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Yaniv Avital says he's found a way to reverse aging, and it certainly won't leave even the most fussy yoga aficionados cold. "If you want to sit around and drink Dirty Martinis, you could have hung out downstairs," says Avital, glancing out the window at the panoramic view of Rehov Carlebach in the heart of one of Tel Aviv's hottest bar districts.
Avital is the owner of the only yoga studio of its kind in Israel. Bikram yoga is several degrees away from the yoga most people are familiar with. Bikram is practiced in a studio heated to a sweltering 40 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit).
Avital happened upon the 30-year-old Indian practice while traveling in the US three years ago. In order to be certified as a Bikram Yoga master, one must spend nine weeks immersed in study in Los Angeles with the founder of the practice, Bikram Choudhury. Avital decided to take the heat, making him only one of a handful of certified Bikram Yoga teachers in the Middle East.
Now back home, he shares his time between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Avital first maintained his daily practice here in Israel by setting up a slew of space heaters in his bedroom. He also translated the Bikram manual into Hebrew. Eventually, he felt ready to let locals in on his secret. But the system did not catch on like wildfire. Rather, it was a slow process, with lots of blood, tears and mostly, sweat.
"I started out in a small room of about 10 people, with a couple of heaters set up," Avital says. "The classes were free."
As the word spread, more people attended the sessions. Now Avital's 250 square-meter-studio, which opened in September 2005, packs in some 100 newcomers a week.
In the beginning, Avital was teaching 21 classes a week. He had one other instructor who eventually left Israel, so he posted a want ad on the international Bikram website. "I was flooded with interested applicants from the world over," Avital recalls. "I received about 50 e-mails in the first week."
Eventually, he chose a worthy candidate: Sharon Butushansky, who had been teaching Bikram in New Jersey. "I was scrolling on the site and saw a job available in Maryland near some family," recounts Butushansky. "Then I scrolled down and saw this amazing picture of a studio. I thought to myself, 'Where is that?' I kept scrolling and it said 'Tel Aviv.'"
Butushansky, who grew up in a traditional Jewish family but had never visited Israel, decided to fly to Tel Aviv to teach Israelis Bikram in English. "It was my intention at some point of my life to come to Israel. Bikram finally brought me home," she says.
At first, Butushansky was concerned that there would be a language barrier. "A fellow teacher said you really learn how to teach Israelis by being immersed in their environment," she recalls. "Just living here, trying to learn the language, becoming part of the communityâ€¦ I developed a level of intensity that Israelis have. I see them pushing themselves to the limit. And Israelis are intense as it is, so combined with a sport as intense as Bikram - the two only complement one another."
"I think it is a great yoga for Israelis because we are so stressed out and enjoy being crazy. Perhaps Israelis like Bikram better than most people, because we are extremeâ€¦ and it doesn't get any more extreme than Bikram," ventures one enthusiast.
Now, several locals are interested in becoming instructors. Butushansky is returning home to the US, but not before making sure Avital would have sufficient staff in the coming months. Just as she had a lasting impact on her students, she says Israel had a similar impact on her. "If I am called back to Israel I will be here in a heartbeat," Butushansky gushes. "I am deeply connected to this place."
Danny, originally from Colorado, started practicing Bikram shortly after Butushansky arrived. "I learned how to do all 26 yoga poses in English when Sharon was the instructor. Now that the classes are being taught in Hebrew, it doesn't matter as much, because the concentration and technique are the same in any language," she says (classes in English are planned to begin soon).
Another newcomer to Bikram Yoga called Ze'ev was skeptical at first. He used to engage in standard fitness activities such as gymnastics, weights, cycling and jogging, but his view quickly changed. "Bikram is the best combination of all the sports I do," he says. "It combines body and soul: stretching, sweating, breathing, while releasing all the stress from the day. I actually have lost a lot of weight and feel better doing this yoga than any other sport," he admits.
Amnon, one of the instructors presiding over evening classes, makes sure everyone does their breathing exercises correctly, so that blood gets flowing throughout the body. All the students stare at themselves in the mirror. Most are dressed in tiny tops, swim trunks and shorts. "I like the fact that you work your whole body from the inside out," says Amnon. "All day long your mind is busy with thoughts about work, money. In here for 90 minutes, your mind and body finally get a break."
At the beginning of class, Amnon reassures the crowd. "No one is perfect, we all experience the pain, but with practice the pain weakens and you in turn become stronger. If you attend my class you will feel mentally, spiritually and physically better," he promises.
Such phrases are repeated throughout the class. As one beginner struggles to hold a pose for 60 seconds, she loses her balance and topples over. "Don't worry, we all started out that way," Amnon reassures, reacting to the student's embarrassment.
Frequent attendees come not only from Tel Aviv. Several drive four days a week from Jerusalem or Netanya. The students are diverse, including veteran Israelis, and speakers of English, Russian and Spanish.
Avital asserts that the Bikram method is the most beneficial method of yoga for most people. "The postures are all within the range of natural motion. A reasonably mobile person can get it right. Yoga, if done properly, will heal old injuries and prevent future ones," he says.
"The hot yoga is like a steel factory, you heat up the steel to restructure it. The heat softens the muscles easier, farther and deeper. The skin is the largest organ of the body - this yoga is like detox. The heat helps release the toxicity in the body," he says.
Avital claims that Bikram, if practiced on a regular basis, is the true fountain of youth. "You will never have a weight problem. The yoga will keep you young forever," he says. "A person can stay in optimum physical and emotional health and be as attractive as they possibly can be. You can get as close to perfection, and no negative side-effects."
But Bikram is not for everyone. "If you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen," Avital says. "It's not a place for the lazy. The studio attracts young, professional successful types - the kind of people who are very driven and motivated. It's a tough 90 minutes, but in the end you will feel like you can fly."