Bikram yoga sounds like the ultimate yoga challenge: 26 yoga poses and 2 breathing exercises in a hot (+40°C) and humid room (think saunas and steam rooms) for 90 consecutive minutes. You’ve certainly got my attention! I’d been leisurely reading about hot yoga itself and the benefits of practising yoga in a heated room for some time, and was intrigued by the notion of heat enabling your muscles and joints to ease into poses you perhaps wouldn’t have been able to try out in a traditional, unheated class. As someone with hypermobile joints (more on that later – let’s just say that my first half-marathon was not a pleasurable experience on my knees), I was a little worried Bikram wouldn’t be the right thing for me. What if I’d hurt myself without noticing? Could that happen? And how about the heat, what if I’d feel dizzy and pass out?
Last month I had the chance to visit the original and Scotland’s first Bikram Yoga studio in Glasgow’s West End. Needless to say, I was very interested to find out what the fuss was about, although I had my doubts about my own suitability for this particular class. Bikram, to me, sounded more like a practise for the superhuman, super flexible and fit people, and in my mind’s eye I could see these beautiful people just flow from one pose to another, not a worry on their mind. How on earth would I, your average girl who likes her white wine on a Friday night in a bubble bath, fit in at all? As someone who has developed a regular Ashtanga and seasonal yoga practice, I thought I would bottle it up and take up the challenge. I mean, the worst scenario would be me lying on my mat in a hot room for an hour and a half, drinking water and getting accustomed to the heat. If that would teach my inner zen to ditch my ego, then so be it.
So on a Wednesday afternoon, I headed down to the West End, and the instant I walked in I was greeted by the lovely people at reception and the teacher of my class, Alexander. It was Baltic outside, and I’d layered up to fight off the cold, but gosh was it warm indoors! And I wasn’t even in the studio yet, just by the front door. I was taken to the chic and post-modern, yet cosy and welcoming chillout area, to have a little chat with the owner Stephen and the marketing manager Freya. And I have to say, Stephen crushed any fears or doubts I was holding against Bikram practise, or my own ability to take part in a class. Among the first things he told me was that the founder of the practise, Bikram Choudhury himself, had designed the sequence of the 26 yoga postures especially for beginners. ‘There is no occasion you shouldn’t do Bikram’, he said, explaining to me how these static asanas were designed not to be too intimidating for newbies and to help with any health problems – sore backs or tight hamstrings, or hypermobility issues, in my case. He used an analogy of a samurai sword to explain the benefits of the heat:
‘If you take a big piece of metal and try to bend it with you bare hands, you will only break your arm – cold metal won’t bend however hard you try to force it to. But if you heat the piece up, put it in the oven – suddenly you are able to mould yourself a samurai sword, if you want.’
And this is how Bikram works, and why it is so beneficial and good for you. Surely, any form of yoga is good, but a heated class will help you relax deeper into poses and release whatever tension you are holding in your body. Freya also pointed out how the heat makes your heart rate plummet through the roof, enabling you to not only improve your aerobic fitness, but also increase your maximum performance capacity – in other words, your heart works as hard as it would during a run, without the negative effects of an impact sport. Due to this, after a while you are able to reach an endorphin high. You also sweat buckets, which, as we all know, is good for both your skin and body.
By this point of the conversation, I was mesmerised – it all sounded too good to be true. Stephen raised a significant point about the importance of regaining our flexibility after childhood. As everybody knows, children are basically made of rubber and can jump back up every time they fall. But as we get older, our joints stiffen up and without regular stretching and exercise, we soon lose some of our flexibility, which can lead to injuries and other health problems. What Bikram Yoga Glasgow, and Stephen himself, want to do is challenge everyone to give Bikram yoga a try: he indeed said his mission to be to spread yoga across the UK and have everyone to try it, from toddlers to grannies. Because everyone can do it: even the most inflexible and unbendable person can be heated up and molded into a sword, so to speak, as long as they keep an open mind. Because if you don’t move it, you are going to lose it (BBC). In a world tackling obesity and other lifestyle-caused chronic illnesses, I myself am happy to do whatever it takes to stay fit and healthy.
After such an inspirational talk, I was ready to conquer the globe. Freya gave me a couple of tips on how to survive my first class. I was not push myself, as the heat could come as a total surprise: it was absolutely okay to rest in child’s pose when it all got a little too much to handle. If at any point I was to start feeling faint or dizzy, I was to sit down and take a couple of deep breaths. I’d been drinking a couple of litres of water for the few of days preceding my class, and actually brought some electrolytes with me, just to be on the safe side. So after I’d grabbed my towel from the reception, I went to get changed for the class and braced myself. The first class was and is always the most difficult one, mostly because you don’t know what to expect and the reality might take you by surprise. Stephen himself said that usually it takes one to three classes to get used to the heat, so I wasn’t expecting miracles. But at the same time I felt a lot more confident in my venture. I had been reassured that the class was going to be full of ordinary people, from all walks of life, not just elite athletes and myself, shamefully tucked away in a corner.
After 90 minutes, I wandered out of the studio with a blissful grin on my face. All I could say was ‘lovely’ to everything and anything. Because life felt lovely. I felt lovely. In the midst of a cold February, I had been transported back to warm and comforting India. I felt relaxed and rejuvenated. It had been tough, at first – I had felt my blood rushing through my body and my heart pounding high up in my chest, but after the first half an hour, I forgot all about my discomfort. I started feeling focused, almost meditative at times, and embraced the heat. My forward folds felt deeper and less forced. Everyone was soaked in sweat, but nobody seemed to care. It was as if it was considered as normal, almost as a rule. Nobody was judging you, or competing with you during the class. Everyone was doing the same basic poses, and you didn’t feel like the others were a lightyear ahead of you in their practice. That you were somehow the misfit, or keeping others back. Everyone was dead focused on what they were doing themselves. The whole atmosphere in the studio reminded me of a big, friendly family. I felt welcomed, like I was among my own kind.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. As Stephen told me, ‘the more you want to do it, the slower you should approach it’ – this being applicable to not just Bikram, in my opinion, but to life in general. The faster you run, your eyes fixed on the price, the more likely you are to trip over a pothole and hurt yourself. That’s why I think we should all learn to enjoy the ride, instead of obsess over the destination – myself included.
I can only say that I am a total hot yoga convert after my experience at Bikram Yoga Glasgow, and would take full advantage of their introductory offer (£30 for 30 days unlimited classes, one hell of a deal) if I lived a little closer. If you’re interested in finding out more, I would strongly advise to check out their website – there are 7 classes a day, running Monday to Sunday, and the studio is just a stone’s throw away from Hillhead metro station. The studio runs workshops every now and then, providing yogis a chance to deepen their practise. If you stay in Glasgow, please give Bikram a go – you only live once, and 90 minutes isn’t that much out of your daily 24 hours. You can tape whatever’s on telly, surely?