Bringing the mountain to Bikram (Day 2)

I had been talking with my work colleague Margaret about running and saying that  I needed to get back to some kind of yoga practice. This was a couple of years before I’d left New York, so around 2002.  It was wintertime.

“I’ve been going to Bikram,” she said.  “It’s just a few blocks away, the other side of Times Square.  Come with me one day, I love it.”

Margaret also loved doing spontaneous 10Ks and half-marathons that she never really trained for. Her motto was “if you can walk the next day, you didn’t run hard enough.”

“What’s a Bikram?” I asked, handing over a stack of presentation slides I had just prepared for her team.

“It’s yoga in a warm room,” she said. “I’m going next Monday. I’ll sign you up.”

A “we’ll see” turned into a “why not?” and the next Monday we were trudging across midtown in a wintery mix, trying not to slip in the icy slush.

We arrived at a building on Ninth Avenue that I’d been in before. It had some audition rooms and dance studios in it.  I’d never danced, but I was a decent auditioner back in the day.

She got me checked in as her guest. “See you inside,” she said as she disappeared into the ladies’ change room and I was directed to guys’.  I traded out my winter gear for a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and found my way into the studio.

It was already almost full and I was overdressed. I grabbed a mat and unrolled it onto a free spot in the middle of the room, to the right of where the instructor would be.  Margaret, as nimble as she was tiny, had nabbed a space up front, about 2 rows ahead and 5 or so to the left.

The temperature was at least 20 degrees warmer than the change room. Girls were stretching out in sports bras and skin-tight dance shorts.  At least a third of the room was guys, which was strange to me for a yoga class, and they were impossibly fit.  This Bikram must be really something, I thought.  All shirtless, they looked like they were warming up for Cirque du Soleil, contorting themselves into splits and folds and twists that I couldn’t have achieved if I’d been double-jointed and somehow replaced my bones with rubber.

I am so not in the right place, I thought, shaking my towel out so that it gently billowed down onto the borrowed mat.  I looked to Margaret for an assuring nod, or an assuring anything, and did a double take when I saw the man right behind her.

He was starring in a production of Metamorphoses at Circle in the Square. It was a Chicago production directed by the it-girl at the time, Mary Zimmerman. The majority of the stage was a swimming pool, where the performers waded, splashed and floated through way through a host of Greek myths. It was mesmerizing, and I had already seen the play twice. I could not believe Poseidon was in the house. His human name was Kyle, and while I might have had a crush on him after the first production, I was certainly in love with him after the second.  Talent is an aphrodisiac.

But wait. It couldn’t have been him, he should be working. Oh, it was Monday.  Most of theaters are dark.  So this is what actors do to keep in shape.  I looked around and realized many of these people had dancers’ bodies. Professional dancers.

I am totally not in the right place. 

The last yoga class I went to was down in the Village, with a mix of old hippies and post-natal moms who were happy to get their stretch on, have a little chant, and snore their way through Savasana.

This was yoga for steroided super heroes, but without their capes (or most of their clothes).

“Hi, I’m Marc.”  A tall, lithe, blonde-haired 20something had materialized alongside of me. He had a water bottle in his hand as was wearing a mesh tank top. Not slutty mesh, but nevertheless … let’s just say it would breathe very easily.

“You are new,” he told me, as if it were my name rather than having anything to do with my level of experience.

“I am indeed.”

“Have you Bikramed elsewhere?”

“Indeed I have not.”

“Okay,” he tutted. “The important thing is to just stay in the room. If you find a pose to difficult, just do what you can and remember to keep breathing. If you feel dizzy, just go into child’s pose.  But stay in the room.  The most important thing is to stay in the room for the entire session.”

“Um, okay.”

Not. In. Right. Place.

“I’m going to turn the heat on, then we’ll get started.”

Uh, wait. What?  The heat’s not already on?

Mark sashayed over to a series of wall switches and flicked each of the three up.  Fans whirred on and the whispered chit chat immediately ceased, yogis lining up at the front of their mats like lycra-clad soldiers.

Bikram yoga is a series of 26 postures, each done twice for up to 60 seconds, plus 2 breathing exercises.

The first breathing exercise is not just about the slow and deep inhalation of 95-degree recycled air that smells of countless sweating bodies and perspiration-drenched yoga mats. You interlace your fingers into one giant fist and place that under your jaw, pushing your thumbs against your windpipe. As you inhale the vapor of 1,000 Bikram classes past, you raise your elbows to the ceiling and push your head back as far as you can.  It’s an aroma you quickly get used to, and you realize if there were just a soupçon of urine, you could easily be on an unairconditioned L-train in the middle of August.

After at least three too many repetitions, the heated air had warmed up (if not poisoned my lungs and I could feel my body temperature begin to rise.  That tingling feeling just before you begin to sweat.  Or maybe I was getting high. Could one of the dancer boys have left a bottle of poppers open in near a vent?

I followed Mark’s instructions as best as I could. I also kept my eye on Kyle, only because he seemed to know what he was doing. It wasn’t long before I felt sweat dripping off my nose and kerplopping from my elbows onto my towel-covered mat.

Around fifteen or twenty minutes in, I caught myself from falling out of one of the balancing poses.  I was dripping and tired and perhaps a little dizzy (but not ready to admit the defeat of child’s pose).  I reached down to readjust my towel, which had become bunched up to one side.

“Get back on your mat!” I heard.  I looked around to see who Mark was barking at.

“Bob! New guy!” I looked towards the drill instructor with a silent moi?  Surely there must be another Bob in the room.

He pointed at me and, with with a flick of his index finger, directed me to my mat. I had not realized I had wandered about a foot away from it and was veering dangerously close to a neighboring yogi’s personal space.

Oh, Mark.  How important you were, to be standing there holding court. Not demonstrating, just calling out directions. I supposed that’s why you could wear that shirt. I imagined him growing up in dance classes. The boy in the leotard trying desperately to be perfect and win anybody’s approval, while an aging Russian ex-ballerina stood in the front of the room, rapping her stick on the floor with one hand and waving a Benson and Hedges 100, in a rhinestone-bedazzled cigarette holder, in the other.  “Again,” she would say, inhaling on her cigarette, and hissing out, “do you call that a plie, darling?”, like a dragon about to blow fire.

I returned to my mat and continued as best I could. Margaret looked fresh as new fallen snow (did my friend not have sweat glands?) and Kyle looked like he’d just stepped out of the pool I’d seen him perform in just a few blocks away. Heavenly.

We were reaching the end of the standing sequence, the last pose being the toe pose.  Basically, you cross one ankle over the knee of the opposite leg, or go into half lotus if you are a show off.  On the foot you are standing on, you raise up onto your tippy toes, and squat down as far as you can go. You are meant to put your hands in prayer position, probably because you are praying that you don’t fall down and/or you can find your way back to standing.

As I was trying to do some semblance of this contortion, mumbling (I hope not too out loud) “are you fucking kidding me?”, I heard the gentlest of crashes behind me. I was literally in no position to turn around gracefully to see what happened, and no one in front of me seemed to take notice.

I heard Mark say, “Adriana, is she okay?”

There was a bit of shuffling behind me.

Mark thrust his way through the rows of squatting yogis, actually stopping to give a quick adjustment to one alongside me on his way to the back of the room.  “Gently stand and repeat on the other leg,” he told us all.

I craned around to see what had happened. There was an empty yoga mat now, but it was a bit shiny as someone had just wiped it down.  It looked perfect at first glance, but as I tilted my head a little bit more, I could see a towel bunched up right behind it. It was folded up, but not quite neatly enough to hide what used to be the contents of the missing yogi’s stomach.

The poor girl who broke the first rule of Bikram.

She didn’t stay in the room. But she didn’t leave until after she had gotten sick, so extra points for Bikram Barbie and her determination.

I made it through the rest of the class, which was a series of seated or lying poses that, if I couldn’t do, I could easily modify.

Mark talked us through till the end, although he seemed a little off-kilter after the spotlight had been taken off him and directed to the triage in the back of the room.

Chatting with Margaret afterwards, I asked if it was unusual for people to fall out.

“I’ve seen more fainters than pukers,” she said non-chalantly. “I wouldn’t say it happens a lot, but it’s not uncommon.  Especially with new people.”

“So I’m a winner then?!” I asked.

“Well, except for that part you where you went off your mat.”

Uff. Everybody’s a critic.

The thing I remember most about that first Bikram class is how exhausted I felt a few hours later.  I was lying on the sofa in our guest room, nursing a bottle of water.

My partner, Larry, came home from a typically late night at his office and saw me half-comatose. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’ve been Bikramed,” I whimpered.

“It’s just a yoga class, you’ve done those before.”

“You have no idea.” I tried to sit up to explain, but couldn’t lift myself up.   “Do you remember how shattered we were after our first marathon?”

He gave a little grunt of acknowledgment while sorting through the mail he’d brought in.

“I feel like I’ve run two of them.  Back to back.  Honestly, I don’t remember ever feeling this drained.”

He came into the room and looked down at me, shaking his head.  “You really don’t look so great.”


“So you won’t be going back?”

“Of course I will,” I sighed.  “Margaret says it’s not so bad once you get used to the heat.  And, I still need to meet Kyle.”

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