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Bikram Yoga: Some People Love it. Others Would Prefer Not to Die in a Gym.

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Recently the New York Times published a sort of expose about the yoga industry, an odd phrase considering yoga’s spiritual roots. Yet, as more Americans flock to the increasingly mainstream discipline, yoga has become quite the sacred cash cow, more comparable to Starbucks than say, Buddhism or my own personal spiritual practice, peanut butter-covered spoon licking.

Actually an excerpt from William J. Broad’s book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, the Times piece seems to me provocative in the way of a local news story that promises to “expose the secret killer in your cheese drawer.” In other words, it’s more alarmist than educational.

You can check it out for yourself here (although if you practice yoga everyone you’ve ever met has already forwarded it to you) but beneath the sensational language and terrorizing examples of allegedly yoga-induced injuries, the article basically says the following:

1. More people are doing yoga now than before; therefore there are more injuries.
2. Some yoga teachers are either inept or, intoxicated by that potent mix of open chakras and power, push students beyond their limits.
3. Yoga students both new and experienced don’t have the balls to tell an ersatz authority figure to back the hell off and maybe while they’re at it pop a breath mint. (Yoga teachers really like garlic; it’s an antioxidant, you know.)

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As someone who has practiced yoga fairly consistently for five years and was born shouting “you’re not the boss of me” you’d think I wouldn’t be susceptible to the faux dominion of some bendy chick in a Lulumon fur coat. (Lulumon does not actually make fur coats, but the yoga tanks they do produce are just about as expensive. Plus wouldn’t it be funny if yoga teachers wore fur coats?)

You’d think this, but you’d be wrong.

Now, I’m pretty fit. I teach spinning, run a bunch of miles a week and practice Ashtanga yoga, specifically the primary series, a rigorous sequence of set poses that generate lots of heat. Yesterday, after several weeks of frantic email discussions of yoga studio fees, possible fainting episodes, tiny shorts and how the dressing rooms at Target provide the perfect anemic light under which to pick at one’s skin, a friend and I headed to Bikram Yoga Andersonville for our first Hot Yoga class.

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(Just FYI, Bikram and Hot Yoga are essentially the same. Bikram is the invention of noted megalomaniac and millionaire Bikram Choudhury. Like Ashtanga, it is a set series of poses. Unlike Ashtanga, Bikram’s litigious founder will come to your house and punch you in the third eye if you try to run a Bikram class without giving him a cut. So, gyms and studios that want to subject students to flesh-searing temperatures (up to 110 degress) without getting sued run classes under the moniker “Hot Yoga.”)

From the outside, most yoga studios look like a serial killer’s apartment, all blacked out windows and winding staircases. Inside however, Bikram Yoga is clean though spartan, equipped like all Bikram studios with gendered dressing rooms and showers. At the front desk, I reluctantly parted with thirty dollars in exchange for which I was granted unlimited Bikram classes for thirty days—a pretty great deal. As I paid I overheard a smooth-skinned brunette confide to the teacher manning the register that she had “anxiety like she’d never experienced” during class. “I had to force myself not to leave.” The teacher said something about “letting it pass through” and “fight or flight” which I didn’t quite catch because I’d jumped out the window. Not really, but in retrospect I wish I had.

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Inside the packed studio, I began to sweat immediately. Within what felt like moments, my friend, who also has a regular yoga practice, turned the color of seasick oatmeal. The instructors—it seems there are two in the room at all times—keep a close eye on new students, so one came to my friend’s aid and ultimately allowed her to stumble outside.

“Allowed” is the key word here. Bikram makes a big deal about forcing yourself to remain in the room, breathing through any fear, nausea or dizziness, all of which they say is normal. (On the one hand, this seems a constructive endeavor, on the other; I don’t go around petting poisonous snakes just to learn how to breathe through my panic.)

Bikram makes such a big deal in fact that although I felt I should check on my friend, I was weirdly reluctant. As I stood there listening to the remaining instructor order me to ‘lock’ my standing leg in tree pose and later, make sure every inch of my spine touched the towel covered mat (as far as I know, both contraindicated directions—speaking of which, Kapalabhat as part of a cool down, are you kidding me?), I snuck looks at the door.

I should go out there, I thought, but they told me not to.
Told you not to? Who? Some woman you just met?
But she’s the teacher!
What kind of person are you? If the Nazis tried to herd you into a cattle car would you blindly follow or resist?

(I’m not comparing Bikram to the Holocaust here; I invoke hypothetical Nazis when making all major life choices.)

Eventually, I located my autonomy, and my friend returned to the studio because she’s brave or possibly insane. (Incidentally, this is the same woman present for my whiskey induced shopping episode which prompted my mother to comment, “Seems like when you and she get together, you take more chances,” as if I was fifteen and succumbing to pressure to cut third period and shoplift feathered barrettes from Claire’s Boutique.)

Bikram yoga has plenty of champions, most of whom could probably beat me up, or at least water board me with their sweat. Malikah Nu-Man for example, an Education Specialist and Herbalife Representative enjoys “the challenge of having to use both physical and mental strength to complete a work out. I feel incredible when I finish and have more energy and clarity.” Claire Reinbold an elementary school teacher and indoor cycling instructor adds “Bikram is only for those who are not afraid to sweat. The heat helps with flexibility and encourages you to drink more water during the day (which I know I never do otherwise) and my skin is at its best with Bikram.”

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Malikah Nu-Man, hot even outside of a Bikram Studio.

In defense of Bikram Andersonville specifically, I should also note that another friend bought the studio's thirty day pass and raves about her experiences, then again she’s spent time deployed to Iraq so authority figures and 110 degree temperatures are kind of her bag.

Ultimately, I’m not necessarily out to malign Bikram.

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My sinister Spin Instructor headshot which I have never used because I look like I've been caught mid-aneurysm and am also very angry.

As a spinning instructor I know what it’s like to be dismissed as a fanatic and have my workout of choice labeled hazardous and extreme. Then again, when a new student enters my class, I encourage her to leave whenever her body cries uncle. I don’t recite from a trademarked script and I’m pretty sure I don’t have a creepy smile. In the end, maybe it was Bikram’s cultlike ethos that bugged me the most (well that and the fact that to my understanding Yoga should leave its practitioner feeling the same or better, not headachy and sleepless.) I question whether Bikram is truly a detox, a term which to me smacks of snake-oil, or just a dehydrating ordeal. At the end of class, lying on the floor in Savasana, I felt compelled to check the bodies surrounding me for Nike and phenobarbital-laced pudding.

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I’m anticipating letters from legions of defensive yogis, but if writing this blog maybe, just maybe helps just one measly person, I’ll know in my heart it’s worth it, even if that person is me and the help is that Bikram Andersonville gives me my thirty bucks back.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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This page contains a single entry by Sarah Terez-Rosenblum published on January 12, 2012 5:23 PM.

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