Bikram yoga isn’t just useful for acquiring a SUPER-TONED BODY, says Belfast-born novelist LUCY CALDWELL. Ninety minutes spent contorting in sauna temperatures helps her find the rhythms she needs to CREATE HER BEST WORK
It smells of feet. Stale, cheesy, yellow feet. And the sweat! The very room, it seems, is sweating: moisture trickles down the windows and the walls. The fan heaters pulse on remorselessly. I am puce-faced, straggle-haired, contorted into shapes that shouldn’t be possible. It’s for the sake of your breakfast, as much as my own vanity, that there’ll be no photo of me in situ to accompany this article. Why am I doing this? That’s not a rhetorical question: it’s one I ask myself three or four times a week. And yet, three or four times a week for the past five years, I’ve found myself stuffing my backpack with a washed-so-many-times-it’s-crispy towel and yoga mat, two litres of water, and setting off for another session of Bikram.
One of the great privileges of the writing life is the commute, or lack thereof. Mine takes me – hang on till I measure it – a grand total of seven paces to get from my bed to my shoebox of a study. I don’t even have to go downstairs to put on the coffee machine as I’ve my husband trained in that. On some days, the only exercise I get is prowling about the kitchen in search of biscuits or lumps of cheese, and the only saving grace of a sedentary lifestyle is that you can tell yourself some writers (Proust, Joyce, Wharton, Orwell) didn’t even bother to get out of bed at all.
To counteract the effects of such a lifestyle, I used to run a few times a week. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a runner; I was never zealous about it in the way that I am about Bikram. I felt like a fraud around real runners, who’d go into raptures about getting up before dawn, pounding the streets or the circuits of the park. The way I liked to run was on the treadmill at the gym: programme in the speed and the time, plug in headphones, surrender to the machine. No dodging pedestrians or jogging at traffic lights or mud or hills for me, just Madonna and a few mindless miles.
Walking at a natural, untrammelled pace lets your thoughts unfurl and settle; it lets new rhythms come. On days when the words won’t come, a long, aimless walk helps a lot.
I never thought well while I was running; my sentence-rhythms would be, as you’d imagine, fast and pumped. But I realised that I always wrote better after a run: it cleared away, somehow, the stale sentences I’d been gridlocked in. Writing, I’ve come to realise, is about rhythms. I’m far from the first to think so. From Wordsworth’s wanderings to the famous flanêurs, walking and writing have always been intertwined. “All truly great thoughts,” wrote Nietzsche, “are conceived by walking.” Walking at a natural, untrammelled pace lets your thoughts unfurl and settle; it lets new rhythms come. On days when the words won’t come, a long, aimless walk helps a lot. But for those times when your mind is clogged with the detritus of failed and broken-off sentences, a crescendo of sneering and critical voices, or other people’s words, I’ve found that even better than walking is yoga.
A true yogi would look disparagingly at Bikram – its nickname is “McYoga”. A trademarked series of 26 set postures, there’s little that’s contemplative about it and – at first glance – nothing spiritual. It began – where else? – in LA, and seemed at first just the latest celebrity fad. But it works. I discovered it after a knee injury made not just running, but even walking impossible. The heat in a Bikram studio means the practice is kind on damaged muscles or ligaments, so you get a lot of sportspeople and dancers with injuries. You also get professionals keen to improve their game: Andy Murray, to name just one recent convert, credited a hot yoga studio in west London for increasing his flexibility and endurance, and there are reports of several Olympic athletes taking up the practice.
Bikram yoga, however, is unflattering enough to be pretty egalitarian – after 90 minutes sweating and bending in ways the body normally doesn’t, nobody looks good, nor has the energy to eye up other bodies as you might do at a gym – so as well as the athletes you get the full range of body shapes and sizes, from overweight people to recovering anorexics. In the studio where I practise, there’s often a woman in her 80s, and one expectant mother-to-be did it up until two days before her baby was born. Once, apparently, even Lady Gaga was seen going through her sweaty paces, just the same as everyone else.
I started Bikram for my body, but I do it these days as much for my mind: however torturous each session continues to be, it’s become an essential part of my writing life. It may not be overtly spiritual, but all yoga, I’ve learned, uses the physical as a means of stilling and disciplining the mental.
I started Bikram for my body, but I do it these days as much for my mind: however torturous each session continues to be, it’s become an essential part of my writing life. It may not be overtly spiritual, but all yoga, I’ve learned, uses the physical as a means of stilling and disciplining the mental. There’s something so satisfying, when you live an intense life of the mind, of putting your body through the wringer. And a session of Bikram really does feel like being wrung out. You come out of the 90-minute class and the sauna-temperature studio feeling twisted and squeezed and cleansed and renewed. A bit (come to think of it) like a dishrag. It’s great for the ego, as well as everything else.
ANDREA RISEBOROUGH: The actress who starred in Madonna’s WE was often spotted at a Harold’s Cross Bikram studio while flming Shadow Dancer. COLIN FARRELL: Back on home turf, he doesn’t let his LA routine slide and calls in for classes across the city. JAMIE HEASLIP: The imposing Irish rugby captain tweets about his bouts of Bikram.
Lucy Caldwell’s second novel, All the Beggars Riding, is published by Faber and Faber today, February 7.
Lucy Caldwell @beingvarious
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our March issue, out Saturday March 5.
Love LOOKTHEBUSINESS.ie? Sign up to our MAILING LIST now for a roundup of the latest career advice, networking events and interviews.