Everyone who gets into Bikram yoga eventually takes up the 30-day challenge: 2,700 mind- and body-twisting minutes. My Day 28 is off to an inauspicious start. The yoga studio is locked, the instructor outside on the pavement with us. We fidget and pull up collars, rubbing our hands against the chill. “I got up at 4.30 to get here,” one woman grumbles. I check my watch. If I miss this class it will mean rescheduling an interview so I can come after work. The mere thought makes me tired. I can just about manage morning yoga but post-work is a different, more brutal ballgame. Thankfully someone arrives with keys and we scuttle inside, shedding shoes and coats as we fast-forward through our usual pre-practice routine. Then we are in the sauna-like studio, breathing, bending, flexing, balancing, and stretching.
I understand why people look askance when I enthuse about Bikram yoga. Superficially, it is more pain than pleasure. I often lie on my mat before class, eyes closed, enjoying the 110-degree heat, hoping the teacher won’t come in, won’t turn the lights up, won’t cajole us to our feet. But he or she always does. Then I hoist myself up, gaze into my sleepy eyes in the mirror and think: There is no way I can do this. It isn’t possible. Practice builds confidence, but most days Bikram yoga remains a contemplation I neither desire nor understand. Yet it’s as addictive as chocolate brownies and Fraser box sets. At least in part because it poses problems I can solve. For 90 minutes the hardest decision I have to make is: “Am I going to stand on one leg now?”
These little disciplines have larger echoes. From bad weather and bureaucracy to late-running trains, most things are out of my control, much to the despair of my inner control freak. When the universe refuses to cooperate I want to demand better; or use irritation as an excuse for bad behaviour. For example, I love to travel, but I hate airport security. Just thinking about it makes my neck tingle. On a recent trip the security attendant pulled me aside. My liquids were in the wrong sized plastic bag. My jaw clenched. I fished in my mind for a sarcastic remark but then the discipline of the yoga studio came to mind, those hours of minute-by-minute decision-making. Maybe I was entitled to be angry, but I could also just stand there for thirty seconds and wait for the wave of pique to pass. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. The woman transferred my shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste to a fresh Ziploc bag and handed it over. I took another breath. That was it? She smiled, told me to have a nice flight and, instead of sulking off ashamed of my petulance, I could look her in the eye and smile back. My god, I thought, I don’t have to be a bitch anymore.
It was a minor moment of clarity. My choices don’t change the world but they change my experience of it. Bikram devotees do 30 day challenges, 45 day challenges, or 100 day challenges because regular practice rehearses a truth: Life is a challenge and we have no idea how many days we’ll be required show up for. The best we can do is try to pick right, moment by moment. Every time we choose between anger or patience, kindness or judgement, bitterness or forgiveness we create new possibilities and alternative relationships.