Muscle Memories of Bikram Yoga

We are in Pune for the weekend. I discover the studio at lunchtime as we stop for burgers. I excuse myself from the rest of my family and race up the escalators in a shopping centre that probably holds the world record for least amount of actual retail outlets per space occupied. As I clamber up I dial my father’s cell phone and immediately change my order from vegetarian to chicken. If there’s one thing I remember about Bikram yoga, it’s that I do it better with some meat in my belly.

I haven’t done Bikram yoga since moving to Delhi last November. There is no studio there, though one may open next year. I have an amazing yoga teacher who comes to my house, but she is popular, and so I have her for only 65 minutes a week. Although I do try and keep up some small semblance of practice during the week, it’s not the same without the discipline and someone watching for where you’ll (because you really can’t help yourself) cut corners.

As I place down my mat at the far side of the room, I chuckle a little. There are two or three mats on my side, and about 20 squished into the other half. Bikram yogis never change no matter which country we’re in. I fondly remember the “window” side of the Bikram Yoga Centre in Toronto which got infinitely more air than the other side. The room is humid but not unbearably hot, and I figure after seven months of no practice I need all the help (heat) I can get.

The instructor is literally the Paul Askew of Pune (though I find out later she’s from the US). She pushes, grills, and monitors the time like a hawk. Every 60 second posture is held to the nanosecond. She polices any slackers (yet somehow manages this affectionately). Of course she doesn’t tease or make fun of us, when we’ve maybe stayed out too late the night before a 6:30 am class, or have forgotten to wear our contact lenses or topple over in a particularly theatrical way, but she is definitely kicking our butts.

The standing series gets more and more painful with each posture. My limbs are stiff, and apparently seven months is all it takes for all my stamina to leave me. I’ve never been good at the standing on one leg business on my best days but today is especially bad. To my credit, this COULD have something to do with getting over the third case of the stomach flu I’ve had in the last six months, but this is not the space or time for Delhi digestive drama.

Standing Head to Knee is particularly torturous. I start questioning the romantic notions I harboured before class. Thoughts ricochet around my brain like tiny sweat-soaked bullets. Why did I come here? Do I really love this? Have we grown apart? I hate this. I’m never doing this again. Standing Bow is not much better, and by then my legs beg me for respite. When the instructor asks us to form a perfect T for Balancing Stick posture, I’m pretty sure my T looks like one who’s had a little TOO much fun at the company Christmas party and needs to call it a night. Much like the corporate lush I don’t care and soldier on anyway.

There are some postures that I absolutely live for in yoga. A good Half-Moon, Floor Bow, Toe-Stand or even Camel and I’m over the moon (no pun intended). I will never feel this way about Triangle pose. We’ll leave it at that.

During Savasana I start mentally calculating how long it’s been since my last Bikram class. I mentally shush myself, this is not the time for statistics. I’ve never really been good at math or keeping a blank mind so it was a lose-lose situation in any case. However, now with some rest, I start to enjoy myself again and find myself feeling sentimental.

I remember my old teachers. Dawn: strict on form but permissive on air. Richard: stern taskmaster about all things within the hot room. Andrea: militant but with love. The other Paul made us giggle at awkward moments (usually involving balancing). Sarah & David: tough, but affectionate. And Tara just kicked our butts. There were so many others, but these are the ones that come to mind today. I remember my studios (BYC and East York), and I miss them terribly again.

A memory floats back to me during what I’m going to call “airplane” pose. Yes I could google it, but it is much more fun this way. We were being encouraged to imagine we were flying to Hawaii (there is nothing about this pose that feels remotely like a tropical paradise) and the subsequent reprimands for “crash landings.” I try to imagine flying beach-ward briefly, but even seven months later it is a lost cause.

I have always had a love/hate relationship with camel. I love it because I love all things backbending, but there is always that moment of anticipation where I’m not sure I will be able to do it. Where I think that I will feel nauseous and dizzy and uncomfortable and suffocated. But sure enough, as soon as I’m in it half upside down and I realize I can actually breathe I am ecstatic. Today is no different. I find myself comfortable, strong and happy again.

As I lie in final savasana I realize how well my body remembers this practice. It remembers being more calm, less angry. It remembers me overcoming body-image issues by switching my focus from thinness to health. It remembers the good clean food it craved and the numerous post-yoga smoothies. It remembers it all. I feel better today than I have in a long long time. And there’s nothing else to do but go again tomorrow.

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