Tuesday 25 October 2016

We tested out the mind/body benefits of Bikram yoga

After overcoming some initial dizziness, Louise Heraghty is reaping the mind/body benefits of her month doing yoga at 40°C


Before deciding to take up Bikram yoga, I had never practised or gone to a flexibility/stretching class in my life. So by committing to attending for 90 minutes in 40-degree heat, you could say I was jumping in at the deep end!

Yoga, Pilates, body balance and other forms of stretching classes have been popular in Ireland for quite a while now, and although I have heard so much positive feedback from friends and am constantly reminded of how it would benefit my running and prevent injury, it just never appealed to me.

I guess I always felt that an hour and a half would be better spent pounding the pavements in the Phoenix Park or doing a good aerobics workout, but now I can see that Bikram can complement my other training, and in addition to the increased flexibility, I found it has its mental-health benefits also.

The reason for the intense heat in Bikram, (named after inventor, LA-based Bikram Choudhury, more than 30 years ago) I discovered is to mirror the conditions in India and intentionally warm the muscles.

A warm body is a flexible body and the heat provides a safe environment to stretch and strengthen your muscles, healing injuries and preventing further injuries. The heat allows your body to move deeper into the postures and gain more benefit.

My first class was on a Monday evening in Fairview. I came prepared with a yoga mat and minimum clothing - bare feet, shorts and a singlet (some girls are happy enough to go in hot pants and sports bra, but I'm not quite there yet).

There was about 10 other people in the class and plenty of mirrors, which really helps when observing your technique (even if you don't necessarily want to watch yourself attempt some rather unflattering moves!).

I felt nauseous quite early on and light-headed on several occasions. After about 45 minutes, I quietly informed the instructor that I would have to leave, but she advised that it was actually better to stay in the room - so I did. I left out one or two of the poses and just lay flat on the mat, trying to concentrate on breathing until I felt better again .


Gráinne Martin, owner of Bikram Yoga Fairview, advises that feeling nauseous is okay: "In the first few classes, it is normal to feel nauseous or dizzy during class. Practising yoga in a heated room reveals to us our present condition, and inspires us to take much better care of ourselves."

"The problem is rectified when the student increases their water intake. Nutritionists tell us that we need 64-80 ounces of water a day to help the body function properly, so when practising Bikram yoga, that should be increased by another 64-80 ounces of water, so once you are drinking enough your body will tolerate the heat better and you will actually enjoy the heat and class"

It's true: by the end of the class I felt much more able to tolerate the heat and have since never felt sick or light-headed during a session. Obviously, as a beginner there were plenty of poses I couldn't achieve, but there was a sense of a challenge which made me more determined to come back and complete my 'standing head to knee', or 'balancing stick'. Of course, my muscles are probably particularly tight as I am a runner who never stretches enough!

One class comprises of 26 postures, both completed twice - the idea is the first is a warm up. There are breathing exercises, standing poses and for the last 30 minutes you're on the mat doing a number of back and leg-strengthening moves like the cobra, rabbit and half tortoise. A few sit-ups thrown in and you surely feel like you've put the effort in .

A good piece of advice if you are thinking of trying Bikram is to bring a big bottle of water. My 750ml just didn't quite cut it! Also, you can forget about getting another wear out of your clothes as they are saturated in sweat (along with the towel) by the end. But you do feel re-energised and fresh after each class.

Bikram Yoga Fairview was set up by Gráinne Martin who, in 2006, packed in a stressful job in the Irish financial sector to travel to Los Angleles and complete a nine-week intensive training course in Bikram. She travelled for a year teaching in the US, New Zealand and Australia, returning home in 2009 to open her studio in Fairview.

"I first tried Bikram yoga back in 2003, in the only studio in Dublin run by Anne Leonard, a small converted garage in Portabello. I remember feeling dizzy and wanting to run from the room, but even after crawling out the room in a sweaty heap, I couldn't wait to get back in there. I felt fantastic.

"I won't lie, I found the classes incredibly challenging in the beginning, a love-hate relationship, but something kept drawing me back."

"I love that Bikram yoga attracts such a diverse range of people and seeing the physical and mental changes in people is very rewarding."

So, who does Bikram?

Bikram yoga attracts such a diverse range of people. It is open to everyone, of any age and state of fitness. Because it's more intense than other forms of yoga, it attracts more men than other varities of yoga. It's generally a split of 40/60 men/women and while many students try it out, the age profile is 30 plus.

We hear of many famous sports people who practice Bikram yoga. Tennis player Andy Murray credits his decision to practice Bikram for his much-improved performance when he won Wimbledon in 2013, and some of the Irish Rugby squad are Bikram devotees.

Gráinne says: "Exercising in the hot room makes you sweat more freely, releasing toxins, it burns more calories and improves endurance. Whether you run, cycle, play rugby, football, hurling, tennis or golf, Bikram yoga will help enhance your game and give you that edge above the rest. It can improve an athlete's performance and extend a sporting career."

Sometimes, groups of girls will try Bikram as a weight-loss tool, but just like spending an hour in a sauna, the weight you are losing is all water and will be replenished once you rehydrate.

That's not to say you won't burn calories - my heart rate was certainly quite high during each class. It is difficult to determine exactly how many calories are lost individually each class, numbers range from 300 to 700 per session. As you sweat, it may give the impression that more weight is lost, but it's a false reflection of what is really going on - so unfortunately, this is not a quick fix.

However, by practising regularly your unhealthy cravings should diminish and appetite will normalise.

As a beginner, it takes three classes for your body to understand the proper approach to the posture and ten classes for your body to begin to work with postures.

Some other benefits associated with Bikram include the easing and preventing back pain and it can help with overcoming stress: exercise, deep breathing and meditation are known to reduce stress and Bikram combines all three. Therefore, some find it is helpful in overcoming anxiety, stress and depression. It also stimulates the release of serotonin in your brain which helps regulate your moods, appetite and sleeping cycle.

If you have a regular Bikram practise of at least a year, continuing your practise during pregnancy is not only a safe, but also a healthy, experience for you and your baby says Gráinne who adds: "I practised myself four to five times a week throughout two pregnancies and had none of the normal symptoms of pregnancy. I felt great during each pregnancy with no complications and delivered two calm, happy, healthy babies."

When I first decided to take up Bikram for a month, I was probably a little over ambitious about my commitment. You would need to go at least three times a week for full benefit, but I only made it once or twice. However, I will continue to attend the classes as I love a challenge and with the Dublin marathon on October 26th I will do anything that might help me a achieve a personal best and run my goal of under four hours.

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