Sometimes even the most tranquil yogis need to break a sweat. Yoga may be good for relaxing, good for the spine, and good for showing off your stretchy pants, but it’s often thought of as a less-than-vigorous workout. While yoga may help in strength training and building flexibility, its slow pace and lack of intensity can leave some yoga lovers wanting a little more “active” in their favorite activity.
So what to do if you really love yoga but also really want to feel the burn? For those wanting to amp up their yoga practice without resorting to the yoga-pilates hybrid bastardizations popular among posh gym-goers, Bikram yoga is an interesting, albeit somewhat exhausting alternative.
Developed by Bikram Choudhry in Los Angeles in the 1960s, the Bikram method, also called Hot Yoga, encloses participants in a sweltering 105-degree room and guides them through twenty-six rapid-fire postures, or asanas. The heat, the speed, and the intensity work together to supposedly tone your every muscle and wring the toxins from organs you never even knew existed. Lured by the $5 Wednesday-night special and always up for a challenge, I headed to my neighborhood Bikram studio recently, unprepared for the yogic boot camp to come.
Previous yoga classes had demanded little, if anything, of my meager physical endurance. In my on-and-off six-year relationship with yoga, I had mostly stuck to traditional Hatha yoga or simply dropped into mixed-level classes that offered modifications based on skill level. In past yoga classes, I was in leagues with fellow fitness underachievers—the elderly, the obese, the generally doughy. Like me, they needed straps and props in order to coax their limbs into the pretzel shapes the instructor demonstrated with ease.
Throughout past yoga classes, the instructor would repeatedly remind us not to push ourselves too far. Can’t get your arm all the way behind you? At your side is fine. Can’t balance for tree pose? Feel free to hold on to the wall. Can’t get all the way up for bridge pose? Just lie there … it’s not technically giving up if you’re on a yoga mat. Everyone left class feeling happy, accomplished, and like they hadn’t worked too hard.
Hot yoga was far from the gentle body hug that I knew yoga to be. Almost immediately after the start of the class, the rules started coming at me. No water for the first twenty minutes. Then water only at designated water breaks. Push as hard as you can, as much as you can. The room was an oven and I was pouring sweat, but in order to make it through, our instructor said, you have to let your body adjust.
Rather than the ambiguously ethnic “yoga music” my previous instructors had played, the Hot Yoga studio was silent aside from the human groaning and the hiss of the heater in the corner. The room was outfitted with a full-length mirror on one side so we could all watch ourselves grow gradually more red-faced and damp. The energetic young instructor, long accustomed to the tropical climate of her studio, yelled directions at us continuously through the Madonna microphone strapped to her head.
“Back back back way back so back far back go back!” she said as we reached strained to extend our arms and heads toward the back wall.
This obscure code, I realized, was her way of pushing us almost to the point of pain. We started with balance poses—eagle pose, tree pose, and other classics made trickier by the rivulets of sweat cascading down our limbs. As we progressed, the instructor urged us to reach further, stay longer, and to resist the overwhelming temptation to run screaming from the room and into a meat freezer somewhere.
Of course, the instructor did allow for modifications. But once an atmosphere of competition with the self is established, it’s hard to resist trying to go just a little further than is comfortable. Incredibly, her motivation, combined with the oppressive heat, did work wonders for my flexibility. Although I had never been at the top of any yoga class, I surprised myself by being able to reach places and straighten appendages I hadn’t been able to before. Maybe it was my heated muscles, maybe it was my intense fear that the instructor would berate me again over the microphone, but somehow that day I was limber as a spandex-clad ragdoll.
We performed all of the classic yoga standards, a mixed-level blend that omitted sun salutations and hand stands (possibly because of the carnage that would result from a crowded room of people trying to balance on sweaty palms), but otherwise hit all the major muscle groups. At ninety minutes, it was half an hour longer than most yoga classes I’d taken and involved far more activity throughout. Even in the last ten minutes, when other yoga instructors may have retired the class to the calm of child’s pose or a lengthy shivasana, we were still doing yoga sit-ups and push-ups.
At various points in the class, about half my peers wiped out and lay down on their mats, guzzling water from dewey bottles. I, too, had to sit down for a few minutes when my head began spinning and my knees grew weak. These reactions, said the instructor, were perfectly normal and would get better with time.
Shivasana, the resting corpse pose that usually concludes yoga classes, was notably absent, since everyone fled from the room and to the nearest water source as soon as we were given the go-ahead. I suppose meditation comes after hydration on Maslow’s hierarchy.
I came out of Hot Yoga looking like I had jumped into a very hot swimming pool. I saw dots when I closed my eyes, and the bones in my feet felt like giant, twisted pipe cleaners. Overall, though, I felt stretched, aligned and accomplished. Not relaxed, but like a sticky, bendy champion.