It is 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon, and although it is 30 degrees outside, the students at Bikram Yoga on the corner of Elm and Orange streets are dripping with sweat.
The basement studio has been heated to 105 degrees (with 40 percent humidity), and as the members of the class pull their left legs behind them, assuming the “Standing Bow Pulling Pose,” beads of sweat drip onto their yoga mats from their outstretched right hands. The roughly 30-person class — a mix of women and middle-to older-aged men — has been infiltrated today. In the front corner of the room, six young men, who, with their muscular build and tall stature, appear visibly out of place, struggle to hold their balance.
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But for the past month, their presence has not been uncommon. These men are members of the Yale varsity lacrosse team, and as a part of their mandatory pre-season training, they have been participating in Bikram yoga, a style of yoga practiced in a hot room to induce sweating, increase flexibility and rid the body of toxins.
And other men at Yale seem to be following suit — out of the 134 undergraduates currently enrolled in the yoga classes offered at Payne Whitney Gymnasium, 41 are male, according to the preliminary registration numbers. For better or for worse, the health benefits associated with yoga have gained a dedicated following among some of Yale’s athletes.
STRENGTHENING ALL AROUND
Men’s lacrosse head coach Andy Shay said the team began attending yoga three years ago when one of the former captains approached him with positive reviews.
“We had a couple players that really felt that they got a lot out of it as far as flexibility,” Shay said.
Because flexibility gained through yoga helps prevent injuries, Shay said he decided that Bikram would be a worthwhile activity. This year, he said, the entire team was required to attend six classes between the start of the second semester and Feb. 1, when the season began.
Max Rodman ’10, who faces off for the team, said he was excited when he found out about the Bikram training his freshman year. “But I had no idea how friggin’ hard it would be,” he added.
Robyn Race, the owner of Bikram Yoga, said Shay, whom she has never met, called her three years ago to set up the program because he “thought it would be great for [the players] to have some conditioning before the season.”
“It gets your body working at its peak,” she explained. “It strengthens you all around. Not just your muscles and joints.”
Brendan Page, an instructor at Bikram Yoga, agreed that the Bikram workout provides benefits that the lacrosse team could not receive otherwise.
“Running and lifting damages the body, whereas yoga is really designed for stretching and healing,” he said.
‘HE’S 60! YOU’RE 20! GET UP!’
Back in the yoga studio, participants in varying amounts of tight clothing prepared for class. That old adage “less is more” truly seems to apply here: Women in spandex shorts and sports bras wander around unabashedly as shirtless men grab towels and water.
When six members of the lacrosse team walk in just minutes before the class starts at 4 p.m., the regulars hardly seem to notice. They anticipate the team’s coming every year, Race said, because it reminds them that Bikram is hard for everybody, regardless of age and fitness level.
“I remember the first year they came in and they were writhing around on the ground like they were going to die!” she recalled, laughing. “Meanwhile, there’s a 60-year-old man doing the whole series next to them, and I’m like, ‘He’s 60! You’re 20! Get up!’ ”
But now that the upperclassman lacrosse players are more focused, some students said, the team’s presence seems to have less of an effect on the class.
“The dynamic isn’t really changed,” noted Erin Jorgenson, a local resident and first grade teacher at Achievement First, a public school in New Haven. “They take it very seriously.”
Another teacher at Achievement First, Morgan Carter, added, “You’re so focused on yourself you barely notice the other students.”
But other regulars at Bikram, like Jim Cantey of New Haven, who has attended the studio for four years, said the members have noticed a difference since the lacrosse team joined Bikram Yoga, most notably in the sheer number of students in the workout room. The class has been getting more crowded recently, he said.
Page agreed that as an instructor, he has noticed a change in the dynamic of the class.
“There are all these big guys there,” he said. “I think it makes some people self-conscious.”
Following in the footsteps of the lacrosse team, the men of lightweight crew plan to begin practicing yoga with Margo Lang ’10, who offers free classes in Berkeley College every Wednesday evening. The men’s golf team has also approached Lang about taking classes, she said.
“It doesn’t make a difference to me, personally,” Lang said of the new athletes in her class. “I teach the classes so everyone is an equal student.”
Like Race, Lang said she believes the athletes will assimilate in an atmosphere that is “not at all gender-biased.”
After all, after completing the 1 ½-hour series of 26 poses that comprise the Bikram workout, all the members of Race’s Bikram yoga class are drenched with sweat. Though exhausted, the players said they understand the benefits of coming to Bikram.
“I always feel great when I’m done,” Matthew Aronson ’09 said.
James Ryan ’09 added that doing Bikram during pre-season has helped him avoid injury during the regular season.
“I’m definitely someone who’s prone to pulls and strains at the beginning of the season, and that hasn’t happened when I’ve been doing Bikram,” he said.
Though most members of the team said that they don’t plan to continue practicing yoga now that the regular season has started, their perceptions of yoga have certainly changed.
“I now have a lot more respect for people who really do it,” Rodman said.
Margy Slattery contributed reporting.