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Some Like it Hot

Bikram yoga, the cult of the cooked

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Six months ago Chicago didn't have a single Bikram, or "hot yoga," studio, where the temperature hovers around 105 degrees. Now there are three.

John Marcoux and Mike Lewis took their first Bikram class 18 months ago, when they lived in Dallas and worked, respectively, as an attorney and a corporate banker. Last November they opened Bikram Yoga Chicago in Wicker Park.

"I'm kind of new to the scene," says Lewis, who grew up in southern Indiana. What hooked him was the heat, which is supposed to make you more flexible. It definitely makes you sweat. "As soon as you walk into the classroom, the body has to work to start cooling itself," he says. "I think body systems really like that kind of effort. It seems like your metabolic capacity changes a little bit. As a result you work very hard during class, and you sweat. You come out and have a sense of well-being; you just feel good."

"Within three weeks I lost 15 pounds," says Marcoux. He couldn't stop going to class once he started, and convinced Lewis to join him. "I was happy and relaxed for the first time I can remember. Class became the focal point of my day. I'd make sure my work was done so I could get out in time for it. People started suggesting I could become a teacher." Marcoux put together a business plan and in April he and Lewis quit their jobs and plopped down $5,000 each for a nine-week teacher training course at Bikram Choudhury's Los Angeles studio.

Choudhury, a former amateur weight lifting champ partial to gold jewelry and Rolls-Royces, developed a 26-posture sequence that's performed in front of mirrors, a physical fitness approach that he claims can cure everything from heart disease to multiple sclerosis. He believes it to be the only "true" yoga, although the Bikram teachers I spoke with don't adhere to this view and--at least verbally--support other schools of yoga. He says it's designed to bring new blood and energy to each limb and organ using something called "the tourniquet effect," and he's dubbed it "the most exciting, hard-working, effective, amusing, and glamorous yoga class in the world."

Of the commonly practiced forms of yoga, Bikram is one of the youngest. Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is an ancient, vigorous form of yoga in which poses are linked together and the emphasis is on breath maintaining the flow between them. Iyengar yoga is a different approach to the same poses, named after B.K.S. Iyengar, who developed the method some 60 years ago. It emphasizes alignment rather than flow and uses props such as blocks and straps.

Choudhury began practicing yoga at the age of four. He won India's national yoga contest three times as a teen, but at 17 he injured his knee weight lifting and doctors said he'd never walk again. After six months in the care of his teacher, Bishnu Ghosh, he'd completely recovered; Ghosh eventually asked him to start yoga schools in India and then Japan. Choudhury opened his first U.S. studio in Beverly Hills in 1973.

Today there are hundreds of Bikram studios worldwide, and Choudhury churns out scores of teachers each year; the most recent graduating class was made up of over 280 people from around the world. The teacher training course is primarily conducted by his wife, Rajashree, a five-time all-India yoga champ who specializes in hatha yoga therapy for chronic diseases and disorders. The course covers everything from dealing with injuries to marketing. While in Beverly Hills, Marcoux and Lewis hit on the idea of opening a Bikram studio in Chicago.

"Chicago was one of those huge holes on the map," says Lewis, who lived here between 1995 and 1997. "There were a couple of teachers here teaching at different gyms. But no studios. So here we are."

One of those teachers is Liz Myers, who walked into her first Bikram class 22 years ago, while on vacation in Key West. "I came back to Chicago and there wasn't any Bikram yoga here, so I studied different forms," says Myers, who also teaches ashtanga and apprenticed for a year at Yoga Circle, the local Iyengar studio. She completed Choudhury's teacher training six years ago and began teaching one class a week. "I started adding more classes, and soon I was teaching one class a day plus working full-time for a Fortune 500 company in Glenview," she says. "I came to the point in my life where I loved yoga and hated doing the other thing, so I quit my full-time job."

These days Myers teaches 20 classes a week and keeps eight space heaters in her car. "When I started no one knew what Bikram was," she says. "It's still a battle going into each health club and trying to get them to give me the heat. For some I drag five space heaters in and out of there, and I've brought 30 little mirrors to other places. I'm kind of like a bag lady. People see me walking down the street in the middle of summer with space heaters, and they're like, 'Where is she going?'" But Myers says she'd rather schlepp heaters around than settle in one place. "Everybody was counting on me for a long time to open a studio, but I guess I like the freedom of flitting around to different places," she says. "And I don't want to take on the responsibility."

She says Bikram is perfect for health clubs and for beginners, which is why it's so popular. "The postures aren't that advanced, and the heat makes it harder and it releases more toxins." But, she says, "People either love it or hate it. I can almost see in their eyes the people who are going to be addicted to it and come back and those who will never come back."

Despite the rigid series of poses and informal script--called "the dialogue"--that teachers must follow, there are some differences between studios and teaching styles; most Bikram studios don't list teacher names, so that students don't become attached to a particular instructor. Greg Gumuchio, a lecturer in the teacher training program who owns five Seattle-area studios and opened Bikram River North last fall, says, "I want people to get connected to their practice. If the teacher goes away, there goes their practice." Myers, on the other hand, says, "My students count on me being there. I would hope that they're coming for Liz Myers and not just for a Bikram yoga class."

At the carpeted River North studio, seasoned teachers are flown in from Seattle. Unlike Wicker Park, there's no waiver to sign because, Gumuchio says, it doesn't exactly give a good first impression, and "if you listen to your body, there's no reason why you should get hurt." A class with instructor Niki DeSario included many hands-on adjustments and just three water breaks, while the teacher at a class I took on the hardwood floor in Wicker Park sat on a chair in front (as Choudhury does), drank water, and shouted out encouragement to the students, who seemed greener than those at the River North studio. Water breaks were encouraged and people came and went throughout class. Despite my own regular ashtanga practice, I felt faint and light-headed at some point during each class; in River North I was told to lie on my mat and breathe while I sat out some poses rather than drink more water or leave the room, which is the policy in Wicker Park.

"A lot of people get disconnected from their bodies and don't know when to stop, and they end up getting light-headed and dizzy," says Gumuchio. "That's a dangerous environment to pass out in. As a teacher we try to empower them to give everything they can while honoring and listening to their bodies at the same time."

Terry Kiely and Beth Range Kiely's Bikram studio, Om on the Range, opened February 14 in Ravenswood, making it Chicago's third and the only one owned by natives. Terry, a technology consultant for Inforte, was introduced to Bikram a decade ago; both spouses have studied other forms of yoga. "About a year ago we did a Bikram yoga retreat in Costa Rica," says Beth. "I really enjoyed the practice. But when we came back to Chicago, there wasn't a studio, just people at different health clubs. So we decided to go to teacher training and open one. We came back and two were open."

Beth, who's on leave from her job as vice president of development for the School of the Art Institute, says they envision their 1,400-square-foot studio as "a mom-and-pop place...the other studios are very big--very upscale." While working out heat and humidity issues at their place, the Kielys held practice teaching sessions with other trainees in their home basement studio, which is outfitted with mirrors, space heaters, and a humidifier. But they still couldn't get the temperature past 90 degrees. "Don't tell Bikram," says Beth.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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