Hot stuff: Yoga in a 105-degree studio
Outside the Minneapolis yoga studio, a piercing November wind pelted rain. Inside was a different scene. There, in a room heated to 105 degrees, rivulets of sweat ran from 30 steaming bodies.
The slow, intentional movements from one impossible-looking pose to another looked like those of many other yoga classes, but this wassn't a low-key, relaxing kind of yoga. This was, and is, Bikram-style yoga. It's hot, hot, hot.
Each 90-minute class is the same -- two deep-breathing exercises followed by 26 ordered poses, performed in temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more.
An estimated 3 million followers practice the challenging style of yoga at more than 650 Bikram Yoga College of India studios worldwide, including three in the Twin Cities area.
"It's sort of like an extreme sport," said Minneapolis studio owner Martha Williams. "You have to really love to sweat."
Apparently, many Minnesotans do. Women and men of all ages are filling dozens of classes at the Bikram Yoga College of India studios in Minneapolis and Plymouth. A studio opening in Bloomington next week has more than 500 prospective students on its mailing list.
Big names such as Madonna, Raquel Welch and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar practice Bikram yoga, but local followers don't seem to care about its celebrity appeal. They say Bikram has helped them lose weight, reduce stress, increase flexibility and get relief from chronic pain.
"This has answered my prayers that I would get addicted to something besides chocolate," said Debra Wyrobek , 49, of Edina. "You know -- something good for me. I've become addicted to [Bikram] yoga."
Wyrobek, a wife, mother and special-projects manager for a nanotechnology firm, hadn't exercised regularly for years. Cortisone shots temporarily soothed her pain from tendinitis, but it wasn't until she began practicing Bikram at the Plymouth studio that she found real relief and inspiration to take better care of herself, she said. She's lost 20 pounds since beginning Bikram in June.
"I don't have a perfect body," said Wyrobek, who makes the 30-mile round trip to the studio three times a week. "But it's getting stronger and better, and I'm feeling better about that than I ever have. You're not measured against anyone. You're there just for yourself."
Why the heat?
Working in 105-degree air with 60 to 70 percent humidity is essential to the method, according to its founder, Bikram Choudhury , a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher who's become world-famous for creating this style of yoga. He says the heat allows muscles to stretch more easily, increases the heart rate for a better cardiovascular workout and detoxifies the body by opening pores to release toxins.
Dr. Arthur Leon, a cardiologist who heads the University of Minnesota's Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene and Exercise Science, hadn't heard of Bikram yoga, but he's concerned about possible side effects of exercising under such conditions.
"I've resuscitated people in the sauna before," he said.
Leon said the American College of Sports Medicine doesn't recommend remaining in such conditions for more than 10 minutes.
"You don't want your body temperature to go above 104," said Leon. "That's what happens with heat stroke; your brain and kidneys are cooked. I wouldn't do it. The temperature's too high."
For those who want to do it, anyway, Leon suggests acclimating the body to the heat over a few weeks. It's important, he said, to pay careful attention to hydration by drinking plenty of fluids before, during and after each session. That's something Bikram insists upon, too.
The most common complaint by new students is about the heat, although that's what others love the most, said Teri Schmidt, business administrator for the Plymouth studio. Even for those who stick with it, the heat takes getting used to.
"You can't react worse to heat than I did," said Dave Rouse, a heating contractor from Chanhassen. "It was tough. I found out pretty quickly you have to pace yourself. By the fourth or fifth time, I knew where to back off."
Rouse became curious about Bikram when he installed the heating systems for the Minneapolis and Plymouth studios. He hadn't exercised for years, but was so taken by the method that he now does five or more classes a week. Through a combination of diet and yoga, he's has lost 50 pounds in the past year.
"I'll be 50 next month," he said, "But I feel better now than I did when I was 30."
Appeal is broad
From outward appearances, there doesn't seem to be a "typical" Bikram student, although Minneapolis studio director Williams thinks she can tell who'll stick with the program just by looking at them.
"Bikram appeals to Type A's who want an instant fix," she said. "They have very busy lives. They know if they try to practice at home, they just won't. They're ready to come in, take class and go."
Investment executive Peter Levy, 46, of St. Louis Park is one of those Type A folks. He has run 10 marathons, but an injury temporarily turned him to yoga. He hasn't gone back.
"For me," he said, "this has all five elements that I look for in exercise: cardiovascular, strength, balance, agility, flexibility -- plus all the benefits of yoga. To have a stress reliever like this has been a godsend."
Slightly more women than men attend classes at the Twin Cities studios. The physical and spiritual aspects of yoga seem to make it particularly attractive to baby boomers, said Herb Kearse and his wife Laiki Huxorli , co-directors of the Bloomington Bikram studio.
A year ago the couple lived in New York City, less than two miles from the World Trade Center. Both had successful careers in the information technology industry when they discovered Bikram yoga.
"Yoga helped me change my life radically and quickly," said Kearse, 58, who now lives in Bloomington. "I can't speak knowledgeably about other forms of yoga, but what attracted me to Bikram was the elegance of the system. It's well thought out with respect to strengthening the spine. That made so much sense to me, along with the repetition. Over time, you have a context for how your body and mind are changing."
Although her husband has always loved exercise, Huxorli said she used to lie down when she got the urge. She'd tried various styles of yoga over the years without feeling much connection, so she was surprised to find that this admittedly vigorous style worked for both of them.
"Nothing ever blew my skirt up the way Bikram yoga did," said Huxorli, 47. "There was an immediate sense that this was what I was looking for in a yoga class."
-- Darlene Pfister is at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2002 Star Tribune. Republished here with the permission of the Star Tribune. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the express approval of the Star Tribune.