Not all yoga is so miserable. But this is Bikram Yoga, the trademarked and copyright-protected original hot yoga, where the yoga studio is proudly called the “torture chamber.” New people unaccustomed to practicing yoga with the furnace blasting are warned that nausea is normal at first, and they are asked to stay in the room even if they start feeling dizzy so that the instructor will know if they lose consciousness.
The heat is supposed to allow you to stretch more deeply than you could otherwise, and Bikram disciples say that your body acclimates to it quickly and can even come to crave it. But the heat is new to me, and I’m happy to just make it through the ninety-minute class without passing out, throwing up or bolting for the door.
This particular torture chamber, Hot Yoga Nimitz, is in an aging strip mall across from Honolulu Harbor’s Pier 38. Its cleancut young owner, Conrad Gacki, comes from a family of yoga instructors who have embraced Bikram Yoga the way some families have embraced Amway distribution. Conrad’s father owns a Bikram studio in Chicago, his brother owns one in Milwaukee, his sister owns one in Kaimuki and his mother is an investor, so she owns a piece of them all. Bikram Choudhury, the mastermind behind Bikram Yoga, licenses hundreds of these independently owned studios around the world. They offer a remarkably uniform yoga experience, with the same bright lighting, full-length mirrors, wall-to-wall carpeting, withering heat and certified instructors leading students through an unchanging set of twenty-six postures and breathing exercises while reciting scripted instructions at auctioneer speed. It is the Starbucks of yoga, unchanging from Copenhagen to Kaua‘i.
“It’s a fantastic system,” says Conrad. “It’s simple and straightforward, and it addresses the masses of people out there. Bikram has introduced more people to yoga than this world has ever seen.”
I am in fact one of those people, even though I have been dropping in and out of yoga for most of my life, starting long before Bikram discovered central heating and established his hot-yoga empire … but I’ll come back to that.
In India, the cradle from which it sprang, yoga is steeped in mysticism and spirituality. Bikram has stripped yoga clean of such things. There’s not so much as a single om. In my experience Bikram Yoga is essentially a miserable endurance test. Yet once it’s over, a long-lasting yoga high sets in. There’s no transcending physical reality, realizing God, becoming One with All or anything like that, but my bones seem to settle, my breath feels easy and pure, and my mind becomes focused, friendly and calm. Clearly Bikram Yoga is powerful stuff, but personally I like a good om.
There are plenty of people in the yoga world who will tell you how much they hate Bikram’s mass marketing of yoga, if only you could get yoga people to admit to hating things. But in yoga it’s easy to ignore the parts you don’t like. Yoga is a big tent with a world of different practices, theories and philosophies. As the yoga scholar George Feuerstein wrote, “Yoga is like an ancient river with countless rapids, eddies, loops, tributaries and backwaters and extends over a vast and colorful terrain of many different habitats.”
This river has run through Hawai‘i since at least the 1940s and 1950s, when the occasional traveling Indian guru would stop in Honolulu to lecture on yoga philosophy or demonstrate strange exercises with exotic Sanskrit names. The river swelled in the 1960s and 1970s with all the countercultural interest in meditation and Eastern religion. Since then yoga has expanded from the hippie fringes to the thoroughly mainstream, and all the while Hawai‘i has warmly received whatever the river brings. This includes not just the various traditional lineages of yoga, but also the trends, mutations, recombinations, grafts, fusions and fads, plus a slew of celebrity yogis and yoginis.
With its deeply rooted fitness culture, general open-mindedness and geographical allure, Hawai‘i has indeed grown into one of the world’s yoga hot spots. The pages of Yoga Journal are replete with yoga retreats, intensive teacher trainings and yoga wellness vacation adventures in Hawai‘i. Just about all of the younger rock stars of American yoga—the Shiva Reas, the Cheryl Birch-Benders, the Rodney Yees— trek to Hawai‘i to lead workshops and maybe knock out a few instructional videos. A good number of the older generation of American yoga masters have settled in Hawai‘i. They include Nancy Gilgoff, who attracts yoga practitioners from around to world to the weathered barn at an organic tomato farm on Maui where she teaches Ashtanga yoga; Chuck Miller, who farms quietly on the Big Island when he’s not jetting around the globe to conduct yoga workshops in settings that have included Sting’s Tuscan villa; and Norm Allen, who lives in Kona and teaches yoga for free but ensures the dedication of his students by leveling a $25 fine if they miss a class, and $50 if he has to ask for the money.
Throughout the Islands dozens of yoga studios are kept in business by ordinary Hawai‘i residents who have gotten hooked on yoga. “On any given day at 9 a.m., you can probably do ten different yoga classes in a five-mile radius of here,” says Dominique Pandolfi, a yoga instructor in Pa‘ia on the north shore of Maui, which is especially thick with yoga. “It’s a really competitive market.”