Could I actually run out of sweat, I wondered, mildly alarmed at the amount pouring off me and pooling on the towel covering my yoga mat. I’m about 10 minutes into my 90-minute Bikram class, and I’m getting concerned about my fluid levels.
Thanks to the ambient heat of the studio and the strain of the poses, my T-shirt is wet—not just damp with sweat like it would be after a run, but absolutely saturated, like I’d worn it in the shower.
I began to understand why many of the men—and the class is about 40 percent men—decided to go shirtless and wear little more than bike shorts. If clothes inhibit movement, wet clothes are positively restrictive.
It’s the much touted 40-degree heat of the Bikram studio that largely defines Bikram yoga—sometimes called hot yoga. But there’s a good reason behind the hot room. “The heat allows you to go further. It warms your muscles and allows you to stretch and go deeper into postures,” explains Marina Skilbeck, Bikram teacher and studio manager at Sydney’s Bikram Yoga Northside. “The extra flexibility allows you to get more from the poses, and the sweating helps with detoxification,” she adds cheerfully.
While the atmosphere before and during the class is very friendly and the staff are lovely and patient, the practice has an individual “competitive” feel about it; something akin to the way a personal trainer encourages clients.
Some people attribute this to Bikram yoga’s founder, Bikram Choudhury, a renowned Hatha yoga master who developed the style more than 30 years ago. Bikram was obviously a bit of an alpha male. He began studying yoga when he was a small child and as a teenager won the National India Yoga contest. He held the title for three years. As a young adult, he ran marathons—and won—then started lifting weights competitively. After an injury with weights that saw him almost lose the use of his leg, Bikram went to study under a brilliant yoga master and physical culturist, Bishnu Ghosh, to aid his recovery. Bishnu encouraged Bikram to take yoga to the Western world to, as Bikram writes in his self-titled book, “fix broken bodies and screw-loose brains.”
So he designed a series of therapeutic poses that he believed would help cure most Western maladies. It is this sequence which makes Bikram yoga unique, claims its founder. Each posture, he claims, forms the perfect basis for the next, warming and stretching the appropriate muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
Each posture, Bikram’s founder claims, forms the perfect basis for the next, warming and stretching the appropriate muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
Choudhury felt his 26-pose sequence was in fact, so unique he trademarked it in 2002, named the whole practice after himself and began selling off licenses to teach his sequence, a move some critics claim was very un-yoga like and dubbed it McYoga.
Regardless, Bikram yoga has millions of very devoted fans around the world that sing its praises, claiming it helps weight loss, cures thyroid problems, strengthens the immune system and helps recovery from injury.
Brian May, a newbie Bikram teacher at Yoga Northside, glows when I ask him how Bikram helped him and proudly he shows me his perfectly normal-looking right foot. “A two-tonne excavator basically severed that,” he says. “The doctors said I’d never walk again.” Brian goes on to detail how Bikram yoga helped him recover the mobility in his foot and explains, that not only does he walk and run, but he’s halfway through climbing the seven highest summits on all seven continents, an astonishing feat by any measure. “When I started Bikram, something clicked with my life. It’s what it does to your attitude,” he says. “I was all about money, and not giving back, but Bikram changes you; changes the way you think and feel about the world.”
What to Expect in Class
Every Bikram class consists of two pranayama (breathing exercises) followed by 24 poses, each repeated twice in front of a mirrored wall. Teachers demonstrate some, but not all of the poses. In my class, and others, it’s discouraged to drink water until after the third pose (Utkatasana or Awkward pose). The idea is to let your mind centre and focus on your body and your breathing.
About an hour of the 90 minutes is occupied by 12 standing poses. At the end of the standing poses, I was ragged and drenched with sweat. I’d devoured my litre of water, but noticed that the more experienced people had barely touched theirs. My teacher indicated for the class to move to the floor for a number of backbends—Cobra, Half Locust, Full Locust, and Bow— interspersed with straight-legged sit-ups. Finally, feeling spent, Corpse pose was a pure relief. Outside the class on the balcony, with the cool wind washing over my body, I did feel extremely energised, aligned, cleansed…and very, very thirsty.