Bikram Yoga: It's Hot

New Hampshire Union Leader - June 13, 2005

Union Leader Staff

MANCHESTER - Bikram yoga is the heat and humidity, the whooshing, cleansing "breath of fire" - kapalbhati - of a dozen men and women exhaling in unison in a Millyard studio.

It's 90 minutes of carefully choreographed movement - 26 postures - all done in a small room superheated to 106 degrees. Mats line the floor where a wall of mirrors, two ceiling fans and one large humidifier are the only distractions.

David Schneider of Goffstown performs one of the Bikram Yoga breathing relaxation exercises during a recent session. (BRUCE TAYLOR / UNION LEADER)

Call it "hot yoga" someplace else.

Here in Manchester, it's the real deal — authentic Bikram Yoga, developed by Bikram Choudhury himself, California yogi to the stars and uncle of studio director Pubali Campbell.

Done regularly, it's said to detoxify the blood and help practitioners achieve optimum muscle tone and body weight. Externally warmed muscles and tendons are free to bend and stretch beyond ordinary limits.

Campbell is serene and centered, striking and graceful beyond her 26 years - a testament to the power of this ancient practice that's become the next big thing. 

As an early evening class gets started in the hot room, she sits on the other side of the door in the converted mill building on the West Side and considers her part in an international business that's become so trendy, it's even been referred to as "McYoga" for its drawing power.

Millions of consumers are showing up, hungry for the promise of strength, health and vitality.

"This is not a fad or something casual. It's a way to make some serious improvements to your body," Campbell says.

Since entering the American mainstream decades ago, yoga's thrust has shifted away from the spiritual and more toward the physical pursuit of strength and well-being, Campbell says.

Although her uncle developed his unique method in the 1970s, it's come to the fore of late - and gained street credentials thanks to its high-profile devotees, reportedly among them Gwyneth Paltrow, Serena Williams and Madonna.

With popularity, says Campbell, has come imitators who use the Bikram Yoga name without studying with the master at one of his sanctioned yoga colleges. Last month a three-year legal battle launched by Choudhury against several studios was settled out of court.

Choudhury agreed not to sue his competitors for trying to capitalize on his method without permission, and in return they agreed not to use the Bikram name when advertising what they now must refer to as "hot yoga."

Campbell says her uncle wasn't driven by greed or ego.

"The threat of a bad reputation, combined with the fact that we live in a highly litigious society, are the top reasons my uncle pursued legal protection of his series, name and postures," Campbell says.

She explains that each posture creates a natural tourniquet, temporarily cutting-off blood supply to the targeted area. Once released, blood rushes through the area, "power-washing" everything in its wake.

"It is a fascinating way of cleansing the body," she says.

Inside the hot room a dozen students have gathered, young and old, buff and not-so buff. Instructor Ariel Gifford, 22, joins them, adjusting her headset so everyone can hear the flow of positive energy.

"OK, guys, time for you to shine," she says. "Inhale through your nose and out through your mouth. Legs together. Hands under chin. Exhale."

First posture is a stretch, elbows turn to butterfly wings tucked under chins. Second is a bend, bodies arc like crescent moons. Third, a dip - knees bent, arms outstretched like high divers on the verge of plunging. Four, a contortion, as arms and legs twist like pipe cleaners, countering a body in perfect balance.

 Ten minutes into the session bare skin glistens with sweat, hair sticks to foreheads, Spandex fits like peach skin.

"The reason my uncle's yoga is so popular - it's not about what you can't do, but what you can do," she says.

Jennifer Donahue of Bedford stretches at the end of a recent Bikram Yoga class at the Manchester Bikram Yoga studio. (BRUCE TAYLOR/UNION LEADER)

Jennifer Donahue, 35, of Bedford, has been practicing yoga for seven years.

This was her first "hot yoga" class. She's drenched as she stretches in the waiting area after class.

"It was wonderful - different from other kinds I do," Donahue said. "I do power yoga a few times a week, but it's harder on the joints. This class is based less on momentum and more on in-depth stretching. What this gives you is a steady flow. It allows you to concentrate all the way through. And the humidity felt great."

Nearby, Jennifer Herron, 33, of Manchester towels off. She's been attending Campbell's classes for three months.

"The biggest draw for me is it really builds your endurance. What I like here is that it's about turning your focus inward and exploring your own body," Herron said. "I've gained as much endurance in three months here as I did after a year of Hatha yoga."

Bill Garamella, 52, of Manchester, says the Bikram method has won him over.

"I've been exercising regularly for 20 years. I tried this three months ago, and it's by far the most complete exercise I've ever done - and I've done everything - swimming, spinning, running, aerobics, Nautilus. I come here three or four times a week," Garamella says.

"Anyone can do it. And it's not just the physical exercise. You get a feeling of well-being, a calmness that comes over you that's mental, even spiritual. It puts me in a good mood," he says.

For Lisa Tenerowicz, 39, of Concord, finding Campbell's studio when she did was the answer for a stubborn back injury.

"I've been running for years, and suffered a back injury in March that spread right down through my butt and into my quad. I couldn't run at all. I've tried everything. Two weeks here, and no pain. None," Tenerowicz says. "I feel like a million bucks."

Sitting off to the side, Campbell listens intently, her smile, unstoppable.

"I love to hear my students' stories of success. It's good to hear because it is challenging. It takes a lot of strength to go in there, mental determination. You have to be ready to push and work hard. But once you're in, you find your own pace," she says. "There's no failing in there."

Copyright 2005, Union Leader Corp.