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 and wondering if this is actually good for me and can I 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 a first-timer wearing make-up and watching it slowly run. I have genuine empathy for a frustrated and exhausted newcomer, but the image of a Tammy Faye Baker Halloween mask in a microwave always makes me smile.
Bikram yoga is a series of 26 positions and two breathing exercises slowly performed in a room heated to 105 degrees and, ideally, 40 percent humidity. The belief is that 90 minutes of heat, plus unhurried but difficult poses allow the muscles, ligaments and tendons to increase stretch without damage. Also, the exertion inside a crock-pot increases your heart rate and creates a cardiovascular workout, while the sweating helps toxin elimination. (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 59-year-old man who still looks good in a Speedo (retired readers in Miami Beach, please take note). Not burdened by a small ego, Mr. Choudhury recently copyrighted the series particulars and began legal proceedings against those who deviated in the least from Bikram gospel. The playing of music, hosting classes of other yoga styles and speaking unapproved dialogue would each earn you a fine of $150,000 or else a spiritually purifying lawsuit. As a result, slightly different styles of hot yoga were born, but most retain a similar assembly of Hatha positions, temperature and methods.
Legal intrigue and personalities aside, hot yoga is surprisingly free of excess hype (bad news for myth-busters like me). Except for the usual, mildly over-reaching claims of curative power that affects all styles of yoga, Bikram and others might actually understate their benefits. When it comes to general 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 practice requires some caution. Sweating like Ashlee Simpson without a soundtrack, 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. Bikram-trained teachers are usually a wise choice.
There is no reason you cannot gradually work up to practice many times a week, even if you are getting older. As we age, the four essentials of general fitness become more and more important. But age and wisdom don't mean you shouldn't take a little Bikram fashion tip: Women, cosmetics are ill-advised in the hot yoga studio. And men, speedos are not your only choice.