Now I like it hot just as much as the next person. For example, the current pleasant weather we are experiencing across the UK? I very much like this hot. I also like a good cup of hot strong coffee, hot peppery chillies in food, and a hot glowing fire in deepest darkest winter…
Then there are those things that should most definitely not be served hot. Let’s say, ice cream, or a refreshing Gin and Tonic perhaps? And exercising. Exercising in the heat is a big no-no as far as I am concerned.
In my opinion, 40 degree heat should be reserved only for the jauntiest of holidays, not for throwing one’s body around masochistically. And yet, here I am, of my own volition, partaking in hot bikram yoga sessions at the afore-mentioned temperature, for 90 straight minutes.
Given that the last thing I managed to do successfully for 90 consecutive minutes was watch Netflix (and I have to say, I nailed it), and the fact that I haven’t done anything you could strictly class as ‘exercise’ for nigh on a year (reaching out for nachos and guac whilst watching said Netflix doesn’t count); i’m not entirely sure what made me think this would be a good idea.
Okay, okay, so I guess that’s being a tad economical with the truth. Much of the literature that exists on yoga suggests it has many physical health benefits, such as increasing core strength and flexibility, improving circulation, and decreasing painful inflammation. Not only this, yoga is said to have a positive impact on mental well-being through engaging in the meditative practices that accompany it. There are several different types of yoga, but bikram is a series of 26 postures which are performed in a hot environment to promote muscle and nerve relaxation, as well as to open up pores and release toxins. Scientific research also suggests that more endorphins are released during sweaty exercise, which additionally helps to reduce the body’s perception of pain, making this form of yoga the perfect choice for me.
In an attempt to stick to those changes I promised to make (see previous documentation for a full rundown), and to try and gain some semblance of control over the current campaign of pain my unruly body is inflicting upon me; i’ve dived straight in at the deep end with a Dr Pepper ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ attitude, and signed up for a 30 day trial. Today marks the last session of my bikram journey, so let’s rewind and see how it’s all gone shall we?
Early May, and it’s still cold and rainy, as I arrive for my first session at the yoga studio, which is located in the heart of Manchester’s trendy Northern Quarter (naturally). You have to buzz for entry, and once inside, you are sent straight down some stairs, underground, to a soothing oasis of neutral tones and silence. A sign advises me to leave my shoes on the rack, and to turn my phone off at the door and give my ears (and thumbs) a break. Okay Yoga, I’ll try it your way. I plod barefoot to get changed, then set up with my mat and towel in the studio, which is about the size of a dance hall, with mirrored walls, industrial ventilation shafts, and a ceiling of silver bubble insulation, that reminds me of the sun visors you place in car windscreens on a sunny day.
It’s already stiflingly hot, but I can’t decide if it’s wet or dry heat, as it’s a little odd with no sunshine or sea front to orientate me to the source and cause of this temperature. Other yoga-goers soon arrive and pitch up ready for class. Five minutes later and I realise with a sinking feeling I am dramatically overdressed, not unlike that time I stumbled onto the nudist beach in Spain and politely inclined to keep my bikini on as naked Germans devoid of body hair frolicked around me shamelessly.
The ladies are wearing tiny shorts and crop tops, midriffs exposed, and the men are shirtless in swimming shorts. There’s even a guy in a pair of budgie smugglers. As we stand to begin the class, I soon see why. It’s a veritable sweat box in here. Much akin to doing Yoga in a rave I imagine.
I quickly lose my t-shirt before I overheat like a dog left in a car, and focus my attention on the toned, lithe instructor before me. She’s an Amazonian goddess. She explains that these classes are vocal-led, and are eye-open meditations, so there will be no speaking to each other, just her instructions, delivered systematically as she switches between prowling the room and standing atop steps at the front, firing directions from her lofty throne.
We open with a breathing exercise. Ahh good. This should be simple. How can you mess up breathing? Well, as it turns out, you can actually. I can’t quite get the hang of it, and instead of relaxing me, I feel like I’m drowning as my lungs take in deep gulps of hot dense air, without oxygen, and I experience a sense of mounting anxiety, rather the calming effect I am sure was intended.
Unnatural breathing/choking over, and we move through a series of poses which are designed to stretch you out and limber you up. I reach skyward, then down to the floor, which is so infinitely far away at this point, it may as well be in another time zone or galaxy. Brilliant. Only 80 more minutes of this hell.
‘Eagle pose’ has me wrapped up and balancing on one leg like I’m in an imaginary strait-jacket, and I certainly am starting to think I must be 50 shades of mad for coming here in the first place.
Our instructor interrupts my rueful musings, to tell us this is the end of our warm up poses. Warm up?! I’m drenched through and my face is a fetching shade of tomato red. I’m not sure how I can possibly keep going, but I persevere, determined not to break the one goal I’ve been set today, which is just to stick out the 90 minutes in this furnace of a room.
We continue our contortions with ‘tree pose’, where I sadly realise i’ve spent the last 20 something years becoming an actual tree; gnarled up, creaky and knotted, and that I’ll probably have to spend the next 20 or so undoing the damage I’ve inflicted upon myself through poor lifestyle choices. Oh dear.
Before we move on from standing to floor postures, we are thankfully allowed a 2 minute ‘break’. This consists of ‘savasana’ or ‘corpse pose’ (not quite as poetic like…), which we repeatedly come back to throughout class. Savasana consists of lying on your back, arms by your side, in stillness (yup, like a corpse) and emptying your mind, instead focussing only on the feelings in your body and your breathing. This is in itself a struggle, and the first few times I find myself frantically on edge and running through a big ‘to do’ list, rather than using this time to relax and restore.
We soldier on, coming to the ‘master posture’ of the bikram series which is called ‘camel’. This involves backwards leaning, so your head and gaze are on the floor behind you, before reaching down and grabbing your ankles so your body becomes a capital ‘D’. Supposedly it will give me an intense feeling of euphoria, but when I do attempt this one, it instantly makes me feel like vomiting, and I have make like a corpse pronto back to savasana to stop the contents of my lunch making a dramatic reappearance (NB: pizza was a poor pre-workout choice).
I manage to reach the end somehow, a final breathing pose pushing me to the limits of my light headedness, and that’s it! I’m done. I’m a little dazed and confused, and still in pain, but I do feel a sense of accomplishment that I managed to complete the session with no great catastrophe (such as my leg snapping off etc), so I’m counting this as a small victory.
Exhausted, and shaking, I hobble off home, that night sleeping a slumber worthy of the dead, and I’m truly in savasana.
I continue much in this same vein for the next few classes, panting and struggling as my not-so-nimble body stubbornly refuses point-blank to contort into what should be quite simple movements.
It is only when I get to around class 4, that I’ve managed to overcome the urge to vomit/pass out and I’m actually (shocker) looking forward to the sense of familiarly and achievement that comes with working through the same 26 postures. I’m becoming more stable in my balance and demonstrating a more flexible range of movements, challenging myself to go further into the stretches, and overcoming the fear that I’m about to cause a monumental injury, or set my pain off into one of its flare up spirals from which no amount of painkiller seem to relieve me. My tree pose is no longer a stout old oak, but a young birch, whose supple branches and new leaves dance in the breeze.
I am also relaxing more in the restorative poses, I haven’t quite switched off, but this silence gives me a chance to reflect, rather than panic, moving into a more mindful space.
As the days pass, the weather is hotting up, moving swiftly into summertime, but the heat in the studio hasn’t gotten any easier to tolerate. My instructor promises me though, that it is ensuring all the toxins are being flushed out of me, and that the resulting blood coursing high-speed through my body into my joints and nerves is taking care of all my ailments. And I kind of believe her.
Heading into my final week, and i’m at the studio every day, pushing myself, and working away the pain. For 90 minutes in every 1440, I know I can stick two fingers up at my rebellious body, and stop letting it hold me back, a real mind-over-matter victory.
By the time i’m on my final class It’s starting to feel a little like ‘Cheers’ in here, with plenty of smiling familiar faces, and even the instructors seem to know my name. Finishing on a high note, I smash camel pose for the first time, overcoming the nausea-inducing feeling to finally, fearlessly, let go and grab for my heels. It’s a definitive fist-pump moment.
Whether it’s the yoga itself, or the time spent in quiet, routine reflection, or maybe just the sense of achievement through bettering myself on each visit, I wouldn’t want to say, but I’ve certainly enjoyed every minute of it.
Day 30 is complete, and as I walk up the steps out into the now-June sunshine, I think to myself, I feel on fire. My self-belief is somewhat restored, and I am a phoenix rising once more. I can see exactly how bikram becomes so addictive, and why many of my fellow yoga buddies make this pilgrimage on a daily basis.
My mind feels clearer than it has in a while, and i’m more focused and motivated, having found a way to avoid my pain completely taking over, or dictating the things I want to do in life. It’s a small step, but at least there’s a time in each day where I can stop thinking about what i’m missing, or what I can’t change, and start instead with what I can control. If my body wants a fight, bring it.
The future feels bright, and I suddenly realise I have the ability and power to take on worlds if I want to, and that euphoric feeling I was promised with ‘camel’ finally kicks in.
As I head for home I ponder that perhaps on reflection, if it can have this monumental impact, exercise is indeed something that’s better off served hot. I’m just not quite there with the ice cream or G & T yet though…