Bikram yoga raises temperatures
Sep. 11, 2003
Ellyn Wexler
Staff Writer

Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette

Diana Kang teaches Bikram or hot yoga in her new Rockville studio.



Some like it hot, and Diana Kang is foremost among them.

Along with some 250 schools and 2,000 teachers in the U.S. and around the world, she is committed to spreading the practice of Bikram yoga. The Bethesda resident opened her "hot yoga" studio in Rockville six weeks ago; it's the first in Montgomery County, the second in the Washington metropolitan area.

What differentiates this style of yoga from all others? It is done in a heated room, about 105 degrees, intended to simulate the climate of India. A standard 90-minute class consists of an unvarying sequence of two breathing exercises and 26 classical yoga poses, each executed twice. The first set is held for about a minute, emphasizing strength and endurance; the second, held for about 30 seconds, focusing on flexibility. About half the session is done standing, the remainder on the mat, either seated or lying down.

Taking advantage of yoga's resurgence in this country, yogi master Bikram Choudhury, 57, recently copyrighted and trademarked his distinctive brand of yoga; franchising is in the works. The former weight lifter, who began practicing yoga at age 4 in his native India, sustained a knee injury at 17. Doctors said he would never walk again. He claims his guru and yoga healed his knee completely within six months. A decade later, in 1973, he opened the Beverly Hills-based Bikram's Yoga College of India, his first studio in the U.S.

In Diana Kang's brand-new Rockville studio, prospective and beginning students can pick up a handout that describes the multiple benefits attributed to the heat. Most important and easy to validate, the heat makes muscles more elastic, allowing greater range of motion and less susceptibility to injury. The excerpt, from Covert Bailey's "Smart Exercise," also says heat helps remove waste products like carbon dioxide and lactic acid, speeds the breakdown of glucose and fatty acids, improves coordination and reduces the heart irregularities associated with sudden exercise, burns fat more easily and faster, and improves nervous system functioning.

It is worth noting that Bailey does not specify what degree of heat is necessary to achieve these results.

The widely accepted benefits of most forms of yoga are applicable to Bikram as well: building strength, flexibility and balance. In addition, say Kang and the Bikram Web site (bikramyoga.com), Bikram students can expect better overall health, fewer pains and ailments.

How did Arlington-bred Kang come to this West Coast yoga style? The always active young woman, a CPA with a bachelor of science degree in accounting from Virginia Tech, tried a free class in Iyengar yoga while in her mid-20s.

"It wasn't the best experience," she admits.

But several years later, she returned to the same studio and took a class from a different instructor. She began attending regularly and even went on a weeklong retreat in Naples, Fla., where she took classes in various forms of yoga, and also first heard about Bikram. Intrigued, she tried a hot yoga class at a D.C. studio. She was hooked; her teacher, retired U.S. Army officer Jim Ambrogi, soon opened the first area Bikram studio, in Tenleytown.

After some 21 months of training with Ambrogi about three times a week, Kang knew she wanted to get certified and have her own studio some day. Applicants for Bikram certification must have six months of training in an affiliated school and a written teacher recommendation. Training, which costs $5,000 plus $1,600 for housing, consists of nine intensive weeks at the Beverly Hills headquarters. According to Bikram, Kang notes, it takes 60 consecutive days of practice to effect the changes Bikram promises.

Daily, except Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., students attend two 90-minute classes as well as posture clinics, dialogue coaching sessions and lectures on subjects like anatomy and nutrition. Certification is not guaranteed; students must pass written tests and demonstrate proficiency, then teach for six months supervised by a certified teacher.

All the prerequisites in place, Kang was ready to open her studio. She found appropriate demographics and a convenient location with ample free parking in Rockville. The space is about 3,000 square feet, half of it occupied by a carpeted and mirrored studio that easily accommodates 40 to 50 students. Kang calls the corporate-recommended customized heating system she installed "the Jaguar of heating systems." It is important to her that everything is kept sparkling clean, she says: carpet de-ionized, mats disinfected, towels laundered. Restrooms with showers, an office and reception area, a laundry facility and a room for a future resident massage therapist take up the rest of the space.

Shoes are removed at the entrance lobby. Upon entering the studio, each student lays down a sticky mat and covers it with a towel. Bringing along hand towels and bottles of water or Gatorade is recommended.

Kang now teaches 14 of the 24 classes on her weekly schedule. She is auditioning certified teachers for the two or three part-time slots she expects to fill.

On her third weekend of operation, Kang welcomes a dozen students to class; three newcomers, three experienced and six falling somewhere in between. She offers pointers on expected behaviors during class: no conversation, breathe in and out through the nose, eyes remain open all the time. While lying down, she notes, a student's feet should point away from the instructor; it's a matter of respect.

Two things take precedence, Kang maintains. Each student should listen to his or her own body, avoiding anything that causes pain. And everyone should have fun.

Kang talks nonstop through the class, introducing each pose with both its Indian and English names, and giving detailed verbal cues to both beginners and more advanced students. All the language is Bikram-prescribed, she explains, but each instructor adds personality.

"Teachers are best when they are themselves. They have to be really passionate and really want to help students," Kang says, adding, "That's something you can't learn. You either have it or you don't."

Kang is earnest in her enthusiasm. "I love teaching," she declares. She says she looks forward to being able to hire someone to do all the paperwork she is doing in her one-woman operation so she can focus on teaching.

Kang knows her students' names and uses them, encouraging or critiquing as necessary, inserting a bit of humor -- "You have to take a Bikram class to know how good cold water can taste" -- in her understated, soft-spoken way. Occasionally, she will demonstrate or physically prod a student into correct form, but, she says, physical contact is discouraged.

Everyone makes it through this class without dizziness, nausea or taking a break. That sense of accomplishment in itself is exciting, even euphoric. And although new students agree that the heat is not nearly as oppressive as they had feared, some are uncertain as to whether they will return. They may have reservations about the level of heat, how the spine may be compromised when the head tilts all the way backward or the potential for over-stretching ligaments, thus endangering joints.

At the end of a free introductory class on her first weekend, Kang asked her sweat-drenched students how they felt. Robin Evans of North Potomac was quick to respond that she never felt more like cracking open an ice cold beer.

The studio, she said, was quiet -- just as prescribed.

Bikram Yoga is located in Travilah Square, 10062 Darnestown Road, Rockville. Various introductory rates are available, including unlimited seven consecutive days for new students ($20), a single class ($15) and a 12-month unlimited pass ($1,250). Mats and towels are available for rental. Call 301-762-9642 or 301-762-3362 or visit bikramyogarockville.com.