I'd been thinking he might go easier on me as the weeks pass, but the opposite has happened. He seems to wake up in the morning with me on his mind—and not in the good way. The more progress I make, the harder he pushes. "Some teachers come from a place of sympathy. I don't," Gregg says when I ask why he's gotta hate on me constantly. "I come from a place of 'You need to work hard all the time, every time.'"
In the first month, as I learned the 26 postures and two breathing exercises, my goal was not to become some golden goddess of yoga; my goal was to stay in the room and learn to breathe.
This second month, I'm working on more than the poses. I'm working on committing, which is hard for an inveterate leaver. I've left cities and jobs and dear friends and good men. I've left my family over and over again. I've been in such a hurry to flee some situations and get on to the next, I've left clothes in the closet, food in the fridge. In Bikram class, I've already tried to leave once, but that didn't work. So knowing that I can't leave, I quietly protest my captivity by pretending.
The yogis call this the games stage. I'll do anything to buy myself a break. One day, I could do triangle posture if I wanted to, but I don't want to, so I breathe dramatically and pretend to be near collapse. (Result: I kind of really do feel near collapse.)
The teachers recognize the tricks because they've tried them all themselves. If I say I don't feel well, Gregg shakes his head and says, "Do yoga like a champion." If I admit (or claim) that I'm exhausted, he says, "No mercy." I've heard an urban myth about an instructor in California who was in the middle of teaching a class when a rat showed up in the back of the room. "Rat! Rat!" the students yelled, and the teacher said, "That's not a rat. That's the manifestation of your fears."
When Choudhury passed through town recently, he told me, "Your mind is supposed to be your best friend, but it's the number one enemy. Mind can make you Hitler or Mother Teresa." He has repeated this line all over the world, to students like John McEnroe and Madonna and to students like me. "It's never too late, you're never too bad, never too old, never too sick to start from scratch and begin again," he said. This is the thought that drives me back into that 105-degree room day after day.
One afternoon in the middle of ustrasana, or camel pose—a killer backbend that some consider the toughest posture in the whole practice—it occurs to me that if I can remain calm and focused while in such a physically stressful state, I can get through anything. The studio around me is full of people who know just what I mean. They practice not because a Bikram studio is a particularly lovely place to spend 90 minutes a day but because without it, they would be angry, inflexible, immobilized, fatigued, intolerant, petty, pained, and maybe even dead. The type-A personalities feel calmer. Every student has a story.
At the beginning of the challenge, a 60-day goal felt daunting. Around day 20, it felt impossible. Around day 50, I started getting that giddy, generous feeling that comes when the bad date (or vacation or visit) is almost over and you can sense freedom. Only I don't want freedom.
On day 60, as the final class ends, I would like to say the clouds part and the angels weep. When Gregg utters his final words and we as a class take our last measured breath, I expect a rush of emotion, but Bikram is not about the big display. It's about powerfully careful moves. What I feel in that last moment is calm, and satisfied, and certain that I now have a refuge, a resource—a blueprint.
Next: Hard numbers, part II