Turning up the heat on yoga
Bikram, er, Dynamic Vinyasa Yoga settles down in Durango

The women of the Durango Yoga Center, front to back, Erin Treat, Kim Self, Julia Fisher and Gretchen Hepburn execute a crescent lunge during a Dynamic Vinyasa, aka hot yoga class, at the center./Photo by Todd Thompson.

C hange has always come slowly in the long history of the practice of yoga, the origins of which date back some 5,000 years ago to southern India. At least that was the case for the first 4,950 years. Growing popularity in the Western world has made yoga peculiarly reflective of the Western mind a splintering of schools, leaders and followers, an unruly upstart guru, and the lawsuits and bitter recriminations that follow.

In February 2002, the Durango Yoga Center was founded in the Bikram tradition. That's as in Bikram Choudhury, self-proclaimed yoga guru to the stars, yes, Madonna, Raquel Welch and Serena Williams. The studio brought to Durango a big city franchise of what was supposedly a unique concept: yoga in a heated room. Hot Yoga. 104 degrees. Bikram Yoga. Copyright claimed.

The Durango Yoga Center immediately developed a small but passionate following. Hot Yoga was catching on, and the local community of athletes was trying it. But when the founder and only Bikram-certified teacher, Kim Carmichael, had to leave Durango, the future of the studio was uncertain. It closed briefly last summer, but was revived by Elise Fabricant who introduced a different style of yoga but kept the heated room. With Bikram threatening to sue unauthorized users of the Bikram name, it was obviously prudent to drop the affiliation.

But the concept remained the same: heat and humidify a room for 90 minutes and perform a yoga that consists of a fairly rapid flow of poses. Think of Bikram as just an extra-hot variant of ashtanga or power yoga. The fitness rationale for recreating the environment of southern India on a warm day is provided, even if it is medically murky: Cold muscles can't use fatty acids released during exercise, so the fat goes to line your arteries instead. Hot muscles burn fat more efficiently. The heat also loosens the muscles to increase the stretch. The stretch releases stored toxins. The poses and the movement between poses stimulate the systems: lymphatic, digestive, circulatory. And the sweat and the systems take the toxins and fat away. Sounds like most exercise.

But it's yoga. There's supposed to be something about the mind in there. Bikram is famous for spewing expletives at his practitioners and forcing them to endure the heat or be banished. This sort of boot camp mentality was for many the final straw in the yoga wars. There had to be a better balance between the physical and the meditative.

Halfway between flying and falling over, the half
moon pose is more stable than it looks as it is
demonstrated by, front to back, Julia Fisher,
Gretchen Hepburn and Rebecca Cotera./Photo by
Todd Thompson.

On June 1, the Durango Yoga Center enjoyed a second rebirth, under the new ownership of Gretchen Hepburn. A two-year resident of Durango, Hepburn has taught aerobics and group fitness for 12 years and has been practicing yoga for seven years. She is enthusiastic about the prospects for the studio, has already attracted new teachers and expanded the summer schedule.

"The community has really come together for the Yoga Center," Hepburn said recently. "I feel the energy has expanded."

But the schedule remains true to its roots, with its daily or twice daily dose of Hot Yoga, now known formally as "Dynamic Vinyasa Yoga, a style integrating Ashtanga, Bikram and Power yoga."

A few months ago using the word Bikram on your flyer would have gotten the power guru's legal machinery hopping mad. The brand has issued frequent and threatening cease-and-desist orders to small studios for years and recently settled its first lawsuit out of court to its satisfaction. In response to the continuing threat of litigation, a small group of teachers and studios founded the nonprofit collective "Open Source Yoga Unity" to sue Bikram in federal court for legal clarification of the question: a style of yoga be copyrighted?"

Elizabeth Rader, a copyright lawyer and a fellow at Stanford University, is representing Open Source Yoga Unity. She said in a February interview: "We're not disputing that Choudhury did something creative and useful in putting the postures together in a certain order. Our belief is that you can't treat the poses as private property. Right now, people are trying to teach yoga but are not sure what is going to get them sued."

The group won its first legal victory on April 19 by defeating Bikram's motion to dismiss. The judge found sufficient cause on the merits to hear the question, without citing the similar Pilates copyright overturn of 2000, which was decided largely on brand abandonment technicalities, not Bikram's weak suit.

A June 17 report in The Economist roasted the Bikram franchise, calling it the fast food of the yoga world. "At first, this intellectual-property strategy seemed to be just another of Bikram's wry jokes he argues that these asanas and pranayama are like musical notes or dance steps public property to begin with, but private property once 4 they form part of a song or ballet." The article paraphrases Jim Harrison, a lawyer for OSYU, as saying it's less like selling the rights to a song and more like lecturing about the "Kama Sutra" and then trying to charge couples a fee every time they have sex in one of the positions.

That was when I decided I had to try hot yoga. Saturday morning, 9 a.m., I show up without a mat or a towel. I am welcomed anyway by Dynamic Vinyasa instructor Julia Fisher. At least I brought water. I sign a waiver indicating I am aware of the dangers of yoga I did not know existed. Later I learn of widespread but anecdotal indications of a "skyrocketing increase" in yoga-related injuries.

I enter the room barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt. The hot air is not the blast I expect, but it's warm alright, and I'm soon sweating. Another newcomer feels the heat and leaves class. I find the heat a pleasant sensation, like a damp sauna, like sweating without working. Fisher enters the room, welcomes us again and has us "om" three times together. For the next hour and a half, hers is the only voice the 10 of us students hear, and it's a nonstop gentle exhortation to keep moving between poses and to perform the poses at the level we're comfortable with. There is a push to find the strength within and a pull to be aware of our limits. Every movement is choreographed with the breath, and there are reminders to be aware of every sensation: "keep your buttocks engaged but don't grip the tailbone, inhale, next exhale step or jump into downward dog, push up from your hands and feet and out from your center, inhale, next exhale push again and be aware of the weight of your head, inhale, next exhale move into " for 90 minutes.

We move through the warm up (working a little, sweating a lot), through the core strength and the balancing (really working, really sweating) finally into the floor exercises, slowly "cooling" down. I am a quiet damp puddle in the carpet. We om again and lie in repose. After the movement and the stretching, the relief is truly relaxing. My first thought when my mind starts chattering again is "hey, that wasn't so bad!" Then I realize that my mind had stopped chattering at all. "Hey, that was great!" I reluctantly leave the heat and towel off, somewhat humbled by the transformation.

Some of the talk after class is a kind of reluctant appreciation of the heat, almost as if the effects were too strong. Instructor Fisher talks me through my frothy post practice. "You may find yourself overwhelmed now from the effects of the heat," she says. "It's not for everyone. I actually prefer a cooler practice in the summer and a warmer practice in the winter."

Hatha teacher Rebeca Cotera says, "I don't mind the hot yoga, but I prefer a cooler more restorative practice. I'm glad we're offering a variety of styles with different levels of meditation."

Student Sally Kondziolka has been with the Yoga Center from the beginning. She loves the heat. "I prefer it a little hotter. Actually I like it very hot. It's amazing how much you can stretch safely in the heat. Your muscles become so pliable. You can get to the inside, the core, of your structure."

Dusty Bender, a hot yoga student until he suffered a knee injury while skiing, says, "I love the heat. It adds something to feel the heat and sweat that much. It's a crazy good workout. It's amazing how the posturing carries over into all these other sports. It's a very beneficial routine. As the other sports change through the season, you can keep doing the yoga and always benefit. I like the series they do now more than the Bikram."

Owner Hepburn agrees that variety is important. "Each practice peels away different layers of the mind, the body and the spirit. Everyone will have different needs and different results. But at the Durango Yoga Center the community can come together in health. Having a healing center has been a dream of mine for a long time. And that's what we're starting to create here." •







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