- All photos by Sunnie Sacks
I confess. I showed up for a Bikram yoga class initially because I wanted to be ... warm.
For years I had read about Bikram Choudhury, "yogi to the stars," and his famous Yoga College of India in Los Angeles where luminaries like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Candice Bergen rubbed elbows with arthritic old ladies, athletes, spiritual seekers and health-minded yuppies. The health benefits of Bikram's system, a series of classic Hatha yoga postures regimentally practiced in a specific order in a super-heated room, were reported to be nothing short of miraculous.
But it was the dry Colorado cold that drove me through the studio doors of Yoga Source, the new downtown studio recently opened by Merry Peniston of Adam's Mountain Caf fame. Early December had frozen me to the core. The thought of a super-heated room, humidified by the mingled sweat of warm bodies in slow, controlled motion was so appealing I let my fear of yoga -- or any exercise class -- lapse momentarily.
The first night I attended class, the temperature outdoors was eight degrees. Stiff from a long day in an office chair and months with no workout program, I cringed when I entered the room and saw two willowy Colorado College coeds bending and swaying with the grace of tall prairie grass, gently whipped by the wind. I had not yet heard the oft repeated mantra of yoga class: "There is no judgment in the yoga room." I judged myself a fat, out- of-shape slob.
Our instructor, Mary Beth Hickey, apologized that the heating system wasn't yet up to par and the temperature would be moderate, not hot. Then, swiftly, she put us to work.
Two breathing poses, ten standing poses and fourteen floor poses later -- each executed twice -- I walked out of Mary Beth's Bikram class feeling as though someone had chopped my body into tiny parts and patted it back together. Every nerve ending was stimulated, every square inch of skin, bone and muscle worked. I walked out into the frigid night warmed from the center. I drove in slow motion. By the time I got home I had enough energy to cook dinner, wash dishes, do a couple loads of laundry, hang out with my three sons and read a few chapters of a new book. Sleep that night was dense and satisfying.
Learning to breathe
Since that first night, I've attended ten sessions of the Bikram yoga class. Every class feels different -- sometimes better, sometimes worse -- than the class before. The heat problem has been fixed and the last time I practiced, the room was warmed to 99 degrees with 12 sweating bodies working up a steam.
Here is what I've learned: People of all shapes, conditions and ages can do this practice. It fixes your little nagging aches and pains, like carpal tunnel discomfort and stiff necks. If you do it even semi-regularly, your flexibility increases by a few inches each time. So does your back and leg strength. Oh, and there is no judgment in the yoga room.
Most importantly, I learned that I have not breathed properly or deeply since I was a marathon jump-roper at about age 10. Somewhere along the way, I lost a big chunk of the mind-body connection by not breathing.
In Bikram yoga class, when the body resists a pose, indicated by pain or cramping, you are instructed to breathe through it. The first few sessions, several difficult bending poses caused me to have severe cramps in my diaphragm. I didn't know a diaphragm could cramp. Finally I realized my body was screaming at me to actually use my diaphragm. Now when I'm twisted up, trying to focus and hold a pose, I hear myself breathe and thank God or Buddha or goddess or Bikram Choudhury for the ability to force air in and out of my lungs.
Bikram says, "If you believe it, it will work better. If you don't believe it, it will happen anyway." I didn't believe it, and it does.
Bikram Choudhury's personal yoga practice began at at age 5 when he began training with Bishnu Ghosh, legendary trainer of body builders and yogis in India. In the '60s, he introduced yoga to Japan. And in 1971, he came to America for the first time under the sponsorship of the American Medical Association and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He counseled then-President Richard M. Nixon who suffered from phlebitis of the legs. Nixon liked him so well he offered to help him move to America. In 1973, Bikram set up shop in southern California and the rest, as they say, is history.
Bikram's system is unique in yoga practice for its strenuousness and for the heated environment. The 26 postures in the workout would be familiar to most students of traditional Hatha yoga. What's different is the unique order of the poses, designed to scientifically warm and stretch muscles and tendons in a particular order. And the heat is said to increase flexibility as well as aid the body in eliminating toxins.
Bikram is notoriously outspoken and rigid about his system. According to him, any yoga practice that does not incorporate breathing normally, holding still and relaxing completely in Corpse Pose or Savasana isn't true yoga. (In Bikram, each posture is followed by at least 20 seconds of standing or lying still.) As for the heat, in a Yoga Journal inteview, Bikram explained it this way: "I am a human blacksmith. If you take a piece of steel to a blacksmith and tell him you need a knife made out of it, what's the first thing the blackmith is going to do? He's going to heat it. Why? If he takes the steel and starts hammering, he's going to break his hand and the hammer."
With torture comes change
Merry Peniston and Mary Beth Hickey trained and received their teaching certification under Bikram's tutelage in L.A. at the Yoga College of India. After meeting there, Peniston, at the urging of Hickey and others, decided the time was right to open a studio in Colorado Springs.
"Training with Bikram was torture," said Hickey. "We went through 12 weeks of training, six hours of yoga practice a day plus classes in physiology, the medical benefits of the practice and anatomy."
Both women had practiced yoga prior to discovering Bikram.
"I was first taken with Kundalini Yoga, the other most powerful yoga practice I've done," said Peniston. Yoga, she says with firm conviction, saved her life. And both she and Hickey emphasize that it's not just about getting in shape.
"Most people come to yoga, initially, for fitness," said Hickey. "The healing element comes next. We all have so much healing to do, and yoga is about creating space in the body for that."
"It's an honor to work with people who trust you enough to guide them through a new experience."
What's unique about Bikram, they agree, is the heat. In addition to working all the systems, the Bikram workout increases flexibiltiy and cleansing.
Peniston plans to offer a program called the Bikram Challenge at her studio -- 60 continuous days of Bikram practice for $60.
"It will change your life," she says without a trace of doubt in her voice.
I try to imagine 60 days of Bikram practice, uninterrupted. Immediately I begin to identify all the reasons I can't do it. Then I remember Bikram's words and know that I will try.
"If you don't believe it, it will happen anyway."