An Introduction To Bikram A.K.A. Death Yoga
I don't mean to alarm you, but there's a group of covert masochists with a presence in every town, likely near where you live, who meet late at night and in the early morning, dressed in little more than sports bras and spandex shorts. They convene in far-flung suburban studios to practise the most barbaric of regimes, a 26-posture circuit of muscular hell, before lying out in 'corpse pose' and basting in their own sweat.
I'm talking, of course, about Bikram yoga.
Oh how I want to be good at Bikram yoga. There's just something so dramatic and prescriptive about it. It's about as far from the other kinds of yoga as it can get: there's no vinyasa element, no slow repetitive flow, only the stark shift between poses. There's no talk of spirituality like the Jivamukti yoga classes I used to go to, where you dedicate your practice to harmony and self-improvement. This is about endurance, it seems, more than anything else. The instructor stands atop a box, god-like as the students sweat below, and recites a script talking through the 26 asanas. Each class lasts 90 minutes, which is half an hour longer than any yoga class I've ever done before.
Oh and the room is heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.6 degrees Celsius). Heat akin to a sauna. Hallucination-inducing heat. Heat unlike anything an Irish summer can present. Heat like the fires of Hades.
It being January and all that, I decide there's no better way to atone for all the mulled wine and Christmas madness of recent weeks than with a class at Bikram Yoga Fairview, a studio along the Tolka river. I arrive early and walk around the industrial units, and accidentally walk into someone's garage before finding the studio. It's beautiful, wood paneling everywhere with that subtle incense scent that makes you fall under a yoga spell the minute you're in the door. There are pictures of Bikram Choudhury on the walls, smiling down like a benevolent, sweaty god (it is enough to make me forget that he is famously plagued with lawsuits).
The staff are unfailingly nice and helpful, and far more tolerant of beginners than one would expect. Classes are expensive at €18, but there's a deal for a month of them set at €49, which is great if you know you can take the heat and will come back. They're billed as beginner-friendly, and despite what followed (I'll get to that in a minute) I'd still absolutely recommend the ladies at Fairview to anyone looking to get into Bikram. My instructor was patient and kind (she offered me her water bottle as I'd forgotten to get one, probably the nicest thing a yoga instructor has ever done for me) and let us take our own pace to work out the postures. The class was small, too, which helps as every participant gets attention if they need it.
I begin standing at the back, directly under a gigantic electric heater. A rookie error, though there are few spots in this room clear of the torrents of air. You can tangibly feel the channels of fiery heat: they're stronger near the ceiling and weaker near the floor, making poses like 'Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Paschimotthanasana' (the one where you lower your head to the ground with your legs forming a triangle) easier than the upright ones.
After the breathing exercises and warm up–these seem to take up around twenty minutes, but I could be wrong, time flies when you're exercising in a sweat lodge–we launch into the poses, which are tolerable, not impossible, although some require exceptionally stretchy leg muscles. I feel the old familiar hamstring shame: there's always that one contortionist freak up front who can maintain 'standing head-to-knee' with all the elegance of a ballet dancer. I wobble through, mentally resolving to cut back on coffee (inflammatory to the limbs) and to eat kale for dinner.
There's a reason people tolerate, and even learn to love Bikram yoga, and that's because it works. Once I get past my jealousy of the toned, un-wobbling class members I start to admire how they pass through the poses with ease and familiarity. They're so calm, even as beads of sweat roll off their bodies onto their towels and yoga mats. The instructor asks us to focus on our own reflections in the mirror along the wall, and though excruciating at first (what is happening to my hair?) it does help maintain balance.
We are about forty five minutes in now, nearly halfway through, and yoga hubris has set in. Two members of the class are sitting, taking time out, but I'm just about managing to keep up.
But between poses I notice that the air has acquired a heavy, liquid feel, as though I'm trying to swim through treacle. When I lower my head in one pose it's difficult to get back up again. I ate a tiny dinner, following advice for before a class, but my stomach curdles, my head feels woozy and lights start to gleam in my vision. I can't see myself in the mirror anymore, just the pale woozy outline of a person about to pass out.
What is worse, to be the laziest, wobbliest class member, or to keep going and eventually fall down?
Now I am actually seeing stars. Am I transcending something? I weigh up the options: leaving would be embarrassing, as would sitting down, and if I do so I might not want to get back up. A blackout would make a lovely dramatic ending to an article–you'd like that, sadistic Lovin Dublin readers, wouldn't you??!
But no piece is worth losing consciousness for in public. Except maybe a review of Coppers, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
I roll up my towel, mutter an apology and leave.
Back in the empty dressing room I lie out on the cold tiles and listen to my pulse. I'm a failure, a lesser mortal. I am a no good yogi.
For all those reading who suspect that writers–in particular millennial writers–are overly entitled layabouts who'd rather stay in crafting think pieces about Tinder than attempt some proper work for a living… you're probably right. As I write this article I am curled up at home on my bed wearing an oversized sweater and slippers, my lazy freelance uniform, clutching at a hot water bottle now that my body temperature has dropped back to what is customary for the Irish winter.
But then Bikram isn't work, really, is it? It's for hardcore enthusiasts and ambitious newbies looking to lose the January paunch. It's exisits so we can prove to ourselves that we're still capable of pain and humility and forbearance. And if you are starting out, or read this and thinking 'what a sap, I'd last longer than this weakling… this milquetoast… this yoga dilettante!', then try it. Fairview is a wonderful place to start. They're patient and charming and nonjudgmental. There's a tangible sense of community and support in their studio.
Personally, though, I'll be sticking with room temperature yoga and walking my dog in the park. January, do your worst. I can take the cold–I just can't take the heat.