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Photographs by Stephen Laufer

Wet Hot Bikram Summer: Can your anti-perspirant handle this kind of punishment?

Helter Swelter

Bikram yoga addicts find transcendence in torment

By Mike Connor

Frankly, the problem with Bikram yoga is that it just hasn't been marketed right. Seriously--Bikram yoga? Who the hell's Bikram? Oh yeah, Bikram Choudhury--isn't he the Bentley-driving, Beverly Hills villa-having dude that sued people for copying his idea to do yoga in a hot room? Granted, he was dealing with people who were using his name and an identical series of identical poses at identical temperatures in an identically configured room, but still . . . lawsuits? Not very yogilike.

Many people don't know this, but Bikram yoga is actually the black sheep of yoga practices. Whenever I find myself sipping chai and chatting with a group of yogis, as soon as I confess my love for Bikram, the conversation pauses, as if I've just told a group of Christians that, funnily enough, satanism has me feeling better than I've felt in years.

Not that Bikram yoga has anything to do with Satanism, but the classes are pretty much as hot as hell. While you stretch and compress your way through twin sets of 26 poses in 90 minutes, the room cooks at about 105-110 degrees, with humidity at about 40 percent. Enthusiasts claim that the various poses, combined with the heat, improve flexibility, enhance concentration, reduce fat pockets under the buttocks, correct posture, stimulate proper functioning of the pancreas, kidneys and liver, normalize hydrochloric acid levels in the stomach, help conditions of constipation, diabetes, colitis, low blood pressure, gout, appendicitis, spondylitis and menstrual disorders, and of course unify mind and body.

But this current "panacea" marketing effort propounded by Bikram fanatics (full disclosure: author is a borderline case) doesn't really help, because hippies have been touting the cure-all potential of yoga since the '60s, and all I got was this lousy tie-dyed T-shirt.

With proper marketing, Bikram yoga could be perceived as totally badass. Choudhury and his wife were both yoga champions in India, and while I have no idea what that means exactly (perhaps their breathing was way calmer than everyone else's?) the champion factor could be played up. They could travel around the country hosting impromptu "yoga-offs" in their heated van, schooling cocky upstarts with the most amazing Dandayamana Bibhaktapada Paschimottanasana poses you've ever seen, representin' the I-N-D-I-A to the fullest.


Achtung, Baby: In the future, humans will be more aerodynamically correct.

At schools they visit, the couple could wear cool yoga superhero costumes, create a spin-off "Yoga Power" cartoon and engineer a cross-promotional tie-in with health food stores (think Happy Meals with tempeh instead of beef) that would totally entice the next generation of yogis into the sweaty fold.

And it seems the Happy Meal metaphor isn't far off. The Economist magazine said that "Bikram Choudhury is trying to do to yoga what McDonald's did to food," by normalizing and franchising his particular brand of yoga. He requires certified Bikram instructors to train with him at Bikram's Yoga College of India (which was founded in 1974 and is located in Los Angeles), set up their studios in a similar manner and use pre-approved scripts in class.

The owners of Village Yoga in Santa Cruz, Sally Adams and Amy Mihal, seem to take liberties with the script, injecting personalized flavor with an ever-evolving repertoire of anecdotes and asides. Temperature, which is regulated manually, also varies subtly by instructor, some of whom like to be hot shots on the heater button.

From a marketing standpoint, Village Yoga projects an air of nurturing acceptance spiced with a dash of hip attitude. They don't completely ignore the spiritual roots of yoga, nor do they play them up. What they cultivate is an air of sweaty camaraderie in a plainspoken, down-to-earth style.

Drop-in classes cost $14, but their introductory offer of $10 for 10 consecutive days of unlimited visits is the best way to give it a shot. Package deals help to lesson the blow after those 10 days are up, but one offer stands out as refreshingly evil. If you go to a class each and every day for a month, they'll knock $25 off the cost of the $105 monthly unlimited pass. It might sound easy, but experience tells me this regimen is only for the Xtremely dedicated.

Some kickboxing loyalists I know shun yoga because they think it's boring. And when people who enjoy boxing without an opponent think something's boring, they're probably right.

Except that in this case, they're wrong. Bikram yoga may or may not unify mind and body, but it's definitely a vigorous workout that even grunting, pumped-up gymboes could love. By the time I flopped onto my back after my first Ustrasana, or "Camel Pose," my body felt like it was melting into the floor while my heart tried its hardest to beat its way out of my chest. As I headed out to the car afterward, I felt like what drug users might call "high as a kite," and what non-drug users might call "probably something like being high as a kite."


The Gumby Pose: Bikram practitioners demonstrate the miracle of claymation.

As the intense effects wore off, I felt giddy and caffeinated. Consistent practice dissolved desk-job-related back and neck tweakage, as well as 10 extra pounds around the gut and ass regions. If I had a cool spandex yoga superhero outfit, I would have looked way better in it after a month of Bikram yoga.

Not that it's all fun and games. Some of the poses feel like they were stolen straight from the pages of the Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Inflicted Torture. Being a sweater by nature, I'm usually soaked by the second pose. Round about pose No. 7, Tuladandasana, or "Balancing Stick," you can actually hear the sound of sweat sprinkling my sodden towel. Perspiring so profusely can be embarrassing when the people around me are twice as deep into the pose and hardly breaking a sweat. Or worse yet, they're not sweating at all--they are serenely, effortlessly glistening.

But oftentimes, the people around me are dripping just as much as I am, our combined sweat tapping out the sound of human rain. I sweat so much I have to actively hydrate before and after practice, or else I wake up the next morning feeling slightly hung over, with bleary, dried-out eyes and an insatiable thirst for Gatorade, which will hopefully--and generously--sponsor this sentence.

Some doctors and yogis of a different, less Xtreme ilk say the heat is bad for pregnant women and can lead to overstretching and clinical dehydration in the rest of us--criticism which only makes the sport seem more awesomely hard-core.

The only real bummer for me is that I have to schedule my meals around my yoga, because a Happy Meal in the gullet really gets in the way of a good stretch. I hope Bikram's next step is to franchise a healthy fast-food chain. Only then will the masses, over the course of a hurried lunch break, finally be able to unify mind, body and gullet.

Namasté.

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From the July 27-August 3, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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