Bodies in motion

Allie MacLeod first entered the hot room of Bikram Yoga Halifax on a 30-day trial basis, but the body-positive environment and therapeutic benefits keep her practicing.

“I actually didn’t really believe in yoga before,” she recalls. “I had a lot of the usual doubts: that I was not flexible, not a yogi and that it wasn’t a good cardio workout, but I was proven wrong.”

MacLeod, a young professional, was diagnosed with juvenile (rheumatoid) idiopathic arthritis in her ankle, knee and wrist when she was five. The heat and movement of Bikram has given her strength and satisfaction to combat what ails her, physically and mentally.

“I’ve gone to various weight programs and attended all kinds of gyms, but this was the first place that was like, ‘hey, we will take you how you are now, and work with the body you have today,’” she says.

The foundation of Bikram, like most yoga, is to encourage students to breathe through their discomfort and find inner peace in their practice.

Bikram is said to be the original form of hot yoga because it was first developed by Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s. He designed this sequence specifically to be practiced in a room heated to 40.5°C with 40 per cent humidity.

The inviting and relaxed nature of the Grafton Street studio is polar, yet complementary, to the style of Bikram classes. This type of yoga is known for its intensity and rigidity.BIKRAM_3-resized

The class sequence is designed to be challenging and sweaty as students are led through 26 postures and two breathing exercises in 90 minutes. They do most postures (also called asanas) twice on each side. 

Every Bikram studio around the world follows the same sequence. Students know what to expect class after class, though some of the most familiar yoga poses, such as downward-facing dog or child’s pose, are not part of the Bikram sequence.

The teachers deviate little from a prescribed script, rattling off the instructions like a cross between a flight attendant and an auctioneer. Students are encouraged to go further, deeper, fuller, and then with the snapping of the teacher’s fingers, the students immediately release the pose.

It is this tourniquet effect that studio owner Kristin Johnston says is scientifically proven to allow blood to rush and heal the body. Once a non-believer, Johnston says Bikram’s sequence did “amazing things for her.” In 2011, she opened the first Bikram studio east of Montreal.

She says the intensity and specialized regime bring students back for more, especially men. She sees more men than women in some classes. Many of her regular students are professionals, or in their 50s and 60s.

Joanna Thurlow Murphy brought hot yoga to Atlantic Canada and started the steamy trend when she opened Moksha Yoga Halifax on Dresden Row in 2008.

The studio is a part of Moksha Yoga International, a Canadian company that also has American studios, called Modo Yoga. The wild success of Moksha at its downtown location led Thurlow Murphy to co-own two more studios in Bedford (2013) and in
St. John’s, Newfoundland (2012).

Thurlow Murphy practiced yoga for nearly 10 years before she found Moksha. “I have done pretty much every other style of yoga out there—some that I love and some that I don’t connect with at all—but I always come back to Moksha,” she says. “I hope to still be practicing the Moksha series when I’m 80!”

The traditional Moksha series consists of 40 poses in 60 minutes, practiced in a room heated between 35 and 40°C. Developed by former Bikram studio owners who wanted to offer a hot yoga series that was less restrictive, the sequence incorporates many recognizable poses (warrior and dancer’s pose) that mostly follow the same cycle each class.

There is some flexibility for teachers to adapt the series; however, most of the variety found at Moksha classes comes from the individual personalities of its teachers.

While the basic 60-minute class remains the most popular at HRM Moksha studios, the series has evolved with time to accommodate new scientific research and the community’s needs, says Thurlow Murphy. For instance, the Bedford location offers non-yoga classes as well as childcare.

The consistent nature of Bikram and Moksha helps beginners understand yoga poses by repetition and familiarity in their practice, says Kevin Dougall. While these series can get mechanical at a certain point, he says the consistency helped him find his footing as a beginner.

Dougall started practicing at Shãnti Hot Yoga studio when it was formerly a third Moksha location in the HRM. The studio’s co-owners wanted to break away from the Moksha mould to let teachers take more control of their classes. Shãnti Hot Yoga now has two locations, in Dartmouth and Bedford, with its third studio opening this summer in downtown Halifax.

Class descriptions do not truly exist at Shãnti. Two classes with the same name taught by different teachers may not resemble one another. And it’s rare that a teacher will choose to move students through the same sequence two classes in a row.

Students often attend classes based on the teacher rather than the timeslot. The majority of Shãnti’s classes are rooted in a vinyasa (flow) style with a lot of downward-facing dog poses and sun salutations. Most classes incorporate music that reflects the teacher’s personality.

Shãnti dropped more than the Moksha name when it changed its focus. The hot room can reach 35°C, much lower than the other hot rooms in the city. When the intensity of a class goes up, the heat goes down. Shãnti’s philosophy is that the fire of a practice should come from within. The room’s heat should never impact students’ ability to express a posture.

The first six months of his yoga practice were for “purely physical” reasons, Dougall says. Within one year his intentions for yoga changed when he had a calling to do something more with his practice.

“Once you do [yoga] a little while it goes deeper,” says the 32-year-old. “It has more of an impact on how you treat others, and yourself.” Dougall, who works as a technician, is now transitioning to become a full-time yoga teacher, and currently teaches part-time at Shãnti.

Beyond the many differences of these three types of yoga, there is a fundamental similarity. Each one is rooted in a firm belief that judgment is left at the door because the hot room is a place of personal growth and discovery. As one Shãnti teacher says: “as much as yoga is a workout, it is also a work-in.” 

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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