Bend it like Bikram: Area execs take the heat for health

TRAVERSE CITY – It appears a number of area professionals are hot for Bikram Yoga. Numerous business owners, doctors and others regularly visit the Bikram Yoga studio in town and take on a workout that pushes-and stretches-their bodies in ways that feel good and keep them coming back for more.

Known as the original "Hot Yoga," Bikram Yoga is practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit with 50 percent humidity. There is a whole lot of sweating going on, and that's by design.

The studio's owners, Brandon Kietzman and Jenna Doherty, follow the teachings of yoga master Bikram Choudhury, widely recognized for bringing the practice to the West and founder of the worldwide Yoga College of India. The heated room is meant to resemble the climate of India, where Choudhury was born. The heat warms the muscles and purportedly allows for a greater workout, helps prevent injuries and causes sweating, which rids the body of toxins.

Sara Harding, like most regulars, attends class two to three times a week.

"I love it," said Harding, who is communications director for the Financial & Investment Management Group in downtown TC.

"It's a complete and total release," she said, describing herself as a type-A personality. "For me, it's relaxing. It's that break from not only work, but the world. And when you walk out, you feel like you accomplished something."

For Chad Albaugh, lifelong back pain that completely disappeared after a few weeks of doing Bikram Yoga was enough to get him hooked. Albaugh, who co-owns NuArt Signs with his brother, Michael, also emphasized the "totally de-stressing" aspect as a big reason he's done it for nearly two years. While he acknowledged that the heat took some getting used to, the strength and flexibility he has built have "done wonders" for his volleyball and golf games.

"It's not for everybody," Albaugh said. "You have to be a little bit driven. But if you're consistent with it, your body will respond."

Kietzman and Doherty came to town in late 2004 from southern Michigan where they were both yoga instructors. Since opening the Garfield Road studio in March 2005, some 3,250 people have tried Bikram Yoga at their studio at least once, Kietzman said. The studio currently sees an average of 700 students a week.

Every 90-minute class is identical, with either Kietzman, Doherty or one of the other instructors leading students through a series of 26 poses designed to strengthen muscles, ligaments and joints and stimulate the organs, glands and nerves.

"These are the original poses, nothing has been changed," said Kietzman of the Bikram yoga method. They are taken from the 84 classic poses of hatha yoga, and when repeated in a specific sequence believed to provide the maximum benefits in health and flexibility.

District Court Judge Mike Haley is another regular who first tried it two years ago when he had chronic pain in his shoulder blades and neck and had heard about Bikram's benefits for the entire spine.

"It felt really good right away," Haley said. "After several months, I felt long-lasting change in the elimination of some of those problems." He also feels more flexible and has more endurance when he bikes or skies, he said. "It's a great workout."

After 90 minutes of "not thinking of anything else," Haley said he believes it makes one "sharper in serving the other people in your life," both at work and at home.

"It's a nice mental timeout," he said.

Bonnie Alfonso, who owns Alfie Embroidery in town, said her practice of Bikram Yoga has helped with focus and concentration and instilled balance in her life. She began practicing to help recover from an accident several years ago that severely injured her leg. She continues with it to maintain the flexibility she's gained and to ward off arthritis.

"This yoga attracts very strong-willed people, very successful people," said Kietzman. "I think it's a matter of priority. People who are successful have learned the lesson of priority."

The studio's classes have steadily increased in size. Albaugh recalled that when he started, a full class was 10 participants. Now, class sizes occasionally reach 55.

By day, Carolyn Keith is an anesthesiologist at Munson. In her time-crunched schedule, she likes any exercise she's able to squeeze in to be aerobic. She was curious about Bikram and gave it a shot. That was two and a half years ago.

"Doing yoga in 105 degrees gets your heart rate going," she said. "It's fun, and kind of addicting."

Keith recently completed a "60-day challenge," in which she attended a class every day. "I just wanted to see if I could do it," she added.

She even recruited her husband, Dr. John Bruder, a local orthopedic surgeon.

Other physicians who regularly practice include Dr. Ron Chao, Dr. Mary Clifton, Dr. Jim McDonnell and Dr. Laura Danz.

Check out bikramyogatc.com for more information and a class schedule.

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