It’s hot, really hot. The heat is stifling, suffocating. I could hear the droplets of my sweat dripping down on my yoga mat. I assume the standing bow-pulling pose: I’m holding my right ankle with my right hand with the palm facing out, kicking up, while my left arm is glued to my left ear, stretching out. My legs are shaking, and I am panting like I just ran five miles. I’m feeling dizzy and have the urge to throw up. I can’t wait for the class to end – this is sheer torture. The next day I come back for more.
This is the Bikram yoga class in Harvard Square. I’ve talked about my love for Bikram before and for me, this particular studio is one of the things that makes my neighborhood special. Harvard Square is known for its bohemian charm – with the cobblestone streets, quaint stores, street performers, the Goths and the nerds intermingling seamlessly – and the undoubtedly intellectual aura (how can it not sound smart with the word “Harvard” in its name?). However, behind the popular tourist attractions and the eccentrics of the Square, there is a small, quiet community of people dedicated to one of the most strenuous forms of yoga: the Bikram yoga practitioners.
The Bikram Yoga Harvard Square (BYHS) studio is located in the heart of Harvard Square, literally steps away from the T, and yet for the community of devotees who come here, it is a refuge away from the bustling commercial places dotting the Square.
More About Bikram Yoga
Bikram yoga was developed by Bikram Choudhury, who started learning yoga at the age of three in Calcutta, India. Choudhury continued practicing yoga throughout his life, and eventually created the series of 26 postures that he claims helped restore his health after a weightlifting accident. In 1973, Choudhury opened his first yoga school in San Francisco. Since then, he and his style of yoga have enjoyed immense popularity, with celebrity followers and advocates – Madonna being the most famous.
While Bikram yoga is not the only form of hot yoga, it is the only type that is trademarked. Teachers are required to undergo teacher training, and yoga studios pay franchise fees, agreeing to teach only Bikram and use Bikram-approved instructions during classes. This copyrighting has created a lot of tension among other yoga practitioners and made Choudhury a controversial figure in the yoga world.
The business-minded Choudhury makes no effort to hide his love for a wealthy lifestyle; he has 35 Rolls Royce and Bentleys in his car collection and lives in Beverly Hills. When asked in a Boston.com interview to comment on people’s expectations that yogis lead simple, less materialistic lives, he retorts, “Where is it written that a yogi is not supposed to have a car or a diamond wrist watch?” This sort of brash attitude makes him an easy target for his haters who argue that yoga is an old practice and philosophy; it is not something a single yogi invented. Choudhury maintains that the copyrighted 26 postures done in succession is his intellectual property, and attests that his Bikram yoga style helps make the human body into a powerhouse.
Powerhouse, indeed. After each yoga class, Bikram practitioners claim to feel stronger, calmer, more purified. Even after just a few sessions, Bikram yoga already produces noticeable benefits in the body. And the more regular the practice, the more the benefits are felt, thus producing an almost cult-like devotion among the Bikram yogis.
Bikram Yoga in Harvard Square
The Bikram practitioners in Harvard Square range from beginners to experts, from the regular attendees to the “I go whenever I can” types. There are several other yoga studios and gyms in the neighborhood (Karma Yoga Studio, Dahn Yoga, Wellbridge Athletic Club, plus the various Harvard University gyms that offer yoga classes), but to me, it is easy to spot which yoga-mat-toting individual actually came from a Bikram class. Hint: it is the very wet-looking yogi, who looks like he or she can hardly walk from exhaustion, but more often than not sports a glazed look of satisfaction and happiness.
The BYHS studio was founded in 2006 by brother and sister tandem Brad and Jill Koontz. Brad, all sinewy and lean, teaches Bikram at the Harvard Square studio, as well as at the Back Bay and the Financial District studios. He attended teacher training with his wife Tomo, a petite and funny woman who greets students warmly, always with a smile. Together they make a charming and incredibly fit couple. According to Brad, “Harvard Square is certainly a high-traffic location, with the right population of people who can afford to practice yoga and are focused on taking care of themselves. It is a good mix of young and old, and since there are already a lot of activities to do in the area, Bikram gives the people another option.”
When I asked him what makes the Harvard Square studio different from the other Bikram yoga studios in Boston, he attests that each studio has its own character. “Harvard Square offers a larger, communal area where everyone can sit together and chat,” he says, “people gather together to talk with each other before and after class, and it really facilitates a community atmosphere.”
me interviewing Brad (photo by Jeffrey Pike)
Back in the yoga studio, I’m still dripping sweat in my mat while my heart is beating wildly. And yet I feel a certain sense of peace, a togetherness with my fellow Harvard Square yogis. As we stretch and balance away in the large mirrored room, we silently encourage each other by attempting to stay with the group flow. After class, we all exchange tired sighs but give each other knowing smiles, as we are all familiar with that exuberant feeling after a good session. We cram ourselves in the small changing areas, in the sparse benches, and close our eyes together as we try to catch our breaths. We are bonded in sweat, in seems.
While it cannot be denied that Bikram is hard – very hard – it is also very rewarding. Aside from the physical benefits, it is the feeling of bliss after each class that compels me and other devotees to keep coming back. Sure, it seems like pure torture. But once we get past the trembling legs, the panting breaths, and the seemingly unbearable heat, we realize why it is all worth it: because it works. Bikram yoga, as promised by Choudhury and all the other Bikram teachers, makes our bodies strong, help us fight stress and illnesses, help us sleep better, lose weight, feel healthier, become happier.
During class in the Harvard Square studio, when we are asked to face JFK Street, I see the second floor of Urban Outfitters or the third floor of CVS, and I faintly hear traffic – not exactly relaxing yoga scenes. But other times, it is extremely quiet and I see glorious views: I notice a particularly bright day with clear skies, or, during winter, I witness the soft romantic fall of snowflakes. These are the moments that remind me of how much I love my yoga studio, in my neighborhood.
The BYHS rounds up the various elements of Harvard Square because it lends a balance to the other richer, more indulgent activities of shopping, eating, drinking, and socializing. And the Bikram community reflects the qualities that I, and other non-yoga practitioners, love about Harvard Square: it is open to everyone; it is a memorable experience; it is colorful, it is quirky; it is a community.
Do you have a yoga studio in your neighborhood? What’s your favorite type of yoga?