It is 105 degrees in this room, 50 percent humidity. Seven of us are standing in the middle of yoga mats with towels covering them. I am sweating from every pore, and when I bend over, sweat pours into my eye sockets.
I am in a room full of women, I am wearing nothing but a pair of running shorts, and no one in here looks good. Everyone’s body is desperately trying to cool itself, and we’re all various shades of pink and pale, lots of exposed skin. I have never sweated so much in 90 minutes in my entire life, not in the desert, not in the humidity of high school football practice in the Midwest in August.
In unison, we all cross our right arm under our left arm, twist our hands around so our palms are facing each other, and lock our fingers. This does not feel good. Then we cross our right leg over our left and tuck our right foot behind our left calf muscle, standing on one foot, looking like a human trying to make themselves into a braided rope.
This is Bikram Yoga, and we are in the Eagle Pose, the fifth of 26 postures. I don’t typically even like to do yoga, any type, including Bikram, or spend money on exercise. When I get done with these classes, I feel good, but sometimes it’s like the old saying about mountaineering being a lot like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer: It feels so good when you stop. Maybe I don’t like doing Bikram yoga so much, but I like having done it. Like I feel after climbing an offwidth.
The only other guy in the room is my old pal from college, Jayson, who is up on the podium, giving us instructions on the 26 postures. He is the exact same guy I used to tend bar with 12 years ago, minus about 50 pounds. And neither of us have fallen off a barstool in several years.
Jayson tells me he knows several people who practice Bikram Yoga so they can become better climbers. I understand how this makes sense — increasing flexibility, core strength, and balance. And your capacity for suffering. He tells me that my practice would be better if I could commit to three or more Bikram classes a week, and I agree with him — my hamstrings are as flexible as wood, and I watch everyone else in the class do Standing Separate Leg Stretching Pose, I am usually the only one who can’t grab their feet, or ankles.
Bikram Yoga changes people’s lives, and Jayson is a shining example of that. Here’s a “before” photo, of Jayson in the middle of one of many of the 100-hour-a-week, stress-filled political campaigns he used to work:
High cholesterol, high blood pressure, short lifespan, etc. At one point, he was getting a yearly physical after he had completed the Marine Corps Marathon, and his doctor said to him, “Aren’t we a little overweight to be running marathons?” We like the new Jayson better, except he refuses to eat donuts with me, which is a tragedy.
The thing for me is that I’m not looking for something to change my life. I just want something besides running and doing pullups, and a Bikram class or two a week is it for me. I draw parallels between climbing and Bikram, mostly balance — if you can stand in Eagle Pose (and a few other postures), on one foot, with your arms and legs twisted together without falling, you can probably control your mind enough to move upwards on a tiny, tiny foothold out on the rock. And I do. Jayson tries to convince me to go to more classes per week, and I try to convince him to take some initiative and lead sport climbing routes. With all that balance training and strength developed over the course of a couple thousand Bikram classes, he moves very naturally over rock. And with all that rock climbing, I move … somewhat naturally in Bikram classes.
Your concentration in many Bikram poses is extraordinary. Trying to not lose your balance while standing, knee locked, on one foot, holding the other foot in both hands, soaked with sweat, is a lot like trying to move 10 or 15 feet above your last piece of protection, not knowing what features are above you. Focus is No. 1. You have to narrow everything down to one point — in a Bikram class, it may be staring at your belly button in the mirror, and on rock, it might be pushing downward as much weight as possible on one part of your foot, willing it to stick to the rock until you can reach up to the next handhold.
I approach the Bikram classes I’ve taken in the same way I would look at getting to the top of a mountain: I just want to finish without falling, or losing focus. If I make it through the class without sitting out a pose, or leaving that hot-as-hell-itself room, I have summited. And for the record, I’ve been the only male in a Bikram class just once.