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Spring break, for me, means the ballet studios are closed and I have to find some other way to contort myself. Thanks to the suggestion of a friend, I found one in Los Alamos’ newest, hottest thing: Bikram yoga.
I went in kind of cocky. I can touch my toes easily. I can do the splits. But Bikram’s Yoga College of India – Los Alamos, the new studio located in the old Ed’s Market, offers something I’d never done: yoga in a humid, 105-degree setting.
The temperature makes the news more often than owner Melissa Theesfeld wishes.
“No one has passed out yet, and you won’t be the first,” she told me before class. “It’s not that hot.”
But it is. It slows you down. It turns your muscles into water. Although none of the other first-timers in class appeared to have this problem, there were several minutes during my first class where I literally couldn’t stand. I sat with my knees to the side, thinking, “Don’t pass out. Don’t pass out. Don’t be the first.”
The standing postures overlapped many I’ve done in vinyasa yoga classes – balancing stick, tree pose, triangle pose – except that I couldn’t really pull in my stomach or reach toward the wall as instructed. It wasn’t that the poses hurt or that I was out of breath. I simply couldn’t get my body to respond. I was too hot.
My mind would say, “Bend, knee.” And my knee would just cry.
“Kick,” Theesfeld said at one point, as I clutched one sweat-slippery hand over an equally wet foot behind me, ostensibly trying to push my leg over my head.
“Kick, kick, kick,” she persisted.
I managed to keep my leg in the air, even though that meant staying balanced on the other leg, which required using my quickly melting muscles. Actual kicking was too much to ask. If not for Theesfeld’s unrelenting, drill-sergeant voice, commanding my body to do the unfathomable – to move – I would have slunk into swampy oblivion.
The savasana pose saved me.
During the sitting and lying-down poses, Theesfeld let us do savasana, which entails lying on your back, between every posture; however, rolling over to get to savasana taxed me. Leaning backward to stretch my spine poured my stomach, or at least its flavors, into my face.
At the end of class, I did not feel any magical effects. I felt wonderfully cold in the hallway, but by the time I reached the changing room, I was shivery. I stayed that way the rest of the evening, swaddled in sweatpants, socks, sweaters and blankets as I cut up sausages for dinner.
I did not pass out. I did not even have to sit down in abject wooziness. I felt successful, as if I had made remarkable progress already. I also felt more able to concentrate on the details of the movements – locking my knee, arching my back and turning my hips “five times beyond my flexibility,” as Theesfeld commands.
I tried to stay conscious of my breathing. Was I breathing through my nose? Was I breathing too quickly? This, I think, in addition to drinking more water throughout the day, helped stave off the vertigo. It also kept me from thinking about how hot I was.
But the previous day’s class continued to hurt me. During the brilliantly named “awkward pose,” I thought my thighs would split open like dry wood.
And once I returned to the 50-something-degree world, the elation of not passing out quickly faded. I ate fast and greedily, like a dog, and then slept.
Before class, I had noticed an uncomfortable and nearly constant twinge under my right shoulder blade near my armpit. No stretching could touch it. Because of this and other fresh pains, class seemed a little harder today.
The struggle might also have been exacerbated by my trying to show off for the camera, since I knew Monitor photographer Gary Warren was standing nearby with his lens focused on me. I bent a little farther than I reasonably could, and pulled my stomach so tight my ribs almost burst free of their sweaty sheath.
But on the bright side, I think I got more out of the movements. I liked that sense of control I was gaining over what each part of my body was doing. When I’m dancing I try to always know what my hands are doing, whether my ribs are pulled in and that my arm movements are coordinated with my legs. If one part of me looks weird, what I’m doing doesn’t look like dancing.
In yoga, it’s not so much about aesthetics – a useless pursuit anyhow with wet salt trickling furiously into our eyes, down our backs and even around our ankles. But clearly we get more benefit from the postures when we do them correctly.
After class, I crashed mid-penne-noodles. I could barely rise from the chair.
I felt sick throughout the whole class, and I had to sit out during one of the postures. I managed to stand up for the second set (we do two sets of almost every exercise) and get through the remainder of the class, but every stretch tasted like bile.
When class ended, however, I felt fantastic. Maybe I was just relieved to uncoil my limbs, but the rest of the evening passed very cheerily, and I had lots of energy. I ate but wasn’t starving. I slept well and had great dreams.
Days Five and Six
I skipped yoga. After the past four days, I needed a rest.
Of my five classes, I liked this one best. I worked very hard and nothing was really any easier – but I had become a believer.
Here’s what happened: This morning, with spring break finally over, I attended a ballet class. Going back to ballet after a week off always tortures me. It’s like starting all over again. At the barre, when I should be smooth and self-contained as a blueberry, I’m like Rice Crispies, crackling and popping out of the bowl. When we do our center combinations, where we have no barre to hold onto, I panic and throw myself at the floor. But today, none of that happened.
My pirouettes might have suffered from the week off, but they suffer from an hour off. I do not spin well. But in general, I felt as though I had just danced the day before. I was able to concentrate on each combination without drifting off like I sometimes do, especially after a ballet lapse. And at the barre, I felt surprisingly supple.
Now, I have taken other yoga classes. I have stretched on my own. I have gotten massages and been rolfed. Never before has any of this noticeably increased my flexibility. Sometimes, after a visit to the chiropractor my back won’t hurt during ballet class, but I still can’t bend it any farther than usual.
However, today, during the first back-bending exercise, I leaned back as much as I normally can, and then, because my back felt like Play-Doh, I kept going. I saw parts of the room behind me that I’d never seen upside-down, and I remembered all those awful spine-bending exercises in Bikram yoga, and how I could see a little bit more of the back wall every class.
As if this weren’t enough to hook me, I was able to face directly forward with my leg out behind me. This might not sound like much of anything, but to a dancer, it matters. We love to throw our legs out behind ourselves. And it’s a nice perk if it doesn’t hurt to put oneself in the right position.
Again, I thought back to the Bikram classes and all the miserable hip-opening exercises I’d done over the past week. I thought they might have been worth it.
I started dancing relatively late in life, at 25 (I’m 30 now), and want to dance as long as I can. I see now, after only a week, how regular practice of Bikram could help me dance longer. And I can imagine how other athletes –or even people who just like having full mobility – would benefit from these warm, sticky, demanding, rewarding postures.
One of the friends who tried Bikram yoga with me said it made her feel “slim and lithe.” Another had foot pain. My fianc, after four classes, was able to do one of the postures he couldn’t do during the first three.
The man who suggested I try Bikram in the first place has taken class every day for one month, and he has noticed dramatic improvements not only in his ability to do the postures, but in his skin.
Ultimately, I think it’s not really about what you do in class, but what you do outside of class. You might not love the 90 minutes you spend with Theesfeld, – although she’s quite charming – but it’s the other 1,350 minutes each day you want to enjoy.
The week following my yoga adventure, I followed up a hot yoga session with a modern jazz class. As my jazz teacher has since told me: Don’t do this.
Within a few days after, my shoulder (remember the twinge I mentioned earlier in this article?) had begun to seriously hurt, to the point where I could barely move my right arm.
Now, my injury is healing, I can dance again and I’ve even gone back to take a Bikram yoga class. Reading back over my Yoga Diary with my shoulder in mind, I feel I still managed to miss the point: Unlike ballet, yoga is not a performance art. You don’t need to have the highest leg or the archiest back. It doesn’t matter how well anyone else in the room does the postures. It’s just you and your anatomy, trying to get along.