One of the things I struggle with the most when travelling is maintaining an exercise schedule. For short getaways, honestly, I wouldn't even worry about it. There is so much to see and do, I generally walk a lot when I travel anyway and I can get back to my regular routine soon enough. But our last big trip was a year and a half long and the constant change and uncertainty, and a lot of carb-heavy foods, threw my body for a loop.
I consider myself lucky not to have struggled too much with body image growing up – apart from the usual awkward phases that most teenagers go through. I was naturally thin and that meant that I could pull most clothes off the rack without having to worry whether I'd be able to fit into them or not.
It was on this trip, however, that I realised my metabolism isn't as it once was. I'm actually not all that old, all things considered, but I suddenly felt it. As if hitting the “big 3-0” as they say, truly did mean the start of some downward spiral and I started to lament the fact that “my best days were behind me.” I thought that coming back to Japan at the end of that trip would change all that. After all, I always say that “Japan is the best diet.” I still find it true in many ways – as Japanese meals tend to be served in smaller portions with more variety. But it certainly wasn't enough this time and in the height of stress of 2015, when we had already been searching for a permanent place to stay in Tokyo for going on a year and having no luck because no one wanted to rent to foreigners, that my weight blew out to the most it has been in all my life. Most people probably didn't notice it like I did – since my weight was most obvious around the belly and arms. I just covered the problem areas as much as I could with clothes. Once we actually got a place and had sorted out a few basics, I did start to feel a little more at ease. Combined with the fact that we could prepare meals at home, I saw a little improvement.
But then 2016 wasn't all that either. I started going to Japanese school full-time, while also juggling full-time work, and it was hard. Really hard. By mid-year, even my “poofy” skirts couldn't hide the growing bulge around my mid-section and I grew further self-conscious about my flabby arms. I started to feel hideous. I didn't like the way I looked and felt embarrassed to wear clothes that accentuated it.
I started trying to do exercise when I got home at night, which was after 11pm. I looked at video series on YouTube and tried doing 30 minute sessions several times a week. I used to go to a local gym and do aerobics/dance style lessons there and really enjoyed them. I was just starting to see real results when I went to Indonesia for three months and it completely threw off my schedule again. So I knew that I could get results with this method, but that it was going to take time. But when I didn't see any change for months with my home workout sessions, I just got frustrated on top of the fact that I didn't enjoy the exercise the way I did in a group. We have minimal furniture in our place – we've just found it more freeing that way – so there is already this sense of “bareness”. But rather than feeling free of clutter or distractions, it just made me feel kind of “empty” in those moments – verging on cold and alone.
I tried running too. Hai would come along with me and we'd do short runs around the neighbourhood. But as much as I tried to get into it – I realized that running's not really for me. At least not at this moment in my life. I dreaded it, felt terrible doing it and hated having to watch out for cars and bicycles and kids around every corner. There's always the treadmill but it feels so solitary to me and the monotony of it doesn't make me feel inspired the way nailing an aerobics routine does.
I craved the sense of community I got from group lessons, along with the structure, both of which gave me a sense of purpose and prevented any desire to give up part way through. I tried to make the gym work but you had to make a reservation by phone for all the popular lessons – and that could only be done within an hour of the lesson start time. So you had to call and call again, trying to get through on a line that was jammed up with others trying to do the exact same thing. I just didn't have time for that.
Then one day I was walking to the train station and was offered a pamphlet about hot yoga. I had seen the studio sign and had been curious but had no idea how much it cost or how the system worked. I wasn't sure if I could just walk on in there (it was on the upper floor of a building with other businesses in it) and I worried that my Japanese wouldn't be good enough to understand what they were telling me anyway. But here I was with this pamphlet in my hand that outlined the basics and even included a coupon for a free trial lesson with mat/rug rental and a bottle of water. I looked up their website on the train and decided that I had nothing at all to lose. So I made an account and a reservation for a free trial lesson the next day.
I went to the yoga studio at 7:30am the following morning, 30 minutes before the lesson start time as requested, since it was my first time and they had to get some details from me and explain some things first. I didn't understand everything that was written on the terms and conditions documents that you are expected to sign if you decide to become a member, but the instructor was really kind in explaining things more simply and ensuring that I understood. The lesson itself wasn't difficult to understand since it mostly only requires knowledge of body parts, directions and verbs related to movement. In any case, as with any new exercise class, you can just copy the instructor until you start to memorize the poses and flow anyway.
The lesson was a beginner's yoga class and despite being a completely different pace to other exercise classes I had done in the past, something just felt really good about it. It was a group lesson – so I could feed off the energy in the room – but at the same time it felt solitary in a good way. Everyone was focused on their own movements and what they needed to do. This felt like the exact equilibrium I had been searching for. The instructor was super energetic and motivating, and didn't make me feel awkward when she came to correct my form. They were also having an amazing new member campaign, whereby if you signed up by the end of the month, you could do three months of yoga (up to two lessons a day) for only 70 bucks! They'd even waive the sign-up fee too if you joined the day of your trial. The catch was that you had to commit to 7 months and that after the first three months the monthly fee would become full price – which is around $160/month for the same package, or you could revert to the $100/month package if you chose, which meant you could attend 4 lessons a month. I felt like $160 a month was really pricey and intended to go to the minimum package after the three months, but the results have been so dramatic that today, exactly 3 months since I started, I feel it's worth every last yen.
I started seeing noticeable results within 1-2 weeks of doing hot yoga, and they only improved from there. Things have plateaued a bit for me over the past few weeks, but I think this is only natural in any weight loss journey. I don't feel worried though because I feel stronger every day and even though my belly has looked the same for a while, it feels different. When I touch it, I can feel the hardening muscles underneath and I know they will show themselves with some more time and hard work.
To tell the truth, I am actually no lighter now than I was when I started. I checked my weight for the first time in three months this morning and it hasn't changed. But I am not concerned with this in the slightest because I was never preoccupied with a numerical figure. Despite being heavier than I had ever been and lacking confidence in my self image, my weight itself wasn't unhealthy – it was just the fat and its distribution that was unflattering.
I know that a lot of that fat has now been converted to muscle, and muscle is heavier than fat. So if my weight is now the same with all that added muscle we can conclude that I actually did “lose weight” in the process. But what this was always about for me was being a happier and healthier version of myself. And when I look in the mirror now, I no longer recoil at what I see. My shape has completely changed and I haven't been killing myself or doing any drastic dieting to do it. In fact I haven't actively changed much about my diet at all, apart from feeling less like eating junk or sugary foods these days – a positive natural byproduct of feeling like you and your body are indeed a temple that you want to nourish.
I took some measurements at the start of all of this to be able to track my progress. I measured myself again this morning for the first time in this 3-month journey and the data told a dramatic story. I took measurements at both the widest and smallest parts of my waist, hips and upper arms.
In 3 months, I have lost 4.3cm off the widest part of my waist (i.e. the highest point of the bulge on my belly fat) and 6.2cm off the smallest part of my waist. I've lost 1.7cm off the widest part of my hips and a whopping 8.4cm off the smallest part. My arms stayed exactly the same numerically, but they look totally different. They are more toned and muscular, and I feel so much stronger.
I have also observed a number of other benefits from doing hot yoga:
• Overall strength – not just in my arms
• Better balance
• More flattering neck line/decolletage
• Clearer skin – goodbye blackheads!
• Reduced stress
• Improved productivity and concentration
Keep in mind that I have been going regularly. Over the past 12 weeks, I have done a total of 45 lessons (60 minutes duration each). That's an average of 3.75 lessons a week, despite the New Year break when the yoga studio was closed and the fact that I had Japanese exams for 3 weeks straight in December that meant I had to reduce the frequency I went to 1-2 times a week.
In an average week, I generally go 5 times. The reason I am able to maintain this is the fact that there's a yoga studio a hop, skip and a jump away from our apartment. It also means that I don't have to bother bringing a change of clothes or shower bag as I can just walk home and be in the shower in the same amount of time it takes to queue up to the ones at the studio. Not that it takes long to be honest; everyone seems to be quick and, as the studio is women's only and communal bathing a way of life in Japan, everyone quickly rinses off and just walks back to the lockers in their towel or underwear so that the next person can hop in. But I love not having to worry about taking anything (apart from what I need for the lesson itself) or about hopping into the shower only to realize I forgot to bring an extra pair of underwear.
The other big reason I go so often is that the studio uses a super convenient app for bookings. All I have to do is log in with my member number and password and I can book and cancel lessons all from my phone. I can even book up to 15 minutes before a lesson start time as long as there is still availability. It has totally eliminated my frustrations with phone reservations that I had before, and I can be more in control of my schedule and take advantage of windows I have in the day or evening to work out.
Quite simply, hot yoga has completely changed me – both physically and mentally – over the past three months. The monthly fee of $160 going forward is a lot but if I continue going 5 times a week (i.e. 20 lessons a month), that only equates to $8 for a 1 hour lesson, which I think is very reasonable. Actually I'm going to consider it quite the bargain given the progress I've been able to make and a solid investment in my health and lifestyle.