Bikram yoga: a beginner's tale

Journalist and yoga enthusiast, Maddy Bridgman, swallows her apprehension and gives Bikram a try at a class in Denver, USA. She finds it daunting, dizzying and more physically and emotionally challenging that she had bargained for.


I'm up early one Saturday morning in Denver, USA. It’s already hot outside, and this is one place they’ve forgotten the air conditioning: 105 degrees hits me with that baked-wood sauna smell as soon as I enter and unroll the familiar yoga mat. I’m also carrying a large bottle of water and a towel.

It’s my introduction to Bikram yoga: a high- energy, high-temperature, cardiac workout from India, based on 26 postures, now spreading around the world.

And since this is Colorado, officially America’s leanest state, I’m surrounded by fit bodies wearing as little as possible (more comfortable, I’m assured, in this heat) .

Some say there’s no high like a Bikram yoga high; sweat is what it’s all about – sweat born of effort, sweat that says the toxins are flowing, sweat that says the heat is high enough to help those muscles stretch.

The etiquette says you don’t break the class’s concentration by taking even a sip of water until five moves have been completed.

Each posture is performed first for one minute then repeated and held for thirty seconds (in intense heat, remember). This means that those which involve working on one side and then the other are gone through four times.

For a beginner, even one with some yoga experience, I found simply the initial breathing exercises daunting and dizzying. The clock replaced any mantra as it counted me towards that first drink of water.

I made it through, in that I at least attempted each move without complete collapse (a few people stopped for a lie-down) – but actually sustaining any pose for the time required was often beyond me.

Still, said the instructor, Micah (lithe, energetic, upbeat) –“ you can all be proud that you even got up and got out for eight on a Saturday morning.”

Somehow that felt a pathetic achievement compared with the graceful contortions of the more experienced students in the row in front.

During the ‘rabbit’ pose, a surge of nausea washes over me. At that moment Micah, with that telepathic insight all good exercise teachers seem to possess, tells the group; “if any of you feel bilious after that move, it’s just the toxins leaving the liver”.

Difficulty with another posture could, we’re told, be attributed to a lack of openness in the heart. It’s thrown in as an aside, but it leaves me feeling emotionally inadequate on top of a general physical wobbliness.

I’m told to keep drinking water all day to avoid any residual aches – but I rebelliously ‘reward’ myself for the early start with a cup of coffee as soon as I can get one. A single mouthful brings on a searing headache. It seems my body likes this detoxing more than I expected.

Bikram was devised by Bikram Choudhury, national yoga champion of India at the age of twelve. Apparently, he later injured his knees while weight-lifting and devised a sequence of exercises with his guru, which not only restored his health but became the Bikram Yoga taught today.

This school of yoga is not without its critics, however – some say expecting everyone to go through all the postures at every session is too much for a beginner, and could lead to strain.

Bikram yoga isn’t for students seeking enlightenment; even, I would suggest, inner peace. This is a true yoga workout, and don’t even expect that blissful relaxation session after all the hard work. The final sequence of postures is designed to cool you down.

Bikram is ideal for those who denigrate yoga as some airy-fairy gentle stroll with no element of challenge. And it can’t be coincidence, can it, that a larger than usual proportion of men to women are drawn to give it a go?



Madeleine Bridgman is a keen student of yoga and a freelance journalist:


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