News Hot Topic: Bikram Yoga Turns Up the Heat on Ancient Practice

Hot Topic

Bikram Yoga turns up the heat on ancient practice

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Sweat will bead in big drops on your face and your feet.

The room will feel like boot camp in Georgia in August at noon.

But “hot yoga” classes at Longmont’s only Bikram Yoga Center reflect a cool, relatively new twist on a 5,000-year-old practice rooted in stretching and breathing techniques.

In the early 1970s, Calcutta native Bikram Choudhury developed his yoga style in the United States to enable a gentle, go-at-your-own-pace recovery from injury or illness.

That’s how Robert Foster, Longmont’s Bikram Yoga Center yoga director, found this niche.

A car accident in 1995 put him in a coma for 11 days and broke 23 of his bones.

“I didn’t have a lot of options,” he said. “I couldn’t run a marathon (to recover).”

He eventually experimented with Bikram yoga and found the extreme heat allowed his muscles to cooperate.

With practice, it worked to restore strength and flexibility to his body and mind.

Robyn Knowlan, front, holds a triangle posture in a yoga class Monday at Bikram Yoga Center, 340 Lashley St., in Longmont. Robert Foster, back left, yoga director at the center, leads the class. Times-Call/Richard M. Hackett

Some like it hot

Before the Longmont studio opened in April, Foster and a co-owner gutted the old bank building to redesign its space and replace the standard-issue furnace.

The center needed something that could breathe like an angry dragon, a furnace that could fire up enough to heat the 1,800 square-foot studio to Bikram’s requisite 105-degree Fahrenheit temperature with 50 percent humidity.

At first, Longmont-based First Choice Heating & Air Conditioning balked at the task, Foster said.

“They’re in the comfort business,” he explained. “We told them we needed it uncomfortable.”

Bikram supporters claim heavy sweating detoxifies the body while encouraging the tourniquet effect — getting limber and strong enough to squeeze into postures that cut off some circulation.

After a 60- to 90-second hold, Bikram practitioners release the hold to flood oxygen-rich blood to various locations — organs, muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints.

“My body was completely drenched. It’s crazy how good it made me feel,” Bikram beginner Sophia Johnson, 17, said.

Last month, the Longmont High School junior tried it to compliment her softball- and basketball-related workouts.

“It’s not what you think. You’ve got to keep your eyes open,” she said. “That way you’re not trying to get away from the sweat or the pain. You’re living it. You’re learning to deal with it. You’re training your body to do hard things.”

Meditation in motion

Bikram yoga, newbies will immediately discover, is more than doing conventional yoga in sweatshop conditions.

It is a 90-minute, carefully choreographed series of 26 postures — each practiced twice — and a couple of breathing exercises.

All Bikram-certified instructors have studied with the yogi at his Beverly Hills, Calif., college for nine weeks to learn the swift progression of postures.

Foster called the class a “moving meditation” that causes muscles to “wake up.”

Foster laughed when he explained that some people consider yoga a “Where’s the beef?” workout. Anyone who has tried the posture knows better.

Consider the triangle posture. Participants who practice it stand with feet 3- to 4-feet apart and arms parallel with the floor.

Then, they open their right foot 45 degrees and slowly lower their body — with the torso upright — until the right thigh is parallel with the floor.

The right foot remains flat as practitioners bend their torso to the right until the right elbow reaches the inside of the right knee and fingertips reach toward the floor.

The left arm and face then reach up, which creates a straight, vertical line between the palms.

Focusing on focus

Foster makes this look so easy, so graceful in the mirrored studio.

But that poise comes from hundreds of classes to build the physical and mental wherewithal to strike the pose and hold it.

To safely encourage students, Bikram instructors all learn a tightly scripted dialogue — really a monologue — since the music-less class is not allowed to talk.

It begins with Foster, or one of the center’s five other instructors, saying: “Set your purpose for this class.”

From there, beginners and advanced participants look into the mirror and into themselves to tighten the mind/body connection.

But Bikram yoga is just as much about letting go, according to Dawn Mitchell, 47.

The Longmont massage therapist has practiced yoga for years and has done Bikram yoga nearly every day for 15 months.

“You have to surrender to the heat,” she explained. “Once you surrender to it, your mind can relax and you can go places you haven’t been before in your body. ... You can find that little groove. Once you know how to get there, you’ll never want to leave.”

Yoga for all

Yoga outsiders might picture participants like Mitchell as a natural pretzel body or human noodle — somebody that just looks like a yoga magazine cover model.

But Foster said Bikram yoga can benefit anyone — even the masters.

“If I am continually going to my edge, it’s no easier for me than it is for a beginner,” Foster said.

Dave Agati, an Arvada resident who manages a Longmont bus company division, tried his first class last month.

At 59, the sports junkie had plenty of time spent playing football, hockey, baseball and weightlifting.

But he checked out Bikram yoga for some variety. After sweating through the first few classes, he said he was hooked.

“I have a bounce in my step that I haven’t had for a while,” he said. “But the most fun thing is leaving there after a shower. You feel great that you made it!”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-684-5224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.

 


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