Breaking a Sweat
It's the hottest form of yoga - literally, and arguably figuratively, too.
Bikram yoga is named after its creator, Bikram Choudhury, who started teaching yoga in the U.S. in the 1970s. Bikram yoga is different from other forms of yoga in several ways, but is set apart most notably by its use of heat in the classroom.
When Choudhury came to Hawaii from India to teach yoga, he noticed that one thing was different from his homeland - it wasn't as hot. So Choudhury brought space heaters into his studio and cranked up the thermostat to 105 degrees, a temperature he saw as optimal for the 26 posture series he taught.
Mary Ann Nassa, director of Yoga Concepts in Cranston, met Choudhury in 1984, and began teaching Bikram Yoga in Rhode Island in 1985. She said she remembers discussing the hot temperatures of Bikram with Choudhury himself.
"He said, 'If you want to bend steel - or stiff bodies - you heat it up,'" she explained.
Her own studio, currently located on the second floor of a building that houses a salon at 911 Pontiac Avenue, is filled with space heaters. There's no sign, but faithful students know to enter the building's side door and make their ascent. Once on the second floor, it's possible to hear Nassa's muffled voice through a doorway sealed tightly with towels to keep the cold out and the heat in.
On a chilly winter day, entering the 105-degree classroom is like being hit with incongruous summer air - it's hot, and beads of sweat form almost instantaneously.
But the people in this particular class don't seem to care. Their attire is minimal: women don sports bras and tight fitting shorts, while men opt for swim trunks or Speedos. They're lying on yoga mats covered with towels, and all of them are dripping with sweat.
Outside of Nassa's voice, the room is quiet. The occasional measured breathing punctuates the silence, but there is no chanting or music.
Each class is 90 minutes long, with various levels of difficulty offered throughout each day.
"What we focus on in Bikram is raja and hatha," Nassa explained after class. She herself wore attire reminiscent of a ballet teacher: pink tights and a black leotard.
Hatha, she explained, is a physical form of yoga, while raja focuses on the mind. "Yoga" she said, means "union." Bikram, said Nassa, blends physical and mental discipline, creating a stronger mind and body. It also has a meditation component, which she said helps people rest their minds and forget about time and space.
"Forty-five minutes goes by and you're halfway done because you're meditating in a sense," she said.
Because Bikram requires students to hold both standing and sitting postures, Nassa said it takes a lot of discipline and focus.
"For those 90 minutes you can't think about anything else; you have to think about your body and your soul," she said.
Just like Choudhury's original technique, Nassa teaches a series of 26 postures. Students start on their feet, balancing on one leg at some points, and holding their positions for a minute at a time. Yoga is about stillness, she said, and requires those who practice it to contract their muscles while stretching.
"There's no such thing as movement in yoga; the hallmark of yoga is stillness," she said.
The results of holding poses like the "Standing head-to-knee" or "Full Locust" are long, lean muscles, increased flexibility and core strength.
Another benefit is the loosening of the spine, which Nassa said Americans tend to hold stiff. When you think about it, she said, we often sit in the same position - whether it's driving in the car, typing on the computer, watching TV or eating a meal, we hold our spines in the same position all day. In Bikram, there's a forward and backward progression of movements that loosen the spine, something that helps the whole body, she said.
"In order to keep your spine healthy, you've got to keep it in the center," she said, noting that yoga brings the body back to "homeostasis."
Bikram also works the lungs. Throughout the class there are instructed breathing components, as well as stretches that open the lungs.
"There's so many things that go on in these postures … you're working internally as well," she said.
The mental health benefits are plentiful, too, said Nassa. Not only does Bikram allow students to clear their minds, but it has been clinically shown to decrease depression. Another clinical study at Mass General Hospital is being done to see if Bikram can replace anti-depressants. Nassa said she and most of her students do not take any prescriptions drugs.
"I feel awesome," said Jeanette Bender, one of Nassa's students, after class. "I feel mental clarity. I feel like I've had a massage physically and then I feel like I've had a facial. It's the after-effect that's addictive."
Nassa echoed Bender, saying Bikram is a "positive kind of addiction." Once students are hooked, they come back year after year.
Barbara and John Dickerson have been students of Nassa's since the 1980s.
"We've been faithful students of Mary Ann's for years," Barbara said. "It's been the greatest thing for my health."
Barbara said she had chronic health problems and various surgeries, but yoga has made her healthier and stronger.
"It's the yoga that's gotten me through life; it makes you bulletproof," she said.
For Barbara's husband, John, Bikram was the only thing that helped him quit smoking.
"He had tried every other method," she said.
John was one of the few men in class that day, but typically, Nassa said there are a lot of other men in the studio.
"I don't mind a lot of women," John said with a laugh, corroborating that there are often other males in attendance.
Originally, yoga was a practice limited to men in India. It was Russian-born Indra Devi that brought yoga to women worldwide.
Nassa said yoga is great for men and women; for men, it's a physical workout, and for women, it allows them to take care of themselves, instead of others, for a change.
"This style of yoga also teaches you how to care for yourself," she said. "You care for yourself like you would your own children."
For those who have never taken yoga, or hot yoga before, Nassa said there is a "virgin zone" in each class.
"We observe them and we're with them through the whole class," she said.
She advises participants to drink plenty of water and skip any meals for three to four hours prior to class.
Afterwards, she said, "You feel cleansed or massaged, even from the inside."
Mary Ann and her sister and partner, Donna Nassa, teach a variety of different Bikram classes daily at their Pontiac Avenue Studio. For more information, visit www.BikramYogaRI.com or call 461-8484.