When Brian Ward started offering Bikram Yoga classes in Dubai in 2003, people thought he was joking. Working out in a room heated to 41° Celsius? In UAE weather?
"Telling people they would be in a hot room for 90 minutes, they looked at you like you were crazy," says Ward. "It was a hard sell in the beginning. It was so new. People hadn't heard of Bikram before."
Developed by the Indian guru Bikram Choudhury in the early 1970s, Bikram yoga consists of a series of 90-minute sets of 26 postures and two breathing exercises done in a heated room, which is believed to stimulate the organs and aid digestion.
In higher temperatures, the body is able to easily stretch, bend and fold into positions that otherwise require more effort, hence increasing flexibility and strengthening the joints, bones and muscles.
Bikram Yoga is accessible even to beginners. "It speaks to all," says Ward. "The series was designed to be something that would therapeutically treat the whole body, which just about anybody can do without any prior experience."
Enduring the tough heat while doing challenging postures trains the mind to relax. "If you can learn to stay focused in 41-degree heat, standing on one leg, you're learning a lot about staying calm in any challenging situation," says Ward.
He says the country's summer weather is not a deterrent for the practitioners in his studio, Club Stretch, located in Bur Dubai (the other is in Dubai Marina).
"We used to slow down in the summer but now Dubai has changed. We have more people who stay all year round. When it's super hot, that's when we're really busy," he says. "Bikram isn't a heat endurance test. When it's really hot outside, we lower the temperature in the room and tell people to stay hydrated."
Mona Banki was mentored by Ward at Club Stretch when she qualified as a teacher in 2010. She has just opened her own studio, Bikram Middle East, in Tecom, Dubai, and says she's not worried about choosing one of the hottest months of the year for the launch.
"People who live here are used to the heat," she says. "When you're doing 'hot yoga', if anything, your body adjusts to the heat."
Banki says Bikram is an inclusive form of yoga. "It's not only like meditation, but it's cardio, too - you sweat and detoxify, you clean out your system and feel amazing afterwards."
Tasha Hawkins began practising Bikram Yoga eight years ago while living in Hong Kong. In 2008, she was certified as an instructor and is now teaching at Club Stretch. Hawkins, who arrived in Dubai in 2006, has witnessed the rise of Bikram's popularity in the city. "Back then, there were never more than 20 people in a class. Some days it was very quiet, with just four of us." Today, Club Stretch has two studios offering 36 classes a week.
In fact, its busiest period is during Ramadan, says Hawkins. "People have more time during Ramadan because they finish work earlier. They feel Bikram yoga helps them acclimatise to the outdoor heat."