One of my colleagues attended his first Bikram class last night. We chatted at the water cooler today, discussing how he didn’t understand how people could do some of the postures (“witchcraft”), how the teacher could possibly have known exactly what he was feeling after Camel (“more witchcraft”) and how he’s tentatively decided to try it again tonight (“the spells worked, obviously”). We joked about how it’s probably a cult and if so, I’ve most definitely drunk the kool-aid because I try to convert anyone and everyone. And then he asked that question. The one I’m never quite sure how to answer. “How has it helped you?”
He stood there, smiling vaguely, no doubt waiting for my enthusiastic story of weight lost or muscles toned or flexibility gained.
But the truth is, that’s not what I wanted from yoga. That isn’t at all what I was so desperately seeking when I first walked into the studio. So I stood there, eyes blank and mind racing, desperately trying to find a benefit that I felt comfortable sharing with a workmate, an acquaintance, a relative stranger.
“Oh, you know…” I laughed nervously. “I sleep better now.”
You guys. “I sleep better now” is such an utterly inadequate explanation for how far I’ve come. Because where I started was this: I had a nervous breakdown. Like, for reals. I held it together at work or around friends… but as soon as I was alone, I would start crying. I would cry as I walked home. I would cry as I sat on my couch and stared at the walls. And then I would go to bed and cry and cry and cry and maybe, two or three hours before my alarm was due to go off, I’d be lucky enough to fall asleep. More often than not, I’d dream of crying.
The problem was situational rather than hormonal, so antidepressants and the like were of little use. In desperation I tried them anyway and was rewarded with sudden anxiety attacks, tachycardia and the most horrific dreams I’d ever encountered. My doctor tried a few varieties, then pulled me off them and prescribed sleeping tablets instead, reasoning that if I could get enough rest I might be able to deal with everything else. They had the same effect on me as a dozen shots of espresso – I didn’t sleep for two days. Obviously, chemical intervention was not going to help in this situation.
Although it looks astonishingly neat and tidy in the above paragraph, this pharmaceutical merry-go-round took months. Some drugs took weeks to kick in; I had to be slowly weaned off others. A bad reaction to one brand wasn’t conclusive enough – here, try these three instead. And then in different dosage combinations. And then. And then. And then. And all the while I dragged myself through each day, blank and despairing and void of hope.
Then I remembered Bikram. I remembered how difficult I’d found it during my brief flirtation with the practice, three years earlier. How every body part had to be placed just so, how the heat made you concentrate on minimising extraneous movements and focus on breathing. How your mind couldn’t possibly wander, because there was absolutely nothing it could do on autopilot. And I thought: if my mind can’t possibly wander… then maybe it can’t obsess over past conversations and future confrontations and what-ifs and how-will-I-evers. Maybe I could stop crying. I started to hope.
And then, because I was incapable of doing anything else, I sat on the couch and cried for a few more weeks.
I honestly don’t remember what got me into the studio in the end. I don’t remember anything about that first class, except that I was directly in front of the heating vent and it burnt my toes in Savasana. I remember the teacher greeting me after class with a “You’ve done this before, haven’t you!” and I remember thinking that was probably because I got into the Fixed Firm setup before taking a drink. Mainly, I remember that I didn’t cry. And that was enough to get me back in the hot room, day after day.
Gradually, the focussed and quiet mind that I was attempting to cultivate in class began to influence the rest of my life. After a while there was a yoga hangover that lasted about two hours after class – long enough for me to get home, shower, eat and get to bed before the tears started again. Later still, I found it lasted until morning and I could make it to work without struggle. And now there is not just not-crying, but joy and love and calmness. Every day.
And yes, it’s true – I even sleep better now.