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Feb. 23, 2000

Heat gives yoga a healing bent
By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

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Bikram Choudhury stands on Patrice Beal's hip during a class (USA TODAY).

Suffering from a chronic illness? Yoga teacher Bikram Choudhury has the fix.

He'll lock you into a 110-degree room for 90 minutes, seven days a week, and bend your body into various pretzel shapes.

"I can give you a new life," says Choudhury, who operates a growing exercise empire from his Yoga College of India in Beverly Hills, Calif. Although he has taught yoga to movie stars for three decades, interest in hot yoga has grown recently through an expanding network of teachers.

Nationwide, 90 schools offer Choudhury's heated-room treatment of 26 stretches and a pair of breathing exercises. About 650 instructors have graduated from the college in the past six years.

"It changed every aspect of my life," says Julian Goldstein, a former Choudhury student now teaching yoga in Encino, Calif. He says he no longer takes insulin for adult-onset diabetes and no longer suffers from a damaged spinal disk since starting hot yoga.

Such claims aren't unusual for hot-yoga students. Alongside traditional benefits, such as increased flexibility and serenity, Choudhury and his adherents say hot yoga helps ailments ranging from anemia to varicose veins. Some health experts and outside yoga instructors are more cautious.

Hot yoga, or Bikram's yoga, represents one of the sharpest edges of a trend toward more active forms of yoga.

"In a warmer room, you'll experience more flexibility," says Lewis Maharam, a New York-based sports physician. "It still won't make you into Gumby." Such yoga instructors as New York's Beryl Bender Birch of "Power Yoga" fame acknowledge they prefer stretching in a warm room but say 110 degrees seems unusually toasty.

Heat expert Lawrence Armstrong of the University of Connecticut in Storrs says 110 degrees "is not that severe," but prolonged time in a hot environment raises risks of fainting and may be dangerous to those susceptible to heatstroke.

Choudhury claims night-and-day differences between hot yoga and other styles. According to his students, he alternately charms and scolds them into holding the prescribed position in what he jokingly terms "Bikram's Torture Chamber." Despite that name, stretches proceed "slowly, not fast at all," Choudhury says.

His book, Bikram's Beginning Yoga Classes, advises beginners to modify stretches for comfort and never to force themselves into position. The same book pictures him balancing his weight atop the stretched backs of his celebrity students, including the likes of Quincy Jones.

"Anybody with any kind of problem, I can help them," says Choudhury. His book lists emphysema, migraines and hemorrhoids, among others, as ailments that his program can address. A native of India, he claims broad experience in natural medicine.

Goldstein, who reports losing about 60 pounds in his first two years of doing hot yoga, wrote a book describing how it helped his diabetes.

Some medical experts urge caution.

"Stretching is not the kind of thing that reduces insulin resistance, generally," says Yale's Robert Sherwin, president-elect of the American Diabetes Association. Aerobic exercise for about 30 minutes every other day seems to help diabetics most, he says, adding that any activity that gets diabetes sufferers moving would be of benefit.

Other hot-yoga students say their discipline helps multiple sclerosis, a condition in which the immune system starts attacking nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Although many MS patients benefit from yoga's gentle stretching, Stephen Reingold of the National MS Society warns that heat commonly exacerbates spasticity, weakness and other disease symptoms. In fact, swimming or aerobic exercise performed in a slightly chilled pool may benefit most MS patients, he says.

Some yoga experts worry that Choudhury's emphasis on curing medical ills misses the spiritual dimension of their discipline.

"It's putting the cart ahead of the horse," says Georg Feurstein of the Yoga Research and Education Center in Sebastopol, Calif. In addition, he worries that yoga-related programs stressing fitness may push people who seek an aerobic workout into overstretching, causing injuries.

Heat counters that risk, says Choudhury, because the temperature equalizes flexibility throughout the muscle, preventing cold fibers from breaking while hot ones expand.

Daily practice of his yoga aids anyone who tries it, he adds. "I cannot guarantee a cure of anything. But I can help."

© Copyright 2001 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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