As I touched my sweaty forehead to my knees and gripped the bottom of my heels, all while attempting to lean forward onto my toes, I could feel the tendons in my body stretch to full capacity. Salty perspiration poured down the side of my face and onto the damp mat beneath me. Although I didn't think I was exerting too much effort, my pulse quickened and pressure built in my ears. Slightly dizzy, I tried to focus on my instructor's voice. When she revealed that we'd reached the final set of breathing exercises, relief and a sense of accomplishment washed over me. I was exhausted after finishing my first Bikram Yoga class, but oddly invigorated.
The Bikram Hatha Yoga, or Hot Yoga, system involves a series of 26 poses (asanas) and 2 breathing exercises (pranayamas), which condition the entire body in 90 minutes. The ideal temperature is 105 degrees.
Yoga, which basically means "unite," aims to integrate the body, mind, and spirit. Through poses and breathing exercises, the practice sends students into a balanced state. Yoga also builds energy, strength, and flexibility, while deepening one's sense of well being.
Besides introducing heat, Bikram Yoga differs from traditional yoga because of the sequence of poses executed in each class. The combination of both factors delivers more oxygen to the muscles, facilitates the breakdown of glucose and fatty acids, and makes muscles more elastic and less susceptible to injury. It also fosters glowing skin, improves coordination, and sometimes leads to weight loss.
Yogiraj Bikram Choudhury, the founder of the worldwide Yoga College of India, was born in Calcutta in 1946. Although he began practicing Yoga at the age of four and won a National India Yoga Championship by the time he reached thirteen, Choudhury excelled in weight-lifting. When he injured his knee while weight-lifting, he relied solely on Yoga, which resulted in his unexpected recovery. Bikram later opened several Yoga schools throughout India and eventually introduced his methods, a general prescription for life, to the international community.
Bruno Tessandier opened Yoga 108 on Oak Street in 2005. Tessandier, a 500-hour registered Yoga teacher by the Yoga Alliance, practiced Yoga in both India and California before moving to New Orleans. When Tessandier left the United States in 2008 to pursue a new adventure, many feared that the business would fold. Susanne Karst, who was a student at the time, bought Yoga 108 and became the New Orleans beneficiary of Bikram Yoga. Karst revamped the studio and reached out to community members through a new website. The buzz about Bikram Yoga quickly spread.
Although many New Orleanians seek solace from the heat and humidity by joining an air-conditioned gym, Yoga 108 now attracts a growing number of devotees.
"People come for different reasons," says Karst. Whether they already know about Yoga 108, or hear about the studio through word-of-mouth, all students enroll because their eagerness to receive the many health benefits that ensue.
Stress reduction is one of the rewards. "Your sense of accomplishment improves mood," notes Karst. To complete 90 minutes of rigorous stretching and difficult poses requires strength and focus. To complete 90 minutes of rigorous stretching and difficult poses in a room that is at least 105 degrees is downright difficult! But it's not impossible. After performing the final breathing exercise, students peacefully relax in the dark room, relishing their ability to conquer the challenge, ready for the chance to do it again.
And experienced instructors speak soothingly throughout the entire classes, offering direction and encouragement. Rather than dwelling on the stresses of everyday life, students concentrate on the voice of the instructor. "While listening to the instructions, you cannot think of anything else," says Karst.
In addition to easing anxiety, Bikram Yoga harmonizes the body systems by building cardiovascular strength and respiratory balance. Higher temperatures improve the function of the nervous system, meaning that messages are carried more rapidly to and from the brain.
For years, Karst suffered from an auto-immune thyroid disorder. But after a year and a half of practicing Bikram Yoga, she was able to stop using the suggested medication. "Bikram Yoga regulated my metabolism so that my body functioned properly," she notes.
The practice also promises surface level benefits. Besides radiant skin and sinewy muscles, Bikram Yoga may lead to weight loss. Warm muscles burn fat more quickly than cold muscles, while sweating allows the body to detoxify. Several students note that their appetite decreases after class, likely because of the intensity.
But achieving these benefits requires time and patience.
Karst acknowledges that many people do indeed find the class arduous and even jokes that the biggest challenge for first time students is "resisting the urge to bolt out of the door!" But Karst adds that "If you can withstand the 90 minutes without losing your composure, then you can handle anything the world throws at you."
Each student becomes acclimated to the environment and learns the exercises at his or her own pace. The ability to perform depends on sleep, diet, and emotion. Karst simply encourages students to keep trying. They will soon proudly note their progress and burgeoning potential.
First-time students should arrive at Yoga 108 well-hydrated, with an empty stomach. Since Bikram Yoga involves contractions and releases of the stomach, Karst believes that it is best to avoid eating three hours before class. And wear typical exercise gear, but as little as possible. Because you will sweat.
Despite taking all of the necessary precautions, some students struggle through the first class. Karst emphasizes that it is perfectly fine for exhausted students to simply sit on their mat and rest.
"For the first class, their only goal is to stay in the room for 90 minutes and breathe. If that is all that you can do, then you've accomplished your goal," says Karst. Each class becomes easier, and the benefits begin to materialize. "It's meant to be a lifelong practice."