The Heat Is On

Combine a 90-degree room with a serious workout attitude, and you've got the latest in an ancient form of exercise -- HOT YOGA

August 18, 2002|By Martha Thomas | By Martha Thomas,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Teri Weatherly walked out of her first yoga class and felt like bursting into tears. While many would have been crying after the grueling session, Weatherly's reaction was nothing less than revelatory.

"Believe me, I never cry after a run," said the 39-year-old Timonium hairdresser, who runs 4 to 5 miles or exercises at a health club nearly every day. "Something clicked," she explains. "I felt very focused and more aware of my body than I do on machines at the gym."

But Weatherly hadn't been in just any old yoga session. Her first class was part of the fastest-growing incarnation of the 5,000-year-old discipline: hot yoga.

As if it weren't steamy enough outside, Weatherly and her fellow students had just spent a little over an hour bending, jumping and stretching, heartbeats racing, sweat flying, in a studio heated to about 90 degrees. Following instructions from a teacher -- an odd mix of religious leader and drill sergeant -- Weatherly discovered muscles she hadn't realized existed.

Hot yoga is not only turning up at studios in Baltimore and around the region, it's also drawing hardcore athletes who might not have previously considered yoga a challenging form of exercise.

A version of yoga developed by Bikram Choudhury, a Los Angeles yogi-turned-entrepreneur, has gained status as a brand name, and Baltimore's first franchised Bikram studio opened in Cockeysville last month.

The Bikram workout "is fantastic for your body," says Ken Friedman, a physical therapist from Reisterstown who attended a class at the Cockeysville opening.

Friedman, a professional ballet dancer in Canada and New York before returning to his native Baltimore, took Bikram classes in Manhattan, and says he often recommends yoga to his clients -- provided they have a doctor's clearance.

In any form of yoga, he says, "even high-level athletes will find places in their bodies they have never felt before."

The addition of heat allows muscles, joints and ligaments to stretch further than they would in an air-conditioned environment, and the sweat is cleansing. Additionally, most hot yoga workouts follow a rapid pace, with the postures elevating the heart rate.

"To me it's the biggest and best bang for your workout buck," says Donna Rubin, a co-owner of Bikram Baltimore. "You get everything in 90 minutes: cardio, sweating, strength, toning and meditation."

Rigid format

The Bikram studio, which opened July 20 at the Yorktowne Shopping Plaza, conforms to the rigid format designed by its founder, once a champion yogi from Calcutta and now the flamboyant owner of yoga's first multimillion-dollar franchise.

Every Bikram class is identical, led by a teacher who talks students through 26 "asanas" or postures, in blast-furnace heat. Students grip washcloths to keep their sweaty limbs from slipping out of their hands, and the traditional yoga "sticky mat" is rendered useless because it quickly becomes drenched.

These strenuous sessions are particularly appealing to athletes who may have perceived yoga as a slow-moving meditative practice, filled with gentle stretches, steady breathing and a few chants for good measure.

Rubin, who founded Bikram New York, which now consists of four Manhattan locations, says her fastest-growing clientele is business people. "The investment bankers are coming in droves," she says.

Not the only way

Hot yoga, and its related forms -- Ashtanga, sometimes called power yoga, and Iyengar, which consists of flowing, interconnected postures that can be quite challenging -- are drawing a following culled more from the "no pain, no gain" school of fitness.

However, once they have been initiated, these type-A athletes may learn to slow down and discover why gentler forms of yoga have attracted some 18 million Americans in the last few years.

Courtenay Rianhard, a 35-year-old who lives in Roland Park and operates a plastics recycling company, discovered Bikram yoga in Denver, in 1994. Though she then believed "yoga was boring," she nevertheless decided to take a class.

"I had been obsessively over-exercising," she recalls, and the Bikram format fit her regime. But now, Rianhard says, "I feel that I have graduated from Bikram."

While she still engages in vigorous aerobic workouts, Rianhard now prefers yoga's slower forms, which she says "develop self-awareness and slow things down." Her favorite class is a traditional slow-paced hatha yoga class she attends at the Meadow Mill Athletic Club.

Bikram Choudhury has been teaching in Los Angeles for nearly three decades (actress Shirley MacLaine was one of his earliest followers). Known for his Rolex watches and Rolls-Royce automobiles, frenetic energy and intoxicating enthusiasm, Bikram is namesake to more than 650 yoga studios across the country, with the number growing daily. (He claims that two new studios open each day around the world, a figure others suspect to be exaggerated.)

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