News The Age - "The Heat is On"
THE HEAT IS ON
Add a gruelling program of 26 postures to sweltering conditions that can make you sick, and you have the world's trendiest exercise - Bikram yoga. But is it good for you? Marcella Bidinost reports.
It's 8am Saturday, the beginning of winter and we are standing, ready for a Melbourne yoga class, in 37-degree heat. It sounds barmy because it is. Midway between summer and a sauna, this is the hottest thing in hatha: Bikram Yoga.
With a fluffy, white towel laid across a new blue mat and requisite water bottle on hand, I have just come in from the cold. Padding past the class of 25, one guy is already topless, a step ahead of the heat. The rest of us anticipate the swelter session in singlet tops, T-shirts and shorts - a conservative stretch from the tiny Speedo worn by the LA-based guru of this game, Bikram Choudhury.
Considered the fastest-growing style of yoga in America, the Calcutta-born Choudhury has led his Bikram-method yoga in Beverly Hills since the mid-'70s, with converts including Mariel Hemingway, Quincy Jones and Barbra Streisand. With over 500 affiliated Bikram Yoga schools now in the US, Melbourne is suddenly catching on.
The first dedicated Bikram studio, Yoga Tree, opened in Elsternwick in September, followed by Bikram's Yoga College of India, which opened in March in Bridge Road, Richmond. Sparkling clean, both venues belie the buckets of human sweat and malodorous bodies passing through each day.
Class numbers at both Melbourne studios are on the rise as the word on Bikram spreads, largely thanks to participants who have taken classes in the US and London.
Ben Findlay, 32, arrived in Melbourne six months ago from London, where Bikram was "very trendy" about a year ago. Suffering sciatica, he signed up at the Richmond studios in March: "My wife was practising in London, but the facilities were pretty shocking: skuzzy carpets, oil heaters against the wall. I thought yoga was all sitting in a room and humming, but noticed she was getting fit and flexible from it. The first time I went I thought, this is way too hot; I'm going to pass out. But the key was to go back straight away."
After attending classes five days in a row, Findlay was hooked. He now goes four times a week. "Even though it's quite intense and draining, you actually get a lot of energy out of it. I feel more relaxed and in control," he says.
Bikram Yoga is based on the 4000-year-old hatha yoga discipline, which unites postures and breathing techniques, and was taught one-on-one to a young Choudhury by his closest hatha authority, Bishnu Ghosh (brother of the famous Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi, which has introduced millions to Eastern spiritual thought since its publication in 1946).
Choudhury has since worked with Western doctors to devise a series of two breathing exercises and 26 postures to counter our most common health problems.
"It doesn't matter how well you do each posture, only that you try the right way," he says.
Choudhury believes that cranking up the heat aids deeper stretching, opens the pores to release toxins, thins blood to clear the circulatory system and increases the heart rate for a better aerobic workout: his brand of yoga is optimally taught in 60 per cent humidity over 90 minutes. He says regular practice can aid weight loss, develop stamina, tone muscles, speed up injury recovery, relieve asthma, improve digestion and stabilise blood pressure.
To the newcomer, Bikram Yoga is a veritable sweat-fest. To the uninitiated, its mention either piques curiosity or gives rise to scepticism. For the official medical word, I contact the Australian Medical Association's Victorian branch.
"Oh yeah, I've done it once and it made me feel sick; the girl I went with almost passed out," says the association's media officer before putting me on to sports physician Andrew Garnham to set the record straight.
"We expose ourselves to day-long temperatures of 37-degrees or more in summer, so the heat is fine, as long as you get your fluids," says Garnham. "Thirst is always a poor and late indicator of the degree of dehydration. Also, anyone with a significant medical condition, especially one that affects their heart or kidneys, should check with their doctor before trying a class."
Choudhury says it is not unusual to feel nauseous or dizzy during the first Bikram class. "Practising yogain a heated room reveals to us our present condition. Usually the problem is that we do not drink enough water." Many also feel weary after the first few sessions. "Your body has begun to cleanse itself," he explains.
Bikram's first 12 poses involve standing backbends, forward bends and balancing poses to build focus and those guaranteed rivulets of sweat. By this stage, I also notice Bikram Yoga requires listening skills; poses are instructed rather than demonstrated. Just as I kick myself for switching off during that early explanation, I hear two magic words to take us to position 13: "corpse pose". With that, the entire class drops to the floor for two minutes of heavenly repose. This feels better than sleep.
Bikram Yoga involves no shoulderstands, headstands, salutes to the sun or downward-facing dogs, common to other forms of yoga. Choudhury considers these too difficult for beginners and says the benefits of inversions (blood flow to the brain, reduction of blood pressure and compression of the thyroid gland) already exist in his series.
Instead, we follow on with knee-to-chest stretches, straight-legged sit-ups and a brief, forward bend followed by a series of postures on the floor: the cobra, the half locust, the full locust, the bow, the fixed firm, the half tortoise, the camel, the rabbit, two more forward bends, a twist and a kneeling pose. Fast-forwarding all this could render you a clump of double helixes; but somehow, with enough breathing and focus, the end brings a feeling of balance - toppled only slightly by that rising wave of body odour.
Leaving the studio is a chilly shock to the skin but, just like entering the boiler room, a matter of re-acclimatising. I feel strong, serene and generally satisfied there is no nasty to this namaste. That is until I discover each aspiring Bikram teacher must graduate from Choudhury's gruelling 60-day teacher training in LA, which he jokingly describes as his "torture chamber".
Four years ago, Richmond studio owner and teacher Tessa Rottiers started Bikram classes in San Francisco, following a mountain biking knee injury. "I moved to Melbourne with my boyfriend for work but there was no Bikram Yoga here. I thought, I could bring it to Melbourne".
With that, Rottiers headed back to the US for Choudhury's "overwhelming and intense" training. "It was every day for two months. You're physically, mentally and emotionally challenged, you get five hours of sleep and work from morning until midnight with 300 others. While you're there you think, oh my God, why am I doing this? But in retrospect, I can see all the benefits and understand why.
"You cannot be lazy in yoga and you cannot have an ego. You have to walk in between, where you listen to your body but move it a little bit out of its comfort zone to discover your energy."
Notoriously stringent with his methods, Choudhury recently flexed clout beyond the classroom by securing US copyright registration over his 26 postures and breathing exercises. He now says studios that want to continue teaching Bikram Yoga in the US must pay franchise and royalty fees, change their name to Bikram's Yoga College of India, use only Bikram-approved dialogue when instructing students and refrain from playing music during classes.
Rottiers, who pays no franchising fees but carries the Choudhury-certified studio name, says her teacher is aiming for quality control: "Obviously I don't like the confrontation of suing people, but I can understand it if you don't want your name or methods tampered with. He's not money-hungry. He believes in what he does so much that he doesn't want it altered."
Yoga's fundamental aim is to free the mind and body. Suddenly its future is worth sweating over.
Check out www.bikramyoga.com for affiliated schools worldwide.
• Drink plenty of water before class and during it but arrive on an empty stomach. Eating three hours before class is a good rule to follow.
• Do not feel pressured to keep up with everyone else.
• Listen to your body. The benefits come when you try to do each pose the right way, even if you can only do it part way.
• Only do Bikram Yoga in a heated room and never alter the sequence of poses.
• Wear non-restrictive, cool clothing.
• Seek medical advice for any medical concerns before taking a class.