Everything is going along fine and then BAM, something happens that frightens you, that you’ve never had to deal with before. Do you listen to your fear or do you breathe through it and give yourself time to gather your thoughts before 1. panicking or 2. responding sanely? If you’re me, and it’s a potential health scare, you find a way to convince yourself that what’s happening is meaningless, that it is all in your imagination. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) that trick only lasts until the frightening thing happens again or gets worse.
It is six a.m. on a Friday. My arms stretch toward the sky, perfectly straight, elbows locked, hands clasped tightly over my head, against my ears, index fingers pointing up. I’m beginning the second posture in the Bikram yoga series: Half-moon pose. I can feel the first bubbles of sweat being released from the pores in my face and behind my knees. Before long, I will be drenched, but for now, I’m anticipating that first drip of sweat down one of my calves, my personal signal that class has begun and it is time to drop my thoughts and give myself over to the yoga.
Bikram Yoga, for those who don’t know, is unlike other yoga classes as it, in theory, is practiced exactly the same in every Bikram studio around the world. The twenty-six asana (posture) series is never altered, including the order of postures, the length of time each posture is held, and the timing and length of the breaks given to drink water and rest between postures. Probably the biggest difference, though, which seems to freak a lot of people out, is that this yoga class is held in a studio, which is heated to 105 degrees.
Without fail, the people in my life, upon learning of my relatively newfound love for this practice, ask the same question, “Are you sure it is safe to do yoga in such a hot room?” To which I answer, “I think so, but I can’t know for sure.” There are many opinions on the subject, many conflicting studies about the benefits versus the dangers of this practice, so I can’t definitively tell my mother (and others) that there is no risk involved. However, I can tell them that since I began doing Bikram yoga a year ago, I feel better physically, mentally, and spiritually than I ever have in my almost half-century of life.
That doesn’t mean that I always feel good during class. Sometimes, a part of my body is sore or tired and I can’t stay in a posture for the proscribed amount of time or I get a cramp and have to breathe my way out of it. Occasionally, a muscle will seize up on me briefly or I will feel an unexpected ache or pain in my back or my leg or my hip. What I’ve found is that if I scale back the posture to its most basic form, the problem always lessens, and then goes away fairly quickly, leaving that part of me feeling stronger and more able to withstand the work involved in each posture.
But this past Friday, something happened that set off alarms in my head. The sweat had broken, the drips down my calves were becoming steadier when I began to feel a strange sensation in my fingers. My first instinct was to brush it off, but it kept getting worse. “Should I be leaving now and going to the emergency room?” I wondered, but something in me resisted taking that thought seriously. Instead, I focused on my breath as I pulled back from the posture, doing it in a way that felt a little less painful, with my arms bent and holding the pose for a shorter period of time.
My instructor asked if I was okay and I said fine except my fingers were burning and it really hurt. The sensation resembled something I’d felt before but at the time I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. Later I realized it was a similar feeling to how my fingers feel if I’ve been exposed to extreme cold and then go into a warm room: they felt like there were icicles beneath my skin that were melting extremely fast, a feeling of being both burning hot and freezing cold at the same time. It’s hard to describe the intensity of that pain but it is pretty significant.
Somebody chimed in that she’d had that happen to her before. She thinks it happened when she was eating too much salt. I’d had a relatively salty meal the night before so maybe that was it. Then, somebody else said they had a similar thing a few weeks ago, that I should take it easy. Of the seven people in class that day, I knew that at least two of them were medical professionals: a nurse and a physician’s assistant. While they couldn’t feel my pain, they seemed to believe that what I was going through was not life-threatening.
I stayed in class, continued with the series. As soon as my hands were not in the air, they began to feel better. I avoided the arm-raising part of the next several poses and only felt a slight twinge of burning heat in my fingertips, noticeably in the thumb and forefinger of my right hand. Finally, after the first half of the class, the standing portion of the series, I rolled up my mat and went home. My fear had gotten the best of me.
It was as I was driving my daughter to school, still feeling residual pain in my fingertips, when I remembered a moment from the night before. I was making a chili-based pesto for chicken and while I wasn’t too lazy to prepare the meal, I WAS too lazy to find a pair of latex gloves to wear while removing the seeds and pulp from the habanero peppers which I’d reconstituted. A few minutes after I’d cleaned the peppers and combined them with the other ingredients in the blender, the skin around and just inside my nose began to burn. The feeling wasn’t that different from the feeling in my fingertips during yoga class. It was so severe that I was walking around with ice wrapped in paper towel and holding it against my nose off and on for at least a couple of hours after. But my fingers never hurt.
After I left the school, I pulled over and Googled “burning fingers habanero peppers” and found a lengthy discussion on Chowhound.com about how the capsaicin in the peppers is so strong that it can lay dormant for up to 24 hours before causing the burning sensations that come from being stupid and lazy and not wearing latex gloves while seeding hot peppers. I’d found the culprit: my stupidity. It wasn’t like I hadn’t burned myself in the past when seeding hot peppers. I had and after each time, I swore that I would never seed a hot pepper again without wearing latex gloves.
Take what you may out of that confession. All I know is that the trick of soaking my hands in the juice of a freshly squeezed lime took the pain away within minutes. I was good to go on with my day, pain-free.
And I made a promise to myself: next time I’m working with hot peppers of any kind, I will wear latex gloves. And if I don’t, will one of you do me this favor: commit me to an insane asylum.
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