Bikram Yoga – not for Pansies

by Marie O’Toole

pansyAbout seven months ago, I started exercising again after a 22-year hiatus (I was a college gymnast) and a nearly-unused Planet Fitness membership. The form of intense exercise I chose (or rather, was introduced to by my boyfriend, the famous Amos Parker), is known as Hot Bikram Yoga. We go to Bikram Yoga Durham, in Durham New Hampshire, which also offers Inferno Hot Pilates and Hot Vinyasa Flow. (There are many types of yoga, and I don’t claim to be an expert by any means.) Bikram was founded by Bikram Choudhury, who synthesized various aspects of hatha yoga into an intense whole-body workout. (There is no chanting or spiritual aspect, but you are encouraged to “set your intention” for class and focus on breathing in life, positivity and affirmation, while exhaling negativity.)

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The designer “modeling” one of his creations

Usually as a beginner you are so focused on not having a heart attack and keeping the sweat out of your eyes that “meditation” during class would be elusive anyway, but it does rejuvenate you mentally and physically to the extent that stress is relieved and the exercise helps combat anxiety. As one instructor in Durham often says, “If you can do Hot Bikram, you can do anything. The little stresses in life will not bother you so much.”

True to its name, this form of yoga is performed in a 104° studio for 90 minutes. This from a girl who doesn’t like to sweat. (Seriously…perspiration has always grossed me out.) Yoga is never an activity I thought I would engage in, since I associate it with hippies, New-Agey types, and people who eat tofu and wheatgrass. Nor do I have either the time or attention span for mediation. Yeah, not for me.

Crunchy Therapy?

SwansonThe funny thing is, (there are probably several funny things about me doing yoga, and you really have to look for the humor when describing an activity so intense that you lose 4-5 lbs. of sweat in an hour and a half); but not long after my divorce ordeal an old school friend (who had similarly been through a traumatic divorce) specifically recommended yoga to me – along with good nutrition and avoiding sugar – as an excellent way of beating depression and keeping a clear mind and healthy body.

I remember thinking, “Sounds cool, Tony. Yeah. Yoga….I’ll add that to my list of things to do. Along with joining a commune and eating kale chips.” (I actually did try kale chips once…they are over-priced and over-rated. And one cult experience in my life is more than enough, thanks.) But I digress. Back to Bikram Yoga.

My first voyage into the studio was tagging along with Amos, who didn’t promise it would be “fun”, but hey – it was something healthy to do together, and I’ll try anything once. I quickly learned why students cover their yoga mtee2ats (which Amos loaned me) with a beach towel – the sweat is pouring off of you within 5 minutes. For the second class, I ditched the T-shirt and sweatpants for a proper yoga costume – spandex that covers just a bit more than a 2-piece bathing suit.

*Disclaimer: There will be no sweaty yoga pictures of me in the making of this post.

The Practice and Benefits

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The class starts with a series of deep breathing exercises, then moves into a series of 26 poses (“asanas”) focusing on flexibility and endurance. There are moments at which you think you are going to die, but Bikram is not a competitive sport and the instructors are very affirming of each person’s ability and effort – encouraging students to “take a knee” when necessary. It is extremely important to be well-hydrated prior to and following class, as water takes 45 minutes to enter the system and what you drink during class cannot compensate for the fluid and electrolytes you excrete during those 90 minutes.

The floor series takes the heart rate down, stretching takes you to the max, and the class concludes with another breathing exercise and a few minutes on the floor in bump5.pngrelaxation and meditation (“savasna”). Besides improving flexibility, endurance, and improving circulation, some of the physical benefits of Bikram yoga reportedly include alleviation of arthritis, better thyroid function, and increased bone density (much like any weight-bearing exercise). It is also extremely helpful for folks who are trying to cut down or quit unhealthy habits like smoking or drinking alcohol.

The primary physical benefit for me in the months since starting Bikram has been dramatically decreased pain from a soft-tissue injury that acts up when I am driving (I have a 2-hour commute, each way, every day, to work and back….and Amos and I live 108 miles apart. I do A LOT of driving.) Two years ago, I foolishly kicked up into a handstand in my living room – sans stretching or warmup – just to see if I still “had it”. Apparently I don’t. I felt something rip, and spent the next several days limping in excruciating pain, cursing the fact that I am no longer 17. Initially I thought I had pulled a hamstring, which was a frequent occurrence in my gymnastics days, but this refused to heal or allow me to stretch. I had torn a tendon, which do not completely heal on their own.

While I mourned the fact that I would never again do the splits on that side, the more annoying aspect began about a year after the injury: about an hour into driving, I would notice the tendon started to hurt. It became neuropathy, shooting pain all the way down into my right toes. The pain was especially bad whenever I would wear shoes with even a slight heel on them. Coincidentally, it was right about the time the referred pain started that Amos started bringing me to yoga – which involves a lot of straight-leg stretching. While I cannot even come close to putting my forehead on my knee without bending it, the continual stretching made the chronic-achiness-pain-while driving disappear by about 90% after the second or third class I attended.

 

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I can’t quite lock my knees. Well, not when my face is on them anyway.

Additionally, the post-exercise rejuvenation has a calming effect. Hot Bikram helps keep the mind clear and anxiety at bay – not a “magic bullet”, by any means; but a healthy option for stress-fighting and a good option for pursuing total wellness. Like many, I have found yoga beneficial both for physical and mental health. Since Hot Bikram burns approximately 400-450 calories per 90-minute class (for women – probably more for men), it is an excellent choice for anyone on a weight-loss regime.bump9 (I won’t be joining you in that – with my blast-furnace metabolism, calories are my little friends and I replenish them after class with a pure cocoa-and-protein-powder smoothie, courtesy of Amos).

Artwork for Merchandise

One creative endeavor Amos has recently started has been to design various T-shirts, bumper stickers, and similar products to extol the virtues of Hot Bikram in a humorous way. (See designs scattered around this post, none of which are “official” BYD merchandise; but rather thought up just for fun and potentially for individual order.)

I particularly like the tote bag, which should be lined with plastic in order to cart your mat, water bottle, and saturated-with-sweat yoga costume and beach towel home:

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Some cool water bottle designs too:

Additional T-shirt designs:

Hot Bikrim is a great way to blow off steam (literally and figuratively) while getting in shape and making new friends. Yoga really is for everyone – regardless of age or ability, there are tremendous health benefits to taking a class before or after the busy-ness of the work day. A demanding-yet-rewarding discipline, fatigue, pulled muscles and lethargy with certainly be banished after your first few classes.

Namaste!

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