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ACTION MAN

Sweating in yoga's Death Valley

January 10, 2008|Liam Gowing

AS I lay on the ground, bathed in sweat, I could just make out the approaching sound of the ambulance. As exhausted as I felt, though, the ambulance was not coming for me. It was coming for a gray-haired lady who'd collapsed a few yards away and had to be carried off by a volunteer brigade because she was too weak to stand and too confused to remember what year it was.

Welcome to Bikram Yoga.

A school of physically purifying Hatha yoga, Bikram Yoga is a system of exercise comprising 26 stretch-and-hold positions, arranged to work the organs in an orderly chain. Copyrighted and franchised by 62-year-old namesake guru Bikram Choudhury, it's taught in 90-minute classes by Bikram-certified instructors all over the world, and -- at Bikram's Yoga College of India World Headquarters in L.A. -- by Choudhury himself, in a spacious studio he calls his "torture chamber."

Since he keeps the interior temperature at about 110 degrees, that's no joke.

Intended to promote flexibility and prevent injury by warming the muscles, the sweltering heat has two obvious side effects: purging one's cells via rivers of perspiration and making one's insides feel like microwaved jellyfish.

Seriously. Since I'd attempted yoga only once a decade before, assuming Choudhury's discombobulated postures was difficult enough. But doing them in the Speedo-clad drill sergeant's hellish sweatshop felt cruel and unusual.

By the 60-minute mark, around the time my limp classmate was spirited away, the whole exercise seemed like something Amnesty International should be petitioning the White House to ban.

Then, just as my limbs released a final stream of anaerobic profanities to my brain, it was over. I took a shower, dressed and reemerged from the men's locker room feeling triumphant. And after seeing my fallen comrade -- apparently rehydrated, recovering and bidding the paramedics adieu -- I spoke with Choudhury in his celebrity-photo-and-commendation-adorned office about what I'd just encountered.

The woman's collapse was commonplace, he told me dismissively: "People get dehydrated. People feel dizzy. I warn them in advance."

Unperturbed, Choudhury went on to tell me about his teaching's incredible benefits -- how his "antibiotic" therapies have prevented or cured serious chronic diseases such as epilepsy in "millions" of students, and how the conditioning has enabled him to work out both in snowdrifts and in rooms heated to a boiling 220 degrees.

It's all totally impossible and strangely believable: If you can survive Bikram Yoga, you can survive anything.

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BIKRAM'S YOGA COLLEGE OF INDIA

WHERE: 1862 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A.

WHEN: Daily, see online schedule

PRICE: $20 per class, $250 per month

INFO: www.bikramyoga.com

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-- Liam.Gowing@latimes.com

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