“Check, check. Check, check. Let’s rock and roll!” said the slender Indian man into his microphone headset. There he stood with a broad smile, atop a 7-foot mirrored podium in front of the room, rubbing his hands eager to start. “Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber where you kill yourself for the next 90 minutes,” he continued.
My teachers at home rarely started class this way. If they did, they would surely strike fear in the hearts of their students especially the first timers. But in a room of 400 yoga students training to be teachers, it was appropriate and even welcomed. The energy in the room was electric. Most of us never took a class taught by the guru who created the yoga series we sought to teach.
Bikram Choudhury wore his signature teaching outfit: a black Speedo-like bikini bottom, a black headband across his forehead, and his long thinning hair tied up in a small knot on top of his head. On the podium was an over-sized chair, covered in orange towels. An adjacent small table hid a plastic bin of ice to keep bottled water and Coca-Cola cold.
Just a few hours earlier, Bikram stood before us in the lecture room in a fitted shirt, slacks, an expensive wristwatch, and Italian leather shoes. “This first week, take it easy honey! Don’t kill yourself now. Don’t worry, I will kill you later in week 4!” he joked. We all laughed…nervously. Later, I would learn that this man loved to tell jokes and stories…and that he always kept his promise.
A day after our arrival, we now faced him like an army, arranging our mats and distributing ourselves along ten white lines that horizontally cut across the floor of the Radisson’s main ballroom. The high ceilings, glass chandeliers, and wood paneling were further accented with fluorescent lights and floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the entire front and left side of the room. Several large air ducts at the back of the room transported heat. Fellow trainee, Steve Landry, shot this one-minute video revealing the transformed ballroom where we would practice eleven times per week for the next nine weeks.
I looked over at Lala for reassurance. She stood on her mat next to me and smiled. We had enough balls to choose to stand in the front row, right next to Bikram and the podium! I was nervous and excited. It all felt so surreal. I dreamt about this moment for so long and it was hard to believe my dream became a reality.
I looked around the room. My fellow trainees hailed from 40 countries (see list below)*. About 85% were women and ages ranged from 19 to middle age and beyond. Some trainees had a head full of silver hair. We were single, engaged, married, straight, gay, Christian, Hindu, agnostic, atheist. We were parents, social workers, carpenters, doctors, psychiatrists, dancers, actors, and graphic designers. Find a label, we represented it.
Bikram was ready to begin.
Start please. Toes on the line. Pranayama breathing.
The opening breathing exercise requires students to inhale by the nose creating a snoring sound and exhale by the mouth creating a “HA” sound. Its purpose is to open up the lungs to its maximum capacity thereby preparing students for the next 90 minutes of class. Bikram was in a great mood. On the podium, he danced, smiled, laughed, and joked. After 20 minutes, Bikram sat down in his chair, crossed his legs, and taught the remainder of class with the same energy he had when he started. Once in a while, he called out a student usually by pointing and identifying the color of his or her outfit in a sea of yogis.
Miss Pink! Sit down more.
Boss! Chest up, arms back!
He addressed the male students as “Boss” and the female students as “Miss” or “Sweetheart”. If he got to know someone, he would assign him or her a nickname.
Miss Bushy Bushy (her hair).
Miss Chinese Chop Suey (her ethnic background).
Miss London (she lived there).
Lampost (he was 6’7”)
Class went by quickly. When it was over, I lay still on my mat with my eyes closed. I was so happy. My heart screamed with joyous certainty: I belonged here and this path I chose to become a teacher was the right one. I smiled, looking forward to the next nine weeks. I was finally going to get to call Bikram the way most of his teachers address him: BOSS.
*Trainees hailed from: the USA, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Estonia, Croatia, Latvia, France, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland, Lithuania, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Poland, Holland, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, India, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand.