Debunking the yoga-nazi

Yoga’s popularity has grown in the Reno area over the past five years. Are yoga enthusiasts as extreme as their reputation suggests?

Bikram yoga is the kind of yoga that’ll make you sweat, even if you’re not doing it right. The room gets up to a toasty 105 degrees.

Bikram yoga is the kind of yoga that’ll make you sweat, even if you’re not doing it right. The room gets up to a toasty 105 degrees.

Photo Illustration by David Jayne and David Robert

I hate to exercise. I would rather clean my apartment. I’m not “outdoorsy.” I don’t ski, run, hike or any such nonsense.

But about a year and a half ago, job stress, financial stress and personal stress made me pick up a City of Reno Parks & Recreation Department catalog that listed a couple yoga classes and think, “Why not?”

Here I am now, a self-proclaimed yoga freak.

Yes, it’s trendy. There’s a yoga studio on every block. Yoga books at Barnes & Noble. Madonna, Meg Ryan and Gwyneth Paltrow all do it. I don’t follow herd mentality; I just wanted to feel good.

In my class at the Northeast Community Center, I’m in my comfy clothes and bare feet. Our instructor, Charles Marici Whitten, walks in. He’s over 6 feet tall, bald, with wire-rimmed glasses. His relaxing voice, almost a whisper, instructs us to sit cross-legged on the floor, close our eyes and take deep breaths. Inhale, exhale. Be aware of my body. Let my abdomen distend. Let my hands feel warm, as my arms begin to cool. Listen to my heart beat. Breathe.

Now clasp my hands behind my back, and pull down on my scapula. Inhale. Stretch. Exhale and lower my body, stretching my arms behind me. Hold. Breathe. Stretch. Relax.

Charles Whitten has practiced yoga since 1987. After a fire in his home burned most of his body, his physical therapist recommended yoga. Even with painful lesions that would open and bleed, he pushed through.

“I knew immediately after that first class that I would do this the rest of my life,” he says. “And by the second day, I knew I would teach it.”

He lost weight, became a vegetarian and quit smoking. He teaches three water yoga classes at Sierra Hot Springs on top of the regular weekly classes with the city of Reno. He also offers private lessons.

So what was it about yoga? The benefits, as most yogis describe them, include stress reduction, strength development, increased flexibility, increased organ health, lower blood pressure, improved circulation, a stronger immune system and alertness.

Americans are most familiar with hatha yoga. “Hatha” means “forceful.” It’s the physical yoga; the idea behind it is that the spirit that makes the journey to enlightenment needs a strong, healthy body. The practice focuses on concentration, breath, endurance, flexibility, aligning and strengthening the body, and quieting the mind while awakening the spirit. It energizes rather than tires. The more you do it, the more you want to do it.

The benefits aren’t achieved through moving into or out of a posture, like traditional exercise. A posture is held for a length of time, as gravity and connective tissues adjust, allowing you to increase a stretch. Precision is important, because a slightly misplaced hand or foot may affect a stretch. Breathing and relaxing into a posture oxygenates the body, reviving it and restoring energy. Meanwhile, strength and flexibility grow. It isn’t aerobic. You shouldn’t work up a sweat.

Bikram yoga is the exception. It’s based on the yoga fundamentals, except for one big difference: It’s hot in there.

According to Jeff Parker, founder and owner of the two local Bikram Yoga studios, 30 years ago, Bikram Choudry’s guru sent him to America to heal the problems of Western society: bad backs, bad hips, bad knees, digestive problems, carpal tunnel, tennis elbow, tendonitis and the inability to relax.

Bikram involves 26 medicinal hatha postures (13 standing and 13 seated) practiced in a 95-degree room. Contrary to popular myth, the room isn’t locked. But as class proceeds, the heater adjusts the room to approximately 105 degrees, while a humidifier adds 35 to 40 percent humidity.

These practioners assume the chair pose at the Bikram Yoga Center.

Photo By David Robert

Parker has reaped enormous benefits from yoga. Five years ago, he was hit by a car, which almost destroyed his thyroid and his ability to walk. He gained 100 pounds. On top of that, he’s been undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

“It relieved my pain instantly,” Parker says. “Now I’m 110 pounds lighter. I went from a size 46 pant to a size 38. My thyroid functions again. My blood pressure lowered from a 160 or 170 over 120 to 120 over 80. And I’ve just finished my chemo treatment.”

Like Charles Whitten, Parker explains that yoga comforted him during a painful time.

“I was so heavy and so injured, I couldn’t really do other types of exercise. This was the last stop on the road to hell.”

Bikram’s heat burns lipids and fats. It makes muscles more flexible, and sweating detoxifies the body. Breathing in and out, as with any yoga, deeply oxygenates the body. Humidity aids the respiratory system.

Parker’s body changed quickly.

“At some points, I would do it twice a day,” he says. “Unlike other types of exercise, this doesn’t steal energy away from you. It creates more heat and energy in the body, so you can do it every day, or twice a day.”

Yogis tend to be passionate about the practice and want to do it all the time. They get “high” on the energy and clear-headedness they feel. It’s not like a trip to the gym.

“It seems like when people step off a treadmill, they don’t carry any of that wonderful bliss they get for those few moments into the rest of their lives,” says Parker. “Here, we’re creating a mind-body connection and what I like to call ‘loving kindness.’ It’s an amazing thing. I think everyone should try it. Whether they stay here or go somewhere else, it’s all the same to me. It’s all creating this wonderful community of people who are really working on themselves, to be healthier, to look and feel younger.”

When asked if there’s such a thing as a yoga-nazi, Parker laughs.

“I’ve heard that term before. Some people use that for Bikram people because it’s very precise, it’s a very physical yoga and a quick-moving class. I’ve heard that term about teachers not being very nice to people. But that’s not what this is about. If you can’t do a posture, you can stop.”

Charles Whitten laughs, too, and says jokingly, “You’re looking at one.”

“That’s usually associated with Iyengar yoga,” Whitten says, “which is very strict, very rigorous practice, using tools and straps and holding postures for a long time. People have a misconception about instructors being strict and unforgiving. But the truth is it’s not really like that.”

The truth is yoga welcomes everyone, regardless of size, ability or strength. It’s another reason yoga has caught on. Whitten equates yoga to walking.

“I’m a world-class power walker. I can walk a mile in less than 11 minutes. Does that mean that someone who can’t do that shouldn’t walk? Of course not. It doesn’t mean that someone who can’t walk a mile in less than 11 minutes can’t benefit from walking. Yoga is the same kind of thing. You don’t necessarily have to be ‘good at it’ to achieve the benefits.”

So why is the ancient practice of yoga enjoying a surge of popularity? Parker thinks it’s our culture’s stress.

“I find this is a gateway for people who absolutely can’t slow down,” he says. “And some of those people come in here and mistake being relaxed for the first time in their lives for being tired or sleepy. But it makes you feel so wonderful. It heals your body, it teaches you how to renew it, restore it.”

To stretch. To breathe. To relax.