London - Joseph Encinia has an incredible body. His honed, muscular physique is worthy of an Olympian. But it is what he can do with it that is most astonishing. We are chatting in a lobby of the Radisson Hotel, at Los Angeles Airport, when he asks: “Do you want me to do full Locust?”
He lies on his front, arms sandwiched beneath his body. Slowly, he raises his legs, at first to about 45 degrees, so yes, he looks a bit like a locust. Then the legs continue to rise, so they are vertical and beyond, until his knees bend and he places his feet on top of his head.
His body forms an almost perfect circle. As if this wasn’t enough, he gracefully hoists himself up on to straightened arms. I feel I should clap – but I’m simply too gobsmacked. We are not watching a circus act, and Joseph isn’t a contortionist. He is a yoga teacher.
And more remarkable than this act of superhuman bendiness is that just eight years ago the 27-year-old Texan was confined to a hospital bed having suffered heart failure, a side effect of the medication used to control juvenile arthritis. He credits his transformation to yoga. In particular, Bikram Yoga, a patented series of 26 poses (of which Locust is one) and two breathing exercises performed in a room heated to a sweltering temperature of 40.5degC).
To its legions of devotees, the practice is responsible for near miracles they claim it can alleviate the symptoms of everything from arthritis to depression and infertility
Joseph is an extreme case in point. At eight years old, he was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis and put on steroids, painkillers and other anti-inflammatories. Side effects were severe: migraines and stomach ulcers. Then, aged 13, he suffered a heart attack, likely to have been triggered by the drugs he was on. “After that I was told not to exercise,” he says. “The pain and swelling became less in my late teens but I was still uncomfortable and not very mobile, so I put on a lot of weight. I had a walking stick.”
A friend told him to try Bikram Yoga. “My doctors said with my heart, it was a no-no. But I ignored them. After the first few weeks my joints felt better. My teachers just told me not to push myself. Two years later I came off all the medication, again against the will of my doctors. I’ve not needed to go back to them since.”
If he had told me this story a few years ago, I would have said it was wishful thinking - he could have got better anyway. Like many, I had consigned yoga to the crank files.
But there has been a sea change in the medical world. Today, the Oxford University Department of Psychiatry has produced evidence of the neurological changes that occur as a result of meditation.
Research suggests that it is as effective as antidepressant medication. Bone density, sleep quality and stress have also been shown to improve.
Now Harvard Medical School is studying whether Bikram Yoga could also be a treatment for depression. Doctors believe these Eastern practices once favoured by hippies and yummy mummies could be the key to treating some of the 21st Century’s most common illnesses.
Aside from dramatic tales of healing, Bikram Yoga is one of the fitness world’s most enduring success stories. Today there are more than 500 Bikram studios worldwide. And these are just official classes.
Type hot yoga uk into an internet search engine and hundreds more classes pop up. To find out more, I travelled to Los Angeles, where the phenomenon began, to meet the students who have devoted their lives to its study, and the man who started it all - Bikram Choudhury.
The location of the Bikram Yoga training camp couldn’t be further from nirvana: the Radisson LAX is a greying box of a building, next to LA’s LAX airport. From the pool at the back, you can practically smell the runway.
But twice a year this less-than-glamorous location transforms into what could be described as an ashram as 500 men and women from all over the globe descend to live, sweat and breathe hot yoga.
I arrive at 10am to see the students leaving their first class of the day, drenched in sweat, hair hanging in rats tails or plastered to foreheads, rosy-cheeked and beaming. And many of them have stories that are similar to Joseph’s.
So just how could doing yoga in a hot room be a treatment for illness? Aside from being a combination of muscle-strengthening and cardiovascular exercises, the major benefits seem to be neurological.
Professor Mark Williams, clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry, says it has great potential for alleviating long-term pain conditions such as arthritis.
He explains: “It has been shown by measuring electrical and chemical activity that meditation alone may bring about structural changes in the brain. The amygdala the part that controls panic shrinks. This is why it can be an effective treatment for depression and for pain, because much of the problem is feelings of hopelessness that come with endless discomfort. Yoga was developed as a preparation for meditation and it may have the same effect.”
Dr Maren Nyer, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, who is leading the Harvard study, says: “We think the health effects these people experience may be due to the synergy of mindfulness, intense exercise and heat all of which have been associated with the treatment of depression.”
Bikram has in the past dismissed those who have questioned the medical validity of his health claims but today, alongside the Harvard links, there seems to be a drive to further legitimise the true physical benefits. Perhaps this is because the practice has been dogged by controversy. Back injuries, pulled muscles and torn ligaments have, it is claimed, been the result of attending classes - although the same could be said for any sport: even Zumba dance classes are potentially risky. One can t help wondering about the safety of such an activity for those with pre-existing health concerns.
As Michael Rennie, Professor of Clinical Physiology at the University of Nottingham, says: “Anyone with a dicky heart or high blood pressure might run into trouble. For young, fit people it’s OK, but you need to be aware of your health status.”
Advocates claim only the Bikram brand of hot yoga offers real healing. There is no real evidence of this, although the Harvard study should provide some. Prof Williams says: “It is very difficult to say what is the precise combination of components that make any treatment work. You might see the same effects with other kinds of hot yoga, or even ordinary yoga. Until we have the evidence, we should be sceptical but also open-minded and curious.”
So what does Bikram himself think of the new medical interest? “Most researchers sit at a table and read books,” he says. “My research, since three years old, has been to use my own body.” He adds with characteristic overstatement: “Now I have helped half a billion people.”
Bikram began practising yoga after a youthful career in weight-lifting led to a knee injury that threatened to stop him walking. Once he became a teacher, he found that if he closed the windows of his studio in his native Calcutta, it became very hot and his students could stretch further. He started to visit Los Angeles in the Seventies to give lessons, and then emigrated. He claims to have taught Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton.
Liz Taylor, David Beckham, George Clooney, Lady Gaga and Beyonce have been to classes.
The yoga world has been critical. It costs £6,000 as a one-off fee if you want to open a Bikram Yoga studio and this, claim naysayers, is the antithesis of the yoga philosophy, which is about spreading spiritual enlightenment not making loads of money.
In response, he has told journalists of his fleet of Roll-Royces and that he has the biggest pool in Beverly Hills . He says he is Jesus and Elvis, rolled into one. Incorrigible is one way of putting it, but this grandstanding has diverted attention from the remarkable health story.
Bikram says his series is designed to stimulate every organ and gland, bringing about perfect harmony.
Being able to do full Locust won’t be achievable for most people, but just attempting it gives benefits. Again, at present there is no evidence to support this. But some-thing s going on.
So why does he believe this yoga has such an effect? “The meaning of yoga is connection of mind, body and spirit,” he says. “If you have a bad telecommunication system your body gets sick. Yoga helps fix that.”
“People say when they do Bikram Yoga they still have pain but they don t care. It makes them psychologically solid.”
As we part, he says: “Worry makes you sick. Worry less, live as long as you like.”
It s idealistic, and slightly bonkers. But in many ways, he and the experts at Oxford and Harvard seem to agree.
DR ELLIE CANNON SAYS:
Exercise is a key treatment for depression and osteoporosis, reduces the risk of some cancers progressing or coming back, and speeds recovery after a heart attack.
Many patients with heart conditions wrongly think vigorous activity is out of bounds. As long as precautions are taken, this is not the case.
But anyone signing up to a gym will have to fill out some kind of disclaimer form confirming they don’t suffer a long-term condition and if they tick the boxes saying they do, they end up being sent back to their doctor, and many feel discouraged.
As a GP, I would instantly say yes to yoga given it is a low-intensity but effective exercise.
But I do feel Bikram Yoga may present different risks due to the temperature and the intensity of the positions. Some patients with heart conditions need to avoid weights, press-ups, and standing up quickly because these things affect blood pressure dramatically.
It is intensity that leads Bikram to being such an effective exercise. Patients with significant heart disease should approach such a class with a great deal of caution, although not rule it out.
ALISON FACED A HIP OP... NOW SHE HAS NO PAIN
The most persuasive argument for the effectiveness of Bikram Yoga comes from students themselves. Alison, 48, a teacher from Cambridge, has been a devotee for 11 years.
“I was a gym person,” she says. “Then I started getting really bad pain in my left hip and was diagnosed with arthritis. They said I’d need a hip replacement - I was 35.”
Her doctor recommended yoga, and her local gym happened to offer hot classes. “I limped in, and walked out. I started doing Bikram three or four times a week. I’ve had no pain since, and I’m not on any medication.”
Later Sam, 21, a music student from Leicestershire, tells me he was put on antidepressants aged 18, and came off them last year, he believes, thanks to Bikram Yoga.
Lascel, 29, also from London, suffers from trigeminal neuralgia (TN), a painful facial nerve condition that is the legacy of reconstructive surgery he had after being mugged. TN is so severe that those who suffer long-term are recognised to be a suicide risk. He starting doing Bikram three years ago.
“After the first class I felt better. The pain is still there but I don’t need to take medication,” he says. “I can deal with it now. I know I can do a class and concentrate and focus and then the pain isn’t so hard to handle.”
Carrie, 35, from New York, woke one day 18 months ago to find that she was paralysed on one side of her body. She had three slipped discs. Last summer she was told that surgery was her only option.
Then a friend suggested Bikram Yoga. Carrie says: “In three months, I wasn’t taking pills to get to sleep. Within six months, I came off everything. The pain is still there, but by practising yoga each day she can cope. Some days it’s a one, and I feel nothing, and some days it’s a ten, but then after class it’s a four. I would never consider surgery now.”
Like the others, Lascel has paid about £7,000 to come and study yoga full-time.
“Not everyone who does this has a health problem, but many of the teachers who devote their lives to it have been in a lot of pain, like me,” he says.
Later I join a 500-strong class. The heat, generated by giant blowers, is clammy at first but not oppressive. But after doing a few poses I am drenched with sweat. I see Carrie perform a series of difficult moves - one with her once-paralysed leg - with ease.
Alison seems to have no trouble with Triangle Pose, which involves a huge step to the side on the hip that doctors told her needed replacing.
Afterwards, I feel exhilarated. It was gruelling but, oddly, I’m keen to do it again. - Daily Mai