A Grand Yoga Adventure

So you’ve decided you want to try a Bikram yoga class. Maybe you read about it in a trendy health magazine; maybe your best friend’s neighbor swore it helped him lose twenty pounds and get a stellar promotion at work; maybe you’re just a little messed up inside and are genuinely intrigued by the idea of spending an hour and a half in a human toaster oven. But no matter what has led you to this courageous decision, you now find yourself standing on the threshold of something new. Something intimidating. Something very, very sweaty.

You’ve called the studio, you’ve purchased a spot in tomorrow’s class, and you’ve casually brought the practice up in conversation with almost everyone you know. “Ah yes,” some say, “we love Bikram! The sweat feels wonderful, and we’re sure the yoga magic has granted us immortality!”

“Oh no,” others say, “We tried it once, and the misery was unimaginable.” They pause. “But good luck,” they add, “I’m sure you’ll just love it!”

You’ve looked up a few pictures online, and when you see how little clothing is customarily worn in the Bikram hot room, you’re sure that this was an absolutely terrible decision. But you’ve already paid for that drop-in class, and you neglected to notice the disclaimer declaring ABSOLUTELY NO REFUNDS when you clicked “purchase” on the studio website. So there’s no backing out now.

Because you’re a responsible, commitment-upholding individual, you show up for the 9:30AM class fifteen minutes early. The friendly instructor at the front desk—let’s say her name is Laura— greets you with a smile. You write your name on the sign-in sheet with slightly shaking hands and ask a few timid questions. “How long is this again? How hot is it in there? Is participant survival guaranteed?” The answers to these questions do nothing to ease your feelings of impending doom. You nod numbly and continue into the hot room as though your life isn’t flashing before your eyes.

They told you the class was going to be ninety minutes, but you’re exhausted after the first five. Beads of sweat form on your skin as you clasp your hands above your head, elbows locked, biceps tight against your ears; you let out a small whimper as Laura instructs you to extend your arms out towards the mirror and hold them there. She tells you to squat, then to squat on your tip-toes, then to squat on your tip-toes all the way down. And then you have to do all three poses again. Every posture brings a new kind of pain, a new wave of sweat cascading down your back. The thermometer on the side wall reads 105 degrees, and you can’t help but remember that your best friend’s hot tub is usually around this same temperature. You realize that essentially, you’re contorting yourself inside of a giant hot tub.

Another five minutes and you’re a little lightheaded. Five more and you’re searching for the exit from this wormhole they’ve stuffed you in, because there’s no way that everything you’ve done so far has only added up to fifteen minutes. You pass the time by imagining all the ways you could injure your friends who told you this was going to be enjoyable.
By the end of the class, you’ve resigned yourself to your own sweaty demise. You’re going to be stuck in this oppressively hot studio for the rest of your life. You will eventually shrivel up in a human prune of sweaty misery, only to be discovered hundreds of years from now by some archaeologist who, upon finding your remains, will cautiously tell his friends, “I think she was doing some kind of… yoga.”

But, to your pleasant surprise, the class does come to an end. You complete the final breathing exercise and are free to go.

And— even stranger than the fact that you seem to have gotten out of the studio alive— you don’t feel like you’ve just spent the last hour and a half in some kind of torture chamber. On the contrary, you feel kind of awesome. Really awesome. You probably haven’t felt this awesome since that weekend in the Bahamas with the well-sculpted cabana boy. (But you don’t have to tell anyone that.)

As you slip on your shoes in the area outside of the hot room and marvel at the state of nirvana your body is currently in, you notice a sprawling sign on the studio bulletin board: 30-Day Challenge Participants. It seems to be a list of names, each followed by a number of golden star stickers. You ask Laura what the deal is with all the gold stars. (You’ve always had a certain infatuation with gold star stickers; kids at school might’ve called it brown nosing, but your parents assured you it was just a respectable work ethic.) Laura explains that last month the studio offered a 30-day challenge during which students could commit to 30 consecutive days of Bikram practice. Outwardly, you smile and say, Oh yes of course, but inwardly, you scoff like a nun in a strip club. 30 days of Bikram yoga, in a row? There were probably diagnoses for that sort of mental instability. I mean, you could never commit to that kind of time, let alone the idea of facing such sweaty torture every day. The idea was totally insane.

Right?

*****

Okay, so you’ve decided you want to try a Bikram yoga 30-day challenge. Your parents think you’re kind of crazy, your friends think you’re kind of crazy, even you are pretty convinced you’ve gone kind of crazy, but for some reason, you’re sure that this is something you want to do. As your mom so kindly put it, by the end of the month, you’re either going to be in the best shape of your life, or you’re going to be dead.

You’re really hoping for the former.

Before Day 1, you make a list of everything you’re going to need. Your own mat with an aesthetically pleasing design (preferably something purple), special yoga towels designed to absorb your sweat (preferably in colors to match the purple), a water bottle big enough to quench the thirst of a grown man lost in the desert (at least 32 oz.), and your mom (to join you at practices/hold you when you break down into defeated sobs). You also make a list of things you don’t need: sweatshirts (this isn’t Silver Linings Playbook), long pants, socks, dignity, etc. Once you’ve run out of lists to make in a transparent effort to procrastinate getting your ass to the studio, you finally decide it’s time to get your ass to the studio.

During your practice on Day 1, Laura announces to the class at large that you have just begun your own personal 30-day challenge. Everyone oohs and ahhs, and suddenly, you feel like a bit of a celebrity. Your mom has also told everyone you know—and several people you don’t—about this sweaty venture you’ve decided to take on. She even bought you a professional little Bikram outfit that looks like it belongs on a circus performer. You’ve explained the challenge to your friends. Your sister posted a Day 1 announcement on Facebook. There are now a substantial number of secondary parties involved; backing out would probably result in several months of awkward questions from relatives and some minor Facebook slander. So you’re in this.

As you drive to your Day 1 practice, you realize that you’ve made a big commitment. Bigger even than signing that 3-month contract with Netflix, which still gives you near-crippling anxiety if you think about it for too long. (What if you only like it for one month? What if your computer is stolen by pirates and you no longer have access to the Internet? What if Netflix suddenly removes every John Cusack movie?) You have no idea what kind of challenges lie ahead of you in the hot room. You’re not sure how your body is going to react to the near-constant physical strain. You haven’t even thought about how much laundry you’re going to have to do every week. (Two loads. Two loads a week.)

All you know is that the Bikram practice is always the same. The same breathing exercises, the same postures, the same cues, the same order. Every day. For the next thirty days.

This could be a very, very long month.

*****

You’ve survived the first three days. Your sweat pours out in buckets, yes, and every class still feels like several eternities, sure, but so far you’ve managed to not keel over and die. Some recent Internet perusal has brought to your attention that a female yoga aficionado is called a yogini; you marvel at the fact that you could realistically become something that is just two letters away from Voldemort’s pet snake, and make a mental note to use the word yogini in casual conversation as much as possible.

In the middle of your practice on Day 4, another very friendly instructor—let’s call her Victoria—tells you to breathe through your nose. I mean, every instructor tells you to breathe through your nose, but you’ve never actually listened before. The term ujayyi breath drifts through your mind as you remember that time you were dragged to a Vinyasa yoga class by your friend who eats a lot of kale. You’re pretty sure the Vinyasa instructor had said that the in-and-out-through-your-nose thing was known in the yoga world as the ujayyi, or victorious, breath.

“Breathing only through your nose helps take you away from the fight or flight response, those panicked feelings you can sometimes get when you’re doing your yoga,” Victoria says as you struggle to settle your knees deeper into a lunge. “It instead activates the parasympathetic nervous system— the rest and digest response—to help you stay calm and present throughout your practice.”

You think about this for a second. You’ve found that this ujjayi breath might be easy to do if you were, say, taking a leisurely walk through a shaded park, or lying down to take a quiet nap. But when you’re shaking in a low lunge, inner thighs quivering with the effort of keeping your body off the floor, arms reaching to either side of the room, shoulders screaming with the effort of remaining in stillness, sweat dripping from your every orifice—excuse you if your breath isn’t feeling so victorious.

And there’s another common theme that’s pissing you off just a little bit: the instructors keep cuing you to quiet your mind, to let go of your thoughts and find your stillness. But why would you want to quiet your mind when the vast majority of your thoughts are such gold? You are, after all, the funniest person you’ve ever met. Telling your mind to stop thinking would be like telling J.K. Rowling to stop writing, basically.

So for the most part, you continue ignoring what the instructors have to say about breath and mental clarity. It’s not like they’re experts or anything.

*****

Up until today, which is Day 8 of your 30 days according to the calendar on your bedroom mirror, you’ve only practiced in the back row of the hot room. Part of your reason for doing this is your firm belief that you are not worthy of the prestige of the front row. (Being so close to the mirror and the instructor is an honor reserved for well-dressed yogis and yoginis who can touch their toes on a consistent basis.) Another part of your reason for staying in the back is the opportunity it gives you to ogle everyone else in the room.

You learned early on in your Bikram experience that ogling is a very important part of the process. The chiseled man in a speedo directly in front of you is not only delicious to look at, but also a live instruction manual for how the poses should be done. His cobra series is flawless. And the woman to his right? You wonder how her abs have not yet been put on display in some metropolitan art museum. Her standing bow pose is a thing of beauty. You cannot help but be envious of these mythical creatures’ incredible flexibility, as well as their fashionable Bikram outfits. (That outfit your mom bought you is still sitting in your closet, but you’re a little scared to wear it in public.)

But today, something big is going to happen. You had your Wheaties for breakfast, you haven’t felt quite so nauseous during practices this week, and your mom threatened to publicly declare you a wuss if you didn’t “just grow a pair and do it.”

So to the front row you go.

As you set your mat down very close to the instructor’s pedestal, you feel something like an immigrant without a legal passport, waiting for someone to realize that you’ve breached the innermost realm without permission from the yoga deities. But no one seems to object to your new position. In fact, you get the strangest feeling that you’ve just been admitted to some sort of secret club. You briefly wonder if this secret club has any perks, like a discount perhaps, or access to a large golden key that would open the Chamber of Yoga Secrets. But then Laura begins class, and you turn your attention to the mirror.

You now have the opportunity to ogle yourself, simultaneously admiring your own green-eyed beauty and gaping at your inability to gain any flexibility in your knees. You can count every bead of sweat on your body. Posture adjustments are easier to make with such a close view of what you’re doing wrong (which from here, you can see is pretty much everything.) Practice only seems to last one eternity, instead of its usual two or three. Laura tells you your camel pose is looking quite good.

You think you might like this front row business after all.

*****

The second week of your challenge comes surprisingly fast, probably because you’re doing so goddamn well. You’re comfortable practicing in the front row now. You finally worked up the courage to wear that special Bikram outfit your mom bought for you, and though it might have the smallest cubic area of any clothing you’ve ever worn outside of your house, it makes your ass look damn good. (You’re pretty sure the people in the back are taking notice.) The instructors’ dialogue is becoming ingrained in your head, like that new Selena Gomez song you never planned on knowing the words to but can’t help singing on the car ride home. You still feel miserable about 70% of the time you’re in the hot room, but you’re confident that you’re on your way to becoming a bona fide yogini.

That is, until one terrible day comes to smack you right back onto your (admittedly well-sculpted) ass. Maybe you hit snooze on your alarm because you watched a few too many episodes of How I Met Your Mother last night and you’re not nearly as taken with yoga practice as you are with Ted Mosby’s newest romantic fling. Maybe you’re nearing the end of your laundry week, and you have to resort to wearing that pair of your sister’s spandex that are just a size too small and brutally accentuate your muffin top. Maybe you, feeling sleep deprived and slightly obese, walk into the studio only to be overwhelmed by a peculiar sense of dread, as though you’re a gifted spiritualist and the hot room is a haunted house in the countryside. But ten minutes into today’s class, there’s one thing you know for sure: this is the most miserable you’ve ever been in your entire life.

Your arms and legs feel like lead. There’s a strange stiffness in your neck that is making every movement feel like a painful surgical procedure. You manage to blink sweat into your right eye. Every time the instructor—some new guy named Thomas, not your familiar friends Laura or Victoria—tells you to balance on one leg, you struggle even more than usual. Just stand still, your mind begs and jeers, this is a disaster. Get the hell out of here. Everything hurts. You’re going to throw up.

This is, without a shadow of a doubt, where you are going to die.

But then a voice in your head—a different voice from the one telling you that you’re on the precipice of death—tells you that this is the time to try something new. It couldn’t possibly make things worse. You stand still in the middle of your mat and ground your feet into the floor. Victorious. You try to focus only on your breathing, eyes forward, mouth closed. Inhale, exhale. You imagine the air rushing in through your nose, across the back of your throat, in through your veins and across your tired body, from your fingertips to your toes. Inhale, exhale.

You feel a little bit like a mental patient, but the breath’s effect is immediate: your arms and legs relax. This makes you realize how tense the muscles in your face are, and you relax them too. Inhale, exhale. Wow, this is kind of awesome. Inhale, exhale. You feel so much less like you’re going to die. Inhale, exhale. I mean, you still feel a little bit like you’re going to die, but much less so than before. Inhale, exhale. One more beat of stillness, then you nod at yourself in the mirror and listen for Thomas’s instructions on which pose comes next.

You’re going to live through this.

*****

In the hot room a few days later, you’re sweaty as all hell and about to assume that one-legged bitch of a standing bow pose, when the instructor mentions the word balance. You’ve never struggled with vocabulary, as evidenced by all those gold stars you hoarded in elementary school, but you suddenly find yourself beginning to dissect the familiar word. Balance.

You again think back to the time when your friend—the one who eats a lot of kale—took you to that Vinyasa yoga class. After the practice’s final sun salutation, she had turned to you with an enthusiastic smile and said, “Don’t you just feel so balanced?”

At the time you had struggled not to laugh because this was exactly the kind of thing a friend who eats a lot of kale would say. But now you think you’re starting to understand what she had meant.

There’s the kind of balance that allows tiny gymnasts with a lot of gel in their hair to land backflips on a 5-inch beam, the same balance that could help you stand on a single locked leg in standing bow pose. There’s the kind of balance that evens scales, satisfies mathematicians, and promises that two sides have an equal share. And then there’s the kind of balance that you can taste as you inhale, the kind you can feel in your lungs and your heart, that lets you know—even if it’s just for a second—that everything is as it should be.

All these thoughts come to you over the course of about ten seconds, during which you’ve managed to fall out of standing bow pose four times. So you figure your balance—the kind that helps you stand on a single locked leg—could be better. You trip over things a lot, namely unmarked steps and the occasional misplaced rock. Yesterday you fell out of triangle pose and actually thwacked your arm against the side wall. (The sound was politely ignored by everyone except your mom, who laughed so hard you’re pretty sure she farted). But ever since that moment on the terrible day when you decided to focus on your breathing, you’ve begun to notice changes. Small improvements. Your posture, your heart rate, your breath. Even your skin feels lighter somehow.

As the instructor begins to cue the class into balancing stick pose, you clasp your hands together above your head, shift all of your weight into your locked right leg, and wonder how your mom would react if you asked her to add kale to the grocery list.

*****

At some point during your challenge, you decide to bring a friend with you to practice. Maybe it’s your college roommate, maybe it’s your sister. Maybe you harass everyone you’ve ever been emotionally close to and the only person who agrees to come with you is that friend with a body like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. (You were kind of hoping she’d be too busy to come and stand next to you semi-naked for an hour and a half, but at this point, you’ll take whatever company you can get.) No matter who it is, when this friend arrives at the studio with you, a number of things most likely happen:

  • Laura greets you like a regular, because now you kind of are a regular, and you hope this makes your friend realize how wonderful and important you are in the world of Bikram yoga.
  • Your friend looks uncomfortable when you tell him/her that he/she will practice with you in the magical front row, whether he/she likes it or not.
  • You try harder than you have ever tried before to look like you know what you’re doing.
  • Despite your best efforts, your friend (who has never done this before) looks better than you in every single pose.

This is how it goes with most of your friends, your aunt, your mom and your seventh grade science teacher. But one afternoon you’re leaving the studio after practice with one of your oldest pals—let’s say his name is Sam—and the windows are down and some happy summer music is playing. Sam imitates the double exhale of the yoga pushup, making pregnant banshee noises as he drives. (He wasn’t the biggest fan of the double exhale.) When you make the mistake of mentioning rabbit pose, he nearly explodes. “Da fuck is up with that one? Like seriously, where were my hands supposed to be? Up my asshole?” (He wasn’t particularly taken with the floor series either.) You’re laughing so hard your stomach hurts, and your muscles are heavy in the best way. Outside, the colors of the setting sun glow brighter than usual, and suddenly, you’re consumed with overwhelming gratitude for yoga and Sam and the sun and this moment, the fact that you are here. You are loved, and you are lucky.

This gratitude feels rich and wonderful, and it doesn’t fade when the sun finally sets behind the green trees on the horizon. Inhale, exhale. You wish you could share this feeling with everyone.

When you get home, you call your friend with the Sports Illustrated body. Yes, of course she’d love to come try Bikram with you tomorrow. (You’ve decided that you’ll be practicing at opposite sides of the room, but she doesn’t need to know that yet.)

You fall asleep dreaming of sweat and sunsets.

*****

Time soon starts to speed up. Every practice is another chance to work on your postures, your meditation, your breath. You’ve come to realize that some of your thoughts are indeed not gold, and quieting your mind can lead to far less painful experiences in the hot room. (This realization struck you around the same time you remembered that J.K. Rowling had a kid, and probably took writing breaks every now and again.) In fact, sometimes your practice becomes so focused that you can’t recall even doing certain postures, or entire series altogether. You’re not sure if this is a sign of good meditation, early onset Alzheimer’s, or schizophrenia, but you’re hoping for option #1. (And just in case it is #2 or #3, you’ve decided to keep these mild memory lapses to yourself.) Balancing on a locked knee feels more like a habit than a chore; touching your toes isn’t a far-fetched daydream; you can bend your spine backwards like a scene out of an exorcism movie. Dreams are coming true for you.

One day—say, around Day 23—you’re sitting cross-legged in the hot room, patiently waiting on your purple mat for class to start. You notice a couple of people filing into the room, and it’s clear they’ve never been here before. They carry mats and towels that have been rented from the studio, their eyes nervously scan the room, and—if their situation is particularly dire—they’re wearing long pants. There aren’t many spots left, but one newcomer moves to set up directly behind you. Maybe it’s a bedraggled man whose glasses are already sliding down his sweaty nose, or a larger woman with dark circles under her eyes. You smile at the woman as she lays down her mat and wish you could have sent her a What You Should Know Before Coming to Bikram brochure.

Practice begins, and you get right into your breathing. You’re focused, good and sweaty, just about to start your second set of standing bow pose when you notice something curious in the mirror. The newcomer is studying you. She watches the way you take your ankle in your hand, extending your leg backwards and reaching your arm forwards. Only after you’ve fallen out of the pose a couple times does she begin to try it herself, tentatively, with mannerisms similar to yours. At this same moment you realize that you’ve chosen today to wear your special little Bikram outfit.

And suddenly, you’re on the other side. You take a moment to see yourself through this woman’s eyes: focused, confident, well-outfitted. There’s no way she could know that this time last week you were desperately trying not to vomit on the carpet, or that you recently fell out of triangle pose and smacked into the side wall. She probably has no idea that you were in her position just a few short months ago, or that most of the time you still feel like a rookie in the hot room too. All she knows is that you seem to know what you’re doing.

And after a good look at yourself in the mirror, you start to think she might be right.

*****

The last few days of your challenge bring a strange sense of nostalgia. You almost want to write a speech about how strange and beautiful life is and maybe make a picture montage set to Good Riddance by Green Day, but then you realize that this isn’t your high school graduation. (And Good Riddance? Really? Have some originality.)

On Day 30, the heat that had once felt so oppressive greets you in a familiar, sweaty embrace. You still groan as Laura instructs you to squat, your legs still shake as lunge further into triangle pose, and your knees are still impressively inflexible. Every practice is exactly the same, but also completely different; you’ve come to love that about Bikram yoga. The heat might feel stifling, the practice might seem endless, and the sweat might actually go up your nose, but the dialogue never changes.

The only thing that changes is you.

*****

When the 30th practice of your 30-day challenge is over, you roll up your mat in a giddy fashion. It’s difficult to keep from grinning. That’s one fine yogini, you might wink at yourself in the mirror before strutting out through the hot room’s double doors. You did it. You did it. You just finished something completely, totally, outrageously crazy.

But you’re about do something crazier.

Today is the last day of your Bikram 30-day challenge, and therefore the last day of the unlimited 1-month class card you bought at the start of this adventure. You stride purposefully up to Laura, who is sitting behind the front desk with a smile almost big enough to match yours. She offers you congratulations on completing the challenge, as well as a celebratory card signed by every instructor in the studio. (In your opinion, this card solidifies your celebrity status.)

You thank her profusely, unable to wipe the smile off your face. “And if it’s alright,” you add, “I’d like to buy another month, please.”

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sean Barrows
    Aug 20, 2013 @ 15:17:39

    You’re a decent writer

    Reply

  2. Annabelle Eliopoulos
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 17:57:50

    So awesome Han, I loved this!!!!

    Reply

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