Sunday morning in Paia-town, the sun beats down relentlessly on the battered roof of a small, yellow, one-room building off the main drag. After a while a door opens, the occupants stagger out, sweat running in rivers off their saturated clothes. The yoga students, dressed in various forms of lycra and nylon, squint, in the noon sun, their skin hangs off their bones like they’ve just completed a marathon or a forced march. Though their eyes are slightly weary, they are all smiling, exuding an inner energy–like an internal battery has been re-charged.
THE INSTRUCTOR EMERGES, looking somewhat less the worse for wear than her students. While some head for the beach behind the studio, the teacher stands among a few stragglers as they mill about toweling off, and answers questions while receiving thanks and compliments.
Her name is Laurel White, and she is a pioneer.
Though she learned to windsurf back in the earliest days of the sport in Pacific Palisades with the Waltzes and the Schweitzers, and was once a US Olympic alternate team member, she is currently most famous in windsurfing circles for bringing Bikram Yoga to Maui two and a half years ago.
Bikram Yoga is a modern adaptation of the traditional Hatha Yoga that started in India, and has been practiced around the world for centuries. Bikram’s has been sweeping the US by storm over the last decade, garnering a host of celebrity converts, athletes and entertainers alike. Peter Jennings recently attended a class, and then taped a story for ABC’s Nightline on the phenomenon.
The recent opening of studios in Maui and Hood River has resulted in the rapid indoctrination of yoga into windsurfing society, almost reaching a “cult within cult” type of status.
“I wish I’d known about Yoga when I was racing and training for windsurfing,” says White. “Now I think it’s what has kept me injury free and feeling younger as I’ve gotten older.”
Although there are hundreds of body poses in traditional yoga, Bikram’s consists of only 26, done in a specific order, in a specific amount of time, at a specific temperature—HOT. The room is kept between 98 and 100 degrees–body temperature– which helps loosen muscles, de-toxify the system, and enhance stretching. The first class is free, after that for many it becomes a way of life.
“Bikram’s was my saving grace,” says instructor Dannette Waltze, former wife of windsurfing pioneer Mike Waltze. She had been doing other forms of yoga for 16 years, but finally found her rhythm with Bikram’s. She started taking classes when White first opened in Maui, and finally went to teacher training in Los Angeles last spring.
Among White’s regulars are Scott and former windsurf champion Rhonda Sanchez, who now run “Team MPG”—a personal training performance group on Maui. They have found Bikram’s to be an excellent compliment to their intense training regimen. Other athletes often showing up for class include freestyle champ Web Pedrick, and pro sailors Brad Drummond, Jace Pannebianco, Anick Violette and Temira Wagonfeld, just to name a few. White also has a list of famous surfers, cylclists, tennis players, and other athletes coming through her doors on a regular basis.
“Maui is a mecca for watersports,” says White. “Some come when they have an injury they want to rehab, but the smart ones do yoga for prevention and gaining an edge in their sport.”
Maui was not the first trail blazed by White. After learning to windsurf back in the “teak boom days” in California, she began her racing career while on a sailing trip to Mexico.
Upon her return, she opened Malibu Windsurfing—one of the first windsurfing shops in the world. After that it was the Olympic team, and training under the guidance of the often controversial Major Hall. Much later she became the Australian women’s slalom champion.
“I’ve always liked to try new things, go to new places,” says White. “I’m not very good at following, I like to lead.”
White got into yoga in 1991 when she bumped into a childhood friend who was on her way to a yoga class, and brought Laurel along. After that first Bikram’s class she went ever day for a week.
“In that week I reduced my waistline by an inch, reduced my sleep time by 2 hours a night, and was smiling every day.”
Three years later she took the teacher training course in Los Angeles from Bikram himself. When White moved “down under” with her Australian husband in 1995, she took Bikram’s with her, and opened the first Bikram studio on that continent.
“I had a perfect location,” says White. “I was a block away from the best surfing/windsurfing beaches in Sydney. At first people thought, ‘what is this crazy stuff?’ but soon it took off. It was a very good business move in the end.”
Besides surfers and windsurfers, Whites clients in Australia included a rugby team, a few balarinas, and some high profile corporate CEOs. She was even on television a time or two.
When White decided to move to Maui in the spring of 1999, she had much of the plan for her new studio figured out in advance.
“Building this studio was really a community effort. Somebody did the painting, somebody laid the carpet, someone else put up the mirrors. That initial community involvement helped the studio take off right away.”
White recently opened another studio in the neighboring city of Lahaina in November of ’02.
“There are plenty of people in the world, and all of them should be doing yoga,” laughs White. “There will always be a need for as many yoga studios as we can build. There are five Bikram studios on the island right now, and the word is out. People are telling people, telling their friends, because it works. The true benefit of the yoga comes from a raised level of awareness, so we are able to hear our bodies’ messages and reach our highest potential for good in each moment. Therefore we are able to live a life that is effortless and blissful.”
Based on the fat book of hand-written sworn testimonials to the benefits of Bikram’s that White keeps on the sign-in desk at the Paia studio, it appears that she has the right angle.
ANGLES OF A PRO
MY HEAD is pressed hard into my knee, beads of sweat are falling like rain and all I can think is that this woman can save my life. I know I shouldn’t even be thinking at this time, but I can’t help it, I’m just learning this yoga thing. Laurel moves through the 110-degree room like a bee to opening flowers, she inspects them, some are more open than others, but all get her attention.
The next pose has me balancing on my bad ankle, which leads to the worse of my two knees. A minute is passing, arduously, and I’m starting to waiver. I start to sway, my eye’s focus shifts and I loose the posture—taking two other students with me. I am a bit embarrassed, but I shouldn’t be thinking about that either.
This Bikram class feels good, I don’t even think about how long I have to go. It just feels good. I was expecting the nauseous fatigue of some prior classes and try to reason the difference—after all it’s been almost two months, this class should be killing me. Maybe it’s the lack of alcohol in my system. The Bikram classes were always the worst after a night of drinking. The poisons are being whisked out, but in the process being endured for a second time.
Laurel pushes me like my old wrestling coach, challenging me to break through my own mental blocks. I feel her behind me, and straighten my posture—like a dog and a master; I look for approval. She finds me on my back, in another seemingly impossible position. She touches me and pushes a little, then feeling another of my injuries stops and urges me to consult her later. Just mentioning yoga brings light to her face. How old is Laurel? I can’t tell. The brightness of her smile and tightness of her muscle suggests a woman of early thirties, but the timeline of her yoga story puts her well into her forties. Laurel was a pro windsurfer too.
I know she can save me. She has what I need. But there isn’t anything she can do to start the process. I just have to go. To give myself to her, to Bikram, or some other form of Yoga.
Although I realize I was wrong–she can’t save me. I have to save myself.
EAST OF THE ISLANDS
Bikram’s makes it to the other mecca. Hood River
PROGRESSION OF POSES, demonstrated by Patricia Martin Bunch, Bikram Hood River. Left to right: Balancing Stick, Standing Bow-Pulling Pose, Tree Pose, Eagle Pose, Bow Pose, Cobra Pose, Toe Stand. Please do not try this at home.
Not all pioneers go as far west as Maui. While Laurel White was busy setting up her Maui yoga studio, fellow Bikram instructor and windsurfer Patricia Martin Bunch had her own angle on a pose. Bunch opened Bikram Hood River in November of 2000, in a space she completely re-conditioned on the third floor of the historic Paris Fair building.
Far different than White’s simple yellow shack, Bikram Hood River sports high tech, low voltage halogen lighting, comfortable changing rooms, and a cozy brick and beam studio room that looks like something you might find in Aspen or such trendier places.
Like White, many of Bunch’s patrons are windsurfers, both pro and aspiring. Bunch herself has taught the occasional class at White’s studio, and they share more than a few students who make the bi-annual migration from Hood River to Maui and back.
“Yoga in Hood River is so awesome,” says Bunch. “This place is like a big playground, and the yoga studio just helps everybody play a little bit harder, a little bit longer, and a little bit more passionately.
As reflected in the decor of the studio, Bunch’s background differs significantly from White’s, having graduated from the fashion industry surrounding the San Francisco Bay area.
“I’m probably not a typical yogi, although I think that in this day and age there is no such thing as a typical yogi. I started doing Bikram’s because of the athletic aspect to it, because I’m really demanding. At the time I started it I was going through a really rough time in my life, and now I’m going through another rough time in my life, and I find that once again, yoga is my saving grace.”
Bunch lost her husband, Jeffrey, last winter in a plane crash, only months after she gave birth to their first child. Despite her loss, she carries on with yoga and the studio at the forefront of her focus.
“Bikram’s is 90 minutes of not being able to think about anything except what you are doing right there at that moment. I think that that is so incredibly important for everyone. I’d be lost without it.”
Whether it’s the yoga, or sheer strength of will that drives her, Bunch seems to thrive on the challenge of getting on with life and the continued success of the studio, and spreading the benefits of yoga to the community. Getting the studio built and running in the first place was no cake walk, though it appears that her labors are finally blossoming now.
“I have to admit that I thought it would get off to a little bit of a faster start–it’s been a slow climb–but I’m in my third year now, and I definitely see the people who’ve tried out the yoga and want it to be a part of their lives–and it’s a great match. I went through more than I expected to get this studio started, but at the same time I’m so grateful to have this space. I get so much positive feedback from my students, and appreciation for bringing the yoga here, and what a great space it is. I built this studio for the community, I didn’t build it for the tourists. I really built it for the people who live here, and that’s who my clients are now. It’s great.”
Bunch acknowledges the connection between windsurfing and yoga, the commonality of the students who practice in Maui and Hood River, and the way yoga fits in with the flow of the windsurfing lifestyle and attitude, as well as helping with the physical demands and punishment the sport dishes out.
“Being a windsurfer, and a yogi, there’s absolutely a connection. My windsurfing definitely took off to another level after I had been practicing yoga for a while. Whether it’s biking or windsurfing or kayaking, yoga compliments your sports, it compliments your health, it’s a perfect compliment to life in general.”
Based on what Patricia has done for her students and the windsurfers in her community, she has our compliments as well.