Friday, January 15, 2010

How Bikram yoga healed me.

Soon after stress fractures developed in my ankles, my ability to run on a daily basis deteriorated. I could run, yes, but I often did so at the risk of feeling “broken.” And yet, I ran despite the pain, limping afterward. I soaked my ankles in the winter waters of Lake Tahoe to decrease any possible inflammation in them. As I studied for the comprehensive exams for the master’s program I was in at the time, I often soaked my ankles in buckets of ice as long as I could stand it.

After a week of such treatment, however, it became clear that my ankles were injured in a more serious way than I had experienced before. I went through “running withdraw.” Or, more honestly, I thought my existence as a marathoner had ended. For nearly two and half years, running was the sole focus of my life. Everything-- from what times I slept, taught, ate, drank, what I wore and didn’t wear, what I said or didn’t say-- revolved around running. I felt so bad about my injuries I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I stopped sleeping--in part because of the throbbing sensation that came from my ankles, and partly because of guilt-- and wondered what I as going to do with myself now that I couldn’t run. Life seemed to have lost its meaning.

One day, my running coach suggested I try Bikram yoga, a form of exercise, he said he had a “new, profound respect for” and that could possibly “get me running again.”

I didn’t go that day.

Or the next.

I put it off for a good week or two, actually.

But the day I woke up curled on my bathroom floor with the cat blinking at me like, “is she dead yet?” was the day I dug into the inner bowels of my closet and found the blue yoga mat every woman under 50 inevitably has and drove to the Bikram studio in Reno, determined to run again-- doing even yoga if that’s what it took. The website for the local Bikram studio suggested I “bring a towel” and so I’d brought a washcloth, believing I might sweat a little bit because compared to running, how could yoga possibly make me sweat?

Yet, when I arrived at the studio, I was taken aback when the instructor at the front desk laughed at the size of my towel. “You’ll need a bigger one,” she said and handed me a full-sized towel, rolled neatly.

When I entered the yoga room, though, my towel insecurities melted in the intense heat. Without much prompting (at the end of the first breathing exercise) I’d already produced little droplets that beaded at the skin and slid down to their final resting place on the white towel I paid a dollar for. The room was dark and moist, and that was where the reality of this place ended and what I now call “elsewhere” began.


In the first weeks of my Bikram yoga practice (when I was not running at all) I told myself stories about my running. I told myself that there was a place with tall willows which swayed in the breeze and pine tree tops obscured in mist. I believed I saw it once, running. A deer darted in front of the trail, moving from the golden leaves and disappearing into the mist. Or maybe I never saw any of that, but that’s how I remembered it, standing before a mirror in a hot room breathing in synchronized movements controlled by the steady voice of the instructor coming from the speaker above me.

In these moments at the beginning of class, I often had trouble reconciling my existence in those memories of running and the reality of a heated yoga room. Here, there were no willows and certainly no deer. And yet, I come here to sweat and to think about breathing and occasionally to face the multiplicity of places I seem to carry with me.

There are real places and imagined ones. But recently, I’ve discovered there’s a third category which is a blend of the two, of a place that exists but that lacks that certain je ne sais quoi unless the mind is involved. I’d be willing to bet there are more places like that than we’d care to think of-- places that are always elsewhere than where we happen to be. Perhaps it’s a classroom which makes us think of the evening before spent curled around a frozen pillow or a churchyard which harkens us back to a funeral we attended when the finality of death seemed more like a semi-colon than a period. A place that’s not quite place, in other words, but that we go to in our minds. There are places like this yoga room with mirrors sprinkled with sweat droplets, dried to the surface like fly droppings on windows-- that is how it looks, anyway. But ask me or any other yogi in here and I bet they’d tell you something different. Yoga is and then begins the metaphor, the elsewhere.

When I began practicing, the studio had four maroon-colored walls with windows lining the far side. There are two walls faced with mirrors and an ornamental water fountain that tinkled in the far corner. This will all change in a month or so, perhaps another commentary about the ephemeral nature of “solid” places. Anyway, the space is surprisingly dark when the lights are off and alarmingly bright when the fluorescents are on. The floors are covered with a gray carpet—the sort often used in public buildings that is smooth-looking and designed to hide dirt.

Really, there isn’t much here-- nothing, in fact, when the practice has ended and we shuffle slowly out into the “cold” lobby. But there is something here, in this small studio, even if it cannot be seen. It is the something that, after months of practice, increased my flexibility, made me stronger inside and out-- and that got me running again despite the odds I never would.


The air nearly boils and drips with 45% humidity while smelling (I thought at first) like the inside of my running shoe after I’d used it all summer. You wouldn’t think a room could get this hot, but the other bodies in here help it along. I’m sure that must be where the smell comes from and it lingers because nearly every Bikram studio has carpet, a nice soft surface which catches and holds the beads of sweat which fall from practitioners. There’s carpet, I’ve been told, because you might slip and die if the floor was covered with, say, hard wood. I wonder which would be worse: a fall or this smell. At first I would have said: it’s a toss up. Now, however, I miss it if I skip too many days of practice.

But what is Bikram yoga like, exactly? If it was your first time in a Bikram yoga studio, this might be your reaction: the darkness of it-- now-- feels safe. There are other bodies rustling but you focus on none of them, feeling as though you could be a fetus in a womb; or so you say to calm your mind which wonders what the ensuing 90 minutes will be like if it feels this hot already. So, you lay down on your back, straight and still, with your head pointing toward the wall with the-- oh yes, you’d almost forgotten--the mirror.

When the halogen lights flip on and you stand and face Yourself, the safety and serenity you might have felt vanishes. It’s a view of You you don’t often get. Here it is: Yourself-- the You you never see, the one who is usually clothed (somewhat) respectively and who is only seen from the waist-up at the bathroom wash basin. No, this You is dressed in shorts too short to be called that exactly (hot pants reminds you too much of the heat and so you shy away from that word), with thighs with the funny tan line which occurs two inches above the knee (where most respectable shorts fall) from all those long bike rides and hiking trips, a sharp demarcation of peanut brown to paper-white. You move your eyes over You, up from the thighs to the stomach which is bare-- too bare -- looking like those inflated chicken breasts pressed beneath the cellophane at the supermarket, a sight so horrid you can’t stop looking but somehow do (call it discipline) followed by shoulders curl too far forward and therefore resemble spaghetti noodles dangling from a chopstick and finally, a face you don’t even recognize-- Your face. Or maybe you recognize it. I didn’t because I’ve found that leaving suntan lotion, make-up or anything on the skin leads to a very annoying eye-burn after the first posture in the series which requires you to bend forward, cup the heals and sandwich your body together with the ultimate goal of touching the top of your head to your feet. In order to do so, the face is pressed to the front of the calfs and if you’re unlucky enough to have anything on your face or body, it somehow all ends up pooling your eyes. So-- either your face looks naked or your eyes are red and puffy as though you’ve been crying.

In any case, it’s a bit much, taking this all in for the first time. Or I suppose it might not be if you’re accustomed to standing half-naked and red-eyed in front of a full-length mirror on a regular basis. But if you’re like me, the first few times the sight’s shocking, to say the least.

And then there are the other bodies which surround you. With the light on, especially before class gets officially under way, there are always a few brief seconds to glance around the space and see who else is standing with you. Once I practiced near a man who wore what appeared to be his wife’s baby-blue hot pants to class. Another time, I found myself behind a man who wore unwashed Carharts from the construction site he just came from and nothing else, if you don’t count the thin layer of sawdust and oil which coated his skin. I’ve also practiced next to a woman fully clothed in layers of fleece and sweats because she could not get hot enough.
The point though, is not to people watch but to watch yourself. And in time, it’s funny-- you start to read your body like a technical manual, or I did, anyway. I judged myself less and simply used the image in the mirror to tell me which muscles were tight and needed care and which others I could stretch, compress, twist or contort a bit farther into a pose in order to receive more benefits from my efforts.

I’d even venture to say that in the hot room I always know where I stand, even literally, because after 10 minutes my feet form moist imprints in the towel I stand on. Sometimes I think people can get caught up in illusions-- remembering places as though looking at them through rose-colored glasses, constructing past selves that never were. Despite its many discomforts, the Bikram studio at least is a refuge from these. There is nothing other than what you see, looking back at you in the mirror. Or, to put it bluntly, what you see is what you get. Call me crazy, but there is a strange comfort in that.


Bikram yoga is a copyrighted series of 26 yoga postures and two breathing exercises. They are done in a room heated to approximately 104 degrees Fahrenheit and 40-percent humidity to accomplish two goals: to mimic the climatic conditions in India but more importantly to allow the muscles and connective tissues of the body to “open” and become more responsive to stretching. The founder of the series, Bikram Choudhury, claims he can heal any ailment through his copyrighted series, anything from high blood pressure to a broken heart. Having the latter in addition to bad ankles, I was a prime candidate for the practice. But then again, the more I do Bikram yoga, the more I believe everyone would benefit from it in ways they could not foresee.

Yet, I admit: I hated the practice at first. I hated the smell but even more I hated that every class was the same 26 postures, done in the same order and taught in exactly (or nearly) the same way. Even more, I hated that my injury kept me from doing many of the postures correctly, just as it kept me from running. I continually asked myself how I could heal my body and “change my life” when I had sweat in my eyes from postures I couldn’t do correctly but did wrong over and over and over again.
With time, however, the practice has come to remind me of long distance running, when each step --executed correctly or not -- got me closer to my goal of the glimmering 26.2. Through pain and repetition and perseverance life took on a meaning of its own-- and so it began to here, again.


Dandayamana Dhanurasana, or standing bow pose requires strength, determination and balance. I possess a thimble-full of each of these attributes, but not enough to do the pose correctly, even after my stress fractures healed. Picture a human being standing on one leg while the other kicks back and up until the toes are visibly coming over the back of that person’s head. The opposite arm is stretched forward and the torso is parallel to the floor. The goal of this posture is to do what is called the standing splits. It’s probably the most beautiful posture extant, even if your body forms a tear-drop shape and not the desired ninety-degree angle.

In this posture, I don’t quite hear the instructions spoken to the room full of yogis anymore-- but I don’t quite not hear them, either. I steady my eyes in their own fixed gaze and breathe. I exist in a place beyond this room-- I’m not running the trails nor do I feel as though I’m in a sweaty room. I’m not quite sure where I am. I’m elsewhere, perhaps.

Physically, I’m told to pull my body apart as though it were a bow, stretching my fingers toward the mirror where they might touch the alternate universe reflected back at me while my foot points up over my head to the ceiling. An inhale and I remain still; exhale, I kick and stretch further. It’s as though my body is extending in long lines drawn forward and up. It’s a pose which demonstrates ambition, the direction of the dreamer. Look down, totter back, and you’re sure to fall.

I stand strong and wonder, briefly, if maybe today’s my day to remain here for an entire minute. I stretch and stretch, going beyond what is “safe” and then I dare to think “yes?” But then it becomes too much and I fall forward crouching down like a child.
If anything, this is what this place is to me: it is movement without judgment. I stand, I grab my foot and I try again. Somehow I know there is no rhyme or reason for falling; it happens. What matters most is what occurs after the fall. Today, I pick up my foot and start kicking again, leaning forward, and of course, breathing until the magical word “change.”


Half the postures are standing, the other half are done on the floor. Between the floor asanas, you’re granted a twenty-second rest called Savasana which means dead body pose. I haven’t delved into the deeper meaning of this-- that for a large portion of this class I’m supposed to act like I’m dead. Or that I like it, look forward to it and linger in it when I’m there. I only know it isn’t morbid or depressing--it actually makes me feel alive, ready to face anything that might come my way.

I lie on my back as sweat trickles like tears all over my body and my eyes remain open, fixed on a spot on the ceiling. There was a period of months when I stared at the revolving ceiling fans and remembered the flickering shadows of aspen leaves on a trail I ran often before my injury. I recalled how, at the time, I thought the leaves looked like sequins on a lady’s dress and then I decided they mimicked the motion of hands clapping, cheering me on. I thought about this as the body-tears slid down me, and yoga told me I needed to take better care of myself if I was going to be a long-distance runner. Yoga led the way to a healthier diet, better hydration and the realization that every body-- even my body-- needs to recover.

As I healed, my reflections changed. Everyday I unrolled my mat and I stepped atop a towel and looked into my own eyes and I saw something different there. Soon, the body-tears carried memories and then they carried thoughts until I didn’t perceive a ceiling at all, but instead, a haze which suggested possibility. Pain in my ankles and memory faded.

With another breath, Savasana ends and I cannot remain here. So, I breathe again, sit up, ready for the next posture.


Perhaps the most difficult posture is Ustrasana, Camel pose. It comes near the end of the twenty-six postures because you have to be warmed up for it. (Not “warmed up” in the typical usage of the phrase where you jog a lap around the track and call it good, but warmed up Bikram-style which involves dripping sweat and 20 or so asanas of preparation.) Anyway, you stand on your knees with the knees six inches apart. Your feet, soles up behind you, also have six inches between them. The goal is to lean back head first and grab your heels, while pushing your hips forward toward the mirror and your chest up to the ceiling. Ideally, you look nothing like a camel but maybe a little like a square.

In Camel, your open eyes see the world upside down behind you. You might see the back wall, the baseboard or if you’re me, you can see your mat and towel. I haven’t seen my own feet yet, but every once in a while I’m been told I’m close. But the point isn’t so much what you see-- it’s what you feel.

Camel is a vulnerable posture because you are opening your heart to the world and everything which towers above you. Emotions surface in this posture. Sometimes I’ve heard people laugh. At times-- many times, actually-- I’ve nearly cried after having remained still in this posture for a minute. The first time I did it, I was very sorry I ate that hamburger in 1984. It felt like I might just have some of it left in a yet undiscovered region of my digestive tract.

But that sensation soon fades as you melt back onto your mat and there is the breath and then nothing else-- no wall, no mirror, nothing but me poised before an abyss, a suggestion of something greater. There is no thought which surfaces in the posture, only the residual tides when I return, again, to Savasana. Blood flow courses through the body as I lay there, still as a log, and the floating-happy-nauseous-dizzy sensation fades but it does make me wonder where I just was. I certainly was not in a studio, nor was I in my memory of running. I left the earth for a breath. I search in vain for that non-place as I lay, looking at the ceiling but already, it is gone. I can’t find a trace of it. A second, a blink and I know I was elsewhere.


Every place contains within it a version of another-- a copy that never quite was and never will be. It’s not imagination, but it’s not entirely real, either. I think you have to enjoy those places where you might not really be you; where I see myself running painless across a misty-mountain trail with deer. I don’t know if I ever did, but the image comforts me and says more about my dedication and my love of a sport than it does about my actual performance. The yoga isn’t real, either. It is in a certain sense, but after I’ve left the room, my practice too becomes a fiction, but one that is necessary. I see myself standing in bow-pulling pose in perfect angles, my breath moving softly. The image points to yet another place, one of hope, a place that’s coming: another elsewhere.

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