In prisoner of war movies from the World War II era, Allied soldiers were often punished with time in the “sweat box.” Those small metal shacks sat in the burning sun microwaving the occupants into physical weakness and a state of near mental failure. Yet, somehow, the prisoner’s strong will could never be broken. Not only did they survive, they often rose to conquer.
That survival instinct came to mind in November on my first visit to Lawrence’s “sweat box” better known as the Bikram Yoga studio. In a room heated to a humid 105 degrees, Laura and I made our first attempts to move through two sets of 26 yoga postures for 90 minutes while sweat poured out of our bodies in bucket loads. The heated studio “creates deeper stretches and injury prevention, while reducing stress and tension.” Really, my only thought that first night was “survive”, just like a prisoner of war tossed into a burning solitary hell.
Ah, but that was only the first night. Now that we have completed 10 classes, I can honestly joke with Laura after each of the sessions that “yoga is my life.” To understand why I would willingly try to contort myself into something called a “bow” posture, you need some background.
Call it my “summer of discontent.” A severely pulled hamstring last May made this past summer more than just miserable for running and riding. That one injury caused disarray in nearly every aspect of my physical life.
Heap the blame on me for my stupidity regarding the proper care of an aging body. Too anxious to make the most of the summer, my hamstring was never allowed to heal fully. My efforts to run and ride were cruel jokes that left me completely unbalanced and sore beyond belief. The thought that I would never again run freely or sit comfortably on a saddle left me in a state of unsettled desperation.
That is when Laura, concerned and yet frustrated with me, suggested I see massage therapist Beth Morford. Morford works with the KU swimmers and divers and came highly recommended. A series of massages helped me feel better immediately, and I highly recommend Morford to everyone I know. These were deep muscle massages that seriously prodded muscles to release some of the tension and tightness.
However, it was her blunt evaluation of my physical state that really struck me and stuck with me. While she complemented me on my muscular strength and overall fitness for a 60-year-old man, those brief feel-good moments were immediately replaced by the harsh reality that was laid out for me. My flexibility was beyond awful. Morford stressed that without drastic changes, one injury after another awaited someone of my advanced age. She strongly urged me to try Bikram Yoga.
I am not a great athlete, but I try really hard and am not afraid to embarrass myself in my pursuits. Once decided, I plunged into the heated room with some trepidation, but with the mind-set that this was not going to be a one-and-done effort despite the fact I would be the least flexible person in the room.
Fortunately, this was not a room filled with tall, lithesome dancers and models as portrayed in most yoga advertisements. Sure, there were a few KU students that looked as though their hamstrings could be stretched like taffy, but others looked far from overall taut. The classes range from 12 – 15 women and usually about four men. Everyone was happy to see two new people and have continued to be quietly encouraging.
Laura and I were quickly, and wisely, separated by the instructor. That immediately severed the competitive nature in both of us, and we have never been together since. Once class started, there was little time to worry about others. Positioned behind more advanced practitioners that provided pose clues, I could only concentrate on my efforts and my sorry state of stiffness by staring forward into the mirrors.
Each posture provided a unique challenge. Some proved to be surprisingly simple for me while others will surely confound me years from now. Of no surprise to me, the “awkward poses” were my best. This three pose sequence will always be known to me as the “catcher poses” because they involve squatting, first flat-footed, then up on high toes and finally on toes with knees squeezed together. For an old catcher, I immediately dipped lower and straighter than anyone I could glimpse.
Any good feeling was lost when we reached the “standing head to knee” and “standing bow” poses. These demand hamstring flexibility, one of the two areas I desperately need to improve. Grabbing my ankle and kicking my back leg up while leaning over and thrusting my other arm forward seemed impossible.
Part of my problems stemmed from my stems. I have trouble locking my knees. There is no physical reason I cannot other than being taught all my life that in athletics you keep your knees bent for leverage and balance. Even a minister at a wedding reminds the bride and groom not to lock their knees for fear they might faint.
Yet, in class, the instructor reminds everyone that a pose has not begun until the knee is fully locked. Urged to glue my eyes on my knee through the mirror as I contorted myself into a pose, I noticed my battered left kneecap staring back at me with a maniacal grin. Mangled from years of kneeling to take photographs, my kneecap dimples and shadows actually created the look of a face laughing at me. To make sure I was not delusional from the heat, I had Laura look at the face on my knee at home after class. She laughed right along with ghostly face.
Finally after 12 poses and the most part of the first 60 of the 90 minutes, our standing postures ended. My shoulders ached and screamed at me. One of the men in the locker room later told me any shoulder work in a weight room would no longer be needed. I agreed as I struggled to raise a sweatshirt over my head and pull it on. Thank goodness for the “dead body pose”.
Laying on our backs, with heels together and arms at our side with palms up, I relished the deep stomach breaths we took in for a precious few moments. The final 13 postures seemed a blessing until called upon to perform the “bow pose”. Regular practitioners immediately rolled to their stomachs and reached back grabbing their ankles to form an arch in their backside that, done properly, looks very much like an archer’s bow.
My futile efforts to grab my ankles mostly reminded me of early archery lessons where the bow’s string would scrape along my extended left arm leaving me using shameful language. Shameful as my efforts were in this first class, I never felt any judgement from the instructor or my new classmates that would shame me into quitting. The class ended, and in a now darkened room, I limply rolled up my mat and picked up the towel everyone must have on top of their mat.
The weight of that soddened towel was shocking but also revealing. After ten classes I have come to relish the sweat. The sop on that towel symbolizes the changes I can already feel after such a short time. Tight muscles have begun to loosen their hold on me. I can now grab both of my ankles. Though my arched back and limbs do not form a perfect bow yet, I have hope they someday will. I am still the tightest in any class, but with every class, I feel a muscle releasing just a bit more, as I remember it is not where one starts but where one finishes.
Happy is also the way I feel soon after the class ends – and not just because a class has ended. Both Laura and I have worked very hard and the oxygen enriched blood that flows through us makes both feel so very good. We have no thoughts of stopping. My belief is that hot yoga will enhance our every day lives and time on the bike or on a run will be far better. That makes me quite content over my time in the sweat box.