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Strike a pose for inner well-being

Each week this summer, Times staff writer Emily Nipps will attempt an off-beat sport or activity.

By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 30, 2002


When I was a kid, I used to stun my friends by stretching both legs behind my head.

People thought it was a gift to be "double jointed" when, in fact, there is no such thing. Some people are just more flexible than others. Everyone knows somebody who can stretch their thumb all the way back to their wrist, or twist their arms in an unnatural pose, or pivot their leg so that their knee is pointing behind them.

At some point in my late teens, though, I lost my ability to do the leg thing. Now I don't even try.

When Times colleague Scott Purks, who is as limber as a lead pipe, suggested we try a Bikram yoga class, I was willing. If he could do it, I'd have no problem.

I had always wanted to try yoga, though I never really understood the point. I exercise for the same reasons most people do: to look better and feel healthier. I lift weights to tone my arms, I run to lose weight and I do both regularly for energy.

So what are the benefits of stretching into a moon-shape on the floor? How will certain breathing techniques help me lose those stingy five pounds?

And why would anybody want to sit in a heated room in the middle of summer in Florida?

I expected to get answers such as, "to get in touch with the inner chakra" and "to unite the body with the spirit," neither of which I am interested in doing.

The explanation I found actually was highly technical, even medical.

Bikram Choudhury, who was the youngest National Yoga Champion of India at age 12 and eventually competed in weightlifting (including in the 1964 Olympics), crushed his knees in a weightlifting accident at age 20. Doctors told him he would never walk again, but his yoga guru, Bishnu Gosh, taught him a specialized series of 26 poses that miraculously restored his knees to perfect health.

Bikram went on to teach the world his method, and in the last 30 years has become one of the most well-known fitness instructors in the world. He has a gym in Los Angeles and travels the globe to teach workshops and classes.

According to Bikram Choudhury's official Web site, bikramyoga.com, Bikram yoga can alleviate every problem from a bulging disc to eczema to heart disease to insomnia. Basically, the way the muscles and joints are contracted and relaxed has a domino effect on the body's cells, lymph nodes, bones and organs through circulation and gravity. It's called the "tourniquet effect." Think of it as rehabilitating the body from the inside out.

My colleague and I went to Yogani Studios on Platt Street, paid our $10 and entered a heated room that would eventually reach 105 degrees.

The veterans, who ranged in age from about 25 to 65, told us war stories about their friends walking out in the middle of class, unable to take the heat or the workout, or both. The instructor, Tony, gave us a brief introduction and told us if we got dizzy to go into the "child's pose," a sort of kneeling fetal position.

I vowed not to get dizzy.

The class started with a slow, animated breathing exercise, and already, it felt all wrong. It seemed like everyone had more breath to exhale than I did.

But a funny thing happened while I was breathing, which also involved squeezing my knuckles underneath my chin and lifting my elbows on the inhale. My back and neck started to feel sore, but in a good way, as if someone had just massaged their knuckles really hard into my neck.

For the next 90 minutes, we balanced and stretched into a series of poses, some more awkward than others.

There was the "camel" pose, the "eagle" pose and the "tree" pose, and each had some healing purpose and level of difficulty. For us, the most impossible was the "half-tortoise" pose, which called for keeping our stomachs on our soaking wet mats while pointing our arms and legs toward the sky.

It sounded silly, but the instructor kept telling everyone to remember to breathe, and for a good reason. When you're twisted into a backwards bend and your legs are pointed to the sky and sweat is dripping into your nose, you actually forget to breathe. Then you pass out.

My favorite pose was the "dead man" pose, which essentially is lying on your back doing nothing. We did this in between some of the sitting poses, presumably to let our bodies rest.

By the end of the class, my colleague and I were soaking wet and limping. But we felt incredible, and planned on going back, though probably not for the 10 times a month that is recommended.

Still, we expect the same type of miracles Bikram Choudhury got.

My colleague thinks it will improve his golf game.

I'll settle for being able to do the half-tortoise pose one day.

-- Emily Nipps can be contacted at (813) 226-3368.

YOGA CLASSES:

STILLPOINT YOGA

WHERE: 2568 E. Fowler Ave.; (813) 975-9353

CLASSES: Tuesdays, 6 to 7:30 p.m.

COST: $10 first time, $12 after that (discounts offered if series of classes are purchased).

WEB SITE: stillpointyoga.com

YOGANI

WHERE: 1617 W. Platt St., Suite 103; (813) 495-YOGA

CLASSES: Every day (call or visit Web site for time changes).

COST: $10 each (discounts offered if series of classes are purchased).

WEB SITE: yogani.com

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