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Deeper Sweat: Reconsider Bikram Yoga

By Mackenzie Ryan

With the yoga industry earning billions of dollars each year, how and why does Bikram Yoga, the patented series of 26 asanas performed in a 104 degree studio over a 90-minute span, appear to be at the forefront of new yoga trends in the United States?

“The primary reason people come to class is that they want to lose weight,” says Michael Frayer, owner of Bikram Yoga in the City located in Central Chicago. “Their number two reason is “I hate the gym.”

While it will indeed help you shed those extra pounds, the bending, twisting and contorting methods of Bikram Yoga provide other benefits you may not have considered, such as a stronger emotional well-being, better blood circulation and joint movement, improved cardiovascular health and stamina, and increased flexibility, mobility, and balance.

Raffael Pacitti, who operates Bikram Yoga Manhattan in Chelsea and SoHo, says he gets men “crawling” to Bikram Yoga in what he calls a “pre-arthritic state.” “We see guys that can longer go to the gym basically because after 10 years of pumping iron, their joints are destroyed,” Pacitti says. “They make look good, but they feel like crap and we see it every day.”

He notes a lot of gay men are understandably absorbed in the gym culture because it allows them the opportunity to exercise, socialize, and flirt in a single setting. Lifting weights may make big muscles stronger, such as biceps and quads, but it won’t strengthen weaker muscles around the joints, he says.

Though gym rats may be driven to lift, squat, and cycle to look better, Pacitti says more men realize fit does not mean healthy. “All the gay men who come [to my studio] keep saying ‘I can’t believe I didn’t start this sooner. I can’t believe I’ve been going to the gym all the time.’”

Bikram Yoga utilizes a tourniquet effect to stimulate the body’s internal organs. By stretching and balancing your body, the blood supply to your arteries is cut off, creating pressure. After you release a pose, the blood is likewise released, flushing out the system. Pacitti says one of the joys of working at Bikram Yoga Manhattan is hearing clients tell about their improvements, especially men who sing the praises of Bikram over Viagra. Because there is increased blood flow in the pelvic region during Bikram Yoga, one of the most exciting benefits men experience is more sexual vitality.

Pacitti points out the huge disconnection between mind and body that is created every time you put your headphones on to do your workout. “You’re basically lifting weights and running on the treadmill and, as a result, your body produces stress hormones,” he says. “Your body doesn’t know the difference. Your body doesn’t know you’re on a treadmill listening to music and not running from danger.”

Bikram Yoga is the opposite. Pacitti says when you come to class to challenge yourself to perform your best possible postures in the studio mirror, it becomes a “very, very personal experience.” This is one part of Bikram Yoga that Frayer and Pacittia agree intimidates prospective clientele—the fear of a super-intense, heated workout being the other.

“The culture of the studio here and the philosophy that I talk about and project as the director of the studio is that it works,” Frayer reassures. “Simple definition: as long as I have been teaching, I’ve seen nobody who’s gotten worse as a result of doing this.”

But Frayer and Pacitti both admit women still make up the majority of their classrooms. Much of this has to do with perception.

Frayer admits, before he knew about Bikram Yoga, he was the last kind of guy you’d catch stretching on a floor mat. “I was actually very hesitant to do yoga because I thought we’d end up sitting in a circle with our eyes closed and chanting,” he explains about his initial misconception. Now, after five years of “commitment” to the practice, even Frayer’s 64-year-old father goes to yoga three times a week to treat work and age-related injuries. The teacher’s clientele ranges from 18 to 80 years old, he says.

Frayer notes there are a lot of gay students and teachers of Bikram Yoga, though he cannot cite statistics. “When people are coming to the process of saying, ‘This is who I am. Hello world!’…I think that if they are willing to take this huge step their personal life than they’re willing to try something new,” he adds. One of these teachers he speaks of is Ren Soriano, a senior teacher at the Bikram Yoga College of India’s World Headquarters in Los Angeles, California. Having met Bikram Choudhury, creater and founder of Bikram Yoga, in Pirupanamalai, India in 1996, Soriano began practicing in the yoga master’s famed torture chamber twice a day until becoming an instructor in 2000. Now Soriano is responsible for training instructors, judging yoga competitions, and giving posture clinics around the United States and the world.

“The reason why I think [Bikram Yoga] will help the gay community because in Hatha Yoga, especially Bikram Yoga, we are using the body to concentrate the mind, to meditate,” the senior instructor explains. “If you can concentrate and meditate and control your mind, it is the first step in the key to self-realization.”

He says eventually, the Bikram yogi can attain what Bikram Choudhury calls being “bulletproof,” signifying the release of the practitioner’s ego.

Soriano, who is openly gay, says his sexuality has nothing to do with his yoga practice or instruction, but it does provide some comfort to his gay students at the College, particularly those who are not entirely out.

“Yoga is spiritual, not dividing, inclusive, all part of one living entity. To me the whole point of yoga is to go past religion,” Soriano says, noting he was raised as a Roman Catholic, which he calls a homophobic religion.

“Yoga is more universal. It is a part of self-realization and self-realization is part of spiritual journey.”

Learn more about Bikram and find classes near you at the Bikram Yoga web site.