The wooden panelled floor felt cool under my feet as I walked into the steamy Bikram Yoga studio.
With four mirrors reflecting the participants, I could see four reflections of myself. The early birds were already warming up and they smiled at the nervous look on my face, as I was confronted by my image on the four mirrors.
I spotted an empty space in the back row and had just enough time to unroll my mat, lay my towel before the instructor, Africa Asencio, walked in.
We soon started with breathing exercises, which sent moist air deep into my lungs, before a 15-minute warm up session.
As I bent into the first standing posture, I focused on three things: mimicking the actions of the front row participants, the verbal cues from Africa as she walked around the room correcting alignment, and my breathing.
An hour into the class, I caught my sweaty reflection in the mirror thinking – that was one steamy satisfying workout. It was my first Bikram Yoga class, after hearing about a new studio had opened in town I decided to try out.
Bikram Yoga is popularly referred to as ‘hot yoga’ because the studio in which the 26 yoga postures are performed is heated to 40 degrees Celsius - an environment that enhances muscle flexibility.
The heat in Bikram Yoga softens the muscles allowing students to bend into poses they would not be able to do in a room at normal temperatures. The humidity encourages blood flow to different areas of the body flushing out toxins. The overall effect is a thorough cardiovascular workout.
“You put Bikram Yoga on the street with ten different types of yoga and it thrives,” said Karim Nathoo, co-director of Bikram Yoga Nairobi.
“The asanas (body positions) and the heat are a fantastic combination.” Bikram Yoga is the brain child of Indian born Bikram Choudhury who began practising yoga at the age of four.
He introduced it to the West through Hollywood actress Shirley Maclaine and President Richard Nixon who granted him a green card after Bikram healed his knee injury with yoga.
The concept took North America and Europe by storm with A-list celebrities such as Lady Gaga, David Beckham and George Clooney taking it up.
Today, there are over 2,000 Bikram Yoga studios globally. There are four in Africa – two in South Africa, Casablanca (Morocco) and now Nairobi.
Karim, 38 and his partner Emma Day, 35, opened the Nairobi studio on September 1 at the Lavington Green Shopping Centre. They invested about $100,000 (Sh8.5 million) to set up the 1,400 square feet studio, which has heated panels and a fog system and other amenities including changing rooms and a juice bar.
The studio can accommodate 70 students, but each class is limited to a maximum of 30 – with experienced students encouraged to take the front row and beginners behind so they can watch and learn. It’s recommended to do the yoga sessions on an empty stomach, the last meal being four hours before, and be well hydrated.
Emma says that after a session one is likely to crave something healthy like a juice or salad, thus the juice bar.
“Yoga helps you to build a connection between your mind and body. Bikram Yoga offers a really good workout,” said Emma. “There is no chanting or meditating. It is physical, and this makes it more accessible. It’s not religious in any way. This is a sport.”
“Whatever level you’re at, you come out feeling as if you’ve really worked your body but not beyond your limit.”
However, she admits it can be challenging and students can kneel or lie down for a break, in the room. “And after one or two classes, you’re hooked. If you don’t have this great feeling after three or four classes, then it’s not for you. But you need to try it,” she said.
Karim adds that by the end of a session, one feels like the floor is holding you up because one feels “a very deep relaxation.” While men generally think that yoga is not for them, Africa, my class instructor, says because of the softening effect of the heat, Bikram Yoga can be practised by anyone from the age of 13.
One of the oldest known instructors, based in the US, is 86- years-old. Karim and Emma work full time at the studio and are joined by a team of four travelling instructors from Canada, Spain, Australia and the US. Each has their own inspirational story of how Bikram Yoga helped them recover from health complications or accidents.
Karim, a Kenyan by birth and who grew up in Vancouver, found that Bikram Yoga helped him fight the symptoms of Hepatitis A, which he had contracted while working in the hospitality sector in Rwanda.
He worked as a business analyst in the health care industry in Vancouver and was introduced to yoga, which became an integral part of his life.
Emma discovered Bikram Yoga while studying in London. She became addicted to the intensity of the heat and the powerful reduction in stress that it facilitated.
A human rights lawyer from Vancouver, she hopes to continue her work in Kenya. Their decision to come to Kenya was motivated by a shared desire to set up a Bikram Yoga studio in a country that did not have one, a decision made easier by the fact that Karim has Kenyan roots.
To popularise the class, the studio is currently running promotions including a 20 per cent discount on a package of 10 consecutive days.
Since its soft launch this month the studio is attracting between 20 and 30 students per class, which is a comfortable number according to Karim.
To keep the numbers at this level, more sessions will be introduced according to demand. The formal launch will be in early October.