News Hot Yoga: The Coolest Thing in Fitness?

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Thursday, March 20, 2003

Hot yoga

The coolest thing in fitness?

By LINDA STAHL

lstahl@courier-journal.com
The Courier-Journal

Spend 90 minutes stretching, balancing and challenging your body in a room heated to 100 to 105 degrees.

No sweat? No way.

When participants go through the rigors of Bikram yoga, also known as hot yoga, everyone from beginner to advanced student emerges from class glistening, if not dripping, with sweat.

Terrycloth towels to sop up perspiration, bottled water to drink and yoga mats to stand on are the only props.

Most men wear the equivalent of running shorts or swim trunks. Most women wear  camisoles  or jog bras with stretchy shorts, pants or tights.

Everyone is barefoot.

What happens in class is the same every time. Students do an unvarying regimen of 26 poses (each done twice) that Bikram Choudhury, a 56-year-old California guru, invented in 1974 and copyrighted last year.

The routine is performed standing, sitting and then lying down in front of mirrors where students must study their form. Usually, a teacher talks them through the routine, although some classes are done in silence.

Photo
Perspiration formed on Jody Zimmerman's face as he performed the Eagle pose.



Choudhury, once a weightlifter in Calcutta, has practiced his discipline with sophisticates and stars in Beverly Hills for years. His first book in 1978 was a learning tool for many.

While existing on the edges for some time, Bikram yoga has swept the country in recent years. Now, it is taught in smaller cities as well as large ones.

"It's what the stars and celebrities are doing. It's what Madonna is doing, so that's what people want to do,'' said Betsy Jones, owner of Bikram's Yoga College of India, Louisville, on Herr Lane.

The room's heat is supposed to loosen muscles and make the postures easier to perform.

Bikram is a form of Hatha yoga, a yoga of activity.

"This is not your meditation yoga," said Jones. "This is really an athletic yoga. That's part of the appeal. It's a great workout.

"Bikram isn't spiritually  based, so it doesn't interfere with spiritual beliefs," she added.

Most health clubs, fitness centers and yoga studios in America teach some kind of Hatha yoga, as opposed to a yoga about prayer, chanting or the study of scriptures.

Yoga Journal estimates that 18 million people in the United States now practice yoga, up from 7 million in 1998. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, which commissions an annual survey of Americans, says that 9.7 million practiced yoga last year, up 31 percent from 7.4 million in 2001.

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Yen for yoga
These Web sites will be useful if you are considering yoga of any kind:

 Online resource for yoga studios in the metropolitan Louisville area ,  including Southern Indiana: www.metroyoga.org/

Online resource for yoga classes in Indiana: www.indianayoga.org/yoga_directory.htm Tips from IDEA Health & Fitness Association on selecting the right yoga for you:   www.ideafit.com/ftyoga.htm 

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Jones, a former tennis player, runner and cyclist, once eschewed exercising indoors but said she fell in love with Bikram yoga when a friend introduced her to it in Florida eight years ago.

She got her Bikram instructor certification in 1999. For years, people practiced the program by learning  it from books and devotees.

There are three other Bikram's Yoga College of India studios in the metropolitan Louisville area — in New Albany, Crestwood and Louisville's Crescent Hill.

Other yoga centers occasionally offer hot yoga classes, although it can be a challenge to keep workout areas hot enough in old buildings .

Athletes and intensely competitive individuals are among those who sign up for Bikram's yoga. Jones has had Rick Pitino and gubernatorial hopeful Bruce Lunsford among her students.

She said professionals make up a large part of her student base.

Shawna Hogan, who once taught for Jones and now runs Bikram's Yoga College of India, Crescent Hill, also got her certification in 1999. Her Frankfort Avenue studio, which will be three years old in the fall, attracts students whose average age is 50.

Hogan advises her students to come to class well - hydrated. But 20 minutes into a class, she directs them to take a water break that she calls "party time."

Among those who entered her 5 p.m. class on a recent Monday was Anne Huntington, a 50-something ophthalmologist, who with three other women raced across America on bikes two years ago. In addition to cycling, Huntington also enjoys running. On a trip to Philadelphia, she tried a hot yoga class offered near her hotel and loved it.

"It's been so good for my back , and I've grown half an inch,'' said Huntington, who does yoga four times a week.

Hogan places her advanced students up front and beginners toward the back. The novices learn from watching the veterans as well as from Hogan's instruction. "Stay focused. Stay focused. You want to look like the letter T,'" she said as students assumed the "balancing stick pose.''

Hogan said she thinks the routine helps release compression in the spine, builds muscles and bone density through weight-bearing exercise, yet is gentle on joints. "There is no pounding or impact."

She said there are no handstands or headstands or positions that put pressure on the neck or shoulders.

"I recommend a minimum of three workouts a week, and daily if possible.''

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First step is to talk with your doctor

If you are healthy and have medical clearance from your physician, there is probably no adverse health consequence from hot yoga, according to Dr. Michael Sawka, chief of thermal and mountain medicine at the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine near Boston.

He doesn't do Bikram — aka hot yoga — but he has talked with physiologists who do.

"Hotter isn't necessarily better, but it's safe if done within reason,'' Sawka said.

He said humidity shouldn't be high along with the heat, because that might pose a danger to some exercisers.

Sawka said anyone with a cardiovascular disease should first consult a physician, as should those who take diuretics and blood-pressure medications.

Diabetics might not tolerate the heat.

Sawka said that for healthy people, doing yoga in a hot room could help build up tolerance for performing other sports, such as running or cycling, in hot weather.

Bikram devotees claim hot yoga cleanses toxins from the body because of the sweating.

"It would have no greater purifying effect than any other exercise'' that makes you sweat, Sawka said.

Bikram practitioners also say the heat helps loosen and stretch muscles. Being warm might make a person a little more limber, Sawka agreed.

As with any exercise class, students should ask about their teacher's training and be leery of an overaggressive approach.

A Boston Globe story in December said some doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists are reporting injuries from all types of yoga, not any one kind. Many times, students are the problem, yoga teachers and doctors told the Globe.

Shawna Hogan, who operates Bikram Yoga College of India, Crescent Hill, said she sometimes has to ask intense, perfectionist students to "take it easy.''

Students are encouraged to see their physicians and must sign medical waivers before taking hot yoga classes. Bikram teachers also discourage pregnant women from starting hot yoga.

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