Ahmed Zambarakji finds out what it's like to be one of the few men in a Bikram yoga class
Few things would have guaranteed my dismissal as editor of a glossy men’s fashion magazine quite as swiftly as owning a pair of Speedos. I am now the secret owner of six pairs, the latest being a very snug pair of purple short shorts that, outside of the confines of a hot and sweaty yoga studio, would be deemed a public offence.
Indeed, such adventures in polyester are part and parcel of the Bikram yoga lifestyle. Bikram, as many will know, is a very specific kind of yoga practised in a room heated to about 40ºC. Devised by one Bikram Choudhury, the intense practice is known first and foremost for its superficialities: a loyal celebrity following (insert standard trivia about Madonna and Goopy Gwyneth here) and an ability to help people shed excess pounds in no time at all. Its predominantly female fanbase makes me – a 32-year-old amateur athlete turned yogi - into something of an anomaly at my local studio in London Bridge .
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Every once in a while an unsuspecting man will step into the hot, sweaty room and there is an instant awkwardness. These men come in as a last resort, their droopy man boobs and beer guts testament to years spent on a couch rather than in Standing Bow. There is a momentary pause filled with horror and discomfort, as though we’ve just walked in on our mothers perusing the undergarments in Ann Summers. We exchange a half-nod of acknowledgement (perhaps he is trying to ignore the Speedos?) and we spend the rest of the class pretending the other person is not there. Clearly, the stigma that yoga is ‘for girls’ hasn’t quite shifted.
But Bikram, while incredibly popular with women of all shapes and sizes, is anything but lightweight or girly. The new bloke usually finds this out within the first fifteen minutes by which time the heat has humbled him into a semi-conscious state of nausea. If his exercise routine to date has involved bench presses and lat pulls, chances are he will clumsily plough through the first couple of asanas in fifth gear, as though he were doing reps in a gym. He soon collapses in a puddle of his own shame as the girls move elegantly from one pose to the next. If he comes back to class, it is nothing short of a miracle.
So why do I bother going back every day?
As someone who spent the best part of 12 years pounding pavements and ‘feeling the burn’ in testosterone-riddled gyms, I’ve actually come to enjoy working out in the company of women. There is no desperately macho grunting or competitiveness, nor is there any (overt) judgment of anyone else. I also like not ever having to queue for the loo.
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The girls have all sorts of lively banter before and after class: they hang around and sip on Vita Coco (or, if they’re really on trend, Jax Coco) while gossiping about the teachers. The men’s locker room, meanwhile, has a tumbleweed silence about it. In fact, I’ve had more relaxed and natural conversations with other men while stood at a pub urinal than I have had in a yoga studio changing room. This is one of the many reasons why I’ve stayed in the closet about my Bikram practice – my male friends just don’t ‘get it’.
Now that I think about it, I barely mention my practice to anyone outside the confines of my studio. Bikram yoga, you see, is a dirty word in some circles. When I began practising three years ago, I quickly learned that the very mention of Choudhury’s name could elicit a (distinctly un-yogic) storm of foul language from my friends that teach and practise other forms of yoga. They berate the creator for copyrighting a sequence of poses, selling it the world over (there are some 1,600 studios now) and acquiring the largest pool in Beverly Hills along the way. He is a sell-out, they say.
They warn me about the many injuries they have witnessed as a result of Bikram’s gruelling sequence: knee sprains, torn cartilage and so on, mostly caused by heat-induced over-flexibility. Choudhury himself has accumulated more lawsuits than Rolls Royces in recent years. Just months ago the Bikram backlash was compounded with the publication of Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, a memoir in which the author metamorphoses from a burned out couch potato to competitive yogi and then into a hardened sceptic. The book speaks of compulsive contortionist-like acts, hours of pain and a rather weird underground back-bending club.
And yet, for all the alarm bells that surround it, I still love Bikram yoga. For every horror story, there is a veritable miracle; indeed, Bikram is both curative and preventive medicine. You don’t hear about the people with arthritis who receive the ‘wheelchair’ prognosis only to end up magically doing head-to-knee stands as a result of Bikram’s magic formula. You don’t hear about the trauma survivors that dodge serious surgery or the diabetics that finally manage to shed those life-threatening excess pounds.
I have bounced back from running injuries and retained a large part of the lower-body mobility that I lost when I decided marathons were a smart thing to do during my twenties. As an added bonus, Bikram yoga has even managed to repair and rebalance a rather sluggish and unhappy digestive system.
If only more guys could see the benefits of Bikram. But, then, I don’t really like a busy locker room.
Go to hotbikramyoga.co.uk to find your nearest class.
Ahmed has also just finished a yoga marathon of ‘30 days of Bikram’. Click here to read week one .