I was too tall for the floor space. I adjusted my black Everlast yoga mat while in an awkward crouch for the third time. Lying down, my bare feet nearly touched the face of the girl in front of me. Bailey tried to hold her laugh like a child in church, but it quietly erupted past her cupped hand and broke the studio’s silence. Her neon pink sports bra stood out against everything in the dusk-lit room, including her grape-coloured mat. With blond hair ponytailed, Maldives aqua eyes and raven tights hugging her toned legs, she looked ready to train contestants on The Biggest Loser. I looked like a lost lanky basketball player in a practice jersey and Camosun College team shorts. I popped back to my squat and peered at the peaceful bodies lying around me. I slid the mat further into the space of the girl behind me. I had known my inflexible physique would make hot yoga hard, but not like this.
We were at the Bikram Yoga Saanich studio in Victoria, B.C. I was too nervous to go alone, so I dragged Bailey with me, calling it a date, despite her complaints that she hated the Bikram heat. A yoga class, I imagined, would be my ultimate vulnerability. A room full of people moving like elastic bands, and me like a stale pretzel. I pictured the whole class stopping for an extended break so the teacher could shift my stiff limbs into the most basic pose. I didn’t want to be the guy holding up everyone’s journey to self-enlightenment.
I had tried to find friends to try it with me before. Five years ago, at home in Australia, a teammate and I were set on yoga to improve our basketball play. Three years ago my roommate and I decided to meet new girls through stretching. Two years ago, a friend on the rowing team said she’d come as a way for us to hang out and work out, stoning multiple birds. But I had still never been. Time restraints, last-minute cancellations and just a general lack of persistence from all transformed great plans into past conversations.
Then two months ago my athletic therapist said, “Take the money you’re blowing on all these other treatments and put it into a few yoga classes.” In the five years since my back spasms started, sparked by a sudden training increase to make the state basketball team, I’d seen multiple physiotherapists, athletic therapists, general practitioners, sports doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists and had bone scans and X-rays, resulting in multiple diagnoses, but to no avail. What I had not tried, despite suggestions from many of these professionals, was yoga.
Fit girls in volleyball shorts and sports bras filled the studio like Bailey had promised. There were worse places a 23-year-old heterosexual male could be on a Sunday night, like spotting teammates at the college weight room or studying at home alone. Bailey hadn’t said anything about the skinny guy in Speedo-sized yellow shorts, though. I would have accepted this from an aging hippie or mid-life crisis male in a post-divorce period of rediscovery, but Mr. Short Shorts was about my age. I assumed he was a regular—I was in his domain now.
“Aren’t you glad you didn’t wear socks?” chirped Bailey as we lay on towel covered mats. I had agreed to go sockless, but wore a jersey despite her warning that “all guys go shirtless.” Peering up from my Savasana, the fancy yoga name for laying on your back, I noticed that the only blokes wearing tops were a 50-something, and an overweight guy. Perhaps Mr. Short Shorts had similar sarcastic thoughts about my attire. It wasn’t the time to prove Bailey right by removing the jersey though. She was already one sock comment closer to her high horse.
The studio felt comfortable, unlike the oxygen-stealing sauna I had imagined. Around 50 people made up four columns and 12 loose rows in front of the mirrored wall. I would soon realize that this many close bodies can turn a room to the 40-degree steam cloud I expected, within the first half hour. Sunday at 5:45 p.m. is called the “Karma” class because the entry fee is by donation instead of the usual $15 rate, which makes it a huge draw for students like myself.
I had read on the Bikram website to bring two towels and a large water bottle. I took a Gatorade and a Gatorade bottle filled with water, worrying the eco-friendly stretch fanatics would judge my lack of recycled drinking jar. I did take my own yoga mat I’d bought to increase flexibility at home, to avoid looking like a complete rookie at the reception rental desk.
I looked up from my Savasana at the ceiling fan that rotated in a mesmerizing lull. It helped me settle momentarily. The studio lights flicked on and the class instructor introduced herself as “Owl.” She had short chestnut hair, was in her 30s, and wore grey yoga pants that sagged a little where they were meant to be tight. The girl in front of me mouthed to her boyfriend, “She’s really thin,” and I wondered if yoga alone created this physique.
Owl took her perch on a stool placed atop a box at the front of the studio and asked who was new to Bikram. One other guy and I raised our hands. I had read in the studio’s online instructor bios that teaching new students was the highlight of their job. Owl didn’t look excited, but Bailey smiled as she sat up and reached past her toes.
The class began as I’d predicted. I was out of time with everyone else during the breathing exercises and then unable to intertwine my arms “like a rose.” Bailey had her arms entangled like a Valentine’s Day bouquet as she wrapped one leg around the other to perform a one-footed squat. I stood there like the kid picked last for basketball, continually failing to swing my left arm under my right elbow. I was an electric cord too stiff to wrap.
Owl peered over the classroom like the bird of prey her adopted name suggested. I was a field mouse. “Nobody help him,” screeched Owl. “It sounds cruel, but this is something he has to figure out on his own.” A girl in the row ahead looked back with a sympathetic smile. I started to sweat.
As we evolved through the 26 Bikram poses, I found a few that I wasn’t terrible at. The “awkward” pose, which involved standing on your toes, then sitting on a pretend chair, was quite similar to the defensive stance in basketball. Despite being a defensive liability on the court, coaches had made me sit in this uncomfortable crouch enough times that the pose came to me like sweat to the studio.
The “standing head to knee” pose, another of my favourites, was balancing on one leg, while bringing the opposite knee to your chest. Once in the position, you must kick your foot out while holding it, attempting to achieve horizontal extension. My hamstring flexibility didn’t allow me to get my leg completely straight, but I maintained my balance for the entire pose. I credit this ability to my team’s strength-and-conditioning coach, who had me doing single-leg squats with elastic bands, to test my balance.
The third and most prestigious of my accomplished poses was the “standing bow pose.” This is where you pull your foot up behind you in a quadriceps stretch, balance on one leg, and lean forward as you point at yourself in the mirror. I’m now confident that I could climb a mountain or any other scenic attraction and instagram myself in standing bow pose like most girls on my Facebook have done. Hashtag. Live, love and laugh. Smiley face.
Bikram yoga classes are split into four segments: breathing warm-ups, standing poses, floor poses and breathing cool-downs. As we moved from the standing pose series, the height of my Bikram ability, into the poses on the mat, I became unable to perform some due to my back problems. Anything leaning backward that causes the mid- to lower back muscles to contract is what stimulates my spasms. This was good timing because the rising heat of the room had me close to fainting.
Owl had warned at the start of the class that newcomers in particular should take it easy. “It is normal to feel lightheaded, or even sick to the stomach when new to hot yoga,” she said, “so when these symptoms become unbearable, have a sip of water and return to Savasana.”
I did so for a moment, then returned to an upright position. The room smelled like sweat-scented exhaust fumes. The air felt like Hong Kong, which I remembered hating from a Grade 12 basketball tour. My jersey was drenched and sticking to me to the point of making me feel claustrophobic. I pulled it off and dropped it next to my mat without looking at Bailey.
The Bikram humidity engulfs the body with a different kind of exhaustion than I had experienced at basketball practice. Even at the moments of feeling unable to perform the next pose and returning to Savasana, it wasn’t the difficulty of the pose that forced me to stop. In basketball, when you hit that physical wall, there is always a coach to yell at you or a teammate to encourage you to continue. In the Bikram studio, you are allowed to quit. Owl isn’t going to swoop down and slap you for stopping. This means it’s your willpower against the studio environment, rather than you and your teammates against the coach.
The main difference I noticed between the two workouts was that in hot yoga there were no breaks. Basketball is an athletic, physical game. Everything about it revolves around short sprints, changes of direction and explosive jumps, meaning that you exert maximum energy in short, sharp bursts. After that play or sequence, though, which is usually between 20 seconds to a minute, you get a quick break. Lying in Savasana near the end of the Bikram class, I couldn’t believe being on my back was still sapping my energy. No basketball drill can compete with humidity.
Bailey pushed through every pose, despite her four-year absence from performing Bikram. She prefers to call it “yoga from hell” and chooses the regular form of yoga or exercise classes over this kind of torture. Both Gatorade bottles were empty beside my sweat soaked beach towel. “It’s almost over,” Bailey whispered. “Good,” I panted.
We moved into the final breathing exercise. The studio felt like being held underwater in the local swimming pool as a kid. Except this time it was a hot tub. Bailey offered me a sip of water, but I refused. She smiled sympathetically, but whispered that I had done well.
Owl brought the class to a close like the school bell ringing after a lunchtime detention. I made it. The students shuffled out of the room at varied speeds. I sat on my towel. Once I was sure I wouldn’t pass out, I got up, leaving my stuff on the floor. In the washroom I splashed water on my face and drank from cupped hands with primal precision.
The tap water aided my lightheadedness, and I was able to retrieve my gear from the studio. I met Bailey outside the bathroom and told her I was going to take a quick shower. She nodded, but gave her reception-desk smile. As cold water blasted away the sweat, I felt clean despite not using any soap. Maybe this was the toxin cleanse Owl had talked about. I tossed on a hoodie and pants. Bailey was waiting for me.
“That wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be,” I said, striding to the car.
“I hate you for making me come,” Bailey replied with a sassy scowl.
“Don’t you feel good now?” I said, tapping the unlock button on my car key.
“I just threw up in the bathroom,” she said, ducking into the passenger side door.