Bikram Class #1
I elected to head off to Bikram in El Cerrito rather than the Funky Door for the first time on the advice of my friends Garrick and Holly.
Garrick and Holly are proper west coast hippies, born and bred. They have been to the Funky Door and found it wanting, as it seems many people have. Holly, in fact, worked the front desk for a awhile, at least until she was fired for wanting to take a fifteen minute break to eat a sandwich, which squares with the boot-camp vibe I hear about the place. I’m a touch intimidated, and so I go with Garrick’s suggestion to try on the gentler vibrations of this alternative studio.
Nonetheless, we are still going to Bikram, it is still hot yoga, and I am still a little nervous. I’m chatting with Garrick on the way up, telling him that I hear the first few times are a little rough.
“Yea, it’s pretty excruciating” he confirms.
“You’ll be lucky if you can just stay in the room.” he says, not at all assuaging my fears. Isn’t he supposed my reassuring west-coast-permaculture-groovy guru?
We arrive. There is one older Indian man there, a sikh, head wrap and everything, and he ends up to the left of me. I am in the exact center of the room, directly in front of the teacher.
I wouldn’t mind being in the center so much if it weren’t for the set-up. I’m not sure if all Bikram studios are designed like this, but 3 of the 4 walls are covered in mirrors, and the back wall is outfitted with a handrail not unlike a ballet studio. The floors, however, are carpeted, which I can’t figure out. I sweat like a hog during normal yoga (although, biologically, this is a malapropism- humans are the only species with sweat glands covering their entire body, so it might be more accurate to say I sweat like a homo sapien, which is just redundant.) If we are going to all sweat like homo sapiens, won’t the carpet get kind of ……..musky?
It is warm in the studio, sure, but it isn’t excruciating at first, and I figure I can handle it. We start with simple breathing exercises.
Bikram is a specific, patented sequence, the same every time. We start of with a peculiar breathing technique in where we intertwine our fingers underneath our chins. The teacher- demonstrating for my benefit- exhales in a raspy hiss-like method.
There was a mini-series in the 1980’s called “V” which stood for “visitors”. The premise was that this alien race, looking much like ourselves except wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and orange jumpsuits, came to visit, on the pretense of peace and harmony. As it turns out, the human appearance was but a literal shell- the Ray Bans were to hide their reptilian pupils- and often enough they would grab their faces just under the chin and tear of the visage, a scaly, mucus-covered bipedal Komodo dragon underneath, which would then promptly devour the hapless human witness.
The teacher is hissing and giving directions in a rather stentorian tones, and I am already needing to suppress the urge to flee. I’m aware that I’m being irrational, but still,I am directly in front of her after all, so I’m the first to go if she rips off her face. What with my Sikh compadre directly to my left, I’m just hoping she can’t palette Indian food. I think the heat does something to your brain.
We carry on with class. We are asked to check our alignment in the mirror, and I admit, it is a useful tool, on one level. I never get to see myself do the yoga, and I can pick out places where my poses are wanting. The problem is, I can also see everyone in class, from every angle, and I do need to point out that Yoga classes are typically filled with rather shapely young women, in about an 8:1 ration to males, which makes it difficult to concentrate, at least in the beginning. It doesn’t help that should you try and avoid the distraction by looking the other way, you just get an eyeful in the mirror of the back row of shapely young women and a guy whose name might be Gus. This problem, however, is soon rectified.
The space heater is on the whole time, and the room is becoming appreciably warmer. We are also generating quite a bit ourselves, and so it really is becoming unbearably hot and stuffy. Those of us who perhaps didn’t consider our wardrobes carefully before class and chose to wear lighter colored garments are beginning to sweat.
Everywhere including our crotches is what I’m trying to say.
The effect is to make it seem as if we are all collectively incontinent, such are the spreading puddles from our pelvises, and this- even though I know it’s just sweat- is evoking feelings of kindergarten playground shame. I had the unfortunate experience of wetting my pants on top of the jungle gym in preschool, in front of most of the people I would be spending the next 12 years with, and as you can imagine, reputations stick at that age. I’m desperately examining myself in the mirror, trying to discern whether my sweat puddles are visible. It is only a measure of facial hair that is tethering me to the fact that I am a grown-up, or at least the age of a grown-up.
The latter half of class is mostly composed of floor poses, a poor choice as far as I’m concerned. It is getting REALLY difficult to breathe, and I attribute at least some of this to our proximity to the floor. Carbon Dioxide- which we are rapidly producing as we deplete all the available oxygen, is the heaviest component of all the gases in the atmosphere, at least he ones present in substantial amounts. In an open air situation, no big deal, but the room is sealed, and the carbon dioxide will, in such situations, collect on the bottom of the room. I find myself gasping a bit as we get through the more difficult poses. I am also suspiciously eyeballing the mechanical contraption in the back. It looks to be a humidifier, and I can’t fathom it being physically possible to saturate the air with any more water vapor.
Bikram Yoga, even though it originated with a gentleman from deepest darkest India, seems to me the most Americanized version I’ve tried as of yet. It seems incongruous to rely on artificially altering the internal atmosphere with machines, ones that weren’t available a century ago.
Still, all said and done, I feel pretty good. I am forced to concede that Mr. Bikram Choudury- even with the asshat reputation he has- may be onto something. I make it through class intact, and even feel pretty good afterwards. I feel ready to test my mettle against the Funky Door.