Walking into the room, the heat was almost too much. Sweat dripped down rhythmically onto the yoga mat, and the intense heat gave me tunnel vision. I could only focus on my breathing and the pulling of my muscles—everything else faded away. The voice of the yoga instructor, Courtney St. James, was the lone guiding light as she instructed the class on what to focus on and how to move. My muscles seemed to ooze into the stretch, pulling and pushing. At the end of the 90 minutes, the instructor handed out a cold washcloth infused with lavender oil. The coolness of it almost brought tears to my eyes.
"Heat is to create balance in the body, it is never meant to punish but to help you further," said Courtney, who is also the co-owner of Just Breathe Inc.
Just Breathe Inc., located at 5634 W. State St., is a non-profit Bikram Yoga studio, the only non-profit yoga studio in the state. Courtney and her husband, Gabriel, started teaching at Just Breathe in late June, having dreamed of opening a non-profit studio for years. The need for such a studio became apparent for them when, four years ago, Gabriel was involved in a traumatic car accident.
"The accident really impacted our lives significantly. We used Bikram yoga to help get him back up and moving and walking around," Courtney said.
After using Bikram to restore her husband's quality of life, Courtney decided that Bikram should be accessible for all.
"It was important that we make Bikram yoga attainable for everyone. No one should have to suffer," Courtney said. "Everybody has the ability to feel better."
Bikram yoga is a specific type of hot yoga that centers around 26 postures and two breathing exercises. The hour-and-a-half classes focus on feeling each stretch and savoring each posture. The room's temperature ranges between 100 and 105 degrees, with 40% humidity, and Courtney said the heat expels toxins from the body to help the body reach its full potential. While Bikram yoga has helped people with chronic illness and disease, people in optimal health also feel its benefits.
- Courtney St. James
"It is not fitness, it is wellness," Courtney said. "Balance in your body and mind, that is what it is really about. It is not about being able to put your foot behind your head. It is about being able to reach down and tie your shoes, it is function and sustainability."
Courtney has taught yoga for 13 years; the nonprofit model allows her to teach a different set of practitioners than for-profit studios.
"I don't think people should have to monetarily prioritize their wellness," said Courtney.
Courtney said she thinks people often use the cost of attending classes as an excuse not to take up yoga, but at Just Breathe, people who had always wanted to try now have the opportunity, and there's no catch to the free classes. Courtney and her husband focus on aiding people for free, and take donations from their students, have fundraisers and ask for help from local businesses. Summer months are difficult for any hot yoga class, but Just Breathe already has its regulars.
Phyllis, who declined to give her last name, practiced Bikram for 17 years and has attended classes at Just Breathe every week since it opened.
"I didn't really like the practice at first, it was really hard," Phyllis said. "I was nauseous and overwhelmed with emotions. I kept coming because I noticed I felt better, I slept better, I could focus better."
She added that the affordability of the classes has been part of the reason many people continue to attend.
"I think it is wonderful for the community, it is good for people to have more yoga choices, especially for those who can't afford it. Just Breathe is a good way of giving back to the community," Phyllis said.
Ken, who also declined to give his last name, is two months away from his 70th birthday. He's a regular at Just Breathe, as well, coming to classes three times a week. Courtney was his first Bikram instructor.
"I only made it through half the class, and then I left. Courtney came out and got me, talked me into coming back in and finishing the class. I never left again."
Bikram yoga significantly helped his health, Ken said. He walks and moves easier, improving his overall health and quality of life.
Kristin Bachman, 21 years old and first-timer at Bikram, felt the benefits of the practice immediately.
"I felt like it was so hot that you released all the toxins from your body, afterwards you feel much lighter. It was a nice refresh for your body, it's a good way to reset it," Kristin said.
Currently working on expanding her studio, Courtney plans to create a second studio space in order to draw in people with mobility issues. She wants to start working with veterans and people with PTSD. Another classroom would give her the flexibly to give her students more attention and help.
"It is really important to us that everyone feels welcome, that this is attainable for everyone," Courtney said. "The first class is shock and awe and then it slowly starts getting into your system. You learn to just go with it and you walk out feeling amazing."