CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Bikram yoga is practiced in 105-degree heat, so perspiration is a key element. Here, instructor Kathryn Evans-Cone leads the class.
Bikram yoga is hot, hot, hot
Devotees believe classes have helped improve their health and energy levels
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Bikram Choudhury has created a worldwide empire out of stretching, sweat and spines. His controversial Bikram yoga is a therapeutic, fixed sequence of 26 hatha yoga postures, practiced in a 105-degree room and designed to work every major muscle, joint and organ in the body, from "bones to skin" -- as his classic dialogue goes.
In fact, the instructional dialogue of a Bikram yoga class is only delivered by teachers certified by Bikram himself. It features detailed verbal instructions on how to enter, hold and exit the postures.
Bikram has attracted a loyal foundation of devotees and students who have opened studios worldwide. He also has attracted critics, naysayers and skeptics who claim that he commercializes something meant to be spiritual and makes exaggerated "heals-everything" claims about the benefits of his particular practice.
Regular students, however, say the 26-posture series has been a veritable panacea for overall health, energy levels and injury recovery. Teachers have seen everything from high blood pressure to asthma, backaches and migraines dramatically reduced or even eliminated within weeks. The stories circulate through the studios and through friends and family of those who dare to take the heat, and the reputation of Bikram yoga has grown from the inner sanctums of its sweat-drenched studios.
In Oahu's four Bikram studios, the momentum builds not through advertising (Bikram does not advertise), but through the stories of thousands of practitioners.
First-time students can expect elation, exhaustion and even ecstasy during their first class. Feelings of extreme dizziness and nausea are not uncommon to beginners, and even seasoned practitioners take precautions for the heat.
Each student must bring water, for rehydration, and a towel, for mopping up. Perspiration is a key element, sweat being the body's first way to eliminate toxins. So is the heat, which mimics the body's own temperature and provides protection against injuries while assisting flexibility.
The postures are formulated around the spinal column, the greatest nerve center in the body, through which impulses to all other body systems are carried.
The therapeutic effects are focused on spinal mobility, extension and strengthening, said Conrad Gacki Jr., co-owner of Bikram Yoga Honolulu in Kaimuki. "This series is a prescription for spinal health and a diagnostic tool for finding weaknesses in the body -- usually in the spine."
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RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Classes at Bikram Yoga Hawaii's Kaimuki studio are consistently bustling with a core of devoted students.
Suffering from a serious disc herniation in his lower spine, Conrad Gacki Jr. eschewed the gym, the chiropractor, the physical therapist and the knife in favor of daily Bikram yoga practice.
The former college football star eventually found relief -- and a complete recovery -- as well as a calling.
Gacki was already a certified Bikram instructor when he was injured in a car accident. Faced with the possibility of invasive back surgery, Gacki thought, "Bikram would kill me if I did that," and opted instead to heal exclusively with Bikram yoga.
His father, impressed by Gacki's rehabilitation, undertook Bikram training the following year. His mother and younger brother also became instructors at their Naperville, Ill., studio, and the Gackis became one of only a handful of official Bikram-certified families.
With his sister, Gacki now co-directs Bikram Yoga Hawaii's Kaimuki studio, with a second location on Nimitz Highway opening this month. Classes at the bustling Kaimuki studio are consistently packed by a core of devoted students.
Being the closest Bikram studio to Waikiki also attracts mainland visitors who "practically run from the airport to find their Bikram fix," as one student commented.
"Bikram's method addresses the individual's physical weaknesses and strengths, and works directly with the mind and body to cultivate an inner motivation and mental clarity," said Gacki. "Basically, it's so popular because it's so efficient. You don't overuse the same muscles and the same movements or create additional impact or damage in the body."
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Alexis Inso put her students through their poses at the Bikram studio in Kaimuki.
Additionally, Bikram yoga draws those interested in the physical, mental and emotional benefits of yoga, without any overtly spiritual component. There's no chanting, no mantras, no sitting meditation -- it's a moving meditation where the postures become a point of focus.
Brent Purdue, owner of another flourishing Bikram studio in Kailua, explains Bikram's system as a more authentic approach to hatha yoga (the yoga of activity).
Because of this, Purdue points out, you won't find blocks and straps or "adjustments" being made in Bikram classes. Purdue sees those things as crutches, adaptations made by Westerners. Beginners are expected to work up toward exact postures.
"Conforming to the postures with the body is the essence of transformation," said Purdue, who has been teaching for more than eight years. "Changing the poses to conform to one's body or capabilities does not create change."
The goal is essentially the strengthening of the entire body and the cultivation of the three essential aspects of any yoga practice: stillness, breath and calmness. "It comes down to freezing, breathing and relaxation," Purdue explained. "With those three elements in Bikram practice, you can access the therapeutic level of his yoga, which was designed on the principles of ancient yoga therapy."
Still, Bikram is known to have chosen his series of postures specifically for their therapeutic value to the Western lifestyle. Westerners, he believed, were not ready for silent, meditative yoga. They needed a yoga that addressed the sedentary lifestyle, sluggish inner organs and weakened postures from sitting and excessive computer use.
"The yoga created by Bikram is true to the authentic origins of the postures," Purdue explained. "What we tell new students in class is to try to attempt the postures in the right way. The postures are explained in depth, verbally in class. The aim is to concentrate and reorganize the body to enter the postures without using crutches or adapting the posture to your body."
For Sam Desa, 51, a Honolulu businessman, practicing Bikram yoga is a weekly ritual, even in light of his busy schedule of marathon training and working. "I have several friends who go every day, and I saw their tummies get flatter and their eyes get clearer. I thought, I have to do this, too, everyone should try it!"
Beware that the designation "hot yoga" does not always mean Bikram yoga. For an authentic Bikram experience, be sure the studio you choose is a "Bikram Yoga College of India," or is certified by Bikram. Classes run $15 to $17, with packages available for multiple classes or monthly memberships.
» Bikram Yoga Honolulu @ Kaimuki: 1151-B 12th Ave., second floor. Call 737-5519.
» Bikram Yoga College of India, Kailua: 600 Kailua Road, No. 205. Call 262-6886.
» Bikram Yoga North Shore: 67-208 Goodale Ave., Waialua. Call 637-5700.
» Bikram Yoga Honolulu @ Downtown: Opening soon. Nimitz Business Center, 1130 Nimitz Highway, second floor. Call 554-2919.