If it’s about heat, panting and contortions, it can’t be that bad

Imagine a rectangular room seeping with a damp mist. The inside of the room maintains itself at 105 degrees Fahrenheit. The front wall is covered in mirrors. It is densely packed with heaving, perspiring bodies succumbing to gravity’s supple entreaty, contorting with the capabilities of animals and writhing under the strain-induced tremor of their aching musculature. There are no windows in this basement room. Bright fluorescent lights make visible every clinging garment, illuminate every fold of skin pulled across the nearly nude, fluidly-moving bodies. No one speaks. Beyond the instructive voice of the leader in front, the only sound is the cacophonous circulation of human breath.

This is no den of sin, no chamber of secret, corporeal pleasures. This is Bikram’s Hot Yoga studio. Welcome.

If you haven’t heard of Bikram’s Hot Yoga yet, then all I can say is: Where have you been for the last five years? Locked away, hidden among the 8-tracks buried in the dust that covers the jazzercise room? I’m not suggesting that you should have done it before. I mean, for no particular reason, I haven’t tried it yet. All I’m saying is that you should have heard of it by now. Bikram’s is so hott right now, literally. I mean it’s always hot, but right now it’s hott. Everywhere that matters, it is the thing to do.

Bikram’s yoga was first developed in Los Angeles, Calif., in the 1970s by its namesake, yoga master Bikram Choudhury. It combines 26 central yoga postures and two breathing exercises over a 90-minute session in a room with its temperature stabilized at 105 degrees Fahrenheit. For reference’s sake, today in New Haven, the Weather Channel reported that it was 45 degrees outside.

According to Bikram himself, what has become known simply as “Hot Yoga” is a form of Hatha yoga adapted to the West. Hatha yoga, which was introduced in India in the 15th century and re-emerged in the 20th century, follows a program of postures and breath-control exercises aimed at achieving physical strength and stamina, as well as building mental concentration. Hatha yoga is performed with the aim of preparing the body for spiritual awakening, making it fit for a higher form of meditation.

Asanas, as the body positions are called, is a Sanskrit word meaning “seat.” The concept of this “seat” does not merely reference the physical posture of the body, but the spirit’s alignment with the divine.

Despite their original religious purpose, yoga practices of all types have become secularized in the West. From the perspective of a non-yogi, such as myself, yoga never really had its own identity until it became Hot. I remember when yoga was just a word I knew. It was a simpler time. Then came Pilates — you remember the infomercial in which Elizabeth Berkeley (“Saved by the Bell”’s own Jesse Spano) declared her allegiance to the routine. I didn’t really know the difference and frankly, I didn’t care. They were two peas in one over-crowded pod, I thought.

I remember passing a particular pair of signs in my health club in Covington, La., directing passers-by to the yoga class at right and the Pilates class at left. Who knew what was what? A similar group of snappily-clad women in tights — and that one older gentleman in every aerobics group — scuttled off to each. To this day, I haven’t figured it out.

To top it all off, in the first season of “The O.C.,” fancy mom Julie Cooper was always referencing what she called yoga-lates! A combination of both. What did that even mean? I don’t think anyone ever really knew. I’m just glad I was around to see yoga-lates fall off the radar a year and a half later. That kind of self-confused practice is just ludicrous!

With Bikram’s, now I can quell the incensed spirit that I once harbored against recreation of that sort. It’s concrete — postures and breathing. It has goals — mental clarity, physical strength and flexibility. It follows a schedule that makes perfect sense and can be accurately replicated in the 500 Bikram studios in the U.S.

Despite its premise — heat, bare bodies (it’s so hot that many strip down to only the essentials), perspiration and contortion — Hot Yoga is possibly the most un-sexualized experience you can find. A friend of mine, who regularly attends class in the studio at 59 Elm St., said that the positions require such an intense amount of energy and concentration that your mind simply melts as if in an oven. It’s also not as if New Haven, Conn. is rife with supermodels pawing at the studio window, begging to be let in. Toned or flabby, young or old, Bikram’s, as the official website professes, is for all types and all intensities.

Esak Garcia, a renowned trainer in Bikram circles, graduated from Yale. He led a special class at the Elm Street studio last Friday. Here are a few take-home biographical facts: After graduating, he used all his skills as a political science major to pursue the art of capoeira — a combination of dance and martial arts — in Brazil before returning to the U.S. to become a yoga instructor. A picture on his Web site features him in a signature “scorpion” posture: balanced in a hand-stand, his back arches so tightly that he successfully rests his own two feet on the top of his head. He looks pleased with himself. It doesn’t seem real. It is.

Bikram’s is described by some as rebirth. It is the rebirth of the senses, a rebirth of the self. By the end of the session, my friend tells me, exhaustion and elation compete for control over your body. The heat enables flexibility, and promotes detoxification and realignment of the body in conjunction with the soul. Each session can burn anywhere from 300 to 1,000 calories, so it’s not for the picky and malnourished.

As the program progresses, the positions activate new, different muscle groups, forcing the directed use of the entire body. No repetitive motion. No over-stimulation.

The 21st century is all about intensifying what we did in the 20th century. In 105 degrees, it becomes a radically different physical experience. What’s next? No one knows and no one cares. Bikram’s is right now. It’s time to unplug the headphones, stretch out the long muscles that run from shoulder to toe, and breathe in the thick moisture rising from the torrent of your own perspiration. Grab a towel and a water bottle and get in on it, before it burns out.

Charles Gariepy is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. His column appears on Wednesdays.

Comments