On complecting: Bikram Yoga

“Complecting” is a new angelstarved series designed to explore the impact different lifestyle choices have on our complexion, and to suggest best practices for each lifestyle choice. I have always been interested in ways to take better care of my skin, and as someone who practices Bikram yoga 3-4 times a week, it makes sense to start the series with Bikram. So I’ve talked to three brilliant, beautiful, and seriously informed women  (and, briefly, one wonderful man) about the issue, and I am here to share their wisdom.

One can find comments all over the internet about the “yoga glow” that emanates from yoga practitioners. I turned to one of my favorite Paris Bikram instructors, Sachiko Yonaha at L’Espace Bikram, for her take on a myth I struggle to embody. Sachiko was a makeup artist for years before going through Bikram training, so her perspective really takes into account two approaches to skincare: one from the outside, and one from the inside.

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“During my years spent working as a makeup artist and in the beauty industry before I became a yoga teacher, I met women every day who were in search of the latest beauty product, whether it be the latest cream or some kind of treatment that would somehow magically transform their tired, dull, puffy, wrinkled skin,” Sachiko says. I am no stranger to this attitude, and neither is Sachiko: “I can relate to these women, who feel like if they can just fix their wrinkles/under eye bags/dull skin that their life will change.” The desperation many people feel about their skin is some powerful shit that has kept me personally down since I was ten years old.

The change Sachiko finally experienced was no expensive cream, nor a prescription from a famous dermatologist. “This is where yoga comes into the picture for me. Yoga changed my life and the course of my skin healing journey in that it allowed me to see myself in a new way . When you have no choice but to look at yourself in the mirror for 90 minutes and perform challenging postures in a hot and sweaty room, things start to change.” I remember when I first started practicing Bikram, I would sometimes wince as I focused on myself in the mirror because I was unhappy with my complexion. But bit by bit, I developed a relationship with my body, including my skin, that Sachiko articulates so well: “I started feeling more connected with myself and with my body, I started eating better and taking better care of myself. I learned that practicing Bikram yoga was not fun on a bloated belly, and discovered that by cutting certain foods out of my diet that I felt a whole lot better. My skin started to heal, my yoga practice was easier, the uncomfortable bloat disappeared and I had a lot more energy. First to go was the processed food and gluten, next was the dairy, then the meat and finally, I switched to a whole food plant based vegan diet. I started to feel happy in myself and comfortable in my own skin for probably the first time in my life.”

This change that yoga is capable of effecting works like an instinctual guide of sorts to help you make healthier choices, to in fact make you crave healthier choices. Because yoga itself is a moving meditation (although Bikram may not feel that way for beginners!), it can offer not just increased seratonin levels and a heightened sense of what the body needs for balance, but further insight into life choices for increased balance. As Sachiko says: “I discovered meditation, which brought a new sense of calm to myself, and along with it a lot of self reflections and realizations. Not always an easy ride, but by being able to look at things more clearly, I felt like I was able to release what was not working for me in my life anymore. And I started to feel like the happiness I had found in myself was starting to show on the outside and people around me started to notice too. It really is true when people say that when you feel good on the inside, it shows on the outside.”

The power of meditation– of the practice of liberating yourself from otherwise invasive thoughts by recognizing them as “only” thoughts– does extend, in my experience, to your complexion. While some meditation practices focus solely on breathing, others on corporeal awareness, others on chanting, Bikram uses the often mic’d voice of the instructor to free you, the practitioner, of otherwise consuming thoughts. This approach is why some people “hate” Bikram; they feel it takes away your will to think for yourself by inserting you into a demanding practice where someone else tries to control your body’s movements, rather than you truly connecting with yourself. The purpose of doing nothing but following instructions, though, is that you become free to focus on your breath and to inhabit the postures as best you can. You become increasingly unblocked, as it were. And this chance at liberation for 90 minutes is an incredible form of meditation, if, of course, you have a well-trained, responsible teacher. Thus this power of meditation, of which Sachiko speaks, lowers stress levels, increases balance, and results in a general sense of connection and well-being that should, with regular practice, extend to your skin. You can find Sachiko at http://www.lespacebikram.com.

I met Mishel Ixchel while she was teaching a class at the Bikram studio in Wynnewood, PA, though she’s now based in NYC. She is the founder of La Dea Vita, a lifestyle and exquisite self-care company. She’s a certified Bikram Yoga and Qoya instructor, and is currently getting her health and therapy coach certification. I was immediately struck by her voice’s uncanny resemblance to that of Amy, Jason’s V-addict of a girlfriend in True Blood, but Mishel really blew my mind with a single instruction she gave during that first class in Wynnewood. While we were all huffing and puffing in Standing Bow, she told us that our faces should look like we were chillin’ on the couch.

“I often marvel,” she says, “at the expression that master yogis seem to wear on their face when they are performing a contortionist-like yoga asana. It’s the same look of pure bliss that I have whenever I get to sleep in or have the pleasure of eating good food. This admiration has brought awareness to my own expressions when I’m in yoga class, as well as the look on the faces of my students when I’m teaching. Funny enough, a lot of people are struggling to such a degree, hardly even breathing, that their faces are rouge and quite strained. And so, I make it a point to not only practice relaxing my face when I practice, but to remind others when I’m leading the practice.”

She breaks down her insistence on facial relaxation into two reasons: First, it’s easier to breathe when your face is relaxed. And when your breath is calm, you oxygenate your muscles and brain, helping you focus on your posture. Second, you don’t want to give yourself wrinkles! Relax, maybe even gently smile during the hardest postures. I have taken this suggestion to heart in the year or so since meeting Mishel– I regularly check in on my facial expression, relaxing it as much as possible without losing visual focus on my face, knee, back of the room, or whatever is called for in the posture. Sometimes for me this translates into simply rolling my eyes way back in my head, but keeping my actual facial muscles relaxed (in Cobra, for example). A bit worried that perhaps I wasn’t getting the full benefits of backward-looking postures without the forehead wrinkling, I turned to Frédéric Choukroun, co-director with Hélène Fournier of L’Éspace Bikram in Paris. Fred suggested that the ultra-backward gaze that can squinch up your face may be necessary for beginners, so they can build equilibrium around a fixed visual point (so, the wall behind them). As you progress, though, you are able to depend less on your directed gaze and instead use your lifted chest and aligned spine to direct yourself further up and back, while your eyes (and hence forehead) can relax. Fred confirms, then, the potential to further relax the skin as you advance in your practice. Mishel’s instruction has helped me take this practice of muscular serenity a step further– when I feel I’ve relaxed my face, I gently smile, and this act brightens my yoga practice, even (or especially) when I am battling chronic pain, have a cold, or am about to topple over as I try to further correct an already challenging balancing pose. One more note is to disregard, in the final breathing exercise, the trendy “Breathe like you’re blowing out a candle 20 feet in front of you!” instruction. There is no need to pucker your lips in this exercise; you can breathe just as powerfully without moving your mouth at all!

As Mishel reminds us: “The skin is our largest organ, so it’s important to detox it properly. Bikram yoga is one way, as as a sauna.”Some other favorite self-care routines for skin include dry skin brushing, kangen water, a machine that alkalinises your water, and supplements (she recommends USANA). You can get more of Mishel at http://www.ladeavita.com.

For specific answers as to best skincare practices before and after a demanding yoga practice in a 100-degree room, I turn to Ellen Ehrlich, the aesthetician whose has contributed most to my own skin healing process. Ellen is a Registered Nurse in dermatology and has her own line of skincare products, RxFormula. She currently works in Ardmore, PA at the Main Line Center for Laser Surgery. Ellen taught me the precarious art of balancing exfoliation and moisture, which helped to free my skin enormously from dead skin and clogged pores, while also giving it the nourishment and protection it needed.

Here’s what she has to say about pre-yoga skincare, things that now seem obvious to me, but about which I had no clue 9 years ago when I began practicing Bikram: Begin with gently cleansed skin. You need to be careful not to use any product that could sting your eyes when you sweat, and that includes eye cream you may have applied earlier in the day, not to mention sunscreen.

After exiting the yoga room, you need to clear the skin of sweat and bacteria that might be present. Remember that the mat, towel and floor have all come into contact with your now-opened pores. The simplest way to cleanse is with an alcohol-free toner, like Rx Ginseng Mineral Toner or Rx Glycolic Facial Toner with CoQ10. Even a good rinse with tempered water is better than simply walking out of the studio as is. I asked Ellen about potential dangers of applying products to skin that is still hot to the touch: She advises that cool skin is not crucial, but that you should wait until you stop sweating to apply any product other than a cleanser or toner. True enough, we Bikram practitioners don’t stop sweating for a while after class, but a cool shower and, if possibe, avoiding the hairdryer should get you close.

Ellen has also finally drilled into my head the necessity of sun protection. So once more, for the yogis out there: apply a product with SPF 30 or higher before leaving the studio, even in winter! Don’t forget your ears and hands, it’s all skin and it’s all susceptible! She insists: “The sun is the number one cause of prematurely aged skin and skin cancer. Most damage occurs from the incidentals: just stepping out to the mailbox, sitting in a car, running a quick errand…” or quickly running home from the studio. For warm weather and/or for people with oily skin, she recommends RxFormula Ultra Sheer Sunscreen. For skin that requires a sheer moisturizer, she suggests RxFormula Moisturizing Sheer Physical Sunscreen. Because most eye creams don’t protect you from the sun, Ellen has finally gotten me to wear sunglasses when I’m outside. You can get more of Ellen at http://www.rxformula.com.

A final word from Sachiko, along with a selfie after a full day at a recent Bikram retreat: “When asked now if yoga can help to give you glowing skin, my answer is yes. Like life, I believe the beauty of healing can often be found in the journey, and the magic of yoga is that it gives you the opportunity to look inside, see yourself for who you are, and to be kind to that self. Your light gets turned on, and your skin starts to ‘glow’ from the inside out.”

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