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Playing Along: Downward-facing dog at 105 degrees

  • Bob Dunn holds a pose during a hot yoga class Jan. 29 at Bikram Yoga Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Dunn holds a pose during a hot yoga class Jan. 29 at Bikram Yoga Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Dunn listens for the next movement during a hot yoga class Jan. 29 at Bikram Yoga Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Dunn takes a water break during a hot yoga class Jan. 29 at Bikram Yoga Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Audrey Blaisdell, co-owner of Bikram Yoga Northampton, leads a hot yoga class Jan. 29.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Dunn holds a pose during a hot yoga class Jan. 29 at Bikram Yoga Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Dunn holds a pose during a hot yoga class Jan. 29 at Bikram Yoga Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Dunn takes a break during a hot yoga class Jan. 29 at Bikram Yoga Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Dunn at first found the heated studio a nice change from the winter weather outside.
  • Classes at Bikram Yoga are 90 minutes long.<br/><br/>

There are good sweats and bad sweats.

For me, good sweats tend to happen as the result of a mid-summer session of lawn-mowing, or a trip to the gym.

Bad sweats, on the other hand, tend to happen around deadlines, or when I feel obligated to make small talk with a stranger.

I don’t even know what to call the sweat that came from the 90-minute Bikram Yoga session I attended in late January.

I have to say “attended” because I’m really not sure that “did,” “finished,” “completed,” or any other word that implies success is appropriate.

“Triumphed over” is certainly not an option.

In the days following my visit to the Bikram Yoga studio on King Street in Northampton, co-workers and friends asked me how it had gone. One question many of them asked was, “How can you sweat doing yoga?”

Turning up the heat

A fair question if, like me, your only experience with yoga is walking past classes at the gym and seeing groups of serene people slowly stretching their spines in relaxed poses named after animals and plants, like “downward-facing dog,” or “lotus.”

Bikram Yoga is conducted in a closed studio heated to about 105 degrees and takes the class through a set sequence of 26 yoga postures and two breathing exercises. Under the direction of founder Bikram Choudhury, a native of India, Bikram Yoga has grown into what’s been called by some a yoga empire, with hundreds of studios in the United States, and more abroad.

The lights in the studio were dimmed when I walked in. The room was already quite warm with a nice dry heat that was a pleasant change from the dreary late-January weather outside.

The theory behind Bikram is that the heat prevents injuries by keeping the muscles supple — “a warm body is a flexible body,” as Bikram’s website says — increases blood and oxygen flow to the muscles, and helps eliminate toxins from the body by forcing it to sweat beyond everyday exertion.

About 30 people had shown up for the class. I saw about five other men, all of whom, presumably aware of what we were in for, had elected to remove their shirts. Knowing a photographer was going to attend, I decided, for the sake of the greater good, to keep mine on.

You’re welcome.

Instructor and studio co-owner Audrey Blaisdell kept the class of about 30 moving from one pose to the next, reminding us that if there was anything we couldn’t do, or if we were starting to feel overcome by the heat, we could take a seat on our mat and rejoin the group when ready.

About a third of the way through the class, the room began to feel more like my grandparents’ house in July after one or the other had forgotten to lower the thermostat.

Trying to keep up with the class, follow the instructions, bend what I was supposed to bend and put it where it’s supposed to be put began to be more challenging.

It wasn’t just because twisting and stretching into unfamiliar positions, sometimes on one foot, is an awkward pursuit to begin with. I was also distracted by the sweat from my forehead that was stinging my eyes and making my hands and feet so slick that my fleeting success in grabbing and holding one heel, while standing on the other foot, proved short-lived as it popped out of my grip like a peeled grape covered in olive oil.

Daily ritual

Yoga began, Blaisdell tells me, as a practice for monks whose muscles had begun to atrophy after countless hours of seated meditation.

Despite the heat and the intensity of the practice, Blaisdell said, many beginners can perform the 90-minute routine several times a week for the first couple of months; in time, some build up to a daily ritual.

She said Bikram classes draw a range of people, from first-timers who are just curious about it, to longtime yoga practitioners. She’s had people in their 70s and 80s in her classes, she said, and people with physical disabilities who come to reap the benefits of yoga. Students have told her, she said, that the practice has helped them with such problems, for example, as limited range of motion and insomnia.

In her case, Blaisdell said, Bikram Yoga helped her overcome years of anxiety and depression. While her former physical outlet, marathon running, hadn’t always helped her find relief from those emotional problems, she said, Bikram has.

After her first session in Waltham, Blaisdell told the instructor that her new goal was to someday open her own Bikram studio, which she did about three years ago.

She said yoga in general, and Bikram Yoga in particular, offers benefits — even if you can’t get the hang of every pose right away. It can take students years to master some of the more complex poses, she told me.

Basic training

I’m glad that I didn’t know at the beginning of class that we were going to do 26 poses. Had I known, I’m sure I would have tried to keep track of how many we’d done, so I’d know when the end was in sight.

By the time we were probably somewhere in the lower 20s of the pose count, I’d soaked through two towels, my shorts, tank top and the mat I was lent for the class.

While supporting myself on my forearms in a prone position, I saw a puddle of perspiration from my face collected on the mat below, looking like a secular, sweaty Shroud of Turin.

Struggling to get through the more challenging poses reminded me more of Navy basic training than exercise. But for all the sweat and discomfort, I was able to surprise myself and pull off a fair number of the poses in pretty much the way that they were meant to be done.

I’ve never considered myself graceful, but there I was, balanced on one foot, my other foot wrapped around my standing leg, hands in front of me in prayer pose, looking — I think — like I knew what I was doing. When the class ended, I might have shed a tear of relief, if there were enough moisture left in me to produce one.

After the relief came a sense of accomplishment. My back and shoulders (always sources of discomfort for me) felt looser and I figured if there were any toxins in my body before I started, they were now firmly embedded in my clothes, towels and mat.

After the best shower experienced by any human being, ever, I went home and slept like I’d imagine a man with a clean conscience would sleep. Aside from a pair of sore hamstrings and a slight headache from being a little dehydrated, I was no worse for wear. I don’t know if I improved my inner workings at all, but I did wake up the next day in a great mood.

Bikram Yoga may not be for everyone, but the Northampton studio offers a free introductory class, so — if you want to try something different and intense, and you don’t have an aversion to heat, and you don’t mind feeling like a piece of putty, and are prepared to surprise yourself by how much you actually can do — I suggest you look them up.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.

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