Caged Heat: A Mom's Yoga Experience
I live in Los Angeles, where the movie Logan's Run (in which everybody has to die at 30) is less a work of science fiction than a viable plan. For someone who still remembers Hall & Oates and wears "Curvy" jeans from the Gap, this extreme beauty culture makes me feel like a bemused bystander. But recently an equally curvy friend of mine raved about the benefits of Bikram, a form of "hot" yoga. Paula is not easily swayed by fads, so I got curious.
I am in fact pathologically curios, which is how I ended up re-creating my birth trauma in a hot tub in Manhattan in the '80s (but that's another column). Bikram intrigued me because so many different kinds of people were trying it — not just your Jennifer Anistons, but the moms at my preschool and my Goth hairdresser. Surely, this was endorsement enough.
When I agreed to try Bikram, I though "hot" would mean 80 degrees under a ceiling fan. I considered ditching the whole idea when I found out we'd be ratcheting up to 105. (the extreme heat helps one stretch farther, supposedly producing faster results — which is why some consider Bikram the yoga equivalent of fast food.) I can't take heat. I spend the summer hibernating in front of the air conditioner, watching Law & Order in my underpants. But I go, because I'm curious nonetheless, and I figure I can just walk out if I need to.
"Oh, you shouldn't walk out," Paula says when I mention this in the changing room. "It's a sign of disrespect."
My throat tightens in panic. (Though I'm also betting I could shed at least five pounds; too bad I don't have anywhere fancy to go before I gain it all back by licking the salt off the rim of a margarita glass.)
Entering the classroom is like stepping off air transport into the jungles of 'Nam. My first thought is Disrespect be damned. I've got to get out of here before I have a seizure. Quixotically, my second thought is Not bad. I will continue to swing between these two imperatives throughout the class.
The room is carpeted, probably to keep us from slipping in our — or someone else's — sweat. I immediately reach for my water.
"We don't drink water until after the third pose," the 7-year-old instructor tells me. She explains this will give my body a chance to warm up. I feel like rolling naked in some snow, so I figure I'm warmed up already. But I refrain from taking a sip because I want her to be nice to me. Apparently, some Bikram teachers bark at their students like drill sergeants. Paula says this one isn't as harsh as some, but I'm not taking any chances. Maybe Paula's like one of those medieval prisoners, grateful that she got the torturer who cuts off one finger instead of your whole hand.
We move through a series of 26 poses. Some of my fellow students teeter on one toe while their limbs intertwine, creating a tower of elbows and knees. Some, like me, do the best they can, flapping their arms like gangly birds while hopping around on one flat foot until they give up altogether. I've taken yoga classes before, so I find it pretty easy to understand the instructions. I imagine even a total novice could pick up the basics, provided she could concentrate in the heat.
Friends have told me classrooms get quite smelly, but I don't notice that here. Maybe the room is secretly ventilated, or the students sweated out all their toxins a long time ago. I don't get much time to ponder this or anything else since I'm overwhelmed by the feeling of being trapped in a windowless room buried near the molten core of the earth. Paula tells me one reason she likes Bikram is that her mind doesn't wander since it's too busy processing the heat. I can't say that's a selling point for me.
We move through standing poses for 45 minutes and mat work for another 45. After some closing back-twisting positions, the teacher says class is almost over and tells us to relax on our backs for as long as we want. This is sort of like advising someone to unwind by sticking her head in a pizza oven. I grab my water bottle and hightail it out into the cool lobby. The relief is instantaneous.
After we towel off, I take Paula to an Indian restaurant for lunch. I can't tell if we smell sweaty, since we've been sweating together with sweaty strangers for an hour and a half. Maybe it's like the immunity one feels in a group of garlic eaters.
Paula told me I'd feel fantastic afterwards. Frankly, I feel fantastic every time I'm sitting in front of a stack of naan, so I'm not sure whether Bikram has heightened this pleasure or not. But I do feel proud of myself for having made it through. It's the same begrudging mixture of accomplishment and resentment that I get most mornings after my lackluster cardio.
When I open up my wallet, I see my beginner's pass for a week's worth of classes. (It was only five bucks more than the $17 for one session, and in a momentary lapse of cynicism, I sprang for it.) I'm Calvinistic enough to think I'll be wasting money if I don't go back, but I strike a bargain: I'll just skip a few of my daily double lattes. That will cancel out the money and shave off the extra calories form the naan. I feel purer already.