“I should never have come… I should never have come,” is the mantra playing through Esme Jalla’s head as she contorts her body into the shape of a flying bird. She’s not soaring high in her first yoga class; she’s falling towards her mat, racing her drops of sweat to see who will reach the ground first. In between poses she flops and she wobbles like a bird that’s been skimmed by a hunter’s bullet and knocked out of that big blue place where it feels at home.
I’m not at home here. In fact, if it wasn’t for Groupon I wouldn’t be here at all. Today marks the start of my new fitness journey – 10 classes of Bikram yoga at a highly discounted price. Inflexible and impatient, I’d never even considered yoga as something I could enjoy. The slow, controlled movements and the grace they’re practised with feel disgustingly out of step with my hectic modern life.
“That’s not real exercise,” I say to myself, dismissing yogii claims that a toned mind could compete with toned thighs. I tried it once when I was 18 and it remains unclassified in my memory banks.
As I hit 25, the throwaway experiences I once thrived on are starting to bore me. I punch my way through Boxercise uninspired; I spend hours in the gym, a hamster on the fitness wheel. What’s new? I scour the internet for ideas; I want to go on a journey.
Welcome to hot yoga. In a nutshell, it’s yoga for masochists. Feeling sick, seeing stars and internally combusting, pave your way to a better shape and a better you. Redefining fitness limits and mental boundaries is entirely possible in this subtropical heated studio where the doors remained locked for the full 90 minutes.
When I left for my first session friends and family waved me off hopefully, I hear the words they will speak when I’m safely down the road, “Perhaps this is it, it might calm her down, bring her peace”. So far though, so far I just feel angry, and today I am envious of the girl in front of me; her abs, her poise, her look of inner calm, although I’d never want her hairy legs. As we lay on the floor in resting pose I fantasise about taking a sharp razor to her natural armoury.
Concentrate…It’s hot in here, really hot.
I chance a look in the mirror hoping my reflection will give me some conviction, that I look just as comfortable as the girl in front of me. I see none. I feel a twinge of disappointment, or it might be pain in my chest, as I realise that maybe Bikram won’t be life changing.
Time in here is elastic, the more I wish it were over the more the 90 minutes stretches on. I try to think of this hour and a half as precious. I spend so much time outside this sweaty box moving to someone else’s rhythm I have forgotten my own beat. I remind myself when I exercise I feel alive and I don’t have to share it with anyone.
My body is shy to respond to my slow and controlled movements. It hesitates and stalls, bracing itself for the moment I break out into a run or a manic squat thrust. It’s tense waiting for the punishment I usually deliver in the name of fitness. The heat doesn’t bother me, it pulls me out of this room. The intensity, the head rush, the bending and arching of my back, ‘the doggy pose’ – it all reminds me of more pleasurable exertions I’ve undertaken.
You can’t hide anything in here, behind their concentration I see the men looking regretful at their choice to wear Speedos as a tell-tale bulge swells to the sound of the teacher’s voice. I try not to laugh; a true yogist would never laugh at such a spiritual undertaking. Smiling in moderation is encouraged though, it’s a dignified ‘fuck you’ to the pain and the challenge.
My bad mood continues to grumble, almost mocking me for my choice to end up in here. I don’t blame it. It’s funny; the one day I want to be invisible, the day I want to curl up in a small ball I end up here standing tall.
The yoga teacher is a Nazi dressed in hippie’s clothing, the smell of incense poorly masks her intentions to sort out the healthy elite from the experimenters. She draws near, I make silent thanks that my unusual name may make me forgettable, and then I remember it’s unlikely in a room of ‘right oners’; I bet there are four Naomis and Sebastians in here.
The teacher can smell my Groupon deal, I know it.
“What’s your name, girl in the grey?” Already my shackles are raised out of my pose – it’s not grey, it’s black. I feel her patronising stare wither my lotus pose: “Kick your legs higher Esme, higher”. I imagine kicking them towards her face. I shouldn’t but it works. Maybe I’ve got her wrong, she’s only trying to help, but I suspect I haven’t. By the end of the class everyone knows my name, Esme the girl in the fourth row who can’t even master the prayer pose without rebuff.
My 90 minutes are up, only the camel pose stands in my way. I approach it with trepidation. Last time I tried it left me feeling sick and stirred up. I cried. A line from my friend’s book on inner mastery pops into my upside down head: to be successful is to be uncomfortable.
I lean back on my damp knees, far back, and dip my head back in submission. I’m already thinking about the next time.
WAS IT WORTH IT?
Three months later my Groupon is all used up, I can touch my head to my toes and, yes, finally I like that camel pose. Although I haven’t been back to the studio, my yoga journey has just started. Unwilling to pay £13 and then being asked to rent a mat I have decided to hit the open road on my own. A Total Yoga DVD cost me £8.99. Under the guidance of Tracey Rich and Ganga White, from the comfort of my living room, I practise being calm and learn how to empty my head – it’s quiet without life’s chatter. I nurse my way through a break-up, I cure a knee injury, I can finally do a headstand. Namaste.
Illustration by Carlos Garcia