I need to do more yoga. After a busy year that included two book deals, extensive travel, and a stint in the ICU, I’ve decided there’s too much energy going out and not enough coming in. I want to hook myself up to a karmic energy spout and refuel. Naturally, yoga leaps to mind. The question: What kind of practice do I want?
In the past I’ve done hatha and vinyasa yoga. Recently, though, a close friend has been raving about the strenuous workout she receives from her Bikram yoga class. She drinks half her weight in ounces of water before every class, sweats it all out, and finishes her practice feeling like she can conquer the world. I love heat and humidity, and I love yoga—but am I hardcore enough to put the two together? I decided to find out.
Twenty-six hatha yoga postures done at 105 degrees, Bikram yoga is named after its founder, Bikram Choudhury. Originally from Calcutta, Choudhury was a yoga champion when he settled in Los Angeles in 1973; there he developed an international phenomenon. According to Choudhury, Bikram yoga has attracted more than 11,000 trainers and many more devotees, some of whom are seeking ways to reclaim emotional control or spiritually and physically detox. Celebs love it, too: George Clooney, Lady Gaga, Raquel Welch, Shirley MacLaine, Herbie Hancock, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, Tom Smothers, Jeff Bridges, Jamie Lee Curtis, and even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have sweated it out on the mat.
So I feel I’m in good company when I sign up for a Sunday afternoon class. I grab my mat and a bottle of water and head off to the studio, which is beautiful: all etched glass, mirrors, and white walls. Upon entering, I take a deep breath and release a happy sigh. I instantly relax in the heat and look for a place to set down my mat. When the class begins, it’s close to 40 people, mostly women. The teacher sits on a stool at the front of the room. She turns up the heat, presses a button to pump in fresh oxygen, and begins our standing breath exercise. From here we flow at a crisp pace through the postures. We’re told not to leave but to sit or lie down if we feel lightheaded, nauseous, or dizzy, and a few people do.
Surprisingly, I feel fine. I drank the suggested amount of water and adapt easily to the temperature. My body feels limber and lithe. I recognize every pose, twisting and bending into them through rhythmic breath. Before class, I was apprehensive. I expected the postures to be excessively difficult and the heat to feel oppressive. Instead, this feels like doing a moderate yoga practice in a sauna. When we reach savassana, the final pose of total relaxation, I lie on my back like a corpse, eyes closed, and reflect. I feared that Bikram yoga might be too much of a stretch. What I’ve discovered in these 90 minutes, however, is that my mind doesn’t always accurately assess what my body can handle. I am more hardcore than I realized.
In proving I can do something I thought would be too difficult for me, I’ve unintentionally proved something else, too: I’m stronger than I expect. At a time when I’m focusing on being supportive of myself, it’s good to be reminded of that. I’m strong; I can give myself permission to relax.
In the end, I like the concept of Bikram yoga, but if I’m drawn back to practice yoga for respite and restoration, then I have to admit this is not the yoga practice for me. I miss the sense of quiet spirituality of the more traditional methods. I miss being meditative in a suspended mind versus constant physical motion. I want something softer, like the new vinyasa class I’ve found where we arrange our mats in a circle and practice by candlelight.