Wiping the sweat from my brow, I bend forward, fingers interlocked, and kick my right leg back. I'm ostensibly trying to form a "T" but I've managed only a cursive "J." This is not going well.
"With both heels in a straight line, step 3 feet to the right. Point your right foot to the far wall, rotating your left foot 45 degrees," says my instructor, a short, wiry man who announces each new posture with a brief tutorial during our two seconds of rest. "Your hips should be in a straight line facing the wall. Now, tuck your chin into your chest, exhale and roll forward until your forehead is on your knee."
This is not going well.
Sweat slides down my upper lip and up my nose. The heat is really beginning to take effect. I cast off my white polo shirt. My hirsute beer belly stands out amid the toned, spandex-clad class. Looking up during a seated forward bend, I see the instructor place a white towel on the back of a woman whose back is nearly perpendicular to the ground. He steps with both feet onto her back.
"Remember to smile as you stretch," he says, affecting a more soothing tone. "You want that positive energy."
I am in bed by 7:30 pm on my first day of Bikram yoga. I have 29 more to go.
Among the dozens of styles of yoga, Bikram is unique in its regimented and punishing nature: Every session is 90 minutes and consists of striking the same 26 postures in 105-degree heat. It has ardent fans. As the style's founder, Bikram Choudhury, told
: It's the only correct way to practice yoga; everything else is "shit."
I am used to the heat, at least. The last time I practiced yoga was on the playa at Burning Man. My campmates and I gathered every morning to "flush out the toxins." That was six years ago. I am far heavier in toxins now, and have a gimpy back.
But I've listened to Facebook friends wax poetic about Bikram, and it happens that there's a studio just 15 minutes from my house with a month of unlimited classes for $29. I'm not especially put off by the fact that Choudhury is a Rolls Royce-driving, Rolex-wearing celebrity yogi, though it is disconcerting that he's currently facing rape allegations from former students. He's worked with Charles Barkley, Kobe Bryant and Airplane! star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His belief in the healing power of Bikram-brand yoga is so strong that he has sued several "hot yoga" competitors for copyright infringement. (Only the Bikram name is protected now.)
I'm not going with any of the imposters, though. I'm going straight to the wellspring of enlightenment, which is housed in a strip mall along Southwest Hall Boulevard in Beaverton.
By my third morning of Bikram, I find the heat less oppressive. I can stretch deeper into the postures. My breathing has improved from labored to slightly less labored.
Today's instructor, Kay, walks about the room in a black tank top and matching yoga pants. She leads us with a combination of verbal commands and demonstrations.
"Use that English bulldog determination and Bengal tiger strength!"
This is one especially memorable Bikramism.
Standing with my left leg straight, I grab the inside of my right foot with my left hand and press it against my right hip. I bring my right hand up to the middle of my chest in a prayer position. We bend forward until our hands touch the floors, then sit back until our hips are about an inch above our heels. This is called a toe stand. I can't get into it. I try in vain to touch the floor with my fingertips, but I'm a half-foot off. I look around to find there's one other middle-aged man who shares my pain.
If you think of yoga as peaceful, you are not thinking of Bikram. At least not during my sixth class, led by an energetic bald man in bicycle shorts named Ahmad.
"Maybe you want to laugh. Maybe you want to cry. Maybe you want to cuss out your instructor. Maybe you want to vomit. Whatever it is: Honor it. Own your work today," Ahmad says as he stands on a student's knees. "But give me a heads-up if you want to vomit so I can get a mop and bucket."
On my stomach, I reach my arms behind me and raise my legs. Lifting my torso off the lime-green yoga mat, sweat pools beneath me. The pressure on my gut forces an audible burp.
"Push and push and push and push," Ahmad says. "Change."
Even if the poses stay the same, each instructor has a distinct style. My 16th class is taught by a man named Jaya, a Bob Ross-type with an imperial mustache. He is nothing like Ahmad.
"Relax into this position, deeper and deeper," Jaya says. "It's like getting in your car and driving home. You don't really think about where you're going. You simply know."
We are flat on our backs, with our heels together and our palms facing toward the ceiling. It's a ceiling that has become very familiar by now: the wire zigzagging unevenly between the blue-stained wooden beams; the never-used speakers; the photo of Bikram's eponymous founder in a spinal twist.
I haven't lost any weight during my three weeks of Bikram. It has simply shifted around, becoming muscle. My man boobs have begun to resemble pecs. Veins now visibly crisscross my calves. But I'm even happier for the fleeting euphoric feeling that comes with seeing my frustrations wrung out like water from a wet towel.
For the first time, with Jaya's encouragement, I manage to do a toe stand.
The "Porpoise Song" by the Monkees plays as I start my green Subaru and pull out of the parking lot. The elderly motorist in front of me is driving maddeningly slow, swinging wide on every turn. The irritations of the real world are back. But then I remember the thrill of sinking into that toe stand, and my mouth curls into a little smirk.
That, I think, is the positive energy they're talking about.