Tuesday, February 08, 2011

[Health and Fitness] Stanky Yoga

Stanky Yoga: I should do yoga. I know this. My flexibility is bad. My attention span short. My karma is in the toilet. The problem I have with yoga, apart from being terrible at it, is that it is boring beyond belief. At the moment, I am now four hours into waiting for the cable guy to finish my installation in a house with no TV, no internet, no books, no music. That's comparable to how bored I get from yoga.

But I keep trying because I know it's good for me. For a while I was doing something called Russoyog, which is yoga done with ropes as a prop to increase the intensity of some of the movements. It was good for a while, but like every other form of yoga I have taken, after a four or five classes I find myself staring at the clock or thinking of my to-do list or singing songs in my head to pass the time (mostly classic rock). Do you suppose they'd mind if broke out a pack of cards to play solitaire while in downward dog? Anyway, in my search for something more simulating I decided to take a Bikram class. And I nearly died.

Bikram is the famous hot yoga. They crank up the temperature to something in the area of 105 and then put you though an hour and a half of contortions. I am, I believe, very physically fit. Two hour workouts are typical for me. A yoga class, whatever the flavor, is not something for me to be overly concerned about , I thought. But let me say there is nothing -- NOTHING -- that can prepare you for the heat and the smell.

You can imagine the smell -- no wait...maybe you can't. But just think a of room where hundreds of people perspire by the quart every day for months, then crank the heat and humidity up to rainforest levels. Or better yet, think of cheese wrapped in wet jock strap left in an public restroom in Nigeria during a week-long heat wave. I know people who cannot even abide getting near the room, never mind spending an hour and a half in there adding your personal body fluids to the mix.

Even if you can get past the stank (which in reality you cease to notice after a few minutes), you will find yourself standing in a 105 degree room. Now, as I said, I am no stranger to strenuous physical activities, and I have been in some exceptionally hot settings -- 95/95 summer days in South Florida, the Sonoran Desert in August -- but rarely have I combined the two. It is absolutely devastating.

Bikram Yoga is exactly the same from class to class and location to location. There are 27 poses, all done in each class, in the same order, often with similarly worded instructions. No surprises. Walk into a class anywhere in the world and you know what to expect. Kind of like McDonald's. The first half of the class is dominated by standing poses, the second half by floor work. To my unsophisticated eye, there appears to be strong emphasis on back bending and spine flexibility.

In a normal room, I would have worked up a mild sweat by the end of the standing work and probably pretty close to fully recovered by the end of the floor work. With the heat, I was drenched in sweat and breathing heavy by the third pose. I didn't catch my breath until the floor work, and never stopped sweating. I bet I lost at half a gallon of water weight over the course of the class. The beach towel I brought was completely soaked through. Yes, it's gross.

Now, I am not a spiritual person. The new age serenity and peace that are said to go hand in hand with yoga are quite beyond me. I have primarily treated yoga as a path to better flexibility and perhaps a certain amount of sinewy type of strength so I am not qualified to discuss Bikram as a path to enlightenment or bliss. But I cannot imagine coming out a of Bikram class anything less than exhausted. That makes it a useful option to have in your workout palette. The older I get the longer it takes for my muscles to recover, but using Bikram I can still hit myself with a hard workout without added muscle trauma. In a sense, it's like swimming -- it kicks up your metabolism and burns calories but minimizes muscle contraction (focusing on expansion) and requires zero impact.

If there is a Bikram studio near you I recommend you give it a shot. Even if you are an experienced yoga practitioner, it's not what you're used to. To prep you: bring two full sized towels, one to cover your mat which will get soaked and one dry off with afterwards; you'll want at least one and probably two bottles of water for hydration; wear the coolest possible clothes -- men typically go shirtless, women often wear bikini tops, everyone is in short pants -- and by the way, the lights are up and there is no music.

Like I said, it's not what you expect and I don't think anything can prepare you for it. Get ready to be overwhelmed on your first visit. I honestly felt close to passing out. I must say it's held my interest better than other classes. I might even get to double digits before boredom overtakes me.