Friday, July 13, 2007

Bikram

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...

9 Comments:

At 4:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been going to the La Cienega location 5 days a week for almost a year and a half, and what you are describing does not sound like the Bikram yoga that I know. First of all, the Bikram sequence does in fact include Triangle Pose and Half Moon Pose. Secondly, I find your comment on it doing nothing for the arms hilarious. It’s an incredible arm workout. My arms are in the most incredible shape that they have ever been in, as is the rest of my body. I get so many compliments on them. One of my friends at work was so impressed by my arms that she started going to Bikram in Manhattan Beach and loves it.

Not much of a workout physically? Well then you weren’t trying hard or doing it correctly. You really get out what you put in. You have to work hard. I have been active my entire life and have never found a workout or any activity so complete. It’s all I do and all I need to do. I used to get sick at least twice a year, and now I never do. I have more energy than ever before. As for not feeling tired after class? Well you really shouldn’t. This yoga gives you energy instead of depleting it like most workouts. Sometimes I arrive at class so tired that I can barely function, but after class I am bursting with energy.

As for the attraction being a boot camp type of class, it really depends on the teacher. Each one has their own style of teaching, and that’s why you cannot judge Bikram Yoga from one class. Juan happens to be my favorite teacher. I love his style. He really motivates me, he’s funny and he gives me great advice during class. He has helped me improve greatly over the past year. As for being ridiculed, I don’t take myself so seriously and I love honest criticism. The people that he tends to give a really hard time to have been practicing there for a long time and he knows them. Others prefer other styles of teaching, however, so I would encourage you to try it again with a different teacher or at a different location. The studios vary greatly in feel as well. You would probably prefer one of the smaller locations, such as Manhattan Beach.

As for getting dizzy and throwing up, the dizziness is often due to a lack of hydration, which most people suffer from. It also happens because of the tourniquet effect, which basically means that while you are in a posture you are cutting off the blood supply to certain organs or joints. When you release the posture, blood comes rushing through your blood vessels and flushes out debris. This often causes dizziness. This is good for you. It’s amazing for circulation and cleans the lymphatic system. The nausea is often a reflection of your internal condition. If you are filling your body with crap, like most people do, the yoga is going to stir up a lot of this stuff and you are going to feel sick.

Bikram has changed my life. I can’t even list all of the benefits that I have received from making it part of my lifestyle. I understand that it’s not going to appeal to everyone, but I really just wanted to clarify a few things for people reading your post that are not familiar with it.

 
At 3:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree heartily with the comments of "anonymous". From someone who has done marathons and weights for 20 years, this is by far the hardest, most comprehensive and most satisfying workout I've ever had. It is...EVERYTHING!! I also think the author really wasn't trying hard enough or doing it correctly. I also think no one can make an informed opinion on just one visit. I urge the author to give it an honest 10 classes, then let us know what you think. I think your response will be far different.

 
At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't know how I came upon this article, but I do hope that people who do not know very much about yoga pay little heed to it.

Anonymous' comments are all very true and relevant, and I would just add that there are MANY TYPES OF YOGA. Bikram is a Hatha yoga, which builds mental and physical strength through maintaining postures, in a much different way than the the Vinyasa yoga practice described by the author

Besides blatant errors already described by Annoymous,I do hope by now that the author has participated in more yoga classes, Bikram or not, and learned how to do the poses correctly in order to gain benefit from them. Otherwise, there's little difference between the girl who just does yoga to lose weight before a date or the girl who practices vinyasa because she thinks it's the only way to tone her arms.

 
At 9:42 PM, Blogger AJ said...

No arm workout? I disagree. Just the awkward pose makes my arms and shoulders tired. And don't forget the locust post. You raise both your legs but you're also working your arms so you can bring it higher. Actually when I think about it, all poses makes use of your arm strength.

One day of practice isn't enough. And if you're not feeling anything, you really are not trying hard enough. Seriously.

But I don't want to sound negative. Bikram is not for everybody. There are other types of yoga out there. The heat just helps with the detoxifying and flexibility.

 
At 5:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't believe what I was reading as I went through this post. I myself was a skeptic when I tried Bikram 10 years ago. But instead of the negative and inaccurate experience you describe here, I had quite the opposite one. Like Anonymous and the others said, it truly is the most thorough workout I've ever had. Before Bikram I was a runner, weight lifter, aerobicizer, spinner, etc. and couldn't believe how challenging Bikram is. Not only that, it has made me healthier on the inside as well. The energy is unparalled. Most importantly, you cannot judge a workout by only doing it once. If you tried running and could only run a 1/2 mile your first try and gave up after that, what kind of opinion could you give about running? Not much of one. I encourage everyone to try Bikram, it truly is life changing!

 
At 12:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been doing Bikram yoga for the past two months and it is one of the most difficult (and wonderful) workouts I've ever tried. The women I see in the locker room that have been doing Bikram yoga for a while look amazing. I've asked a few of them if they do any other exercise regularly and none of them do. I came across this post because I was wondering if people feel like their arms are getting stronger. In my opinion, my arms look better than they have in years but maybe I just feel so good from the yoga that I like my arms more.At any rate, people have been telling me I look great, fantastic etc.. so I'm getting outward, unsolicited feedback which is pretty nice. I highly recommend Bikram yoga. It'll kick your ass..in a good way.

 
At 8:21 AM, Blogger Kathy said...

Hi,

I am the assistant editor for Healthyoga.com, whose sole purpose is to offer a free informational resource to the public for those seeking advice on a variety of yoga related topics from professionals.

I've found your blog through a few of our mutual online affiliates and would love to work with you as well. I have interest in being included within your blog roll and would love to explore possibilities. Thank you for your time, I look forward to your response.

Please email me back with your URL in subject line to take a step ahead and to avoid spam.

Thank you
Kathy Ray
kathy.healthyoga.com@gmail.com

 
At 9:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 2:05 PM, Blogger Annabelle said...

This makes me just shake my head. I too am an ex marathon runner, and each Bikram class is as challenging as a marathon in my head. Zero arm workout?! Most people cant hold their arms straight interlaced above their heads with palms being actively pushed together... so you probably werent listening to the instructor very well. I have done so many different things (running, walking, pilates, various yogas, circuit training, weight training etc etc etc) and nothing has changed my body so quickly and in such amazing ways than Bikram. I can see my quads moving around under my skin and have arms like i never thought possible. I'm even developing veins under the skin on my calves and shins like body builders and fit dudes have! Anyway, suffice it to say I think you're way off base, and its a shame if your blog turned anyone away from trying this truly life-changing thing...

 

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