I started Bikram yoga on the recommendation of someone whose wife had done the system’s famous 60 day challenge. He reported that she lost weight and her skin looked amazing; whether from sweating for a solid hour and a half each day or from drinking all the water that’s required so that one can sweat for an hour and a half a day without ill effects, he wasn’t sure.
The weight loss would be welcome; I’ve been dying to lop off my Michigan 15 for a while. But the skin promise was irresistible. And honestly, I just wanted to fix my back, which was getting worse and worse. In fact, in early May, when I heard the testimonial, it was so bad I couldn’t pick anything up off the floor. It was mortifying; I knew I looked about 80 years old as I tried to casually walk my hands down my legs in the event that I dropped something. It was also painful. Between physical hardship and a blow to my considerable vanity, I am torn between which is worse. (Yes, I’m in therapy.)
My first Bikram class felt like coming home. I think one will either love or detest it. Heat and humidity do not particularly bother me; I fall apart when it’s cold and dry. So the 105 degree/40% humidity room was indeed hot, but not torture. Poses are slow, and all of them feel attainable, or at least seem like something I’ll be able to get at some point. I like the unvarying routine, which an instructor is hard-pressed to muck up. As for the notorious Bikram stench, I did not believe in the first week that I would ever be able to stop flinching when I walked in the door; it was like getting slapped in the face with – well, something I don’t want to describe because I don’t want to gross out myself or you. The regulars didn’t seem in the least put off.
I am now a regular.
There is some synergy in a Bikram class and a 12-step program. There are the constant admonishments to stay in the present, to keep coming back, and there’s a reliance on clichés. And like AA, Bikram can easily become a replacement addiction, or at least a part of the structure that addicts crave but also tend to flee from. There’s the reverse of substance abuse through the daily detox provided by sweating profusely. But like substance abuse, there are intense sensations, even catharsis.
90 minutes of watching yourself in a mirror can be seen as either extreme narcissism, or as a confrontation; for me, there’s some of each. In just the short month or so since I began, I’ve become more forgiving of the many things about my body that I don’t like, and, bizarrely, have fallen in love with the palms of my hands. I’ve never thought much about the appearance of my hands at all, other than to sporadically chastise myself for biting my nails. But now, when I see my palm facing the mirror, all fingers pointing up, I am struck by its symmetry, its flatness, the pleasing proportion of finger length to hand width. The insides of my hands represent tranquility to me, and when I’m struggling to get my leg over my head in the Standing Bow, seeing one of them calms me down.
Bikram makes you a little weird. But then, I was pretty weird to start.
I can move my neck, I can pick things up, I ran for a bus in high heels in New York and didn’t get winded in the least. All that heat, sweat and stretching seems to be knitting up all the raveled parts of my insides, physical but spiritual and emotional as well.
Now that I’ve started writing in earnest, 6 days a week practice seems more necessary than ever; it’s my reboot, or to put it less delicately, the bodily equivalent of blowing my nose, an earthy and effective way to clear the junk from my entire being.
There is – how can there not be? – a great deal of junk, regenerated daily. I have the marvelous gift of 3 years, the time it takes my son to finish high school, to figure myself out before moving into whatever the next stage of my life holds. I’d like to enter it as clean as possible. For me, my practice has become an essential part of all of that.
This has been a non-paid endorsement. No more commercials this week, folks. And incidentally, the latest venture’s going well, sloggy and head-banging as first drafts tend to be, but still running on fairly high octane fuel. See you next time.