In early August, two hundred women from around the country traveled to Austin, Texas, to study with three leaders in the Bikram community: Emmy Cleaves, Mary Jarvis and Rajashree Choudhury. Joining them was Dr. Lisa Ellis (a dedicated Bikram yogi, who often recommends the practice to her patients).
Together, we spent four long days intently focused on advancing and understanding our practices. The retreat started with Emmy’s Advanced Class and continued with two Bikram Beginning yoga classes each day. The program included detailed posture clinics, question-and-answer sessions and a medical panel.
I left inspired, energized and sore. The lessons will be familiar to most Bikram yogis. They hit home all over again in Austin.
‘Are you going alone?’ asked a handful of friends and students prior to my trip. I hadn’t given it a second thought. There would be lost of old friends and many new friendly faces. I wasn’t worried about traveling alone to a Bikram event. Par for the course.
I saw friends from Teacher Training, studio owners who I had met before, and many kind strangers. The oldest participant was 90, the mother of a studio owner. The youngest was 13. Most were students. About 20% were teachers or owners. A handful were elite athletes, who compete regionally, nationally, and (in a few cases) globally.
Rajashree and Bikram’s daughter Laju, also a teacher, was in attendance.
Emmy looked content and happy as she told us in her closing words, ‘I never had a sister. Or a daughter. YOU are my sisters and my daughters.’ And that’s exactly how it felt. Like a big, diverse, and very happy family.
This Women’s Retreat was rumored to be Emmy’s last. Rajashree told us that she was pleased and honored to have started this journey with Emmy, to have traveled together for so many years, and to be finishing the journey together.
Just like family.
It’s hard to describe the experience of practicing in such a large group of students, where the level of practice is so high.
Advanced Class (comprised of roughly 90 postures) was particularly surreal. It’s rare to see a single student who can actually do each and everyone of the postures. Let alone a group of people!
The athletes and competitors who attended (many of whom helped to organize and run the retreat) practiced near the front of the pavilion, where they could help Emmy, Mary, and Raj, as needed. And where they could easily demonstrate postures.
It was inspiring to watch them, and they led us all to stronger practices. Seeing what’s possible for a few made the same achievements seem attainable to the rest.
‘Your biggest problem is that you continuously underestimate yourselves.’ -Bikram Choudhury
Like many, I tend to work harder for my favorite teachers. There was no slacking in these classes, which ran to three hours. These women have seen it all, and they didn’t let us off easy. It was entertaining, highly motivating, and a little scary to know that they were watching us all practice. They watched us from the podium, walked the room, and occasionally taught from the back.
These women don’t mince words, either.
‘Suck your stomach in! I can see it from here!,’ said Emmy.
‘Don’t do the posture with your face!’ said Raj.
‘If you are a young and flexible yogi in a fabulous outfit, you had better have your hands together!’, said Mary.
The balancing postures were particularly long. ‘Balance here for at least ten seconds. Don’t give up!’, said Raj. Often, as we balanced in stillness, Raj and Emmy started a mini lecture on the benefits of that particular posture. I listened and stayed in posture, while my body pleaded, ‘change!‘ It was surprising how long we were able to hold postures.
Mary encouraged students to take their time. We waited for them to achieve a personal best.
Discipline and attention to detail were major themes. Emmy, Mary and Raj have earned deep love and respect. So studio etiquette was strong. There was little fidgeting, restrained drinking, and no leaving. The classes drifted beyond formal dialogue. Advanced corrections were given in all of the postures. Raj walked the room, giving gentle adjustments. Emmy invited students onto the stage for individual help. We spent a lot of time talking about technique in Half Moon, Standing Bow, and Triangle.
Mary Jarvis told us how a steady diet of yoga (two classes a day for two years) helped her to transcend pain and recover from a serious car accident. And how, thanks to the strength and serenity of her Bikram practice, she was able to sit in stillness with her father as he gently passed away.
Dr. Ellis told us she has been astonished at the number of middle-aged women who fall and suffer broken bones because of diminished strength, flexibility, and balance. Ellis started practicing in 2004 after sustaining a tennis injury, and quickly came to realize that Bikram yoga would become an integral element of her life.
We laughed a lot.
‘The hard work is mandatory, but the suffering is totally optional,’ Leo Eisenstein
Gratitude & Compassion, for ourselves and each other
Most importantly, the retreat provided a chance to fully appreciate the healing power of Bikram yoga.
I stumbled across Bikram’s orange book at my local library, by accident. On a whim, I googled Bikram yoga and found a nearby studio.
I could never have imagined the path my life would take as a result of those two small choices. Like many of you, I enjoy optimal health and freedom from pain. The practice has helped me celebrate the best moments of my life. And survive the most painful ones. It has built a vibrant, diverse and kind community of friends. It has provided my livelihood and the privilege of sharing the practice with students.
‘What a great and glorious life!’, as Mary would say.
With gratitude and love,