Last Wednesday evening, I entered Williamsburg’s YO BK—the only Bikram yoga studio in North Brooklyn. Bikram is maybe better known as hot yoga, which means what it sounds like: yoga poses executed in a very hot space. But the original and eponymous practice was developed by Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s, and is immutable: There are 26 poses, employed in a set order, and practiced at 105 degrees and 40 percent humidity in 90 minutes. At YO BK, opened by Kate Davies last October, the Bikram style is followed closely, except Davies also offers 60 minute classes, wherein select postures are struck once, rather than twice consecutively.
I am not remotely close to being a person who does yoga regularly, though I feel like it’s easy to pick out the people who do. Beyond the yoga mat-tubes slung over their shoulders, dedicated yogis can possess a quietly confident demeanor, and pretty great posture. It’s easy to feel intimidated by all of this. These people seem to hold a life-secret that remains elusive, at least to me. So at YO BK, I was not just eager to experience hot yoga, but also to get a little peek into that yoga secret.
Davies greeted me behind the desk, just before the 90-minute class at 6pm. One other woman preceded me, and she sat on the front bench filling out a member form; above her, front and center, “Hot Yoga” glowed in neon. “People will come in here and be like, “What is Hot Yoga, some kind of club?” Davies told me, laughing. The sign was a splurge, she explained, purchased in Chinatown during the studio buildout (the space used to be a rowing center). It was effective. The glow gives the otherwise minimal loft space a pull that makes you want come inside.
Eventually, five other students joined us. One of them, who was familiar with Davies, was an obviously adept keeper of the yoga secret. She was toned, confident, and had excellent posture. Davies asked everyone if they needed water, a towel, or a mat for class. I needed all three; apparent-frequent-yoga practitioner needed none. Then she stripped down into tiny shorts and a sports bra.
Inside, Davies assured us that, even if we were unfamiliar with the Bikram practice, we could do all poses with her instructions only, or by looking at classmates. Strong yoga woman was to my left, and I identified one more woman directly in front of me, clad in sleek black yoga fabrics, who could also be my guide.
The room had two fully mirrored walls and was very hot, but it felt oddly good, maybe because there were a couple of humidifiers quietly puffing little clouds of moisture on the periphery. Davies’s instructions were mechanical, like they followed a script, but enthusiastic. Immediately, her words were everyone’s collective focus. They were plenty loud, too.
Our warmup was a series of breaths and arm movements that culminated with hands clasped beneath chins, elbows thrust high, and, when done successfully, forearms contouring the sides of our heads. It was not easy. I have a bad shoulder first of all, so only my left forearm was getting anywhere. In the mirror, my arms jutted out like broken wings. Meanwhile, the yoga secret keeper in front of me had deftly created a neat little container for her face with her forearms. It was my first insight into the secret: People who practice yoga get their bodies to move in ways that don’t look particularly hard, but that reveal themselves to be very hard when you attempt them.
Davies led us through the 26 poses, one swiftly after the next. But none of them entailed the pretzel-twisting contortions that look crazy to people who don’t practice yoga. “The actual range that you’re putting your joints into is not extreme,” Davies tells me later about Bikram poses. “Your hips are in the same line with your shoulders, and in the same line with your knees.” But that did not make doing them easy; the challenge comes in striking these poses in what Davies calls their “final expression,” a point at which they were fully sunken into, fully realized. And getting to that point, I learned immediately, was seriously difficult. Still, everyone can do it, Davies says. “I’ve taught classes where there are 80-year-olds and 19-year-old girls, all in the same posture.”
I didn’t fully express a single pose once. But because Davies led us through each one twice, my second go arounds got a little closer, and that was satisfying. Plus, I thought, maybe that was the key to another yoga secret: Because Bikram practice is so rigidly defined, we are presented with a series of very directed, highly specific goals to work our bodies toward, and even the tiniest increments of progress toward their full expression would be enough to keep me coming back. Confidence comes from surmounting difficult, but clearly-defined objectives.
The sweat started to pour out of everyone as we got deeper into the set. It was a detox, but not one that included the huffing and puffing of running. Yet it still felt semi-aerobic, with all the heavy breathing and thrusting, and, at times, acutely muscle-building. One pose, “Standing Head to Knee,” really gave my quads a test. In the middle of one miserable attempt, I started shaking uncontrollably. “You’re contracting your standing leg, which is a lot for the body—a lot of balance and strength and flexibility,” says Davies. “You’re using your body to heal your body,” she says—no weights or blocks necessary. When done regularly, you’re not supposed to need any other form of exercise to be in really, really good shape, Davies says about Bikram. And for the past eleven years, she hasn’t.
Davies first started doing it when a friend from college invited her to join for a class. Instantly, she was practicing every day, and trained to become a teacher of the Bikram method. Beyond fitness, she loved the feeling it gave her, she told me—and that’s another thing you hear all these yoga practitioners talk about over and over, how good they feel afterwards. Yes, you sweat and detox, but you do that while pushing your limits in a very focused fashion: It’s fitness and meditation, all in one—a holistic test, more all-encompassing than the kind you could get from hopping kind of mindlessly onto an elliptical machine. I talk to Davies the next day, and she asks me right away how I feel. “Sore everywhere,” I say. “Good,” she says, “That means something happened.”
After class, I didn’t shower (though there is one on site!), but peeled off my soaking yoga stuff and put my street clothes back on in the dressing room downstairs. Upstairs in the front waiting room, two students were waiting to take a class after us, and they smiled at me and asked, Did you just take a class? I looked too fresh, they told me, which shocked me. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I feel way worse than that.” But then I realized I actually meant that I felt pretty good. Something had definitely happened.
YO BK: 20 Broadway, Williamsburg