The Women Of Bikram Yoga Gather In the North Woods Of Minnesota
The pinkish-colored, 11x14 poster was unassuming, even modest: “Women’s Retreat with Rajashree Choudhury and Emmy Cleaves, Grand View Lodge, Nisswa, Minnesota, Nov 2-4.” It said little else, had mini photos of teachers, Rajashree and Emmy, and a sentence or two about them at the very bottom. It hung lop-sided amidst all the others at our crowded studio bulletin board. When I did finally notice, it took me a full 60 seconds to decide to attend. The price at $425 (Early registration) seemed fair enough for yoga, meals and accommodations; and the timing couldn’t be better. After putting the payment on a borrowed charge card I doubted I should have gone into debt for this get-a-way, and I heard nothing for weeks from its organizers. Finally an email burst into my inbox from the Sarah Morse-Shomion: “This is WHOO HOO fun! I'm so excited I could pee my pants. I can't wait to meet you all,” It read.
Welcome to a hot yoga gathering in the Great North Woods of Minnesota!
Six like-minded women from Inner Fire Yoga organized and car-pooled effortlessly the seven hours up to Nisswa. Siraj Hull, Tiffany Gaumond, Kate Schmitz, Mary Kay Roseneck, Carrie Snider and I represented our Madison studio. Tiffany turns 30 that Friday, and Kate attends with friends to celebrate tuning 40 later this month. For me it’s been 30 years since my first Bikram Yoga class, and not in my wildest dreams back then at tender confused 26, could I have envisioned myself attending an event with the Bikram establishment somewhere in the middle of America, with only women.
The air is so clean up north you could eat it with a spoon. The leaves tumbled and crunched beneath my feet, as I find my way to the assigned cabin. We familiarize ourselves with the lay of the land, and conversations open with other women, “Where is the yoga room, where’s the restaurant, and what about the promised Glacial Waters Spa?” Occasionally I’d smile at a strange face, and ask more questions, “Do you know what’s going to happen when?” No one knew much, and it remarkably didn’t matter. Our eyes and lungs were feasting on the surroundings.
All were here with both Rajashree Choudhury (Bikram’s wife of 23 years, and yoga therapist) and Emmy Cleaves, Bikram’s most senior teacher who were sharing their vast knowledge of yoga and life in a gorgeous environment which seemed at moments like a sacred place. The big stage at front of the yoga room was flanked by two trees covered in tiny white lights, a podium of candles stood in the center, and two side walls of glass from top to bottom, brought the light and autumn inside. Heaters dotted the periphery, a cathedral ceiling to gaze up at in Trikanasana, and women of all ages, sizes, and ethnicity decorated the room. It seemed to be designed for the size of the group!
It is real! I’m here together with everyone from every place in a somewhat formless dream; yet I trust it will be awesome in every way, I’m thinking.
Martha Williams and Sarah Shomion were the organizers. Both are Bikram Yoga studio owners in Minneapolis/St Paul, Minnesota. Sarah thought about this a year and a half ago before she became pregnant, and before Bikram was ready to give his permission for an event without him. Martha apparently called headquarters daily to get Rajashree and Emmy on board and to convince Bikram to let them arrange it. Sarah confesses that writing that first non- refundable check to the venue was scary. As she and Martha drove back home speculating nervously how many might attend, Martha boldly told her she was going to envision 85! They paid for 50 women and trusted “yoga karma” to take its course. It wasn’t two weeks before100 women from as far away as Hawaii and Manitoba, Canada, signed on to attend an event that didn’t provide much detail as to what to expect. Just finding how to get to the Northwest and up into the wilderness is daunting for so many who have never been here. None of this mattered though, and 135 women picked up, left their pets, kids, husbands and work, and gathered in the Woods to do yoga together with the grand dams of Bikram Yoga.
The word “cabin” may bring up visions of bunk-beds and funky mattresses, chilly winds sneaking through cracks in walls, bears looming around outside; but let me clarify. The cabin-living at the Grand View Lodge were first class, with large wood-burning fireplaces, king and queen-sized beds, lovely linens with plush bedding, flat screen TV’s (in every room,) which never turned on, leather furnishings in large living rooms, artwork, antiques, full kitchens, screened-in patios, and impeccably clean spacious areas to lounge with views of lakes and woods and autumn in full regalia. Every bedroom had its own shower and bath, and mine had a large Jacuzzi. At every turn there lay a pleasant surprise including coffee pot and coffee for the mornings.
The two “stars” of Bikram yoga jetted first class out of Beverly Hills and headed to what Rajashree described as “…the jungle with so many towering trees and wooded trails right outside my cabin window!” It is also rumored they were forced to endure J every spa treatment that could possibly be fit in between teaching, included 6 massages between them. In addition to their fees, these ladies’ extras don’t come cheap! Before jetting back home they were taken to a 5-star restaurant in downtown Minneapolis as a send-off by Sarah and Martha: and graciously Raj ended up taking the bill and treating our hostesses. Living well is the best reward for so much stretching and sweating for decades, and for changing the lives of thousands of people over the years. Taking great care of oneself was a theme of this gathering.
Early-comers already had a kick-off class at Noon on Friday with pregnant Sarah on stage directing us masterfully through 26, oh-so-familiar asanas. Emmy Cleaves’ coveted Advanced Class was by invitation only after that first “warm up” class which determined who would make the cut. The Advanced Class followed, 2 until 4-ish.
Our own Tiffany Gaumond made the cut (after some begging.) There are 14 postures requiring Full Lotus (putting both feet on the upper thighs crossed) and you couldn’t attend or even watch if your hips didn’t do that.
Tiffany Gaumond, age 30 to the day, “Emmy did all the poses and we were all falling out of them. It was really hard. It almost felt like we let her down we were so incapable or most of them. She seemed annoyed. Anyway I came here because every time I do Bikram yoga I want more of it, and this is a way to get more and to celebrate the big “three-O”.
Emmy didn’t want to “teach” the series; only to call out each of the 84 asanas as she carried them out expertly, not wanting anyone to get injured trying them for the first time. Many left disappointed, including me. Bikram allows no observers, no tape recorders or cameras; so I was crushed to miss the awe-inspiring Cleaves do her practice. I headed to the glass-enclosed pool at lake’s edge, and enjoyed a Jacuzzi, all to myself, with residual excitement stirring in my bones.
The weekend formally begins by candlelit Friday night with a Jewish Shabbat prayer; a ritual of bringing the light into us is lead with the two organizers as Rajashree takes the helm, commanding the stage for a talk prior to class. In her polished style, and charming Indian accent, she implores we treat her as one of us, as a total equal. But we all know she is a kind of queen. We’ll try …
“After all,” she said smiling, “I left two teenagers in Beverly Hills, and you can imagine what that is like for two very busy parents who travel all the time.” She sighs, “I am full of stress and anger and emotion sometimes, and the yoga helps me discharge all that.” In her gracious feminine style Raj points to the good timing of this weekend gathering. “We women are just finished planning of Trick-or-Treating weekend, and Thanksgiving comes next with all that cooking and planning and family, and then the Holidays and New Year next.” She paused, “Women work so hard, and are stressed and so busy taking care of everything and everyone. We keep our communities and families functioning. A get-a-way seemed like a good idea, especially with lots of yoga, a lovely spa, healthy nutritious food, and the company of all you wonderful women who took this time out of your complicated lives to come together with us.”
“We find our strengths as women from within” She is lecturing now. “My vision is to bring women together for healing and naturopathy. This idea of a guru to follow everything he says is not the direction I see in yoga. We don’t have to listen blindly to doctors or others who tell us what to do. We’re here to learn the tools for self-healing through naturopathic medicine, yoga, nutrition and how to listen to intuition as our guides.
Dar and Raj
Rajashree lays out the schedule for us finally: She will teach first, and alternate with Emmy each class, and on Sunday they will co-teach. Over breakfast on Saturday, we have a homeopathy lecture, and then the morning class with Emmy. After lunch Emmy lectures on “Bikram Yoga: The Key to the Kingdom of Health.” A posture clinic follows after lunch.
Martha measuring with Raj
A posture clinic is when Raj breaks down poses and explains them physically and what their medical benefits are. Students are welcome to come on stage and have their poses corrected. She holds her tape-measure and is always measuring the spine as it flees and extends. A question and answer with both Raj and Emmy follows. Another class is scheduled for 5:30 PM. Wow!
All of us
Katy Schmitz, WI. Raj and Emmy were outstanding. Being able to be a student in their classes is something that comes along once every blue moon, just knowing that I was in their presence was so special.
Rajashree’s interest is in yoga as a healing tool. She confesses to being the emotional one, and “Emmy,” she tells us, “is the stern and logical one.” Raj has more knowledge about each asana than our tired brains could possibly absorb in a few days. Part of the education at the Bishnu Gosh College of Physical Culture in Calcutta is medical training; anatomy and physiology, as well as Ayuvedic principles. She tells us that in India yoga postures were taught like prescriptions are given here, for specific ailments.
Emmy Cleaves is a living example of a vibrant, precociously intelligent, 80-something year old woman, with 56 yrs of yoga practice under her belt, in her bones and cells; and sporting cellulite-free legs, creamy skin, and the panache of a successful, 50-year old. I sit deep in the state of Minnesota listening to her every correction, etching her every word into my brain for future instruction for my own students.
More than once I burst into tears for no apparent reason during the weekend: Many times. Thirty years has passed so quickly, and so much life has been lived. Bikram promised that when the silly dramas with people, and my youth were gone, after all the homes and trips, clothing and boyfriends, lives lived in foreign cities, and my children had grown, I’d always have the 26 postures as my best friend; and they would be the same reliable vehicle to heal myself and set the sails straight. OH-MY-GOD, Bikram Choudhury is so right! The series hasn’t change. It is the standard to which we practice for each time we put our mats on the floor of any studio, anywhere, in any country, and with any teacher trained by Bikram’s team. I find that so deeply comforting.
Emmy Cleaves is a vision from my past. She was in the very first yoga class I took at The Yoga College of India in January, 1978. She often wore that black leotard without tights (Rio cut,) at 50-something back then. A distant, sentimental memory during those first years in Bikram’s torture chamber before Americans knew anything about yoga. It was all new and Bikram was the guru of pain, sweat, tough love, and irreverent humor, back in that basement on Beverly and Wilshire; orange carpets, no water bottles, no sticky mats: just us, the extreme heat, and the yoga.
I often peeked in at Emmy and Bikram practicing the advanced postures at noon after both morning classes and wondered how she could do it being such an “old lady.”
Saturday night I had the honor of eating dinner between Emmy and Rajashree, enjoying my only glass of Chardonnay that weekend along with hers. Raj was enjoying a plate of sliced prime rib. “I love meat,” she said to me as I eye-balled the pile on her plate. We laughed.
Emmy tells me that now-a-days she is simply into maintenance with her yoga, and is practicing 3 hours a day, three times a week and teaching only two classes of the Beginning Series. We discussed her past during the Russian occupation of Latvia, her native country, and her capture and separation from her mother at a tender pubescent age. She was fed, while imprisoned, bread made with mostly saw dust, and escaped in a ship crouched down in a cubby for weeks; no food or water. A Swedish man and his family had one sausage and shaved a thin slice off for her each day which kept her alive. At 35 years of age, after becoming a wife and mother, she had a stroke and almost lost her life. It was then she decided to be healthy and found yoga after a Jazzercise teacher suggested the only person in LA teaching yoga. “He was ancient,” She said, “Probably dead for decades now!” Years later after studying with people here and there all over L.A., she was at her tennis club, and Bikram, a young man of 26, was giving a yoga demonstration. “I was impressed with the logic of it being so pragmatic.” She recounted, “He jumped off the stage and looked right at me and said very emphatically, “Tomorrow, you come to class! …
And for the next 34 years I came to class!”
I sidled in closer and asked about other yoga styles, and if she was ever temped to go to another school. “Oh course! I wanted to know all of what was out there. I’m a bit of a scholar that way. I went off to India to study with BKS Iyengar, but got tired of getting blocks and straps, blankets and props.”
She looked at me and posed this question, “I mean how many ways are there to brush your teeth? Yoga is low tech hygiene. The postures are clear, simple, and you can twist and turn the postures 9,000 ways and call it whatever, put any name to it. To me it’s all “cockamamie calisthenics” sometimes, far from the classic form. I find the 26 Bikram postures are a perfect formula for lasting health … it’s simple and makes sense.”
So I dare ask, “Is there any way that you will create an intermediate more flowing class so studio owners don’t have to shop elsewhere? “Ahh,” She sighs, “Bikram won’t do that, but we are going to offer advanced training in the classic postures soon. That is in the works; a teacher training in advanced series for those who are ready.”
During the scrumptious dinner, many women give personal stories about how this yoga has changed their lives. Cancer survivors, broken bones and lives all coming back to vibrant health with the support of the studio owner/teachers coaching them all the way. This was a powerful part of the weekend for many. Many were in tears.
Not all attendees had practiced Bikram Yoga, and some were teachers of other styles. We had 5 pregnant women, a few mother/daughters, sisters, teachers, many studio owners and beginning students attending.
Amber Moelter, 27, London, NYC, White Bear Lake, WI. I had such an amazing time. I am here with my own mother who just began and it was so great to see her do the yoga! To be with so many teachers is really inspiring.
Kate Lofquist from western Wisconsin tells me, “I drive 40 minutes a day to St. Paul just to take classes for the first time at 50 years old!” She said her chronic knee and joint problems were already dissolving after only 10 classes, and continued wide-eyed, “I know this sounds crazy but I’m considering teacher training…”
Alison Tavares, 39, Tempe, Arizona: I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I mean Emmy in her 80’s, beautiful Rajashree… Oh I learned so much!
A big bonfire on the beach followed all the Saturday festivities. I took a walk to the beach, grabbed the hot chocolate, and made a bee-line back to my cabin to snuggle under the warm blankets. For the first time in months I slept like a stone.
Raj’s cell phone rang often during the three days, as you can imagine; between business at the Headquarters, her children in L.A, and Bikram’s teacher training in full swing in Hawaii. Bikram wanted to know if we were talking about him and the other men behind their backs … The glowing faced audience giggled. A retreat is a retreat.
Kelly Snider, 40’s says,” The venue with the intense yoga and the expertise of the women there made this the perfect treat. It’s great to be intellectually stimulated and physically relaxed, and learning so much about Bikram Yoga was stimulating. We came to celebrate Kate’s birthday. We all raised our children together and are good friends. This seemed a perfect way.”
Mary Kay Roseneck, Madison, Oh god, the spa is amazing. That facial …, even though I got “The Express,” it was wonderful. I am so impressed with the spa and the variety of treatments available. It’s gorgeous in there; complimentary raw veggies, water, a nice lounge. This place is really much nicer than I imagined.”
“As far as the yoga, Raj reaffirmed how all the organs are affected systematically by the sequencing. I learned so much about how simple things make big changes in the physiology.”
Emmy lectured on the four premier points of how yoga is the most effective way to maintain health in a low tech way. “There is nothing like the Bikram series to discharge stress, and create inner radiance and peace. It was Bishnu Gosh who said that stress is rooted in most disease, long before that concept became commonplace. Our native physiology is designed to discharge stress in a “fight or flight” burst of adrenalin. It was fast-acting and usually had a fast conclusion. The mind-body was connected and in peak alignment or we did not survive.” Emmy broke the effects of yoga into four categories and went on to explain the importance of the heat, hydration, compression and release, and especially the breathing.
Emmy continues, “We are constantly in a low-grade, chronic fight or flight mode which erodes our kidneys and health and physiology. It’s the intensity of the Bikram series that is so healing. It requires the energy of fighting a predator! Emmy also illustrated how the pranayama breathing is so effective.
“Emotional firestorms result from lack of oxygen in the body.” She explained in her lecture. “Pranayama cleans and stimulates the lymphatic system,”which she described as “…a garbage disposal for the blood and tissue.”
I learn we have twice the amount of lymph than blood in the body. She educates, “Since there is no pump to move lymph like the blood has with the heart, it is paramount to move the lymph through movement and breathing and stretching the skin and muscles; center body stretching particularly.”
Emmy was careful to insist we not fight anatomical limitations that are genetic. “Biology is Destiny,” is one of her favorite sayings. The extreme contortions of yoga asana do not define your success in yoga. She instructs us to work slowly and gradually, and as we practice regularly we’ll confront spiritual and character issues.
“No matter what your state of health or biology is,” she informs, “Reach your maximum effort and you will get the maximum benefit.”
In short when questioned about immortality and perfect health maintenance, Emmy quips in her characteristic practicality, “We are designed for obsolescence, but we can enjoy and maximize our energy and health through yoga and a balanced life.” And when asked about diet she states matter-of-factly, “Start looking at it like a caveman would….”
Kate Schmitz, 40, Wisconsin,
I believe the Bikram Yoga Women's Retreat weekend truly reinforced the fact that yoga, as a practice, is above all a discipline. And Bikram Yoga, in particular is a very defined, strong, focused discipline. As the general population tends to view a yoga practice as a "compliment" to another physical practice (read: exercise program), Bikram Yoga completely deconstructs that theory. I love that about Bikram Yoga. It defines its self as pure yoga; systematically working every muscle, joint, ligament and tissue in the body throughout its 26 postures. And once those postures are mastered, the exercise and discipline of the mind becomes the focus, the real journey begins there.
It is truly hard to define any one outstanding moment in the weekend. I went into the weekend with my two dearest, closest friends. We opened our hearts to the weekend to not just experience yoga, but to be together in spirit and embrace the weekend to its fullest.
Our last class was the hardest, with Rajashree teaching. At one point I yelled out, “Did you eat a firecracker for breakfast this morning ...or what?” For some students it was the 6th class. I was shaky at first, a little tired, but as we all finished the warm-up, energy came flooding in and the class was spectacular. We were soaked, smiling, and glowing.
After a shower and a lunch of fresh fish and roasted veggies, a plethora of fruit and vegetables and meats, we put down our forks and stood in a circle holding hands. We proceeded to pass a candle and each express Gratitude right in the moment. It was a beautiful way to say “Thank You” to this abundant Universe and all the people who made this “Her-storical event” as Laike Huxorli, owner of Bikram Yoga Bloomington, so cleverly put it. And the good will of Bikram Choudhury, the husbands, and all the families who waved good-bye to their loved ones for a few days were saluted by all.
Raj and Emmy at Q&A
Emmy, Sarah, Martha, Laiki, Bikram Teacher, Raj
There already is a buzz about next year’s retreat: the southwest is the desired local. Certainly a much larger group is expected…. See you there.