Outside, it's already hot — the typical 85 degrees of a Rogue Valley summer.
For students of Bikram yoga, it's not nearly hot enough. They crowd their mats onto the burnished and seamed fir floors of a former Ashland bungalow turned studio. The next hour and 30 minutes will test both their bodies and minds, which could suddenly rebel against unrelenting heat.
"You're in the thick of this hot, wet room," says Anna Antic, who owns Bikram Yoga of Ashland. "You're confronting yourself."
First students must confront the gas stove that steadily prods the temperature toward 105 degrees. Steaming atop the stove, an open kettle of water infuses the air with a heady haze of moisture. The marriage of heat and 60-percent humidity is intended to increase circulation, strengthen the heart, facilitate deeper stretching and ultimately purify the body by opening pores and releasing toxins.
Releasing their breath in a coordinated chorus, hands clasped under their chins, the 16 students almost mimic a geyser expelling its cloud of steam. Rhythmic breathing is extended over several minutes as instructor Donna Steinman counts down two sets of 10.
"It might seem like forever, but breath is best," she says.
Indian yogi Bikram Choudhury developed this method more than 30 years ago. His system of 26 postures, always performed in the same order to warm and stretch the body, has become popular worldwide.
"Some people really like the structure of the Bikram practice," Antic says. "I've seen people change mentally and emotionally in a way that I haven't seen with other types of yoga."
Bikram Yoga of Ashland opened seven years ago in a town already awash in yoga classes. But the studio remains the state's only Bikram venue south of Eugene, Antic says, adding that students travel from as far as rural Josephine County and Northern California for classes.
Nikki Mathews came all the way from Florida after reading about Ashland in a yoga publication. The 25-year-old had never done any form of yoga when she ran across a reference to Bikram at her local library and knew she had to try it. Ten months later, she's immersed in training to teach the exacting format.
"It's the best thing I've ever done," she says.
Feeling the benefits of Bikram in his bones, 54-year-old instructor William Davis started learning the regimen more than six years ago to rehabilitate a shattered right heel. His story parallels popular accounts of the crippling knee injury that Choudhury, himself, suffered and healed with yoga. Although Davis, like Choudhury, credits yoga with his unlikely recovery, he expects a different sort of pain in every class.
"People say that it's suffering," Davis says.
The suffering isn't immediately apparent as students sway like pendulums into a gentle side stretch. But sweat soon starts to shimmer on the small of students' backs. Roaming the room, Steinman acts as both dictator and cheerleader for the increasingly demanding postures.
"I think that yoga is the tool that helps us bust through old habits," she says.
After a series of squats that test strength and balance, perspiration like misshapen polka dots decorates students' clothing. Liquid drips from elbows crossed and contorted for "eagle" pose. Twenty minutes in, Steinman allows a water break but asks whether she should turn up the stove. Silence is all the response she receives.
Five minutes later, as sweat runs like rivers down students' legs — braced in dancer's pose — Steinman opens the door and lets in a welcome blast of cool air. Yet the room's intensity hardly wavers as pose after pose builds into "tree." Legs take root on the mats while arms pantomime boughs shedding rain. Students sink to the floor, concluding 45 minutes on their feet.
"Now the yoga practice begins," Steinman says.
Prostrated as if in prayer, students feel the temperature relent when Steinman switches on an outside vent. "Cobra" and "locust" poses confine the perspiration to pools on participants' humped backs. They pant, groan and heave like beached whales through the last few poses.
"Sometimes I feel like I need to be paid a million bucks to do this practice at the end of the day," Steinman says.
No longer sauna-hot, the room is merely sticky, and its occupants' clothes a shade darker than they were an hour before. Chests and bellies pump in unison: 16 bellows stoking the dwindling warmth. The final breathing exercise ends in a deflating tire's hiss.
The group's energy dissipates with the humidity and heat. Steinman exits, leaving the door ajar. Tension wrung from limbs, now limp, students sink into their mats — like pools of water.