On Hot Yoga
In the course of his four legendary and—as they’d come to affect the later development of his life—transformative excursions beyond the walls of his family’s palatial estate, Siddhartha Gautama, known to us mononymously as the plump and tranquil “Buddha”, encountered four sights. To us, these sights by which this young, handsome, and enviably-stationed Indian elite (nearing, as he was, the thirtieth year of his age in a household over which, in the very near future, he’d soon become a king) was so violently moved, hardly earn the epithet of unremarkable. In fact, these visions were, by the measurement of any other standard, far less even than that.
As it happens, the sights by which Siddhartha was confronted were entirely commonplace. No sequence of visions, presented before even the most innocent of eyes, could be more quotidian than were they. They were happenings of daily human life at which someone to whom society is rather a familiar than a foreign land (someone, that is, like you or me) wouldn’t stop to bat an eye.
Siddhartha, however, was no such normal being—a fact readily granted and eagerly celebrated by the many millions of co-religionists to whom he’s become, over the course of nearly three thousand years, a nearly divine figure. Indeed, he’s a person, not unlike a more recent Muhammed or Joseph Smith, whose stature is quite nearly approximate to that of a god. He was, from the outset, a man quite evidently distinguished from those mere mortals by whom he was surrounded, a fact compellingly attested by the unusual circumstance of his birth.
Accepting the plausibility of the phenomenon known as parthenogenesis—or the unfertilized production of an offspring by an unpenetrated egg— we’re told on the best of authority that Siddhartha’s mother, a queen in her own right, was visited one evening by an unexpected mate. Said “visitor” happened to be not a man, as one might assume, but an amorous white elephant—the likes of which humankind had never seen. The elephant, in the Oriental imagination, was a grand and awesome figure—indeed, one still quite sacred to the Hindu culture—from which, as was made clear that particular evening, the dual streams of virility and divinity can exude.
Shocking though this may be, it wasn’t—at least in the mythological memory of our fanciful and clever race—an event without a precedent. Albino beasts, as it happens, have a tendency to appear in the annals of the best of our ancient myths. One might recall, crossing for an instant the Indus Valley to the island of Crete, that it was the ingenious, though slightly cringe-inducing copulation of Pasiphae with the white Minoan bull that led to the birth of the Minotaur—that terribly ill-formed and tempered beast to whose hungry gullet so many unfortunate Athenian youth were fed.
Bestiality, then, being nothing new in the imagination of man, we accept that it could happen twice. And so, the meeting between Siddhartha’s mother and the white elephant by whom she was visited proved a very fertile assignation, a nocturnal rendezvous against which our comparatively prudish posterity bristles. But we’re a race dispossessed of our sense of “myth”. That white elephant—upon whose face, it might be added, six erect tusks stood as serried daggers in line—proceeded to insert itself into the right side of her flank. Nine months later, without the meddlesome involvement of a human father’s messy insemination and his awkward touch, an incipient sage by the name of Siddhartha was born.
You see, then, that from the very beginning, it wasn’t Siddhartha’s destiny to live the life of an ordinary man. His was a life of which massive, perhaps, you might even say, elephantine achievements were expected. His family did all it could to pamper and coddle the boy and smooth the path at whose end this imminent glory awaited. It was devotedly solicitous toward his desires; he could hardly turn a corner in the household without bumping into a comely courtesan by whom, in more ways than one, he might be satisfied. It was fiercely censorious of his inquiries and always hesitant to allow him the freedom of his own mental jaunts. Such liberation, it concluded, would be not only an impediment to the lofty fate before which he stood, but a liability in the attainment of the future on which its own hopes rested. Thus, there wasn’t a single part of his life over which his family didn’t invigilate, nor a single want from which his gratification was withheld.
He was, to use the derisive but increasingly common term of our day, a thoroughly sheltered boy—one from whom all practical knowledge of the world, its beauty, its ugliness, and the ambiguity in between, was suspended. Thus, the four sights with which he came into contact were phenomena of which he hadn’t even the slightest prior experience, from the time of his birth, until that of his thirtieth year.
We turn now, then, to the sights. First, he witnessed an aging man—for whom no elixir of youth might prove availing against the unrelenting assaults of time. Being that Siddhartha was still comfortably housed in the luxury of his youth, a sumptuous cocoon out of which he wasn’t quite ready yet to emerge, the very notion of corporeal decay as a consequence of age must’ve been to him a striking one, indeed. Second, he saw a sickly man—a wretched figure upon whom the ravages of disease had descended without mercy and without care. In his own life, he’d never known a discomfort, much less a threatening ailment, to which his resilient frame couldn’t prove itself superior. Third, he saw a dead man—a corpse into whose collapsed and disintegrating lungs no resuscitating life might be breathed.
This was enough to send the once blithe and wide-eyed prince into a veritable state of despair, a feeling of moribundity and horror to which he very nearly succumbed.
His salvation was his final sight. That which is best, we know, must come after the exhaustion of all options by which it’s preceded. Fourth, and last of all, he witnessed an ascetic—a man, dutifully pious in his faith and resolute in his ways, of whose abstemiousness he hoped to be emulative and for the grasp of whose wisdom and tranquility he desperately yearned. Abdicating his princely duties and the eventual monarchical chair to which, in succession of his father, he was predicted to accede, Siddhartha decided to follow this nameless monk’s path, by which, like a lover of the vine, he was so strongly intoxicated.
He thus made the drastic transition from a royal aristocrat, a child of wealth from whom no bodily indulgence was ever withheld, to an emaciated and impecunious monk.
To at least the first three sights, of which all are, whether we accept them or not, objectively unprepossessing to behold, I would add a fourth. Before the stage of the monk, before that summit of asceticism at which our noble Siddhartha so boldly arrived, I would add not only the sight, but—as it were in this case—the smell of the hot yoga studio. This, arguably, could’ve been the final torment of his life, the last offense of suffering after which the road to enlightenment was opened all the wider.
Older than age, more fetid than a marsh, and perhaps even more oppressive and unrelenting than the darkness of death, was the odor of the hot yoga studio in which, for ninety unforgiving minutes, I was recently immersed. Had Siddhartha encountered the stench of the studio in which my first and, at the time of this writing, only foray into the incredibly popular and addictive world of hot (or, as previously known, Bikram) yoga transpired, his spiritual enlightenment might’ve been even more fully complete.
Had he done so, and had he opened his senses not only to the entirety of their visual, but to that of their olfactory range as well, he might’ve sooner reached that level of self-possession and eternal equanimity for which he’s now so widely famous. He might’ve become, in yet a shorter duration of time, the transcendent sage at whose unclad and bulbous feet an entire sub-continent still sits and prays. Had he suffered through but one stinky session of hot yoga, a phenomenon of nature, I’ve decided, that’s far worse than the decrepitude of old age, than the feebleness of illness, and even of the finality of death, he might’ve become, for all the world to see, a veritable god among gods, a primus inter pares, a deity before whom even those once counted most powerful—Vishnu, Jehovah, or Jupiter—would bend the knee.
The stench by which I was initially greeted and, in an inhumanely short period of time, overcome was a sensation for which I was very inadequately prepared. The smell was at once foreign, yet uniquely organic; alien yet innate. It was a smell, in one’s pursuit of olfactory identification, on which one’s finger can’t easily be placed, yet one knows, without being guided, its original source. Implicitly one knows, perhaps shamefacedly, if he’s to admit it to himself, that the odor by which he’s repelled is irreducibly human, and ultimately of his own excretion. It’s the type of smell from which, at its best, civilization has thrown up a tarp to protect us—what with its dulcet perfumes, colognes, deodorants, and the like.
But hot yoga isn’t quite so inclined toward civility, and this feature, of which I quickly took note, isn’t one of which its practitioners are particularly embarrassed. Hot yoga, if my early analysis leads me not astray, is a rather atavistic and primal act. In some ways, it’s advertised as such. It’s an activity that strips away the accrual of time and the pretense of age. With its combination of sweat, stench, moisture, movement, and heat, it’s not unlike that same primordial soup, that original incubator out of which our bacterial predecessors once climbed. It’s like that initial slime, an atmosphere thermally agitated and chemically unstable, in which all of our fellow, though lesser, organisms were once nourished and bathed. Indeed, a hot yoga studio might be as easily found on the continents of Asia or America, as it would be on Pangaea or Gondwona—those giant, original landmasses out of whose eruptive division, or modern world was formed.
Though it’s the lingua franca of Yoga, Sanskrit—the language in which the Buddha’s teachings were written by his followers and copied for all time—isn’t a tongue to which western ears are at all keenly accustomed. It is, on the whole, polysyllabic, heavily vocalic, and—perhaps for those reasons—utterly unintelligible. That said, it provides for its audience the feeling of an esoteric mantra to which they are, if only temporarily, privy. The instructor, awash in a dream-sequence of colorful tattoos atop whose efflorescence Lululemon stockings tightly cling, dictates to the class in a peremptory and urgent tone these undecipherable words. In turn, the class—now staggering on this side of masochism—dutifully performs the commands to which it’s willingly, and often expensively, made itself submissive.
The movements and postures, of which there are approximately twenty-six, are carefully scripted and deliberately applied. Very little waste is encouraged—much less is tolerated. It is, in this way, a very “lean” session—one unaccommodating of superfluity and nonsense. With contempt does it look upon the side conversations in which I inveterately find myself engaged (and to which, I’ve come to realize, I’m fatally susceptible). It scorns distractions of any type. As established by its now notorious founder, Mr. Bikram Choudhury himself, these are positions between whose adoption the greatest display of efficiency is to be observed. One quite literally flows from one movement into the next, from which—until the yogi declares it appropriate—his permission to unfurl himself is suspended.
The physical act of adopting and sustaining these contortions would be, in and of itself, enough of a reason to sweat. Need there be a further inducement? Yet one mustn’t perspire merely; one must, rather, melt into an indistinct and unsalvageable puddle of human salt, electrolytes, and—in most cases—tears. At this point, with the room’s temperature reaching in excess of one hundred degrees, the whole thing feels as though it’s sudation for sudation’s sake; these yogis are going to sweat because, darn it, they can.
Sweating, as a general human reflex by which, in response to the heat, we’re made to feel relatively cooler, isn’t a process to which I’m particularly opposed, but it can be taken to its extremes. Hot yoga brings you to that extreme, thrusting your body into unnatural torsions along the way. The sudoriferous glands, from which our sweat, that salty, cooling solution, so copiously flows, are excited during the hot yoga session with an intensity to which no other sport can compare. One feels, at the session’s conclusion, entirely purged of all that was once held within. Any obstinate toxin, to whose unwholesome grasp your body was made a host and then a home, has doubtless been squeezed and chased away. Every fluid ounce, of which your lumbering pre-hot yoga body was once composed, has rushed from your pores and onto that sacred carpet upon which you stand—in this case, a drenched polyethylene mat. It is, to borrow a religious term, a kind of kenosis—an unholy emptying of oneself.
In time, that man to whom we ascribe the name of the “enlightened one”—that pliable and tranquil Buddha—became a practitioner, if not an originator, of a certain yogic practice of which, until this day, his most devoted followers still partake. That school, however, of which he was purportedly the founder, taught and practiced a slightly more meditative and less physically grueling form—one at whose end a feeling of spiritual detachment was ultimately desired. In the “hot” and, yes, unavoidably stinky version to which I was exposed today, that version of which I was so ill-prepared a victim, the only sense of detachment is that by which the limbs—in reference to the torso to which they were once so happily attached—are overcome. They feel as though, at their every joint and articulation, they’ve been forcefully wrenched and tossed aside.
Appropriately, one finishes his hot yoga session in what’s referred to as “corpse pose”—a sight with which, having already witnessed an elderly and a sick man, our beloved Siddhartha would be quite familiar. That, however, with which he’d be unfamiliar, and, to a greater extent, by which he’d be deeply shaken, would be the stench and sight of Bikram in action. As would be he, so was I.