Welcome to the Torture Chamber
By Ed Staskus
“There’s gotta be a Heaven ’cause I’ve already done my time in Hell.” Social Distortion
Bikram Yoga was not entirely a black hole when I stepped across the threshold into my first class, but I was still surprised by the Wal-Mart-like brightness of the big room, the seven-foot high mirrors spanning the front, and the wall-to-wall water-stained brown carpeted floor.
None of it looked or felt or smelled like any of the yoga studios I had ever been to.
As I made my way past a sea of unfamiliar faces to the back of the room, unrolled my mat, and curled into several cat cows, I noticed it was infernally hot. Looking up at the ceiling I saw manhole-size ductwork perforated with thousands of pebble-sized holes crossing from one end of the front of the room to the other and continuing on to the rear wall. Heat pulsed rhythmically over the back of my neck, arms, and legs.
Later I discovered that an Infinity Plus high-efficiency furnace generated the heat while a hellish three-phase 220-volt steam humidifier vaporized water and fast-tracked it into the room through the small holes in the ductwork.
By the time I had finished a short round of warm-up down dogs I was sweating through my Under Armour shirt and decided it was best to settle into child’s pose. The class had not even started, yet, and I was already taking a break. Most of the people on their mats were laying prone, eyes shut. I began to understand why.
When I started practicing yoga, well into middle age, I spent two years getting my feet wet at once-a-week beginner classes, then moved on to slow flow classes on a more consistent basis, and finally gravitated to “Hot Powerful Flow” three times a week at a popular studio just across the river from our neighborhood.
It took some time and effort to acclimate myself to the 90 degrees the hot yoga studio advocated, and the fast pace of the classes, but after a year I was reasonably accustomed to it, even with the alarming disappearance of cartilage in my left hip and never-ending arthritis in my lower back. Now I was more than thirty miles from home, the closest Bikram class I could find, and it felt like I had stepped into the middle of a Louisiana summer strangling in the grip of global warming.
The Bikram regimen claims to change the construction of the body from the inside out, from tip to toe, from internal organ to skin, using heat as a tool, reshaping the body as it warms and becomes flexible. Its professed aim is to restore the life to the lives of its adherents.
“What is the worth of one human life? It’s priceless,” says Bikram Choudhury. “I give that life to people. I fix the human chassis.”
The community-class teacher at the yoga studio where I practiced sun salutations, warrior poses, and headstands described it as ‘therapeutic’ and recommended I try it.
“I don’t practice it myself,” she said, “and I have problems with Bikram the man, but it might be good for you.”
“OK,” I said.
I should have asked for details.
Back in the class while in my child’s pose it was 105 degrees and the humidity was at 40 percent, but both values were creeping relentlessly upward, pushing the heat index of the room into the 130-plus zone. Heat index is a measure of how hot really hot weather feels. The scale correlates relative humidity and air temperature to produce the apparent temperature the body experiences. A heat index of 130 is the point at which human beings become susceptible to heat cramps and heat exhaustion as a result of physical activity.
Why 105 degrees? The Bikram take on hot yoga is that the room needs to be at 105 degrees and 40% to 50% humidity to make for a better aerobic experience, protect muscles while allowing for deep stretching, detox the glands and organs by flushing waste products, and through enhanced respiration deliver nourishment to every cell of the body.
Bikram Choudhury, who in the 1970s popularized the series of 26 asanas or poses and breathing exercises synthesized from traditional exercise yoga, claims that contrary to popular misconceptions the blistering heat he recommends keeps the body from overheating, and teaches you to keep your cool.
He and his legions believe they can work bodies like a blacksmith.
When our instructor, a trim wide-shouldered young man carrying a clear plastic half-gallon jug of water walked in, he adjusted the track lighting brighter even than it had been, strode to the front of the class, and asked:
Several hands went up, including mine.
“Make sure you can see yourselves in the mirror. Move your mats if you have to. If you feel sick take a knee or lay down. Don’t leave the room. Watch the first few breaths and then join in. Set your intention.”
I had never gotten sick in a yoga class, nor had I ever given the possibility any consideration. I had experienced fatigue practicing asanas, sometimes even becoming bedraggled, during vinyasa classes on summer afternoons when I didn’t think I could do another chaturanga to up dog to down dog, but it was more on the order of boot camp crash. I discovered it is not unusual to feel sick and nauseous in Bikram classes, especially among beginners.
“The worse you feel,” says Bikram Choudhury, “the more you need my yoga.”
Then there was the other exhortation.
‘Don’t leave the room’?
What did that mean? Why would leaving the room be an issue? Should I be planning an exit strategy?
“OK, let’s get started.”
And just like that we were all standing and the class began. There was no opening homily, or reading from an appropriate text, whether sacred or new age, nor was there an iPod play list in evidence. Among other things, Bikram Yoga eschews tunes. The beat goes on, but it’s not the beat of MC Yogi.
I might as well strike while the iron is hot, I thought. One of the mantras of yoga is to live in the moment, and the expanded mantra of yoga like the Boy Scout motto is to expect the unexpected. Even though I thought I knew by way of youtube what was on the agenda, Bikram Yoga surprised me from the outset.
Along with everyone else now on their feet I got going, my hands clasped underneath my chin, breathing in deeply as I pulled my elbows up, and breathing out forcefully as I brought my forearms together, keeping my spine straight and pushing my chin and head back. After the first round I wondered if my neck was going to hurt the next day, since this breathing exercise wasn’t something I had done before. After the second round I was sure there would be repercussions.
The next day my neck was sore. And that was only the tip of the iceberg.
“Try to be still between poses,” the instructor said when we were done.
I stopped rolling my head and flexing my fingers.
Bikram Yoga claims to work every muscle, tendon, joint, internal organ, and gland, if not every nerve ending. It also claims to detoxify the body through the legendary amounts of sweat released during the practice, while systematically refreshing the body with oxygenated blood. The poses are held for up to 60 seconds, creating a tourniquet effect on some or several parts of the body.
During vasoconstriction the blood supply is cut off so creating pressure. Upon release of the pose vasodilation occurs when blood rushes back into the veins and arteries flushing out toxins and bracing the body.
The idea that there might be benefits to oxygenated blood flooding a local part of the body after it has been momentarily compressed is controversial in the medical establishment. Bikram Choudhury is unperturbed by the naysayers.
”It is beyond medical science. I prove this every single day,” he says.
The second posture was a prolonged sideways bend — punctuated by repeated commands to push, push, push — followed by a backbend with clasped hands and up-stretched arms, and finally followed by grabbing under our heels, straightening our legs, and folding over in a forward bend.
“Look like a Japanese ham sandwich,” the instructor said, describing the pose.
I had no idea what a Japanese ham sandwich looked like, and besides, I was vegetarian.
While we were bent over, pulling with our arms to intensify the stretch, the teacher exhorted us to lock our knees.
“Lock the knee, lock the knee, lock the knee!”
Lock the knee?
Whenever I had heard any other yoga teacher say anything about locking your knees, it was to make sure we did not do it.. Anytime I had read something about it, such as the advice of Drs. Georg Feuerstein and Larry Payne, authors of Yoga for Dummies, it was to avoid locking your knees as you tried to keep your legs straight in standing poses.
As I straightened my legs, attempting to fully extend my knees, the instructor who had been at the front of the class suddenly swooped down next to me, and pointing at my legs with his riding crop — I mean his finger — said:
“Tighten the quad muscle and pull the kneecap up.”
What he meant was to squeeze the front thigh muscle so that the kneecap would lift up, but not hyperextend the knee. Squeezing holds the knee in a supportive position. The emphasis was on protecting the knee, focusing on placement of the feet, knees aligned over ankles, and stressing the muscle and not just the joint with the full load of the body.
The next asana was awkward pose, more commonly called chair pose, done three different ways, first traditionally but with arms held up, forward and parallel to the ground, ‘triceps tight, tight, tight’, then high up on the toes, arms still forward but flagging, and lastly slightly up on the toes and in a squat, knees and thighs pressing together, and arms finally very, very heavy and on fire.
“Fall back, way back, go back, more back,” our instructor said, demanding that we straighten and lean back.
As soon as we were done we did it again.
Bikram poses are performed twice. The first time the pose is held forever and the second time they are held for slightly less than forever. Entering every second set the instructor encouraged us to immediately go to where we had left off in the first set so as to gain the maximum benefit.
The awkward poses were followed by two sets of eagle pose, another balancing act, followed by the official water break. Those in the know reached for their insulated water bottles while I stared at myself in the mirror, dazed.
“Welcome to the torture chamber,” I heard the instructor say.
“What have I gotten into,” I asked myself.
“Break time is over. Time to concentrate,” the instructor said.
Break time had lasted less than thirty seconds.
The 26 poses begin and end with breathing exercises, and the 90-minute class progresses from standing postures to backbends to forward bends and twists. The first half of the class is practiced upright, many of the poses featuring balancing on one leg, and the second half down on the mat. The first half of the class is known as the warm-up and the second half as getting down to serious business.
The next three poses were standing head-to-knee, standing bow, and balancing stick. All the while the instructor urged us to lock our standing leg like CONCRETE! Try as I might I wasn’t able to get my head anywhere near my knee, my bow pose amounted to trying to stay upright at whatever cost more than anything else, and by the time I got to balancing stick there was very little balance left in me, my legs wobbling like JELLY!
At the end of the three postures I was sweating like Shaquille O’Neal at the foul line, my breath sounded more like the snorting of Godzilla than the measure of a yogi, and most worryingly the warm-up half of the class was not over, yet.
“It takes courage and intelligence to do the stages of yoga right, and to start with this hatha yoga,” says Bikram Choudhury. “It’s just you and nothing but you, standing in one spot frozen like a statue with no place to go for help or excuse or scapegoat except inward.”
After a standing stretching pose, during which I finally caught my breath and my heartbeat slowed to thrash metal speed, we stepped into triangle pose. It was like stepping into the next circle of hell.
“It’s the most difficult posture we do in the sequence,” says Bikram Choudhury.
The Bikram variation of the pose is a blend of traditional triangle and extended side angle, but without the pleasures of bending the torso sideways or resting the forearm on the thigh of the lunged front leg. It is the ninth pose in the sequence, and is what I later described to my wife as the Love Potion Number 9 pose.
‘It smelled like turpentine/It looked like Indian ink/I held my nose, I closed my eyes/I took a drink.’
With my eyes wide open, front leg bent, back leg diagonal, both arms extended out, tilting them at the same time like a windmill turning, I reached down with one arm while simultaneously reaching up with the other. Our instructor said to turn our heads and look up, trying to touch our chins to shoulder. I stared at a brown water stain on the white ceiling tile.
“Don’t forget to breathe,” the instructor said.
The ‘I think’ of the western world is the ‘I breathe’ of yoga.
The pose was hell on my hips, but it was an epiphany at the same time. This is what Bikram is all about, I thought. It was the therapeutic torture machine come to life. With the effort my breathing slowed down, becoming less labored, and time stretched out like taffy. I felt like I wasn’t just in the moment, but in an unending minute.
If God is the tangential point between zero and infinity, and if yoga is about connecting with the divine, as we repeated the triangle pose on both sides another time I began to either see the light at the end of the tunnel or got light-headed from the effort, but before the white light became too intense we were doing a standing compression pose, then another balancing pose, and finally we went down onto our mats for two minutes of R & R.
We lay on the floor at the fulcrum of the standing series and spine strengthening series, the room suddenly grown quiet. Savasana, also known as corpse or dead body pose, is considered the most important posture in the series. It is designed to focus the mind and breathe new life into the body by maintaining total stillness
The two minutes on my back were more like try-to-stop-fidgeting pose. I was unnerved and restless. No sooner had I finally taken a reasonably real life breath and grown still than the instructor was at it again.
“Time for the sit-up,” he said.
The Bikram L-sit-up is performed after every floor pose, starting flat on the back, flexing the toes, bringing both arms overhead, crossing the thumbs, sucking in a lungful of air, and double exhaling, once on the sit-up, reaching for the sky, and a second time reaching for the toes, bending elbows to the ground.
“Try your best,” the instructor said. “Bend your knees if you have to.”
“99% right,” Bikram Choudhury says, “is still 100% wrong.”
As much as our instructor was pressing us to work hard, it would be a vast understatement to say that I would not want to practice under the tutelage of the boss himself.
The spine-strengthening series starts with Pavanamuktasana, a follow-the-bouncing-ball Sanskrit word meaning wind-removing pose, and each posture done twice ends in dead body pose for about 20 seconds, concluding by stretching the arms and on a loud exhale reaching for the ceiling and then the toes.
We did the L-sit-up after every pose in the series, so that after awhile it was like suffering from amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. Pose, corpse, sit-up, pose, corpse, sit-up…
The meat and potatoes of the floor sequence are the next four poses: cobra, locust, full locust, and bow. Each of them works a specific part of the back: lower, middle, and upper. Overall the series is designed to open, compress, flush, strengthen, and heal the spine from top to bottom.
But, it’s no four-course meal.
“Look out of the mirror, see the back wall,” the instructor optimistically urged us during cobra, insisting we pull our elbows backwards and down, keeping them close to the body as we pressed into the floor with our hips and feet, tried to lift our knees, and pushed forward with the chest, looking up, up, and over.
“If I see any elbows I might have to kick them,” he cautioned everyone during locust pose, striding through the ranks.
The ingredients of the following pose, full locust, are made up of squeezing the legs and feet together, spread-eagling ones arms, and then raising arms, legs, and torso upwards, so that only the hips are contacting the ground.
“Up, up, up like a 747, fly like an F16,” the instructor said. “Look up out of the mirror.”
I didn’t feel like an F-16. I felt like a slow, shaky, rusty biplane with Baron Manfred von Richthofen swooping down on me. I could hear the thunder of his twin synchronized 8mm Spandau machine guns, smoke was pouring out of my tail, I was going down…
“I have got to take a break,” I thought.
And then God did me a favor.
As the class went to the pose again, and I thought about resting on my heels to cool off, the power suddenly cut out, the room went dark, a pair of emergency floodlights blinked on, and there was a low clap of thunder outside. I sat back seiza style, breathed deliberately in and out for the duration, and thanked my lucky charms.
While in dead body pose after the asana the power came back on, and we swept into bow pose, although my version was more like crossbow pose, and then it was on to the menagerie of alternate back and forward bends: fixed firm, half-tortoise, camel, and rabbit.
In half-tortoise, trying to keep my butt on my heels and stretching my arms forward, pressing my pinkies into the mat, sweat fauceted in a steady stream from my chin and through my shirt from the middle of me, forming a spreading Rorschach blot beneath my nose.
“Make sure to breath, surrender to the pose,” the instructor said. “You can either go upstream or downstream with this yoga.”
I was in a whirlpool of hot weather, a low-pressure vortex of heat and humidity stalled just above me in my corner of the room, the air stagnant and heavy.
By the time we got to camel I was beginning to wonder if there was any end in sight. Were there really just 26 poses? Or were there really pi poses, and the instructor had forgotten to tell us we were going to be in the hot room forever? Was the 90 minutes just a mirage on the horizon?
The original Bikran practice had 84 poses in its entirety, and required more than two hours of determined hustle and bustle to get through. It is now the advanced series, rarely seen, and the popular practice culled from it is known as the beginner series. All the poses in the beginner series, which is considered the healing practice, come from the original classical postures.
Unlike many other styles of yoga, almost anyone coming to Bikram Yoga from the rat race can do the beginner series in some fashion, but at the same time it also attracts athletes, even professional athletes, who along with everyone else practice the same poses in the same order under the same conditions. The series is designed to work in proportion to the effort and sincerity one puts into it.
“Never too late, never too old, never too bad, never too sick to start from scratch once again,” says Bikram Choudhury
When we curled into rabbit pose, a kneeling forward bend accomplished by pulling on the heels, my forehead tucked into my kneecaps, pushing down with my shins and up with my legs, I became aware of a malodorous smell. It was coming from my rubber Jade mat soaked to its core from the epic amounts of sweat pouring out of me, but it was me, too. I was radiating stifling waves of heat and body odor.
I was dizzy and slightly nauseous lifting up out of the pose.
We practiced three leg stretches, twice, then a spinal twist, and after a last sit-up it was all very suddenly over. The instructor congratulated the first-timers, and the class concluded with everyone sitting back on their heels for blowing-in-firm pose. Bikram Yoga begins with a breathing exercise and finishes by bringing the focus back to the breath, although the beginning focuses on filling the lungs and the ending on strong exhales.
If sweating is the Bikram method to regenerate the body on a cellular level, breathing is the Bikram key to a healthier, longer life. Other than the pranayama exercises, during the practice it is repeatedly stressed to breath as normally as possible, so that the breath is neither controlling the practitioner nor the practitioner controlling the breath.
Easier said than done, I thought, recalling the huffing and puffing I had done all class long.
The first set of exhales we did was at a measured pace, like blowing out sixty birthday candles one at a time, but the second set was done at ramming speed. It was like the movie Ben-Hur, during the sea battle, when the galley captain commands the slaves to row their fastest, and when he does the galley drummer increases the tempo.
The instructor kept us in sync by clapping rapidly.
Bikram Choudhury describes the last breathing exercise as the “final flush of the toilet,” releasing the last of the toxins from the lungs.
When we were done and I was completely out of breath and toxins the class was finally beyond any doubt over.
“Good job, everyone,” the instructor said. “Please try to stay in Savasana for a few minutes. It’s the most important pose. Thanks for coming.”
And with that he dimmed the lights and left the hot room.
Traditionally, for every hour of hatha practice one is expected to spend a minimum of five minutes in dead body pose. That turned out to not be a problem. I was the second-to-last person to roll up my sodden mat and stumble out of the Bikram hot room.
Postscript: From Here to Eternity
Six months later I remember my first class like I would remember escaping from a burning building. Imagination is often mistaken for memory, but there is no mistaking the memory of plunging into the hellfire of Bikram Yoga.
In the beginning I could only bear to practice it once a week, otherwise continuing to attend vinyasa classes. After several months I was able to endure the steamroller twice a week, and recently I have upped the ante to three times a week. The heat and humidity are still a challenge, and probably always will be, but I have learned to start hydrating the minute I wake up two days before class.
I maintain a daily personal practice, a basic slow flow yin smorgasbord with a bit of meditation mixed in, but six months later the only yoga exercise I engage in outside of my home, squeezing and pulling and flexing, is in the hot room.
Three times a week I drive forty minutes to get to the 90-minute class, stayed by neither rain nor snow nor darkness, although snarled traffic is always a threat. I sing in the car along with the Searchers on the radio, changing the lyrics to mirror the method.
‘I took my troubles down to Bikram crew/You know that guru with the gold-capped tooth/He’s got a pad down on Hollywood and Vine/Sellin’ little bottles of Love Potion Number Nine.’
My made-for-vinyasa rubber mat has been put away and I have gotten a basic black one as well as a fancy Manduka towel. The beach-size terry absorbs bucketfuls of sweat and keeps my mat and immediate surroundings free of saltwater pools infested by bacteria. I never wear a non-synthetic shirt, always making sure it is sleeveless, and sometimes even peel it off when the room is abnormally humid because of the Lake Erie weather.
I no longer try to snag a spot near one of the doors at the beginning of class, hoping that the instructor will crack them open for a few seconds at some point to improve the ratio of students actually practicing to those catching their breath or otherwise completely gassed out on their mats.
I don’t think I will ever be able, however, to graduate to the Speedo suit favored and recommended by Bikram Choudhury. The image of my Eastern European body clad only in a Speedo staring back at me from the mirror is both daunting and disturbing. It is a sacrifice I am unwilling to make.
After every class I drag my gym bag gobbed full of wet smelly clothes and towels home, heave it all into the washing machine, and later hang it up to dry. It has become a routine, like the poses, but the poses are different, because no matter that it’s always punch the time clock and get to work all over again. Even though every class is the same, no class is ever the same. They are never easy, but that is all they have in common.
I have lived through six months of the practice, and even survived a fire alarm. We were in one of the balancing poses, the instructor reminding us to meditate in the mirror as I vainly tried to will myself from toppling over, when the wall alarms began to clang throughout the yoga studio.
“Don’t worry, stay in the class,” the instructor quickly interjected. “We have a very capable fire department. If we need to leave the building they will let us know.”
When the firemen in their heavy coats poked their heads into the hot room they peered curiously in all directions, gave us a thumbs up, one of them said all was ok, and just as promptly as they had come they backed out and closed the door. It was a false alarm. I could have used a good long squirt from their hoses, but I doubt our instructor would have approved.
It was a compelling testament that we all stayed put. I wondered what it was a testament to, and later thought it was testament to everything the practice espouses, such as patience and discipline and concentration.
Besides, the boss insists everyone must stay in the room, notwithstanding that we have all come to the hot yoga class of our own free will.
I have learned to accept the horrible inescapable challenge of the heat exactly because I don’t like it, nor am I congenitally suited to stand it, and because six months later I have begun to sense the therapy in the design of the practice. I go and once there I try to do the best I can, as much as I can, with as close to 100% effort as I can, and no cheating, or as little as possible. I still can’t get my other leg wrapped around and off the floor in eagle pose.
“Try the right way and eventually you will make it,” says Bikram Choudhury.
“You have nothing to lose. You had nothing to begin with. Just get in the hot room and kill yourself! You will understand the benefits for yourself!”
After class the instructor mingles, talks shop, and lastly mops up the hot room and the outside hallways of sweaty footprints tracked back and forth from the shower rooms. One night I bumped into him manipulating his Swifter Wet Jet forward and backward, cleaning up.
I had at first planned on taking a few classes now-and–then, then maybe a few months of it, then had decided to commit to it for year, just to be fair, and finally had concluded it would most likely be two years, given that I was a slow learner. The devil in Bikram is in the details, not just the effort.
One of the goals of Bikram Yoga is the 30-day challenge: 30 classes in 30 days. I have managed classes on consecutive days on several occasions. I am not brave enough to imagine three or four in a row, yet, much less an endless month of them.
“I know this class is good for me,” a woman lean like a runner, rolling up her mat next to me, said one night. “But, I would rather run twelve miles in the middle of the day in the middle of summer than do this.”
“This blarney of Bikram’s better work.” I said as the instructor finished mopping up that night’s trail of blood, toil, and tears. It had been an especially grueling class.
“Don’t try so hard,” he said.
“The class is a 90-minute open-eyed guided meditation, not just a sequence of asanas in a hot room. It works, you’ll see, but it’s not really about the exercise. It’s hatha yoga, sure, but about breathing and meditation even more than that.”
Bikram Yoga is considered by legions as an excellent system of physical exercise, and in the same breath often condemned because yoga is not just a system of physical exercise. The persistent Bikram emphasis on bodily fitness is seen as obviating the other arms of yoga, especially the mindful and spiritual aspects of the practice. Bikram Choudhury has even been accused of being materialistic and spiritually bankrupt.
But, at the core of the Bikram practice is prolonged concentration, focusing into and through the mirror, controlling the mind so that it is committed only to the asana and nothing else, and breathing to connect the body and mind, with patience and faith. It is hatha yoga as the yellow brick road to get to raja yoga and all the rest of it. There is no overt meditation, but the practice itself is fundamentally and ultimately meditative.
That is the method to the madness.
“I teach spirituality. I use the body as a medium,” says Bikran Choudhury. “I use the body to control your mind, to make your spirit happy. I wish that every human being should do yoga.”
It is the body, the mind, and the spirit yoked together — the yoga gravy train sans the trimmings.
It is old-school yoga practice in the hot room. Thank God, I thought while driving home, bolstered back into the seat cushion of the driver’s seat and finishing off a quart of water as I got onto the highway, I don’t have to go back until the day after tomorrow.
A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.