New Haven Register
Monday, January 12, 2004 3:00 AM EST
By Sandi Kahn Shelton
And it’s not because the furnace has malfunctioned. The temperature, believe it or not, got this high on purpose. Participants of Bikram yoga say that the temperature has to be high in order to warm the muscles and allow a deeper workout.
Still, it’s hot.
The 22 women and 11 men in the class this evening don’t seem daunted, however. Dressed in their Spandex and tank tops, they roll out their sticky mats, fluff their towels, line up their water bottles and, when the instructor, Donna Coughlin, says it’s time to begin, they’re ready.
In the next 90 minutes, they run twice through a prescribed, demanding routine of 26 postures and two breathing exercises, while Coughlin keeps up a steady stream — or dialogue — of commands, clapping her hands to signal the end of each posture.
At her almost staccato urging, they twist, stretch, turn, spin, bend their bodies into triangles, downward dogs and angry cats; then they pretzel their arms and balance on one foot and then another.
And did we mention it’s hot in there?
After a few moments, faces and bodies turn shiny; in another half-hour, sweat will start to drip from noses — and an hour later, one guy finds he can wring out his shorts. Some, but not many, take brief respites out in the office area, where the climate feels more like Connecticut than the Gobi Desert.
Yet the class members are enthusiastic, some coming in nearly every day for classes. This is just as Bikram Choudhury, the designer of this type of yoga, wished it.
Choudhury, a yoga champion from India, came up with this series of 26 postures after he was in a weightlifting accident that crippled him. He perfected this comprehensive system to restore his own health, and has since taken it to millions of people all over the world.
Its followers are required to perform the postures in the same order with the same dialogue each time. Since 1973, when he brought Bikram yoga to the United States, at the invitation of President Nixon, Choudhury has become a controversial figure because of several lawsuits he’s filed against studios who offer Bikram yoga without being properly certified or who change the program in any way.
But controversy aside, the Bikram method has been hailed by people all over the world as a system that delivers total health through the strengthening of every system in the body. Its proponents say it can prevent illness and injury while promoting weight loss and limiting the effects of aging. And according to Coughlin, who opened this studio two years ago after a 10-week intensive training with Bikram, it’s safe for anyone, no matter what their age or physical condition.
“It redesigns your whole body structure,” she says. “I’ve had students lose 60 pounds. People say they’ve never had a workout like this, even people who work out in a gym every day. It energizes you and heals all those aches and pains of middle age.
“I have students who say this yoga class has kept them from needing back surgery. And I used to have chronic neck pain before I started this. I thought I’d just have to learn to live with it, but now it’s completely gone.”
April Reiss of New Haven, who is around 60, has been coming to the class at least three times a week since last March. “I used to have stiff hips and knees,” she says, “but now I feel totally open. It helps you in a number of ways. Because of the heat and intensity, you leave the rest of your environment behind.
“You really focus, and that’s the point of yoga. And it allows you to see incremental progress each time. You really can do more and more. I’m so grateful to have found this.”
Lynn Redcay of New Haven, who is brand new to the class, sits down to recover afterward. She’s taking advantage of Bikram Yoga’s introductory offer of unlimited classes in seven days for $20. “It was tough,” she admits.
“I had heard it was going to be hot, but I didn’t realize how that was really going to feel. But I kept going, and I feel great now. I can see that this is going to help me ease some of the stress from my social work job each day. I definitely will come back.”
Coughlin stresses that all classes are geared for beginners, and that no previous yoga instruction is necessary. “It’s always challenging and never boring, no matter what level you are,” she says.
“Besides the heat, what makes this form of yoga different is the constant 90 minutes of dialogue. It keeps your mind from drifting off and thinking. You’re totally focused on what your body is doing. That calms the mind and eases anxiety. At the end, you feel regenerated and energized.”
The class participants gather their winter coats and hats and prepare to go out in the freezing weather. The studio thermometer is registering 108 degrees and 50 percent humidity.
“That’s from all the sweat,” someone says.
John Wynne of Branford smiles. “You know, you can do Bikram yoga at home if you want,” he says. “You just have to find a way to get into your oven.”