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It's Burning, Man!

Melting away the calories, toxins and stress in a Bikram yoga class


Published January 18, 2012 at 9:20 a.m.

Sean Metcalf
  • Sean Metcalf

I am a sweater. And by that I don’t mean the cardigan, V-neck or ugly-Christmas variety. I perspire whenever the mercury noses above 80 degrees and I’m doing something more strenuous than changing the batteries in the remote.

When I’m working around the house, my wife likes to point out when “Mickey Mouse has returned.” Invariably, that’s the shape of the sweat stain that appears, apparition-like, on my T-shirt: two round Mickey ears over my pecs attached to a big, round Mickey head over my gut. Some people see the Virgin Mary in a tortilla. At my house, we see Disney characters.

So I felt some trepidation when my editor asked me if I was willing to try a Bikram yoga class for this week’s Health & Fitness issue. Bikram is a wildly popular school of yoga, founded by Calcutta-born Bikram Choudhury, that involves 90 minutes of postures and breathing exercises done in a studio heated to 100 degrees or more.

I have little fondness for hot, humid climates, but I’m always game for a new challenge. So late last week, I made my way across the parking lot from the Seven Days offices to the studio of Bikram Yoga Burlington on Pine Street, one of several Bikram practices in Vermont.

My first warning sign: Journey’s greatest hits were playing. Not an inspirational omen. Mark, the instructor for the noon class, told me where to change, then directed me to set up my yoga mat and beach towel in the studio. Had I done my homework beforehand, I would have discovered that Choudhury routinely refers to these hot rooms as “torture chambers.”

I quickly understood why. Opening the door, I walked headlong into a wall of funk that instantly flashed me back to my childhood days of cleaning out dirty turtle tanks. The room is a germophobe’s nightmare, like an incubator with wall mirrors. The air was so thick and cloying, I could practically chew it. Thankfully, my olfactory senses went numb within minutes, freeing up my brain to focus on other senses that soon came under assault.

As far as I could tell, I was the only Bikram beginner in the room. The rest of the class was a healthy mix of twenty- to sixtysomething yoga enthusiasts of various body types and flexibilities. Most of the 20 students were women, including a few who were built like marathoners. Just before class started, a tall woman with ropy arms and washboard abs set up nearby. I thought, I am totally screwed.

Mark, our instructor, returned. A quick talker with a boyish, Bobby Brady face, he immediately spotted me in my neon-green wicking shirt and encouraged me to do the best I could. I smiled back, flashed him a goofy thumbs-up and braced myself to be Bikramized.

Unlike those in other schools of yoga, Bikram classes all follow the same sequence of 26 postures (asanas) and two breathing exercises, no matter where they’re taught. Choudhury, something of a rock star in the yoga world, stirred up controversy some years ago when he tried to copyright traditional hatha yoga asanas and require instructors to get licensed by him before they could call their practices Bikram.

Some Bikram critics warn against the dangers of strenuous exercise in an overheated environment, suggesting it can lead to overstretching and injuries. But Choudhury and Bikram enthusiasts counter that, quite the contrary, the heated room enhances muscle flexibility and helps release toxins and stress stored in the muscles, glands and organs.

With one class under my belt, I’m neither willing nor competent to weigh in on such partisan yogic disputes. Suffice it to say, you don’t move into a beach house and then complain about the smell of fish. If I choose to enter a sauna and contort myself into positions that seem dreamed up by the Spanish Inquisition, I shouldn’t bitch about feeling a tad sore the next morning.

What transpired next is difficult for me to recall with clarity. Like a car wreck experienced in slow motion, my recollections are a disjointed blend of sensations and blurry images, punctuated by the strobelike effect of overhead ceiling fans. Obviously, I couldn’t take notes during the class, but I can reconstruct the experience by referring to the 26 postures and the sensations they, um, provoked.

Mark opened the class with a breathing exercise, followed by a simple arm-and-shoulder stretch — the half-moon posture — that momentarily lulled me into the naïve assumption that I was ready for this class. Meanwhile, beads of sweat formed on my arm — and I was standing still. Immediately, I started counting the seconds before I could sip the now-tepid water from the bottle at my feet. Then we moved on to:

Hands-to-feet pose: A doable posture, though sweat poured into my eyes when I bent over, making them look like I’d just attended a Rastafarian wedding. Note to self: Wear a headband next time.

Awkward pose: The second most accurately named posture of the day. I stood with my arms out straight, in a crouched, near-seated position. I was the only one in the room shaking like an unbalanced washing machine.

Eagle pose: This is the posture non-yoga practitioners like to ridicule. We were expected to wrap our arms and legs around ourselves in defiance of the direction that joints normally bend. In the mirror, I looked like Bill Murray demonstrating a position from the Kama Sutra.

Standing head-to-knee pose: Ideally, the goal was to hold one leg horizontally straight out in front of me, parallel to the ground, then place the forehead on the knee. Yeah, right.

Standing bow-pulling pose: My legs were quivering so hard, I worried someone would think I was having a seizure. I also worried about inflecting a head injury on the woman to my left. She subtly inched away from me.

Balancing stick pose: This one looks like figure skater Dorothy Hamill performing her famous “Hamill Camel.” I thought, Not in this lifetime.

Standing separate-leg pose: Mark reminded us to breathe normally. What’s “normal” for a heatstroke victim?

Triangle pose: I’ve got strong legs, so I thought I had this one. Unfortunately, by now I was feeling light-headed and nauseated, and deeply regretted the two cups of coffee I’d drunk that morning.

Standing separate leg head-to-knee pose: I knew I was still alive: I could hear my pulse beating through my chest. Meanwhile, Ms. Marathon Runner with the ripped triceps and abs of steel had barely broken a sweat. Must be a cyborg.

Tree pose: Hey, a posture I recognized from my non-inferno yoga days and once managed with some proficiency. However, I was dripping like a meat loaf, and my wicking shirt had totally given up the ghost. Meanwhile, grasping my lower extremities was like trying to pick up a naked toddler covered in baby oil.

Toe stand: The ceiling fans mocked me. I knew the air was moving somewhere in this room, but I didn’t feel a thing. Hey, it started snowing outside!

Dead body pose: At last! A posture that accurately represented my physical and mental state. Rename it “bloated-corpse-dragged-from-a-Louisiana-bayou” pose, and I could have totally nailed it.

Wind-removing pose: Just what it sounds like. Thankfully, my sense of smell had shut down an hour earlier.

Cobra pose: I’ve seen my dog do this in the morning. “Don’t worry what you look like. Just do the posture,” Mark told us. “The hard way is the right way.” Clearly, I must have been doing it right, ’cause this shit was hard.

Full locust pose: As welcome as the swarm itself. This one required me to lie on my belly, raise my arms and legs off the floor, and arch my back like a cliff diver. As my sternum dug into the hardwood, I fantasized about lying in the snow.

Bow pose: See above, except we were supposed to grab our ankles. By this point, I would rather have been waterboarded Actually, anything involving water...

And so it went until we reached the final breathing exercise. As Mark clapped his hands, we were supposed to breathe to each clap, which brought me to the verge of hyperventilation. Once he said, “Namaste” — probably Sanskrit for “Hit the showers!” — I returned to the bloated-corpse pose to catch my breath.

Later, in the changing room, I met the man who had been immediately to my right. About a decade my senior, he’d been practicing Bikram for nearly 10 years and swore by it.

Ernie, another of the men in the class, was an EMT with a local rescue squad who also looked like he had 10 to 15 years on me. Yet he handled all the asanas like an old pro. I was flabbergasted to learn he’d been at it for just three weeks.

Needless to say, Bikram isn’t for everyone. Will I return? Hard to say. One downside: I was wiped out for the rest of the day. On the plus side, I suspect the class is great prep for global warming.

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