Bikram Yoga Trials
Michael A. Stusser
Developed by India-born entrepreneur Bikram Choudhury, oven-baked yoga is by design: the 105 degree room helps loosen muscles, stretch ligaments and bring oxygen to the entire body. Touted by some medical experts as a way to alleviate back problems, hemorrhoids and diabetes, it can also bring about heat stroke, hyperextension and mirages. While not a contact sport (unless you face-plant off your mat), the 26 positions (asanas) in each 90 minute session are challenging to say the least. Imagine doing calisthenics in a steam bath, and you pretty much get the picture. That’s probably the reason they make you fill out a medical waiver form before class…
Indeed, inventor Choudhury himself is not shy about proselytizing the bennies of his burning practice. In the into of his book, “Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class,” the founder states:
Aside from my advancing age (which only age-defying make-up can roll back), my own ailment was recurring sciatica and I decided to take a few classes to see if it might relax my aching bones. My instructor, a peppy but stern Barbie-doll of a woman named Julie, explained that the class was “challenging,” but with any basic yoga experience I’d do fine. (She lied.) There would be two water breaks, I was told, I should follow all directions, and not leave the room at any time. (Which of course made me wonder why I’d want to do that…) Before I could fully fill my water bottle, Julie began marching our class of 25 through two sets of superheated asanas.
For my first class, the instructor suggested I move to the back to watch how the advanced students do their Bikram thing. As it turned out, they didn’t mind being watched - in fact, most were so enamored with the sight of themselves in the obnoxious wall-to-wall mirrors they couldn’t possibly have noticed my gaze. (A common claim from Bikram practitioners is glowing skin, less bloating, and a generally sleeker appearance; no wonder it’s popular in LA.)
Whereas the classes at my regular, mellow hatha studio are full of hippies, New Agers of all ages, and nearby worker-bees with stiff appendages from sitting on their asses all day, Bikram seems to attract an entirely different crowd. Looking to combine an X-treme sports focus with a PC mysticism they aren’t getting from all-night raves or snowboarding, the style appeals mainly to tattooed Gen X hipsters between the ages of 18-30. Like so many well-intended trends, often the enthusiasm is present, but the true goal has been lost in the translation. Not to make generalizations, but several students actually showed up with iced lattes and began pumping one another up before class in a locker-room fashion I haven’t seen since the pre-game hype of high school football games. Not that there’s anything wrong with that...sort of.
Sounding more flight attendant than guru, my teacher explained how Bikram is scientifically designed to strengthen the mind and body - “all in only 90 minutes!” With the combo platter of a brisk pace, steam room conditions and trying to master 26 new yoga moves, I found myself whipping around my sweat-drenched towel like a dog circling a bone. Resembling an episode of “Fear Factor” featuring the cast of “Survivor” (with a touch of “Oprah” mixed in for good measure), my shortness of breath made me the Weakest Link in the group and nearly required a visit from “Dr. Phil” or one of the medics from “Grey’s Anatomy.”
To be fair to Mr. Bikram, the instructors in the classes I participated in didn’t follow his 3 stern principles exactly to a tee (even though the teachers had been certified by his Yoga College and were technically required to memorize a strict script called “The Dialogue”): we often didn’t freeze the body in each posture for the prescribed number of seconds, the emphasis on proper control of the breath while in the posture (a complex 80/20 breathing formula) was nowhere to be found, and rarely were positions followed with a minimum of 20 seconds in savasana – or “complete” relaxation. (And believe me, I was counting.) In addition, my own devotion was sorely lacking: according to the man in charge, you’re supposed to practice Bikram every single day except Sundays (when you’re allowed to sit on the couch and watch football), and I most definitely did not.
“Make it hurt!” my instructor barked again and again. “It hurts good! Push! PUSH! Push on through.” Was I having a baby or participating in the ancient system of yoga ? Having positions constantly shouted out was at some level unsettling. And it wasn’t even that the teachers I encountered were particularly hostile or Army Sergeant (though there are moments they can’t help but see themselves as yogic Drill Masters); my problem was more the relentless pace, the demanding tone, the necessary commandant-ish encouragement to stave off collapse. What happened to “listening to your body” or “taking a mental inventory”? See, those are commands I can get behind, and my troops simply sought some fresh air or a cold towel draped over their shoulders. Could we at least march to a different drummer? Any drummer? (Music of any kind is strictly forbidden.)
Now I like getting drenched as much as the next guy; I play basketball in a gym that’s part bog, part moldy sock locker. I smack tennis balls until my clothes weigh more than my opponent. I often huddle with the thermostat cranked to desert levels while sleeping in my disgusting sweatpants. In fact, I think they should build fitness centers that pipe blasts of steam and tropical tunes into 90 degree heated rooms– simulating a workout in Thailand or the Outback. But let’s not mix that up with relaxation, spirituality or yoga.
“McBikram: over 3 million served!” Bikram yoga has an ever-growing following. Franchising wildly, there are over 600 Bikram studios in the US and teachers line up to pay big bucks for certification. Students of all ages swear by Bikram as if he’s Patanjali reincarnated. “Thanks to Bikram,” one student testified in his book, “I’ve got a life again!” Sticky and challenging, a new generation of overachievers are bound to continue flocking to this new swamp action for the distinctive athletic challenge and its toxic-reducing qualities; it’s the logical extenstion stretching from sweatin’ to the oldies, Tae Bo, Kick-boxing and now Zumba.
While many folks are looking to add a spot of spirituality to their aerobic work-outs (no matter how many stairs you climb on the StairMaster, you can’t reach enlightenment on the damn thing), my Bikram classes were missing what I understand to be crucial elements of yoga: being able to still the mind – finding a place in each pose that strives simultaneously for perfection and peace, harmony between the mind and the body. These solemn components - that so many of my Hatha classes fulfill - seemed, if not missing, a distant third in importance behind athleticism and rapidity in the Bikram School. (With 52 poses cranked out in ninety minutes, it’s hard to “cultivate a sense of stillness.”)
As to the regenerative claims of Master Biks, several poses in the series were particularly unbearable for my low back: Standing Head to Knee pose (Dandayamana-Janushirasana), was a straining killer, as was Bow Pose (Dhanvrasana), which made me want an arrow to place on the damn bow and end my suffering quickly. Being an Aries, I also have a thing about draconian rules, regs and rigidity – if I feel like stepping out of a painful position and going into Child’s Pose, I'm gonna do it.
I honestly don’t know how they practice yoga in India (I’m sure they’ve thrown in a few modifications themselves over 4,000 plus years of practice). But when I do yoga I don’t want to be rushed; I want my shivasana to be more than a rest between jumping jack yogic calisthenics. I want to focus on “taming my monkey mind,” to have time to reflect and to hydrate my body and soul.
Maybe it would have been a better experience if it hadn’t taken place on a nasty, sweat-stained carpet. Or if I could have rid myself of the floating image of a salt lick in my Third Eye. Or if the room hadn’t smelled like a jock strap. Sadly, my own Bikram encounter was a draining one, and - at this point in my life - I’m looking to absorb some stuff. Like water, whenever I feel the need. Namaste.