Upside down, sweat streaming into both eyes, is not a usual position for inspiration to strike. But it was at precisely that degree of akimbo when I realised that this week’s ‘Why It Matters’ had to be about Bikram North.
The fact is that the UK’s first ever studio for practicing this unforgiving series of 26 balances, twists and compressions in a super-heated room was right here, through a little door above a shop and café in Queen’s Crescent.
Back in 2000, owner and tutor Michèle Pernetta opened Bikram North and ever since there has been no looking back, with expansion of her own empire and the whole hot yoga concept continuing apace throughout the UK. It’s a phenomenon, complete with crazed devotees, bitter critics and celebrity endorsed column inches. Alexander Mcqueen was one of the early celebs to slip inside the low key doorway here – and there have been many others.
It’s often said that this hardcore, very modern form of a very ancient practice is not true to the ‘spiritual’ nature of a yogic system. However, having thrashed about in cloying dust atop a sweltering Indian hillside trying to feel the essence of the yogic experience myself, I’d say it’s probably a fair few degrees closer to ‘the truth’ than the softly-lit, incense-filled, wood-sprung-floored interpretations.
The Queen’s Crescent studio is therefore purposefully harsh. It’s all strip lighting and breeze blocks, with the amplified motivational script of the teacher competing with a roaring industrial heater and the unnerving proximity of one’s nose to the sweaty gusset in front – a proper, Indian style assault on the senses.
With the market detritus being swept up downstairs and fragrant cooking aromas wafting from the blocks of flats all around, Bikram in this gritty location feels right. Much as I’d prefer to rise early, bathe in a freshwater lake and embark on two hours of naked Ashtanga in the dawn sunlight, steaming across the drizzy West Kentish industrial estate after work requires an altogether more intense experience to get me into the meditative zone.
Bikram is the great leveller. People of all abilities are together in one class, with always a few virgins in each session. After 20 mins, many of them look like they will never return. But they do, since there are plenty of regulars. One of the joys is how quickly you can witness your own body-sculpting, limb-stretching progress – if you can stick it out.
That includes facing the annoyingly repetitive script the instructors have to stick to, the lack of personal mat space (particularly in January, of course) and congested changing rooms. But this is Bikram, it’s tough, and there’s passion to be had from that.
As creepy and litigious as fitness cult founder Mr. Bikram is regularly portrayed to be in the press, I’m hooked on a regular sweatfest at his first UK outpost. I relish my trips to this sweaty corner of Gospel Oak’s big 1970s town planning experiment.
From all the evidence it really shouldn’t be any good, but it is. Such an intense detox pays all sorts of dividends too. The physical payback is rather addictive. But more importantly it’s rewarding to spend time focusing on the physical instead of the virtual. And it’s nice to know we can do that so comprehensively in 90 mins without having to up sticks to a lakeside ashram.
As we are wont to say, West Kentish Town can lay claim to many unexpected things, and you can add ‘spiritual’ home of Bikram in the UK to that list. Namaste!
Words: Tom Kihl