June 20 2012 11:33 AM

More than two-dozen postures in 105-degree heat is brutal

Bikram Yoga Mira Mesa owner Eeva Bernardo: Yoga guru or trained torturer?
Photo by Natalina Carpanzano

It's 3:30 p.m. and Eeva Bernardo has the thermostat of her yoga studio cranked precisely to 105 degrees. She takes off her shoes as she enters and begins wiping the wall-length mirror to get rid of any sweat left over from her earlier class. The humidifiers installed throughout the space pump out heavy air, making the room feel muggy, like an East Coast summer without the mosquitoes.

"The room is heated for a reason. When it's warm you're more loose and more limber," Bernardo explains, preparing for her afternoon session.

Bernardo moves to cool hallway to explain how she came to practice Bikram Yoga, the most prevalent of the "hot yoga" systems. Her perfect posture, straight like a 2-by-4, has a presence that demands conformity, and I'm forced to straighten mine. Consistency is a key element to Bikram Yoga.

There are more than 5,000 studios worldwide, each practicing the exact same moves over the exact same period of time under the exact same conditions: 26 postures, 90 minutes, 105 degrees and 40-percent humidity. This uniformity, as well as the franchise-style business model, has earned it comparisons to the McDonald's or Starbucks of yoga. Birkram Yoga Mira Mesa (9375 Mira Mesa Blvd.) is Bernardo's small piece of the empire.

The yoga system was devised by Bikram Choudhury, a Calcuttan weightlifter-turned-yogi who opened his first U.S. studio in 1972 after, as legend has it, converting President Richard Nixon to his techniques. In the years since, he's grown into an eccentric, fedora-wearing celebrity who refers to sweltering studios like Bernardo's as his "torture chambers."

Bikram Yoga does attract masochists. Bernardo caught the Bikram bug when she was working in human resources at a Boston architectural firm. A friend used the word "insane" to describe a yoga class, and that prompted Bernardo to give it a try.

"I went to take a class, and I thought, Wow these people are really hardcore—like, it's hot; why isn't anyone opening a window?" she says.

But it was what she felt after the class that hooked her and led to a career as an instructor.

"You're in a state of complete relaxation when the class is over," she says. "I was beat up. It's intense…. You sweat like you've gone swimming."

When the class begins, Bernardo enters lugging an enormous jug of water. There are only about 10 of us, and more than two-thirds are young women.

As a yogi, Choudhury has a reputation for being cheeky and blunt, barking out challenges and teasing his students. Bernardo, by contrast, is stern, never cracking a smile. Unlike Choudhury, who'll pick on individuals who are struggling, she never singles anyone out unless it's to commend them on their form.

Bernardo begins with a deep breathing exercise. Our hands are clasped together under our chins; we push our elbows out and bend backwards until we see the back wall.

I think to myself, Piece of cake. I soon discover I'm wrong. A person can attend fitness classes five days a week and still find themselves totally unprepared. It's the heat. What started as an uncomfortable nuisance soon becomes a smothering burden. Meanwhile, we're contorting ourselves into asanas, or postures, such as the Triangle Pose. This pose requires a deep side lunge with the right hand to the floor and the left hand reaching for the ceiling.

Then it's "party time," which is what Bernardo calls our first and only water break as a group. There's no clock in the room, but it felt like all of two seconds long.

The remaining 60 minutes are brutal. We do "Balancing Stick," where you balance on one leg while the rest of you is posed like Superman in flight. Another pose is Standing Bow, where you balance on one leg, hold the other behind and extend one hand forward. My favorite is the Rabbit Pose, mostly because it doesn't involve standing on one foot. You get down on your knees, place your head on the ground and then wrap your arms around your legs until you touch your heels.

At some point—again, no clock—I look down at my chest and see sweat oozing from my body. The droplets feel like insects on my arms and legs.

When the 90 minutes are up, I feel like I've been stretched on the rack and I collapse on my mat. Bernardo leaves the room, but invites the class to stay and meditate. Us newcomers jump at the chance to get out of the chamber, while the regulars, who have learned to embrace the torturous heat, blissfully remain.

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