Prana in the SaunaBy Erika Rae
August 10, 2010
One who has control over the mind is tranquil in heat and cold, in pleasure and pain, and in honor and dishonor, and is ever steadfast with the Supreme Self.” -Bhagavad Gita
It is Monday morning and I am pulling on the smooth wooden handle of the sauna door at the North Boulder Rec Center. My eyes adjust to the dim light and I step inside under the watchful gaze of two men sitting at opposite sides of the bench facing the door. I smile without meeting either of their eyes and take a seat at the small bench next to the stove on the right. The bench burns the undersides of my thighs and I fidget under the sting of heat and male eyes above me. In a rush, I make for the empty, high bench opposite me, turn backwards and boost myself up with my palms so that I can sit with my back to the men and my eyes to the door as if we are in an elevator conceived in the mind of a man named Bikram.
I breathe in slowly.
I am out of practice with saunas, having spent the last few years of my life with a baby on one hip. Even so, I like to think of myself as one who enjoys the all-encompassing heat. I like the mental exercise—the progression of thoughts that branch in my mind.
My first thoughts, of course, spider toward Hell. But despite my evangelical roots, it’s not a particularly biblical image of Hell, favoring instead the imagination of Dante or Bosch. Demons goad. Bare breasted women with rotted out mouths taunt. Unshaven men limp from chamber to chamber with various impalements. All pathways are circular.
My next thought is that I don’t believe in Hell anymore.
After this, I remind myself that I enjoy heat. That I was born in the middle of a Sacramento summer. That I was born for this.
I remind myself that heat is a test of endurance. That surviving it—choosing to stay in it when easier air is only four feet away—is a matter of resolve.
My next thought is of a story Scott once told me about a massage parlor he visited in Hong Kong. There was a stretch of hot pebbles on which people were meant to walk in order to increase their sex life. Every minute on the rocks was an equivalent increase to one’s sex life. He said he watched one little, old man walk back and forth on the rocks the entire time he was there. Back and forth. Back and forth.
I remind myself that I can and must handle anything.
I remind myself that I am as strong as I will allow myself to be.
I breathe slowly, savoring the sensation that my nostril hairs are being singed.
I think of ovens. Crispy Peking duck. The witch in Hansel and Gretel. Jeffrey Dahmer.
I have had enough.
In spite of the fact that I have already traveled from Sacramento to Hong Kong with a stopover in Hell, in human terms I have only been in the sauna of the North Boulder Rec Center for about 45 seconds. I am just out of practice, I excuse myself weakly. I have had babies. Babies do not mix well with extreme heat. It says so quite clearly in the Operating Instructions. I can’t remember the exact wording but it was something like: “Saunas: No babies.” Behind me, the older man shifts his weight and lets out a deep sigh.
I study my legs pulled up in front of me to an upside down V. Since it’s dark, I don’t notice all of the imperfections I normally obsess over. Uneven color. Nicks from the razor. Little blue veins. I am wearing a steel gray swimsuit. It is a two-piece that covers my tummy and has halter straps that tie around the back of my neck. It says to anybody who is looking too hard or thoughtfully at it: I have had babies. Babies who don’t belong in the sauna.
And please stop looking at my tummy.
The bench behind me crackles and groans and the older man appears in my peripheral vision. He exits the sauna in a rush of air. The air feels like life.
When the door closes, I sit as still as the wooden planks surrounding me. I am aware that the water from the pool has evaporated from my body and I have commenced a slow bake. I wonder when I will begin to sweat. I long for this release.
Behind me, the young man pushes off the bench. I expect him to leave like the older man, but instead he stops, facing the door. I wait. From his lithe back, I surmise he is in his late twenties. His skin is tanned the color of the wood door and he has long Jesus hair, which tickles his back as his shoulders rise and fall once. He turns abruptly and hangs a light blue towel on the rail in front of the stove as if he intends to dry it out faster. I wonder if he is stupid.
He stands with his sweat drenched back to me and fills his lungs with air. From my place on the scorching planks I watch as his chiseled back expands with his breath. He stares at the door, blocking my entrance to it.
Sauna etiquette is not much different than elevator etiquette. No talking. No eye contact. Face the door. If you cough, you say, excuse me. If someone else coughs, you wait a full minute before bailing so it doesn’t appear you are leaving on account of them and their diseased lungs. Having never met this person before, I am fully prepared to play by the rules. I sit perched on the high bench, flanking him at 3 o’clock. When he turns around, I drop my eyes as if I don’t see him. As if I am so consumed with my own world of razor burn and the sex drive of little, old men that I don’t even register that he is there.
To our left, the stones hiss as he empties a ladleful of water over them. He turns toward 9 o’clock and stretches his back left and right. He exhales the slow leak of a loud, aspirated ‘h’.
Not stupid, I realize then. Enlightened.
Watching him over my shoulder, I realize I have made a mistake entering the sauna. The truth is, I don’t really enjoy the heat. That was something I just told myself when I was fresh out of the water and the thought of detoxing my pores appealed to me. I may have mentioned this before, but I am a lightweight. Babies and all.
Just then he drops his torso forward and reaches down for his toes, releasing as he does this a yogic groan that not only aligns his chakras, but mine as well.
I want to leave but also fully realize that my departure at this point might be considered rude. We’re in Boulder, after all. What he is doing isn’t that strange. Everyone does yoga here. The organic produce section of Whole Foods alone is practically filled with people doing yoga. Mountain pose to reach the salad sprinkles. Warrior pose to reach the kiwi and mango simultaneously. Triangle to procure cucumber. Would I make him feel uncomfortable if I left? Would he feel bad knowing he drove a fellow sauna sitter away? Would it set back his progress toward enlightenment?
I consider my possible responses and their effect on his dying ego. And if I leave now, what does that say about me? That I’m squeamish? Insecure? A Republican? He rights himself and turns back in my direction. My eyes snap to the door. Certainly I can handle a minor chakrasm alone in a sauna with a hippy version of Adonis himself.
When I lived in Hong Kong, there was a small English style pub I used to visit. There was only one bathroom in the pub, inside which was a toilet and a urinal separated by a curtain. There was no lock on the main bathroom door. Once I had just ducked into the toilet when the door swung wide and some guy walked in to use the urinal on the other side of the curtain beside me. I couldn’t do it. I stood up, zipped up, and left. Behind me, the man apologized profusely through the door insisting that we could somehow work it out between us. I don’t mind, he kept repeating. Come back!
He is now facing the back of the sauna. With arms raised, he bends his torso right then left. If I raised my left arm, my fingers would leave a trail through the sweat up his side. The closed door beckons me. He is slowly rolling his shoulders now and commencing pranayama. In my peripheral vision I watch as he fills his abdomen, then lungs; then he empties his lungs, then abdomen. He does this eleven times.
I am confused. I want to leave, but I no longer know how to do so gracefully. Clearly he has a regimen. From the looks of his slick and hollowed-out face, I estimate he has been in the sauna for at least three hours. If I leave now, he will understand. He will know it is not simply because I was made to feel uncomfortable or because he has detracted from my own karma with his practice. I may not have ridden it out to the lengths of, say, a Libertarian, but maybe at least to that of a Democrat. It would be all right. We have an African American president. I have simply had enough of the sauna. I will leave at the final emptying of his abdomen so as not to interrupt his Nirvana.
Without warning, he begins to make sharp, even bursts with his nose. I turn to look and see that his forehead is slightly bent forward and his eyes are closed. He increases in tempo until he is performing nearly three breaths per second. I have missed my opportunity. I wait for him to finish this respiratory miracle in the midst of the oppressive heat. My head is swirling now, having mastered nearly four whole minutes in the sauna of the North Boulder Rec Center. I wait for a pause in which to make my exit. But the pause doesn’t come. When he finishes his Breath of Fire, he pitches forward and umbrellas his Jesus hair over his toes. He groans with pleasure.
Not enlightened, I realize then. Asshole.
The thought alights on my shoulders like a lotus petal caught and fallen in the morning breeze. I can not believe I did not see it earlier. He wants me to leave. The entire time he has been trying to make me uncomfortable so that he can be alone. So that he can have the sauna of the North Boulder Rec Center all to himself. Right on cue, he begins gyrating his hips in slow, large circles with his head now thrown back to get a better look at eternity through the planks in the ceiling.
I hold my eyelids open with effort and watch him as he stirs the heat slowly with his kundalini. Suddenly he stops and looks my way. I look back at the door.
All this time I have been secretly admiring his lack of ego—his ability to break the social mores of the sauna-elevator classification—when in reality he is trying to drive me out of the sauna. His sauna.
I continue to stare at the door as his egoless ego bores a prana-shaped hole into my psyche. He has declared war.
It is enough. All at once, I give in to the heat and let my eyelids fall like a tankini over a stretched out stomach. I lean my head back against the wall for support—for when the unconsciousness will soon overtake me—and smile, just as somewhere in the background, the elevator musak switches tunes to that of a desperate om.