|Bikram Yoga: A Real Solution for Chronic Pain|
|Monday, 01 February 2010 01:14|
By Stephanie Neil
A 2005 survey by ABC News, USA Today and the Stanford University Medical Center found that more than half of Americans live with chronic or recurrent pain, and about four in ten Americans say pain interferes with their mood, activities, sleep, ability to do work, or enjoyment of life. The chronic pain I've been living with since a car accident in October 2006 has taken a serious toll on my relationships, and it has negatively affected my quality of life. After trying an exhausting number of treatments, including over-the-counter and prescription medications, massage, chiropractic care and physical therapy, that totaled over $10,000 in out-of-pocket expenses last year, I became fed up. None of the treatments I sought had lasting effects. Some doctors even told me that my current state of pain was as good as I was ever going to feel.
One day I found myself atop my physical therapist's stretching machine, frustrated about my lack of progress and perplexed as to what I was going to do to change the pattern of pain my body had become accustomed to. The aide said to me, "You know, you should try Bikram yoga. The heat really loosens your muscles up." Curious, I asked friends what they knew about this "hot yoga." A friend that had taken Bikram yoga classes in San Francisco told me how intense the classes were, how you get so drenched in sweat it's like you jumped in a pool. "You may see stars or feel nauseous," my friend warned me, and I felt nervous to try it.
It seems that most people with chronic pain often resort to yoga out of desperation. I know I was desperate for a real solution to getting my life back. I started researching. PAIN, the official journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain, published a study in 2005 that focused on yoga as a treatment for chronic low-back pain and found that participation in Hatha yoga classes once a week was associated with significant and sustained reductions in pain intensity, functional disability and pain medication. After learning that performing yoga just once a week could improve my quality of life, I decided to find a Bikram yoga studio and give it a try. While I had tried different forms of yoga before, there was something about the heat that I was attracted to. My particular musculoskeletal problems weren't responding to the treatments and stretches I was already performing.
Bikram yoga is a challenging 90-minute series of 26 postures (asanas) and 2 breathing exercises (pranayama) in a room that's heated to 105 degrees with about 40% humidity. Choudhury published Bikram Yoga in 2007, and his book is made up of three sections: his autobiography, along with an explanation of Bikram yoga; the program's two breathing exercises and 26 poses, which are described in detail and demonstrated by the author in photographs; and the role yoga plays in bringing happiness and self-realization to people's lives. His trademarked style of Hatha yoga is known as "hot yoga" because it requires the room to be heated "to forge bodies and minds of steel." The heat allows for a deeper stretching of muscles, while minimizing the risk of injury, an increased heart rate, and detoxification of the body through its pores.
Choudhury first registered his copyright for Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class in 1979. In 2002, Choudhury filed for additional copyright for the yoga sequence itself under 17 U.S.C. Section 410, which set off debates about intellectual property rights. The case ended up settling out of court with a mutual agreement that no one can advertise the trademarked name "Bikram" without authorization from Choudhury. Many yoga studios promote "hot yoga," which is any form of Hatha yoga performed in a heated room. Practitioners of this style still experience the benefits of the heat, but may not be aware of Choudhury's philosophy or exact practice.
Choudhury chose his sequence of 26 postures (from the original 84 asanas), for their "synergistic" effect on the body. The Bikram method claims to stimulates organs, glands and nerves, moving blood to 100% of the body by utilizing the Tourniquet Effect, in which "high speed" blood floods through vessels after they've momentarily been squeezed shut. This pressurizing effect is supposed to flush out debris, quickening circulation and releasing stress. The Tourniquet Effect is also supposed to help cleanse the lymphatic system. The repetition of Savasana (dead body pose) allows blood to return to all the tissues in the body.
Some might think that doing yoga in a room that's heated to 105 degrees sounds crazy. Maybe growing up in Fresno was good for me after all, because the heat isn't as torturous as I expected. It feels good to warm your body up and get blood flowing through all your limbs. Choudhury's theory is that 105 degrees is the optimum temperature for the body to reorganize its muscles. They say muscle has memory, and I can attest to the body's ability to go right back to where it's used to being. I started going to Bikram yoga for three weeks, and made real progress in my body's limitations. My schedule was too full around the holidays and with plenty of excuses, before I knew it, two weeks had gone by with no yoga. The pain in my neck was back to post-injury level, over a year later. Getting back in the studio took dedication and perseverance. My range of motion was severely limited again, and at one point in class I actually cried out of frustration. Bikram yoga is hard work, but the benefits are numerous. It may hurt to stretch, especially if you have limited range of motion, but for anyone who's lived in chronic pain, you realize that it's a good hurt. In these asanas you find your limitations and weaknesses, and slowly you retrain your body to perform the way it was designed to.
The routine of Bikram yoga never varies; you do the same poses in the same order every time, repeating them once. In the first set you discover your edge of discomfort, and in the second set you push further. Some days are easier than others as my body is always changing. Just going once a week will make a difference in the way you carry yourself. You'll be able to stand up straighter, with improved balance and posture. At first you'll be exhausted and you'll get the best night's sleep you've had in a long time. But then your energy increases, and when you walk out of the studio, you'll feel euphoric.
All along I knew that I needed to do the work myself, but I found it impossible to make myself regularly stretch at home. After I started going to Bikram yoga, my outlook on life changed, too. I began to realize that my healing, or lack thereof, was connected to more than just the physical. I feel like a total hippie saying this, but Bikram yoga has changed my life for the better. There is something about it that improves your mood, and despite still having some limitations and my pain not being 100% cured, my outlook on life is more positive. Even though I'm burnt out at my job, people around me started asking me what was different, because I was happy despite my environment being unchanged. Choudhuryâ€™s claim that it will bring happiness to your life is true. It doesn't matter how old you are, what kind of shape you're in, whether you've ever done yoga before, or even if you have some kind of physical or medical challenge to face. As Bikram's guru, Bishnu Ghosh, taught him as a child, "It's never too late, it's never too bad, and you're never too old or sick to start from scratch once again."
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