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Finding the Bengal tiger in you

Karen Ann Monsy / 18 January 2013

Yoga in sweltering temperatures? Alisha Moopen, founder of a new Bikram yoga studio here, says the fitness option is a lot cooler than it seems

You don’t need to venture past the clear glass door of the RAWR yoga studio’s hot room for an idea of the heat that awaits. The warmth of the glass door says enough. The seven or eight attendees inside are attempting the complicated-looking Eagle pose, where you wrap your limbs together (not unlike twisted ropes) and maintain balance on a single leg for 20-30 seconds… in 105°F heat. It’s only the third warm-up exercise, but some of them are already fanning themselves. You want to down some ice lemonade just watching them. It’s a 90-minute class that’s only begun. Welcome to Bikram yoga.

To be honest, this form of yoga is no new trend, having evolved in the 70s after Calcutta-born Bikram Choudhury developed it from traditional hatha yoga techniques. Thousands of sweaty devotees continue to swarm his classes in Los Angeles today — while his brand of 26 postures is one of the hottest yoga forms among celebs too. From David Beckham to Lady Gaga and Madonna, everybody, it seems, is turning up the heat.

Co-founder of the RAWR yoga studio (it’s a play on the word ‘roar’, named in reference to Bikram’s philosophy of releasing the Bengal tiger in you) Alisha Moopen is the first to admit that 90 minutes in a hot room would be her “idea of hell”. That was before a friend invited her to try a class in Dubai. “I have a very low threshold for heat,” she says. “I remember thinking: living in Dubai, why would you even want to do something like that! It takes 3-4 sessions but once you get used to the heat, it’s quite easy to love it.”

The 31-year-old, who works as director of strategy for leading healthcare provider Dr Moopen’s Group during the day, opened the studio in Dubai Media City last August when she didn’t find the local yoga scene (“30-35 sweaty people in a small space”) too appealing. It was perhaps this that led her and her partner Natasha Stephenson to adopt a large space, with a mirror across one wall and large windows overlooking the Palm and Jumeirah beach across the other three. “Bei-ng in a room that’s so hot for so long can make you claustrophobic. So getting the ambience right was important.” With views of the sunset over the water and the Dubai skyline at night, it certainly won’t feel like you’re in a hot room on the 25th floor, that’s for sure.

Surprisingly, the most challenging aspect of the studio so far hasn’t been about building a business, but a community. They have a large space outside the hot room where people can socialise, and where they’ve also started selling yoga wear and cool refreshments, including coconut water. Classes are offered everyday for both men and women, but ladies-only classes are available on request as well.

Unlike other fitness options, yoga lets you push only as much as you want, Alisha says. “It’s not like at the gym where your trainer can increase the speed on your treadmill... Growing up, I always struggled a lot with my weight. I tried everything from swimming to aerobics but in the last few months, I can actually feel the detoxing effects of Bikram yoga now, thanks to the heat.” The mum-of-two prefers the late evening class at 8.30pm so she can have a shower and sleep like a baby after. “All that breathing and stretching can really help to calm the mind.” Her only concern now is “finding those 90 minutes” in her busy schedule.

Health concerns about the heat have been raised in the past but Alisha points out you have to listen to your body. “In the beginning, your aim should be to sit through the entire class. Your body will initially reject the heat, of course, because it’s not used to it.” If at any point, participants feel breathless or dizzy, they’re always advised to take a break. Apart from that though, there are no serious concerns with the form of exercise that essentially dates back thousands of years. “It’s a total mind-body workout. You’ve got to try it to believe it.”



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