Is This a Cult? My First Foray Into Yoga

My first yoga experience was hell on earth. Are you hearing me? HELL. ON. EARTH.

I was 16 when my aunt Tracy dragged me to a Bikram yoga class. For those of you who have never tried it, Bikram is a series of 26 yoga postures performed over 90 minutes in a very hot room. How hot is very hot? Roughly 105 degrees. And when you’re a whiny, chubby high-school student trapped in a sweaty and stiflingly hot yoga studio instead of camping out on your aunt’s couch watching her endless supply of VHS tapes, one 90-minute yoga session can quickly turn into a nightmare.

In a room full of advanced middle-aged practitioners, I was a fat teenage novice, and I stuck out like a sore thumb. The heat of the room was completely unreasonable. I couldn’t fathom how red-blooded human beings were actually expected to survive an entire hour and a half without even a puff of air-conditioning. Also, the studio’s smell was overwhelming. Sweat and wall-to-wall carpeting don’t mix, but it was clear from the moment I rolled out my mat that absolutely no one in the room cared about such things.

I wanted to duck out of the class before we’d even finished the opening rounds of pranayama, or breath work. In any Bikram yoga class in the world, you will encounter the intense dual rounds of nasal inhales and oral exhales that bookend the yoga sequence. The Bikram pranayama is particularly killer, even for experienced practitioners. The other students in the class were breathing so hard, deep, and loud that they looked like they were trying to impersonate a colony of dragons. I thought I might see smoke come out of at least one person’s nostrils. How could something as utterly basic and human as breathing be so goddamn hard? I’d been doing it all my life, and yet I found these breathing exercises to be impossible.

The balance postures were similarly difficult, and not just because of my naturally clumsy nature. And in spite of the towel I’d been advised to drape over my mat, the sweat made it nearly impossible to stand up straight, let alone grab my foot behind my head or any of the other inscrutable shenanigans my classmates seemed to be doing so effortlessly.

About a third of the way into the class, I became convinced that my death by heat exhaustion was imminent. I had to get out of there. With my dignity dripping off my finger webbing, I managed to crawl out of Satan’s yoga sauna. The wave of AC-sodden oxygen that met me in the hallway was a relief on par only with manna from heaven. However, I soon learned why teachers discourage students from exiting hot studios mid-class: When a fatigued student reenters the stiflingly hot room from a relatively cold space, their internal temperature shift can be abrupt and painful, with disastrous results.

Upon returning to my mat, I felt a wave of nausea unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I spent the rest of the class in a heap on my yoga mat, simultaneously trying not to cry and wanting to melt into the atmosphere. Yoga was obviously not for me.

Seven years later, when my friend Anna asked me to join her for a class at our local Bikram yoga studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, my knee-jerk reaction was something along the lines of “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.” But optimism grows in strange places, and before long I found myself softening to Anna’s pleas. It didn’t hurt that our local Bikram studio was promoting a discounted intro month class pass at the time, one of those really good deals that you hem and haw over until you just throw up your hands and say, “Well, how bad could it really be if I can attend an entire month of unlimited classes for only 30 dollars?” (There’s also a distinct possibility that the reason I finally caved to the gravitational pull of Bikram yoga is because it’s actually a cult and Anna had recruited me in the same way new cult members have been recruited for, legit, thousands of years.)

With my tail between my legs and my dad’s old Pilates mat under my arm, I finally made my way to the Bikram studio on Fayette Street in early fall 2011. I remember feeling as though everyone’s eyes were on me. And by “everyone,” I mean every single living and breathing human, from the person casually walking out of the studio to the bored studio receptionist to the person who chose to roll out her mat as far away from me as possible. Every single gaze felt like a judgment. “What are YOU doing here?” the gazes said. “Your fat ass does not deserve to be here.” I truly believed that I was unfit to be in the yoga studio.

But as the class gained momentum and we started practicing the asana, I eventually had to tell my mind to shut the hell up, and not for any other reason than the fact that it was SO HARD and I needed to focus my full attention on not collapsing. Nothing had changed in the years since my last yoga experience. I hadn’t magically become stronger, and the poses hadn’t magically become easier. In fact, some of the poses completely knocked me off my feet, both emotionally and physically. Less than 20 minutes into class, the teacher told us to go into Chair Pose. First, you start by just planting your feet firmly on the ground, bending your knees, and sinking your hips back, your arms extended parallel to the ground. The second variation requires that you rise onto your tiptoes and repeat the same action. And in the third variation, you bend your knees while on your tippy toes, then cross one ankle over the opposite knee and then continue to bend the knees SO DEEPLY that your butt hovers about 6 to 8 inches above the ground. And as if that wasn’t hard enough, you have to stare at yourself in a huge mirror. Does it sound intense as fuck? THAT’S BECAUSE IT IS.

The Bikram ideology says that by gazing into your own eyes and using them as a point of balance, you are given the opportunity to see within the eyes of your one and only true teacher—yourself. But by this point in my life, I had grown accustomed to avoiding my own reflection if I thought I looked like shit. I mean, it’s pretty common fat girl knowledge that we’re not allowed to wear anything fun or interesting while working out. I always thought thin girls were the only people who were allowed to wear cute bralettes and tight leggings, so on that particular day, I had followed proper fat girl exercise apparel protocol by wearing my baggiest T-shirt and pairing it with my ugliest gym shorts. I was so ashamed of my body that I didn’t think I deserved to wear clothing that actually made me feel good.

The strength of truly toxic shame comes when it’s allowed to fester, like an open wound. And, by the time I tried to look myself in the eye during this yoga class, my body shame had been festering for the better part of two decades. I still don’t know why I didn’t run screaming from the class. Sometimes I think I was in such a bad place that nothing I could feel in the hot-as-hell yoga studio could be worse than what I was feeling every other part of the day. So I didn’t run. I stayed to the bitter end. And I kept coming back.

It wasn’t easy. The physical challenge of struggling through Chair Pose in a room full of huffing and puffing yoga dragons combined with the emotional intensity of all that eye contact caused me to swell with waves of anger and self-pity. This became a familiar pattern in the early days of my practice. When I found a pose difficult, I became defensive and prideful. Often, I literally stopped practicing until the next pose. My teachers and fellow practitioners saw a surly-looking, curvy black femme standing on her mat in stoic silence, grouchy because her body wouldn’t bend the way her mind wanted.

But on the inside, I was in tears. Why can’t I do it? I thought. What’s wrong with me? Everyone around me is making this look so easy! WHY CAN THEY DO IT AND I CAN’T? The desire to cry inconsolably wasn’t really what I expected from a practice that my friend had assured me would calm and relax my spirit. This sensation could be overwhelming to the point of debilitation. Some days it felt like the mother of all triumphs to just drag my ass into my car, drive it to the yoga studio, and roll out my mat.

But at some point I stopped fighting it. When my internal baby would rear up, instead of yelling at myself, I just let myself have a moment of being upset, and eventually, the tears stopped flowing—I guess you can’t cry forever, right? It took a lot to ignore the parts of my body that I perceived as subpar—they felt like permanent reminders of my inadequacy. But when I would let my gaze rest solely on my eyes in the mirror—actually dared to look within the eyes of my own “true” teacher—I saw what really stopped me from being able to find balance: Fear.

I was afraid. Of what? Who knows. But when I actually made eye contact with myself, when I caught and held my own gaze and carefully followed the alignment instructions offered by the teacher, I forced myself to stare down every dark thought I’d ever had about myself. And in the process, I was able to find a sense of comfort in the pose. I was still aware that on many levels, my version of Chair Pose looked very different from my fellow practitioners. My alignment was sloppy and not as advanced as that of most of the people in the room. But when I would fall out of a pose, I would give myself the chance to try again. Without judgment or fear—after all, I’d already fallen out of the pose; why not just give it another try for fun? It’s possible that I hadn’t given myself the chance to try in such a carefree way since childhood. In fact, until that day on Fayette Street, it’s possible that I’d never allowed myself the chance to trust myself. And that was a triumph all my own, a triumph I hadn’t felt in years.


Excerpt from Jessamyn’s new book: Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get On the Mat, Love Your Body.

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About the Author | Jessamyn Stanley

Jessamyn Stanley is the author of Every Body Yoga, as well as an internationally recognized yoga teacher, award-winning Instagram star, and body-positive advocate. She has been profiled by a wide range of media, including Good Morning America, TIME, New York, Glamour, People, Essence, Lenny Letter, and many others. When she’s not on the road teaching, she lives in Durham, NC.

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1 comment to "Is This a Cult? My First Foray Into Yoga"

  • Karen DeBonis

    What a great story of triumph, Jessamyn. You are a warrior, whether you’re in that pose or not!