Bikram Yoga was not entirely a black hole when I stepped across the threshold into my first class.
Yet, I was still surprised by the big room lit up like Walmart, the seven-foot high mirrors, and the wall-to-wall sloppy joe-colored carpeted floor.
None of it looked or smelled like any of the yoga studios I had ever been to.
I made my way past a sea of unfamiliar faces. Unrolled my mat in the back row and curled into several cat cows. It was infernally hot. The ceiling was covered with manhole-size ductwork that crossed from one end of the room to the other. Heat pulsed rhythmically over the back of my neck, arms and legs.
Later, I discovered that an Infinity Plus high-efficiency furnace generated the heat, while a devilish three-phase 220-volt steam humidifier vaporized water and fast-tracked it into the room through the small holes in the ductwork.
I finished a short round of warm-up down dogs, sweated through my Under Armour shirt, and decided it was best to settle into child’s pose. The class had not even started, yet, and I was already taking a break. Most of the people on their mats were laying prone, eyes shut. I understood why.
I was well into middle age, when I started my yoga practice. I spent two years getting my feet wet at once-a-week beginner classes, then moved on to slow flow classes, and finally gravitated to “Hot Powerful Flow” three times a week.
It took time and effort to acclimate myself to the 90 degree room and the fast pace of the classes,but after a year I was reasonably accustomed to it, even with the alarming disappearance of cartilage in my left hip and never-ending arthritis in my lower back. The closest Bikram class I could find was more than thirty miles from my home, and it felt like I had stepped into the middle of a Louisiana summer strangling, in the grip of global warming.
The Bikram regimen claims to change the construction of the body from the inside out, from internal organ to skin. It uses heat as a tool for reshaping the body. Its professed aim is to restore the life to the lives of its adherents.
“What is the worth of one human life? It’s priceless,” says Bikram Choudhury. “I give that life to people. I fix the human chassis.”
The teacher, at the yoga studio where I practiced sun salutations, warrior poses and headstands described it as ‘therapeutic’ and recommended I try it.
“I don’t practice it myself,” she said, “and I have problems with Bikram the man, but it might be good for you.”
“OK,” I said.
I should have pressed for more details.
It was 105 degrees, 40 percent humidity and the heat index of the room into the 130-plus zone.
Heat index is a measure of how hot really hot weather feels. The scale correlates relative humidity and air temperature to produce the apparent temperature the body experiences. A heat index of 130 is the point at which human beings become susceptible to heat cramps and heat exhaustion as a result of physical activity.
Why 105 degrees? Bikram feels the room needs to be at 105 degrees and 40% to 50% humidity to make for a better aerobic experience, protect muscles while allowing for deep stretching, detox the glands and organs by flushing waste products, and through enhanced respiration deliver nourishment to every cell of the body.
Bikram Choudhury, who in the 1970s popularized the series of 26 asanas and breathing exercises synthesized from traditional exercise yoga, claims that contrary to popular misconceptions the blistering heat teaches you to keep your cool.
He and his legions believe they can work bodies like a blacksmith.
Our instructor, a trim wide-shouldered young man carrying a clear plastic half-gallon jug of water walked in, adjusted the track lighting brighter even, strode to the front of the class, and asked:
Several hands went up, including mine.
“Make sure you can see yourselves in the mirror. Move your mats if you have to. If you feel sick take a knee or lay down. Don’t leave the room. Watch the first few breaths and then join in. Set your intention.”
I’ve never felt sick in a yoga class. I experienced fatigue sometimes even becoming bedraggled during vinyasa classes on summer afternoons, but it was more on the order of boot camp crash. I discovered it is not unusual to feel sick and nauseous in Bikram classes, especially among beginners.
“The worse you feel,” says Bikram Choudhury, “the more you need my yoga.”
‘Don’t leave the room’?
What did that mean? Why would leaving the room be an issue? Should I be planning an exit strategy?
“OK, let’s get started.”
And just like that we were all standing and the class began. There was no opening homily, or reading from an appropriate text, and no iPod playlist. Among other things, Bikram Yoga eschews tunes. The beat goes on, but it’s not the beat of MC Yogi.
One of the mantras of yoga is to live in the moment, and the expanded mantra of yoga like the Boy Scout motto is to expect the unexpected. Even though I thought I knew by way of YouTube what was on the agenda, Bikram Yoga surprised me from the outset.
Along with everyone else now on their feet I got going, my hands clasped underneath my chin, breathing in deeply as I pulled my elbows up, and breathing out forcefully as I brought my forearms together, keeping my spine straight and pushing my chin and head back. After the first round I wondered if my neck was going to hurt the next day, since this breathing exercise wasn’t something I had done before. After the second round I was sure there would be repercussions.
The next day my neck was sore. And that was only the tip of the iceberg.
“Try to be still between poses.”
Bikram Yoga claims to work every muscle, tendon, joint, internal organ and gland, if not every nerve ending. It also claims to detoxify the body through the legendary amounts of sweat released during the practice, while systematically refreshing the body with oxygenated blood. The poses are held for up to 60 seconds, creating a tourniquet effect on some or several parts of the body.
During vasoconstriction the blood supply is cut off so creating pressure. Once released, the blood rushes back into the veins and arteries flushing out toxins and bracing the body.
The idea is controversial in the medical establishment, but Bikram Choudhury is unperturbed by the naysayers.
”It is beyond medical science. I prove this every single day,” he says.
The second posture was a prolonged sideways bend–punctuated by repeated commands to push, push, push—followed by a backbend with clasped hands and up-stretched arms, and finally followed by grabbing under our heels, straightening our legs and folding over in a forward bend.
“Look like a Japanese ham sandwich,” the instructor said.
I have no idea what a Japanese ham sandwich looks like. I’m a vegetarian.
“Lock the knee, lock the knee, lock the knee!”
Lock the knee?
Whenever I had heard any other yoga teacher say anything about locking your knees, it was to make sure we did not do it. Anytime I had read something about it, such as the advice of Drs. Georg Feuerstein and Larry Payne, authors of Yoga for Dummies, it was to avoid it.
I straightened my legs, attempting to extend my knees. The instructor suddenly swooped down next to me, and pointed at my legs.
“Tighten the quad muscle and pull the kneecap up.”
What he meant was to squeeze the front thigh muscle so that the kneecap would lift up, not hyperextend the knee. The emphasis was on protecting the knee, focusing on placement of the feet, knees aligned over ankles and stressing the muscle and not just the joint with the full load of the body.
We moved into awkward pose, more commonly called chair pose, done three different ways. My arms burned and felt heavy.
“Fall back, way back, go back, more back,”
When we were done, we did it again.
Bikram poses are performed twice. The first time the pose is held forever and the second time they are held for slightly less than forever. Every second set the instructor encouraged us to immediately go to where we had left off in the first set so as to gain the maximum benefit.
Next, two sets of eagle pose, another balancing act, followed by the official water break. Those in the know reached for their insulated water bottles while I stared at myself in the mirror, dazed.
“Welcome to the torture chamber.”
Break time was less than thirty seconds.
The 26 poses begin and end with breathing exercises, and the 90-minute class progresses from standing postures to backbends to forward bends and twists. The first half is upright, balancing this is considered the warm up. The second half of the class is down on the mat and is when they get down to serious business.
After three more balancing poses my legs wobbled like jelly and I was sweating like Shaquille O’Neal at the foul line. My breath sounded more like the snorting of Godzilla than the measure of a yogi, and the warm-up half of the class was not over, yet.
“It takes courage and intelligence to do the stages of yoga right, and to start with this hatha yoga,” says Bikram Choudhury. “It’s just you and nothing but you, standing in one spot frozen like a statue with no place to go for help or excuse or scapegoat except inward.”
I caught my breath and my heartbeat slowed to thrash metal speed. Then we stepped into triangle pose and it was like stepping into the next circle of hell.
“It’s the most difficult posture we do in the sequence,” says Bikram Choudhury.
The Bikram variation of the pose is a blend of traditional triangle and extended side angle, but without the pleasures of bending the torso sideways or resting the forearm on the thigh. It is the ninth pose in the sequence, and is what I later described to my wife as the Love Potion Number 9 pose.
I reached down with one arm while simultaneously reaching up with the other. We were instructed to look up and touch chins to shoulders. I stared at a brown water stain on the ceiling.
“Don’t forget to breathe.”
The ‘I think’ of the western world is the ‘I breathe’ of yoga.
The pose was hell on my hips, but it was an epiphany at the same time. This is what Bikram is all about, I thought. It is a therapeutic torture machine. My breathing slowed down, become less labored, and time stretched out like taffy. I felt like I wasn’t just in the moment, but in an unending minute.
If God is the tangential point between zero and infinity, and if yoga is about connecting with the divine, as we repeated the triangle pose, twice, on both sides, I began to either see the light at the end of the tunnel or got light-headed from the effort. Finally we went down onto our mats for two minutes of R & R.
The room was quiet in anticipation of the spine strengthening series. Savasana, also known as corpse pose, is considered the most important posture in the series. It is designed to focus the mind and breathe new life into the body by maintaining total stillness.
I was unnerved and restless. No sooner had I finally taken a reasonable breath, when the instructor was at it again.
“Time for the sit-up.”
The Bikram L-sit-up is performed after every floor pose, starting flat on the back, flexing the toes, bringing both arms overhead, crossing the thumbs, sucking in a lungful of air, and double exhaling, once on the sit-up, reaching for the sky, and a second time reaching for the toes, bending elbows to the ground.
“Try your best. Bend your knees if you have to.”
“99% right,” Bikram Choudhury says, “is still 100% wrong.”
I would not want to practice under the tutelage of the boss himself.
The spine-strengthening series starts with Pavanamuktasana, (wind-removing pose).
We did the L-sit-up and corps after every pose in the series, so that after awhile it was like suffering from amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. Pose, corpse, sit-up, pose, corpse, sit-up…
The floor sequence are the next four poses: cobra, locust, full locust, and bow. Each of them works a specific part of the back: lower, middle, and upper. Overall the series is designed to open, compress, flush, strengthen, and heal the spine from top to bottom.
“Look out of the mirror, see the back wall”
The instructor urged us during cobra, insisting we pull our elbows backwards and down, keeping them close to the body as we pressed into the floor with our hips and feet, tried to lift our knees, and pushed forward with the chest, looking up, up, and over.
“If I see any elbows I might have to kick them.”
Full locust requires that you squeeze the legs and feet together, spread-eagling the arms, and then raising arms, legs, and torso upwards, so that only the hips are contacting the ground.
“Up, up, up like a 747, fly like an F16.”
I didn’t feel like an F-16. I felt like a slow, shaky, rusty biplane with Baron Manfred von Richthofen swooping down on me. I could hear the thunder of his twin synchronized 8mm Spandau machine guns, and smoke was pouring out of my tail. I was going down.
I thought about resting on my heels to cool off and then, God did me a favor.
There was a clap of thunder outside, and the power cut out. The room went dark and a pair of emergency floodlights blinked on. I sat back seiza style, breathed deliberately in and thanked my lucky charms.
The power came back on, and we swept into bow pose, although my version was more like crossbow pose, and then it was on to the menagerie of alternate back and forward bends: fixed firm, half-tortoise, camel, and rabbit. Sweat fauceted in a steady stream from my chin and through my shirt from the middle of me, forming a spreading Rorschach blot beneath my nose.
“Make sure to breath, surrender to the pose. You can either go upstream or downstream with this yoga.”
I was in a whirlpool of hot weather, a low-pressure vortex of heat and humidity stalled just above me in my corner of the room, the air stagnant and heavy.
Were there really just 26 poses? Or were there really pi poses, and the instructor had forgotten to tell us we were going to be in the hot room forever?
The original Bikran practice had 84 poses and required more than two hours to get through. It is now the advanced series, rarely seen, and the popular practice culled from it is known as the beginner series. All the poses in the beginner series, which is considered the healing practice, come from the original classical postures.
Unlike many other styles of yoga, almost anyone coming to Bikram Yoga can do the beginner series in some fashion, but at the same time it also attracts athletes, even professional athletes. The series is designed to work in proportion to the effort and sincerity one puts into it.
“Never too late, never too old, never too bad, never too sick to start from scratch once again.” says Bikram Choudhury.
We curled into rabbit pose and I was aware of a malodorous smell. It was coming from my Jade mat soaked to its core with epic amounts of sweat, but it was me, too. I was dizzy and slightly nauseous and was radiating stifling waves of heat and body odor.
We practiced three leg stretches, twice, then a spinal twist, and with one last sit-up it was over. The instructor congratulated the first-timers, and the class concluded with everyone sitting back on their heels for blowing-in-firm pose. Bikram Yoga begins and ends with breathing exercises.
Other than the pranayama exercises, during the practice it is stressed to breath as normally as possible, so that the breath is neither controlling the practitioner nor the practitioner controlling the breath. Easier said than done.
The first set of exhales we did was at a measured pace, like blowing out sixty birthday candles one at a time, but the second set was done at ramming speed. It was like the movie Ben-Hur, during the sea battle, when the galley captain commands the slaves to row their fastest, and when he does the galley drummer increases the tempo.
The instructor kept us in sync by clapping rapidly.
Bikram Choudhury describes the last breathing exercise as the “final flush of the toilet,” releasing the last of the toxins from the lungs.
When we were done and I was completely out of breath and toxins the class was finally beyond any doubt over. We were instructed to lay in corps pose for as long as possible.
Traditionally, for every hour of hatha practice one is expected to spend a minimum of five minutes in dead body pose. That turned out to not be a problem. I was the second-to-last person to roll up my sodden mat and stumble out of the Bikram hot room.
Postscript: From Here to Eternity
Six months later I remember my first class like I would remember escaping from a burning building. Imagination is often mistaken for memory, but there is no mistaking the memory of my plunge into Bikram Yoga.
In the beginning I could only bear to practice it once a week, otherwise continuing to attend vinyasa classes. After several months I was able to endure the steamroller twice a week, and recently I have upped the ante to three times a week. The heat and humidity are still a challenge, and probably always will be, but I have learned to start hydrating the minute I wake up two days before class.
I maintain a daily personal practice, a basic slow flow yin smorgasbord with a bit of meditation mixed in, but six months later the only yoga exercise I engage in outside of my home, squeezing and pulling and flexing, is in the hot room.
Three times a week I drive forty minutes to get to the 90-minute class, stayed by neither rain nor snow nor darkness, although snarled traffic is always a threat. I sing in the car along with the Searchers on the radio, changing the lyrics to mirror the method.
‘I took my troubles down to Bikram crew/You know that guru with the gold-capped tooth/He’s got a pad down on Hollywood and Vine/Sellin’ little bottles of Love Potion Number Nine.’
My made-for-vinyasa rubber mat has been put away and I have gotten a basic black one as well as a fancy Manduka towel. The beach-size terry absorbs bucketfuls of sweat and keeps my mat and immediate surroundings free of saltwater pools infested by bacteria. I never wear a non-synthetic shirt, always making sure it is sleeveless, and sometimes even peel it off when the room is abnormally humid because of the Lake Erie weather.
I no longer try to snag a spot near one of the doors at the beginning of class, hoping that the instructor will crack them open for a few seconds at some point to improve the ratio of students actually practicing to those catching their breath or otherwise completely gassed out on their mats.
I don’t think I will ever be able, however, to graduate to the Speedo suit favored and recommended by Bikram Choudhury. The image of my Eastern European body clad only in a Speedo staring back at me from the mirror is both daunting and disturbing. It is a sacrifice I am unwilling to make.
After every class I drag my gym bag gobbed full of wet smelly clothes and towels home, heave it all into the washing machine. It has become a routine, like the poses, but the poses are different, because no matter that it’s always punch the time clock and get to work all over again. Even though every class is the same, no class is ever the same. They are never easy, but that is all they have in common.
I have lived through six months of the practice, and even survived a fire alarm. We were in one of the balancing poses, the instructor reminding us to meditate in the mirror as I vainly tried to will myself from toppling over, when the wall alarms began to clang throughout the yoga studio.
“Don’t worry, stay in the class,” the instructor quickly interjected. “We have a very capable fire department. If we need to leave the building they will let us know.
When the firemen in their heavy coats poked their heads into the hot room they peered curiously in all directions, gave us a thumbs up, one of them said all was ok, and just as promptly as they had come they backed out and closed the door. It was a false alarm. I could have used a good long squirt from their hoses, but I doubt our instructor would have approved.
Besides, the boss insists everyone must stay in the room, notwithstanding that we have all come to the hot yoga class of our own free will.
I have learned to accept the horrible inescapable challenge of the heat exactly because I don’t like it, nor am I congenitally suited to stand it, and because six months later I have begun to sense the therapy in the design of the practice. I go and try to do the best I can and no cheating, or as little as possible. I still can’t get my other leg wrapped around and off the floor in eagle pose.
“Try the right way and eventually you will make it.” says Bikram Choudhury.
“You have nothing to lose. You had nothing to begin with. Just get in the hot room and kill yourself! You will understand the benefits for yourself!”
One of the goals of Bikram Yoga is the 30-day challenge: 30 classes in 30 days.
I am not brave enough to imagine three or four in a row, yet, much less an endless month of them.
“I know this class is good for me,” a woman lean like a runner, rolling up her mat next to me, said one night. “But, I would rather run twelve miles in the middle of the day in the middle of summer than do this.”
“This blarney of Bikram’s better work.” I said as the instructor finished mopping up that night’s trail of blood, toil, and tears. It had been an especially grueling class.
“Don’t try so hard,” he said. “The class is a 90-minute open-eyed guided meditation, not just a sequence of asanas in a hot room. It works, you’ll see, but it’s not really about the exercise. It’s hatha yoga, sure, but about breathing and meditation even more than that.”
Bikram Yoga is considered by legions as an excellent system of physical exercise, and in the same breath often condemned because yoga is not just a system of physical exercise. The persistent Bikram emphasis on bodily fitness is seen as obviating the other arms of yoga, especially the mindful and spiritual aspects of the practice. Bikram Choudhury has even been accused of being materialistic and spiritually bankrupt.
But, at the core of the Bikram practice is prolonged concentration, focusing into and through the mirror, controlling the mind so that it is committed only to the asana and nothing else, and breathing to connect the body and mind, with patience and faith. It is hatha yoga as the yellow brick road to get to raja yoga and all the rest of it. There is no overt meditation, but the practice itself is fundamentally and ultimately meditative.
That is the method to the madness.
“I teach spirituality. I use the body as a medium,” says Bikran Choudhury. “I use the body to control your mind, to make your spirit happy. I wish that every human being should do yoga.”
It is the body, the mind, and the spirit yoked together–the yoga gravy train sans the trimmings.
It is old-school yoga practice in the hot room. Thank God, I thought while driving home, bolstered back into the seat cushion of the driver’s seat and finishing off a quart of water as I got onto the highway, I don’t have to go back until the day after tomorrow.
Edward Staskus is from Sudbury, Ontario and lives in Lakewood, Ohio, with his wife Vanessa. He practices yoga (Bikram at a studio and yin at home), and subscribes to Buddhism.
Editor Tanya L. Markul