Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tongue in Cheek

A BBC report on a Norwegian princess, the fourth in line to the Norwegian throne, talking with angels, and helping you do the same for a mere $4,150 per year

Friday, July 13, 2007


I've always referred to Bikram as "The McDonald's of Yoga", but that was my own assumption without actually ever having taken a class. So yesterday, in the interest of being able to back myself up with some facts (or refuting my basic assumptions) I took one.

This took some courage on my part. For those of you that don't know, Bikram is done in a hot room - 105 degrees celsius and 40% humidity to be precise. One of the reasons given for this on the Bikram web site is the heat increases the heart rate, turning this into an aerobic exercise... Just a few more points for background: 1) it consists of a fixed, "scientifically" developed sequence of 26 poses, developed by the eponymous Mr. Bikram Chadhoury, 2) it's probably the only branch of yoga, with the possible exception of yoga clothing, that's making real money for its developers - in this case Bikram himself, who is well known for his collection of Rolls Royces (remember the Rajneesh...?), and 3) Bikram has patented(!) his sequence of poses and has legally pursued those who try to teach his sequence or variants of it without paying him royalties.

BTW, as a side comment, my anecdotal impression had been that Bikram's the branch of yoga that appeals most to men.

So, I checked out the Bikram web site and off I went. I decided to wear my absolute lightest yoga pants (black ones), along with my one and only sports bra (a white one, you'll find out why this is important very soon...).

Bikram has over 600 studios in the U.S. and hundreds more worldwide, but the highest concentration is in San Francisco. A friend of mine has speculated that's because Bikram actually appeals to gay guys, but I wasn't sure. An alternative explanation was offered by a female friend from San Francisco, who claimed that her girlfriends like to take a Bikram class before dates, because the water they lose during the class allows them to fit into their tighter jeans... That may have become a fad in San Fran... But more importantly, the international headquarters of Bikram is in L.A., less then three miles from my house on La Cienega Blvd. I was going to the holy of the holies itself.

If you've ever been to a regular yoga studio in L.A., you'll know that they're normally pretty upscale in an organic foods type of way. Hardwood floors, soft colors, entry hall full of books and clothes meant to empty your pocket book and fill your soul with the right Zenish New Agey feel. The world headquarters of Bikram is very different. Situated in a fairly run down part of La Cienega Blvd, it's housed in a large commercial building that was probably once a warehouse of the type that doesn't have loft potential...

The pricing, as I'd already found out on the web site, was high. $20 for asingle class, $150 for a 10 class pack, and $250 for unlimited monthly.Compare this to $17 a single class and $120 a month for unlimited monthly at most L.A. yoga studios.

What did the Bikram devotees look like? Well, quite normal. About 40% male (vs 20-30% at regular yoga classes). Not particularly fit, but reasonably so. Reasonably affluent (judging by their cars), and fairly young - mostly in their 20's and early 30's, with a few teenagers in the mix.

But of course what you really want to know is what the class was like. Well, here's a brief summary. Even though the room was overwhelmingly hot, things didn't really get out of hand because the scientific sequence was not particularly strenuous. It had virtually none of the yoga staples - I mean no down dog, up dog, chataranga, trikonasana (triangle pose), warrior I or warrior II, no half moon pose. Most striking - there were absolutely no poses that put any weight on the arms. The Bikram sequence does absolutely zero for arm strength.

And how is it run? Well, at the front of the room is a mirrored wall, and at its corner is a stage with a big white couch. On the stage (sitting on it's floor next to the couch...) is Juan, the instructor. He's wearing a black speedo bathing suit, a gold chain, and a head mike like singers or like aerobics instructors. He talks in rapid fire English with a strange Indian twist to it - "Breath in, look forward, hands under your chin, fingers interlaced, eyes open, look into your eyes in the mirror, lift your elbows up, stretch them even higher. Now breath out, push your hands up, neck back, look to the back of the room, feet press down hard, stomach in. Now breath in, head down, ..." etc.

From time to time the instructor would interject something like - "Don't tell me you're going to throw up, just go out and do it". All in a Marine boot camp kind of way. To give a more personalized effect he'd refer to some of the students by name, to some in their native language (Hebrew, Russian...), and to some of the women, by the color of their outfits - Miss Purple, Little Miss Yellow, or yours truly, Miss Black and White.

So what were my conclusions? Well, first of all, that physically this wasn't much of a workout - that's perhaps natural considering that it's donein a 105 degree room. In fact, despite the heat, the truth is that I wasn't particularly tired after the class, not as tired as I get even after arelatively mild standard yoga class. Second, that this was not really yoga,in some ways it had more in common with a Jane Fonda workout class than with yoga. The instructor in front with the microphone, the devotees watching themselves in the mirror, the sense that pain (or in this case dizziness) is gain. Third, that the attraction, particularly for men, is in the feeling of having been through some sort of boot camp class, being admonished, yelled at and mocked, and feeling that you were on the edge of throwing up, or at least that others are. And fourth, and most important, that Bikram may be a commercial genius, but that going to a Bikram class added nothing to my depth of knowledge about yoga, it was just a sad statement about the things that will really attract the masses...

Thursday, July 12, 2007


You probably know that if you lose or leave your job, separate from a spouse, etc... Federal law provides for COBRA, which mandates your insurance company to continue offering you the insurance you had while employed for up to 18 months.

You may or may not know (I didn't), that in California, you can get an additional 18 month extension of your COBRA (called CalCOBRA) for a total of 36 months.

But what happens after those 36 months expire? Well, you can buy insurance on the open market. Which, if you have no pre-existing conditions is, as I've found, fairly straightforward, and not exceptionally expensive. But what if you do have a pre-existing condition? Not necessarily a debilitating one, or one that requires constant medical attention, just one that increases your risk. As in my case, having had stage I breast cancer 3.5 years ago.

Well, it turns out that most of the insurance companies will sell you, under some conditions, more expensive policies to compensate for risk. So for example, if you are somewhat overweight, you can get a policy for 25% above the normal fee. If you're a little more overweight (i.e., 192-228lbs for a 5'.5" woman), you can get it for over 50% over the normal fee. But if you had stage I breast cancer, like I had, you need to wait 7(!) years before you're eligible for insurance, even at double the price. Meaning that today I'm completely ineligible to buy insurance, no matter the price.

But this story (surprisingly) has a happy ending. Because in 1996 congress passed something called HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). Which says, among other things, that if you've exhausted your COBRA possibilities, insurance companies are obliged to offer you at least a couple of their standard insurance plans, at a somewhat (but not terribly) increased rate. For me my choice will be a Blue Cross Share 1500 plan, which is a PPO with a $30 office visit co-pay, a $1500 yearly deductible (not applied to office visits), maximum yearly out of pocket payment of $5,000, and maximum lifetime benefit of $5,000,000,000. Not too shabby.

And how much will it cost? $535 a month, vs. $383 for the same policy if I had no pre-existing conditions and could have purchased it on the open market. Meaning it will cost me 40% more than my no-risk counterpart. Not ideal, but not bad. This (along with COBRA) is an example of Congress doing something right. Consider that without HIPAA I would have had NO option of buying health insurance (with the possible exception of insurance through California's high risk pool, with its yearly, or lifetime, maximum payout of $75,000...).

Here's my question though - have you ever heard of HIPAA? Did you know you could get post-COBRA insurance through HIPAA? Isn't it the best kept secret ever?

Well, I'd hadn't heard of it until I found a health insurance broker and consulted her. Here's her name, click for her web site: Maryann Zukin. If you ever need to buy health insurance on your own, I highly recommend her.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Yoga and Longevity

One of the more farfetched claims about yoga is that it's a fountain of
youth, a way to live not only better, but also longer. Sounds good, yet even though I'm an almost fanatic devotee of yoga, I have never subscribed to the longer life claim.

But I may change my mind. Here's the story: I've been reading about the origins of modern yoga, and there seems to be agreement that it can attributed to four people - the father of it all - Tirumalai Kirshnamacharya - and three of his pupils - Indra Devi (the woman credited with bringing yoga to the U.S., to women, and to Hollywood in particular...), BKS Iyengar (of Iyengar yoga), and Sri Pattabhi Jois - inventor, grand master of Ashtanga yoga.

For the past 40-50 years or longer, these four people have been the seminal figures of the modern, more physical type of yoga practiced in the west.

Which brings me to my point: Of these four people, Krishnamacharya
lived to age 100, Indra Devi to 102, and Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois are still
going strong at 89 and 91 respectively.

Of course it may not be the yoga. It may just be the joy of having thousands of adoring disciples, of having loads of self confidence, or just sheer luck. In any case, it's probably not replicable within the general population. Very few of us are going to spend 4-8 hours a day wrapped up in our yoga poses.

But still, it's pretty interesting...

The London/Glasgow Doctor Terrorists

It's been pointed out to me that, based on the skill level they showed in setting up those car bombs in London and Glasgow, one would never want to be treated by those doctors...