Friday, April 9, 2010

Heat, Steam, Yogis & Curry: My journey to India & How I Came Upon "Bikram Yoga"

"If you can keep your mind calm and focused while moving the body in intense heat, that is meditation. It will trickle into your daily life and everything else will seem easy. You will be unmoved by the adversities of life." ~Bikram Choudry

Really, I've been playing peek-a-boo with "Bikram Yoga" for years. Unknowingly, its been tapping me on the shoulder since 1994. When I was 12 years old, I found the classic work "Autobiography of a Yogi" in a box in our garage. I was enamored with the man on the cover. I picked it up, took it to my bedroom with the rusty old flashlight I found next to it, and read through the night.

The next morning I asked my mom about the author, Paramahansa Yogananda. We were having a quiet breakfast of scones, tea and rose petal jelly. My mom's eyebrow raised, and said, "How do you know about him?" I told her that I found his book in the garage, and had stayed up all night reading it. I explained to her my fascination with the contents of the book, and asked her what prompted her to buy it. "I didn't buy it," she replied. "It fell on my head, off of a bookshelf, in a bookstore. The owner of the bookstore said, 'Well, I think you were meant to have this.' I took it home and put it in that box you found it in last night."

-Paramahansa Yogananda

I told her that instead of having the family vacation this year in "Disneyland," I wanted to go to India instead. "India???" she gasped. "Do you think you would like it there?" I looked at her simply and said, "I know I would. I've already lived there." She began to laugh and started to clear the table. Nothing more was said after that.

In 1994, I told my parents it was time for me to go to India. "Alone?" my dad asked me. "Yes," I said. I don't want you or mom to go with me. "We're concerned about your safety, honey," my mom said softly. "I want your dad to go with you." "No, I need to do this for myself," I stated.

To fastforward, I had the experience of a lifetime. I primarily stayed in the south, but would meet fellow pilgrimage-travelers along my journey who would drop the names "Bikram," "Bishnu Gosh," and "Paramanhansa Yogananda." Every time I would hear these names I would get what I called "truth bumps," i.e. "the tingles."

In 1996, I began to have dreams of going back to India. I would wake up in the morning, covered in sweat, not understanding why. All I knew is that it was time to go back, and this time it would be to the north, and to the Himalayas. So I did in 1997. I can only describe my several month journey there as wondrous. I did several internships in Ayurvedic hospitals in Varanasi (Benares), Rishikesh, and outside of Delhi. I came to see the workings of an ancient system of medicine that was brought forth from the minds of the highest sages at the time: Ayurveda

-Bishnu Gosh, brother of Parmahansa Yogananda

There are expounding works on Ayurveda that are too numerous to count. Deepak Chopra, M.D. the renowned Indian Ayurvedic "transplant" has made it a household word in the U.S. now. Like in Western medicine, there are many areas of specialty. For the sake of efficiency, I'm going to share a bit about my exposure to "yoga therapy," as prescribed in Ayurvedic hospitals throughout India.

The first Ayurvedic medical ward I had the opportunity to intern in was in Kerala, South India. It was during my first trip. I was astounded at how the simple combination of heat, humidity, and various yoga postures (asanas) were used effectively to treat a variety of ailments: arthritis (of all kinds), paralysis, bow-leggedness, all manners of anxiety-related disorders, poor digestion, musculo-skeletal complaints, and as an adjunct therapy for cancer and hepatitis patients.

I asked one of the Ayurvedic physicians about it, and he said, "Heat and yoga have been the preferred combination for thousands of years to treat all manners of disease. To have one without the other can actually be detrimental to the body. The Yogis of India were sage-physicians. The body was their scientific laboratory. They have meticulously honed, for thousands of years, the science of physical therapy before it was even heard of in the West."

An old therapeutic adage, found in a 6th century Unani (Islamic) medical text reads, "For all manners of joint ailments, bury the patients body in hot sand to promote sweating, leaving face above the ground. Allow the patient to sweat in the heat, and the disease will flee the body."

Upon my second trip to India, I realized that I "just so happened" to live about 2 blocks from Lahiri Mahasaya's old house. Sri (a term of respect) Mahasaya was in the lineage of Paramahansa Yogananda, whom I had read about in the book I found in the box when I was 12 years old. Intrigued, I went down to visit his home, now a shrine, on a lunch hour break in Varanasi. There I met a strange little man who too was walking around the home viewing the photographs on the wall. It was just him and I in the house. He looked at me and sighed under his breath..."Tsk, tsk, he said. You've always been a naughty girl, but in your heart so devoted." I whirled around to look at him, "I'm sorry, are you talking to me?," I asked. Don't you recognize your home?" he said. "Its been waiting for you here all this time. Why did you stay away so long? We've missed you!" his eyes twinkled. My jaw dropped. I stammered, "Sir, I've never been here before. I'm sorry, have we met?" "You sure about that?" he laughed. Then walked out the front door. I never saw him again. I just shrugged, and thought "How odd," as I tried to rub the "truth bumps" off of my arms. I felt warm all of a sudden.

I went back to the hospital that day, and heard about "Bikram Yoga" for the first time. I watched post-stroke and "Parkinsons" patients do yoga in a "hot room." I asked the Dr., Dr. Mahendra, how this would help them. He said, "This is like doing physical therapy everyday for themselves." Their bodies will begin to feel supple, their ligaments will become strong, and the sickness will run from them. In one years time, of doing this 5x per week, chiropractors will come to them to ask how they got their backs so strong. Wait and see."

I said, "It seems like there's a particular order to this. Is that true?" Dr. Mahendra replied, "Everything moves in cycles. All of nature moves in cycles. The ancient sages saw a rhythm, an order, that the body should be properly warmed up, and cooled down. You do not put the car in reverse before you've put the key in the ignition. Nor do you put the car in "park," before you've stopped it." Yes, the body must be kept at a proper temperature during the postural exercises to prevent cold-contraction of the muscles, fascia and ligaments. You warm-up or cool-down the body out of order it gets "confused." Its like asking a rabbit to give birth in the winter. It is out of order with nature. Rabbits give birth in the spring. For every backward bend, the next will be a forward one. For every left-sided bend, there will be a right-sided one. The new fangled yoga of today is out of harmony with the body. It does not take into account natural laws and cycles."

From my perspective as a health care provider, I've been exposed to many yoga practices. The heat is an essential element for the body to stretch properly, without over-stretching. To practice in a cold room is a detriment. Many winter fitness enthusiasts come in to see me for what we term "cold-contracted syndromes." This is particularly noted in the Pacific N.W., where the dampness sets into the bones and creates what we call in Chinese medicine, "Bi Syndrome." The main herbal ingredients in the formulas used to treat "Bi Syndrome" are "venting" herbs (i.e. herbs that make you sweat or diaphoretics: peppermint, cayenne, ginger, garlic, "hot" spices, etc.). Why not do this for yourself by engaging in a yoga practice such as "Bikram?" You do not need to have an ailment to practice this yoga, although I do think of it as a "medical yoga," because of its incredible value on all vital organs and fascia of the body. It should be practiced with the mindset of prevention as well. This goes for acupuncture. My Oriental patients come to see me 1x per month in Portland to "stay well." They know that acupuncture has been proven to boost (and maintain) a healthy immune system. They don't have the western concept of "only fix it when its broken." They don't let it get to that point. We westerners can learn a lot from considering the concept of prevention.

Like any exercise or activity, there is a "hump" you have to move through. They say, statistically, it takes 3 weeks to get into a habit. The body may put up a bit of "a fight" as toxins are released more rapidly through the bloodstream, and excreted through waste (i.e. sweat, feces, saliva, urine). You may feel dizzy, nauseated, get headaches during the initial process. "Why would I want to put myself through that?" you may ask. Let me ask you this, "Would you prefer for those toxins to build up in your system, quietly 'sleep,' and then one day you wake up with a diagnosis of something more severe?" That's how toxins function: they build up over time, like dust in between floorboards. The dust doesn't constantly try to get your attention asking you to sweep it. You must have a cleaning schedule to keep up with it. Like weeding a garden. No one will do it for you. Its about taking responsibility for yourself, tending to your own inner garden. It actually is a very empowering process when you realize that your health is in your own hands. Take care of it. Nourish it. Allow your body to experience the scientific process behind warming it up and cooling it down in a proper way.

The rest of my exercise world is one of change. This is purposeful on my part. I keep things varied, prevent my body from experiencing a "plateau" effect. I enjoy the experience of moving my body in different ways everyday. I enjoy watching it dance, jump, run, cycle, climb, surf, and lift things. But, I also enjoy coming home to an old friend. That's what the 26 yoga asana (postures) provide for me in my life. A nice stable foundation, allowing for the playful way my body likes to move the rest of the week. Its like a comforting pair of slippers. You put your feet in them, and just feel at home....

-Bikram Choudry


  1. I love this! Lately, I've been telling my own clients that exercise & stretch is like eating fruits & vegetables. You wouldn't eat 1 appple, and consider yourself done for the rest of the month, would you? It needs to be part of your life, so find what calls you. Keep trying new things, your tastes, and your needs, may change from time to time.

    Ive been away from Bikram for awhile and you're the 2nd person singing the Bikram song to me this week. Maybe a book is about to fall on my head ;)

  2. Thank you Almine for your inspiration for yoga! I had similar experience with Paramahansa Yogananda book, when a stranger who later became a good friend of mine, gave me this book as a gift in the book store. After reading it, I was attracted to practice Kriya Yoga that originated from Babaji, it was more spiritual practice for me though. Lately my sister started taking Bikram Yoga classes and she keep on telling me how great it is and how much fun it really is. So then I see your blog about it :) and I signed up for Bikram Yoga, I already practiced twice and it really is a joy to be in a hot room doing all 26 asanas, and how great it is for the body!