SWEAT SHOP: Drinking plenty of water before practicising Bikram makes all the difference.
The bottoms of my feet are sweating, and I have only been here for half an hour. "Keep breathing," I tell myself. "You can get through this." I reach my arms up into half-moon pose, stretching out my spine while breathing into the space between my vertebrae. It is hard, but it feels good. I stretch down, chest flat against my thighs, pulling forehead to feet. "How can I make it for an hour and a half?" I think to myself. "It is only getting hotter." Just as I think the heat is working against me, it does just the opposite. The warmth penetrates my skin and my muscles. I am able to stretch farther than I expected.
Bikram yoga, known as "hot yoga," is a series of 26 postures with two breathing exercises that are done in a 105-degree room softened with 40 percent humidity. The heat is there for a purpose: to cleanse the skin, protect the muscles by keeping them warm while stretching and to detoxify the body from the inside out. The class is designed for everyone from beginners who have never entered a yoga class to the most meditative and flexible yogis. Bill Butcher, owner of Bikram Yoga Studio of Santa Rosa, explains, "Bikram [Choudhury] designed this series to work every part of the part, every muscle, tendon and internal organ, whereas someone can practice a different type of yoga and leave not having worked the entire body."
Now 63, Choudhury started doing yoga at the age of four in Calcutta, India. After winning the National India Yoga Championship at age 13 and being undefeated for three years, he was injured by a weightlifting accident and told he would never walk again. By continuing to practice yoga, he not only was able to walk again, but was completely recovered in six months. Convinced of yoga's healing power, he developed his unique series of postures designed for optimum benefit, opened schools in India and eventually brought his series to the United States.
When Butcher took his first Bikram class in 2001, he had been a runner for many years and had his own knee problems. After discovering Bikram, he strengthened his knees and lowered his blood pressure and stress. "This is a challenging workout," Butcher says, "but when I am done, I feel better, less stressed." He has now been teaching for six years and continuously still practices.
Choudhury has been criticized and dubbed the "bad boy of yoga" for declaring that his classes are "torture chambers." He has also been vilified for copyrighting his series of postures, for his net worth of $7 million and for suing teachers who don't adhere to his regimen. But Butcher argues that "any person who becomes successful has critics. The fact is that Bikram has more people doing yoga all over the world than anyone else; he is teaching yoga to the masses, because he is teaching yoga that anyone can do. It is not tricky.
"The fact that he copyrights his series is good," Butcher continues. "It protects what he is doing and prevents people from teaching his method who have not had the proper training."
As I am in the hot room sweating through every pore of my body, stretching my spine backward, which I rarely do outside of a yoga class, there are times when I feel nauseous and exhausted. I wonder why I am putting myself through this. This class is hard, really hard, but it leaves me wanting more. The nausea and exhaustion pass, and I am proud of myself for sticking it out. Energy surges through my body as I push myself through the discomfort. As an alchemist might say, we need the heat to break up what has become concrete and solid within us. With the heat, I am able to move my body in ways I had not expected, I feel rejuvenated and clean from the inside out, calm and relaxed.
Butcher says, "Bikram is trying to get as many people as possible to do yoga, because when we practice, we are nicer, and those around us are affected by it.
"Yoga makes the world a better place."
Bikram's Yoga College of India 6914 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol. 707.823.3079.
Bikram's Yoga College of India 721 W. Napa St., Sonoma. 707.935.5862.
Bikram Yoga of Santa Rosa 522 Wilson St., Santa Rosa. 707.545.YOGA.
Yoga Stop on the 101 7530 Commerce Blvd. (in the Cotati Oaks Plaza), Cotati. 707.478.1871.
Bikram Yoga San Rafael 1295 Second St., Ste. 201, San Rafael. 415.453.9642.
Bikram Yoga Napa Valley 1950 Jefferson St., Napa. 707.254.9545.