What is the purpose of travel, if not to experience new things?
That is a philosophy I imagine I share with the vast majority of nomads and vagabonds around the world. And yet when an opportunity presented itself to do just that recently, I was reluctant. The reason for my reticence was that the proposed experience, generously offered to me by my good friend Stevie, was a free class of Bikram Yoga.
If you’re not familiar with the various branches of yoga, a little background may be needed here. Bikram Yoga, eponymously named after its founder Bikram Choudhury, is by far the most popular form of hot yoga around today. Bikram introduced the course in India in the seventies, and it is now enjoying unprecedented levels of popularity in the west. It consists of twenty-six postures and two breathing exercises to be completed in a room heated to between 38 and 40 degrees Celsius, with a humidity level of forty per cent.
Now, although some people may be sceptical of the health benefits of hot yoga, and for all I know they may have a case, that would certainly not provide an excuse for my not trying it. Others decry the monetisation of an ancient discipline, which seems contrary to the spiritual nature of the practice; I have no strong opinion on the matter, and even if I did, could scarcely use the argument to protest a free class.
No, my reservations were wholly pragmatic: I suspected, correctly as it turned out, that I wouldn’t be any good at it.
The two main things this yoga malarkey requires, and requires in spades, are balance, and flexibility bordering on elasticity. Balance was not my main concern. I considered myself moderately gifted in this area (note the use of past-tense here), and have even been known, upon occasion, to put my socks on standing up. But I am as supple as a board. I can touch my toes, but I require a ninety degree bend at the knees to do so.
Added to this difficulty was the failure to see the fun in attempting to contort my body into pretzel shapes in a humid room heated to forty degrees.
Nevertheless, after some hesitation, deliberation, and not a little trepidation, I decided that if you have a mantra, you may as well stick to it. And so, Saturday morning found me pacing outside the local yoga studio on Ponsonby, Auckland, waiting for my mate. Two litres of water, taken an hour before on prior advice, was gurgling in my belly, and threatening to regurgitate. And I needed a pee.
The class started innocuously enough. We all lay on our backs for several minutes on our still dry towels, relaxing. Then a breathing exercise – ‘so far, so good, this ain’t so bad’, thought I.
What followed thereafter is something of a blur: a tsunami of extreme heat, sweat, breathless exhaustion, and severe discomfort verging on pain, ensued. I have never secreted so much water in my entire puff. Within half an hour my towel and shorts were soaked, every inch of my body was dripping, and my hair was a soggy, matted mess plastered to my head. I say half an hour, but it could well have been ten minutes. Time, as Einstein postulated, is relative. And therein lay another problem: I had no idea when this torture would end. I had no choice but to struggle on, fruitlessly guzzling on my bottle of tepid water whenever I got a chance in a futile endeavour to cool down.
Amazingly, as I hopped around my scrunched-up, sodden yoga towel, trying to regain balance to assume the position of the crocus, or bear, or whatever it was, the woman beside me remained the picture of composure, serenely gliding into ridiculous shapes with a face devoid of expression. While staring back at me from the mirrored wall was a wild eyed, beetroot coloured, hideous creature, face contorted into a permanent grimace…
And so it went on… and on.
Suddenly, without warning, the instructor whispered something about taking our time, and the class was over. We all lay on our backs again, me gasping for air that seemed oddly absent. I wanted to escape the room to cool down, but didn’t trust myself not to keel over. So I lay there for some time, gazing at the rotating ceiling and wondering why anyone, including myself, would voluntarily put themselves through such an ordeal.
Later, as I sprawled on a wooden bench in the cool hall, I had a glimpse of the answer. An enormous feeling of well-being flooded my person. Perhaps it was relief. Maybe it was the endorphins released through exercise, or just cooling down after overheating to, i suspect, dangerous levels. Or maybe, just maybe, there is something to this Bikram Yoga. Not that I executed many of the postures anywhere near correctly, which would suggest that any benefits would be negligible. But there it is. I felt great, and continued to do so for some time after.
The feeling continued through my shower, persisted as I floated down the road to the nearest coffee shop, and peaked half an hour later after sinking a double-shot latte, when I came as close as I suspect I ever will to nirvana.
It never ceases to amaze me how short the human memory is for extreme discomfort or pain. This is the reason people go back for more tattoos, and why those who swear they’ll never drink again after a heavy session are found perched on a bar stool the very next weekend.
Within a day I had largely forgotten the rough road I had taken to bliss. Hence the reason I have signed up for a two week unlimited pass. So if you don’t hear from me, you’ll know what happened…
If you’re interested in giving Bikram Yoga a go (and why on earth wouldn’t you be?), you can find your nearest Bikram Yoga branch here.
Has anyone else given this a go, or thinking about it? What are your thoughts?