Exercise in Hell

doing yoga in hellI have been involved with yoga at varying levels of interest for many years. I have sampled some of the more classic styles, such as Hatha, Ashtanga, Anusara, and Kripalu, avoiding the trendier adaptations that cycle through, like Yogalates and Yoga on Paddleboards. Once, while on a ski trip, friends asked me to join them at a Bikram (Hot Yoga) class. They sang its praises, told me it was serious yoga with traditional poses, left you very relaxed. I agreed. My reaction to the session was so strong that I came home and wrote the poem I share here. (Disclaimers: It was my first time in a hot room, we were at a high altitude, I had skied all day.)

Exercise in Hell
I knew. I had heard.
It’s hotter than you can imagine.
And painful. And long.
Yet I go willingly, even rush to get there.
Thinking of all my recent sins,
Days slumped over the computer screen,
Nights lounging on the couch,
Gym sessions missed, walks not taken.
Coffee, alcohol, chocolate,
Rich food drenched in pesticides,
Injected with chemicals.
I would repent. I would pay.
I go willingly.

I enter, pass through the gates.
Heat blasts my face.
Peeling off clothes, almost indecently,
Shirts, socks already sticking,
Forgotten prayers come to mind.
Choosing a spot,
Looking for a small pocket of coolness
That doesn’t exist.
Sitting in stillness,
Breath already shallow, fast, frightening.

And there he was,
Satan, disguised as soft-spoken David,
Perched on a wooden stool.
Young and handsome,
Deceivingly sweet
In this claustrophobic inferno.
Others come, the room fills quietly.
So many penitents, all somber,
Curling, uncurling, whispering.
Restless in anticipation.
Or dread. Or fear.

We begin.
David guides us through our punishments.
Go slowly, only as far as you can,
He croons.
A ruse.
It is hard to “go” at all.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Reach, stretch, balance, hold.
Again. Try harder. Go farther.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Again. Again.

Breathe in, breathe out.
I can’t.
There is no air,
Only relentless heat and sweat.
Turn to the right side.
Turn to the left.
Hold it higher. Repeat.
Now on one leg, then the other.
There are no sides, no legs,
No lungs, no air.
I am dizzy. I might faint.
Or lose my lunch.

And on and on.
Without cries or moans,
Just silent private struggles,
And quick embarrassed glances
At others suffering.
While sweet, soft-spoken Satan,
David, our devil in disguise,
Urges us to move and pull,
To strain and stress,
Every muscle, every bone.
Until we collapse at last
Like over-cooked vegetables
On sodden towels
In pools of perspiration.
Savasana, Dead Man’s Pose.
Without posing, near dead.

And then it ends.
Yes, reprieve. It ends.
We gather our numb, spent bodies,
Our drenched, trendy clothing,
Water bottles, yoga gear.

It ends. It is over.
Although some mill around
Looking reluctant to leave.
Masochistic or now brain-dead?
Hard to tell.

It ends and we are granted exit
Because Bikram Yoga is not really hell.
It is purgatory in the 21st century.
We come willingly and we pay,
Usually $20 a session.

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