"How you do anything is how you do everything." So goes the wisdom of my sadistic Bikram yoga teacher. I'm two weeks into my month-long membership -- a spontaneous daily-deal purchase -- and I want to spit on this self-righteous know-it-all.
"Lock your knees, lock your knees, lock your knees!" She barks as she lopes in front of me, her perfectly-sculpted, barely-covered body temporarily obstructing my own mirror image. I'm grateful for the respite: My visibly-trembling muscles shake globs of sweat off my patchy, red skin while my hair manages to both frizz up and clamp on my skin all at once. The picture of Zen, I am not.
Bikram yoga, for the blissfully uninitiated, consists of 26 poses designed to strengthen your core, lengthen your limbs, and bring balance and peace to your blah blah blah. Proponents declare the 90-minute routine has a deep cleansing effect on "your system." On the official Bikram yoga website, the practice is anecdotally credited with curing a host of physical ailments, from PMS to Lyme disease. Well, I can attest to producing enough sweat to bathe a kitten, but that seems a rather natural side effect to an hour and a half twisting around in 105 degrees at 40 percent humidity.
Bikram Choudhury himself, who developed and subsequently copyrighted the sequence of poses, has taken heat (and gotten significant press play) in the past few years over his decidedly un-yoga-like approach to the practice. One vocal critic is Dr. Aseem Shukla, cofounder of the Hindu American Foundation, who, in a Details profile on Choudhury, said: "Call it exercise. Call it a good workout. Call it what you like ... But don't call it yoga. It's a cynical appropriation of Hinduism." The spiritual aspect aside, even the actual cleansing effect of sweat is debatable, and the scientific studies to back up Bikram's claims are noticeably absent from the "Research" portion of the website.
But I'm not here to find enlightenment, cure myself of Hepatitis, or even remove "toxins"; I'm just hoping to get a cute butt out of the deal.
Quietly grunting and inwardly cursing, I'm able to contort my body into some approximation of almost all the poses. There is a three-posture balancing sequence near the middle, however, that steadfastly refuses to be conquered. My sanctimonious teacher, sipping from her coconut water to combat a wayward bead of sweat, oh-so-kindly explains to us -- every time -- that this Standing Balancing series is "all about your mental strength." I prefer to think my wobbly Standing Bow pose is due to weak ankles rather than a defect in my personality. I shoot a glare at the back of her tightly-knotted bun and yearn wistfully for my sprawling, air conditioned gym around the corner. I curse the entire daily-deal industry for preying off my impetuous nature.
Halfway through my third week, however, something remarkable happens: I make it through the first of the three Standing Balancing poses. I'm not at the advanced level, with my head to my knee and my elbows wrapped around my calf, but my standing leg is locked, steady, and I have the other leg at a clean 90 degree angle in front of me. Knees locked, gaze steady. I want to hoot with excitement at this small success, but I keep it cool.
The lithe, perky teacher stresses the importance of coming quickly out of each pose into a state of absolute calm and stillness: "spine straight, arms down at your sides, gaze steady ahead." This may sound like a relief, but the regenerative effects of the resting postures, she asserts, will not take place unless you are nearly motionless: no twitching, no fixing your hair, no moving your eyes, "don't even blink your eyes." This can be challenging when your blood is violently pumping its way past your ear drums and salty, hot sweat is trickling into all available orifices. I want to gasp for air, gulp it in -- but another Bikram rule is that you must only breathe through your wee little nostrils. I'm aching to burst out of the heated studio and step into the cool reception area; I could drink my body weight in icy water. But the goal in these "resting" postures is to fight these urges, using your mental focus and will power to calm your mind, even out your breathing, and steady your pulse. You must be absolutely still save your chest and diaphragm, which must only rise and fall in the slow, balanced rhythm of your breathing. "Still your eye; still your body; still your mind."
As I start to grasp the physical mechanics behind the postures, the changes off the mat are too remarkable to pass unnoticed. Most prominently: I swear I'm smarter. I do the morning class, 6:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. Heading to work shortly after, I am energized, inspired, and efficient. I start to do strange things like stand at my desk to read papers and take calls, rather than slumping in my chair as usual. My boss has been shocked at my rapid output of ideas -- not just output, but implementation, too. I am digesting information with an ease and, yes, calmness that I didn't have before; I'm laying out cohesive game plans with confidence.
And my bum! Oh yes, my stubborn derriere. I've been caught feeling myself up more than once in the past week, because this gorgeous muscle has popped up along the tops and inner sides of my gluteus maximus. It is too early to tell for sure, but I think this hot yoga just might give me the ass I've always dreamed of: the firm little bubble butt that months of squats and spin class failed to produce.
I now stare dreamy-eyed at my wise and masterful Bikram teacher throughout the best 90-minutes of my day. I realize that I typically follow the same trajectory in work, relationships, and indeed any new experience as I have in Bikram: I jump head first into something that strikes me as groovy from afar, ferociously hate it once it starts getting difficult but stick with it out of a stubborn need to conquer, then fall madly, obsessively in love once I see myself start to learn and grow from it. I suppose there could be worse ways to do anything and everything.