Sunday, 30 May 2010

Hot Bikram Yoga

A sweaty business with steamy ethics

By Charlie Walker

Standing semi-naked in a room full of similarly attired people, my only comfort is a thin, sweat-soaked floor mat that is to be my sanctuary for the next ninety minutes. What could be more health enhancing for body and mind than a morning yoga session…in a sauna?

Consisting of a set 26 poses and two breathing exercises in 42˚C and 50% humidity, Bikram Yoga has spread around the globe and is now the world’s largest yoga franchise. It was scientifically designed in 1960s India by Bikram Choudhury, 63, in order to aid the healing of chronic physical ailments. Other benefits include concentrated focus of mind and detoxification through perspiration.

The microphoned instructor walks in and I must surrender myself to her for what seems like an eternity. All new members are told to do what they can and to try not to leave the room. We have not even started yet and I am already pouring sweat; my small, white shorts are drenched. I reach for my water bottle, lusting after its cold, condensation-covered appearance. As I am about to take a gulp, the instructor informs me that we must not drink any water for the first three poses. I make a mental note to drink a gallon of water before next entering this room – if there is a next time.

Choudhury moved to America in 1973 and began recruiting initiates and establishing new centres on an unprecedented scale. This drive of expansion became controversial when he hired a legion of lawyers and patented his style of Yoga, forcing any similar practices to conform and pay royalties, give up their practices or face a law suit.

Today, all Bikram centres must adhere to strict regulations including the sales of Bikram merchandise, a Bikram approved teaching script and a compulsory costly training course for all teachers.

Each studio houses a large, black-and-white portrait photo of an impressively contorted young Bikram on a beach. These portraits loom over the practice room and are beheld in an almost god-like esteem.

My torso is horizontal to the floor but I am standing on one straightened leg. I am reaching an arm forward while the other clasps my spare foot behind my back and pulls it heavenwards so my legs are nearing the splits.

This is the Dandayamana Dhanurasana position and is number six in the sequence. It is supposed to be opening my diaphragm, stimulating my cardiovascular system and promoting back elasticity. However, I am too busy concentrating on balancing and remembering to breathe that I have no time to notice these benefits. I just wobble embarrassingly until the instructor utters the welcome words that mean I can stop: “…and change.”

There are now over twenty Bikram studios in the UK, and this number is likely to rise dramatically considering that America has over 600. Several celebrities have practiced the form, including George Harrison, Michael Jackson, Madonna, George Clooney and Daniel Craig. Lately, Andy Murray attributed his new mental control and physical strength to Bikram Yoga.

Meanwhile, Bikram’s newfound celebrity status seems to have gone to his head. The self-professed miracle-worker has compared himself to Jesus and to Buddha. When asked how he could make claims like these, he replied: “Because I have balls like atom bombs.”

However, the yoga tycoon’s wealth and success have angered many yoga traditionalists who argue that he has copyrighted poses which are integral to yoga; some of which are over 5,000 years old.

The session has finished, almost two hours after it began, and I am lying on my back for the brief relaxation session. My eyes are staring blankly at the dimmed light above them; behind them is an empty mind. My water bottle has long been empty, yet I have finally managed to shake off the dizziness that has plagued me throughout. In my own time I calmly stand up, drift out and meekly sway in the shower for a few minutes. I get dressed. I actually feel good.

Regardless of Bikram’s questionable politics and ethics, I walk out of the building with an unrivalled feeling of freshness and cleanliness. For the rest of the day I greedily gulp water. The next day I return.

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