I have more muscles than I thought.
Unfortunately, I’m not referring to the level of my physical strength, but to the myriad of rarely-exercised and completely ignored “helper” muscles along the sides of my legs, in between my shoulder blades, in my forearms, feet, and hands…this list could go on, because every time I move, it seems, I discover a new one.
Bikram yoga is like going on an archaeological dig in the jungle, where your body is the digging site, and it’s pouring down rain (that is, sweat).
The 26 postures in creator Bikram Choudhury’s 90-minute yoga routine combine stretching with strength training, so the whole body (not just the parts you see in the mirror) gets attention. While holding these poses, students must engage their muscles to keep balanced and deepen the effects of the stretch. Because of the difficulty of standing on one foot while wrapping your limbs around each other in 90 degree heat, Bikram yoga is also a cardiovascular workout.
To get the same effects in a traditional gym, you’d have to run, bike, or use the elliptical to get your heart rate up, then do free weights, machines, or resistance bands, then get on a mat and stretch it all back out.
Because of the added flexibility in high temperatures, Bikram yoga allows you to do things you might not otherwise be able to—even if that’s as basic as touching your toes. The program is designed for all levels of physical strength, and many who come to the practice with serious health issues (car wreck, overweight, disabled) claim Bikram has been a complete rehabilitation, where even their doctors stand aside, open-mouthed. Of course, that’s after years of dedicated practice, and while we Americans love our “miracle drugs,” I think a strong mind is just as essential to the healing process as the path one takes to get there.
Bikram Choudhury certainly markets his yoga as an alternative to physical therapy and/or invalidity. He, himself, claims to have developed the 26 postures to recover from a crippling weight-lifting injury (what'd he do -- bench press a boulder?).
I must admit, after a few classes at Shawna Spellman's downtown studio) I can already feel the increased pliancy of my leg muscles (a long-distance runner by day, my flexibility is nil), and since soreness indicates hard work, all those muscular “digging sites” are growing stronger as I type.
Too bad Bikram can’t cure my allergies. But if it’s as good as the yogis say, perhaps those of us who don’t have health insurance can think of the $15 per class price tag as a co-pay.