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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hot Yoga. Ouch?


Take a breath, seriously. 
. . . inhale through the nose, exhale through the throat



I’m not about to claim yoga has changed my life. I began the “practice,” as we say, out of curiosity, with the luxury of time on my hands and the convenience of a yoga studio five minutes from home. 

". . . feet together, hands under chin, palms together. . . like glue. . . "

Eric: Instructor, Bikram Yoga studio in Northville, MI

And no, I’m not about to proclaim that I’m hooked.  Yoga is still foreign to my body. Those stretches, compression twists,  sustained poses and the heat can make me dizzy, not to mention mildly nauseated.  But like anything I start with a credit card payment, I’ve stuck with it.  I’m good to go any time any day, now until May.  
". . . .chin up, eyes open, wrists together, elbows touch. . ."

Walter, Bikram Yoga instructor, Northville, MI



I started yoga in the wake of losing my job. Staring down the prospects of too much time on my hands between resumes and interviews, I was determined that unemployment was not about to knock me out of work. Yoga seemed like just the thing:  an interim place to be, keeping me gainfully occupied, while hunting for gainful occupation. I would chalk it up to a new discipline and rationalize spending those hard unearned dollars towards a 6-month commitment to a “healthy” stress reducing activity. 
". . .suck it in, stomach tight, head back, elbows touch . . ."
I won’t disclaim the benefits of yoga.  In some regards yoga has helped me stay focused and positive.  I'm back to work. Anxiety-free.   Employed again with a little less to carry around the waist, not to mention far less to put into the bank.  But I digress.  
". . .  expand the lungs to full capacity and exhale... one, two, three,  four, five, six"
Because it was the closest yoga to my door - another no-brainer -   I chose the Bikram studio down the street, not knowing the first thing about the Bikram method - a series of 26 postures (asanas) practiced in 90-minutes under supervision and with the continuous narration of an instructor in a studio heated to 105 degrees.  The postures are bookended by two ritual breathing exercises (prannayamas) first to energize, then to finally “cleanse” the body, already dripping in sweat.   
I’ve never practiced anything sweating as I do in that Bikram studio.  
". . . exhale, and more and more, and more, til you feel dizzy. . ."
I’m I nuts?  At the 60-something mark, my back is still strong and I'm reasonably fit. Given my family history of cardiovascular disease, I take preventive measures in diet and exercise.  While I don’t have the speed or stamina to keep up with my husband’s obsession with cycling, I’m good for a 40-mile bike trek, albeit under duress. I’m not overweight, but do I have some meat on my bones, and oh, yes, there’s a click in my neck and a creak in my left knee, and I’m really not so sure about yoga as a consistent self-practice, let alone a permanent lifestyle choice. 
Hell, it hurts.  

 ". . and lock your knees, lock you knees. . .  and change"
There are doctors who would concur with my hesitance.  On a brisk walk at a fundraising event, I chatted with a physician, a trim Indian doc who practices yoga, himself.  He advised that the Bikram-style heat was an uneccessary accessory to the practice.  “Too much strain on the heart and lungs," he suggested.  


I’ve left his professional advice unheeded. I've persisted and endured, noticing incremental improvements in my balance, strength and flexibility and congratulating myself each session, "Holyshit, I’ve survived!"  yet another 90 minutes of self-torture in the name of physical and mental fitness. 


They say yoga promotes a sense of well being.  And I will attest to the fact that yoga can and does lift my spirits, particularly after a long hot shower and a cold beer. Another pleasure of the practice is purely visual, noting some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen in the city. It’s not that I’m oogling, but the studio is all mirrors, and I have eyes.  There are body types,  male and female of all sizes, shapes and ages in the classes.  Remarkable to see an athlete or dancer, or seasoned yogi effortlessly fold in a pancake, forehead to knees, head to floor . . .  no pressure on my part (or parts)  to imitate, or compete. It takes all my concentration just to stand on one foot, and sometimes even on two.    

. . . look back, lower back, middle back, upper back, way back, more back, fall back. . . and change."

The language of yoga - even westernized - has its pleasures, as well. What’s not to love about those gentle, inspiring metaphors to help the body understand whatthehell the brain is telling it to do. In twenty six poses, we turn into steeples, half  moons, bending bows, teardrops, a forest of trees.  We perch on one leg, we twist and torque shoulders, elbow, wrists, hips, knees, ankles: for eagle pose.   On bellies, we lift our chests, press legs together:for cobra pose. On knees we backward bend, touching hands to heels: camel pose. We stretch, we tuck, we curl: we’re a tortoise, then a rabbit.   For 90 minutes, we’re all muscles, bones and ligaments, fire breath and sweat, and beating hearts. 
We plant ourselves in stillness.  We breath to expand ourselves. To lift our hearts.  To make room, to find the space we need to stretch. To grow. 
. . . and change.

Sweating it out
A lot has been said and written about the myths of yoga health and potential injuries of the practice.  I will hazard a guess that what Bikram yoga has going for it is its relative simplicity and repetitive nature.   There are no extreme or fast moves, no showboating headstands and shoulder stands, no hard and fast pressure on the cervical spine.
Even so, in the litany of benefits to the practice of Bikram yoga some questions remain. 
Demonstrating triangle pose: Eric with student after class

The claim: "Muscles are toned by pitting oneself agains the forces of gravity.  Heating the room protects the muscles and allows for deeper stretching." The risk?  The extreme heat  raises the risk of overstretching muscles and tearing cartilage at the joints.

The claim: "Bikram yoga opens pores to flush toxins from the body."  The fact: If you do Bikram yoga, undoubtedly you will sweat. You will lose a lot of water with traces of minerals, but not enough to merit the term detoxification. Taking care of toxins in the body is the function of the liver, kidneys, blood and intestines. Sweat isn’t really in the equation.  
The claim: "Yoga improves strength, reorganizes lipids in the muscular structure and promotes weight loss."  The fact? Yoga burns calories which can help achieve a caloric deficit.  Studies show that yoga also lowers blood pressure and the body's rate of metabolism. The more efficiently the body works, the fewer calories it burns while at rest and during exercise. 
Look back, way back, more back, fall back... and change.

Upside, downside, my side.   
In the four months I’ve been practicing Bikram yoga, I can’t say what the benefits of all that stretching and bending and breathing might be.  And the science is all but conclusive.  But I’ve come to no harm. I feel energized - in a deep relaxing way - on the days I go into the studio. I’ve acclimated to the humidity and enjoy the heat on those cold, brisk mornings in Michigan. As for my kinky knee, I notice it seems a bit more stable.  And if all of this is purely in my head, well there you have it: the power of mental exercise trumps the wisdom of the body.   Guess I’ll keep it up, at least ‘til spring when it’s time to get back up on the road bike. . . Namaste.    

Photos: VHenoch
Just breathe

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