Bikram yoga (a strenuous form of yoga done in a 40 degree heat) can push your mind and body to their outer limits, even for devotees. Ahmed Zambarakji decided to do 30 days in a row. This is his diary...
The new girl on the mat behind me is a worrying reminder of what 90 minutes could do to me before I adjusted to the 40-degree heat of a Bikram yoga studio. She has made it through the challenging standing series and now, 45 minutes into the class, is sat on her mat crying like a lovelorn schoolgirl. Nay, sobbing. Snot streaming out of her nose and everything. Watching her (upside down) as I bend backwards into Camel Pose, I’m starting to wonder what the next 30 days is going to do with me.
While I’ve never had a complete breakdown in class, I do know what she’s feeling. Bikram yoga is a frustrating and challenging practice that takes you completely out of your comfort zone. And I’m saying this as someone who would complete marathon distances ‘for fun’. The heat, the intensity, the focus, the mirrors, they all contribute to the feeling of sheer helplessness that I could hear in her sobs.
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It is that feeling of absolute helplessness that has stopped me from completing a gruelling 30 day challenge in the two years since I started practising Bikram yoga. I was what you might call a fair-weather student, the kind who would mix their practice with gym workouts, Pilates, TRX training and pretty much anything else I could try out. I’m in great shape bar a couple of persistent running-related injuries but fear that my physical endurance won’t match the mental fortitude required for 30 consecutive days in Bikram’s infamous ‘torture chamber of love’.
Today I was totally lost in my practice. The whole world just shifted out of focus for the duration of the class. I’ve had brief glimpses of this state before – sometimes in meditation or while I’m immersed in my writing – but never for this long. I was so deeply involved that the full ninety minutes felt more like five magical seconds.
On days like these I realise that all the standard parameters by which I used to judge my ‘progress’ are ultimately pretty meaningless. As someone who hit the gym regularly, I was always able to monitor my headway with a series of statistics: time, size, weight, distance and so on. I used to plot charts, make spreadsheets and obsessively count everything from kilometers completed to calories consumed. None of this matter a jot with yoga of any kind; it deliberately relieves you of those milestones. As today’s teacher put it, “You can only do the best with the body you have today”.
With no figurative measuring stick at my disposal, I have nothing with which to beat myself up and nothing to brag about.
Still figuring out how much fuel I need to do this. As a runner I would go through ‘loading periods’ and then use up every last bit of energy in my body, a tactic that clearly isn’t going to work for a consecutive 30 days. I need to maintain a steady supply of energy without getting too full, but my appetite is just too erratic at this stage.
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Both my palate and my appetite have shifted rather quickly. One moment I’ll be ravenous, have a bite of food and then I’ll feel full. Mealtimes have gone out of the window and I’ve taken to grazing every two or three hours instead. The flat is stocked with hearty soups, nuts and wholegrains. Sweet foods of any description hold no appeal. If anything, I just crave lots of salty vegetables and anything covered in miso. Bizarrely, I’ve got a real thirst for Diet Coke, which I’m fully aware is poison.
The thought of booze is really quite repulsive right now. With no alcohol on the horizon and no energy come 7pm, I think I may have to kiss my social life goodbye for the next 30 days.
The extended winter period has made the local Bikram studio something of a hot, sweaty sanctuary over the past few days. I’m actually looking forward to my daily practice if only to provide some kind of counterbalance to the blizzard outdoors. I appear to have adjusted to the heat at my new studio and it no longer hits me like a truck the moment I step into the room.
The last time I yearned to win the validation of a teacher this badly, I was eight years old. Her name was Ms Capper, an auburn-haired 30-something who taught me Biology GCSE. At 32, it’s both curious and worrying that I’m going through exactly the same motions with CB, today’s teacher.
CB is a tender taskmaster, the kind that instills an unsettling mix of fear and respect in her students. She is part Oprah, part Arnie. The fact that she shouts at me from time to time and, in three months, hasn’t managed to remember my name only makes me crave her validation more. What that says about my relationship with women, I’m not entirely sure…
CB is something of a legend on the London Bikram scene and it’s not hard to see why. Her classes are liberally sprinkled with spiritual aphorisms and affirmations, as well as practical information about the mechanics of yoga and how it restores the body. With almost three decades of practice under her belt, she is well aware that most students want to shed pounds or tone up and so, in today’s class, she has spliced her discourse with tips about how a certain pose will shred excess fat and cellulite before delving into what I suspect is an excerpt from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Left me feeling battered but inspired.
Woke up at 4am craving carbs. Not the first time this has happened. Under any other circumstances, scoffing down a handful of oatcakes in the wee hours would be blasphemous in my industry. But Bikram, I am discovering, is the anti-Atkins of yoga practices. My body needs carbs. Lots of them. And often.
High protein and low carb is an eating plan that has served me well for a number of years but it’s got to change if I have any hope of completing the 30-day challenge. This is not the time to watch what you eat. For anyone thinking about taking up Bikram, it’s definitely not the time to cling to a ridiculous ketogenic plan or even a 5:2 diet.
To be continued...
Go to hotbikramyoga.co.uk to find your nearest class.