Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Hot Stuff!

The UK's 'hottest' new yoga trend seems to be here to stay, in spite of controversies. Bikram yoga, a Hatha yoga practice that is performed in a hot room, was started by Indian yoga champion, Bikram Choudhury. Heralding his form of yoga's miraculous health benefits, he brought his practice to the US in the early seventies, where movie stars began to join in, and his business began to prosper.

The guy is a self-made man, an entrepreneur, but he's undergone attacks on everything from his opportunistic, uber-capitalist nature, to his medically controversial, 'westernized' yoga methods. Some say that a heated room isn't neccessary for yoga, that the body sufficiently warms itself during standard yoga practice. Some say that, without meditation, it's just not yoga. Plus, there's the fact that Bikram's yoga is a franchise. Needless to say, he's ruffled quite a few feathers in the yoga world. But, does it really work?

I decided to try Bikram's yoga for a month. As many gyms do, the studio had a beginners' special. The entrance to the studio, located in basement of a brick-coated facade on a narrow back street, nearby to the bustling traffic of City Road, was small and narrow itself, considering the large number of people shuffling in and out. Drenched bodies with red faces, slid past me as I tried not to let them touch me. It was clear people were getting a good workout, which was surprising to me, as I'd always been a big 'cardio' fan, dismissing yoga as a practice for lazy people who didn't want to work hard.

Here, my assumptions were far from the mark. As I sat in the dimmed studio, scorching hot air burning my nostrils as it seared its way down into my lungs, I noticed a sea of lithe, lean bodies surrounding me. My slightly-above-average frame, with its large, thighs and wide hips, practically hulked over the majority of the women in the room. One or two slightly larger women, begginners like me, I imagined, dotted the back of the room. I started to wonder what kind of crazy workout I was in for. I prepared for the worst.

Bikram yoga consists of 26 postures, two of which are actually breathing exercises. As I sucked in air through my nose and breathed it out in a "haaa" sound from my throat, my knuckles clasped tightly under my chin, moving my head back and forearms up and down, keeping the rest of my body perfectly still, I noticed tiny pearls of sweat dripping from my elbows.

The first 50 minutes of the class is a standing series. Ten minutes into the thing I was dripping sweat like a melting ice cube. Yet, in spite of all the complicated balancing and stretching I was doing, I felt oddly calm and relaxed.

"Smile, relax, it's just yoga!" My instructor, Dominique, called out to us, while we all wobbled around on one foot, grasping the other with both hands.

The remaining 40 minutes are on the floor, seperated by two full minutes of savasana, which is is lying on your back, relaxing everything. I was definitely relieved to learn that each pose on the floor series was followed by 20 seconds of savasana. Although we were on the floor, we weren't in any way taking it easy. We were compressing our fronts, choking the throat, or back bending, compressing the kidneys. The instructor explained the health benefits of what we were doing, whether it was improving the digestive system, stirring the metabolism, or releasing toxins.

By the final savasana, I was spent. That first class, body drenched, red-faced, I weebled my way back home, feeling tired, but lighter, taller, leaner, and stronger. I attended two more classes that week.

My month's almost up and I can testify that, in spite of the controversies, I do feel a lot better. It's definitely turned me into a yoga-head! I've noticed a leaner middle, leaner thighs, a taller, straighter posture and stronger, firmer bum-muscles! In addition, my knees no longer hurt after I run four or five miles the way that they used to. Whether or not it's 'yoga' makes no difference to me. What matters to me is that I feel much healthier. I have more energy, less cravings for 'crap' food, and I sleep much better. I will definitely keep this practice up as a part of my regular fitness routine!

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