News I sell Pain, Not Cheesecake, Oregonian, March, 2003


Some like it hot Yoga: 'I'm selling pain,' he says


As my children, my editors and fans of Ben Affleck will affirm, I am not an especially flexible person.

I am, however, working on it.

Being The Oregonian's film critic, I've spent years slouching in movie theaters, watching videos from a La-Z-Boy and slaving over computer keyboards, resulting in atrocious posture and at least one nasty bulging disc. I've had physical therapy and lots of swimming and weight training in an effort to find relief.

I've had my best results, however, since I began practicing the so-called "hot yoga," a series of 26 postures and breathing exercises performed over the span of 90 minutes in a somewhat smelly room heated to 105 degrees.

Locally, the devotees include musician Tom Grant, Hanna Andersson founder Gun Denhart and top Nike executive Tom Clarke. The celebrity list is broad: Shirley MacLaine, Madonna, Quincy Jones, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John McEnroe and assorted Oakland Raiders.

The system was invented by Bikram Choudhury in the 1960s in Japan. While teaching in Tokyo, he helped President Nixon recover from phlebitis before a 1972 summit with the Japanese prime minister. He was rewarded with a green card and grants from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to open his first schools in the United States.

In the past few years, with all kinds of yoga gaining in popularity, Bikram yoga has been arguably the fastest-growing style.

In December 1999, there were 50 Bikram schools; in September 2002, there were 600; today there are 715 worldwide, the vast majority of them in the United States.

Many people swear by the health-enhancing benefits they've received through practicing Bikram yoga. But it's fairly easy to be intimidated at the thought of starting it. You hear tales of people succumbing to the heat, of injuries caused by overextension, of the stifling, stinky atmosphere of the studios. And for someone who's never done any yoga or had much exposure to Eastern philosophy, there's a natural resistance to the new.

What I found was a form of exercise that's hard, yes -- but eye-opening, fascinating and addictive. In a stuffy little room in Johns Landing, along with fellow students of every age, body type and background, we struggle gamely in pursuit of such seemingly impossible goals as putting forehead to shin, hands to heels or elbows behind knees.

In five months, I have noticed that my posture has improved; I can breathe away stress more than ever before. I even made it through the Portland International Film Festival press screenings without crippling myself in the historic seats at the Guild Theatre. As the instructors frequently remind you, "It works."

Still, a little bug in my ear warns me to be suspicious of my enthusiasm. People have been doing yoga for centuries, millenniums even, but the ancient Indian practice is such a fashionable rage right now in the West that I feel an unfamiliar trendiness beneath me.

As it happens, Bikram himself is coming to Portland for a two-day seminar in his teachings -- a perfect opportunity for me to ask him if my sense of well-being is indeed a benefit of a yoga practice or whether I'm just a little lightheaded from one more thing in common with the likes of model-turned-yogi Christy Turlington.

Preparing to talk with Bikram, you find a diversity of viewpoints. Some articles in yoga publications and the mainstream media paint a picture of a stern, egoistic, macho taskmaster ("I'm not selling cheesecake. I'm selling pain," he tells classes -- and that's a gentle example), lambasting other popular forms of yoga and boasting about himself. "I am bulletproof, waterproof, fireproof, windproof, money-proof, sex-proof, emotion-proof," he told ABC News recently. And he has made similar points in even bolder statements that can't be printed here.

But then you hear people talk of the positive life changes they've achieved in his classes, and you take the testimony of teachers who have studied under and worked with him for years, and you get an image of a true guru, imparting valuable ancient wisdom through a combination of discipline, generosity and charisma.

"It wasn't until I studied with Bikram directly that I got a truly deep understanding of the sequence," says Gillian Adkins, director of Bikram's Yoga College of India in Johns Landing, one of four YCI franchises in the Portland area and eight altogether throughout the state.

Michael Harris, who operates a school on Northeast Fremont Street, concurs, while allowing that Bikram is quite a character. "I really like him," he says. "He definitely is outlandish. He says these outrageous things, and when you see them in print it can be shocking. But I've seen him say those exact same things to a class of 100 people and have them rolling on the floor with laughter."

When I finally speak to Bikram from his Los Angeles headquarters, he demonstrates all the contradictions I've been led to anticipate, and inspires and instructs in ways I couldn't have imagined.

Take the question of the spiritual dimension of his yoga. One of the qualms that kept me from beginning yoga practice was the impression that it would be steeped in chanting, meditation and mysticism.

First, he teases me about the very premises of my question: "When Western people -- Europeans and Americans -- talk about spiritualism, we Indian people laugh at you," he says. "Spiritual discussion in America is nothing but a joke. In the last 45 years, nobody can tell me in the English language what is the definition of spiritualism. Do you think going to temple is spiritualism? Do you think believing in God is spiritualism? Do you think meditation is spiritualism?"

But then, having disarmed me of the question, he answers it. "All these people trying to find spirituality, they're all running after a mirage, a drop of water in the Sahara desert. But when you left home, your mother put a bottle of Evian water in your backpack. All you have to do is put your hands back there, get the bottle out and drink from it."

As he explains, the spiritual dimension of his yoga comes from the fact that it addresses the body as the vessel in which the spirit, the atman, as he calls it in Sanskrit, is housed. "The body is the temple," he says. "The body is the home for the atman, the spirit, the soul. Your job is to keep the spirit happy in his own home. But we don't. You keep your body a junkyard, and that's why your soul is never happy."

All this, and more, mind you, in response to just one question.

He can be very funny. He describes his first exposure to American yoga practice thus: "In 1970, I met a doctor from Walla Walla who used to run a yoga school. I saw his class and I thought it was a joke. He asked me, 'What do you think of my class?' I said, 'It's OK.' He's got the air conditioning on to 50 degrees, no lights, incense burning so you can't even breathe, Ravi Shankar sitar music going -- it was like a haunted house. I couldn't wait to get out of there."

He can be boastful. "I grew up on the street in Calcutta," he recalls. "But I think I have the best life in the world. I've been to 100 countries; I picked the best -- America. There are 50 states; I picked California. California has 500 cities; I picked Beverly Hills. I live like a king. Why not? What's wrong with that?"

And he can combine it all in parables that entertain even as they instruct. "Every morning before you go off to work, you need the key to your car," he says. "And there are people who can never find the key. You need discipline. I have the key. I have a board with all the keys just like valet parking. And I have no problem finding the key."

It isn't magic, he insists. It's technique. And it's something that can be taught.

As he puts it, "I say to people, 'Do you have a problem?' 'Yes.' 'Do you want to solve it?' 'Yes.' 'Then stand up in the line, listen to me, and do the best you can.' "

Take jaded, puffy, broken-down old me. Shawn Levy: 503-221-8332;

©2003 The Oregonian


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