Six months after stopping Bikram cold turkey, I return to the Friday 6:00 am class on a cold, clear March morning. For months the idea formed an anxious knot in my brain; the longer I stayed away the more convinced I became that I wouldn’t be able to bear the heat, that a ninety minute class would be an eternity, and that my postures would be lame shadows of past triumphs. I put off going as my anxiety grew, even as my resolve to return grew strong.
Sometimes it’s easier to let serendipity guide our actions. One Thursday evening my shoulder was sore from too many chaturanga’s. I needed a hot class without shoulder work, so I decided impromptu to return to Bikram.
Riding my bike in the early morning light I psych myself into confidence. Jo greets me at the desk, a cheerful woman who was a student friend before she became a teacher two years ago. When I walk into the hot room the blast of heat is an old comrade rather than an enemy. The class is small and I take my favored spot in the second row, to the right of the teacher, under the fan. Time evaporates, habits resurface, everything feels familiar; how to lay the mat across the black line, how to arrange my towels, where to place my water bottle. I stand to the mirror and consider doing my usual Bikram warm-up: half moon sways and standing separate leg stretching pose, followed by seated twists, but for some reason I forgo the warm-up (which was never necessary since its so warm). I simply lay on my mat, head to the mirror, and concentrate on my breath. This is the first sign that this class is not only going to be different because I’ve been gone for six months. It is going to be different because during those six months, my yoga has evolved.
Jo greets the class, stands on the podium, and begins the dialogue. Jo lacks the drill sergeant demeanor of many Bikram instructors; her voice is sing-song and her enthusiasm for our effort eclipses criticisms of our shortcomings. Pranayama breathing feels good, deep in my lungs, though my arms do not rise as far as they did. I attribute that to my sore shoulder. My half-moons are adequate, but my Padahastasana goes deep. My hands are firm under my feet, my head is tight to my shins, my hamstrings are taut and high. It feels great. By the time we reach Awkward Pose I am in the zone, my front focus keen.
The room doesn’t seem too hot. The thermostat’s reflection reveals 110 degrees and 19 percent humidity; proof again that humidity withers us more than mere degrees. Doing each pose twice feels like luxury rather than a chore. By the time we finish the introductory sequence all anxiety has dissipated; I am going to be fine.
During break, I scan my old studio in Harvard Square and compare it to my new yoga home. The carpet, a signature Bikram feature, is musty compared to CorePower’s slick wood floors. The heat and humidity controls are haphazard; 104 degrees and 40 percent humidity at CorePower are consistent. And the clientele, five men and five women, more than half regulars from my former practice, are decades older than the twenty-somethings that skew the demographic of every CorePower class
During standing series, I realize not only am I fine, I am different. In Standing Head to Knee my lower back extends very far. I fall out before the end, but don’t sweat it. My Standing Bow is deep, my Balance Stick is straight and effortless. On the first round of Standing Separate Leg Stretching my head gets close to my towel. I’ve never been able to touch my head to the mat, and I wonder if today I have the full extension in me. Second try I spread the legs wide, grip my hands to my heels, kick the heels out pigeon-like and let my arms and gravity pull my head toward the mat. Just before Jo calls for us to rise, my head lands on my towel. Not a mere graze, my noggin plants itself to the floor. Touching my head to the floor is so comfortable I wonder what I’d been doing during more than 2,500 previous attempts. As I rise, I appreciate the variety pack of yoga I’ve embraced over the past six months. My added arm strength and opened hips enable me to finally nail this most elusive of postures.
After this success, the remainder of class is one long victory lap. I breathe deep. I bend and arc. I laugh at Jo’s jokes. She mentions how she’s missed me at my spot. Spine strengthening is wonderful. I am in no rush to leave. Patience and ease open up every pose. The temperature hits 115, the humidity tops 30%, but nothing fazes me.
After I shower and change I chat with folks I know; the conversations one has bumping into old school friends. I describe my switch to CorePower, they give a sweet but knowing smile. To Bikram devotees, I have sold out. But I don’t buy it. Bikram is a valuable but narrow view of the yoga world. I thought I might not be able to withstand its rigor after dabbling in so many alternatives. But the opposite proved true. The physical variety and mental ease I’ve been experiencing actually helped my Bikram practice.
I might return to Bikram again, but I’ll never worry about whether or not I can do it. I also know that though different, other forms of yoga are not second best.