I admit, it doesn’t sound pleasant. You enter a room that’s been heated to above 100 degrees. The heat isn’t as suffocating as the odor, a wall of smell that hits you like a thousand stinky shoes.
You inhale the scent of sweaty armpits and groins, of excreted toxins, byproducts of fast food and fast living.
Once you get past the stench, it only gets worse. Sweat beads on the fronts of your shins before you even begin to move. Your lungs are drinking in air like too-hot tea. Though it seems like the last place you’d want to work out, the teacher comes in, covered with Zodiac-inspired tattoos and leads you through an hour and half of poses during which you bargain with your maker to let you live through your 10-class series.
Welcome to Bikram yoga, an exercise regimen where you can gauge your success by answering two simple questions: "Did I pass out?" and "Did I throw up?"
The first time my friend took me to a Bikram class in Pasadena, there was every reason to see that his car be keyed and his e-mails blocked. Instead, I wanted to hug him (which would have been pretty gross considering I was dripping with sweat and basically marinating in my own filth). Instead, we walked to the car together in a Bikram haze, limbs stretched like taffy, endorphins seeping into all the cellular crevices, eyes bright white.
My friend, who had to leave class in the middle to splash himself with cold water, said simply, "I thought I was going to die. Every moment of life from here on in is gravy. Speaking of gravy, let’s eat. I just burned off 9,000 calories."
That was several weeks ago and I’ve just about used up that 10-class series without suffering any lasting heart damage. I keep going back. Imagine jogging in a sauna for 90 minutes, voluntarily. That’s what I’ve been doing without really knowing why.
I dragged my girlfriend to class last week. After class, she said, "I don’t like you very much. In fact, I hate you. Excuse me, but I have to cry now." She sobbed, like you do from physical exhaustion sometimes, eyes puffy and red, sweat matting her bangs to her forehead. She was back at Bikram the next day. She brought a friend and now that friend says she’s hooked. She hates it, but she’s hooked.
Now, we’ve taken to carpooling to Pasadena together in a car filled with towels and bottles of water and trepidation about our very survival. On the ride home, we break it all down: whether we could regulate our own heartbeat, whether we liked the teacher, what students around us were showing off or making weird bodily noises.
Yesterday, the teacher had one of those hard-to-place, maybe her dad was in the-military, Kathleen Turner kind of accents. She said, like most teachers do, "Look at your own eyes in the mirror." She added something new, saying, "You are here for yourself today, to heal yourself from the inside." I looked at myself and a little tiny door opened in my head. Other than in yoga class, I wasn’t working very hard for that person in the mirror. I pictured the three library books on how to write a book proposal that I had checked out but hadn’t read, the calls not made on my own behalf, the lazy way I was looking out for myself.
A few poses later, I knew why I was there. "To do this practice requires fierce determination," said the teacher, sounding both Canadian and Irish. That’s what I had come to hear. I was doing every pose, in the sweltering, swamp-like atmosphere, to the very best of my ability. I wasn’t judging myself against the other students. I was pushing myself, taking risks, not giving up, stretching — all of the things I could be doing more of in my life.
Fierce determination. I think I got it. You try your hardest, and if you fall off-balance, or have to sit out some poses so you don’t die, you don’t sweat it. You just grab your towel and water and keep heading back into the fray.