This morning I was tricked into going to a Bikram yoga class. I liked it, as it turned out, even though there were times I thought I might die from the heat or the weird positions. I want to go back, but I'm 43 years old and wondering if this is actually good for me and whether I can do it a few times a week?
Maybe I'm just giddy from the heat, but my favorite thing about going to a hot yoga class is spotting first-timers. No one ever warns them against wearing make-up and, inevitably, it begins to slowly run down their faces. I do have genuine empathy for a frustrated and exhausted newcomer, but I can't help but smile seeing the living image of a Tammy Faye Bakker Halloween mask melting in a microwave oven.
Bikram yoga is a series of 26 positions and two breathing exercises slowly performed in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit with, ideally, 40 percent humidity. The general idea is that 90 minutes of heat plus unhurried yet difficult poses allow the muscles, ligaments and tendons to stretch much further than usual without damage. Also, physically exerting yourself inside a crockpot increases your heart rate and creates a cardiovascular workout, while at the same time, your sweating helps eliminate waste products. Incidentally, as an added benefit, the corner of the studio may be used by third-graders to hatch baby chicks.
A type of Hatha yoga, the package of poses, breathing and environmental conditions was developed by Calcutta-born Bikram Choudhury. This yogic entrepreneur is, perhaps, the only 60-year-old man who still looks good in a Speedo (retired readers in Miami Beach, please take note). Not burdened by a small ego, Choudhury recently copyrighted the series particulars and began legal proceedings against any studio owner who deviated in the least from Bikram gospel. Playing music, hosting classes of other yoga styles, or speaking unapproved dialogue would each earn you a fine of $150,000or else a spiritually purifying lawsuit. As a result, many studios broke away from the parent group and slightly different styles of hot yoga were born. Most, however, retain a similar assembly of Hatha positions, temperature and methods.
Choudhury made news again last month when he was charged with multiple safety violations at his own studio, a converted warehouse, in Los Angeles. Apparently, the popularity of his teaching resulted in cramming 160 people into a building with a maximum capacity of 49 and blocking the emergency exits. Can heating bills be so high for a warehouse on a summer's day in L.A. that you have to depend on body heat to raise the temperature? Calling the charges harassment, the founder now promises to move his headquarters from California to Hawaii.
Legal intrigue and personalities aside, hot yoga itself is surprisingly free of excess hype (which leaves me precious little to mock ... except legal intrigue and personalities). Apart from the usual, mildly overreaching claims of curative magic that affects all styles of yoga, Bikram and its sister styles might actually understate their benefits. For overall health and fitness, I believe there are four essential parts: strength, flexibility, balance and endurance. The practice of Bikram-type yoga rates near the top for the first three, and reasonably well for the last. The ability to survive in an equatorial jungle is simply a bonus.
Of course, the strenuous nature of this program requires some caution. Sweating like Ann Coulter on Judgment Day, you're likely to lose a significant amount of water and salt, so staying hydrated before and during class is essential. Also, people with high blood pressure, heart conditions or similar health issues should be cautious enough to get cleared by their doctor; in some cases, your teacher will have you avoid certain poses. A qualified instructor is crucial to a good experience and Bikram-trained teachers are usually a wise choice.
There is no reason you cannot gradually work up to practice this style many times a week, even if you are getting older. In fact, as we mature, the four essentials of general fitness become more and more important. But age and wisdom don't exempt you from some essential hot yoga fashion tips: Women are reminded that cosmetics are ill advised in a broiling studio. And men, I beg you, Speedos are not your only choice.
*This column was originally published in Boise Weekly, August 24, 2005.