Triple digit yoga: It's sweaty. It's intense. It's Bikram yoga.

Bikram features poses that can fold practitioners into origami-like figures.
If you miss the triple-digit heat of summer and are itching to get a bit of exercise, Amy Pittelkau has a deal for you.

Pittelkau recently opened Blue Moon Yoga, a northeast Fresno studio that specializes in Bikram yoga. It's a standardized program of 26 poses performed in 90 minutes inside a room heated to 105 degrees.

Sweating yet?

Like other forms of yoga, Bikram emphasizes balance and a mind-body connection. It also features poses that, when performed masterfully, fold practitioners into origamilike figures.

But in addition to the heat (yes, even during summer--a specially engineered commercial furnace keeps the temperature high), Bikram differs from other types of yoga in its strict regimen, intensity and constant instruction.

"This yoga is so demanding," Pittelkau says. "You want to see what you're made of in class. You work to your capacity."

Romy Yoshimoto of Fresno takes four yoga classes a week. Until now, she's had to travel beyond the Valley to satisfy her craving for Bikram.

While she enjoys how limber she feels while doing it, she is ambivalent about this approach to yoga.

"I like the fact that it's so extreme," she says. "The moment you walk into the room, you're very warm. So you're working at your maximum.

"On the other hand, I can't handle it that often. It's like a treat to me because it's so extreme. You never want too much of a good thing. You just sweat too much."

Pittelkau says some people call Bikram "boot camp" yoga.

She began practicing in 1999 while living in San Francisco. A dental hygienist who swam, ran and lifted weights as a bodybuilder, Pittelkau began suffering chronic disabilities related to fibromyalgia, an arthritis-related condition.

"I was immobile," she says. "I couldn't drive. I was bedridden. I was sleeping 16 hours a day. I was taking medication."

Her physical therapist suggested yoga. Though Pittelkau was reluctant to go, once she started, she was immediately smitten.

"I was blown away," she says. She watched in awe as a woman nearby, a dancer, moved through her poses. "It wasn't her flexibility or her beauty. It was her stillness. She was calm. She seemed so in control of her mind and her body."

A year later, many of Pittelkau's symptoms had waned. She was ready to start teaching. After moving to San Luis Obispo, she opened a studio in 2001. She sold the business four years later, after moving to North Fork.

Pittelkau, 43, has tried other types of yoga.

"I call it cold yoga," she says. "I love the heat. So when I take a cold-yoga class, I feel tight. I feel congested in my body. I don't feel like I can move as freely."

Yoshimoto first tried a Bikram yoga class in Sacramento a few years ago after a long night of partying. It was not pretty.

"I almost passed out twice, since I had so many toxins in my body," she says. "It was hot."

She has reservations about the strict program, which was developed by Bikram Choudhury of India. But she's happy to have it as one option among many yogas.

"Bikram is militant," Yoshimoto says. "To me, that defeats the philosophy of yoga: 'Do what you can.'"

Generally, in yoga, "There are lots of variations for a certain pose," she says. "You do what you're in the mood for, do what you're feeling.

If you're hurting, don't push it. Where this is the same 26 poses, whatever Bikram studio you go to. It's standardized. It's Starbucks."

Still, it appeals to certain athletic types who might otherwise be reluctant to try yoga.

The contrast between the soft, soothing ambiance of many classes and the Bikram that Pittelkau teaches is evident right away. Among the poses students strike are common ones, such as the Rabbit and the Camel, but the result is more hot and sweaty than soft and fuzzy.

Pittelkau's instruction is nonstop, freewheeling and blunt.

"I remember taking a Sunday morning class for my second class, thinking, 'Sunday morning. Quiet!'" Pittelkau says. "But that's how this yoga is conducted."

She's part drill sergeant, part cheerleader. Between suggestions on how the students should move--"Let your head drop like a 10-pound bowling ball"--she explains the reality of exercising in what amounts to a sauna.

"If you see some stars, you're doing it right," she says. "It's not unusual to have room spins after that pose."

The lights are left on. There's no meditative music. A mirror takes up one wall, running the length of the room.

Jennifer Peracchi Harmon, 28, of Fresno, began taking Bikram classes from Pittelkau a few years ago in San Luis Obispo. After moving to Fresno, she'd given up the practice until Blue Moon Yoga opened.

She likes having the mirror staring her in the face.

"It forces you to become connected with yourself," she says. "If you fall out of your posture, you see that. You feel it, and you experience it, and you have to get back into it and do it again."

Pittelkau says she encounters three types of students:

"One says: 'This is kind of cool. I like this kind of challenge. It's hot, but I'm going to check it out and do my best.'

"The second kind is: 'I'm not sure about this. I think I want to leave. I think I'm going to vomit.'

"Then the third one: 'I'm out of here. You're a bitch, and your hot yoga sucks.'"

Fortunately, Stephanie Massetti, 27, of Fresno, is the first kind of student. She hits the gym several times a week to lift weights and run on the treadmill, but she'd never taken a yoga class before Blue Moon's opening night.

She had no problems with most of the poses, nor the heat.

"I felt like I was actually working and cleansing my body, detoxifying," she says.

Harmon knows what she means. "Being in an air-conditioned room for 45 minutes doesn't cut the cake," she says. "Bikram is a challenge. It is a mind-body-spirit connection. It brings you together. I feel more grounded, so I can be more productive.

"It's a great workout, so I don't have to go run."


The reporter can be reached at dmayhew@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6322.
Copyright (c) 2006, The Fresno Bee, Calif.
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