While in the throes of the dog days, it’s difficult to imagine willingly exposing oneself to a 105-degree room with 40 percent humidity. But now, as the temperatures drop and bodies start hunching inwards in the self-protective pursuit of warmth, yogis of the Valley flock, once again, toward hot yoga for relief.
Those teaching yoga in more tolerable temperatures inevitably reference being “warmed up” — a state in which muscles are warm and malleable enough to push through the more taxing postures. The colder it is outside, the colder and stiffer the muscles, and the longer it takes to warm them up and do transformational work. While in the grips of winter, it can be hard to get there at all during a one-hour class.
Hot yoga, however, offers a shortcut, which is why I’m not surprised to see Bikram Yoga Northampton’s studio filled up during a recent Monday evening class.
Over the past few weeks, Bikram Yoga has taken a beating as its leader, Bikram Choudhury, continues to make news for sexual assault scandals and his failed attempts to copyright the series of asanas taught in every Bikram class. But for this community it’s not about Choudhury, it’s about being in “that room.”
I take the last available spot in the large studio filled with about 40 people. Good thing it’s right by the door, I tell myself, recalling my first Bikram experience.
The first time I tried Bikram Yoga at 18, I felt like I was going to die. I had never sweat that much in my life and it felt like I had a fever. I also didn’t drink enough water before and after the class, so a knockout headache sealed the deal — it would be a long time before my next Bikram adventure.
Eight years, it turns out, is enough time to generate some bodily wear and tear that benefits from the ovenlike environment. A decade of waiting tables has left me with scar tissue and chronic tension in my shoulders. Within moments of being in the Bikram Yoga Northampton studio — as well as other hot yoga studios I’ve tried — my shoulders finally relax and I can do some real stretching.
The room is carpeted and brightly lit. A wall-sized mirror plasters the front of the studio, where owner and instructor Audrey Blaisdell stands on a podium with a headset. There’s no music, but Blaisdell’s quick, lyrical instructions take on a rhythm that rocks the class from pose to pose.
“Lean back!” she tells the class, holding out the “lean” with a soothing tone. “Go back. Far back. Push back.” Each instruction follows the other on tempo. She repeats this cadence throughout the class as students hold poses.
Within minutes, about a quarter of the class is sweating profusely. About 30 minutes in, everyone is dripping onto their towel-covered mats.
“Last chance!” Blaisdell often enthusiastically calls during the last moment of a hold. Each time she says it, I find myself going deeper into the stretch. It is undoubtedly a bit pushier than many yoga classes, but I appreciate this warning — it gives me one last opportunity to give in to the pose entirely before moving on.
Periodically Blaisdell claps to signal a shift in the instruction, which is also something that sets Bikram Yoga apart. But the heat has me in such a delirium that it neither sounds loud nor obnoxious. It’s a welcome call to attention.
From the bright lights and high temps to the fast-talking, microphoned, and music-free instruction, Bikram is not your standard yoga course. There’s something about the structure of the 90-minute class that makes it go by surprisingly quickly. And perhaps because the instruction doesn’t skip a beat, I’m pleasantly distracted from the sweltering heat.
I thoroughly enjoy my Bikram experience — my shoulders feel great after, it’s a good workout, and the class also helped me out of some uncomfortable menstrual cramping.
Still, this is the Valley we’re talking about, so Bikram isn’t the only hot yoga option.
Ananda Yoga in Hadley offers some more variable, less hot classes — their intimate yoga space is heated to 90 degrees with no added humidity — in a dimly lit style more in-keeping with standard yoga courses.
There’s also Shiva Shakti in Northampton, which is comparable to Bikram in heat, humidity, and intensity, but is less scripted. They both also offer one-hour classes, which can be an easier way to ease into the intensity of a hot class. And some studios, such as Fire and Water in Amherst and Second Wind in Agawam, offer hot classes as well as cooler ones.
For cardio-lovers who tend to prefer a faster-paced yoga, I’d recommend Bikram or Shiva Shakti. For yogis who prefer to slow down, listen, and follow the body’s own rhythm, I’d recommend Ananda Yoga. In all three studios, you’ll see release in any areas of cold-weather tension.•
Contact Amanda Drane at email@example.com.