bikram yoga

Our Oasis of OM

A personal guide to yoga in the desert

Emily Black Health & Wellness

bikram yoga
At Ann Marie Palma’s Bikram Yoga studio in Palm Desert, students prepare for cobra position.

I moved to Palm Springs with my family last summer, and after three days of driving through New Mexico and Arizona in a packed-to-the-hilt truck, crouched over the steering wheel, with a grumpy, wailing toddler tossing goldfish crackers at the back of my head, I headed to Power Yoga Palm Springs like a spiritually parched pilgrim sprinting to the Ganges. I was familiar with the studio, opened by Janet Vance and her wife, Julian Parks, in 2010, as I had taken a prenatal class two years before. Now, as a brand new year-round resident instead of a seasonal visitor, I dropped into an “hour of power” class.

The temperature hovered around 105 outside and what felt like an interior temperature last known in the lower depths of hell. Small round heaters burned red in each corner. The room was packed. As sweat dropping on yoga mats began to sound like a nascent rainstorm, the teacher asked us to “draw our attention” to the third chakra. As sweat coursed down my face and stung my eyes, I questioned my intentions: Why didn’t I choose an hour of air-conditioned power on a gym treadmill? At 40, was I getting away with these super-tight yoga pants?

“The third chakra is just below your breastbone,” the teacher continued, “in that part of your body where the heart of your spirit lies. The fire of your will.” Having practiced yoga for more than a decade in various studios, from a huge gym full of undergrads at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, to a light-filled yurt in Ojo Caliente, New Mexico, to an all glass spa room in a mansion in Lenox, Massachusetts, and many others, I’ve witnessed particular trends — vinyasa, Bikram, hatha, various kinds of “flow” yoga (power, groovy, core, throwback — imagine the teacher in leg warmers and Madonna’s first album as the backdrop), Iyengar, kundalini, even Yoga with Chairs — move in and out of fashion, sometimes mysteriously. I’ve chanted and held hands in a circle. I’ve chosen intention stones, moved one hand up and down in the air for nearly 20 minutes, and taken a gong bath with Tibetan bowls.

Teacher Ann Marie Palma helps student Gurufateh Dana Sara achieve the maximum benefit from a difficult pose.

I found some of these experiences more adventurous and useful than others, but I had grown weary of instructors offering suggestions like “lift your armpit waist,” or “feel your kidneys vibrate.” I never knew if these movements were impossible, ridiculous, or both. In the case of my Power Yoga Palm Springs experience, the emphasis on chakras was a useful addition to the class, and felt relevant to the work on the mat. It was as if the last three days of road food, sleep deprivation, and the stress of driving in 100-plus heat disappeared into my sweat-soaked mat. This, I thought, is why people do yoga.

Yoga: What is it, and what does it do? Is it a state of mind? Is it a “way of life,” as Parks describes it? A path to weight loss and/or a hot body? A mental game? A physical challenge? A holistic, healing practice? A very particular feeling of calm and well-being? There are many ways of framing the practice and tradition of yoga, but everyone seems to agree that it is one gateway to both physical and spiritual vitality, a “yoke,” as Parks explains it, between the body and the mind. Setting it apart from other fitness pursuits — say, competitive rock climbing or the endorphin high of playing a killer tennis match — it’s accessible to everyone, no matter age, physical ability, or fitness level.

Luckily, the Coachella Valley is rich with places to get your namaste on. Studios from Palm Springs to Indio offer diverse styles of yoga, as well as friendship and networking opportunities, and a chance to build and stay connected to our vibrant community. As the demographics of the Coachella Valley gradually shift from a population of full-time retirees and part-time snowbirds to a more diverse year-round group that skews slightly younger (including an influx of international hipsters), more people are seeking our desert heat. Almost 365 days of sunshine make tennis, cycling, hiking, and running possible in every season, even if you have to get up at 5 a.m. to do it between June and October.

Ann Marie Palm Palma tweaks Lauren Mesa.

There’s certainly no avoiding the “healing heat” in Bikram, a challenging sequence of 26 poses practiced in a saunalike room that is also humidified, which can be a welcome change to the dry desert air and helps the body stretch with diminished risk of injury. All styles of yoga are scientifically proven to maximize healthy organ function and increase muscle flexibility. El Paseo Studio owner and teacher Ann Marie Palma, offers particularly powerful anecdotal evidence to support this claim. Ten years ago, she was in almost constant back pain in her work as a dental hygienist. A patient noticed her discomfort and recommended Bikram. Although during her first class Palma felt like the teacher was trying to kill her, the next morning as she was driving to work she felt like every cell in her body was alive. She’d been resigned to back surgery, and she credits yoga for allowing her to avoid it. “Yoga saved me,” she says. “I got my life back.” Palma has now been a certified Bikram teacher for years and it continues to be her “passion.”

I struggled through and stumbled out of her 90-minute class, regretting the two fat globes of Chardonnay I’d had the night before, but I also felt more relaxed and cleaner than I had in a long time.

Doing yoga every day might sound intimidating or seem like a prohibitive time commitment, but if you want to improve your athletic performance, classes are frequently offered at traditional gyms (EOS, In-Shape, Ecore, and World Gym, for example), as an important and effective complement to other activities. Kathleen Tracy at Quantum Fitness in Palm Desert offers a gentle vinyasa class during season, and teaches private lessons for the remainder of the year. If you want more bounce in your step as you hike up the Bump and Grind Trail or increased stamina at a challenging indoor cycling class down the street at Pedal in Rancho Mirage, Tracy recommends yoga as a “fabulous addition” to any fitness program or sport. The increased flexibility, coordination, and basic body awareness “seamlessly translate into other activities and sports such as hiking, tennis, and golf.” Also a certified physical therapist and Pilates instructor, Tracy’s main goal is to ensure that people at any fitness level are “leaving their mats with that wonderful sense of well-being.”

I found some of these experiences more adventurous and useful than others, but I had grown weary of instructors offering suggestions like “lift your armpit waist,” or “feel your kidneys vibrate.” I never knew if these movements were impossible, ridiculous, or both.

Carolina Castro executes an extraordinary back bend.

So yoga is a state of mind, too. What does that mean? For Louise Evans, who recently opened Mot’us Floatation and Wellness Center in Palm Desert, her integrative health center “encompasses all the things I liked to do,” she says. Mot’us offers individualized fitness profiles designed to integrate mental, physical, and spiritual well-being; yoga and meditation are crucial parts of this holistic vision.

Offering strength-building classes and yoga, as well as treatments and customized rehabilitation plans, Mot’us offers a “bridge between the fitness world, the spa world, and the medical,” Evans says. Yoga and meditation classes are taught by a master of Reiki (a Japanese energy healing system), who “picks up the energy of the room … and adapts accordingly.” Evans says the “feedback’s been amazing” at Mot’us, which is no surprise, given her commitment to a “meet the body where it’s at” approach that will help anyone, regardless of fitness level, reach his or her individual wellness goals.
Evans and Tracy both speculate that restorative yoga (poses held for long periods of time and often supported with props like blocks or blankets) is gaining in popularity because it’s a great choice for people who are just starting out, and it also decreases the risk of repetitive sports injury for the über-active. Added bonus: The depth of relaxation one reaches in a restorative class improves quality of sleep, which is a benefit everyone could use.

Every teacher I spoke with emphasized one important fact: Yoga is for everyone. Newbies should never be intimidated, and people with physical limitations should never feel excluded. Randy Harwood, owner of Peace Love Yoga Palm Springs, began with the simple goal of “opening a yoga studio that would awaken and inspire everyday people.” The studio space previously was home to a flower shop, and Randy believes that “the gentle energy of that enterprise still flows through the space.” A deliberately peaceful environment — soft white walls offset by sea green and turquoise, as well as a studio space infused with the scent of lavender — is meant to be relaxing as a well as nurturing. “Yoga is training for life,” Harwood believes, because it utilizes pranayama (breathing), asana (pose), savasana (relaxation), and dhyana (meditation). You don’t need to know or be able to pronounce these Sanskrit words to reap the benefits of yoga, but it’s a reminder that this is an ancient practice that has been infusing people with vitality and health for thousands of years, not a trendy form of exercise that that sprang up as a result of the “athleisure” fashion trend or the preponderance of “yoga wear” mostly worn to coffee bars.

Student Dianne Zeck stretches out toward the front of her mat.

For 12 years, Go with the Flow Yoga in Palm Desert has offered both dynamic and therapeutic styles of yoga, including vinyasa, gentle, yin, and restorative. Studio owner and yoga teacher Kay Spillman has lived in the valley for 33 years, helping students remain flexible and healthy — and, she claims, ageless — as they move from one decade in life to the next. “Yoga is like the foundation of youth,” she says, which might incentivize even the least vain of us to give yoga a go.

My uncle used to tease me that “twisting yourself up like a pretzel isn’t good for you,” but Bronwyn Ison, owner of Evolve Yoga in La Quinta, reminds me that yoga isn’t about contorting the body; it’s about working within its variable abilities and limitations. It’s about practice, not perfection, and the mindfulness with which one transitions between poses. Ison’s studio specializes in the powerful, more athletic vinyasa, or “synchronized movement with breath.” The goal here is effort and intention over outcome. Although many of the classes are physically rigorous, Ison’s students range from 35 to 80 years old.

Ison also reinforces the community-building aspect of yoga, and the way in which a physical practice can provide a means of connection. Most studios in the Coachella Valley have reserved weekly times for community classes with reduced drop-in fees, or they offer unlimited monthly memberships for first-timers. These options allow even people on a limited budget to experience yoga. Although the benefits are immediate, the effects are long term, and yoga itself becomes a way of seeing the world, as well as a way of moving the body. “I cannot imagine my life without yoga,” Ison says. “It has been a fabulous discipline for coping with stress as well as strengthening and toning my physique.”

Gurufateh Dana Sara goes deep into a forward bend.

Kristin Olson, founder of Urban Yoga Center, open for 16 years, teaches yoga free at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, and has been deeply involved in the desert yoga community for 36 years. UYC offers 30 classes a week of hatha yoga in various styles and intensities for people of all ages and abilities, and also partners with the Palm Springs Unified School District in a program for teens who get P.E. credit for practicing yoga. UYC also has partnered with Desert Aids Project and other local nonprofits and groups.

Olson’s is a local studio that thinks globally. UYC hosts practitioners of Kirtan (a form of sacred music), and maintains a deep involvement in the Bhakti Fest, a festival of yoga, workshops, and music designed for personal growth that attracts some of the best known teachers from around the world. Bhakti Fest will take place in Joshua Tree for six days in September.

Ann Marie Palma Palma stands on Gurufateh Dana Sara’s thighs to help her go deeper into the pose.

Olson is committed to serving the physical and spiritual growth of local yogis while providing links to the deep history that surrounds the practice of yoga itself. Or, as one of my Austin teachers said at the beginning of class, “stand on your mat where so many before you have also stood.”

All teachers describe yoga as much more than a physical practice. As Parks explains, “Yoga means union or to yoke together.” It’s an individual practice as well as a metaphor for bringing people together, locally and globally, even across time. So if you’re seeking vitality in this oasis of year-round sun, find a class near you, roll out your mat, meet new people, and find your balance. This ancient form of movement that enhances the integration of mind and body is a barometer for vitality if ever there was one.