“Open up your chest like a flower petal blooming.” “Drop your head back, arms back, look back, fall back, way back, go back, go back, go back more.” “Whole body should touch the legs like a sandwich. … Try to create a tremendous stretching feeling all over, underneath your legs, inside out, from bones to the skin, from coccyx to toes with your smiling, happy face.”
Those quirky commands come from the mouth of yogi Bikram Choudhury and can be heard nearly word-for-word at Bikram studios around the world. The full script can be heard 24 times a week at True Bikram Yoga in New Haven, and, as prescribed by its namesake, the dialogue is delivered in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and 45% humidity—a good deal hotter than most other hot yogas.
An outlier among yoga styles, Bikram entails a strict formula of 26 postures performed to a teacher’s high-paced narration. Choudhury developed the series in India and cultivated an influential following in Hollywood during the yoga boom of the 1970s. That following has since become global and star-studded, including celebrities like George Clooney, Lady Gaga and Jeff Bridges.
Upon walking into a Bikram-style yoga room, the heat may feel like a dry, comfy blanket. But before long you’ll be dripping sweat like a wet sponge being squeezed. The only relief during True Bikram’s 90-minute classes are two fans, turned on at the teacher’s discretion partway through. Though practitioners of traditional yoga may see its stipulations as needless hardships added to an already rigorous physical practice, the style’s extra intensity—with the commensurately larger catharsis it promises—is exactly what draws people to Bikram.
True Bikram, with a second location in Madison, is run by Robin Brace (pictured second). A flight attendant turned yoga entrepreneur, Brace remembers the first time she tried Bikram in 2002. She was lightheaded. She was dizzy. She spent a third of the class on the floor. But when she walked out into the autumn day the world was crisp and clear. “I was breathing through my toes,” she says.
She threw herself into the practice and before long took the intensive, expensive teacher training with Choudhury himself. Training includes anatomy classes, voice coaching and a frightening amount of hot yoga—nine weeks at 11 classes per week, or 99 classes total in about two months. Even Brace, who swears by the practice, admits it’s “a little bit insane.”
By the end, Bikram’s 26 postures and accompanying script are scorched into trainees’ bodies and minds. The disciples are then licensed to teach at any Bikram studio or to use the Bikram name to start their own—though, in recent years, that name is one from which many have tried to distance themselves. Since 2013, six women have come forward accusing Choudhury of crimes ranging from sexual misconduct to rape, and in the fallout, many Bikram studios removed his name from their facades. Brace chose to keep it, adding “True” before Bikram.
“I don’t defend him,” she says. “He’s going to have to answer for his own karma.” She makes it clear True Bikram has no franchising relationship or any other financial tie to the yogi. “Not a dime goes to him.”
But while Brace doesn’t condone the actions of the guru—who, earlier this year, was ordered by a Los Angeles jury to pay $7.3 million to one of his accusers—she believes strongly in the value of his technique. Because, while the man may have failed her, the method has not.
Many of her students feel the same way. Testimonials on True Bikram’s website claim attendees have improved their marathon times, relieved their migraines, cured their insomnia, eased their back problems and lowered their cholesterol. “It’s a therapy masquerading as a fabulous workout,” Brace says.
Some in the medical profession have raised worries about doing yoga in a 105-degree room. Though Brace admits she’s had a handful of people pass out in her classes during 12 years of teaching, she emphasizes that it’s rare and says she’s gotten good at spotting and relieving would-be fainters.
Despite the popularity of the yoga and its practitioners’ therapeutic claims, there are surprisingly few systematic assessments. A 2013 study lead by health scientist Dr. Brian L. Tracy at Colorado State University found relatively little cause for concern, with no subject’s core temperature rising above 102 degrees Fahrenheit, though a subsequent study in 2015, conducted by a team at the University of Wisconsin, found some subjects’ core temperatures reached upwards of 104—which can potentially cause heat stroke or other issues.
Though science has nothing definitive to say about Bikram’s benefits—or its risks—there are millions of people who swear by it. Much of Bikram’s experienced benefits, Brace thinks, happen not through the mysticisms that tend to surround yogic practice but rather through something science acknowledges is a huge factor in healing: stress relief.
“The yoga doesn’t solve your problems,” she says, “but it lowers the sting.”
Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.