The Real Dante's Inferno

My neighbor, Suzanne, is a yogini and teaches Bikram yoga at the studio on the end of my block on Danté Street and has asked Brenda and me numerous times to join the group. My concern regarded stories I’d heard of injuries. I had quit jogging for nearly a decade because of one little twisted foot during a midnight Halloween run. I don’t do injuries well; low threshold for pain.

But Suzanne confided that injuries normally are caused by people trying to do too much. She admitted that beginners can’t do everything, and shouldn’t try. That wouldn’t be a problem with me; if I feel the slightest twinge of discomfort, I’m done. I agreed to go with Suzanne the other day, primarily because, although she’s a certified Bikram yoga instructor who once had her own school, she also had not done it for nearly 2 months because of travel and family commitments. So I figured it was almost like she was starting all over again.

I had my mat and a bottle of water, met Suzanne on the sidewalk, and we walked another block to the studio. Once inside the front door she took my mat so I could speak with Bruno, the French instructor, sitting at the front desk. He explained the deal: “$29 for 30 days, or $18 for a walk-in.” I confidently told him that I’d just pay for the month. That’s when he offered the sage advice, “Why don you juice take de class firsh den decide after dat?” Excellent idea.

When I walked in the room Suzanne whispered, “Leave your shoes outside.” Then I noticed that everyone inside the room was barefoot, and that all the shoes were out in the hall. Why do I always notice things like this after the fact? I also didn’t notice that there were shelves above the shoes for personal items and I ended up taking my wallet, keys, glasses, and water bottle inside the room with me. Back inside I didn’t notice that no one else had all their stuff in there with them.

I’d planned to joke about “someone’s not paying their air-conditioning bill,” but once inside the yoga room it was brain-numbing hot. I forgot all about any clever little quips; I was in survival mode. Little did I know it was to get much worse. Everyone was lying down on their mat—my favorite posture, which I know now is called “shavasana”—so I did the same, where I remained at peace as a few stragglers trickled in. What I didn’t notice was that one of the stragglers was the instructor. I opened my eyes to see everyone standing up going into a stretching exercise. I leapt to my feet and mimicked them. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought as reached for the ceiling, then angled from left to right. Naturally, this was the easiest exercise of the 90-minute session.

Bruno cranked up the heat while seemingly trying to distract us with calm talk about movement and stretching. I wasn’t buying it; I could feel the hot air increasing in intensity and blasting right on me. Suzanne had placed my mat on one side of the room, next to the door, which I discovered why later. The exercises got progressively more torturous, and within seconds I was dripping wet. I looked around to see if everyone else was sweating as much, and they were. And this also was when I noticed some others with beach towels on top of their mats. Excellent idea! No wonder I was slipping and sliding on my now-foamy mat.

I put my towel on my mat and continued my postures, called “asanas.” I was sweating like a southern politician during election from places I didn’t know had sweat glands. The heat was unbearable within minutes and Bruno continued giving sedate guidance as he walked around the room. At one point he asked how I was doing. “About to throw up and pass out, and not necessarily in that order,” I answered. Seconds later, I bolted for the door. I just stood in the hall for a minute, then went into the restroom to splash some cold water on my face.

Back in the room I joined the sweaty group, who seemed to be moving along just fine without me. The heat bore down on me like a furnace. It was a dry heat, but so what—I was still exercising and the simple act of respiration was exhausting. This was the first time I can say that respiration caused perspiration. But I figured if everyone else could do it, I could too. And I did, for about another 20 minutes after which I headed for the door again. This time I stood in the hall, ensuring I was out of sight of the others, but I could still see through the door’s window that everyone was going on their merry ways. I returned to hell.

About two-thirds of the way through I’d had about enough of my wet feet slipping out of my wet hands and barely being able to fully get into any of the positions like everyone else. Even though I was in a room loaded with beautiful, sweaty, scantily clad women, that wasn’t enough to help me maintain consciousness. I stood up out of our supine position triggering a glance from Bruno—God of Fire. I made a “cut” motion with my horizontal hand across my neck, indicating that I was outta there, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Compassionate as he was, he wasn’t letting me give up.

While everyone continued their contortions, he asked in his heavy French accent, which I’d been nearly unable to understand during his commands, “Ez et de heat or ez et yu mind?”

“No, what’s left of my mind is fine. It’s the heat,” I explained.

“Juice lie down and relax,” he said in his firm but caring voice. “Don move; juice lie dare and cloos your ice.”

I did what he suggested, and it was better. I know my respiration was up, and I was sweating from my ears. I was even dripping into my nose in certain, inverted positions. But after missing one or two postures I was feeling better. I tried the next position but had to stop again. Naturally, we were nearing the end of the 26 movements and these were the most difficult, although, in my shape, they were all difficult.

Not that I consider myself flexibility challenged. I jog, bike, play some tennis, have rollerbladed, and always take the stairs over elevators. But I wasn’t in as good a shape as I imagined. Throughout the session I had two primary thoughts: One, aren’t there any easy exercises where you just sit there and wiggle your fingers or are they all joint-cracking, muscle bending contortions, and Two, how can 90 minutes seem so much longer?

In the film industry, what everyone wants to hear is “Cut! Print! It’s a wrap!” In yoga, the magical words that illicit true euphoria is, “Now it’s time for pranayamas,” which is yogaese for breathing exercises—the last practice of the session. This is surpassed in preference only by shavasana.

When it was all over, I’d actually completed around two thirds of the exercises and only left the room two, maybe three, times. Back at the front desk I approached Bruno and recommended, “You really should have a beginner’s class.” His response: “Dis ees de beginner’s class.” I stood corrected.

Nonetheless, everyone was pretty red-faced from the extreme heat, which I read later is to help lubricate the joints and decrease the chance of injury. That might be so, but it’s also hotter than I’ve ever been—even when I was in my 20s and was wearing long pants and long sleeves and leather chaps over the pants and a leather apron over the shirt and thick gloves and a cap and a welding shield, all inside a hot, steel pipe outside in the 90-degree and 90-percent humidity southern heat, while welding.

No, Bikram yoga is hotter than that. Look up Bikram on Wikipedia and I’m sure it’ll reference Hades. It was so hot, the outside air at 1:30 p.m. on this late July afternoon in New Orleans actually felt cool. As I told Bruno at the desk, my previous root canals were enjoyable compared to this. Still, I did feel invigorated, and wanted to do it again. At least I knew what to expect. I paid for the month, which I’m sure surprised him.

When Suzanne and I walked out the door a local shopkeeper on the sidewalk exclaimed, “Lord, it’s hot out here.”

“HOT? You think this is hot?” I screamed. “This is freakin’ air conditioning!” I yelled as she took a step away from me. “We just came from Bikram yoga and it’s like the depths of hell in there!”

“Oh, yeah, I hear it is hot up in there,” she muttered as I walked off, squeaking puddles of perspiration in my flip-flops.

In retrospect, it wasn’t that bad. Sure, the heat was like being inside an incinerator but just the act of sweating so much ensured that weight loss was in the making. Probably the worst part for me was not being able to talk for 90 minutes. Later that evening Brenda thought I was jacked up on caffeine, even though I’d quit coffee some time ago. And the next day I’d cornered no fewer than four neighbors while Brenda and I were on our run, telling of the experience and prattling on incessantly, while their heads titled, eyes narrowed, and overall expression said, “What are you on?”

It’s an hour and a half until my next class—the second for the month, and of my life. I’m bringing an extra towel this time. And an extra bottle of water.

Day Two
It went much better today. This time, I never left the room, while several others took off for throw-up breaks. Most returned. This time Yogi Bruno was on his way to his vacation home in France, so we had Yogini Christina. She was a lovely example of walking gristle. Newly out of Bikram Yoga certification school, the tall, thin Christina led us through the exercises with the humor and compassion of someone with Bruno’s experience.

She ensured that we understand that it’s more important to do what we can than worry about doing all exercises correctly. While you don’t want to do anything incorrectly, you also don’t want to push yourself too hard and end up with an injury. And I pushed myself to the absolute minimum.

At one point she tried to intimate that I shouldn’t push too hard and just take it easy. She was preaching to the choir. And she did have a good sense of humor and laughed when she caught me looking desperately at the clock on the wall, then rolling my eyes in anxious despair.

Nevertheless, I actually made it through all but two exercises—basically anything to do with the knees. I got through one position and ended up with goodly rug burns on my knees, so I sat in the lotus position and faked the other positions, except the rabbit posture. You can’t fake that one.

So now I’m on board to attend 3 days a week at the House of Pain. But I think I’m going to look into the other class without the heat. I want to give equal time to both practices.

Day Three
The third day was great! Today wasn’t Bikram; it was Moksha yoga, and a lot less hot. The best part was that, although we practiced more postures, we performed fewer repetitions. Plus, the carpet (or towel, in this case) burns on my knees got a bit of a respite since only two exercises (which I didn’t do) were on the knees.

No throw-up breaks, fewer people in this 10 a.m. class, slight bit less heat, and an instructor who provided a little a cappella singing at the end. And it was a new instructor as well. Where Bruno would be a distance runner in traditional athletics and Christina would be a pole-vaulter, Sarah resembled a soccer player, or maybe a swimmer—strong and sturdy.

As my attendance increases, however, I find myself losing the previous feeling during the asanas that I feel while undertaking such tasks as waxing a car or painting a wrought iron fence: “I’ll NEVER do this again!” I’m actually beginning to feel more comfortable with yoga.

Day Ten
Call me Yogi Gary. Well, not quite. But I’m no longer intimidated by yoga. Bruno, Sarah, and Christina all teach a variety of asanas, and Bruno even likes to mix it up a bit now and then.

I now look forward to that walk down the block to the studio, and my flexibility has improved about 100 percent. I still have another 100 percent to match some of my classmates, but I’m also 100 percent more flexible than some of the newbies.

I’ve learned much from the practice of yoga over these past few weeks; here’s a summary:

· The reason that everyone is quiet (until I get there anyway) is that yoga is best practiced with full focus, which is best obtained in peace and quiet.

· No matter how much you want to rush it, it simply takes time and practice to increase flexibility. And trained yogis and yoginis understand this and never attempt to push students beyond their capabilities.

· DO NOT try to do everything exactly as everyone else. Everyone has varying experience levels and you should focus on what you are comfortable with.

· STOP if it hurts. A little pain is expected, but you know your body and when it’s time to stop a stretch or to get out of a posture to avoid injury. Listen to your body.

Just remember these tips if you are interested in yoga, and you’ll be gazing between your legs—by bending over backwards—in no time.