Issue 14.6: Dec. 2011 / Jan. 2012

The Lotus Blossoming

Story by David Thompson
Photos by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

I am standing on one leg
in front of a wall of mirrors in a brightly lit room, pretending to be a tree. Twenty other people stand with me, pretending to be trees, too. The room has been heated to 104 degrees, and we are all stripped down to nearly nothing, sweating like we’re in a sauna. Thoughts of heatstroke and cardiac arrhythmia float through my mind, but I do not attach to them for I am a tree, and I am doing yoga. Also, it’s so damned hot in this 104-degree room, it’s taking my full concentration to balance on one leg and not topple over.




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.”


A regular yoga practice
can do as much for your mind as for your body. After an Iyengar yoga class at the Silent Dance Center in Mo‘ili‘ili, I meet Barbara Terry, who has practiced yoga here regularly for twenty-five years and has excellent posture to show for it. As a retired Hawai‘i public school teacher, she has seen her share of challenging classrooms, including some with eighth-graders twice her size who did not want to be told what to do by anyone, especially an English teacher. “Yoga helped me stay sane,” she says. “That’s for sure.”


Iyengar yoga emphasizes proper alignment and uses blocks, belts, chairs and other props to help achieve it. It doesn’t produce floodwaters of sweat like Bikram does, but it demands concentration. “I like the mental process of getting into the poses,” Barbara says, “and I like to be reminded to breathe. Sometimes you work so hard you forget. It sounds silly but it’s not. Breathing is quite important.”


When she occasionally lets her yoga practice lapse, her shoulders droop, and she has to remind herself not to slouch. But ordinarily she stands tall without thinking about it, her feet rooted, shoulders back and down and the full dome of her chest facing the world. “Everybody thinks the key to good posture is in the back,” she says, “but really it’s in the feet.” While we talk Barbara fills a janitor’s bucket with water and begins to mop the studio’s koa wood floor. She cleans in exchange for her yoga. Silent Dance Center is the oldest yoga studio in Honolulu, established in 1977. The wood-framed building is a century old, the only surviving structure of Mo‘ili‘ili’s Japanese language school. Its roof sags, it needs fresh paint and it is hemmed in by newer concrete buildings on all sides, but overall it looks good for its age, just like Barbara. I joke that it must be all the prana—the life force moved by yogic breathing—holding up the building. “The prana and the love,” she replies.


A lot of die-hard yogis
find that their thinking about yoga evolves over time. Rick Bernstein, who has been teaching yoga and meditation in Honolulu for nearly forty years, was an overweight sales manager for a downtown Honolulu copy machine company in 1972 when he dropped out of the business world and took up yoga. “These were the days of incense and hippie bookstores and vegetarian restaurants and the Beatles and transcendental thinking and flower-power and communal living—and yoga was one of the threads that ran through the fabric of all that,” he says. He went hard-core, practicing up to eight hours a day and growing extremely fit. I meet him at his home, and he shows me an album filled with black-and-white photos of him from that era, long-haired, heavily bearded, totally ripped and executing one advanced yoga pose after another.


Today’s older, grayer Bernstein doesn’t spend as much time as he once did tucking his feet behind his neck or balancing on his forearms while touching his toes to the back of his head. Yoga shouldn’t be an “egoistic fetish in the pursuit of physical excellence,” he says. It should be available to everyone. So now he promotes a gentle approach to yoga emphasizing the “awesome energy that comes from moving the body, breathing, relaxing” and appreciating the moment. “It’s not yog-uh,” he says. “It’s yog-ahhhhh!” Still, at one point in our conversation, he drops onto his white shag carpet, pops into a headstand and effortlessly throws his legs into the pretzel-like Lotus Pose … just to show he’s still got it.


In the mainstream,
yoga has become fair game for whatever fitness trend wants a piece of it, and so, thanks to aerobics, Pilates and spinning, we have hybrids such as yogaerobics, yogilates and yoga spinning. There are many more. The latest combines yoga with stand up paddleboarding. At the Fairmont Orchid resort on the Big Island, it’s called “Flo-Yo,” floating yoga. Classes are offered on paddleboards anchored in shallow water so students don’t drift away.


If you want a sense of yoga’s infinite potential for niche marketing, try typing the words “yoga for” into the search box of an online bookseller. You will get hundreds of hits, including yoga for golfers, nurses, scuba divers, computer users, osteoporosis and fibromyalgia sufferers, fat guys, children with autism disorders and so on. And while I haven’t seen a book yet, the foodies have also gotten their hands on yoga. At some Mainland studios multi-course meals are served immediately after yoga class so the yogis can savor the food in a state of heightened hedonistic awareness. A trace of this can be found at Balancing Monkey Yoga Center in Hilo, where advanced practitioners meet one evening a week for an experimental class that is conducted around a big bowl of chocolate. For two hours the yogis work on disliked poses or difficult poses they haven’t yet perfected, dipping into the bowl as needed. “Sometimes it gets so ridiculous you just have to stop and have chocolate,” says head Monkey Heather Heintz.


The constant reinvention of yoga can produce uncertain results. Men are almost always outnumbered in yoga classes by women, and Rachel Gonzales of Body Alive Yoga and Movement Studio in Wailuku wanted to do something about that. So she devised a class that emphasized strength building and rock music and called it Broga, yoga for bros. But the bros never showed. So Gonzales redefined Broga as “body rock yoga,” and now if a dude does drop in he gets to practice with the women. And then there’s Doga, which caters to another underrepresented group: dogs. Purists might have cringed, but that didn’t stop the Hawai‘i Humane Society from including doggie yoga in the lineup of its 2011 Thomas Square Canine Game Day.


From a spectator’s point of view, the most entertaining yoga hybrid has to be acroyoga, which borrows elements from the partner sport of acrobatic gymnastics. You might have caught an acroyoga demonstration at a street fair, around a nude-beach drum circle or—if you’re a mixed martial arts fan on the Big Island— before the debut cage fight of Kiko Nascimiento, an instructor at Yoga Centered in Hilo who fights under the name of Kiko the Freako. Kiko entered the arena accompanied by two lithesome women, and the three spent several minutes before the bout arranging themselves into complex, Chinese acrobat-like configurations as Kiko’s opponent waiting inside the octagon grew increasingly twitchy. Kiko then ripped off the Mexican wrestler’s mask he wore and went on to win the fight. Although the fans loved it, Kiko scrapped the acroyoga before his next fight, opting for tai chi and a little breakdancing instead. “I wanted to conserve energy,” he explains.


I get a taste of acroyoga myself at a Union Yoga class on Maui. The basic acroyoga building block involves three people: the base, who lies on the ground with feet up in the air; the flier, who balances on the base’s feet; and the spotter, who helps avert disaster. Union Yoga is an acroyoga brand created by a guy on Maui who has tried to put a Hawai‘i spin on things, such as calling the base “the mauka,” the flier “the makai” and the spotter “the da kine.” My class is taught by Deborah Dove Eudene, who has led acroyoga workshops at team-building retreats for Silicon Valley firms. “In this day and age of cellphones and text messages, it’s a great way to bring people together,” she says.


Deborah has big, dewy, hazel-brown eyes, which I become very aware of because before I can fly I have to stare into them and breathe somatically with her until we both feel in sync. But before that the whole class sits in a circle, and we make a heart sandwich, putting our left hand on our own chest and our right hand on the back of the person next to us, so that each of our hearts beats between two hands. After all the preliminaries, we balance on each other’s feet while stretching out our arms to fly like airplanes or grabbing our ankles in midair backbends. It’s a lot of fun, and by the end of class our little group of strangers has bonded. I tell Deborah that this really is a great way to bring people together, and she tells me about her dream of acroyoga at the highest levels of power. “I would love to see our political leaders in Congress breathing somatically together before making decisions,” she says. “I would love to see all the ambassadors at the United Nations starting their meetings in a big heart sandwich.”


There’s an image
in the popular imagination of the yoga instructor as a patient, imperturbable, blissed-out soul. That certainly wasn’t my first yoga instructor, who as I mentioned was Bikram Choudhury, the bad boy of yoga himself. This was in the early 1970s, when I was a little kid, Richard Nixon was president and Bikram was a bombastic competitive weightlifter and yogi fresh from Calcutta. He had a “yoga college” in the Queen Emma Building downtown, and my mother took me to his classes. Sometimes we were the only students, doing Cobra, Locust, Half-Moon and Shoulder Stands on our homemade foam rubber mats. Bikram’s teaching style was an alarming mixture of boasting about himself and browbeating us, with just enough encouragement tossed in that I didn’t totally hate him. He pushed us to get as deeply into poses as possible, telling us that Americans didn’t know how to breathe, that our joints were like concrete and that we only had five seconds left in this Cobra, so we’d better push deeper!


It was hell, although afterward I always felt great—all loose, tall and clear-headed. But those glimpses of what yoga had to offer were nothing compared with the superhuman abilities yoga had bestowed upon Bikram. In his lilting English he said he did not need to eat or sleep, that neither extreme heat nor cold bothered him, that he was actually fireproof not to mention bulletproof and that he was, in fact, the strongest man on Earth. He had no use for Western medicine because he could cure diseases with yoga, and if we didn’t believe him we could ask the scientists who had studied him or the world leaders he had healed. We could ask Richard Nixon, who might have been a one-legged president if not for Bikram.


None of Nixon’s biographers mention Bikram, nor does Nixon in his autobiography, but in Bikram’s own autobiography he recounts the story of his experience curing Nixon. “On one of my trips [to Hawai‘i] I was summoned to Oahu, where I was met by the governor of Hawaii and a bevy of Secret Service agents,” he writes. “I was whisked away in a stretch limousine to a hotel, where, on the sixth floor, I was presented to the U.S. president Richard Nixon. He was suffering from advanced thrombophlebitis in his left leg, lying in bed in excruciating pain and unable to walk. … I said, ‘Piece of cake. Bring me some Epsom salts.’” Bikram put Nixon and the salts in a hot bath and had the president do three days of hot water yoga. The treatment worked, the pain disappeared forever and a grateful leader of the free world personally handed Bikram his green card.


Among those who practice yoga in India are the ascetic sadhus, who renounce the material world, wander the mountains and forests and live in caves and temples. In India yoga is also associated with siddhis, or supernatural powers, such as clairvoyance, shape-shifting and imperviousness to thirst, hunger and temperature. Bikram, who lives in Beverly Hills and flaunts his diamond-encrusted Rolex watches and his fleet of Rolls-Royces, is certainly no sadhu. But some of his most over-the-top assertions do start to make sense in the context of yoga’s mystic tradition.


I like to think of Barat Das
—who has no car, no telephone and who looks far younger than somebody in his eighth decade of life should—as the sadhu of Kapi‘olani Park. I don’t think he considers himself a sadhu, but I know that when he was a spiritual seeker traveling around India in the 1970s, the sadhus had a big influence on him. For the past twenty years Das has been teaching yoga for free in Kapi‘olani Park beneath a Y-shaped yoga tree. Sometimes twenty people show up, sometimes two. If it’s rainy and nobody shows up, he wraps himself in a poncho and sits beneath the tree to meditate.


The day I come to practice in the park, Das gently clasps my shoulder and says, “Just try your best.” I stand with about fifteen other yogis in a big circle, setting aside my yoga mat and burying my toes in the grass. Das leads us through a physical yet meditative practice with lots of attention to the sun, the moon, Mother Earth and our breath. The sun is close to setting, and the moon happens to be out against a clear blue sky, making a convenient gazing point during balancing poses. It’s all very pleasant and peaceful … until the angry man goes nuts.


From beneath a nearby tree a furious man’s voice thunders through the park. At first it seems like a terrible argument, but gradually it becomes clear that it’s a monolog, filled with cryptic threats, racist slurs and ferocious denunciations of the pharmaceutical industry. Das has us all balancing on one leg with our arms stretched overhead in vriksasana, Tree Pose. He does not acknowledge the angry man but continues walking slowly around the circle, exhorting us to root our standing foot into the earth, stretch our arms toward the sky and keep our attention on our breath. We remain in Tree Pose for a long, long time, hearing the angry man’s meltdown but not attaching to it. We let it blow between us, around us and past us. We are a circle of trees swaying in a passing storm. We are practicing yoga. And at the end, after the sun has set and the storm has subsided, we om.