Locals • 29 December 2009

Went out Saturday night with four junior professors—good looking, well dressed and profusely published. I like Humanities people: they’re well read and spoken, hyper-reflective, pleasantly cynical, and know how to choose books and order wine.

Funny – I guess if interpretation is your stock in trade, you’re likely to take your own emotions hyper seriously. Interpretation is just moodiness with good syntax, so woes are raw material. Topics of conversation last night, over a startlingly good dinner at EvE (OvO’s A2HQ) and three bottles of red, included: treatments for seasonal affective disorder, uncontrollable addictions to Zappos.com, how the last push of finishing the dissertation turned them in to monsters, getting psychoanalyzed, adding Pema Chodron to the nightstand along with one’s preferred great literature, the importance of keeping an apartment in Chicago or New York, how there is nobody to have sex with in Ann Arbor. Dark! But also: absolutely real problems.

My favorite is a poet and former Silicon Valley programmer who does self-deprecation with such methodical lightness it’s like he’s crocheting conversation. He makes poems by randomly reconstituting the sections of distress line phonecalls that his DVR software can’t recognize. And also J, Sartre as Gen X-er, a beautifully spoken professor whose expansive catalogue of the reasons academics are more miserable than civilians is nearly complete, based on experience. I suspect he’s taken up smoking just so he can stand outdoors and freeze, his thin, uninsulated frame cutting sharp and tragically fashionable against the 14-hour night. The rest of us are sexless downy puffballs, but J is fighting the good fight in the name of New York City, Brooks Brothers and the MLA. Having sold out immediately for puffiness, I hope his REI resistance is still holding steady when I return from India in March.

Woke up with a light hangover and the feeling in my belly of a fine, rich dinner that hadn’t even begun until 9. Excellent. The night-before preparations for my first Bikram class were in place. Doesn’t seem right to go in to that atmosphere without something potent to burn off. I’ve been canvassing Ann Arbor yoga, just to get a sense of what’s here and in hopes of meeting one or two new kindred spirits. Also, I know that if I start hermitlike here, I may dig in my heels and self-isolate, imagining my practice to be all precious and inviolate. Not that everybody would do this—I’ve just seen myself reflected in those who do. For me, there’s a sneaky depression that comes with that kind self isolation—once it arrives, it’s so subtle I can’t detect it—and it’s this that I especially care to preempt. Once I feel more grounded here, doing only self practice will make more sense.

The carpet at the Bikram studio smelled sweet like the rotting trash in a tropical country’s dump, and the heat cooked me to the bones. This is what I have taken for granted: temperatures and humidity high enough to induce decay and warm my fast-twitch, flightly little core. No wonder new practitioners feel cleansed: the heat does a lot of work on the body as one makes lightly strenuous, very safe shapes. I have been looking for an good sauna in town, but this is a sauna in which I get to do stretches! A nice resource. Afterwards, I soldiered back out in to the cold, my core so superheated and skin so full of moisture that 20 minutes later I was walking naked on the icy wood floor at home, without even a shiver.

Do you know what it’s like when your organs get cold and can’t warm up for weeks? Not if you’re a pitta. Not if you live in California. I was so dry and cold to the core that I didn’t drip a drop of sweat until we got well in to the floor series. Even now, re-chilled, I see that a layer of dread has been stripped away—the dread that began the month in 1998 I spent sleeping in snow caves and frost-biting the right toes. All week, those toes have tended to go deathly white, even when wrapped in layers of wool. The dread is that I’ll never really be warm again. I could have cured it at the YMCA sauna two blocks from our house, but Bikram got me first. Thank you for your brass balls and the fortitude to bring them to Ann Arbor, Mr. Choudry. Somehow they have fortified me too.

Bikram is wonderfully hot, but I also appreciate its democracy and impersonality. Every age and body type in the room—very insipring; and they don’t even say on the schedule who is teaching each class because it’s not supposed to matter. Everyday practitioners of all ages hang out before and after class in tiny pieces of clothing – no shame, but also no pride. Nobody is sculpted or tanned, anyway. And maybe after all that mirror-staring, having a body isn’t quite as big of a deal. I think of ashtanga as a strong container, but—with the damn mirrors, and the goddamn heat, and the talking so incessant you often want to scream—Bikram is even stronger. No escape in that room.

The hot yoga doesn’t light up most of the physical and mental wires that ashtanga engages. It’s a gross level practice, in that sense. The work isn’t deep enough to wring out the internal organs; and the “dialogue” keeps me from dropping in below a certain blip-rate mentally. But… nobody said it was a particularly contemplative practice, or a transformative one. Most people seem to do it because it’s an awesome de-tox, as compared to most ashtangis, who—if they become lifers—usually stay with the practice to cultivate equanimity. Bikram is a hilarious mirror… for ashtanga and all the other yogas. Nobody could mistake this for being a woo-woo spiritual zone; and there is no space for divas or superheroes.

So… there is this area of my headspace that seems to be reserved for locals. Suddenly these—J the brilliant, tragic Zappos maven, Amanda the intriguingly monotonous reciter of the Bikram script—are the characters populating it. I hope they remain so amusing and easy to be with. Likely more kindred community will arrive eventually, but who knows. Disconsolate academics and Bikram junkies aren’t really so strange.