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I don’t think it’d make my old man proud, exactly, to know I signed up for my girlfriend’s hot yoga classes.
In my mind, Bikram yoga—as it’s known among the earthy-crunchy and the flexible—fell right alongside the “alternative wellness” treatments advertised in the back pages of San Francisco’s alt-weeklies. In my mind, it was a step above “ear candling” or “hydrocolon therapy,” at best.
My girlfriend had tried Bikram yoga before, though, and thought it was fun, if too expensive to make into a habit—until last winter, that is, when she scored a top-notch Groupon for a studio in our neighborhood. “Do you want to go?” she asked me one Saturday morning before class. “We keep talking about it.” And before I realized what I’d done, there was the confirmation email in my inbox.
Confession: I had never done yoga. I had never even taken a fitness class before. So my chronic buyer’s remorse kicked in immediately, and I was slowly pulling on my best athletic wear when she came in the room and said, “You’re wearing that?”
She said she thought I’d be too hot. But I thought that was the point? Yes, she said, but people usually wore…less.
And that sparked a tiny panic. While I’m in decent shape now, and I avoid my dad’s tendency to down a family-size bag of Funyuns in a sitting, her words sent me swirling into one of my oldest and deepest anxieties, because, well, I was a fat kid. And the unfortunate truth about growing up “husky” is that, even if you lose the pounds, the shame can take years more to shed.
So as we walked to the studio, with all of this playing at a low volume in my head, I peppered my girlfriend with questions: What if I can’t do the poses? What if I pass out from the heat? What if I FART?
The building was the only thing open on the block when we arrived. The inside was painted an unsettling orange.
I approached the counter, and stammered out: “Hello, I’m, uh, here…I have a Groupon?” The petite red-head standing there answered in a thick Scottish accent: “This your first time then?”
Yeah, I mumbled, never been here before, afraid she’d out me as a yoga newb with a cheery “Namaste.” (This was a thing I’d read about on the Internet, how Californians greet each other, and I was sure it’d mark me as an outsider. I had no idea how to pronounce it.)
Instead she handed me a photocopy of something vaguely legal, which with my signature assured I wouldn’t sue in the event of catastrophic yoga injury. What that could mean, I don’t know. Death was mentioned as a possibility. I signed anyway, because, hey, the Groupon was nonrefundable.
Stepping into the studio, I discovered that it was lined with mirrors. (Was that why the lights weren’t on?) My girlfriend and I moved past meditating figures to the back of the room, where we unfurled our mats and laid down. The heat soon relaxed me, and I began sinking into the floor, my eyes heavy from only half a night’s sleep, the hiss of the steam valves a whisper overhead.
Dozens of fluorescents snapped on and left me blinking like a possum in headlights.
“Good morning,” said a voice in the ceiling, like the voice of God, if God were a trim, young Asian woman. She stepped onto a pedestal, a wireless microphone wrapped around her head, but she didn’t look at us. She looked over us, out the windows in the back wall. I wondered where I was supposed to look. Straight ahead? I stared back at myself from the mirror: Am I really that round? Why do my arms look so weird?
Instead, I glanced around. There were one or two guys with washboard abs, one about my age, one who could be retired. All around them were women, many with waists the size of my thighs. Most wore bands of Spandex that covered only what was absolutely necessary. It was a veritable temple of toned, tan flesh, a house of worship to the gods of sweat and the peculiar sacrifices they demand, and I prayed that they’d forgive me, the hefty, hungover sinner that I was.
We began something called “the sequence.” First, breathing. Then bending sideways. Then bending forward. We twisted ourselves, balanced on one foot, squatted in ways I couldn’t quite manage, even if I was close. The teacher’s voice was gentle, the temperature obscene, and I bent farther, pushing. I couldn’t do all the poses, but surprising myself, I could do many.
Later in the class, I looked around again, and it appeared that everyone was kicking my ass, my girlfriend included. But then I saw the middle-aged guy off to the side, a good deal bigger than me. He sat out many poses, his round belly glistening, but he looked content. The girl on the mat in front of me, the one with the hairy feet, struggled through the moves where we balanced on one leg. At the front was a guy with muscle definition normally seen only in marble; he couldn’t touch his toes. Everyone was sweaty and huffing.
At the end, the teacher told us to “get into your Shavasana,” the pose where you rest on your back. I nailed it. She turned off the lights, and said to release our thoughts. I settled into a pleasant sort of exhaustion, no longer sure why I was so worked up about the class, or myself.
Later on, I’d remember seeing pictures of my dad when he was young. He was a fat kid, too—so heavy that other boys said he looked like a moose, which became his nickname. I wondered how that felt—if, maybe, in his jabs that I needed to run more, he was hiding his own lingering fears. Maybe he’d just hoped I’d be healthier than him.
There on my mat, I let some of that worry go. I closed my eyes and could almost feel him run his hand through my hair, like I was still a kid. “Sorry,” he whispered, and I said, “That’s ok,” and then I realized it wasn’t a hand but a foot, a hairy foot, and the girl on the mat in front of me was apologizing again before she scampered out the door, and I sat up dazed, and my girlfriend did, too, and we tiptoed out of the studio together to find our things and go home.