Bikram yoga teachers often tell new students that they will never forget their first Bikram class. I agree – it was challenging and I laughed out loud when the teacher told us to do locust pose [poorna – salabhasana] (face down on the mat, hands and elbows under our bodies whilst we lift our legs straight and up). However, the biggest challenge I had was in the communal showers.
I was brought up in Hong Kong. Back in the school days, we had communal changing rooms but separate showers to wash in after PE lessons. Hong Kong is certainly a more conservative place compared to the UK. I remember a few years back going to some UK high street clothing shops, wanting to try some things on and feeling anxious walking into a communal changing area. I had never seen communal changing rooms in retail shops before and there were these very confident women changing right in front of me and not caring. I was not body confident at the time and didn’t want to even look at myself in the mirrors all around me whilst getting changed in front of them, yet I accepted it and tried to get used to it. However, walking into a communal shower after a very hot Bikram yoga class was a different story.
After a sweat dripping Bikram class, I was nervous to see the communal showers. There were all these women taking their sweaty clothes off and they probably wanted the same thing as I did – to get out of sweaty clothes quickly, jump in the shower and wash to be clean again. However, they probably didn’t feel anxious like I did. I had two options: change into my normal clothes without washing and risk walking down the street with passers-by thinking that I smell, or just shower like everyone else. In the first month or so, I used to drive home as soon as possible to shower. However, I never liked the feeling of changing into normal clothes whilst I was still sweating, especially into skinny jeans and leggings. They would cling onto me. After a while, I decided to be brave and took the latter option. Like any uncomfortable social situation I have had in the past, I thought I should just blend in with others and tell myself that I will be ok.
It took me quite a few times to make me feel less anxious. I focused on the moment rather than what anyone else would be thinking and I even started enjoying it… until one day, another Chinese girl started talking to me in the communal shower. I didn’t realise she was talking to me at first until I saw that there were only two of us left. I thought: “Oh no! I have to be polite, give eye contact and actually respond.” And so I did. I smiled at her, told her where I am from, asked her where she is from and told her my Mandarin isn’t brilliant (in Mandarin). I thought that would be the end of the conversation but it wasn’t. She wanted to carry on. At the time, I wondered if it is really acceptable to talk to each other given the circumstance of feeling vulnerable and naked. She seemed so comfortable with this and I quickly excused myself, grabbed my towel and almost ran to get dressed.
Over time, it got easier for sure. In fact, it’s got so easy now. I talk almost every time I recognise someone in the communal showers and in the odd time, I see a glare back at me by someone who I don’t know and not participating in the conversation. Are they asking the same question I asked myself when the Chinese girl spoke to me that time? Am I just talking too loud or too much whilst they still feel so zen after a savasana? Was I bit too chirpy after my yoga class?
Through my yoga practice, I learned to accept and like myself a lot more. I learned to be comfortable in my own skin. After falling down the stairs and then a subsequent car accident, Bikram yoga helped me with my recovery mentally, spiritually and physically. It also helped me learn to embrace my working body parts. I am so thankful that my arms work, my legs work and I am very lucky. Yes – my back and I fall out with each other from time to time but we become friends again after every camel pose and rabbit pose. Who really cares if my legs aren’t a certain shape? I am still learning to accept that what other people think about me has nothing to do with me.
When I go back to HK to visit my family, I practise in some hot vinyasa flow classes and their studios’ changing rooms are certainly different. They also have communal changing areas but separate cubicles if people wanted more privacy. I knew for sure that there will be separate showers and there are.
To date, I don’t think I have ever seen a Muslim lady practise hot yoga and change in the changing rooms in the UK. Is there more that can be done to encourage women of all backgrounds to feel more comfortable practising hot yoga here? If there was more privacy in the changing and shower areas, will more women feel encouraged to practise hot yoga?
If I can give advice to any woman feeling anxious like I did changing and showering in communal areas, I will say that it’s not an unpleasant experience, it gets easier over time, I am sure they look fine and actually this might be part of their yoga journey. It certainly is for me. We all have the same body parts and no one ever feels perfect anyway. We should all be less critical of ourselves and embrace what we have, rather than chasing after what we don’t have. If you really don’t feel comfortable changing in front of others, don’t let that stop you from trying yoga. No one ever regrets practising in a yoga class. Give it a go and see what you think. You might like it.
I would love to hear your comments on this.