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Authors: Benjamin Lorr

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BOOK: Hell-Bent
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Probably not unexpectedly, I allowed laziness to make the decision for me. Using Google Maps, I simply made a list of all the exercise studios within fifteen minutes of my house and planned on sampling each of them until I found the proper fit.

The second place on that list—after my brief foray into eye-gouging kung fu—was Bikram Yoga Brooklyn Heights.

I found myself standing in a hot room amid lots of flesh and lots of mirrors.

The men around me were either half-naked (topless with shorts) or upsettingly close to naked (a strap of spandex) while the women, more demure, tended toward sports bras and leggings. I was wearing a baggy oversized blue T-shirt—even though I was warned it was going to be hot—mostly because I wasn’t ready to bare my fiercely conical man-breasts to the world. I’m not typically self-conscious, but being around all this radiant flesh reduced my faux-belly-pride to rubble.

Following orders, I stood on my mat and clasped my hands underneath my chin. The thermostat on the wall read 108 degrees.

This was ten thirty on a Saturday morning, and both my brain and mouth felt a little fuzzy from drinking the night before. I had arrived almost a half hour early, one of those measures a hungover man takes to ensure he comes at all. This was my first time inside any yoga studio, but it hit all the clichés I had assembled: rows of shoes by the door, burning sticks of incense in the locker room, scattered chalices and figurines, nothing but the softest colors on the walls.

The studio itself was small, little more than a glorified hallway. When I walked in, a group of chirping skinny women were lounging around the
reception area, sipping from stainless steel water bottles. Everyone looked like they had been awake and functional for hours.

In the center of this group, I approached the gorgeous little midget of a woman who was going to be my instructor. She stood just below my breastbone in a colorful unitard, signing students in and handing out rental mats. Nothing in my description so far makes her sound attractive, so I will reiterate: This was a gorgeous little midget of a woman. I don’t believe in auras, parapsychology, or even the efficacy of most teeth whiteners, but I do believe this woman seemed to shine.

Our eyes met. She smiled. Then she handed me a waiver of liability to sign. “You’ll want a water too. Unless you brought one?”

I stared blankly. I hadn’t said a word yet.

“And towels. You’ll need at least two towels.”

“Just tell me what to do, I’m new.”

“Of course.” And she laughed.

At this point, gorgeous omniscient yogis were new to me. But if there was Bikram-brand Kool-Aid, I was ready to gulp. More immediately, if there were towels and water bottles to be bought, I was ready to pay. With a credit card swipe, I scampered off to the locker room, excited to learn the secrets this women had clearly mastered.

Ten minutes later, standing in front of the mirror, hands clasped underneath my chin, I eyed myself more suspiciously. Where was I exactly?

I was already sweating and class hadn’t begun.

Standing next to me, there was a rail-thin dude in a Speedo smiling manically at himself in the mirror.

And thinking back, signing a medical waiver didn’t really jibe with the incense.

Then the beautiful midget opened her mouth and began to speak.

In general, I don’t remember much about the first class. I remember at one point thinking, This is tough but by no means impossible. I also remember thinking a little later, Please please please let this end. All I want to do is leave.

I remember finding it hard not to stare at the woman in front of me.

I remember wanting to make her disappear.

I remember lying on my back feeling like a plump roasting turkey.

I remember bright spots of pain as I stretched things that hadn’t been stretched in a very long time.

Lastly and very specifically, I remember the force of my blood.

At first, this was more of a curiosity, a refrain in the running monologue going through my head during the class. A certain posture might cause me to lower my head below my waist, and I would feel gravity pull the blood into my face and forehead. The internal monologue would in turn note that this was a novel sensation. But as the class went further, with the poses piling on top of one another and the heat collapsing around me, something fundamental changed. My focus shrank. All that remained was a terrifying awareness of my blood flow. At this point, my heart rate had gone way up and my frame of vision shuddered with each beat. Then suddenly, as a class, we were told to rest. Lying on my stomach, staring at nothing, I could hear the blood gulping through my heart as I recovered; it made an almost squeaky noise as the valves struggled to keep up.

Then the postures continued.

When it was over, I looked up at the mirror in the locker room. The person looking back had clearly just been swimming in his clothes. I was a bit dizzy, so I sat down on a bench for a long while. I didn’t feel like I was shining. I felt vaguely wrung out. I was also thirsty. When I started drinking from my water bottle, it locked to my lips like a magnet. I finished the whole thing and refilled it and finished that.

The rest of the locker room was moving at double speed. An old man was singing Sinatra. The rail-thin guy was back at the mirror, shaving. The entire place was flush with the swampy humidity of a steam room, the floor covered with drippings. Pulling dry clothes over wet ones, I hobbled out.

At the door, the beautiful midget instructor stopped me: “You did really well. You must not lead a very toxic lifestyle.”

I think I smiled and nodded. So much for all that yogic wisdom I had been attributing to her. Then I stumbled home.

Without changing out of either set of sweaty clothes, I fell asleep on my couch.

I woke up almost ten hours later in the middle of the night. I knew I had to go back to that studio as soon as possible. I felt brand new.

My life had changed.

For the first three months, I thought I had discovered magic. I slept less but felt more energized. I ate constantly but couldn’t stop losing weight. My skin glowed. My brain glowed. Muscles started appearing in places I didn’t know muscles existed. (Muscles on the ribs? Muscles on the muscles on the thigh?) One day, my pants started fitting again; the next week, I needed to buy a belt to keep them from slipping off. The changes were radical and positive and continuous.

In all, I lost forty-five pounds in those three months, went from being unable to touch my feet at all (my fingers just stretched pathetically about my ankles) to being able to place my palms flat on the floor. I moved from being able to do zero pull-ups to being able to do sets of ten at a time. I realize none of this is strongman-type stuff, but for a nonathlete it felt miraculous. My body had awakened.

This is not to say the changes came easily. If the yoga was magic, it was the snarky kind, the type that comes with an unexpected trade-off from a maybe-whimsical, maybe-cruel sorcerer. Each class itself was grueling. Stupidly painful, stupidly boiling. However much my brain glowed, my body ached more. At one point, my hamstrings turned black and blue from being overstretched. When I walked down a flight of stairs, I threw myself on the banister for support. At work, I would sneak off to a quiet hallway and do back stretches on the floor to relieve the enormous cramps that built up during the day.

One time a coworker, no doubt herself sneaking off for something, found me stretching. “Uh, you all right down there?”

“Yeah, just threw out my back doing yoga.”

“Doing yoga?”

“Yeah. Weird yoga,” I said, lying on my back in our hallway with my knees tucked to my chest.

“Maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.”

But when I asked my favorite instructor about it, she just smiled. One of
those damned yogic smiles: “It’s just your body opening up. Be patient. That pain is almost like a rite of passage. Almost every serious yogi goes through it.”

And what I heard: Me? A serious yogi?! And what I saw: New muscles flexing back in the mirror.

So I continued.

I settled into this comfortable dichotomy—a practice that was simultaneously refreshing and crippling me—for another year. Pain would come (say in the shoulder), life would change (no elbows above my ears for a few weeks), my body would “open” and eventually the pain would disappear. Then a new pain would awake, perhaps this time in the soles of my feet, and the process would continue.

Each sequence of pain taught me something new about my body. When our bodies are completely pain free, it’s difficult to learn from them. We spring down the steps, letting the muscles and ligaments take care of themselves. Our focus is elsewhere. Pain pulled my inner workings to the forefront. All of a sudden, I could feel the bands of muscle working together or opposing. I could find my edge and learn the consequences of going over it.

The structure of the yoga nurtured these observations. Bikram classes are remarkably static. The same twenty-six posture sequence every time: the same heat, the same humidity, the same drumming instructions coming from the teacher’s mouth. Ideally, the studio becomes almost an abstract space, a condition-controlled chamber where you face an identical experience every time you enter. Bending within this repetition feels like a cross between a full-body version of a pianist practicing the scales and an inverted assembly line: you stand still while a procession of postures works on your body and then you do it again and again and again.

It turns out that a body and mind that feel reliably similar day-to-day will react wildly different to the same conditions. Even after months of practice, expectations of performance were not just counterproductive but impossible. I’d walk in eager and strong only to be leveled: dropped like a boxer to one knee after only four postures. The very next day, I’d limp to the studio promising to take it easy and leave elated. My body was dynamic
and mysterious. It exceeded anything I thought possible and still managed to abandon me with no notice or rationale. To accept these rhythms—to release from expectations—was to develop compassion: first for the over-weight newbie sucking wind next to me, much later for myself.

Beyond this general awakening, however, two important things happened to me during this year. The first is that I met Sarah Baughn.

Back then, Sarah Baughn was a beautiful twenty-one-year-old yoga champion: an all-American yoga queen, part pep squad, part earnest whole-grain intensity, to the point that I immediately had trouble taking her seriously. She was touring the country, giving posture demonstrations to benefit people with chronic disease. And at some point during her tour, she stopped by Bikram Yoga Brooklyn Heights.

Watching her bend, I began to understand one small idea in the yoga universe. Her demonstration began directly after class, the entire studio still crouched over our mats, catching our collective breath, dripping. Most of the postures she chose to perform were from the advanced series, extreme extensions of the regular postures I had been learning. These were backbends so deep her spine looked like it was going to snap; alien forms, part grotesque, part Cirque du Soleil. I had never seen anything like it and I was amazed. Seeing a person with their chest on the floor and their heels on the top of their head challenges your notions of the species. But the more I watched, the more I realized it wasn’t the extremity of the postures that was affecting me.

Sarah might do something as simple as sit on her mat, lean forward, and touch her toes—a hammy stretch from soccer practice—but somehow make it totally consuming. She had a concentration that expanded into her entire body. In many ways, it felt like I was watching a waterfall: the same roaring power, the same glassy beauty, with my brain achieving the same hum in its presence. It wasn’t difficulty or aesthetics. Most of her postures were the stuff B-list ice skaters would scorn on those terms. It was as if I were watching Sarah perfect herself. Or I was watching a more perfect Sarah. As she poured herself from posture to posture, this woman, standing on a towel on a mat in a slightly stinky room, took on a dimension I had previously associated only with natural phenomena, the stuff of Sierra Club calendars:
rock walls and ice chasms, somehow distilled into the body of a twenty-one-year-old.

After watching Sarah Baughn, I knew that I needed to do more with this yoga than just define my abs. I felt a call. I desperately wanted to do what she just did.

And so a few classes later, I nervously asked my favorite instructor, “What should I do to take my yoga to the next level?”

Again she answered without hesitation: “Enter the tournament. Don’t be afraid. I’ve been watching you.”

Nothing about that answer was expected. The tournament? A competition? Watching me? If I thought about it, of course I knew you couldn’t have a yoga
champion
like Sarah Baughn without some
championship
event to coronate her. But at the same time, competitions didn’t jibe with my understanding of yoga at all.

Still, I had to learn more. I knew there was no way I could win a competition. I wasn’t flexible like Sarah Baughn. But then, embodying a rock wall wasn’t about winning. Was it?

The second thing that happened that year was my beloved ultra-devoted, ultra-tanned, ultra-Bikram instructor had a stroke.

In all things yoga, Hector was my mentor. Handsome, gracious, modest, muscular, it seemed like he occupied the very pinnacle of health. In many ways, he also represented the very pinnacle of what a Bikram practitioner could be. Hector owned two successful studios, practiced the yoga six days a week, and quoted Bikram liberally in conversation.

To Hector, Bikram was “my guru.”

To Hector, who began practicing after an unsatisfactory knee surgery and had used the yoga to heal what his doctors had not, there were no excuses for doing the postures half-assed or incorrectly.

To me, Hector was everything I hoped to get out of the yoga.

Whenever possible, I’d alter my schedule to attend Hector’s classes. This was not as easy as it might seem, because the studio had a policy of not revealing when Hector was teaching to prevent overcrowding. In Bikram, all classes are supposed to be identical, and having popular teachers undermines
this effect. So I was feeling pretty lucky to find Hector behind the desk checking students in as I bounded into class on this particular day.

BOOK: Hell-Bent
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