On the Occasion of My One Year Bikram Yoga Anniversary

The Hot Room
The Hot Room

I’ve spent almost zero time writing this blog in the past year. There are many reasons. One of the most important is that I’ve been spending about ten hours a week in what Bikram Choudhury, the yoga-maestro, calls his “torture chamber”—a room heated to 105 degrees at about 40 percent humidity (although I suspect it is routinely hotter and substantially more humid) in which people like me are brought through a series of twenty-six postures and two breathing exercises.

It’s completely bananas.

And I keep going back.

At first I used phrases like: “I’m addicted to this yoga.” But addiction is negative. The yoga is not negative. Then I thought, “I’ve bought Bikram’s program” or “drank Bikram’s Kool-Aid” but I never needed to be sold and I don’t feel as if I had to “buy” anything except a membership to the studio. The only thing I’m drinking is wonderful, wonderful water.

I’ve settled on: “This yoga works.” Here are some thoughts concerning my year in the hot room:

It’s the hardest physical work I’ve ever done. It’s yoga, right? There are no fast movements, so why does my heart beat so fiercely? Why do I get dizzy and out of breath? How can I move so slowly and sweat so much? Once, I put a roof on my house during the hottest week of the summer. That heat had nothing on the hot room. Every single class feels like a challenge and an adventure. Each class, I muster as much mental strength as I can. Sometimes, I can’t do every posture. I try to stand still when I can’t do the posture, but I’ll sit if I have to, if I’m really zonked. Sometimes, it’s not the heat. Sometimes I’ve not had enough sleep or not enough to eat. Sometimes I can’t get out of my head. But I keep trying.

Heal thyself. When I was twenty-two, I had a cycling accident and hurt my wrist pretty badly. Being young, stupid, and mostly drunk or hung-over, I didn’t get any medical attention. It took two years for the thumb and wrist to feel somewhat normal, but the pain persisted. It wasn’t a constant red-line pain, but sometimes I’d just notice that it was hurting—and had been hurting for as long as I could remember. Often, the pain shot up to my elbow and then on its worst days, clear to my shoulder. Two years ago, when I was forty-four, while helping a friend move sheetrock, I noticed that the grip was gone in my right hand. I could barely hold my end. I thought, “That’s it… I’m old and starting to fall apart. The decline begins now.” The bottom knuckle on my thumb was swollen—disfigured really—two or three times the size of the same knuckle on my left hand. Then I started the yoga. I can’t say when it happened, but at some point I realized my grip was better than ever. The pain was gone. And my knuckle no longer looked like something out of The Elephant Man. The degenerative process had been reversed.

It’s tough physically, but it’s all about my mind. The instructors often remind the class that it’s a ninety minute moving meditation. It’s all about the “now.” Listening. Being present. Concentrating on the breath. For a while, I joked to myself that I’d keep going to Bikram until I got it right. Now I know there is no right. Only what’s happening on any given day. Or at any given moment. Any given “now.” My mother asked me how long I planned on doing the yoga. I didn’t have an answer. How long do I plan to continue breathing?

It’s my body in the mirror. Ugh. “Look at yourself in the mirror,” the teachers say. Do I have to? “Suck in your stomach, see your ribs.” The only way I’ll see my ribs is if you roll in an x-ray machine! But there I am, me, in the mirror for ninety minutes, bending, stretching, compressing. Oh, and the sweat? Good Lord do I sweat. Some people in class look like they don’t sweat at all. How nice for them. Who are they? Do they even need to wash their towels? I wouldn’t know; I’m drenched, every single millimeter of me is drenched. It’s like having a hose held over me for ninety minutes. For months, I wore a shirt in class because…ugh…there’s my old, out-of-shape body in the mirror…why wouldn’t I wear a shirt? Man, was I uncomfortable. It was like being encased in a hot sausage skin that kept me from taking a deep breath. Wearing a baggy shirt wasn’t an option. Remember the sweat? Baggy shirts don’t remain baggy when you sweat like me. Then, because I couldn’t stand it one second longer, off came the shirt. Pure necessity. Now I’m used to seeing the reflection of my imperfect body. It’s the only body I have and it’s changing day by day, despite the fact that I’ve not made much headway in the battle against my dreaded enemy, the doughnut.

It works because of the teachers. The Bikram yoga is a set routine. The instructions never change, yet each teacher brings something different to their classes. Every ninety minutes is the same but because of the different personalities of each instructor—bubbly, strict, talkative, funny, or (usually) some combination of those qualities—I’ve never had the same experience twice. They encourage each student to push themselves, to endure discomfort, but stop before pain. They push and prod and encourage and direct. Take for instance, my experience with camel posture. Camel is difficult. You’re on your knees leaning way back and pushing your hips way forward so that you’re bowed across the front and looking at the wall behind you with your palms gripping your heels. Every time I attempted to lean back, my head felt as though it were going to explode long before my hands were in the same zip-code as my feet. When I returned to the resting position on the floor, I was extremely emotional for reasons I couldn’t understand. I knew I’d never be able to get my palms on my heels, and I didn’t particularly want to, given the strong reaction I had to simply leaning. One day, Sara, my teacher offered this suggestion. “Instead of keeping your feet flat,” she said, “try pushing your heels up and leaning on your toes to see if the extra height allows you reach the heels.” So I tried, and LO and BEHOLD, I was able to reach my heels without much trouble. She suggested I try that modification for a month and by then, I’d be able to do the posture in the proper fashion. The very next morning, about twelve hours later, I was in another class taught by Laura. I tried the pose with the modification. Laura said, “Try putting those feet flat Clark, I bet you can reach your heels.” So I put my feet back down and leaned back and grabbed my heels. Twelve hours before, I hadn’t been able to lean all the way back and suddenly, with proper instruction, I’m getting into the posture. I’ve been able to reach my heels ever since. The pose once light-years distant has become a favorite. I’m not particularly adept at it; I simply like knowing I can reach my heels. Here is what camel looks like. I do not look like this:

Camel, not mine.

I practice at Bikram Yoga Portsmouth (http://www.bikramyogaportsmouth.com/).  They’ve just moved to a brand new studio (a beautiful, inviting space). I’m looking forward to seeing where year two takes me, to what I learn about myself by staying in the room (even when I feel like leaving), to seeing new changes and healing in my body as I continue to become a part of this new community. A lot of people dislike the heat (understandable) but if you’re interested in a new adventure with nice people in a beautiful new yoga space, I suggest you come down to check out the studio. You never know what you might discover.