An excerpt from “Part V: Learning” in the Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human: A Bikram Yoga Teacher’s Self Study Guide for Wellness (available June 1 at Amazon.com)
“Vulnerability is not weakness. I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives.”
To be human is to be vulnerable. Allowing yourself to be open to experience and vulnerable is how one learns, grows, and thrives, but being vulnerable also invites the potential for pain and suffering, even death. Vulnerability is a double-edged sword. Vulnerability is a challenge, and how you accept, respond, and cope with it defines who you are. To know oneself is to understand one’s own vulnerability.
Bikram Yoga & Vulnerability
Many people question the level of challenge of Bikram Yoga, wondering why it’s not more relaxing and peaceful. Why is Bikram Yoga so hard? Why the high heat and strict discipline? Why can’t I close my eyes? Why do I feel so exposed and vulnerable to emotional and physical discomfort? Why must I labor through the poses for ninety minutes? There’s lots of resistance to Bikram Yoga practice—- and that is the point. The practice is about paying attention to the nature of your resistance and emotional reactivity to vulnerability. Learning to be with one’s vulnerability and practicing ways to transform it for wellness is an important part of the process of self-realization and self-actualization.
In Bikram Yoga, the poses test a person’s response to their own feelings of vulnerability, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. These asanas are an opportunity to experience what vulnerability feels like in one’s body and mind repeatedly in small doses within a safe environment (as exposure therapy). The class is like a laboratory to observe oneself and one’s stress. Through this practice of staying open to one’s own vulnerability, or learning through exposure therapy, vulnerability becomes less frightening over time. The practice and exposure teaches people to be open-minded about feeling their own stress, anxiety, and other fears and challenging sensations in one’s body and mind.
Rather than trying to avoid these postures, compromise them in order to control them for more comfort and less vulnerability, or to “perform” them for the sake of achieving physical prowess or perfection, we encourage our yogis to “trust” the process of the posture– to be with it– to do one step at a time, the best they are able and breathe. To fully experience the attempt to do what one is able in order to understand oneself better is the goal.
Again, this is how Bikram yoga is not about achieving the full expression of any pose, but it’s about living with how you are in each moment — exploring and observing the way one may refuse to experience and cope with vulnerability or the ways one becomes more willing to stay open and flexible in response to challenge to learn and grow.
It might hurt a little bit
As teachers, we are instructed in our Bikram Yoga Dialogue to alert practitioners that parts of some postures “might hurt a little bit” as a loving warning that they may and should experience some therapeutic discomfort that comes from vulnerability and opening themselves up more than they are likely to do otherwise because of their trepidation or reluctance to “be present” with discomfort and stress. In fact, in this way we are inviting them to cultivate being more comfortable with being uncomfortable and to get to know the pain and suffering associated with vulnerability rather than to fear it or run from it. Most people don’t understand their own bodies, thoughts, feelings, pain, or vulnerability, but when they come to Bikram Yoga class, they can learn more about these things. When people begin to discover more about themselves and develop more awareness, anxiety and stress lessens and wisdom and wellness result.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
Just as some Bikram yogis try to modify and control their practice rather than following the commands of the teacher’s Dialogue during class as a way to avoid vulnerability and discomfort, many people, in general, strive continually for permanence in their lives and in their environment because this gives them a perceived feeling of safety and security; this is a way out of feeling vulnerable, but permanence is an illusion. Being human means being subject to constant change, relative security and insecurity, and vulnerability on an ongoing basis, but such fear, change, insecurity, and vulnerability can be motivation, inspiration and potential opportunities to grow, create, and fully self-actualize. It’s very challenging for people to accept this truth and gain the courage to trust this process. It is common for people to take one look at the Bikram Yoga series and say, “No, thanks. Who wants to voluntarily suffer? And to what end? I refuse to expose myself to that and face my fear.” We assure you that the environment you will enter is a compassionate, safe place to do what’s difficult to grow wiser and more well.
Letting Go of Control: Trust the Process
Also common is rather than taking personal responsibility and ownership over oneself — one’s particular emotional sensitivities, buttons, and triggers (the aspects of ourselves that can be discovered in Part II Self-awareness), some people often try to manipulate their environment or influence, overpower, and otherwise control other people and their environment to prevent their own feelings of insecurity or to protect themselves from the potential discomfort or loss that may come from such vulnerability. This is a very common human tendency, because we are wired biologically to react to threat and danger and in previous times needed such reactivity for our survival. In a more progressive modern world, sometimes we hang onto that reactivity and fear unnecessarily.
To an extent, a degree of reactivity and defensiveness is self-preservation and self-protection, but in many cases, people avoid personal responsibility because they don’t know they have choices about how to respond, have never been taught or trained to, or because it’s become socially common to blame, distract, or avoid challenge. They avoid doing the difficult work within themselves and instead put their attention and energy toward manipulating the external world, including other people, to suit them or give themselves a sense of security. This can cause a lot of unnecessary stress for oneself and for others.
Vulnerability & Overprotection
I observed in my high school teaching career how many parents try to change an environment or attempt to manipulate and regulate other people’s behavior in order to protect their kids from from uncertainty, discomfort, or loss because they perceive such things as “dangerous.” They do their children a great disservice by trying to create “safe spaces” in the world and over-protection that is beyond trying to ensure their physical wellbeing (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018). Rather than teaching children to stay open to understand the important role of vulnerability in learning and creativity and developing healthy responses to stress and coping skills within themselves, children are conditioned instead to turn to find comfort outside of themselves (running to authorities, drugs, or developing other unhealthy dependencies).
Since we will be tested by truly threatening external stimuli and because much of life is beyond our control, it is better preparation and protection to build up our ability to respond to what life gives us than struggle to control the world or hide defensively in our comfort and security zones where no change or growth can possibly happen.
Learning & Tough Love
If our attention and effort is overly-focused on controlling and manipulating what is outside of ourselves to make the world conform to our desires—to make it conform to just how we’d like it (whether in a yoga class or in our “real” lives when we are uncomfortable), then we not only create more disappointment for ourselves and unnecessary suffering, but we also neglect using and thereby strengthening our inner resources to grow. We miss the opportunities to learn more about ourselves and who we really are. This is why a central tenet of teaching the original Bikram Yoga practice is to encourage people to refrain from “adjusting” things to comfort themselves, to make a posture more accessible, or to make their experiences easier or more enjoyable.
In Bikram Yoga, we don’t modify poses to suit people. We don’t use props. We don’t turn the heat down if people are uncomfortable or struggling to breathe. The conditions of the environment are specifically designed to challenge people to rely on themselves only— to turn inward, study their own mental and physical habits, reactivity and responses to vulnerability and stress; to face their limits; to observe their specific kind of suffering, and practice coping skills rather than denial or running from such challenge. To know your vulnerability and suffering is to empower yourself to cope and thrive. That’s why Bikram says, “hard way is right way”–tough love, to allow space for people to grapple with their challenges. We stay in the here and now, with eyes wide open, to learn how to suffer as best we can for wellness. Ironically, there is a tremendous amount of freedom that comes from building such courage through personal discipline.
Explore Your Vulnerability
Sometimes people think Bikram Yoga teachers are unsympathetic or lack compassion when we encourage you to do what is uncomfortable or to refrain from relying on externals beyond yourself, but the opposite is true. We won’t spare you your suffering because to do so would rob you of what you need to become the best and most authentic person possible. Some people develop habits of relying on drinking water, wiping sweat with a towel, using straps or other props, or they develop other rituals (ways they try to control rather than letting go and trusting the process) that “help” discharge their discomfort. They do asanas their way rather than according to the teacher’s Dialogue, as a way to feel “in control.”
Bikram Yoga is designed specifically to encourage people to face their limitations and break attachments (or “let go”) to external dependencies. When we continually turn outside ourselves for answers, comfort, or to deny our suffering and vulnerability, we remain ignorant to ourselves, and we stop learning, growing and thriving. Imbalance results because we are focused too much on the external and not enough on the internal, where our true self resides.
Freedom isn’t conditional on the environment or other people behaving “just so.” If you are waiting to be happy when everything is just as you want it to be, you’ll likely be waiting a long time or disappointed and frustrated. Perhaps you will call yourself unlucky. Through Bikram Yoga practice, you can learn how to be free and peaceful no matter the circumstances—and perhaps even learn to love your experiences (your life, other people, “what happens,” reality) unconditionally– that means without required conditions. This kind of freedom that comes from practicing and building discipline is possible and can be cultivated through Bikram Yoga. All you have to do is show up and be vulnerable.
Writing About Vulnerability
In Bikram Yoga class, one has a wonderful opportunity to see how one handles their own vulnerability. The poses are opportunities to notice one’s reactions to discomfort and insecure feelings. How do you manage your anxiety and stress, whether physical, mental, or both?
Notice during your Bikram Yoga practice when you felt most vulnerable. Write about those experiences.
Notice during your Bikram Yoga practice how you responded or reacted to feelings of vulnerability. Write about those reactions and/or responses.
Notice during your Bikram Yoga practice how much of your thinking related to your own feelings of vulnerability caused you to feel stress compared to the physical feelings in your body from the movements of the asana.
Answer the three prompts above but replace the term “uncertainty” for “vulnerability.”
Think and write about times and situations where you have felt vulnerable. Be specific about when, where, why, and how vulnerability occurred. Write about your feelings of vulnerability and exposure to risk or potential or real danger.
Think and write about the various times and situations where you have been in a state of uncertainty. How long did it last? How did you feel while in this state of unknowing? What, if anything, did you do to cope with such feelings of uncertainty or unknowing?
Think and write about life experiences where you were protected unnecessarily (either self-protection or from others) and missed valuable opportunity to grow or learn more about yourself and the world. Were you “too sheltered” or not protected enough?
Think and write about various situations wherein you tried to manipulate the environment and/or others in an attempt to achieve safety, a sense of security, or personal gain. What motivated such behavior? What might you have learned from a bit more exposure or risk as opposed to over protection?
What can you learn from observing and reflecting on your own specific insecurities, uncertainty, fears, and vulnerability?
When, where, why, and how or with whom do you feel most vulnerable? Try to sit with the feeling of vulnerability to know it better. Write about your experience and what you learned.
*Excerpted from Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human: A Bikram Yoga Teacher’s Self Study Guide for Wellness (available June 1 at Amazon.com)