It's ironic, really, that at the time of year when most of us hunker down inside I find myself sitting outdoors, sweaty and cross-legged, on Jumeirah Beach for a yoga class. But then this isn't just any old yoga. This is Bikram, a branch of the exercise that is typically held in a mirrored classroom that has been heated to 40°C. You sweat, but not as though you have just had a knock-about with a tennis ball or been for a jog. You sweat so plentifully that you can wring your clothes out afterwards. So the temperature and humidity of a balmy August evening in Dubai is about right for the one-and-a-half-hour class.
Carpets have been laid out in a circle, small lanterns flicker and the sea gently drifts in and out behind us. The sun is setting and the full moon will soon appear over our heads. People are arriving and laying out their mats, waiting for the instructor to begin. I don't have a mat, which immediately sets me out as a yoga interloper. I smile nervously at the man sitting peacefully next to me. He smiles back and tells me that he has been doing yoga every day for five years, though never Bikram. "I just heard a lot about this and wanted to try it," he says.
Bikram yoga has enjoyed a high profile in recent years thanks to celebrity endorsements. Andy Murray has credited it with helping him develop the mental stamina to beat Roger Federer in tennis matches. George Clooney, Elle Macpherson and Daniel Craig are others who have practised it and talked of its advantages. For its devotees, there is a near-endless list of benefits. These include increased flexibility, weight loss, glowing skin, improved energy levels and a general feeling that all is well in the world - that irritating sense of serenity that yoga bunnies all seem to share.
In the ancient world of yoga, though, Bikram is a relatively recent newcomer. Developed by an Indian practitioner named Bikram Choudhury, who opened his first studio in San Francisco in 1973, it always follows exactly the same format. There are 26 postures: half standing and half floor-based, with names such as rabbit pose and half-tortoise pose. I have been to Bikram classes before in London, so I know that it's not an exercise for wimps. In a two-week period last August, I went to a class every day and noticed the benefits. I lost 3.1kg and toned up. I also slept better and my skin did indeed radiate health. But 90 minutes of hot yoga daily is a serious investment of time and effort and, as with many of us who sign up for expensive gym memberships or to a new exercise fad, my enthusiasm waned when I went back to work and could no longer fit in classes so easily.
"I think that's human nature," says the Bikram yoga and Pilates instructor Brian Ward, the American programme director of Club Stretch in Satwa, which houses the UAE's only Bikram yoga studio. "It's always difficult to maintain after the initial enthusiasm and excitement wear off. But that's part of establishing a discipline." And a discipline it certainly is. Bikram recommends that as a beginner, you must go daily for 60 days. After that, he says, your body will have started to understand the postures and built a foundation so you can practise maybe three to four times a week. "Realistically, it's hard to get people to come every day for 60 days, but I tell them to try and make it as often as possible," says Ward. "But I also tell people if you're only coming once a week, you're wasting your time. This isn't like kick-boxing on Mondays, spinning on Tuesdays, Bikram on Wednesdays. This is a discipline and you have to come regularly enough to get the cumulative effects."
Tough words, but then it's a tough workout. The postures are similar to those from other types of yoga, but because of the heat and warmed muscles, you can generally go much deeper into them. Beginners often find the heat overwhelming when they first walk into a studio, as they do the smell of stale sweat. But it doesn't take long to acclimatise. "By their third or fourth class, they're asking us if the heater's broken," Ward jokes. "Really, they've just stopped fighting it with their minds so much."
Just don't make the mistake of mentioning the word "sauna" to Ward. "I get so tired of people saying it's like doing yoga in a sauna," he says wearily. "It's not as hot. If you did yoga in a sauna, you'd die." It is hot enough, however, to seemingly melt away excess pounds. One of the benefits most talked about with regards to Bikram yoga is weight loss. But there is more to it than that. "Not only are you burning lots of calories, you're building muscle that's more metabolically active," says Ward, who is 46 but looks years younger. "More specifically, the postures themselves target the organ systems and the endocrine glands. Your digestion is better. You're going to detox, really cleanse your body from the inside out."
The gruelling aspects of the class, and perhaps the fact that it is relatively low on meditation, means that it attracts more male participants than other kinds of yoga tend to. "When was the last time you picked up a women's magazine that didn't have an article on yoga?" Ward asks. "It's been marketed to women, so men think it must not be very tough." A Bikram class, on the other hand, is physically challenging from the start.
I reflect on this as I try to stretch myself into the pose called Tuladandasana, to use its Sanskrit name, which translates as "balancing stick pose". Effectively, it means standing on one leg and pushing yourself into a T-shaped pose - your arms straight out in front of you, one leg stretched behind. It stretches your leg, arms and shoulder muscles, massaging the pancreas, boosting the body's circulatory system and apparently working wonders on varicose veins. What a marvel. But I can't hold it for 30 seconds and fall out gracelessly.
There are detractors who say that the postures, combined with the heat, ask too much of the body; that it pushes and bends the muscles too far and can cause serious injury. Ward disagrees. "It's about being sensible," he says. "People injure themselves in all kinds of yoga classes because they don't listen to instructions. One thing you can be sure of in an official Bikram studio is that we're affiliated so we know what we're doing."
Ah yes, the affiliation, which means nine weeks of teacher training at a cost of $6,600 (Dh24,000, plus another Dh14,000 for mandatory hotel accommodation) at Bikram's training centre in Los Angeles, where the founder is based. Commercialisation is a controversial aspect of Bikram yoga, in part encouraged by Bikram himself. From humble beginnings in India, he is now a multimillionaire who drives a Rolls-Royce and wears a Rolex. There are thousands of Bikram studios across the world, leading the practice to be labelled "McBikram" by some. Hardly the hippie-friendly image of the ancient, meditative practice of yoga.
"Let me just say this," says Ward in response to questions on the subject. "In all the years that he has been teaching, Bikram has never collected a dime from any of his studios. We don't pay anything. We get on his website and use his name, which is very valuable." This is likely to change soon, however, following a new franchise agreement in America that will presumably spread to the rest of the world. "I'm not sure what the fee is going to be, but we've been assured it will be minimal," he says. "If he wants to charge us a couple of thousand dollars for his name and to continue using his services, don't you think that's worth it? I feel pretty strongly about the fact that he's more than fair."
Ward's studio has never had a better year, which he says has come as a pleasant surprise. "Globally, yoga and Pilates studios are tending to be recession-proof, like people are turning to them and spending their money on something that really matters." And even though sweat is running into my eyes and I'm grunting between postures, while lying there on the beach I can understand why. For Bikram yoga schedules and more information see www.clubstretch.ae.