Everyone talks about the heat, but no one ever mentions the sweat.
As I was sitting in the waiting room of the Bikram Yoga studio in New Haven, admiring the large world map on their wall, my yogamates tried to prep me. (It was, after all, my first encounter with Bikram.) The intensive 90-minute yoga session with an internationally standardized routine would “test the limits of my endurance,” several young women told me as they stretched out their legs.
It was the heat (ideally 105 degrees Fahrenheit) that would get to me, they said; a burning pain in my body that will be ideal for my muscles, but difficult for my psyche.
“It won’t feel like very much fun,” Amy, the instructor, told me, “but just try and smile.”
I kept that in mind as I entered the studio and felt the thick aroma of Bikram Yoga assault my senses. I plucked at my white t-shirt as it began to stick to my moistening skin, and tried to figure out what I was smelling.
The best way to describe it is an old sauna. It is a thick, almost woody scent, compounded with years worth of sweat. Robin Brace, the studio’s owner, later said all Bikram studios smell the same and that she has come to associate this scent with feeling good.
Maybe it’s an acquired taste.
The session began, as they all do, with a breathing exercise. I had trouble getting my lungs to coordinate with my arm movements, but I didn’t find this part particularly challenging.
I was surprised by how little the heat actually bothered me. The air was thick, but the heat was no worse than a Calcutta summer.
Once we began the poses, I began to comprehend why many of my roughly 20 classmates had warned me that I might have to sit down or even lie down at some point to rest.
Each arm movement, each turn of my back felt more laborious than the next. Brace said the heat warms my muscles for increased health benefit, but it definitely also made everything harder. Right when I was about to give up and take a seat like a few of my classmates had, I hit a second wind. Yeah, my body had hit the pain threshold. But I found myself able to keep going.
Brace said this is a common experience during the first few times doing Bikram yoga, a style of teaching that asks people to go beyond their comfort level, she said.
In fact, this method does not leave room for any of what I had come to think of as the hippy parts of yoga: the incense, the chanting and the pseudo-Hindu prayers.
Brace explained that when Bikram Choudhury developed his method in the early 70’s, he recognized that “you’re going to get your self-realization whether you want it or not.”
The remainder of the 90 minutes wasn’t so bad after I got past being tired. None of the poses were so demanding as to feel dangerous or unnecessary, but I definitely felt challenged throughout.
I even completely forgot that I was in a heated room. But while this annoyance disappeared, another quickly took its place: the humidity and temperature combined to create a perfect environment for sweating. It all made sense now.
I must have literally lost all of my water weight during the 90 minutes (so bring something to drink if attempting Bikram for the first time). I felt as if I had just left a pool; every time I moved my head streams of sweat poured into my eyes, and every time I lay on my stomach for an extended period of time I could feel a puddle forming in the small of my back.
But sweating complaints aside, I really did enjoy the Bikram experience tremendously. I left feeling more refreshed and healthy than I have since freshman year, and I wasn’t really all that sore the next day.
Bikram has a reputation as being very intense, but I’m not exactly the most athletic guy and I had no problems surviving. There were even several older men in my class who were doing quite well.
Bikram Yoga also has a bowl of lifesavers in the lobby.