This Yoga is Hot: Bikram Hot Yoga
blends ancient moves and high temperatures
Monday, July 18, 2005
It's 9 a.m. Sunday morning and the big ballroom at Canada Place is cooking, quite literally so hot that to enter wearing anything weightier than a hankie would be foolhardy.
But the 200 or so devotees sitting on the floor, their yoga mats, clean towels and bottled water at the ready, know all about that, each having paid $100 a pop for the pleasure of sweating with the master.
|Some of the 200-odd devotees who attended a class conducted by Bikram Choudhury at the ballroom in Canada Place. CREDIT: Ian Smith, Vancouver Sun
On stage is Bikram Choudhury, the world-famous hot yoga guru, whose persona is huge but who, in person, is actually tiny and impossibly taut, with perfect posture and a routine so smooth and charismatic you almost forget the torture he's here to inflict.
The crowd is classic Vancouver: young, old, black, white. There are yoga babies and yoga babes, big men and small. There's even a hippie or two, for this is the land of patchouli.
The yogi is leading them through their paces, and he is both tough and funny, profane and charming -- and they adore him, even as he's pushing them farther than they've ever gone, their muscles straining, their faces red and wet.
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Bikram -- it's as if he has no last name -- is the founder of the Bikram Hot Yoga empire.
More than 30 years ago, he selected 26 ancient yoga postures and developed them into a tough, crisp 90-minute workout that has followers stretching and breathing while contorting their bodies into positions with names like camel and rabbit and locust.
And, oh yes, it all takes place in a carpeted room heated between 35 and 38 Celsius.
Steve Hawkins is hauled up on stage for a no-nonsense lesson on how to better his cobra posture. He's 42, a cameraman for City-TV and has chronic shoulder problems. Or at least he did until he discovered hot yoga more than a year ago.
It's made all the difference, and he was delighted to get a little tough love from the expert.
"It was quite an experience," says Hawkins. "He's sure not shy."
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Bikram is on a break, wrapped in a Japanese kimono and eating lychee nuts. His wife Rajashree continues the session inside. His son and daughter, both teenagers, aren't far off.
A yoga champ in his native India, he operated Bikram's Yoga College of India before packing up and heading to Beverly Hills.
That was in 1972, and before you could say downward facing dog, the toned likes of Quincy Jones and Madonna were swearing by hot yoga's spiritual and physical healing powers, their testimonials an instant magnet for the beautiful people on the prowl for the next big thing.
In this case the next big thing turned out to be sweat. And, thus, armpit rings and cotton Lycra became high fashion.
Timing, as they say, is everything and today there are about 1,200 certified Bikram Hot Yoga studios around the world, including 50 in Canada, with a dozen of those in B.C.
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The yogi, who coyly admits that he will be 60 next year, is known as much for his appearance as his famous sweat shops.
On stage, he's in his customary uniform: long black ponytail tied in a topknot, black barely-there Speedo and the infamous diamond-encrusted Rolex.
He sings and tells jokes and talks about back pain and acid imbalance and the coccyx, and he pushes, pushes, pushes, for two solid hours, working the crowd relentlessly.
This yoga is hot: Bikram Hot Yoga blends ancient moves and high temperatures
"Open your rib cage. Inhale. Hold that. Bend your head. Lock your knees. Exhale. Grab your heels. Lock it in. Try to kill yourself."
Life, he lectures, is not, "'Oh, honey, just do the best you can.' That doesn't work. Life is tough."
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Hot yoga, says Bikram, isn't about getting skinny, though you might lose inches.
It's about strengthening the physical body along with the mind and spirit.
"If you want to have a miserable life, fine. But if you want to have a good life, no doctors, no cocaine, no crime, no drugs, then you have to open the window of self-realization.
Bikram gets up close and personal as he fine-tunes a yoga student's position CREDIT: Ian Smith, Vancouver Sun
"This is the only way it works. That's why there are 26 postures. It's from A to Z, from the lungs to the heart to the digestive system to the spinal system to the brain . . . that's the way my guru taught me."
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Danny Dworkis was living in Hawaii with then-girlfriend Lisa Pelzer in the mid-'90s, when she dragged him along to a hot yoga class one day.
"It was hot and hard and everyone's sweating and you're doing these back bends and it's a torture chamber," says Dworkis.
But he, too, got hooked.
When they returned to Vancouver, there was no hot yoga, so they graduated from Bikram's Los Angeles yoga academy and opened their own Vancouver studio in 1999.
Today, they co-own three Vancouver Bikram Yoga College of India locations, employing about 20 certified instructors leading 110 classes a week.
Dworkis says yoga is so hot right now that everyone's hanging out a shingle, mostly teaching the more common meditative and mellow Hatha yoga, which has 500 postures and encourages relaxation over standing forehead-to-knee while your ear lobes drip on the rug.
The heat, says Dworkis, is key, because "it's the safest way to re-form and reshape the body. It's the accelerator."
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The word yoga actually means union in Sanskrit. It's an eastern metaphysical philosophy that is thousands of years old, and has but a simple goal: to balance one's mind and body on the path to self-enlightenment through mental, spiritual and physical exercises.
Those who practise Bikram's fever-pitched turbo version as near-religion offer this explanation: You have to have a good spine before you can have a good life.
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It's near the end of the morning session and the master is fine-tuning another volunteer.
She's face down on the stage, about to assume her position, when Bikram says: "Wow, how did you build your calves like that?"
And because everyone knows you can't lie to a yogi, she says, without missing a beat:
Now, that's hot.
© The Vancouver Sun 2005