I recall reading that prior to the ski-jumping event at the 1936 Winter Olympics members of the Japanese team were seen intently studying everyone doing practice jumps. As it turned out, they had never tried such a jump, but they wanted to learn as much as they could before risking life and limb.
Whether that story is true or not, that’s how I felt just before entering the room where I would take my first Bikram Yoga class. Genne’, who invited me to go with her, characterized it as “105 minutes at 105 degrees.” The Japanese jumped, and so did I.
Let me first summarize my prior experience with yoga.
· I read a book about it. At the end of each chapter there would be an exercise or position suggested. I told myself I would go back and attempt them after I read the whole book, and I may do this some day.
· Kim and I took a yoga class where the teacher was a show-off and made me feel inferior. I went twice.
· From that class I learned one position that I use. I think it’s called “the child pose.” You kneel down, sit back on your heels, and then bend forward in a worshipful position with your arms extended. I like the child pose because it’s easy, and it amuses me to realize that my children never struck that pose when addressing me. I strike that pose occasionally at the gym when I’m tired and need to rest, and I want people to think I’m not really resting but doing yoga.
That’s about it.
In preparation for the class I drank an extra cup of coffee as a form of hydration, then a glass of water at Kim’s suggestion. I also ate a piece of fried chicken about three hours before the 6:30 start of the class.
I gave a lot of thought about what to wear. Because of the heat, my first thought was shorts and a t-shirt. This was vetoed by Kim as she thought my vintage 1964 short shorts would reveal too much. My Levi’s were out, so my only option was the workout clothes that Genne’ had gotten me for Christmas. This was fine, except the pants were a lot like my waterproof pants worn when photographing in early morning dew. If they keep the water out, then they keep the sweat in. They did.
The class started well, if you don’t count the part about entering the room where it was very very warm. Or the part where the guy in the corner was doing a handstand with his legs parallel to the ground and out to the side. The first exercise was breathing, an activity at which I’d had much more experience than anyone else in the class. With a little practice I mastered in-through-the-nose, out-through-clenched-teeth while making a gasping sound that reminded me of a hot-air balloon firing up. I though this would be useful if I ever had to give birth.
The breathing became more difficult when I looked in the mirror and saw that the instructor and everyone else in the class was doing some flapping motion with their elbows with their hands clenched under their chin, and the gasp was done with the head cocked back far enough so you could see the ceiling tiles. I caught onto this as the exercise was concluding.
I was tempted to say “no sweat” to the room, but I thought better of it – there was no pausing for self-congratulation.
The exercises that followed were a bit of a blur, which might have been the result of sweat in my eyes. At one point Genne’ looked over at me in alarm and encouraged me to take a break. (She later told me that she did not want to feel responsible for my death.) I shrugged it off and then decided on my own to take a break because my heart was pounding like a jackhammer. I paused later for a slow sip of water. Paused again when I felt a twinge in my hamstring.
Genne’, concerned for my health, suggested that I take off my shirt. When I did, two of the women in the class fainted. It must have been the heat.
The instructor moved us smoothly (and rapidly) from one exercise to the next, but I don’t mean to suggest that the class did not have any breaks. We had two of them, each 50 seconds in length.
I did not have much trouble with the complicated positions that involved twisting your arms, grabbing the outside of the knee with one hand and your big toe with the other while standing on one foot. These did not trouble me because I pretty much did not do them, preferring my own versions. I remember looking around the room and noticing that Genne’ and everyone else had their left arm back, not the right, and their heels were together while my legs were sprawled apart. I wrote this off as a totally acceptable Zen experience of going with the flow – my flow. (Remember how, in the movie As Good as it Gets, Jack Nicholson’s character is unfairly, in my opinion, ridiculed for his saying he told “a version of the truth”? Well, I was doing a version of yoga.)
One person was struggling with balance. Several of the positions involve standing on one foot while your arms and the free leg twist this way and that. I noted that in the wall-sized mirror just across from me that this tall old guy with a beard was very wobbly on one foot. His one-footedness would only last a few seconds. That old guy learned not to commit his free leg fully to a pretzel position because he would need it to avoid toppling into the pretty blonde next to him.
The class ended with more breathing, and this showed me that I had mastered Bikram Yoga. I could lie on my back and breathe in and out while counting my breaths backwards, while at the same time picturing the numbers I was counting. I was glad I was lying near the door because cool air drifted in whenever anyone opened it.
A few days after my hot yoga experience I spoke with Jaime, a Bikram Yoga devotee who attends three or four sessions a week. She explained the benefits, among them: sweating out toxins, improved organ function, flexibility, protection from injury because muscles are warm, and an endorphin high following the exercise. I could identify with the last one: it felt great when I stopped.
The surviving Japanese ski-jumpers probably felt the same way.