- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

The thought of a yoga session conjures up a series of peaceful, elegant movements, stretching both the body and the spirit in tune with the practice's Eastern origins.
So why are all the yoga students in Jim Ambrogi's class in Northwest sweating and grunting as if in the final pangs of childbirth
This is Bikram yoga and this is not your average yoga session.
Bikram yoga involves 26 poses, or asanas, connected in a healthy sequence meant to warm and stretch various body parts. All 26 poses are performed in a room in which the thermostat hovers between 95 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit.
Practitioners say the yoga poses push oxygenated blood throughout the body, leaving one healthier and more toned and with an extra dose of energy. The heat allows for more pliant muscles and tendons, letting participants stretch farther than in traditional yoga classes.
The techniques aren't for everyone. Those seeking yoga's more peaceful side won't enjoy bikram's crisp pacing or lack of philosophical content. Others may never cotton to sitting in 105-degree heat for more than a few poses, let alone 90 minutes' worth.
Here at Bikram's Yoga College of India on Wisconsin Avenue, two electric heaters in the ceiling pump the temperature in the peach-colored studio to the preferred 105 degrees. A couple of space heaters stand by for an extra kick, if needed.
"Some people, no matter how hot it is, want more heat," says Mr. Ambrogi, the fit, compact studio director, who previously taught bikram yoga in the Indian embassy in Saudi Arabia.
Bikram yoga, founded by yoga guru Bikram Choudhury, mimics the intense heat of his Indian homeland. Its most noted proponent, 54-year-old basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar, used bikram yoga to help extend his career. He retired at age 42.

Mr. Ambrogi discoverd bikram yoga in 1993 while visiting a friend in Florida. He had recently left the Army, and a variety of conditions from a fused wrist to a chronic sinus ailment to colon surgery kept him from running or lifting weights.
"I needed some other kind of fitness," says Mr. Ambrogi, a veteran of both the Vietnam and the Persian Gulf wars.
The results of bikram yoga, he recalls, were immediate. "As soon as I did it, I found myself standing up straighter," he says. "These specific 26 poses in the series work the body from head to toe, bone to the skin.
"The medical benefits are remarkable," he continues, ticking off a list of students with artificial knees, diabetes and other maladies who have seen improvement after a steady regimen of his instruction.
He also points to his own robust health as but one example of its successes. "I was on hypertension medication for 10 years" before beginning bikram yoga, he says. "I haven't needed it since."
Dr. David Pearle, a cardiologist and director of the coronary care unit at Georgetown University Hospital, says many health claims made by yoga practitioners are not well-substantiated.
That isn't to say benefits don't exist, Dr. Pearle says.
Sports-training exercises often rely on the same principles of stretching and toning that are achieved through yoga. Adding heat to the equation deepens the stretch.
Those with heart disease, the elderly or the unfit, though, should be particularly careful before signing on to a bikram yoga course, he says.
Dr. John C. Pan, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center, says German physicians use high heat to treat cancer under strict medical supervision.
Before a recent class, students began stretching and swigging water in preparation. Few talked, as if conserving all available energy for the task at hand.
The first half involves standing poses. The second incorporates prone, often grueling positions. Students wheeze, grunt and gasp as they go through the motions. No one complains. They simply gulp water during breaks and repeatedly mop their drenched brows.
Mr. Ambrogi patrols the room, tweaking poses and issuing commands with a military firmness that seems necessary given the rugged course load. Occasionally, he cracks wise to coax a smile from his charges.
Each pose is performed twice. The first time, students concentrate on improving strength and endurance. The second round focuses on flexibility.
Though a sign on the studio door announces, "Absolutely no shoes, no whining, no excuses," the 52-year-old instructor repeatedly cautions people to pause if they are distressed in any way.
During a recent class, a student felt a muscle spasm, and Mr. Ambrogi stopped the class to show him a position to alleviate the pressure on his back.

Americans seem eager to tackle the more strenuous side of yoga, says Todd Jones, senior editor with Yoga Journal magazine.
Bikram yoga has increased in popularity over the past three years, Mr. Jones says, in part because its founder has increased his teacher-training schedule.
"Suddenly, there are hundreds of bikram yoga teachers looking to establish studios and clientele," Mr. Jones says.
The rigorous aspect of the work is another winning factor for some. "It's popular with those who like a lot of physical challenges," Mr. Jones says.
"Lots of people have done this and reported good effects from it," he adds. "Like any exercise program, you should talk with a doctor and outline what you're going to be doing with them."
Marathon runner Kate Besleme, 30, of Takoma Park, says Mr. Ambrogi's bikram yoga classes help stave off injuries.
"Your mind says, 'No way I'm gonna stay in a heated room for 90 minutes,'" says Ms. Besleme, who adds that her back pain has decreased since she has taken up the heated yoga. By the end of class, she says, practitioners are left with a sense of accomplishment.
"The heat doesn't bother me. It fills you up with energy," says Ms. Besleme, who will leave for California soon for teacher training with Mr. Choudhury's Los Angeles studio.
Fellow student Louis Altarescu, 54, of Cleveland Park, last took yoga classes about 30 years ago.
Now, two weeks into his bikram yoga work, Mr. Altarescu says he never should have stopped. Though other exercises have left him a bit bruised, bikram yoga eases the aches in his creaky shoulder and Achilles tendon. The heat, he says, is an added plus.
"I love hot weather," he says, laughing. "At the end, when you're lying there with your eyes closed, you imagine you're in the Caribbean on the beach."
The sensation doesn't come without a cost.
"It's a little pricey when you compare it to other things," he says. A single session with Mr. Ambrogi costs $12, though package deals bring that figure down. "But you're getting constant feedback as to how to hold a posture and do a stretch."
District resident Lauren Hall, 32, is no stranger to yoga, having performed various styles periodically for 15 years.
"To some extent, its very similar," Ms. Hall says. "It all focuses on flexibility and centering and strength-building."
The sweltering temperatures make the difference.
"It's the heat that really attracts me to it, that additional something extra that, to me, is a piece I like so much about it," she says. "There's a certain cleansing that comes along with that sweating."
The sessions also complement her Pilates work, a trendy exercise routine that also involves rigorous stretching and graceful movements.
"Even though I was progressing quickly in Pilates, I wasn't getting the extra I needed to get to the next level," she says. "[Bikram yoga] pushed me to go further."
She says she hooked her husband and Pilates instructor on the heated yoga. Others weren't so charmed.
My best friend said "never again" after one session, she says.

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