In the building where I attended grade school, a poster hung over the main hall water fountain which never failed to not motivate me. It said: “I AM ME AND I AM OKAY.”
This was the prevailing educational sentiment. One day, all 847 of us received buttons in the school colors proclaiming “I’M A WINNER.” I wore mine to gym class and went about my usual business of falling over a lot. I picked myself up from the basketball court as my classmates shrieked past, busy about being competent: Someone was pulling a fast one on me and my bloodying tube socks.
Which is probably why I paid cash money twenty years later to enter a room heated to 107 degrees and 40% humidity, stare in a mirror and fold myself in half as a mostly-naked man stood on a podium, insisting into a microphone that I relax and relax right now. It was Bikram hot yoga, all the world could see the back of my thighs, and my body positions were so far from assuming the proper figure skater shape that it could readily be considered a tacit declaration of war on India. And yet, and yet… I knelt on the floor, I tipped my head and spine over backwards, I grasped my heels. And the mike boomed in my direction: “Relax your facial expression.”
At last, at last, I was honestly being told how much I in fact sucked. My facial expression was Not Okay! This guy just said so!
Bikram yoga advocates the opposite of every single thing I’ve ever been told about exercise and self-worth, whether by the softly lit aerobics nymph on a DVD or a shrieking “You can do it!” Zumba instructor in a clanging community gym. It’s the George Costanza of yoga. “Lock your knees.” “Don’t drink right now.” “Push beyond your flexibility.” “If sweat is running into your eyes, you’re doing it right.” Also: “This is going to hurt.”
Then again, the first page of “Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class” asks, “Why did you pick up this book? What is your problem?“
It truly is an hour and a half on Dagobah. “I want to leave,” a woman in front of me once announced to the instructor.
He regarded her serenely. “That,” he said, “is when you stay.”
Bikram demands utter surrender of ego. If you’re determined to mask cellulite, muffin rolls, or backfat, you’ll just suffer more in the heat, and anyway the entire class is grasping so tenuously to survival that no one has the energy to compare varicose veins. In this manner, Bikram yoga is the ultimate form of exercise for raging introverts like me, who pretty much hate other people. Poses and rest periods are so regimented that the entire class is told to face the same direction while lying on the floor so as to avoid the horror of accidental eye contact. It’s paradise for those whose most dreaded order in life is not “Go directly to jail” or “Forward into enemy fire,” but “Everybody choose a partner.”
Vanity is cruelly punished. Once I committed the near-blinding error of rubbing tinted moisturizer on my face just before leaving for class, and, as titanium dioxide–tinged sweat rained into my pupils, I realized that I should probably just go unmoisturized next time. (A fierce debate is currently raging in the Bikram community over whether or not hand towels should be permitted during class, and if so how large, and whether or not it undermines the practice, and how much sweat is good sweat and how much is just gross and what it says about your approach to yoga ‘n’ life if you think it’s just gross. I continue to enter the studio, without a hand towel: I’m Catholic. We wage cruel war over altar flag placement. These are my people.)
Meanwhile, there’s nowhere to go with my hair, which, when left to its own devices, hangs to my bra strap. Since the poses demand resting the head on the back, with the crown to the floor, or pressed against either ear, the best hairstyle in a Bikram class is baldness.
In the beginning I reported for class in an elegant, sweeping dancer bun. And my hair was a gigantic lie. It created the impression that I am a graceful person, which, as I proved each day as escaping wet strands flopped in my face while I attempted to wrench my toes above my shoulder, I am not. I’ve settled on two braids crammed into tightly wound clumps just above my temples; I leave the studio strongly resembling a wringing wet and defeated Charmin Bear, but at least my hair is honest.
Sometimes the class seems designed to burrow into each insecurity, such my learning disability, which affects spatial relationships: “Everybody place one foot parallel to the mirror and the other at a 45 degree angle… Look at this, I must have a class of geometry students! Except for Mary Beth. Move your foot, Mary Beth.”
I moved my foot, and did not dissolve into a heap of low self-esteem.
Throughout the first days, as my mat began to mildew and my car began to smell like my mat, I was unable to decipher the Sanskrit names of each pose, so I assigned my own: There’s the Gotta Pee, a twisting posture demanding the twining of one leg behind the other while squatting; the Double Travolta, which involves clasping both hands above the head, index fingers pointing skyward; and my personal favorite, the No F-ing Way, in which we are asked to place one foot high on the opposite thigh, sink to the ground, and hover there, no hands.
I found my own ways to hit back against the heat and the humidity and the pain, until I realized that maybe my biggest stumbling block was that I was hitting back in the first place. Oh, just suck, Mary Beth, just let yourself suck, and not Be OK.