Bikram? It Nearly Killed ‘im!
Published: December 4, 2013
So here we are, Spitballers, out of Thanksgiving and Chanukah and truckin’ into Christmas, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve eaten a tauntaun’s weight in turkey and been on an IV gravy drip to keep from going into a low-fat coma. As Speedo season is just around the corner (come on Secretary Appreciation Day!), this year I thought it best to get the old fleshbag (which is the science-y name for the human body. I believe it’s Latin) in gear a little early. So I took a waddle on over to my local Bikram yoga studio. Richard Simmons or a fortune cookie once told me, to change your outside, you must first change your inside. Since I pride myself on my inflexibility, both physical and philosophical, Bikram looked to be the perfect way to start my physiospiritual flip-flop. For me, yoga has always represented the height of half-baked New Age oddness, and adding heat just made it full-baked.
As soon as I walked in, however, the Hampden Bikram studio defied my expectations. I’d been preparing for a stinging cloud of incense smoke accompanied by the tingling of prayer bells and monks ohming on the hi-fi. Instead I was welcomed with the Christmasy crooning of the coolest man in history, Mr. Dean Martin, singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which, if you haven’t heard it, is just the sweetest date-rape duet ever. Sure, a few things came off the way I expected. In every men’s locker room, be it boot camp, boxing gym, or yoga studio, there’s one guy whose uncomfortably comfortable with his body. (Seriously, guy, how do you find so much to do in the men’s room and think so much of it is best accomplished naked?) But otherwise the place was shockingly welcoming, even for a big square like me.
Standing at the door to the actual yoga room, I was absolutely terrified. I looked to one of the instructors, who was straightening up, and pleaded, “Pray I survive.” She smiled and said, “You’ll do great.” She was the most adorable liar I’ve ever met. I knew the place was going to be hot, but I had no idea what I was getting into until I opened that door. Hot enough to fry an egg? Hot enough to exact revenge on Freddie Fucking Krueger. I like to start my holiday turkey in a 500-degree oven to get the skin nice and crispy. Next year, I’m just going to take it to a Bikram yoga class. To give you an idea just how hot it was in there, in just five minutes, I took my shirt off in a room full of strangers. If nothing else, Bikram had already penetrated four decades of fat-kid self-hate.
I was the last student to enter the room, a wide space with a double line of men and women lying on their backs and sweating. Carolynn, the instructor, had told me to find a place in back so I would be able to watch people who knew what they were doing, but I was so unprepared I couldn’t guess where the front was, which made finding the back a Sisyphean struggle. After a few awkward moments of turning in place, afraid of stepping on or staring at any of the yogis, I retreated to a corner where I could avoid being seen, or, at least I could have, were it not for the three walls of mirrors.
The class began with a stretch toward the ceilling, deep and then shallow breathing, and the odd sensation of reaching my head toward the back wall while the rest of me stayed in place. Along with the gallons of sweat, my fears were draining away. I was doing yoga! Finally I’ll have something to talk about when I meet the Dalai Lama. After what felt like about an incredibly intense hour of mind/body fitnessizing, I was ready for a break, some water, and a full-body squeegeeing when Carolynn announced that we’d finished the warmup and my heart fell into my feet.
I’d have given in then were it not for the guidance of Carolynn. Through the shimmering heat waves, she stood at the front of the class, red-headed, purple-topped, and leopard-print yoga pants-bottomed, radiating equal parts drill-instructor authority and grandma-like love. Carolynn provided an endless stream of instruction and encouragement in a calm, confident voice that only seems to exist in sci-fi utopias. It was like being yoga-coached by the computer from the Starship Enterprise. I tried to tune out the world and the sea of flexible bodies all around me and focus on Carolynn’s voice, to pretend she was talking only to me. When she said, “Your body looks like a Japanese ham sandwich,” I knew she was. Later, when she added, “You can see your rib cage” and “Good work, Kathy,” I realized I was wrong.
As we got into the more intense poses, I had trouble keeping my balance. The physical intensity, combined with the all-consuming heat, had my head swimming. At some point, the ceiling fans kicked in and I thought, Oh great! Convection. I’d been worried I was getting overdone on one side. Every time we did a forward flex, I was keenly aware of my holiday gut. The feeling was so strong I was sure I was going to throw up Thanksgiving dinner from 1997. When the contents of my stomach did decide to make the trip up to the back of my throat, presumably just to get a look around, I realized it was in fact the Bella Roma sausage and green-olive pizza that had seemed such a delicious idea two hours before. It had all become too much and I fled to the cool release of the lobby.
I was set to give up when Carolynn joined me. She asked if I was OK, told me it would be fine to leave, but let me know I’d made it through the hardest part, and that it would be great to come back if I was up to it. She was right, of course, but those poses weren’t the hardest part. The hardest part was walking in that door in the first place. The rest of the class was much easier. Not easy, but easier. Laying on the floor at the end, my thoughts spun between the sweet sense of joy in having finished and the overwhelming realization of how much a hot yoga mat smells like a bicycle shop. More than just holiday pounds were melting away. Carolynn announced that I’d completed my first yoga class, and everyone burst into applause.
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