This past Saturday, my friend L. talked me into signing up for a week of yoga classes at Bikram Yoga NYC. Of course, like any reasonable person who knows little to nothing about Yoga, I thought Bikram just happened to be the name of the yoga studio.
Boy, was I wever wrong.
MEET MR. BIKRAM
Bikram Yoga is not just the name of the yoga studio. It is the name for a school of Yoga developed by a guy named Bikram Choudhury. (That’s him up there, showing off. )
Mr. Bikram’s yoga is a copyrighted series of 26 standard asana Yoga poses performed over a 90 minute period, and”designed to scientifically warm and stretch muscles, ligaments and tendons in the order in which they should be stretched.”
Bikram claims to have cured his knee problems as a young man with this Yoga method. He then came to the US at the urging of the likes of Shirley MacLaine and Richard Nixon in the 1970’s, and opened franchises across America to spread his gospel. Truth be told, he is a bit of a controversial figure whose American business ways have led some to nickname him “McYoga“.
The Bikram Yoga Poses (from BikramYoga Madrid website)
Looks like fun”, I said to L. as we stared at the poster of the 26 poses in the school lobby. “I’m pretty sure I can touch my toes if I bend my knees a little.”
Just before class, the nice guy standing next to the sign-up desk advised that I might want to purchase some vitamin C and minerals to take for my first class. I turned him down, figuring that I’d already sprung for the class, a rented mat and towels, and a big bottle of water.
“This place makes it’s money like the movie theater does on popcorn”, I muttered to L.
Because there was one little teensy-weensy detail about Bikram Yoga that I didn’t know at that time. It so happens that Mr. Bikrams’ classes are held in a room that is heated to (are you ready?) 104 degrees Fahrenheit. You read me right – 104 degrees. (For my readers outside of the US, that’s 40.5 degrees Celsius.) According to Bikram, the heat is necessary to keep the muscles warm and prevent injury.
As we entered the room, the heaters were blowing despite the 80 plus sunshine outside. Suffice it to say that we were sweating before we even laid our mats down. Good thing I rented those towels…
Our teacher (who, I should mention, was wonderful) took us through Mr. Bikram’s copyrighted series of 26 poses at a pace that I know was relatively easy, demonstrating for us while we rested between moves, urging us not to push ourselves, even giving me her towel to use to extend my stretch when it became evident that I could not reach my heels.
And in terms of the poses, I did much better than I would have expected. As I had discovered in other yoga classes, I found I have lots of flexibility in my lower spine, none in my upper, and that being overweight gets in the way of a good pose. But I held my own, I thought.
Till the class was over.
At that point, standing up after taking a little rest in “corpse pose”, I practically fell flat on my face from dizziness. And, as I went to put on my sandals, which had slipped off so easily when I began class, I found my feet were so swollen that I had to loosen the straps just to get them on.
L. wanted to walk all the way down to the river for a little al fresco lunch.
“Air conditioning”, I simply said, and that was that. We went for a nice healthy lunch, and I spent the rest of the day feeling like a damp dishrag.
The next day, Sunday, I felt even worse – nausea, headache, feverish and fatigued down to my bones. To compensate, I drank tons of water. Wrong move – my feet swelled even more, a situation aggrevated by sitting at the computer till all hours cleaning up the trojans that had crashed it via my husband’s email inbox. (E-email me if you want advice on this, I am now an expert…) At 1:30 am, I hit the sack feeling like I would never get out of bed again.
And then, the oddest thing happened.
I awoke at 6 am Monday feeling refreshed, alert, headache-free and more relaxed than I have felt in months, maybe years. We’re talking a sense of relaxation and calm that was peppered with energy. Still with swollen ankles, but happy as a clam. I literally floated through the day.
It lasted about 24 hours.
By Tuesday, I was back to my usual stressed-out, neck tightened, migraine-any-minute-now state. And my legs? +2 pitting edema up to mid-shin. I hadn’t seen ankles like those since my 39th week of pregnancy. They stayed that way till today (Thursday).
So, what happened to me?
According to the National Weather Service, Mr Bikram’s room had a heat index of 119 – in the “danger” range where “sunstroke, heat cramps or heat exhaustion are likely and heatstoke is possible with prolonged exposure and/or physical activity.” (Hmm…like 26 poses?)
So I’m sure that on Saturday and Sunday, my symptoms were the result of a mild case of heat exhaustion. Given that I tried to drink plenty of water during and after class, I expect that I inadvertently became both sodium depleted and over-hydrated (hypervolemic hyonatremia in med-speak). Which made me feel worse. And, in this particular situation, the osmotic forces generated by the imbalance between the hypo-osmolic serum and the relatively hyper-osmolic tissues leads to edema (swelling).
As this recent article in the NY times tells us, I did exactly what they are now advising marathon runners not to do. Because hyponatremia, at its extremes, can cause cerebral edema and even death. Experts now advise drinking limited amounts of electrolyte-laden fluids instead of tons of water.
Okay, so I’ve explained why I felt so bad Saturday and Sunday. What I cannot explain is why I felt so good on Monday. I’ve gone through everything I did, ate or drank for the prior 72 hours and the only thing different for me was that darned yoga class.
Now, the Bikram-Yoga folks believe that all that sweating releases toxins from the body. YEah, right. I never bought that sort of talk. Whenever anyone starts to talk about “toxic cleansing” I give them a lecture on the glories of the liver, colon and kidney, the mop-up crew of the human body.
But then again, I’ve lost track of the number of times my basketball and tennis-playing husband has commented on “how good it feels to sweat” whenever I complain about his damp gym shorts and sopping t shirts hanging on the shower rod. This guy lives on sweating, I swear.
Come to think of it, Mr TBTAM is probably the most relaxed, calm and happy person I know (except when he gets to thinking about the current state of American government…) It’s one of the reasons I married him.
Could it be that sweating really is the secret to happiness? Or was I just feeling so good in comparison to how bad I had felt in the acute throws of hyponatremic heat exhaustion?
I’ll never know. Because, although I have 2 more days left in my one week Bikram Yoga trial, I have too much to do in those 2 days to risk feeling that bad again.
But maybe some day soon, when I have the time to spare, I’ll try again. But next time, I’m bringing my own mat and towel, and drinking Gatorade instead of water. _______________________________________________________________
– See a 60 Minutes interview with Bikram Chadbury here.
– Read a New England Journal article about marathon-induced hyponatemia.
– For patients: Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke: What You Should Know
– For Physicians: Heat Related Illnesses
Caegory: Second Opinions, Considerations.