The teacher wants me to make a Japanese ham sandwich. To my knowledge, I've never seen a Japanese ham sandwich, but as I understand it, I'm to stand bent with my face to my shins and chest to my thighs in perfect vertical union—I am
I would say I look more like a jelly roll. My flabby abdomen won't let my forehead anywhere near my knees, and my legs tremble as I try contorting myself into a position my body neither recognizes nor endorses. The goal is to concentrate on stretching and breathing, but I'm fixating on my unpedicured toenails. And the neon paleness of my legs. And the fact that I probably should have shaved.
The students around me are tanned and toned and very nearly nude. Every body glistens. We're in a Bikram yoga studio, after all, where the heat is set to 105 degrees and the humidity to 40 percent, to facilitate flexibility. The men wear nothing but shorts; the women rock hot pants and halters. Because I'd rather lick the sweat-soaked carpet than bare my wretched flesh, I have on the hot-yoga equivalent of a snowsuit: calf-length sweatpants, a jog bra, and a T-shirt. I'm huffing harder than a serial killer. And we're only on posture number one.
Posture number one of class one of day one. Assuming I survive, I'll make the ham sandwich and about two dozen other postures every single day for the next two months, for the notorious 60-day Bikram challenge. I'm subjecting myself to "Bikram's torture chamber," as founder Bikram Choudhury himself calls this insanely intense regimen, because the program promises renewal from the inside out—because suffering inside this hot room may be my surest path to survival out in the world.
I need to change so many things about my life, it's hard to know where to start. I need physical and spiritual transformation, from the mental to the muscular to the molecular. I need to stop treating my body like a landfill. I need stability, which I haven't seen in so long, I've forgotten how it feels. I need a reset button.
This won't be easy. As I start the challenge, I'm divorced, in debt, and 80 pounds overweight. Wellbutrin and Lexapro, in their little amber bottles, rattle around in my life like maracas. My career? Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. One minute I'm winning the magazine industry's top honor for feature writing, the next I'm taking a new job out West, and the next I'm losing that job, moving all my stuff into storage, and living back home with my mother, in Mississippi.
"Do this yoga for 60 days and it will change your body, your mind, and your life," says Choudhury, a former Indian yoga champion who lives in Los Angeles and who is, depending on your viewpoint, either a beloved lifesaving guru or just a really flexible guy who got lucky, and rich, with an idea and a persona. Bikram students believe, and I hope they're right, that Choudhury's heat-centric, copyrighted sequence of ancient hatha yoga postures is a transformative agent like no other; testimonials the world over suggest this yoga eases the symptoms of a range of maladies—depression, diabetes, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, migraines, arthritis, back pain, and heart disease, for instance—while relaxing the mind and slimming the body.
"Can't you just do all that by, like, running
every day for 60 days?" a friend asks. Good question, but the answer doesn't interest me. None of my past fitness activities—racquet sports, cycling, jogging, gym circuit training, kickboxing—seem catalytic enough for the depth of change I'm after.
I'm not a renovation; I'm a teardown. And I'm hoping Bikram is my bulldozer.
Next: The anatomy of a meltdown