(This is the opening article in the blog series Bend It Like Becks and accompanying vlog series Some Luffit Hot for the British fitness website Luffit.com)
The humiliation of an instructor bawling me out for moving incorrectly during a workout put me off attending fitness classes for years.
My mum sent me to ballet classes when I was a kid to improve my coordination and balance. It didn’t work. I still fall over fairly regularly. I just laugh and pick myself up now, but it was hard to laugh off being scolded in front of the whole class when I was aged 18.
I tried to conquer my fears when an aerobics instructor friend persuaded me to join her class, but I ended up running out the room. I was worried a serious, sporty type would snipe at me for being stupid, just like that angry instructor did seven years earlier.
I thought I would never attend another class again if I couldn’t stay in one run by one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. Ten years later, I finally succeeded at the age of 35, when a good friend I can never say no to managed to persuade me to try the practice at Bikram Adelaide on a cold, South Australian winter’s day in 2012.
Now I luff going to Bikram yoga, which instructor Bikram Choudhury founded by taking 26 poses from the ancient practice of Hatha yoga into a hot room to mimic his native India and named it after himself.
While temperatures in hot yoga can vary from 27C (80F) to 38C (100F), Bikram studios are typically heated to a searing 40 degrees with 40 per cent humidity. I love heat and feel more comfortable with the familiarity of doing the same poses every time.
I discovered the moves require a great deal of concentration in the sauna-like conditions, so no one looks at anyone else, just at their own posture in the mirror. No one judges you.
Bikram Barcelona instructor Lisa Phillips says you have to keep your ego at the door because there’s no room for it in the hot room.
“Because it’s so challenging, no one’s going to think they’re special because you’re focused on getting through that class,” she told Luffit.
“Everybody is the same, no matter who you are.”
The teachers are generally more relaxed and will quietly walk around the room, helping people get into posture, rather than call them out for stuffing up.
I’m still extremely uncoordinated and lack physical balance, but Lisa assures me the Bikram will help over time. It just takes regular practice and dedication.
Bikram has already helped stretch my Achilles a little, although I still can’t perform some of the moves because the heel muscles are so tiny and have barely stretched since I was a kid. I naturally walk on my tiptoes, so I live in high-heeled shoes because they’re more comfortable than flats. That exacerbates the problem, so I’m my own worst enemy.
My dodgy feet mean I’m OK at the Utkatasana, or Awkward Pose, which requires practitioners to squat down on their toes with their arms outstretched, but I struggle with any pose involving heel work.
I still look like a beginner each time I attend class. So it’s probably just as well my practising Bikram yoga has coincided with becoming a globetrotting freelance journalist after more than 10 years of working in newsrooms.
Bikram classes are held in many countries around the world, so it can offer the perfect holiday workout.
The 90-minute classes are gruelling and sometimes they can make you feel lightheaded, dizzy and nauseous. Some people are sick. Occasionally someone will faint or have a seizure, according to Dr John Porcari, head of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Clinical Exercise Physiology programme.
Dr Porcari oversaw a new study, published in the Gundersen Medical Journal by researchers at the university’s Department of Exercise and Sport Science that found the average body temperature for men was 39°C (103°F) and 38°C (102°F) for women.
The researchers monitored a class of 20 Bikram practitioners, ranging in age from 28 to 67, who were acclimatised to the hot, humid environment by getting the volunteers to swallow a core body temperature sensor and wore a heart-rate monitor during class.
The heart rates were in the normal range for exercise, but everyone’s body temperature increased. One man’s temperature reached 40°C (105°F), putting him at risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
But Dr Porcari says there are health benefits to practicing Bikram and people don’t die from it, so he would not go as far to say the yoga is dangerous but side effects shown in the study were a concern if people did not take precautions.
“As long as people stay adequately hydrated and are aware of the signs and symptoms of heat related illness,” Dr Porcari told Luffit.
“If they get lightheaded, they should just step out of the room and cool themselves down.”
Some Bikram studios let you sip whenever you want. Others advise water breaks. Some insist on it, which Dr Porcari says can be dangerous if you’re dehydrated. It just varies, but there are enough studios around to pick one that suits you.
I love water and 10 years of living in Australia, including the harsh semi-arid zone of central Australia taught me to ensure I’m always hydrated. I make sure I drink at least 1.5 litres of water before I attend class and plenty after too.
I also find not drinking caffeine two hours before class helps too. I learned the hard way you should never drink alcohol the night before class. That was a long 90 minutes.
Given the amount of Bikram studios around the world, it could work well for helping keep fit while on holiday – just stay away from the sangria until after class.
Read the full blog series on Luffit.com.