortable.” Maybe you laugh because you identify with that. I know I did and I still catch myself from time to time “forgetting.” Lifelong practice is needed wherein yoga asks us to pay attention to our internal stress states, directly confront and own our distress, and take response-ability for our feelings. We can do this on and off the mat and in and beyond the hotroom. This exposure therapy is the way to overcome anxiety which is simply defined, a physiological state of elevated ongoing stress. When we voluntarily take on the challenges within a Bikram yoga class (or an IHP or fitness class) we have the opportunity to increase our tolerance for distress and discomfort, in our body and mind, rather than avoiding these stressful challenges. This is how Yoga is a practice for developing distress tolerance, nervous system regulation, and mindfulness for mental and physical wellbeing. This is the wisdom of yoga!
When focused on applying the words of the Dialogue to one’s body, many practitioners report that they begin to see their thoughts more objectively, as if they are somewhat distanced from them, while focusing their attention on their body which the words are designed to do. Furthermore, in many cases, people notice that their thoughts aren’t always true, insofar as they often fail to match up with the felt experience of the present moment. When people begin to see their own mindbody functioning a bit more clearly– through increased awareness and by leveraging their own attention, they can begin to recognize and learn how they cause their own, often unnecessary, suffering. The Buddhist story goes that the first arrow is the one that causes pain. We do not control the first arrow. It happens to us. The second arrow is our reaction to and interpretation of the pain–which we have control over and can choose to create a perspective and story about it that causes extra, unnecessary suffering, or not. When you begin to own your own attention (and thus your own mindbody system and its regulation), it’s far less likely that others can steal your attention and manipulate you. You get to choose how to think, feel, and respond to the environmental influences around you. It takes training.
Attention for Wellness
Understanding one’s own attention is about conscious awareness which is a key part of self-realization. Becoming more aware and awake about one’s inner landscape (as well as the outer landscape and the relation between the two) is one way that Bikram Yoga practice can transform a person’s life. Since the modern world is so full of distraction with all sort of demands on our attention, just like the hotroom, I have found that an important purpose of the Bikram Yoga method of using the Dialogue is to grant people an occasion to learn about their own attention to discover more precisely how it works and to leverage it best for their optimal health and wellness. This is quite different than being “good at yoga” as people in America believe based on their misunderstanding of yoga as a workout or a form of physical fitness (although exercise/physical body movement is integral to the practice including their positive benefits ) Yoga is for living well more broadly speaking—for union, wholeness and integration.
The Mirror: How You Relate to Yourself
The other distinguishing feature of Bikram Yoga is the use of mirrors which students face throughout class as an important tool for focusing attention and orienting the nervous system visually, for proper body alignment, and for self-reflection. Facing oneself– directing one’s careful attention on oneself, can be the biggest challenge of the practice for some people, very often the one thing that keeps new people from coming to the studio to try a class. Some people are very reluctant to look directly at themselves–their bodies or to confront themselves, directly, alone, in their “full catastrophe,” (Zinn, 2013), but this is an incredible opportunity for learning to accept, love, and create a healthy, embodied relationship with oneself— to know thyself honestly. Attending to oneself and developing a healthy loving connection is key to wellness!
When we learn more about how, where, and why we direct and control our attention, we can learn even more about ourselves, our relationship with our own image, our judgments of ourselves, and our unique degree of wellness and dis-ease, balance and imbalance.
Bikram Yoga is a compassionate place where you can begin to notice and become aware of your attention and how you manage it, so that you can transform your suffering by better self-management and optimize your wellbeing. Although students are performing the same asanas and hearing the same words of the Dialogue and looking in the mirror, everyone is learning something different because each of us is unique, and our suffering is unique, especially that which comes from within. There’s no comparing or judgment— because it’s totally unnecessary.
A Safe Space to Study Attention
Paying attention to oneself—one’s body and mind can be challenging, and involves a lot of trial and error. Nervous systems need just enough of a “felt sense” of safety in order to be open and vulnerable enough to learn. This felt sense can be developed over time and through repetition where you’ll be encouraged to “trust the process” of the 90 minute class.
We Bikram teachers will tell you to try the right way and not give up—failure is the process! As in typical forms of seated meditation where a Zen priest or other compassionate facilitator might be present with people as they meditate, to lead the practice, so too does the Bikram Yoga teacher compassionately facilitate each student’s ninety-minute, open-eyed meditation. In this way, class is a place not to merely “do what the teacher says” but to sink deeply inward to your inner landscape through concentration and meditation to discover your true being. Again, this is how Bikram yoga is your practice and you are your best teacher. We teachers stay on the podium as another way to reduce anxiety that comes from unpredictability.
Bikram Choudhury (2007) has described his yoga class as:
…one long, hot meditation. We put incredible pressure on you to teach you to break your attachment to external things and go within. Instead of blaming others for your own weakness, fear and depression, you will learn to take responsibility for your own life. You’ve got to face yourself in the mirror, every part you don’t like, every mistake you make, every excuse your mind creates to limit your potential liberation–there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. No escape from reality. With these kinds of demands on your abilities and attention, you will soon forget that there is anyone on the next mat in the classroom, much less notice what they are wearing. After you learn to discipline your body and mind under these conditions, you will truly be able to concentrate; no external will be able to break your powerful focus. That’s why I say the darkest place in the world is under the brightest lamp. In…my class, you will find a beautiful light, and the source of that light is within you.
Practice Playing with Your Attention
Practice noticing your own attention during a Bikram Yoga class. Notice if your attention wanders or you become lost in thought (which is totally normal by the way and nothing to resist or be upset about). What do you do when your attention wanders? Are you struggling to maintain your focus on the teacher’s words? Notice how your attention differs from your judgment to further understand the distinction between the two (and perhaps you might suffer or struggle less with your self-criticism).
Like a Flower Petal Blooming
When you practice Bikram Yoga, you develop your own unique relationship with yourself by attending to yourself. We teachers can’t tell you how to develop that relationship or describe what that looks or feels like, nor can we demonstrate it because it is unique to each individual. Only you can experience this ongoing process for which we are honored to be present. The process involves challenge and difficulty, and your teachers will not take that difficulty away from you, in order for you to learn and grow—to be like “a flower petal blooming”(Bikram Yoga Teacher Dialogue, 2012).Your teachers simply give you the laboratory for self-study: the words of the Dialogue, the mirrors, and the heat, and you do your yoga—you engage in your process of learning to know who you are from yourself. You are your own best guru. Your meditation and movement isn’t ever expected to please us, and we are not attached to any outcomes or have any other expectations of you except that you come to class and try the right way—which means to the best of your ability on any given day. (You will be different from day to day, class to class, moment to moment because you are always changing). We “correct” you on your bodily alignment, so that you gain one hundred percent benefit from the physical poses (asanas), but there’s a lot more going on than merely stretching in a hot room and “posing” for physical fitness.
Your purpose in the room as a Bikram yogi is to pay attention to yourself to self-realize; we merely give you a safe, loving, compassionate, intense, and challenging environment in which to do so.
The following ways to study your own attention are only suggestions, as you will likely be able to teach yourself and learn from your own personal practice by showing up to “do your yoga”:
When preparing for pranayama, notice when you look in the mirror. What are you paying attention to? Can you look yourself in the eyes? If not, why not? When you do notice your body, do you instantly start thinking, judging, or measuring yourself up? Are you critical? How much is your mind busy thinking about your physical appearance? Can you approach this only with the attitude of a curious learner who is studying his or her own attention? Can you be non-judgmental and instead, compassionate? Can you disassociate from the “thinking mind” and shift your focus to your attention— using your senses, your body, and listening to the words of the Dialogue?
Notice: What are you focusing on? A part of your body? Looking into your own eyes? Are you noticing your thoughts? If so, what are the thoughts (are they about this practice, practical, related, or are they about something unrelated?) Are you hearing the words and concentrating on listening to the teacher? Notice. Just notice all that is going on with an attitude of the curious, interested learner.
Notice how you filter out distractions by focusing on some spot visually (selective attention).
Notice how you filter out other sounds when you home in on the teacher’s voice and words. The goal here is to simply notice. You are observing yourself closely to learn about how you manage your attention. You are focused on learning more about your own attention and how it works, so the yoga “performance” of moving through the postures is not the priority of your practice today. You are studying your own attention to learn more about what it is like.
Notice especially where your attention goes while you are practicing when lying in dead body pose and not looking in the mirror; just notice where your attention is, what it is doing without judgment and only to learn. Smile as you notice, if you want, to keep your self-study light, playful, and compassionate.
After class, write about your observations of your own attention in your journal, reflecting on the experience. There are no wrong answers. What can you learn about your own attention and how it functions? What’s happening with your attention?
Remember: Yoga isn’t about Yoga. Yoga is about You.
Note how difficult it is to manage attention with competing sensory input and stimulation in a place that is specifically designed to invite you to come to focus, intentionally, on your attention. Imagine how much more complex and challenging it is to manage your attention outside the controlled conditions of the Bikram yoga studio hot room? This is one reason why we practice building the strength of attention in Bikram yoga class.
Yoga isn’t about yoga postures. Yoga is about you—discovering more about who you are. With practice, you can build your capacity for focused attention, understand it more and more, and apply what you learn about attention to your everyday life for wellness beyond the yoga studio. If you manage your own attention effectively, nobody can tell you who you are, what to be, buy, choose, or learn. Owning your own attention is your best defense in a world that is constantly trying to capture, keep, and manipulate it.
Remember, your best teacher isn’t on the podium—he or she is the mirror looking back at you.