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Bikram Yoga: a unique approach to health and wellness for military personnel and family members

Best of Winter 2014-01As a philosophy and a health practice, yoga has been around for many centuries.  According to Wikipedia, “yoga is a commonly known generic term for physical, mental and spiritual disciplines which originated in ancient India.  Specifically, yoga is one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy.”

However, in Western culture, yoga is known more widely as a physical health practice found in health clubs and spas all over North America.  In the West, three main types of true Indian yoga are practiced:  Bikram, Ashtanga and Lyengar.  Western teachers have modified the various types of Indian yoga and today there are many systems, types and series.

A new form of yoga described by some as “Hot Yoga” or Bikram Yoga has health enthusiasts signing up across the continent. Bikram Yoga is a series of 26 traditional Hatha yoga postures and two breathing exercises, practiced in a room heated to 40 degrees Celsius.

Claire Cameron, a certified teacher of Bikram Yoga in Ottawa, says the practice was created years ago by Bikram Choudhury and his guru, Bishnu Charan Ghosh, in Kolkata, India.  Bishnu Ghosh was one of India’s foremost physical culturists and people used to come from all over India to consult him about their health issues.

“It was young Bikram’s job to teach the postures to the patients,” says Cameron. “This took a long time each day and Bikram started thinking about teaching a set of postures to prevent people getting ill in the first place. His guru thought it was a good idea and they came up with the series of 26 postures which are practiced in the same order to systematically work every part of the body, to give all the internal organs, all the veins, all the ligaments, and all the muscles everything they need to maintain optimum health and maximum function.  Each component takes care of something different in the body, and yet they all work together synergistically, contributing to the success of every other one, and extending its benefits.”

Cameron says the heat helps promote the body’s flexibility and recovery.  According to the history, in the last century, Indian yogis would visit the West and return home saying Westerners could not do yoga because their bodies were too tight.

“Bikram was the yogi who put two and two together and realized the reason was the heat, or lack of it, in Northern climates.  He chose 40 degrees because it is the summer temperature of Kolkata, his hometown.”

“Yoga changes the construction of the body from the inside out, from bones to skin and from fingertips to toes,” says Cameron. “So before you change it, you have to heat it up to soften it, because a warm body is a flexible body. Then you can reshape the body any way you want.”

Hatha Yoga flushes away the waste products, the toxins of all the glands and organs of your body. It provides a natural irrigation of the body through the circulatory system, with the help of the respiratory system. It brings nourishment to every cell of your body so that each one can perform its function and keep your body healthy.

“Bikram Yoga also employs heat to further that cleaning process: When you sweat, impurities are flushed out of the body through the skin,” explains Cameron.

Most other yoga practices are taught with the teacher deciding which posture to do as they go along.  Cameron says Bikram Yoga uses the same 26 postures and two breathing exercise in every class. “Each posture prepares the body for the next one – nothing is random.”

Cameron, who immigrated to Canada from Zimbabwe 11 years ago, received her training with Bikram Choudhury in Hawaii in the spring of 2007.  Bikram conducts his own intensive nine-week teacher training sessions twice a year, spring and fall.

“I am the director of Bikram Yoga Ottawa, where all the teachers are fully certified. This is the only form of yoga I teach now as I am a bit of a purist.  My background is in dance, having trained with the Royal Ballet in London.  I identified with the discipline and simplicity of the Bikram series and liked that it was original Indian Hatha yoga.”

Although Cameron says she cannot comment on other forms of yoga because there are so many types, she does say some are good and some not-so-good.  She says the advantage of Bikram yoga is that it’s not jarring (non-impact) on the joints yet it’s cardio-vascular, giving a high level of fitness and endurance.

“It strengthens the muscles, tones the body and improves flexibility,” she explains.  “The deep stretching releases the build up of tension and stress in the body, including (importantly) the heart.  Stress builds up like onion layers and Bikram Yoga releases the layers, keeping stress to a manageable level.  The heavy sweating and the breathing techniques are detoxifying, allowing health damaging excess cortisol and adrenaline to be eliminated safely by the body.”

The class has a meditative aspect to it although it is athletic.  The postures are simple but deceptively challenging.  Students listen to the teacher giving operational commands and simply react by moving their bodies.  Bikram Yoga teaches relaxation by practicing a posture for 10, 20 or 30 seconds at a time and then relaxing for 20 seconds.

Bikram Yoga is gaining interest from military personnel.  A number of Cameron’s clients are active and retired members.

Allen Eliason, a major in the Canadian Air Force, took up Bikram Yoga on the advice of his doctor, a client of the Ottawa Bikram Yoga studio.

“The combination of Bikram Yoga and traditional yoga helped me to become much more flexible than I would have been without it after my surgery,” says Eliason. “Perhaps even more beneficial was the fact that it helped me let go of the stress I was experiencing and allowed me more clarity of thought. The health (mind, body and spirit) benefits were gradual, but everything in life that is truly worthwhile always takes time and patience.”

He says that Yoga or Bikram Yoga can be of real benefit to any military personnel who are injured (physically or mentally) and making an honest effort to recover.  “It will also help healthy people stay healthy! I have said for years to anyone who will listen that I believe yoga is an excellent complement to any fitness regime or sport.”

Eliason would like to see the Department of National Defence support yoga classes at bases across the country. “DND should offer Yoga or Bikram Yoga at all base gyms as well as the NCR or contract with local studios to provide the service. When I was posted in 2010, CFB Kingston offered a very popular lunch time yoga class at the gym that was taught by a mix of volunteers (one of whom was a retired BGen) and PSP staff.”

Pierre Beaulieu, a retired Army Major is also a dedicated fan of Bikram Yoga.  He discovered its physical and mental benefits following a tour in Afghanistan.  He went to the class on the recommendation of his Hatha Yoga class instructor.

“She highly recommended it for me as she knew what I was going through not only physically, but also mentally, as I was trying to sort out my mental health issues from my outside-the-wire Afghan tour,” says Beaulieu. “This yoga has been exactly what I was I looking for:  deep stretching, meditation and you get an excellent work-out–-all in one package. It complements my PT schedule and allows me to take care of myself, something I had not done for a very long time.”

Those interested in taking up yoga, should look for certified teachers. Lots of people take a weekend yoga course and call themselves a yoga teacher, says Cameron.  All genuine Bikram teachers are taught by Mr. Choudhury himself and need to recertify every three years.  All genuine Bikram studios are listed on Bikram Choudhury’s own website:  bikramyoga.com

There are a number of yoga classes being offered at CF bases and wings across Canada. For more information about which yoga programs are being offered in your military community contact your local Personnel Support Program (PSP) coordinator, MFRC or visit your base recreation centre.

by: Jill Kruse

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