By Chayla Furlong
In a room full of very sweaty people, an instructor walks back and forth and examines her student’s poses. They are all facing forward with eyes locked on the mirror, trying to extract some type of balance, strength or peace from within while maintaining their posture.
These are students of Bikram Yoga.
Bikram Yoga, founded by Yogiraj Bikram Choudhury, is a 26 posture asana (poses used for mediation and concentration) yoga series that is to be completed in a room heated to a minimum temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to the Bikram Yoga College of India website, the practice is designed to stretch every part of the body in the order they should be stretched. The strenuous physical routine lasts 90 minutes.
Also according to the website, the goal of Bikram is to “move fresh, oxygenated blood to 100 percent of your body, to each organ and fiber, restoring all systems to healthy, working order.”
Village Yoga, located in downtown Santa Cruz, is the local Bikram studio. Village Yoga, owned by Amy Mihal, Aimee Nitzberg and Sally Adams, was the first Bikram Yoga studio in Santa Cruz, and has been providing instruction and practice to members of the Santa Cruz community for seven years
Donna Saffren, who has been practicing Bikram at Village Yoga for four years and nine months, can testify to the difficulty and intensity of the exercise.
Saffren heard about Bikram Yoga from a friend and decided to give it a try after having a hysterectomy. Many years later, she is still practicing. She remembers her first practice being the hardest.
“I remember I wanted to run out of the room,” Saffren said. “I remember thinking ‘there’s not enough air in this room,’ and it was just really high anxiety.”
While this heat-influenced, physically and mentally challenging practice is no cake walk, it does, according to its followers, have benefits as extreme as the exercise itself. Many say it has potential to cure long term injuries and ailments.
“The way that I felt, the way that I still feel after practicing yoga, is like a wash rag that’s been wrung out,” Saffren said. “From my fingers to my toes, I just feel so thoroughly cleansed. Even that first time I walked out feeling amazing.”
Mihal, co-owner of Village Yoga, agrees that Bikram Yoga delivers something extraordinary to those who practice it.
Her first experience was powerful enough to change the course of her life.
“My roommate from San Francisco came home and said she took this yoga class and almost died, and I was like ‘I gotta try this stuff,’” Mihal said. “Then in my first class, I [realized] this is what I want to do with my life.”
The benefits of Bikram Yoga include relief from painful joints and arthritis, lowered blood pressure and stress, increased flexibility, better sleeping habits, and better concentration. These effects can account for Bikram’s increasing popularity.
Nitzberg, another co-owner, thinks the popularity also has to do with the length of time an individual can practice “hot yoga” while still reaping benefits, deepening their practice and experiencing positive results.
“There are all these levels that continue to challenge you and keep you interested in your practice,” Nitzberg said. “So year after year, you still come out feeling like, ‘Wow, I still have so much to learn; this is amazing,’ and you feel so grateful.”
Mihal agrees with her business partner, and both recommend Bikram to any and all who are willing to give it a shot.
“One of the best things about it is that it is a practice for everyone,” Mihal said. “Yes, it may be challenging, but for everybody at any age, any size, no matter what condition you’re in, it’s a practice you can try. It strengthens your sense of self; it strengthens your entire being.”