News Sweat Shop

Sweat Shop
You don't know what a burn is until you've done this workout.
By Christopher McDougall

Welcome to Bikram's torture chamber," says Joel Pier, a gentle, gray-haired yoga instructor. He's so peace-and-love looking with his bead necklace and owlish little glasses, that everybody smiles.

For about a second.

Then he clicks the door shut, sealing all 30 of us inside a third-floor walkup above a Philadelphia shoe store, with the furnace cranked to 110 degrees. We're told to stand arm's-length apart, lace our fingers under our chins, and huff and puff like fat guys moving furniture. After 90 seconds, the men are shucking their sweat-soaked shirts, and the women are stripping down to Jogbras. The sneaking desire I'd felt for the two women next to me, with their cute dancers' bodies and Pacific-Island tatoos, has now become a last-canteen-in-the-lifeboat resentment of the air they're using and the body heat they're throwing off.

Keep in mind, all we've done so far is breathe.

This is what can happen during a session of Bikram yoga, otherwise known, for obvious reasons, as "hot yoga." Bikram yoga has been booming in the past few years. According to one estimate, some three million people worldwide are now sweatin' and stretchin', and paying an average of $10 to $12 a class for the privelege.

From the cool, incense-scented loung outside, things in the studio look pretty tame, especially compared with the Ashtanga, or "power," yoga taught in health clubs. Where Ashtanga can twist you into endless varieties of headstands, lotuses, and backbends, Bikram has only 26 postures, several no more complicated than the head-to-knees you did in football practice. You don't even hold them long--just about 10 to 20 seconds.

What kicks your ass, however, is the heat.

"Anyone chilly?" asks Pier, who's one of the some 650 instructors certified in the United States to teach the Bikram method. "We're barely over 100 degrees," he taunts. "The earlier class hit 126."

The only answer he gets is the sound of sweat plopping onto our plastic mats. We're all too focused to respond, because after a few warmup positions, we're in the midst of a real killer: arms straight out, up on the toes, then dropping into a squat with arms and thighs parallel to the floor, while still balancing on the balls of our feet. It's brutal--little grunts and gasps are erupting all around the room as people fight for balance. "Lift up your heels," Pier suggests, "until your legs are jittering like sewing machines."

There are reasons--besides the sadistic-- for conducting the class in a sauna. Fpr starters, you'll lose weight. It's estimated that a person can burn as many as 600 calories during a 90-minute class. You'd have to hit the treadmill for an hour and 15 minutes to melt that much flab.

Superheating the body will soften the collagen around the joints, too. "Collagen is a lot like plastic, and its rigidity eases when you warm it," says Marc Darrow, M.D., director of the Los Angeles-based Joint Rehabilitation & Sports Medical Center. "Some athletes ride an exercise bike before stretching, which heats the muscles and softens collagen, but there's no reason you can't do the same thing by adjusting the thermostat," says Dr. Darrow, who includes Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Johnnie Morton among his patients.

Heat also helps "feed" the muscles by increasing the circulation of oxygen-laden red blood cells, says Lewis Maharam, M.D., president of the Greater New York Regional Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine.  It's like working a bellows--as you pump more oxygen into your muscles, they're able to burn more fuel. And the best way to let that rich, oxygenated blood into the inner recesses of your muscle tissue, Dr. Maharam adds, is to stre-e-e-etch. "Heat speeds up your metabolism," he explains, "and the yoga postures will certainly assist by improving your circulation and elasticity."

But who says our muscles need more oxygen? According to a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Olympic speed skaters are especially prone to muscle fatigue because the tight crouch they skate in decreases bloodflow to their calves and thighs. Something similar happens to you and me when we're hunched over a computer or cramped behond the wheel of a car. "Some of your muscles are so oxygen-starved, they're loving on dogma," Pier quips. "They've heard about red blood cells, but never actually seen them."

The Bikram systrem, however, goes beyond promising limber limbs. On the home page of, the Web site of the discipline's founder, Bikram Choudhury, there's this prominent link:

"Have a health problem? Find out what Bikram Yoga has done for others. Then try it and see what it can do for you!"

Click on "Find out..." and you'll be sent to the Testimonials page  and a menu of 23 health conditions ranging from the bothersome--insomnia--to the potentially fatal--kidney cancer. One account is of a diabetic who no longer needs insulin, and another of a man who says his irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure have disappeared. Then there's the person who's been cured of Lyme disease--all thanks to Bikram Yoga.

"It will certainly improve your circulation and provide health benefits," says Dr. Maharam, "but no exercise is going to change your physiological makeup. It may relieve the symptoms of a disease, but it's not going to remove the disease itself." to be fair, the Bikram Web site does include a disclaimer of sorts, albeit impossibly hard to find: "...when Bikram speaks of curing chronic diseases... he is saying that if you faithfully follow his directions, you will be relieved of your symptoms of discomfort. That is the only 'cure' anyone can offer."

Yoga purists aren't big fans of Choudhury. "The purpose of yoga is to relax the sympathetic nervous system--to disengage the fight-or-flight instinct--and that's difficult when you're working out and sweating," says Patricia Lamb Feuerstein, research director for the International Association of Yoga Therapists. The  high heat concerns her as well. "We''ve had one confirmed report of a hot-yoga student suffering a stroke," Feuerstein says. "People in those classes may get nauseated and be told it's 'purification.' It's not--it's usually heat prostration."

Baloney, says Lawrence E. Armstrong, Ph.D., author of Performing in Extreme Environments and a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Connecticut. He's spent thousands of hours observing survival training and superheated treadmill tests, and all the scare stories about hot yoga, he says, are just, well, a lot of hot air. "Temperatures of 95, 96, 100 degrees are manageable," says Armstrong, who practices yoga himself and has observed hot-yoga classes. The key, he says, is to make sure you're medically cleared for normal athletic activity and aren't a high cardiac risk. "Your normal core body temperature is already 98.6," he explains, "so as long as the exercise intensity is not high, it's not dangerous to function in an environment that's hot or a little hotter."

Yeah, but how about that 126° class Pier was boasting about? "Okay, that's extreme," Armstrong concedes. "You could be getting close to your body's max for cooling itself, so you have to monitor yourself." Watch out for nausea, dizziness, headache, or weakness, he says. And above all, stay calm. "The tenser you get, the more you contract your muscles," Armstrong says, "and that increases muscle heat production."

It's for precisely that reason, says Pier, that Bikram repeats the same 26 postures every class. "Repetition is calming," he says. "It helps ease the tension of the unknown and allows your body to get used to the heat." That's why, in the  middle of our class, he keeps calling for everyone to show him a "happy, smiling face." To drive his point home, he starts distracting us by kicking big, yellow smiley-face balls all over the room.

Being one of the people on the receiving end of a ball, I'm starting to see his point. Once I start to relax a little, the heat isn't making me feel so heavy-limbed and claustrophobic. I also notice that even the more experienced students aren't hesitating to cool down for a few seconds in the lounge. Once back in the room, your muscles retain their heat, but now your head is clear enough for you to hold balance and mimic the postures.

"Tough today, isn't it?" says John Fries, a 48-year-old carpenter who's lean and ripped enough to pass for a 20-year-old soccer player. He rolls a bottle of cold water over his forehead as he tells me he's a real lumber-hauling, belt-wearing carpenter, not some contractor who parks his ass in an office all day. But that's why he loves the hot yoga: It gives him more energy after a hard day's work, not less. "I've got guys working with me who are 23, 24 years old, and I'm running circles around them. Because of yoga, I can work down on my knees all day, get up and down ladders, no problem."

With the end of the class approaching, it's time for the "cobra series": Lie on your stomach with palms down as if to do a pushup, then raise your chest off the floor so your back is arched. I'm tired and dying to call it quits, but once we b egin, I feel a thrill of fighting through the fatigue. I've got a chronically crappy back that generally lands me at the chiropractor's office after an especially tough marathon season. Now, I can almost hear my vertebrae loosening, cracking, like they're being broken out of concrete.

It feels exactly the way you always think you're going to feel when you get out of a hot tub, but never do. In a word, great. I've been to dozens of other yoga classes, but this time, I feel as if my well-warmed muscles are accepting the stretch, enjoying it, instead of straining like a frayed fan belt. Suddenly I don't care if the class goes on another hour. "Push until it hurts like hell," Pier is saying. "With a happy, smiling face."

© 2002 Mens' Health Magazine


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