Can You Stand the Heat?
The lights were dimmed and a gentle hum ran through the room. It was warm, like a fresh spring day.
I can take this.
I settled into a cross-legged position on the floor. It was my first time in a Bikram yoga class. Bikram yoga was developed by yoga teacher Bikram Choudry and consists of 26 specific poses and two breathing exercises, performed in a specific sequence, all done over ninety minutes in a room heated to about 105 degrees.
The small studio was located in an average-looking strip mall. I’d arrived here a half an hour early, following the instructions of the instructor I’d spoken with on the phone. Once here I’d filled out an information sheet, paid the first class fee (rather steep at $17), and signed a waiver. Then the instructor and owner of the studio, Sam, told me I should sit in the back of the studio. He said that this was so I could see the poses as they were modelled by more advanced students and also because it was cooler in the back of the room.
The prideful part of me wanted to object – after all, I’ve been doing other forms of yoga for over ten years. Nevertheless, I changed into my yoga clothes (pants and short-sleeve shirt) and entered the studio. I placed my mat in the back of the room and covered it with a towel.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I looked around. The heat did not seem so bad, just slightly humid, like a light blanket that covered my body. It was still early so there were only three other people in the room. All were skimpily dressed (short shorts and sports bras or tanks) and laid down in corpse pose, flat on the floor. They were all thin.
Maybe this is the advantage of Bikram yoga. Maybe it will help with weight loss.
I looked at myself in the floor to ceiling mirror in front of the room. I must have had twenty pounds on them. I felt humungous and out of place.
Should I just walk out?
I tried to tell myself that yoga is not supposed to be about judgment. That I was to accept myself – and others – as we were. But I am human so I compared. Two older women entered the room. They looked to be about my size and I breathed a sigh of relief. At least I would not stand out too much. The women were dressed in shorts and bras, rolls exposed to the world and I felt a sense of pride at their confidence – confidence I could never pull off. Next, a stick figure of a girl walked in and took her place right in front me. I could barely even see myself in the mirror now, just the parts that were bigger than her.
That’s perfect. She wants to brag about how perfect she must be.
I knew I should not have such thoughts, especially in a yoga studio, but I could not help myself. Besides, it’s not like the class had started yet.
In my previous years practicing yoga, I had always heard that yoga was about accepting what you have and things as they are; not wishing for them to be ways they never can, or probably should, be. Supposedly this was the key to inner peace.
As my thighs showed through the slim edges of her body, I was not buying it.
The room continued to fill up with an assortment of body shapes and sizes – a few men even joined the room. I was surprised at how popular Bikram yoga was and I was eager to explore what this type of yoga has to it. Sam entered the room and turned on the lights – and the heaters and fan.
Uh-oh, it’s about to get very hot in here.
I felt the heat blowing onto my skin and my skin reacted by releasing moisture to the surface. I had not moved yet and was starting to sweat.
We all stood on our mats. The first thing we did was a breathing exercise. We had to swing our arms around as we bent our backs. By the time I was able to get this complicated coordination down, the exercise was nearly over. I was hopelessly confused and had flashbacks to my gawky days in middle school dance class. How was everyone doing this so smoothly?
The class then moved on to the standing poses. Most of these poses required some form of balance and I felt my legs shaking as the muscles of the standing leg were engaged. Even worse, the sweat freely pouring from my body had made my hands slippery. They could not grip the other leg and I felt myself slipping. My face was in a grimace even as Sam encouraged us to hold the poses. With all the concentration I was giving to not just falling over like some toddler, I was hardly concentrating on my breathing and did not feel any relaxation coming on.
Sam was excellent at remembering our names and gave us positive feedback and modifications on improving the poses. In Bikram yoga, the teacher never touches the student to “fix” a posture. Instead, they say things like “pull your shoulders back” or “kick your leg for balance.” I am not fond of being touched by some stranger, especially while I am showered in sweat, so I enjoyed this aspect of the practice. However, as this exertion and sweating was making me feel light headed I wondered when we would sit or take a break for water. Such diversions seemed to never come as we held one pose after another. I felt as though these standing exercises would never end and I wished I had snuck a watch into the room to see how far into the ninety minutes we were.
From the balancing poses, we moved into Triangle pose and Warrior I. I breathed a sigh of relief. These were poses I knew. I could do these. Also, in Triangle pose, as I leaned over my extended leg and straightened my arm above me, I saw that the skinny girl was curled on the floor – taking a self-prescribed break.
The nasty, judgmental side of my personality shrieked with glee.
I may have weighed more than her, but I was still fitter.
I tried to quiet her, but she was loud. This side of me was just not ready for the yogic thought of acceptance. I looked at my fellow chubby girl rocking the pose and sent her positive vibes. At least that was more yogic of me.
Soon, we were on the floor. Hallelujah! As we rested momentarily, I thought I had never felt such sweet release before. I felt my sweat pouring off me and into the blanket that covered my mat.
Too soon, it seemed, we were back to poses, only these were the seated poses. We did a series of backbends and stretches. My back was naturally flexible and I received teacher praise for my Camel pose, during which I was able to kneel, bend backwards, and grab my ankles. I was breathing freely now. As the sweat continued to pour, I accepted, even felt pride at it, and wore it like a security blanket.
Something had happened. With the shift from standing to floor poses, I had moved from looking around me to looking inside. I could not tell how well anyone in the class was at any of the seated positions. I could only remember how I did. How I had reached farther forward in the forward bend and had arched back a little higher in Locust pose than ever before. After all, all of us in the class were in this together. We may have been different sizes, but we were all here for one thing – practice, not perfection. With my sweat, I had finally shed my judgments. I may have been able to do a full Camel pose, but the skinny girl was great at balancing. And, guess what? That’s fine. We’re all different and we should accept ourselves as such.
Right before the final relaxation, we did a final breathing exercise. In this exercise, we kneeled on the floor while breathing quickly to the beat set forth by the instructor. As I inhaled and exhaled with the beat, I felt unified with the rest of the class. We were all individual beings, yet our breath united us. Oxygen entered all of our lungs and carbon dioxide exited. We took sustenance and gave positive thoughts and energy back to the world.
As I laid in the final pose, lights and additional heaters turned off or lowered, I relaxed full length on the floor, I felt my sweat slowly evaporating, like bubbles popping against my skin.
I am definitely coming back tomorrow.
* * *
Author note: My experience with Bikram yoga took place before the current allegations against its founder, Bikram Choudry. The teachers at the studio where I practiced were never anything but helpful and professional. The allegations, still being heard in court, against one man should not cloud the experiences others have had under different teachers.