I had to be mental to give hot yoga a try, right? Find out in this personal story about a Bikram beginner.
I leaned into the Bikram Yoga studio, poking my head in while slipping off my shoes, and took note of the distinct sense of dread wiggling its way down into the pit of my stomach. You know the feeling – impending doom, mixed with nerves, cut with the unknown? Yes. That’s the one. It was still quarter to nine in the morning, weather pleasant for Bangkok, skin free of sweat. (An absolute rarity.) And yet, my tongue was already so parched it clung to the roof of my mouth like a tree frog when I asked the woman at the desk if they happened to sell bottled water in addition to Bikram yoga classes. Uhm, yes. About five inches to my right was a fridge stacked with hundreds of bottles of water- how did I not see that? I self-critiqued. Class hadn’t even started and I was already suffering dehydration and serious neuron malfunctioning. Was I going to be able to do this?
I had heard all about hot yoga from friends but mainly from my American friends. In 2006, before I left on a vacation that would kickstart my expat life, I’d met a guy in Harvard Square who was obsessed with Bikram and drinking copious amounts of water. This was a welcome change from men obsessed with baseball and drinking copious amounts of beer. He was thirty with wild curly hair and a tan, hairless body, and he looked good for his age, which he attributed to his faithful hot yoga practice and the endless water consumption. (I attributed a micron of it to body waxing.) Harvard Square guy’s claims did not sound too different from the pitch I’d received the previous week, from a different American guy, who also swears Bikram is the way to extended youth, a clear complexion, a better state of mind, restful sleep, and a slew of other glowing and very positive, appealing things. As usual, I exercised my favorite muscle, my skeptic’s muscle, but I knew it wouldn’t be fair to judge without having tried it firsthand. And that’s what had got me at the door of the studio at a quarter to nine in the morning, except that my skepticism was being replaced rapidly with anxiety and sticky tongue syndrome.
Whenever you’re in a new place for the first time, you feel like you’re running on just one brain hemisphere. You don’t know where anything is, you might be surprised to see your reflection in a mirror that you weren’t expecting, and you feel that maybe everyone’s eyeline is tracking your awkward steps and fumbling motions. You drop stuff. You lose things. Or, I do, at least. A few minutes before class started, I padded my way to the studio where I could see there were several floor heaters ready to be fired up, and there were several women in the room “warming up,” too.
The first thing I realized is that I was overdressed. Everyone else, regardless of body size, was wearing tiny little shorts and cropped tops or just sports bras. Makes sense of course – it wouldn’t be long until this carpeted room felt like a ferocious sauna at 43 or so degrees. The hottest temperature I had experienced previously was 40 C in Delhi – it was a dry, roasting heat that makes you feel like a twice baked potato and I can’t stand it. I was going to melt away in my black leggings, just like the Wicked Witch of the West, I thought, but it was too late to do anything, so I plopped my mat and towel down and watched what everyone else was doing. It didn’t take me long to figure out I was the only new one in class.
An assistant strolled in to crank up the heat, and thus we became lobsters submerged into a simmering pot. In walked the instructor. A mid-twenties Thai woman oozing with confidence. She noted publicly that I was the one and only beginner and that I should do as she says and mimic the other students. If I felt dizzy at any point, I could sit on my knees to take a break. I gave a curt nod. As the needle on the thermometer steadily ticked forward, she commanded, “Heels and toes together!”…
…We began our first pose, a standing, deep breathing pose. With our fingers laced together under our chins we inhaled and exhaled, using our hands to push chins and heads backward and then back to normal. Suddenly, the room filled with groaning. Imagine the sound of running your thumb down the teeth of a comb, multiplied by 20. This was a bizarre experience- standing in a room of strange women and hearing them make animal sounds. We were instructed to breathe with our throats; if you do it correctly, throat breathing is noisy. I let out a small sound, equivalent to three teeth on the comb, but my inhibitions and body were both too tightly coiled to let go.
Even if you know me personally, you might not realize that I am usually thinking of a million things, worrying about a thousand things, or else coming up with random ideas or little daydreams the whole live long day. But as we moved through the poses, and as the heat increased, it became impossible for thoughts and worries to take over my mind. When you’re dripping with sweat, when the only sound is the instructor’s monologue (and intermittent weird animal noises), and when you need to focus one hundred percent to hold a pose, there just is no room for distractedness. About thirty minutes into the class, I succumbed to the power of Bikram yoga. Quite frankly, I felt nauseated and I did need to take a short break to let the wave of nausea pass. But something happened at about thirty minutes in. I was in the zone. I stopped worrying and started focusing, and for the next hour my body was working hard, but my mind was on vacation. The only other times in my life when my attention was completely undivided were when I gave birth. If you have trouble turning off your thoughts, then this intense form of yoga might be enough to give your mind a thought-free interlude.
By the end of the 90 minutes, I looked around and everyone was soaked with sweat from head to toe. They all looked tired and like they wanted to shower and drink dozens of bottles of water, just like me. But I noticed I was the only one with a face the rosy hue of a ripe strawberry- was this due to my partial Irish heritage? Or was it because I was new? I think I would err on the side of the latter. It seems everyone else in class was able to adjust. I didn’t see why I couldn’t either, as long as I went regularly.
When I left, for the first time probably ever in Thailand, I could appreciate the relative coolness of being outdoors. I walked home slowly (my legs were quivering like gelatin), thinking about how the class made me feel and wondering whether or not I would go again. There was still tension in the middle of my belly. But it wasn’t the same dread-meets-doom feeling I had when I first peered into the studio. This was different. Perhaps this was the dispelling of the anxiety. Could it be that all the thoughts I normally have racing around in my mind had wound up trapped and digested, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces?
I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a store window, my face now returning to normal color had a youthful afterglow. Maybe they were right. This physical exertion, the opening of pores, the cleansing of the mind – all leading to a more relaxed and youthful self. Maybe Harvard Square guy was right. Maybe the other American guy was right, too.
There is something about Bikram yoga, and while I am not totally sure about it yet – I need to try it again to see – I will tell you that on Monday night at about 9:00 pm I was ready for bed. I brushed my teeth. Washed my face. Got into bed, and slept a sound and deep, dreamless sleep.
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